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Why content strategy is everyone’s business

by , Content Strategist, PHANTOM

Most people don’t come to a website and go — “wow look at this design”, or “wow look at this information architecture”, or “wow look at this UX!” Users come to a site for the content. They come for information.

What actually is content strategy?

Content strategy. Content marketing. Structure based content strategy. Technical content strategy. Global content strategy. Content first. Content centric. Content designer. Content strategist. Content manager…

These terms and roles have been around for a while, but what do they actually mean? Are they all the same thing, or at least part of the same beast? Is content strategy just the ‘words and images parts’ of a digital strategy? And who are content strategists? What do they do and why should you hire one? When people ask me what I do and I say I’m a content strategist they say, “Oh, is that just a fancy term for a copywriter?”

A content strategist should certainly be able to write well. But there’s more to it than just being able to string a good line of copy together. It’s a bit like the traditional role of an editor of a newspaper or publishing house. They have control of that entity — they are, effectively, the content strategist in that their job is much more than editing text and requires knowledge of a number of disciplines that could include:

  • planning
  • strategic thinking
  • strong grasp of writing
  • attention to detail
  • impeccable grammar
  • marketing expertise
  • knowledge of audience
  • leadership and production skills
  • deep understanding of voice, tone and style.

I’m sure the list goes on.

Kristina Halvorson coined the first definition of web content strategy as we know it today back in 2008. She defined it as:

Planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.

This brings together some of the key elements that make up content strategy. The point is a content strategist has to be able to do a lot of things. They have to know enough about all the elements and disciplines that inform and underpin their own discipline. They will usually have a speciality or expertise in a particular area, depending on where they’ve come from, such as marketing, design, or copywriting. A content strategist should be reading up on stuff they don’t know as much about too, or simply staying on top of all the stuff that’s happening in the world of content. Daily haunts should be Feedly, Medium, A List Apart, the GatherContent Blog or Contently to name a few.

An intangible (but also tangible) sort of thing

I recently did a presentation on content strategy which had the snappy title of: ‘Content Strategy: what it is, what it isn’t, what the client think they know it is and why we need to know what it is (I think) we know’.

The crux of it is that it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking content strategy is only a tangible ‘thing’. A deliverable, report, deck or spreadsheet. Some magical tool or thing which will take care of an organisation’s content. I’ve heard someone say before that their organisation’s content strategy is to just start a blog…along with everyone else.

These things all form part of the content strategy. The ‘deliverable’ part, which could consist of:

  • a presentation/workshop at each stage of the project (which may or may not be purely about content strategy, or may also concern other interconnected workstreams and disciplines)
  • a style guide
  • a content specification
  • creating content for the web training sessions and guides

These deliverables culminate into a series of principles, governance processes and tools for maintaining the content, not just the website. They are great tools for on-boarding new members of the team, or outsourcing work to agencies of freelancers. This is really important in getting a client to think ‘content first’, rather than always focusing on what something looks like, because how something looks should depend on what type of content is going to go in it. Likewise, the thing always looks better when it is designed with actual content from the off (more on this later).

At the very least there should be a slide somewhere or even a bit of paper stuck on the wall (which I will hesitantly call ‘the content strategy on a slide’) which documents the principle idea, the point of what you are doing, and the what, how and why you are doing it.

A ‘content strategy on a slide’ model.
A ‘content strategy on a slide’ model.

The bigger and more complicated the project, the more you should have in the way of guidance, training decks and documentation. Nothing on the list above (and in particularly the style guide and specification) should be static. Because the strategy evolves. Sample content is created, tested and tweaked. Alphas are launched, tested, sometimes destroyed and you have to go back to the content strategy to remember what the hell it was you had at the beginning of the project when everything seemed so wonderful. Goal posts move. Clients change their minds. Personnel change. Maybe the project is put on hold for a few months. How this works in practice is up to you — create a master copy in Google Drive, build a GDS or Guardian-esque micro site with a big index page, and appoint someone to own it. These style guides and content specs and other project guidance absolutely shouldn’t just be created and then forgotten about. Otherwise there isn’t much point in them existing at all. Just as content lives and breathes and needs maintaining, so does the documentation that governs it.

As well as creating this content guidance, a content strategist may also lead on larger project deliverables such as the information architecture, navigation specification, or taxonomy of a site, however these are activities that need to be undertaken and delivered by the team, rather than an individual. More on this later.

But really, content strategy is far more than any of this, and this is the intangible bit, the ‘undeliverable’ part.

The content-centric principle

You don’t just deliver a content strategy. It’s not as straightforward as that and I’m going to use the ‘content centric’ principle to demonstrate this. Sometimes called a ‘content first’ approach, it means placing content strategy at the core of a project, so that it informs design, technology and UX (and vice versa) decisions. Crucially, it requires input from each of the key disciplines when making important decisions at project milestones.

Content is often highlighted as one of the biggest risks at the start of a project, especially at enterprise level — which could mean thousands of pages needing to be rewritten and migrated. Have you ever created page templates that look great, but ultimately don’t work when the content goes in? Or had a client panicking because they have forgotten about resourcing for the huge task of content upload at the end of build? These are just some of the ways projects can suffer because of involving content people when it’s too late or not at all.

Having a content strategy — which ultimately means having a plan for how content will meet user needs and business objectives — mitigates these risks. Templates are designed using real content early in the process, and this means involving a content strategist from the start as opposed to just asking a copywriter to replace the lorem ipsum text at the end. It’s also easier for members of the team (both agency and client side) to buy into an idea if they see the content in situ, designed up in a proof of concept or prototype from as early on as possible — this is far more effective and more likely to get sign off than just some text in a spreadsheet or a deck without the design context.

A time-wide responsibility

Most people don’t come to a site and go — “wow look at this design”, or “wow look at this information architecture”, or “wow look at this UX!” Users come to the site for content. They come for information. If that content is good and easy to find, they might just come back.

It makes sense then that content strategy should be at heart of a project — precede, and then run alongside the design, technology and UX workstreams. It is a way of thinking, an approach, a process. Key activities such as research, strategy, information architecture, design, and prototype should all be multi-disciplinary tasks. Book a room for a few days and bring experts from each discipline together. Put some music on, draw all over the walls, come up with the solution as a team.

The War Room. With ping pong bats and biscuits, which are vital components for success.
The War Room. With ping pong bats and biscuits, which are vital components for success.

It’s effective because this means the project and the content strategy is owned by the whole team, not individuals tasked with completing parts and just passing them on to the next discipline. The front and back end developers need to be involved from the beginning to verify that they can build what the content strategist and the designer are proposing, which can often be completely mad. But it might just work…This is absolutely key. Content strategy is the glue that unites all of these disciplines, that’s why only considering it at the end is a bad idea — design goes off in one direction, UX in another, code in another. The project falls down, or isn’t as good as it could have been. There needs to be unity in a project, and this unity is driven by content. Because really, when we build websites, the content is what people care about the most.

So it’s really not optional

Content strategy is everyone’s business. Not just the content strategist, content manager, web writer, or whatever person is put in charge of content —- but designers, developers, researchers, project managers and business analysts. It often means approaching projects in a different way. But it means organisations get value for money. And it means the product is ultimately going to be a whole lot better.

About the Author

Content Strategist, PHANTOM

Ben is a novelist, short story writer, and digital strategist. He is particularly interested in the wonderful things that can happen when technology meets art. He is a content strategist at PHANTOM, an agile, independent digital creative agency headquartered in London. You can find him on Twitter, mainly talking about books, cats, tea, and content strategy.

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