I'm very fortunate to work with such smart people at Search and Social Media company iCrossing. Here's the first in a couple of guest posts from Charlie Peverett our Content Strategist. All too often the person doing the writing for a website is left out of the planning. The end result is a poor user experience and often poor quality content. A number of people have begun to try to start addressing this problem - and the discussion has quickly focussed around the phrase 'content strategy'. (I posted this last night as one long post, but on reflection I think it works better to split it into two.) This first post then describes why we need content strategies. The second will describe what a Content Strategy is and how you create one.

Late last year I left my role as an 'Editor' and became a 'Content Strategist'.

It was, if I'm honest, a bit of a punt. As 'Editor' I wasn't getting into the conversations I felt I needed to be in - and I was fed up with being passed work where 'the content bit' had already been decided on, often by someone with no apparent clue about what producing the content might entail.

'Content strategist' seemed sufficiently high-falutin', and so we settled on that and wrote a job description to support the main objective (in short: getting our oar in early whilst decisions about design, user experience and so on were being made ). About that time I started to look around at what other people meant by the title and I had a bit of a shock.

It was like arriving in the middle of a maze and seeing people converge from all directions - techies, information architects, web editors, journalists. All looking battered and frazzled, but with a glint their eyes. Different paths - same conclusion.

What is content strategy?

I say 'conclusion' when I really mean: a good place to regroup and begin going somewhere else.

Content Strategy™ is a work in progress, bringing together several strands of expertise in ways that are yet to be fully worked through. It's not neat. It doesn't all make sense to me (or, I gather, to others).

But at iCrossing, as at a good few other places, we see it as a promising approach to some of the biggest challenges faced by us and our clients.

Problems, you say?

All the relevant inputs to a web project – on-page optimisation, metadata, UX, brand voice and messages, editorial guidelines, press releases, Ts and Cs etc – everything manifests as content. As videos, pictures, podcasts – but overwhelmingly as written words.

And when does a 'content person' get involved? Usually at what is, effectively, the last minute. When the lorem ipsem (that placeholder copy that's just stuck there  by a designer) needs to be magically transformed into sparkling, all-singing all-dancing 'copy'. At this point you'd be better off with an alchemist than a writer.

Who's made the decision about what form this content takes? What its production requires? How it should be presented?

Will the writer have enough time to understand all the things that they are required to do – to make it findable, meet user needs, be engaging, reflect the brand, hold up in court, etc? And can they cry foul if they can't fulfil those needs because the IA's already been agreed and the dev site built and it's just not right? Often the answer is... no.

Even the least enlightened fool will tell you Content Is King, but more often than not it's treated like a hostage; to be brought in at the end of a project to fill all the containers that have been built for it without its consent. And then left languishing until the next site redesign.

Projects that continue to be carried out like this are built to fail.


So... what do you think? Do you share Charlie's frustrations (and mine too) that the person writing the content always seems to be last in line on web-projects?

Pic by richardjingram

7 thoughts on “You can stick your lorem ipsum right up your CMS

  1. Fantastically funny headline! Made me want to read on and I think i've kust about got my head around the concept of a content strategist!

  2. Hi Millie
    It's the future (in my opinion). I've decided to chop the post into 2 bits as it was quite complicated... so check back for part 2 early next week!

  3. Great post. As a designer I find it incredibly frustrating working with lorum ipsum 99.9% of the time. It's always a pleasure to work with a copy writer at every stage of the design process, why should this feel like a luxury!
    I do share your pain, in the past I have had to create typographic lock ups with no defined messaging, a strange concept in itself I think. From where I'm standing, I think the most successful projects are a result of that collaboration sooner rather than later, and importantly it protects the project from perpetual aesthetic scrutiny when the messaging has been defined.

  4. Thanks all for the comments.

    @Millie - I wanted to keep the title's tone all the way through, but found it very hard to make jokes out about content auditing. I'm working on it.

    @Lewis - the idea that visual and linguistic messages are something that can (or should) be reconciled at the end of a project is utter numptiness, but marketers have been able to get away with cutting costs and organising projects in this way because the quality of the content's execution hasn't had to be that good. It's only recently that we've started to get real choice online - a smart SEO strategy and some so-so content isn't enough anymore. Good news for creatives...

    @sam - crowbarred content is *so* 2008. Speed the revolution!

    It's definitely back to the Cluetrain Manifesto - the idea that the internet means markets are becoming conversations once again - after a historically brief, if intense, blip in which we all got alienated from the transaction, and became mass-marketed 'consumers'.

    That means organisations - many of whom are only capable of communicating in a mass-market way - need to discover the art of talking to individuals.

    Content Strategy TM is currently very caught up with the idea of 'the website' as the be-all-and-end-all. Networked content and social media are conveniently ignored, which will need to be tackled.

    But what CS does do is refocus an organisation on what it's actually saying, how it comes across - and the practical, day-to-day reality of what it takes to convey messages (and respond to them) online.

    If the market is a conversation again, surely this is priority #1.

  5. Charlie,
    Terrific post in a great one-two punch. I wanted to share a comment on this initial one to dispel a myth: content strategy doesn't just target stand-alone websites, and many content strategists continue to address their clients' broader web presences. That's right: the traditional website, in-store collateral, social media channels, customer service scripts... anywhere brands and individuals engage in communication, that communication deserves to be consistent, clear, and efficient. That, in turn, demands content strategy that cuts across departments and politics.

    Case in point: over the past few years, I've written more and more editorial style guidelines to include sections on translating brands to Twitter. That's right--even in 140 characters, you really CAN maintain a consistent voice and upholding seasonal messaging! And if you can type that in 140 characters, you can surely communicate something similar in the organization's outbound voicemail greetings, and ensure sales reps aren't trumpeting an outdated promotion, right?

    As a consultant, I work to build alliances and ask questions across my clients' organizations to ensure content strategy can have a positive impact in every department. At the end of the day, if they're interacting with the target audience, they need to do so in a brand-appropriate manner. A comprehensive content strategy can help make that happen.

    1. Thanks Margot

      You're right; my criticism of content strategy for ignoring off-site content was exaggerated. I realise that any content strategist worth their salt will take account of content away from the mothership, wherever it is.

      I guess it's more that the demands of planning for, producing and looking after content for spaces where the brand has less control - in social media, on third-party sites - can be quite different.

      And as incredibly helpful as content strategy (as laid out by Kristina Halvorson) is at rationalising the process for on-site and owned spaces, it seems to me there's a whole other book to be written about how *attention* for content works on the web.

      At the CS meetup in London in April, Karen McGrane responded to a question about how she would advise a client who wanted to do something in social media when their main website was a mess. I think she said something to the effect that it was like a people in a dysfunctional relationship thinking that having a child could solve their problems.

      It was a great line and got a good laugh. But for big organisations with complex websites, change can be extremely tough to sell into the business.

      For some, it could be that smart, content-driven campaigns - played out in social media with the right strategy - is the best way to show how things can be done differently.

      The child teaches the parent, perhaps?

      Be interested to hear your thoughts :)

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