Originally published: May 22, 2013
This article is an excerpt from Margot Bloomstein’s brilliant book, Content Strategy at Work.
Johns Hopkins Medicine isn’t the only organization that determines investment by assessing the value of its content. REALTOR.org, the online home of the National Association of Realtors©, is a very different kind of organization, but applies a similar process. Their website supports a wide array of content on the myriad issues a Realtor must address: short sales, marketing, housing statistics, real estate investment, staging a house for sale, continuing education, and so much more.
The main purpose of REALTOR.org is to keep members aware of and using the content we produce,” explained Hilary Marsh, the site’s managing director.
And with videos, online training, field guides, and other content types, that’s a lot of content. “Every time we embark on a section redesign, we realize some of these things are so old. So we always start with a content audit. We involve a content strategist and a user experience designer or IA to make sure they’re using the same conventions as we have for other sections.”
At REALTOR.org, some of the “old content” may have historical value, as real estate policy and documentation often tells the story of social conventions, population spread, and gentrification. Hilary calls on the National Association of Realtors’ internal team of librarians to help with this aspect of the content audit. “We’re the ones that determine what to delete,” she noted. “But some things do have historical value. We create a separate repository for this content and work with the librarians to create a taxonomy.”
As with Johns Hopkins, the team at REALTOR.org uses a content audit process to inform reorganization and, at times, redesign. From a user experience and architecture perspective, audits reveal the true nature and value of what they have and how it can be of most use to their respective audiences. The librarians offer insight to evaluate content quality and recommend the appropriate structure in which to house and surface it. Does this seem arcane or infeasible? Even if you don’t work in a team that includes librarians–and be jealous, because imagine how good they’d be for pub trivia nights!–focus on the activities going on here. Core information architecture and content strategy activities are growing from tight collaboration and shared understanding. Erin Kissane addresses this beautifully:
“Is this an information architecture thing, or a part of content strategy?” asks Erin about the process by which a team determines the structural design and inclusivity of its content.
What’s in, and what’s out? “In my experience, it is very easy for brilliant information architects (or UX people who do information architecture) to underestimate the importance of editorial planning, voice and tone, and detailed guidelines for content creation. And conversely, it’s very easy for highly skilled content people to underestimate how much information architecture has to do with things other than content: the finicky details of application behavior and interaction design, in particular. I’m a huge fan of collaborations between information architects who care about editorial concerns and content strategists who love structure and talking about data. But whatever your situation, it’s important to know your way around structural design, if only so that you can provide useful feedback and support.”
Whether we’re talking about an enormous hospital system or surprising extensive website for a professional association, the challenges are common. While the headcount of a quantitative audit can determine what’s there, only a qualitative assessment can help you determine how good it is, whether you need to update it, and in what ways. In many ways, this is a conversation about planning the perfect meal.
All eyes are on you. Do you reach for a crystal ball to figure out the menu and determine how much to make? In dinner, as in project planning, crystal balls may reveal a mystical picture of the future, in part based on discussion of past experiences, but you can do better than that.
If you rattle off budget estimates and calculate project timelines for engagements around social media, user-generated content, website enhancements, or applications without considering the content they will employ, where you will get it, the quality of it, and a long-term maintenance plan, polish up that crystal ball. You’re predicting the future with an element of risk and optimism.
Of course, you can base your estimates on the results of past work. You’ve made dinner before, just as you’ve delivered project on time, under budget, and to the satisfaction of everyone involved. If projects are very similar in every way–in client, audience, message, goals, team, and constraints–you can simply reflect on the budgeted versus actual hours. And you likely improve the accuracy of your budget and schedule estimates with every project. Experience is an unrelenting teacher, and your “gut sense” improves with every project, client, and team member.
But planning only by gut instinct demands you risk a lot; the data of a content audit can minimize some of that risk. Content strategy can supplement what you already know well so you can estimate time and budget with greater certainty and precision. There are no guarantees in project management. But why not gird yourself with information to increase your chances of accuracy and success? Because not every project is the same, and not every meal is the same.
Let’s say this is a Very Important Project, for the pinch-yourself perfect client. And let’s say this isn’t just any meal you’re making. You’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner!
Here’s your challenge: how can you plan for the future if you don’t know what you currently have–or what you need?
Imagine the perfect turkey dinner. The table is set to accommodate all the guests…
Margot Bloomstein knows which companies use content to control and focus users’ attention. She’ll tell you how those brands structure conversations to help their target audiences make decisions. With Margot as your guide, you’ll start identifying the content hurdles that are preventing your users from feeling satisfied.
Learn more about Margot's virtual seminar.
Margot runs her own consultancy, Appropriate, Inc., where she helps clients establish and implement brand-driven content strategies. In fact, she wrote a book about the process called Content Strategy at Work, which includes loads of real-world case studies from organizations such as Tufts University, the US Department of Energy, and REI. (We highly recommend buying and reading it if you’re trying to create a sustainable content strategy at your company.)
How do you incorporate content strategy into your information architecture? Let us know on our blog.
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