Letter to a Content Strategist
Summary: In which I attempt to clarify content strategy by doing it in terms I understand: my own.
Content strategy is the the kind of thing that loses clarity when I try to look at it directly. I can glimpse it out of the corner of my eye, but attempt to stare it down, it hops away. (You know, the rabbits are just emerging in my neighborhood, so maybe that’s what I’m talking about.)
Anyway, for the last couple years, I kept thinking to myself, if I just take a couple hours to sit and think about this, I’ll be able to nail it down. (Not talking about rabbits any more.) I’m frustrated with the characterization of content strategy as “good writing” or “operational issues.” They are unnecessarily limiting, even if taken in the context of the web. I know there’s a design component here, a newly emergent set of challenges that comes with preparing information to be delivered online.
Content Strategy is Design
Content strategists are designers, just like I am. And like me, the information architect, the “stuff” content strategists design is somewhat more abstract, somewhat less defined than a couple million pixels. But, aside from the composition of content, content strategists haven’t (to my satisfaction anyway) defined what it is they design, what’s the output of their work.
I’m not sure I could do that for my profession either. It took me a decade to be able to say, “Information architects design structures.”
But what I can do is tell you what I need. I can tell you how I’d like to work with a content strategist as co-designers. I need you, Content Strategist Person, to tell me the following 10 things about content:
- Range of priorities: The range of priorities within a given content type. For example, is every press release going to be equally important (or unimportant), or is there a big spread between the most important and the least important press release?
- Algorithmic prioritization: Whether the relative priority among its peers can be determined by a rule, or if a human needs to decide. That is, given a set of five press releases, is there a rule I can reliably apply that will prioritize them? (For example: release date.)
- Inherent prioritization: Whether there is an inherent prioritization between content types. That is, is every press release going to be more important than every white paper?
- Plans for growth: The organization’s plans for growing or changing the content.
- Level of effort: The complexity of the production process for each content type. Which content is hard to produce? Which content is easy to produce? Which content can I count on to always be up-to-date? Which content should be prioritized when it appears, and otherwise remain in the background?
- Metadata authoring: The organization’s capacity for applying metadata, and what’s realistic in terms of populating a metadata framework. We’ll have lots of good ideas on how to link content together, but those ideas probably won’t work unless we understand the organization’s ability to tag the content.
- Metadata parameters: Parameters for different metadata fields. As we’re designing wireframes, let’s be smart about how much text we need to display.
- User needs: The need for transparency to the users about some of the underlying structures. How much do users care about content type? Help me distinguish administrative metadata from metadata that actually contributes to findability.
- Users needs (2): How the content fits into user scenarios. Is this transient content (stuff just to get them just to the next step) or destination content? How will people use the content once they find it? What are you doing to align the content with requirements specified in personas or elsewhere?
- Sample content: Finally, if you want me to put sample content in my wireframes, I’m totally game. Just give me the sample content.
Ultimately, my job is to design structures. These are structures that establish navigation pathways, search frameworks, and business rules for governing how to display information. In order to design those things, I need insight into what you want the content to be, how you want it to behave, and what structures will let the content thrive.
My Promise to You
Far be it for me to make demands without promising something in return. That’s thirteen years of marriage talking. (Who says our personal lives can’t affect our professional ones?)
What I promise to do for you:
- Collaborate with you to establish a content model: a network of categories that classifies content by its function or structure. It’s easier to talk about content by its type, and content type should refer to a predictable format that enables it to fit into a structure.
- Design structures that provide useful and meaningful ways to find content. You can already tell that I think of content as a living, breathing organism with a life independent of the structures I design. I hope that the structures I design align with that behavior, providing an ecosystem that doesn’t get in the way of the content.
- Collaborate with you on determining a metadata framework. Content describes content, I know that. I can think laterally about the content as it uses metadata to draw relationships between it and other information on the site. I help explain the relationships I’d like to see between content to aid in findability and to teach users about the range of content available on the site.
- Communicate the different ways in which I intend to chunk the content. When I say “chunking” I mean the different ways I can expose a composition in the interface. Sometimes I just want the title and author. Other times I need title and blurb. But sites are getting more complicated: more opportunities to chunk, and more things to chunk up. I can boil these opportunities down and create a structure to facilitate the display of content in a variety of situations and scenarios.
- Establish flexible templates to accommodate the nuances of content. As simple as it is to make generalizations about content types, every composition is a different challenge. The templates provide a reasonable starting point, but we need to design them to provide some flexibility, allowing each article or story or posting to
That’s only five things, but I’ve got obligations to my visual designer, project manager, and usability guy.
So, what do you think? Can we work together? What else can you do for me? And what can I do for you?