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3 Questions: The Content Strategy Discipline

May 2, 2011

As I prepare to attend Confab May 9-11 in my home town of Minneapolis, Kristina Halvorson asked me to develop some questions to help the attendees think about how they see their discipline. This post explains the questions I came up with. But first, a bit of context to make sense of the questions.

I got some mixed feedback from my last post, the book review of Erin Kissane’s book The Elements of Content Strategy. Most of it was positive, but one emailer, who shall remain anonymous, said the post ended awkwardly, when I wrote the following.

[Our book] is perhaps the only book that covers the who, what, when, where and why of digital content strategy from one point of view. The point of view is media determinism as it applies to the central digital user behavior–search.

When I wrote that, I didn’t mean it to disparage Kissane’s book. I think her book is great–it now graces my shelf between Strunk and White and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make me Think. But the anonymous emailer said it sounded like I was trying to say our book is better than Kissane’s. And that wasn’t my intent at all. In retrospect, I can see how someone would read it that way. Erin, I apologize for not making myself clear.

This is not a competition. As I see it, our books complement one another. I have not quite figured out all the connections between the two books. Outwardly, they don’t appear that similar. The main obvious thing they have in common is they both describe the practice of content strategy. In the review, I expressed some disappointment that Kissane’s book focuses more on content strategy deliverables and the people who make them than on any single over-arching view of the discipline of content strategy.

Not that that was her mission. Far from it. My lament was more about the state of the content strategy discipline than about Kissane’s book. As her book makes clear, this is a discipline for generalists. People come to it from editorial, human factors, information science, rhetoric, technical communication, web analytics, SEO, design, and other disciplines. In this respect, content strategy is no different than past emerging disciplines. It is a mark of the discipline’s maturity that we now seek to unify these generalists under one vision.

I say “we” because I am only one voice in the growing legion of content strategists. My purpose is not to say my vision is the right one. But to ask some questions and to offer some answers by way of example. Hopefully, what I write after the break will help spark the legions to collectively develop a vision or visions.

Focus on Success Criteria

Most of the content strategy literature tries to define the discipline in terms of the deliverables practitioners produce–audits, plans, style guides and other resources, UX recommendations, human resource models, tooling recommendations, process engineering flow charts, etc.  This is all well and good. But it won’t help to evangelize the practice of content strategy, or help define what unifies all these activities.

I remember when I rewrote our marketing style guide and connected it to a governance body for change management. I got a lot of kudos from my peers, but my executives gave me a collective meh. At first I wondered about this reaction.

It didn’t take long to realize why they reacted the way they did: The guide contained no success criteria. It described the right way to do things, but it didn’t describe how you would measure whether one piece of content was more effective than another. Ultimately, executives could not say how much business the guide helped drive, so they couldn’t tell whether it was worth all the effort I put into it. Even though I am firmly convinced it was a big improvement over the previous guide, there was no way to prove it.

Since then, everything I do is centered on success criteria. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I focus on search. Search effectiveness can be measured in terms of ranking, referrals, engagement rates, and conversions. If your content is search friendly, you know it fairly quickly. If not, you can make incremental changes until it is. It takes some doing to connect search effectiveness to overall content effectiveness. But starting with a clear success criterion offers us a way to unify our vision of content effectiveness through one lens.

Q1. What are your success criteria?

Perhaps you define success in terms of content quality. Perhaps you define it in terms of customer engagement, seller productivity, or reduced call volumes to your support or service centers. There is no one success criterion that covers all content strategy roles. Just as there is no one content pattern that covers all user intents. But if we collect enough of them, perhaps we can start seeing relationships and patterns and map them out to gain clarity.

Q2. How do you measure success?

This might be another way of asking Q1. But I decided to focus on it because not all success criteria can be easily measured. Improved branding, for example, is difficult to measure. But even the most skeptical executive will accept it as a valid success criterion if you at least have some qualitative research to back it up. Still and all, the more precise and definitive your measurement system, the easier it is to get content strategy work funded or to sell content strategy consulting services. Ultimately, it also helps to define what we mean by content strategy when we can demonstrate its results.

Q3. What methods do you use to drive towards success?

Here we can talk about the practice of content strategy as we know it. But how you prioritize your activities and assign resources to projects depends on how you define success. For example, we define success primarily in terms of engagement with web experiences. Very roughly, if a page has more users engaging with it (clicking desired links) and a lower bounce rate over time, we count that as success.

For the audience we care about, research indicates that gearing the experiences around organic search tends to improve engagement more quickly and sustainably than any other practice within content strategy. So that is where we start. But we still build overall editorial, UX, and visual effectiveness into our plan. It’s just that our success criterion tells us where to start and where to focus our limited resources.

I hope these questions help you start thinking about the practice of content strategy in new ways. If you’re going to Confab, I’d love to discuss this with you. If not, please leave a comment and we can get a lively discussion going right here.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2011 10:41 pm

    Oh goodness, James, no hard feelings at all. This town is definitely big enough for all of us, and beyond that, I was quite delighted by your review.

    I do have some thoughts about unified theories and the field of CS, but I’ve been hesitant to enter a discussion that’s even a little bit attached to a review of my book, since review responses are uniformly a terrible idea. I may consider this second post a good excuse to jump into the conversation. Thanks for putting these questions together!

  2. Kevin Winterfield permalink
    May 3, 2011 3:31 pm

    James, Can you expand on this: “research indicates that gearing the experiences around organic search tends to improve engagement more quickly and sustainably than any other practice within content strategy.” Specifically how one goes about gearing the experience around organic? Thanks, Kev

    • May 3, 2011 3:50 pm

      Hey Kevin,

      You should read the book. ;-) But here’s a short answer:

      1. Keyword research helps you form an audience model, including what words your target audience uses and what user intents (tasks, if you will) they want to perform when they land on your pages from search.
      2. Visually striking content gives the audience cues about the relevance of your page to their search queries, as they scan your page prior to deciding whether to engage with it.
      3. If they decide to engage (read and click desired links), content helps them along their journey to achieve their goals.
      4. If they decide that the page is not quite what they’re looking for, but they’re in the right neighborhood, visually striking navigation elements–using keywords and phrases tightly related to the primary keyword for the page–can guide them to their destination.
      5. Done right, this user experience, which maximizes the information they need and minimizes the effort it takes to find what they’re looking for, enhances brand loyalty and entices them to return to engage more fully.
      6. Social experiences reinforce this model by helping them understand the content of your pages and promoting your content to their friends and followers. Social is also the primary link building channel.
      7. Digital analytics validate the model and help you iterate to more closely serve audience needs.

      In the book, we set up the theory of this model and we have at least one chapter for each of the steps.

      • Kevin Winterfield permalink
        May 3, 2011 3:52 pm

        Thanks James. Book ordered. – K

      • May 12, 2011 1:43 am

        Where’s the “Like” button for your comments, because I’d be liking the 1-7 answer about gearing experiences around organic search.

  3. box633 permalink
    June 6, 2011 5:11 pm

    Excellent article – very thought-provoking. Small typo in the headline though.

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