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A Common Sense Content Strategy

Mar 4, 2010 In Process By Tiffani Jones

Lately, everyone on the web is talking about content. Content strategy has made its way into our collective consciousness and web writing is coming into its own

At the same time, we’re not quite sure what to make of the content mania just yet—because we’re still figuring out what the word “content” really means, what all the written disciplines on the web are, and what their deliverables and processes look like.

In this article, Part III of a series of V addressing the anatomy of a web design, I’ll talk a little about what content mania is all about. I’ll also dive into the MIX Online redesign, a case study that illustrates how a common sense approach, solid collaboration between writers and designers, and an organic process make for sweet websites.

This article is part III in a series covering the topic of Web Design. If you haven’t already, check out part I—The Anatomy of Web Design, part II—The Future of Wireframes, and part III—Discovering Trustworthiness. Evan Sharp will contribute the final article. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our RSS feed to be notified of its publication.

Ye Olde Content Mania

Man with armadillo on his head

As nascent content practices grow into suit-and-tie disciplines,the variety of web writing services out there has split and multiplied. The result is a thick film that covers terms like “content strategy,” with its multiple sub-disciplines that include but are not limited to:

  • Editorial strategy: Creating guidelines for governing your content. Determining your voice and tone, how you deal with user-generated content, when you publish and so forth.
  • Web writing: Creating useful copy that sends the right message & helps online readers GTD. In addition to being great writers, web writers should understand the basics of user experience design, information architecture, metadata, SEO, and marketing copy (aka “copywriting,” which is not the same as web writing). If your site is big, you might need a web writer who can manage all your content, too.
  • Metadata strategy: Creating the lesser known content about the content.
  • Search engine optimization: Making your content easier for search engines to find using keywords, metadata, and other magic.
  • Content management strategy: Determining what kind of technology will be best for publishing your content, then customizing it to fit your needs.
  • Content channel distribution strategy: Figuring out when and where to distribute your content. Twitter? Facebook? Blog? Email? Daily? Monthly?

This list (courtesy Kristina Halvorson) is straightforward, but initially confusing to all but seasoned web professionals. After all, don’t editorial strategy and web writing overlap? Where does content strategy end and information architecture begin? Don’t coder people handle metadata and SEO? Why not just call web writing “copywriting”?

When Danger Comes Knocking

Skull

Because of these questions, it can be scary when someone calls needing content strategy work. Oftentimes, what client X calls “content strategy” is really some hybrid of its sub-disciplines—a mixture of web writing and content channel distribution strategy, for example. Other times, client X doesn’t know what she needs—she’s just heard how awesome content strategy is and wants to take a whack at it.

Unfortunately, there’s not always enough room in the budget for a juicy discovery phase, which would allow the content strategist to figure out what the problems are and deliver a thorough, full-scale solution (Better voice and tone? New content management system?) that also coheres with work that’s been paid for and done.

As you might expect, problems arise when confusion about what content strategy is meets high expectations, low budgets and an undefined process. Hence, content mania: the feeling that agencies and web pros alike really want better content, but don’t know quite what it looks like or how to get it.

The good news is, not every project is content-manic. Every now and again, you stumble across a solid business model and the right expectations.

The MIX Online Case Study

The Ideal Client

The MIX Online team came to me talking like the perfect client. They knew exactly what their business model was, because they’d spent time polishing it. They already had fairly solid editorial, content channel distribution, metadata, SEO, and content management strategies. Their timeline, budget and expectations were reasonable.

Really, what MIX Online needed was simple: a basic review of its editorial strategy & information architecture and some powerful web writing.

Even though Nishant hired me as content strategist, he was open to the idea that I might not need to address every one of the sub-disciplines—he told me to use my best judgment and provide intelligent recommendations.

He was also insistent that Matt, my business partner at thingsthatarebrown and the project’s visual designer, and I use our common sense on the project and avoid unnecessary deliverables. He wanted us to do what we’d do if we were creating a site for ourselves.

Eureka.

Discovery: the Right Thing, the Easy Way

Man on early flying machine

Nishant had been filling us in about the project’s goals over the months before kick-off, so we had a great sense of what our work would entail. Still, we spent time teasing out additional business and marketing goals, and getting to know MIX Online’s business better, in the discovery phase.

We asked simple questions, such as:

  • Describe your business model
  • Tell us more about your business and marketing goals
  • What areas of your site do you feel are working? What areas aren’t?
  • What action would you most like users to take on your site?
  • Let’s work out some key themes and messages. Fill in the blanks. 1. MIX Online is better than any other site like it at _______. 2. We started MIX Online because _______. 3. My favorite thing about MIX Online is _______
  • Give me 4 or 5 adjectives that describe the personality of your site _______
  • Who are your main competitors? How are you different from and better than them?
  • Give me some specs about your audience (phrases such as “point and click liberals” are fine)
  • Do you have any additional branding guidelines or strategy documents I can review?
  • Show me some writing whose tone & style you think matches with MIX Online’s
  • And so on and so forth

Even though Nishant’s answers were in line with what we’d been discussing, and even though we didn’t unearth any shocking information, this phase was invaluable—at the end of it, we had well-defined blueprint we could refer to throughout the project to keep our work on par with MIX Online’s goals and vision.

In this case discovery was the right thing, the easy way.

A Minimalist Content Strategy

A common-sense rendering of content strategy best practices drove this part of the project.

Nishant had already performed a thorough audit of his content, which he then transformed into functional wireframes. Most content strategists will tell you that diving into IA before content strategy begins in full is against their religion, but it worked beautifully for this project, since much of the content strategy had been defined in advance.

However, since part of my role was to evaluate the wireframes, I did my own content audit and competitor analysis to ensure my recommendations made sense.

I kept my content audit short and sweet, and reviewed all the content on the existing site to get a better sense of MIX Online’s personality and determine whether there were any messages, videos or bits of text I could keep. When I found something that matched the tone and strategy we’d defined in discovery, I copied and pasted it into a document I called “Messages To Keep.”

I also reviewed competitors to learn more about how MIX was different and to understand what Nishant meant when he said he did or didn’t like competitor X’s copy. I captured all my thoughts in a simple analysis document that I referred to later, to remind me of MIX’s positioning relative to its peers.

This phase was minimalist, but it gave me what I needed to create on-tone, on-brand messages.

The Functional Wireframes

While I strategized, Nishant finished his functional wireframes. My job was to ensure that the content and navigation on the wireframes reflected MIX’s three core offerings—Writings, Labs and Events—and that the taxonomy was clear and consistent.

This turned out to be a straightforward exercise, because Nishant’s wireframes were thorough and his instructions for evaluating them were clear. Here’s how he put it:

First page of wireframe deck for MIX Online

We reviewed, recommended, agreed, high-fived and signed off. It was time to write.

Writing For Design. Design for Writing.

One advantage of working with your husband (in my case Matt, the designer) is that you don’t always have to rely on a rigid process as a buffer against things going south.

Matt and I had already discussed our strategy for web writing and design early on, and had decided that an organic process where the writing and design informed one another would be best.

While Matt began drafting moodboards, I drew from my earlier “messages to keep” findings and sketched out key themes and ideas for each page. Then, once Matt had completed his design discovery, I made sure that the tone of my messages and his visuals harmonized.

After that it was a matter of creating text for all areas of the site: intro messages and paragraphs, calls to action, interactive text, product descriptions, bio and “ethos” messages, etc.

Since one of my goals was to make sure the writing and design worked together to tell an engaging, cohesive story about MIX, I didn’t just write a bunch of copy based on the content requirements and hand it off to Matt. Instead, I’d create copy, he’d incorporate it into the design, and we’d evaluate. If the copy wasn’t working, I’d go back and rethink it.

It sounds like a lot of back and forth, but this organic way of working proved very effective and efficient—we didn’t have to freak out if the final copy deviated from the content requirements. We’d built up a solid enough foundation that being “fluid” and “organic” was not a problem.

Though Nishant’s visualization of this project doesn’t reflect the time Matt and I spent, it’s a good indicator of just how “organic” the process was.

The Power of Micro-Copy.

Sometimes little things make the biggest difference. In this case, little bits of copy—which I’ll dub micro-copy—joined forces with Matt’s visuals to create a strong site narrative.

Part of our task for the redesign was to steer Microsoft in the right direction by placing MIX at the center of the web community. Accordingly, the writing and design needed to be current, modern, and community-oriented; and the tone of the writing needed to be professional, whimsical, trustworthy, and smart. In general, the site needed to arouse the curiosity of web savvy readers.

A secondary goal was to ensure that the copy, especially intro messages on each page, were not overbearing or overly “shouty.” Putting effort into the micro-copy helped us create the narrative we wanted without overwhelming readers with too-bold, in-your-face marketing messages.

Flickr Photo

You’re probably familiar with another business, Flickr, who uses micro-copy to its advantage. Notice how the sidebar callouts and playful asides make a big difference.

There’s not a ton of micro-copy on MIX’s site, but what’s there makes a big difference in users’ experience, by giving readers a sense that MIX is a warm, engaging place to be.

A Project-Sensitive Approach

Structured disciplines like content strategy, information architecture, and the like exist for a reason—most notably to produce good work on time and on budget.

But the reality of client work is that a tightly structured process is not necessarily a surefire way to produce excellent work. Sometimes it’s better to adapt our processes to our clients’ and to build on the great work they’ve already done.

For the MIX redesign, being flexible and organic worked beautifully. It allowed us transform Nishant’s functional wireframes and our collaborative discovery into a writing and design that have worked well so far. Even better: it also allowed me to experiment with different ways of thinking about and producing content in collaboration with a designer.

The project-sensitive approach I’m talking about won’t work for every single project, but it’s perfect for projects where agency and client trust one another a great deal.

Follow the Conversation

14 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Brian K Brian K said on Mar 4, 2010

Beautiful article Tiffani. I can''t say that about too many these days.. I am really having to take a step back and review content strategy for a new project I picked up. This is a great outline. *Content is King!

Ankit Ankit said on Mar 4, 2010

great explanation

steve p. steve p. said on Mar 5, 2010

Awesome article! I will definitely be implementing the ''micro-copy'' ideas into the character (if you want to call it that) of my site for future posts. I''m in the midst of a redesign of my site as we speak and this article is a great reference to pull ideas from. I think you hit on a lot of great points to consider and the Discover area was really on point. I''m bookmarking this one! Thanks.

Ted Goas Ted Goas said on Mar 5, 2010

I enjoyed your bit about micro-copy. I didn''t fully appreciate how hard it is to write good micro-copy that''s "not overbearing or overly ''shouty.''"

I took a lot away from reading the discovery questions you asked, as well.

Stuart C. Stuart C. said on Mar 6, 2010

Excellent article that really puts content strategy into context while providing some excellent practical guidance. If you liked this, you''ll love Content Strategy Forum 2010, Paris, France, 15-16 April (http://www.stcfrance.org/conference). We''ll be discussing all these issues, and more! Kristina H. will be keynoting. Would love to see you there, Tiffani !!

Tracy Bains Tracy Bains said on Mar 6, 2010

I heart this article--true to form, it''s well-written and insightful. Content is my bugaboo right now so to have a good case study and a tidy breakdown of "content strategy" is fantastic.

Well done, Tiffani.

Tiffani Jones Brown Tiffani Jones Brown said on Mar 7, 2010

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone!

Stuart: I''ve been hearing about this Content Strategy Forum in Paris, and it sounds so tempting. Marking it on my calendar for next year!

Randall Snare Randall Snare said on Mar 12, 2010

Hi Tiffani,

Thanks for the great article. Your points about client engagement are really astute - you can''t execute your brilliant work unless you can convince how important that brilliant work actually is. So much of CS is people management, as my CS colleague so rightly said - http://www.iqcontent.com/blog/2010/02/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-content-strategy/.

We''re in the position (like the rest of the UX industry was 5, 10 years ago) of evangelizing our jobs. So your simple guidelines for how to assert content during the discovery phase and how to ensure constructive content feedback are very helpful. Buy in shouldn''t be the hardest part.

diyaliz diyaliz said on May 1, 2010

I’ve been hearing about this Content Strategy Forum in Paris, and it sounds so tempting. Marking it on my calendar for next year!...

Dallas Content Strategy Dallas Content Strategy said on Aug 5, 2010

Great points. You and Halvorson are a never-ending fountain of CS knowledge. Thanks for the post.

John John said on Sep 27, 2010

I still don''t understand that difference between a Content Strategist, Information Architect and User Experience Designer. I was hoping this article would explain it but it didn''t.

sekreter sekreter said on Dec 4, 2010

I didn''t understand either

??? said on Dec 11, 2010

Thanks for the great article. Your points about client engagement are really astute – you can’t execute your brilliant work unless you can convince how important that brilliant work actually is. So much of CS is people management, as my CS colleague so rightly said –

angie's list angie's list said on Mar 9, 2011

For me creating common sense content is about writing content people want to share. Right now, I would be talking about oil prices and Libya, Charlie Sheen, and the latest trends within my niche. Its a simple game really.