The Two Modes of Content Strategy: Disaster Response & Disaster Prevention

I’ve been following the public debate around content strategy for a while now. Listening to the fantastic advocates and great speakers pushing the debate forward, writing their impressive manifestos… one could come to the conclusion content strategy has already been sold. 

I mean this in the best way possible: content is important, content deserves an advocate and a process within Web projects. We got it—so let’s get to work already!

However, on a day-to-day basis, in real situations with real businesses and organisations I often feel like I’m having the same old Web 1.0 conversations. Content still seems to be an «insider issue» at those parties.

When I meet business folks at local networking events, I still encounter many people who are genuinely overwhelmed by the digital challenge. I get to know plenty of people who don’t have a Web site for their business, let alone a digital or content strategy. This seems to be the case even for a lot of design and communication folks out there. Much to my surprise and puzzlement, they get by just fine, or so it seems. Or maybe I’m just going to the wrong kind of parties.

This clash of realities—super sophisticated conversations on one side, an inexperience with digital communication on the other side—to me is like a clash of alternative universes.

I thought about the concepts that may apply to help understand this time and conversation lag. I wanted to solve this disparity without relying too much on the usual early adopters vs. laggards generalisations.

It’s about timing

Looking at the development and adoption of any technology, one cannot overstate the importance of timing. The success of innovative products and technologies relies on timing in all sorts of ways, from inception to execution to market share.

Now that technology caught up with our fragmented lifestyles, the need arises for matching up those lifestyles and our life cycles. Firmly orientated toward pushing the boundaries of our field, experts and thinkers «on the bleeding edge» have a different perspective on what constitutes urgent issues than those who have to take this on board and execute it.

As I look at the business communities I’m part of, it did not take me long to see a familiar pattern. Timing really is everything. We know the distinction between before and after, ex post facto and ex ante from other fields, such as disaster management, economics, and law.

Asymmetry of demand vs. success

Simplifying the matter greatly, one can say that in disaster management there are two distinct operational modes, i.e. contexts in which to think about the management of (large scale) emergencies: disaster response and disaster prevention.

The fundamental difference between the two approaches lays in their relationship with time: prevention happens before disaster strikes; response to an emergency naturally happens when or after an incident occurred.

Notice how this relates to content strategy: Isn’t it peculiar that most of the topics we talk about in user experience and content strategy intend to prevent project or Web «disasters» by ensuring user (and client) success? However, in my experience, the budget to implement content strategy seems to be allocated mostly to sort out and manage projects that have already gone awry.

I will try to compare the two contexts of content strategy and how they tie in with project work as well as illustrate the virtues and limitations of each approach. Of course, these are broad generalisations. Every project will be different and every team may be capable of tackling those issues in different ways.

In any case, the timing of the two approaches will influence their respective potential for success.

Ex post: disaster response

The scenario: Content strategy in a «disaster response» mode is deployed when a project does not perform as expected after launch day. Another scenario would be using content strategy as a means to «sort out» a Web site without being integrated into a larger project, such as a re-design, re-launch or design from scratch.

Some general characteristics that apply to content strategy in disaster response mode include:

Content strategy, as a tool box, is brought in after the fact; it is used as a reaction to some sort of failure or suboptimal performance of a Web property.

The mandate is to «clean up and sort out», to address the most immediate points of failure, and to «make due» with what’s already there or what can be «borrowed» (in terms of resources). This can lead to a focus on «yesterday’s war» and embark on damage control for the disaster you know.

As «disaster» has already struck, for instance a suboptimal launch of a Web site or service, there is the danger of falling into a false sense of security. Having addressed the unintended outcomes of this crisis, one can easily settle in a «this won’t hit us again» frame of mind. Unfortunately, surviving «yesterday’s war» does not prevent other unlucky strikes in the future.

The approach is usually under much more pressure due to constraints in terms of time and budget.

The work of the content strategists starts with a high sense of urgency which usually limits the opportunities for high level «visionary» planning as «damage control» favours a «getting things done quickly»-approach. This doesn’t mean there is no long-term planning. However, it usually isn’t as extensive as planning for the long-haul in advance.

A sense of urgency is not always a bad thing. It can be a great motivator that pulls a team together and puts them «in the same boat». «Good stressors» can encourage people to be more productive.

On the people side of things, acting in this type of environment can lead to unproductive stress and fear. Stress and fear are poor guides for smart choices and experiments are necessary to create better solutions. Attempts at thinking long-term and on aspects of sustainability may be hindered by the high sense of urgency and the need for quick fixes.

Another challenge on the human side is that people tend to start out tired and frustrated. After a project is rushed towards the launch date, all resources would have been mobilised and «all stops pulled». When the success of those efforts are not forthcoming, it adds to the perception that it was a «bad project».

Motivation is key to bringing people on board for necessary chaos control efforts in order to fight the perception that one is «throwing good money after bad».

It really is astonishing how, in some organisations, resources are suddenly freed after a big project went bad; how, like magic, they sometimes appear out of the blue once a crisis (for example, a disastrous Web site) goes «live». Resources are then re-assigned and allocated. Regrettably, this is also the time when people have lost faith in the project. This is unfortunate for the individuals involved, especially as few people ever set out to do a bad job.

This is precisely why I make potential clients (and myself) jump through hoops to find out whether their project is any good in advance. I don’t want to go on impossible missions that are doomed to fail from the start.

From outside our small community, it seems like content strategy is perceived as the last resort. That is, if all else failed, one can maybe look into content strategy as a means to «fix» a Web site or mend a poorly managed project.

From what I’ve seen, this type of thinking currently prevails on the client side. Maybe I’m in the wrong business communities, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Organisations and large technology companies are convinced by the virtues of content strategy. Small businesses and clients, however, still seem to think they can benefit from the digital space with online conversations and without so much as a solid messaging strategy.

Ex ante: disaster prevention

The high art of content strategy is disaster prevention. The holy grail, of course, is client and user happiness. This is currently where most of the professional and interdisciplinary debate is: Improving user experience, customer engagement and businesses by means of smart strategies, editorial processes and prioritisation.

Most content strategists will agree that early integration of content strategy in projects will help to prevent fatal project disasters. In addition, it helps to prepare for the inevitable; we are humans after all. Where humans work together, mistakes will happen. The question is not if errors will occur, but when and how the routines are setup to help people deal with them.

The disaster prevention mode of content strategy operates in a distinctive manner:

Content strategy takes action and control of your Web content and digital publishing routine as a whole. It assumes the basic attitude of health and safety or project management personnel:

Everybody is human. Humans make mistakes. How can we prevent the worst and help to foster resilience while still promoting a productive and efficient work environment?

Notice how this is a much more productive and empowering mind-set (not specific to content strategy). It works with realistic expectations.

Simply starting a venture and hoping for the best is not a healthy attitude to secure success. Planning in a realistic manner for the inevitable is a strategic choice that will pay off in the long-run because it increases the chances of a speedy recovery.

Taking content strategy and project management seriously gets you out of the fight-or-flight mentality. This helps to convey the bigger picture before something unexpected takes over your plans and sets priorities for you. It re-focuses your attention from the urgent pain points to make informed and well-considered decisions rather than fire-fighting the latest issue without a long-term perspective.

At the strategy and planning stage of a project, there is time and ample opportunity to brainstorm, bounce ideas, and test different approaches. This process of questioning traditional ways of doing things, trying out new workflows or testing opportunities to improve on customer experience are best included in the early stages of a project. This takes pressure off people as it establishes a framework of workflows and manages expectations while preventing «thrashing». (Thrashing, according to Seth Godin, is the practice of suddenly starting to change everything when a project comes closer to the finishing line.)

Trying to prevent mistakes and prepare for failure in advance prevents burnout in people because they have a chance to think about the situation before they are required to act.

Given the chance to go through the motions of emergency action in a save environment prior to performing the actions makes people more successful at executing these tasks. This means just by thinking and talking about the emergency scenario and how we would and should react prepares us, to some degree, for the real situation.

Preparedness is the main way to boost resilience. When content strategy is baked-in from the beginning, you are better prepared for when the inevitable happens and disaster strikes. As you are prepared to act, it has less of a negative effect and you’ll find your way back to productivity faster.

A planned approach frees up resources to do new and interesting things. Being prepared for the inevitable lets you allocate resources in the long-run. Preparing editorial routines, content workflows and organisational collaboration for the realities of life leaves you in a position of strength to approach other issues of change management. This allows you to bring other resources to the table to source innovation, creativity and try new things without playing off already overstretched teams and budgets.

Not having to operate under the burden of «getting out fast», you can choose the issues and find creative solutions for your organisational challenges. Those sustainable solutions will be better suited to your individual situation than any «damage control recipes» or advice a crisis manager will dispense when the incident is ongoing.

The lack of urgency (and desperation) allows for a more strategy-driven, business-minded approach to digital communication. You will have the time to have conversations with internal and external stakeholders in a non-defensive, non-accusatory environment.

Finally, content strategy practised as preparation for the good, the bad and the ugly is much more hopeful, pleasant and beneficial for business than the fire-fighting approach.


I feel that the current professional debate surrounding content strategy issues is more hopeful than the client side of the conversation.

I can’t quite shake the feeling that content strategy is not around long enough to be taken seriously by smaller organisations and businesses. They seem to have so much on their plates that we, as content strategy professionals, must work even harder to tend to their needs and communicate our value proposition appropriately.

We should take smaller businesses more seriously, address their situation quickly and find smart solutions for their experiences. Having worked with a number of smaller teams, I find that they are easier to work with in some regards. For instance, they are often more agile, faster to implement advice and easier to manage (as there are fewer stakeholders).

I think we, as the content strategy community, should embrace the small and micro-business community by communicating what properly implemented content strategy has to offer them. (Gabriel Smy did a fantastic job with his blog series on content strategy for small businesses: Small businesses need content strategy like a camel in the night.) The potential for growth, learning and development of our conversations are endless.

Details & meta

Thu, 29/09/2011 - 15:36