The Elements of Content Strategy

Reviewed March 16th, 2011 @ 08:09PM

[Book Cover] The Elements of Content Strategy

Websites come in many shapes and sizes and serve many different purposes. For many websites, supplying content for the visitor is the primary purpose. A restaurant providing contact information, hours, and a menu. A product-focused company providing information on their product, their pricing, and contact information. A service-focused company providing information on their services, pricing, examples, and contact information. These are just a few examples. Content is everywhere. However, having content doesn’t equate to delivering your message. Throughout this short book, Erin walks through the process of developing and maintaining a content strategy.

The principles

The first section walks us through the basic principles. A key point made is to omit needless content.

Some organizations love to publish lots of content. Perhaps because they believe that having an org chart, a mission statement, a vision declaration, and a corporate inspirational video on the About Us page will retroactively validate the hours and days of time spent producing that content. Perhaps because they believe Google will only bless their work if they churn out dozens of blog posts per week. In most cases, I think entropy deserves the blame: the web offers the space to publish everything, and it’s much easier to treat it like a hall closet with infinite stuffing-space than to impose constraints.

Simply having content does not mean you have a content strategy. Visual designers practice the art of taking elements away, while still delivering the message. The same holds true with content. It’s not about the number of words, but about the quality of the words you choose to deliver your message. Eliminating the noise, and strengthening the signal of communication.

The craft

The second section speaks more in-depth on the craft of content strategy. On the subject of curation, she presents a wonderful analogy:

Now imagine going into a museum and trying to walk up to a Matisse, only to run into a glass wall ten feet away from the painting. To get past the wall – which is now frosted so you can’t see the painting at all – you have to write down your full name and address, and then show ID to prove that you are who you say you are. Once you’ve submitted to all this, you discover that the “painting” is only a small print – you have to go into another room full of billboards to see the original. Finally, you reach the painting. The descriptive label is written in miniature gray text on a slightly lighter gray background, so forget trying to read that, but here at last is the art.

That’s when the circus clowns pop out of the woodwork and start honking little horns and waving signs advertising tooth-whitening products and diet pills. This is content online

Read that last paragraph again. I know it brought a grin to my face.

This goes back to the basic principles and eliminating the distractions. Programmers practice their craft through techniques of code reviews, test-driven development, and constant education. Designers practice their craft through peer-reviews, design iterations (and reduction), and constant education. The same is true for the craft of content strategy. I know it’s an area where I am striving to dive deeper and learn more. I appreciate her passion and knowledge.

Continuing on the subject of curation, she talks about the different ways that curators of content can continually manage, measure, and refine their content. Doing this crosses into other disciplines found on the web. Not only do we have the ability to continually analyze our website’s traffic, goals, and performance, but now this gets applied to managing your overall content strategy. As your content grows, it needs to continually be nurtured. A specific example for those involved in web analytics: Annotations. Whenever a feature is released, a large campaign is implemented, or your company is speaking at a large conference, you can annotate in your analytics when this happened. Now apply this to content curation. Over time you may have organizational changes, layout changes, or structural changes. You can annotate this so when you look back you know when the change was made, and why previous content may not adhere to the same standards. This is a small example, but highlights on ways you can analyze your content as a part of the curation process.

An important part of managing the overall content strategy is being an advocate of the end visitor.

Nearly every project contains within it two sets of needs that are held in tension: the needs of the client and the needs of the user. In successful projects, these two sets of needs tend to be complementary, but you will also encounter situations in which client and user needs appear in conflict. In this situation, content specialists are well places to acts as user advocates, as we often have an easier time finding and citing user research to back up our positions than do visual designers held hostage by a client’s personal fondness for mauve.

Summary

To some, a content strategy seems easy. It’s just words, right? To others, it’s a craft. Content is not just added to take up space, but is added with a purpose and goal in mind. In such a short book, Erin does a great job of giving the basics, going in depth, and then providing other tools and resources. If you manage content for a website – copywriting, design, minor updates – you need to read this book. You could read it twice if you wanted, as it’s a pleasure to read and short in length.