Content Strategy Is Not «Yet Another Web Service»

I like online magazines such as Six Revisions, Smashing Magazine, webdesigner depot etc. They are watering-holes for the dispersed community of creative professionals.

Even though topics presented there are sometimes of the sleazy «bullet point yourself to success»-list or «inspiration porn» variety, I often enough find new perspectives that I have not considered before. Not everybody can be the fabulous A List Apart, nor do they want to be.

Framing a legitimate article about the virtues of writing specifically for the Web as an article about the latest buzz word does justice to neither. The Importance of Web Content Strategy, an article by Rick Sloboda about writing specifically for the Web, was published at Six Revision. An editor ran the piece with a headline that suggests an entirely different topic. Six Revisions, a Web site for Web service professionals with over 76,600 subscribed readers to date, should know better.

The comment section of the article became a testament to the various possible explanations and interpretations for matching this article with the wrong headline. SEO baiting is one of them and while this may be true, I hate to speculate. The article itself signifies another problem, namely the misconception of content strategy as a practice versus as a discipline versus the what on earth do these strategists do all day?-problem.

Beyond inter-disciplinary hairsplitting and professional turf wars, what can we take away from this article and the debate around it?

As I mentioned, I found the article to communicate the virtues of writing for the Web in a clear fashion. It gives answers for those involved in hiring Web service professionals and collaborators on Web projects who come from other fields, such as designers and developers. It's a great summary for Web professionals who want to convince clients to seek professional help for their Web content. It is, however, not – as the title suggests – a discussion on the «Importance of Web Content Strategy».

The author lists several «Benefits of Providing Web Content Writing Services» for Web designers, developers and clients:

  • Fewer iterations
  • Better content
  • Better branding
  • Fewer headaches and project delays
  • Optimized content
  • Better conversion rates
  • Assistance with other website project components
  • Stronger client relationships

Those benefits also apply to content strategy, however, they are also pertinent to a variety of other professions amongst Web service providers. As the article itself does not mention content strategy, I feel the mismatched title illustrates a general misconception about content strategy. That is: it is «just another» Web service.

From a client’s perspective, though, asking to fully include a content strategist is a very different proposition than, let's say, hiring a Web designer or an agency to take on a Web project. Here is my personal angle on this: you can basically «outsource» a Web design-type job.

Yes, the designer and developer have to meet with the client, communicate their process, find out all about the client’s business and their users, and meet a range of approvals along the way. They have to «sell» their ideas – and finally, the Web site as a product – to the client. They have to get approval from the client, thus presenting their solutions to the client in a clear manner.

No matter how many stakeholders the Web designers and developers have to include and, ultimately, satisfy with the design results, it is basically a back and forth of ideas, suggestions, information gathering, goal definitions, result presenting etc., while the production side of things is often entirely with the Web service team.

Therein lies the fundamental difference to the work of a content strategist. The business or organisation meets the (external) design team according to a proposed schedule and budget «to produce this thing». Many meetings are necessary, but with Web design, development & Web writing the cooks ultimately stay in the kitchen, while every once in a while doubling as the waiters.

The clients come for a certain service – and want to be advised; however, the production of the solution is not their responsibility. They contribute, the cooks survey them in great detail about what they came for, what they want, like etc. to discern the best menu for their needs. But ultimately, the food production is hidden from the client.

The process of engaging in and learning content strategy is different: you are asking much more of the client. (I see parallels to the UX community, which relies on access to real users in order to serve their clients.) You are asking for a substantial commitment of time, in-person hours and other resources for which they often don’t see an immediate need. You ask for a huge investment of trust up front. You need them to trust you, learn with and from you, do as you suggest (not as they know), often against their intuition and (personal) objections. Apart from tangible by-products, such as style guides or content templates, there is no revelatory moment for those not directly involved in the process.

Content strategy is messy because you work with the people involved in the process of content creation and management. You don’t will a technology to do what you want it to do. You continually strive to convince often overworked, understaffed and sometimes underprepared people to do something a certain way, to go the extra mile, to work through the pain. Tasks and responsibilities that are rarely in their job description (yet) become the unsolicited 99th item on their to do list.

Content strategy can be a struggle with a high «this sucks» threshold. You may not see the light of day for quite some time which affects the motivation of all parties involved. The content strategist has to assume various roles – be it the coach, mediator, sometimes kindergarten teacher, sounding board, cheerleader. And, of course, to do what you came for: the content strategy stuff.

A content strategist will come in and question how you do the things you do. She will see and point out the many inconvenient glitches and hoops your staff has to go through to do a seemingly simple task; she will see the detours in your organisation that are so embedded, no staff member questions them anymore because they have become part of a routine.

A content strategist will come into your offices, shadow your people and their processes, observe with fresh eyes how a staff gets from task to done. She will ask questions and will get to know your people – the ones who (will later) maintain the new Web site, intranet or blog. She will annoy the hell out of you. She will get right into it, assessing capacities and needs of stakeholders within your organisation and customer base. She will train your staff to deal with «the beast». She will focus on the realities of everyday business rather than on the «oh shiny & new!» allure of launch day.

A content strategist, if given the proper mandate, will get into all of this stuff. The thing is that there are a lot of things a content strategist can do for you, but the heavy lifting she can only do with you.

In the end most clients see the content strategist ride off into the sunset to tame another beast before they fully realise the positive effects a bespoken, organised, planned and straightforward editorial routine set in motion for their company. Or the steady rise in high-quality traffic your blog brings to your Web site – all six months after she left.

The result of the effort: happier, more relaxed, empowered and adventurous employees, resulting in more interested and interesting leads. All in all a sure way to create a happier business.

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Mon, 23/05/2011 - 14:00

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