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The Discipline of Content Strategy

by Kristina Halvorson
on May 26, 2010

Reprinted with the permission of A List Apart and the author.

We, the people who make websites, have been talking for fifteen
years about user experience, information architecture, content
management systems, coding, metadata, visual design, user research,
and all the other disciplines that facilitate our users’ abilities
to find and consume content.

Weirdly, though, we haven’t been talking about the meat of the
matter. We haven’t been talking about the content itself.

Yeah, yeah. We know how to write for online readers. We know bullet
lists pwn.

But who among us is asking the scary, important questions about
content, such as “What’s the point?” or “Who cares?” Who’s talking
about the time-intensive, complicated, messy content development
process? Who’s overseeing the care and feeding of content once it’s
out there, clogging up the tubes and dragging down our search
engines?

As a community, we’re rather quiet on the matter of content. In
fact, we appear to have collectively, silently come to the
conclusion that content is really somebody else’s problem—”the
client can do it,” “the users will generate it”—so we, the people
who make websites, shouldn’t have to worry about it in the first
place.

Do you think it’s a coincidence, then, that web content is, for the
most part, crap?

Dealing with content is messy. It’s complicated, it’s painful, and
it’s expensive.

And yet, the web is content. Content is the web. It deserves our
time and attention.

And that’s where content strategy comes in.

What is Content Strategy?

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance
of useful, usable content.

Necessarily, the content strategist must work to define not only
which content will be published, but why we’re publishing it in the
first place.

Otherwise, content strategy isn’t strategy at all: it’s just a
glorified production line for content nobody really needs or wants.
(See: your company’s CMS.)

Content strategy is also—surprise—a key deliverable for which the
content strategist is responsible. Its development is necessarily
preceded by a detailed audit and analysis of existing content—a
critically important process that’s often glossed over or even
skipped by project teams.

At its best, a content strategy defines:

  • key themes and messages,
  • recommended topics,
  • content purpose (i.e., how content will bridge the space between
    audience needs and business requirements),
  • content gap analysis,
  • metadata frameworks and related content attributes,
  • search engine optimization (SEO),and
  • implications of strategic recommendations on content creation,
    publication, and governance.

But wait… there’s more

In her groundbreaking article, Content Strategy: the Philosophy of Data,
Rachel Lovinger said:

“The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to
create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive
experiences. We have to be experts in all aspects of
communication in order to do this effectively.”

That’s a tall order. I’d like to propose that, in fact, there are
far too many “aspects of communication” for a solitary content
strategist to truly claim deep expertise in all of them.

Instead, let’s assume that there are a number of content-related
disciplines that deserve their own definition, by turn:

  • Editorial strategy defines the guidelines by which all online
    content is governed: values, voice, tone, legal and regulatory
    concerns, user-generated content, and so on. This practice also
    defines an organization’s online editorial calendar, including
    content life cycles.
  • Web writing is the practice of writing useful, usable content
    specifically intended for online publication. This is a whole lot
    more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must understand
    the basics of user experience design, be able to translate
    information architecture documentation, write effective metadata,
    and manage an ever-changing content inventory.
  • Metadata strategy identifies the type and structure of metadata,
    also known as “data about data” (or content). Smart, well-structured
    metadata helps publishers to identify, organize, use, and reuse
    content in ways that are meaningful to key audiences.
  • Search engine optimization is the process of editing and organizing
    the content on a page or across a website (including metadata) to
    increase its potential relevance to specific search engine keywords.
  • Content management strategy defines the technologies needed to
    capture, store, deliver, and preserve an organization’s content.
    Publishing infrastructures, content life cycles and workflows are
    key considerations of this strategy.
  • Content channel distribution strategy defines how and where content
    will be made available to users. (Side note: please consider e-mail
    marketing in the context of this practice; it’s a way to distribute
    content and drive people to find information on your website, not a
    standalone marketing tactic.)

Now, this breakdown certainly doesn’t imply that a content
strategist can’t or shouldn’t be capable of playing these roles and
creating the associated deliverables. In fact, in my experience, the
content strategist is a rare breed who’s often willing and able to
embrace these roles as necessary to deliver useful, usable content.

BUT. And this is a big “but.” If our community fails to recognize,
divide, and conquer the multiple roles associated with planning for,
creating, publishing, and governing content, we’ll keep
underestimating the time, budget, and expertise it takes to do
content right. We won’t clearly define and defend the process to our
companies and clients. We’ll keep getting stuck with 11th-hour
directives, fix-it-later copy drafts—and we’ll keep on publishing
crap.

We can do better. Our clients and employers deserve it. Our
audiences deserve it. We as users deserve it.

Take up the torch David Campbell, the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue,
said, “Discipline is remembering what you want.”

When it comes to creating and governing content, it’s easy to forget
what we want, or even worse, to settle for less.

But until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy
of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to
churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests.
We’ll keep trying to fit words, audio, graphics, and video into page
templates that weren’t truly designed with our business’s real-world
content requirements in mind. Our customers still won’t find what
they’re looking for. And we’ll keep failing to publish useful,
usable content that people actually care about.

Stop pretending content is somebody else’s problem. Take up the
torch for content strategy. Learn it. Practice it. Promote it. It’s
time to make content matter.

Learn more on content strategy

We’re thrilled to bring you another UIE Virtual Seminar that touches the content strategy field.
Margot Bloomstein will present Combining Curation with Your Content Strategy.
If you struggle with how to tackle your organization’s web content, this webinar is for you.
Explore the webinar.

You can also listen to Kristina’s virtual seminar, Content Strategy, Maximizing a Business Asset.

Share Your Thoughts with Us

Are you struggling with keeping your content under control? What
have you tried? Share your content strategy experiences on our blog,
UIE Brain Sparks.