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Book Review Part I: Content Strategy for the Web

March 30, 2010

Before I get into the review of Kristina Halvorson’s book Content Strategy for the Web, a few words about my relationship to this book and its author. In the interests of full disclosure, Kristina interviewed me for a case study in this book. We met for coffee near Brain Traffic headquarters. And we later met for lunch halfway in between Minneapolis and Faribault (the town where I live, which is 50 miles south of The City of Lakes, where I grew up). Though I see the signs of some of my input in the book, the case study did not make the final cut.

I’m not bitter or anything. I like Kristina and respect her work a lot. Besides, we’re Minnesotans, so it’s really hard for us to be critical in any kind of direct way. Also, I have cousins who live above the Arctic Circle in Norway with the same last name as Kristina, so it’s extra hard for me to criticize someone who could be a distant relative of mine.

All that said, my first reaction to the book was disappointment. It’s obviously not written for folks like me. For folks like me, I am the choir and Kristina is the preacher–a bit of a fire-and-brimstone preacher at that. I want to say “Amen!” out loud and “easier said than done” under my breath. There are a few things I disagree with, which I will get into in future posts. But for the most part, it just states what the ideal content strategy environment should be at companies. I can’t directly disagree with that.

So why was I disappointed? Two things, really. First, I was hoping for a better read. Second, I was hoping for more. I’ll talk about these disappointments in turn.

Where are the case studies?

One of the things we do in our book is recognize a fundamental difference between print and Web content. Though the purpose of our book is to help people write better Web content, we tailor our writing for the print medium. It’s a book. We write full paragraphs and reasoned sections. We tell stories. You know, like other books. Pretending Web writing works in print is almost as bad as pretending print writing works on the Web. Maybe for a very visual book like Steven Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, that kind of textual minimalism works. But not in a book about text by and for people who care about text.

That’s why I was disappointed in the way this book was written. It seems to be written for executives who might doubt the importance of the emerging field of content strategy and the value of its practitioners. I know executives like minimalist language. And so do people who consume a lot of Web content. But the language in this book is beyond minimalist. Kristina writes like she’s writing for a Web site and taking the Ginny Redish approach at that.

The result is a lot of bullet points and not a lot of narrative. I can’t say that makes an enjoyable read. It makes an easy scan, which has its place in desk references for those who like checklists. But it doesn’t make a compelling read. I think every book should be a compelling read. Books should tell stories. I also think Web sites should employ story telling, where appropriate. There just aren’t many places on the Web where it’s appropriate. But books always should tell stories. This one doesn’t. A few well-placed case studies would break up the bullet lists perfectly.

Where are the proof points?

Though some executives I know are extremely impatient, I’m pretty sure they would want more than this book. I know this because I have said many of the talking points in this book dozens of times to executives who would fund my efforts and they want more. They don’t want me simply to tell them what the best practice is, they want me to show them that the  best practices make a difference to their bottom line. It’s not enough just to say “It’s better.” You have to prove it with research. There’s not a lot of research in this book showing how companies who do it right do better in their Web efforts. Ultimately, Kristina violates one of the cardinal rules of effective writing: Show don’t tell.

One of the main reasons content on the Web is so crappy is because the kinds of transformational projects Kristina suggests don’t get funding. They fail to get funded not because they lack content strategists proposing a lot of the things Kristina says in this book. They fail to get funded because they aren’t compelling to executives. The Content Strategy Google Group Kristina started is asking for what I had hoped this book would provide. Content strategists are calling for examples in which companies did what Kristina suggests and did better because of it. That’s what executives want. Above all, they want us to show and not tell, preferably with a measurable return on investment.

That’s not to say this book isn’t valuable. It codifies the content strategy best practices in the industry. But compelling people to move from their current crappy content processes to something closer to the best practice is really hard. Convincing executives to invest money in content transformation is the hardest part of my job. I’d love to be able to refer to a book that does just that. I am disappointed that this book lacks those business justifications.

The good news is, the book leaves a lot of room for a sequel. What I have in mind is a series of Harvard Business Review-type case studies that demonstrate how companies transformed their content environments towards the best practice, and transformed their business in the process. That would be a really great sequel to this book. Kristina, if you want to work together on it, I’d be happy to revisit the IBM case study as a start.

Sequels to this post

Until then, I will write the following four sequels to this post (Parts II-V) in subsequent blog posts:

Part II is about managing content with a minimalist approach. Though I agree with Kristina that you need a minimalist approach, in my experience, it is much more difficult to pull off than just letting the content engine run on full throttle and ignoring all the garbage left in your wake.

Part III is about putting someone in charge of content strategy in a company. That might work for small businesses, but for a company like IBM, not so much. We are moving away from centralized control and toward a community governance model because centralized control wouldn’t work without killing the Editor in Chief (me).

Part IV is about content audits. I think the process she lays out is great for sites or subsites with fewer than 100 URLs and 10 owners. But it is overly simplistic for a large enterprise like IBM, which has 70,000 content owners and millions of URLs with many more millions of pieces of collateral accessed through those URLs. And I have a case study to prove it.

Part V is about integrating aggregation into your content. In general she thinks that’s a bad idea unless it is carefully curated. I agree that aggregated content needs curation, and this can be as challenging as creating your own content. But I want to spend a whole post on the benefits and challenges of content curation because she doesn’t really say why it’s important or how to do it (unless I missed something).

Stop back and leave comments if you’re interested in these topics. I would love this space to become a place where we can all share ideas about how to make the kind of content strategy Kristina describes a more established practice in the industry.

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