This article first appeared in issue 235 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
Content’s purpose is to convey information. But its form is data, which is why information architecture is so important. Working with content strategists and information architects, and getting to know your data intimately, will ensure content is impeccably organised, appropriately categorised, well structured, safely stored and carefully managed.
As content strategy is still finding its feet, you may find digital teams in different places within organisations. You may even find that classification, metadata and taxonomies across your organisation’s digital content are inconsistent – and the design process is the perfect time to put that right.
Content management and content management systems are not the same thing, and this little misunderstanding can be the source of great frustration for those involved in content strategy.
Content management is a process, something you plan and do; a content management system is a piece of software and is something you utilise. Content management systems – from a five-page WordPress blog to an enterprise-level information management system – are what most digital teams use to create, publish, manage, distribute and store all manner of web content, and for those not versed in the merits of content strategy, it’s easy to simply rely on what the system provides. Although you may get lucky and find a CMS that is perfectly in line with your content strategy, it’s improbable. However, as content management systems are not created by designers or content strategists, it is important to understand the inherent systems and structures that exist within your CMS: these may impose restrictions on your strategy and approach to design, particularly if the inherent systems are not flexible, or you don’t have the resources to modify them.
You also need to consider that once your wonderfully designed website is finished, it will be handed over to marketing to manage the day-to-day processes. If you’re not part of the content strategy, your relationship with the content will end when the design ends – you’ll have no control over how it’s used and, when the next round of design and development work is required, your beloved content will most certainly be returned to you in a very different state to what you left it in.
Befriend your brand
The content you create must be able to strike a magic balance: it has to achieve business objectives and fulfil users’ needs simultaneously. Many websites put their brand’s objectives first and then wonder why users are unhappy. Achieving and maintaining this fine balance is not easy at the best of times. But if you are not equipped with the essentials of brand and user, it’s just a stab in the dark. The insights and understanding gained when you stop and learn will facilitate this coveted balance, and what you learn is the foundation on which great content is built.
Get hold of as much information as possible about your brand: working to brand guidelines is a good place to start, but you’ll need more. The breadth and depth of what web designers and developers learn at this early stage depends on the role digital plays in an organisation’s marketing mix, how large it is, how mature the brand is and how much importance is placed on market research.
The brand embodies business and marketing objectives, and delivers these through your brand promise. It’s a simple equation: if you buy ‘A’ product, ‘B’ will happen and you will feel ‘C’. As web designers and developers, you must do all you can to ensure your users feel ‘C’.
The brand is something that should be at the heart of every organisation’s culture, and you should ask for whatever brand documentation is available, including the brand mission, vision and values, its aims, goals and objectives, brand guidelines, and marketing communications.
Most organisations determine their marketing strategy annually, and everything else will stem from here. Ask for information about marketing strategy, objectives, campaigns and key messaging.
Understanding users is key
If your organisation has conducted market research, then the subsequent insights into the needs of the website’s target audience – and segmentation of users based on demographics, needs, behaviours or other criteria – can all prove invaluable. If your organisation doesn’t do market research, ask why; after all, by now you’ll understand the importance of understanding users’ needs in creating great online experiences and interactions.
Every web designer I’ve included in the content strategy process has benefited hugely, particularly at the learning stage. At first they may have rolled their eyes and tolerated what they considered ‘marketing fluff,’ but once they’ve started to understand its relevance to them and how the upfront investment will pay dividends for the future, their attitude has changed. You too will find that your approach to web design evolves, and as it does you will wonder how you ever designed websites without deference to content, and to your intertwined relationship with it.
In addition to the brand information your marketing department provides, understanding users is about two things – statistical data from quantitative research and analytics, and behavioural data from qualitative research.
Amassing user intelligence is an evolving area, but the variously named methodologies are all derivatives of either quantitative or qualitative research. Traditional market research processes still stand us in good stead, and technology provides enormously improved ways of collecting, collating and analysing the collected data.
Quantitative evaluation is objective, and is about statistics, and analytics measure performance against set targets. In contrast, qualitative evaluation looks at the quality of interactions and is more subjective. Analytics data and reports from your existing website should be used, where available, because these provide the context for deeper understanding, and can also be used to compare against analytics data post-launch.
Statistical quantitative research starts with the collection of data, and there are a number of tools available for this, such as questionnaires, online surveys, qualitative research (the whys and wherefores), interviews, focus groups, random sampling, projective groups, heatmaps, eye-tracking and product testing
Ethnographic studies attempt to understand behaviour and culture and, while ostensibly qualitative, are not generally adopted by marketers. However, if you have the resources they’re a worthwhile tool. It is one thing to have a snapshot of your users at set points, but a deep level of understanding gained over a longer period is clearly preferable, and can provide both sectional and longitudinal observations that other methodologies will not uncover.
Users and their many devices
With convergence around the corner, cloud computing hovering above and everyone always on the go, people are constantly accessing web content. The requirement to deliver content in many different configurations can be overwhelming, but as web design matures there are some conventions and consistencies emerging.
The knowledge you gain from looking at how best to deploy and deliver content to the different distribution channels will ensure your content is in an optimal form from the start, but you must also think about the users, their similarities, and their differences. Unlike the disciplines of accessibility or UX, the role of content strategy is focused on the brand’s relationship with its target audience, and so requires a different mindset. Remember, content strategy is the child of marketing – your design goals would be very different if your purpose wasn’t marketing-led or user-centred.
At the same time, you need to be thinking about the devices your target audience will use to access and interact with your content. Desktop PCs and laptops are where the internet matured, but nothing in technology stands still – and while platforms such as game consoles and TVs are currently underutilised, this will not be for long. It’s clear that mobile devices will be key in the future, but smartphones and tablets are not yet fully featured computers, and this poses one of the biggest challenges.
As if this is not enough, when planning you will need to ensure that your content is planned and built so that it renders in the way you intend on different browsers, operating systems, native mobile interfaces, mobile applications, media players and access technologies.
Next month: the third instalment of our content strategy 101 moves beyond theory and discusses putting your knowledge into action
Content strategy 101
Part one: Giving context to your content
Part two: Making data meaningful
Part three: Put knowledge into action
Part four: Bringing your content to life
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