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Three Questions to Start Thinking Like a Content Strategist

by Tom Johnson on Jul 21, 2009
categories: technical-writing

Last week I spoke with Rahel Bailie, a content management/strategist in Vancouver B.C., about content strategy. I'll post a podcast of the interview soon, but I thought I'd write a few notes and thoughts on content strategy first, much of which I gathered from my conversation with Rahel.

Introduction to Content Strategy

With almost any project, whether it's a software application or website, most likely you have multiple groups each responsible for different aspects of the content. For example, senior program managers define the project, developers create the functionality, interaction designers create the user interface, business analysts gather the requirements, project managers drive the delivery dates, marketers prepare the commercial collateral and copy, trainers provide e-learning and live courses, senior managers give the overview to executives, support agents interact with the customers and the knowledge base, and technical writers prepare the help material.

All of this is content. And to some degree or another, all of this content influences the user. The problem is that while each of these groups may be capable and talented, numerous discrepancies, inefficiencies, and overlaps in content are inevitable. As the user bounces from the application interface to error messages to the website to the help materials to white papers and finally to support, is the company's message and branding the same? Is all of the content unified with a consistent purpose and goal? Is the content in the right format for the user and situation? Is the content efficiently reused and treated as a careful asset not to be wasted? In this article, I'll try to provide a glimpse into the world of content strategy by exploring three key questions that content strategists ask.

How Does the Whole User Experience Align with the Corporate Brand?

A content strategist looks at all the content from a holistic point of view, treating everything as content, and analyzing whether each aspect of the content aligns with the company's messaging, branding, and intent. The content strategist is acutely aware of the multifaceted nature of the user experience. It's not just the user interface that influences the user, or the marketing material, or the training -- it's all of this and more, working together as one. The whole user experience is the content strategist's domain, not just help materials or written text.

Looking at the whole of user experience, the content strategist analyzes whether it aligns with the company's brand and purpose. Keri Maijali, a content strategist for an e-commerce company, writes,

I propose we measure our content against ourselves. Our brand. What we want to accomplish. What we want our company to sound like. Feel like. Taste like (you know, if your company actually bakes cakes or something). We need to recognize content is the voice of our brand, and we have to take responsibility for what we say to our customers and how we say it. I want us to ask ourselves not, "Will this new content make us more money?" but, "Is this new content right for our brand?" (Measuring Content Strategy: Not a piece of cake)

In other words, content strategists don't look at the UI and ask, Does it look cool? Instead, they ask, Does it fit the message our company is trying to send to the user? Is the user interface consistent with our brand for the product? Are the technical specs and the marketing material consistent in their messages? What is the whole user experience, in all of its dimensions, and does it fit our goal?

Is the Content the Right Format for the User?

The content strategist also analyzes whether the content is the right format in the first place. Are we giving the user a manual when the users prefer video tutorials? Is the user interface even in the right format? Should it be a static website or a social network experience? Should the app be .NET and therefore installed locally on the desktop, or a Java-based application entirely available on the web? What is the company's optimal presence and accessibility for the user -- blogs from the CEO, feedback forms in the UI, a user-to-user forum, an easy-to-call support number?

Rahel explains,

Anticipating what users want to know, and providing the right type of content, in the right place for the right time for the right user, in the right tone keeps users on your site. A good content strategist will look at content through the filter of user experience, and ensure that the content created contributes to a rich user experience, and that there is enough of the right type of content to allow users to complete whatever task they arrived at your site to accomplish." (Delivering the steak, not just the sizzle).

Knowing whether the content is right for the users, for their particular situation and task, is part of the challenge of content strategy. Does all the content work together to create the right user experience for the user? Or is the content wrong in the first place, regardless of its consistent message?

Can the Content Be Efficiently Re-used Across Formats?

In addition to ensuring consistent brand and the right format for the audience, the content strategist looks for efficient ways to reuse and repurpose content smartly across the plethora of content formats. Perhaps there is some overlap in text between the embedded help, marketing material, and help material. Rather than having three different faces, the content strategist notes the overlap, sees opportunities for re-use, and maximizes the content.

Rahel Bailie explains that rather than use content once and throw it away, which would be the "Kleenex model of content," the content strategist looks at content like a linen handkerchief, which you use again and again. You treat your content as an asset (rather than a cost center). As an asset, you look for ways to maximize your investments across multiple channels.

Given the exploding number of formats, the ability to create content that can be reused and repurposed in multiple formats -- and made consistent in an efficient way -- is a core principle for the content strategist.

Ending Note

Content strategy can seem like a fuzzy concept because it encompasses so much. But this all-encompassing quality is part of the definition of content strategy -- the content strategist looks at all content, not just a slice of the pie. It easily includes metadata, taxonomy, search engine optimization, information architecture, user interface, multimedia, company presence, social media, web copy, product announcements, semantics, wireframes, and more.

Rahel says that to be versatile enough to swim in 19 different types of content requires passion, a relentless look at the big picture (from the 30,000 foot view), and a constant awareness of the business goals and brands. But despite the rigors of the content strategy, it's a practice that is engaging and intellectually satisfying. And it may drive away the yawning feeling you sometimes get when you solely limit yourself to writing help.

Additional Resources

Here's a list of articles and resources on content strategy:

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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