When we’re talking about work on the web, sometimes we divide that work into two buckets: the “creative” work (content strategy, visual design, sometimes user experience, completed by visionary unicorns) and the “technical” work (front-end and back-end development, completed by heads-down colleagues who just want to be left alone to code in peace).
This characterisation is wholly inaccurate. The creative and technical aspects of making the web happen need to be closely aligned and interdependent in order to create effective and enlightening digital experiences. When you focus on one at the expense of the other, there’s a risk that the end result will suffer.
When the rubber hits the road, any content strategy worth its salt needs to be supported at both a granular and enterprise level by technology in order to succeed. In my time at this agency, our creative and technical teams have continually sought opportunities to work together more closely on projects. This collaboration has yielded (we feel) both stronger work for our clients and deeper understanding for each other’s disciplines.
Let’s explore some ways that this can play out.
Internal communication and partnership
Before you collaborate, with apologies to Vanilla Ice, you need to stop and listen. While the opportunities for collaboration with a development team are many, they also have distinct needs and challenges.
Before barging through the door with a bunch of asks and potentially stepping on some toes, take some time to get to know the team members. Connect up and down the chain, from the executive level to the practitioner level, taking time to understand the personalities involved, build relationships, and cultivate trust. Through this process, you will gain a sense of how best you can support one another, jointly addressing concerns and pursuing opportunities.
Specifically, what pain points do they have? Do they feel tasked with making content decisions (such as writing text for a call-to-action button, making content updates, or conceiving a publishing workflow)? Do they feel that the value of their work is unseen? Are they under-resourced? How can your relationship be mutually beneficial? If you can become an advocate and champion for their needs, then they can become advocates for yours.
And of course, there’s an opportunity to educate about content strategy. If there is a lack of understanding about what content strategy means or how it shapes web work, you can share resources, have one-on-one conversations, or deliver short presentations to foster understanding—and hopefully enthusiasm.
Discovery and requirements gathering
Whether you are evaluating software or kicking off a new web content project, a developer (or two) should always be by your side as you begin mapping out what the end product should look like.
In the discovery phase of a new project, a content strategist may be sussing out how to align with a broader editorial strategy or how a publishing workflow should come together. Meanwhile, a developer can provide critical context around feasibility and scope. This can include brainstorming solutions to emergent publishing challenges, advancing creative concepts by providing insights around interaction design, front-end presentation, or considerations for content reuse.
Developers can also, at this early stage, begin understanding the scope of publishing needs. What will the workflow ideally look like? What are the major issues that content authors face, and how can we address them? By working together to translate the appropriate publishing roles and responsibilities into a workflow for web publishing, the system and the strategy can reinforce each other’s effectiveness.
If you are in the process of selecting a new content management system, events calendar, and other information-intensive pieces of publishing software (including extensions, modules, plugins, and other modifications to existing software), you’ll only identify the most appropriate solution by considering content strategy goals alongside technical requirements.
That means when considering functionality, you need to ask “Does this achieve our goals? How much of a priority is this?” along with “Can this be implemented or achieved within the allocated time or budget?” Is there a need for compromise? Do priorities need to shift? Do new considerations or requirements emerge? How do you balance these against one another?
In dysfunctional organisations, marketers or strategists buy software that is difficult or impossible to implement, or technologists purchase a solution that does not fully address content needs. (I’ve seen this happen at universities more times than I like to admit.) Working together toward a mutually advantageous solution circumvents this dysfunction altogether.
By bringing developers into these early phases of discovery and requirements gathering, they can easily connect their work to the overarching goals and context in which the work is taking place. And content strategists can feel secure in understanding the feasibility of their solutions. For all team members, this awareness enhances the sense of purpose behind the work and shared investment in its success.
Execution and governance
As a content strategy evolves from ideas on paper to a living system of people using technology toward a shared set of communications goals, the need for ongoing collaboration and consultation with developers does not abate. Here are some of the ways this manifests:
User Experience Design
As features and functionality are devised, two sets of questions should arise: one, do they align with the overall strategy in terms of appropriateness and sustainability, and two, what is the technical feasibility and the best path to implementation? The earlier you engage development resources in these conversations, the better. Content decisions about hierarchy and information architecture may directly inform technical implementation of making site elements required or optional or influence what options site authors have for managing content, for instance.
It doesn’t matter if you have the most well-written, well-designed, strategically aligned website in the world—if its performance is poor, it is a major liability to your overall success. Poor website performance can result from a combination of content factors (e.g. unoptimised images) and technical factors (e.g. bloated code). If your content loads slowly or choppily, presents poorly on mobile, or cannot be found easily via search engines, site visitors will not have the opportunity or patience to view your content, grasp your message, and follow through on key actions. Website speed and performance are a critical component of digital success, and content strategists and development teams can be invaluable partners in remedying issues in this area.
Governance is really the sweet spot of partnership between content strategists and developers. When that partnership is healthy, the systems managed by those development teams reflect the hard-coded embodiment of policies that enforce accountability, workflow, and overall adherence to editorial strategy. There are so many opportunities to collaborate around effective site function and management, such as:
- Including user-facing help text in the CMS interface to aid authors with content creation
- Creating comprehensive training and documentation resources and modules that account for technical elements, strategic or brand context, and content best practice
- Managing certain types of content with specific strategic value or mission-critical nature uniquely (in terms of access, ownership, or function)
- Ensuring the site is coded correctly to get the most out of event tracking and other analytics enhancement, to enable optimal content measurement against defined KPIs
- Creating system roles and permissions and publishing workflows that align with digital publishing needs and priorities
- Developing policies and accountability structures that govern access to and ownership of technical systems, in line with a defined governance model and other institutional priorities or organisational needs
The last mile
The concept of the “last mile” has long fascinated me. I first learned about it in the context of humanitarian relief. In short, it means that at the end of the day, you can marshal tons of food and millions of dollars to help an afflicted region, but if it can’t actually make it to the area and be used constructively, the entire effort is for nothing.
This is how I think about the partnership between content strategists and developers. So much of the success of our work as content strategists depends on the ultimate technical implementation. The more that comes from collaboration and less from a hand-off, the more certain our digital success is. Developers, after all, are technical strategists, problem-solving as much as we do in order to achieve their goals. By syncing our efforts, imagine what we can achieve.