Originally published: 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.
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:
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:
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.
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, Thursday, August 11. 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.
Are you struggling with keeping your content under control? What have you tried? Share your content strategy experiences on our blog, UIE Brain Sparks.
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