Content strategy – it sounds simple but, when you start delving into the nuts and bolts of planning, developing and managing content, life can suddenly feel very fraught.
Where do you start? How much data should you use? Who is responsible? The list of questions can seem endless and overwhealming.
Here we've put some common, yet taxing questions to Kristina Halvorson – a leading content strategist. Here are her tips for the foundations of a successful conent strategy.
01. Key steps
Is a content strategist agnostic towards art and story, or just more concerned about content logistics? And, At what point do you make sure what is being published is human-centered, strategically-minded, useful?
One thing I've learned about content strategists is that we are, by and large, a fairly right-brained/left-brained balanced crew. We're concerned not only about the substance of the content itself – the "art and story" part of it, or the "what and why" we publish – as well the structured of the content—the "how and where" content will appear.
Ideally, the content strategist will be fluent in all parts of this conversation. However, necessarily, there will be some instances in which one area requires more time and attention.
We've struggled with this balance since the Web was born: at any given time, it's extremely difficult to balance tech logistics, UX, identity systems, editorial standards, audience expectations, analytics, messaging, and so on. And yet, at the center of everything is the content – and if it's going to be "human-centered, strategically-minded, useful," we need to find a way to continually design systems that allow these disciplines to inform and influence one another.
Within this context, I think the primary responsibility of today's content strategist is to continually facilitate conversation across these categories; to ensure that the right questions are being asked about content at the right time in the design process and beyond.
02. Forward planning
How far ahead should you plan your CS? We're in such a fast moving space – new things are happening all of the time.
I've taken to referring to content strategy as a "process," not a "project." In my mind, it's not a matter of when to bring content strategy into a company or project – rather, it's committing to a new mindset in which content strategy is a constant.
We all need to be diligent about continually asking ourselves: why do we need this content? Who is it for? What are their expectations? What are the requirements to make this content work with our current (and future!) technical infrastructure? Can we reasonably hope to sustain this content throughout its lifecycle?
Getting into the "habit" of content strategy is the only way we can hope to keep up with – or, at least, not get steamrolled by – the pace of change in our space.
03. Copy conundrums
During the design phase I'm often left with needing copy to design. How do you avoid writing "suggestive" final copy? And, At what point in the process should you use final copy? Wireframes? Design? Beta?
This is exactly the conundrum that got me into content strategy in the first place. As a web writer, I was constantly being handed wireframes and content requirements that didn’t take into account the actual substance of the content – why do I need this subhead? Why can't these four pages just exist as one? What exactly is supposed to go in this "flexible module"?
Really, what I've found is that successful copywriting happens when we enter the design process with the following questions already answered:
- What does the user expect to find and accomplish on this page (or in this section, or with this module)?
- What actions do we hope the user will take from here?
- What are our messaging priorities here?
- What voice and tone guidelines do we follow?
These are questions designers often don't have answers to when they enter the design process, especially not at a granular level. However, if you're going to design with and for actual content, we need these answers for at least some areas of the site.
One of the most important tools I've ever used is the page table: a rather prescriptive document that guides writers (and designers, frankly) through the process of crafting useful, usable content. It's also really helpful when we're working to balance brand elements with content purpose – if we keep the content at the center of things, we have a better chance of not having it break the design later in the process.
04. Fight the good fight
What's the most efficient start to introduce content strategy to content strategy-resistant organizations?
I see people killing themselves over Powerpoint after Powerpoint, trying to explain what CS is, why it's important, how it can help, what it would take to get started.
Sometimes, especially if you have a sponsor at the director or executive level to back you, this can gain some traction. However, the #1 thing I can recommend is to ask tough questions about content, over and over.
Why, what, how, for whom, by whom, when, where, what next. Change the conversation not by telling, but by asking. Be a consultant, not a tactician. Help people face up to the fact that content can no longer be the thing that fills the buckets – it has to be the reason we design and build in the first place.
05. Writing for yourself
Any tips for writing content for your own website? I find I'm my own worst client!
Before I start writing I create an outline. This includes who I'm writing for, the question I'm trying to answer and how I intend to answer it.
My advice is to write your draft in full first, then read through and edit what you've written.
If you start editing as you go, you'll lose your flow and end up concentrating on the words, rather than the idea you're trying to convey.
It's not easy at first, but this technique has stopped me from being too critical of my own writing.
06. The constants
Projects have different scopes but what content related tasks should be applied to all projects, whatever the budget?
There are three main considerations:
- A content audit – this will help you suggest the best approach to the project, but also improve conversations with clients, as you'll have an in-depth understanding of their website.
- User stories - they'll help you and your clients work out who their audience is, what their needs are and then prioritise them. When used alongside a content audit, they can also help to identify gaps in existing content.
- Style guide - this will help to make sure that authors maintain a consistent style and tone when creating or editing existing content, long after the project is over.
07. Design vs Content
How do you handle projects where design has started before the content?
=Whatever the cause, in cases like this starting again is rarely an option, so instead it's about working out where effort will have the most benefit.
Personally I'd pair a front-end designer with an editor and get them to iterate on the design, using existing content to help inform the process.
Pairing is a great way of getting different disciplines to work together, as it helps individuals to explain their thinking out loud and troubleshoot problems together.
This should help deliver a better final product than if design had proceeded on its own.
08. The best content tools
Any recommendations for content planning tools?
There are some great planning and production tools out there. One of my favourites is GatherContent (opens in new tab).
The ability to create a structured content format separate from design helps to focus authors. It's particularly useful if you'd like to track changes or the progress of content production for a particular project.
It's important, however, to remember to choose a tool that reflects the scale of the project and the skill set of the people you're working with.
For smaller projects we still use Microsoft Excel for our content matrixes and Word for page tables, with track changes enabled.
09. UX and Content
Can you have independent UX & Content strategies, or should your UX strategy cover content?
Content substance and structure play an important part in creating a great user experience. But content strategy also considers the role of governance and workflow, which doesn't neatly fit within the definition of user experience.
Ultimately I think it depends. For smaller pieces of work you'd probably benefit from using a copywriter with a good understanding of UX. For larger projects involving the development of editorial processes, you'll probably need a content strategist. As a result your plans should reflect this.
What can we do to better communicate what is required per page to our customers who are writing their own copy?
I'd have to say page tables. They are an important tool and help authors to understand the audience they are writing for and what the purpose of the page is.
They also act as a great starting point for feedback, as they allow you to talk to an author about why their copy potentially doesn't address user needs.
11. The need for quality
How do you demonstrate the importance of quality content in a website? Sometimes seems to be an afterthought.
I'm a great believer in show don't tell. My advice is to start small by identifying a page or section which you can easily improve and make changes to.
Then use analytics to show how these changes resulted in an improvement.
Make sure your feedback is relevant, as this will help stakeholders to get it. You'll need their support when you suggest further improvements to the quality of their website.
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