Book Review: Elements of Content Strategy, by Erin Kissane
The Elements of Content Strategy (A Book Apart, 2011), by Erin Kissane, provides the most brief yet thorough treatment of content strategy that you're going to find. In about 75 pages, she lays out the principles of content strategy, traces its origins, and then outlines her methodology for doing content strategy. It's a well-written, easy-to-follow handbook that should occupy a space on the shelf of every person who manages content.
The length of the book fits in with A Book Apart's "brief books" formats, but Erin covers so much in 75 pages that she fulfills all expectations within that space. She gets going right away, without any fluff or padding. Although you can finish The Elements of Content Strategy in a few hours, it doesn't feel like she's shortchanging you on the depth of the topic. (In fact, I think the title is supposed to invoke E.B. White's handbook on The Elements of Style, which is also a brief book.)
Kissane starts off by defining principles of content strategy. You can read an excerpt of the principles here. Good content is appropriate, useful, user-centered, clear, consistent, concise, and supported.
She then traces the origins of content strategy, explaining that content strategy derives from four different roles: editor, curator, marketer, and info scientist. The content strategist's work pulls from each of these different roles. This was clearly the most entertaining and novel section of the book. Her approach here is intriguing and fun.
In the final section, as she starts to explain her methodology for doing content strategy, she discusses the deliverables that content strategists create. It was here that a simple epiphany hit me. The answer to the discussion about who is and who isn't a content strategist can be answered by simply looking at the typical deliverables a content strategist creates.
Kissane lists a bucketful of possible deliverables a content strategist creates: "accessibility guidelines, benchmarks, channel strategy, CMS requirements, communication plans, community and social strategy, community moderation policies, competitive analyses, content production workshops, content sourcing plans, content style guides, content templates, editorial calendars, example content, feature descriptions, gap analyses, metadata recommendations, project proposals, publishing workflow, qualitative content audit and findings, quantitative content audit and findings, resource review (people, tools, time), search-engine optimization reviews, success metrics, taxonomies, traffic analysis, usability tests, user personas, user research findings, user research plans, user scenarios, visual presentation recommendations, wireframes, workflow recommendations" (41-42).
In looking at whether you already do content strategy, look through that list of deliverables. Most likely you do some already, but if you're like me, you could do many more.
One emphasis Kissane makes is that content strategists do not develop the content. The content creator is not one of the four originating roles. This doesn't diminish the importance of the content creator's role. But it does make sense to distinguish between content creation and the planning around the content (the meta-content content?). Kissane says, "Finally, there is the question of content development. In its purest form, content strategy does not produce content. It produces plans, guidelines, schedules, and goals for content, but not the substance itself, except inasmuch as examples are required to illustrate strategic recommendations. But if you have the ability to create good content, you'll have a real advantage over content strategists who do not" (37).
I agree with this split between content creators and content strategists in theory, but it's hard for me to entirely see because of my lack of direct experience. In my role at work, I wear both hats -- content creator and content strategist (sort of). I could really do much more content strategy, but at the end of the day, I'm the chief content creator for my little online stewardships.
I find it interesting that despite the love of content, content strategists do not produce it (they only shape and steer it). Kissane explains, "There are only three ways to produce content. You can get it from dedicated creators, from internal experts, or you can avoid the issue entirely by aggregating someone else's content" (63). It's not in the content strategist's domain to actually create the content him- or herself. (That wasn't one of the three options). I find this split thought-provoking. It resonates with some recent experiences.
Last week I had a discussion with a colleague about this issue. He's managing a large project at work that has more than a dozen subject-matter-expert contributors (SMEs) writing content. Although the SMEs have been busily creating the content, he noted that much of it lacked basic quality standards. What could he do about the poor content he was receiving? It seemed either my colleague could attempt to write it instead, producing little and expending a lot of his time. He could try editing what the SMEs write (or enlist another editor to review what SMEs write). Or he could lower the standards of the content, accepting sub-standard but hopefully business-relevant content. Every option has pros and cons.
I have to wonder whether content strategists frequently run across this dilemma. Judging from Kissane's writing (it really flows well and is logically structured), I imagine her own standards for content are high. How does a content strategist deal with lousy content, always knowing that he or she could do a better job creating it him or herself?
I have another friend who played a content strategy role in a large organization. Although he contributed many of the core content strategy deliverables mentioned earlier, the stake holders also expected him to create the content as well. This ended up overwhelming him, since many stakeholders and other project managers frequently underestimate the cost and effort involved in content creation. It really takes a long time to produce content. Few project managers and stakeholders seem to realize this. My friend noted that playing both roles -- content creator and content strategist -- eventually burned him out. He plans to look for a new job.
I play a small role managing new content for the blog at tech.lds.org, where I face the same dilemma as some of my colleagues. I could create the content myself, and this is mostly what I've been doing, even though it's time consuming. But this effort doesn't scale in the long run. In the long run, I need to be more of a content curator and organizing editor, soliciting and coordinating content from other groups rather than creating it myself. Will the content be as compelling as what I might create myself? Probably not, but perhaps by focusing on content strategy rather than creation, I could infuse it with better messaging, focus, consistency, metadata, findability, etc.
Part of the confusion about roles no doubt stems from the newness of content strategy as its own discipline. If you search for content strategy jobs in Utah, there aren't any. Yet if you expand the search beyond Utah, you see quite a few. This makes me wonder whether the role simply hasn't caught on yet over here. I do not think there is a single content strategist (by title) in all of Utah. It would be nice to one day actually work with a real content strategist, rather than just parts and pieces of them infused in different people.
A few weeks ago I was actually approached by a leader in one of our sister organizations to do content strategy. Though I would be a writer by title, the bulk of the work would involve content strategy, he said. The task was to somehow fix the user experience for 50,000 pages of wiki content, web content, Twitter posts, technical documentation, knowledge base articles, and more. Basically, the job was to oversee all content and somehow unify the experience for users and, while doing so, unify the authoring approach as well. I'm not really sure how one exactly does that. Content problems are as much people problems as anything else. That's one area I haven't seen addressed well in the content strategy literature I've read: how do you actually change internal processes when employees are stubbornly determined to stick to their own ways, tools, and methods?
That role seemed a bit too much for me. For now, I have my own little content strategy projects I'm trying to tackle. This year I'm shifting a bit from user education to user awareness, so content strategy seems to be staring me in the face. Kissane's book has given me an excellent grounding in this topic. It provides me with a practical approach to actually doing content strategy. I am already printing out the list of deliverables and outlining her approach. If you have a chance to read her book, definitely do it. You can print out the e-book for just $9 and read it in an evening. Of course actually implementing content strategy may take months or years.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.