netmagInterview

Karen McGrane on content strategy

Content strategist and information architect Karen McGrane fields your questions on mobile content, working with clients, and implementing ‘mobile first’

@Swain0 I'd really like to know how @karenmcgrane conveys the importance of  content strategy to clients.

KM: I find many clients welcome a discussion of how to make sure they get the most value from their publishing efforts. Publishing to the web, mobile, and social channels takes time and resources. Without a strategy in place, it's easy to waste effort on things that don't get you results.

Other clients respond to their fear of what I like to call 'the 11th hour sh*tstorm'. If you've been through a large web redesign or CMS migration, you'll know that no one ever budgets enough time to deal with content. I help clients understand how to plan their content initiatives by scaring them with 'the giant spreadsheet of terror'.

Finally, the best clients are the ones you don't have to convince. Most of my clients come to me because they recognise that they have a pain point with their content. They already understand the importance of content strategy, which lets me focus just on doing good work for them.

@brandongcarroll I'd like to know where @karenmcgrane stands on pared-down content for mobile users. If for it, how does she decide what content 'mobile' users want?

One of the most hotly debated questions in the industry right now! My (strong) point of view is that we should not be delivering just a subset of content to mobile users — because there's no good way to know what a 'mobile' user might want. People use mobile devices in every location and context, not just while they're running through the train station.

We don't get to decide what device people use to consume our content; users do. So our first order of business should be making all of our web content readable, navigable, and searchable on mobile devices. And if you don't think some of your content merits being on mobile, then it probably doesn't need to be on the desktop site either.

Should content be prioritised or structured differently for mobile devices? In some cases, yes. But the debate about the 'mobile use case' and 'local context' seems to be based on some very specific examples, like travel. Most organisations should just focus on the basics right now, which is making sure their content is available in a mobile-friendly format.

@jcasabona How do I convince a big organisation to take a mobile first approach?

Mobile first means different things to different organisations. If you're a startup, it might mean developing a mobile app before building a desktop site. If you're a large organisation, it might mean using mobile as a catalyst to improve the overall experience.

I see this all the time in large organisations — the desktop mothership gets intense focus and debate, while mobile is still seen as a satellite. In some ways that's a benefit, because designers can innovate and simplify without all the politics around the desktop site.

But wait! Didn't I just say that mobile should be a catalyst to improve the desktop website? It can and it should, even though it will be more difficult. A few ideas:

  • Simplify, simplify! Many organisations know that their desktop sites have become cluttered. Use mobile as a lens to help make better decisions about what to show on the page.
  • Encourage a simplified editorial process and workflow. It doesn't make sense to have different  or simplified content for just the mobile site. You want one process, which means any changes that you make to improve the content for mobile should also roll back to the desktop.
  • Look at what customers are saying. If you've ever done usability testing, you've probably heard users say something like "Why can't it just work like Google/Yahoo/Facebook?" With more and more mobile sites providing a simpler experience, more users will be saying "Why can't it just work like on my phone?"

@fancymilk How to handle lengthy articles/posts/white papers? How to make experience better for long reads?

Long reads aren't always a problem on mobile devices. In fact, scrolling is preferable to breaking an article into multiple pages — one fluid movement with the thumb, rather than trying to hit a small tap target. So if you've got a long article that's intended as a linear read, it's fine to keep it all on one page.

Some longer articles need to be broken up, because users may want to jump to a specific section and don't want to have to scan through the entire thing. Anchor links at the top of the screen can jump users down to a specific section, or individual chunks can be collapsed and opened.

What this implies, however, is that content needs to be structured — you're not going to be able to make your content adapt to different screen sizes and devices if it's all stored as a giant blob in your CMS.

@RebeccaHaden Given that structured content is a worthwhile goal, what are the most important next steps for web content writers?

I believe that web writers need to go through a shift in mindset, not unlike the one that graphic designers had to go through over the past decade. Designers had to give up the idea of having pixel-perfect control, and instead embrace the dynamic, flexible nature of the web.

Writers have got away with believing that a web page is not totally unlike a printed page. We give them a WYSIWYG toolbar and a preview button, and they can imagine how their content is going to look and work in the context of the desktop web. Mobile is going to blow that out of the water.

Writers will need to embrace the idea that they are writing flexible 'chunks' of content, rather than crafting individual pages. And they'll have to break out of imagining where their content is going to 'live' — it won't live in just one place.

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