Book Report: Content Strategy for the Web, Second Edition By Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach
Book Report Contributor
Web content. Two words that seem fairly simple and straightforward, yet, depending upon to whom they are spoken, they can evoke a number of responses. Some may feel overwhelmed when discussing the content of their website, other’s may be wondering why their website isn’t providing the benefits they had anticipated, while others may just ask “what’s the big deal?”
In this second edition of Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson, founder and CEO of Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy, partners with Melissa Rach, vice president of content strategy at Brain Traffic, to provide the new and experienced web content strategist with a handbook to:
* Understand content strategy and its business value (“what’s the big deal?”)
* Discover the processes and people behind a successful content strategy
* Make smarter, achievable decisions about what content to create and how
* Find out how to build a business case for content strategy
Whether you have a small or large website, content strategy is vital, however, the larger the site is the more critical content strategy becomes. This is because content is not just about the words on the pages of your site. At a minimum, it is about managing all of the assets, or elements that make up the pages of your site; it can also extend outside the website itself to blogs, Twitter feeds, press releases, email communications, and more. Clearly, content can begin to take on a life of its own. If you don’t have a strategy in place to manage the content, things can spiral out of control. The result can be loss of trust in a product or service, a decline in business, and even a damaged reputation.
The authors ease the reader into the book by sharing a few ways to tackle the toughest content challenges right out of the gate, by taking on any one or more of the following challenges:
1.Do less, not more
Make sure that content supports a key business objective and/or fulfills your users’ needs. Less content is easier to manage, is more user-friendly, and costs less to create
2.Figure out what you have and where it’s coming from Conduct a content audit for an accounting of all currently published web content
3.Learn how to listen
You may be asking the right questions that focus on the people and processes that have an impact on your websites lifecycle, but you have to listen, to your colleagues and your users, in order to get the right answers
4.Put someone in charge
Someone has to have a real sense of what’s out on your website – and a bottom line responsibility for overseeing high-level processes, budgets and policies.
You don’t need to be an expert in content strategy to dive in and start getting things done. You can start by asking questions – talk to your boss, take your colleagues to lunch and ask questions and listen carefully to their answers, and educate yourself (this book is a great place to start!)
In Chapter 2, the authors take a look at some of the obstacles that we face in turning bad content into better content. Though we’re talking about the workplace, not the school playground, the authors know that a base human response is to point fingers – but as they point out, content is “a big, hairy beast that depends on myriad people, technologies, and processes.” In other words, bad content is the fault of no one person, and we must collaborate with our colleagues to identify the problems and their solutions. Obstacles that stand in our way include:
* Treating content like a commodity
o Quality, relevant content can’t be spotted by an algorithm
o You need people to create or curate content.
o The more content you have the harder it is to keep up with it. It ages and can break down navigation systems.
o You don’t want to sacrifice quality in order to save money.
The bottom line: Content that works for your business and matters to your users is not a commodity. When done well, content engages users, answers their questions and motivates them to take action.
* We don’t have time to make a plan
Your boss decides that something needs to be done – NOW!!! In our haste to deliver we tend to take shortcuts, bypassing strategy and moving straight into “doing” because our goal is to deliver. Making a plan gives us the time to evaluate the request, determine the value and ultimately whether or not the request should, or needs to be, fulfilled.
* We make deadly assumptions
We assume that everyone has the same level of understanding about where we are, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and what is required of them. Getting content right requires a lot of planning, upkeep, and communication.
* Content is political
After putting heart and soul into developing content, you deliver a draft to the various folks who need to review it. When it comes to web content everyone has something to say and differences of opinion abound. Having a solid content strategy in place helps bring stakeholders into alignment regarding priorities and reduces your headaches.
* It’s all too much and we’ll never move forward
It’s true. Figuring out what you’re working with and what the problems are isn’t easy. But once you develop that initial strategy (it will morph over time as business and user needs change and new technologies evolve) it will prove to have been well worth the effort.
Now that the business case for web content strategy has been clearly laid out, we learn what it is and what it is not. It can actually be a few different things, depending on who you are what your goals and objectives are. Content is what the user comes to read, learn, see or experience. Content strategy guides your plans for the creation, delivery, maintenance and governance of your content. It doesn’t address WHAT you are going to deliver, but rather, HOW it will be delivered, and sets the direction for the future.
The image below (Johnson, 2012) displays the critical components of content strategy, as illustrated by Brain Traffic. At the center is the core content strategy which defines how content will be used to achieve its objectives and meet user needs. It informs what the content will be (substance) and how it will be structured, as well as how people will help drive the content lifecycle through workflow and governance. Content strategy connects real content to real people.
Content Strategy Quad 1
Clearly, content strategy cannot be done in a silo – it takes many people. But when an organization dedicates the role to one person or group, they can more easily advocate for the content throughout the organization, provide background research and analysis that stakeholders need for smart decision making, create recommendations for the content, and work with the organization to implement the content online. (For a sample Content Strategist job description, see page 31.)
Content strategy requires outreach and alignment. It only works when everyone is aligned and on the same page. But to be clear, alignment isn’t necessarily about creating consensus – it’s about creating a common understanding. Content strategy requires outreach and alignment:
•Lots of people affect your content
•Your content strategy affects lots of people – you need their trust.
You have to make sure that you identify your stakeholders. These aren’t necessarily just representatives of each department in the organization, although this is typically where we start in our selection process.
But also consider the following functional categories to make it easier to determine who should be involved, when and at what capacity:
•Strategic decision makers – Who will be most impacted and therefore deserve to have a more significant amount of impact on and input during the process?
•Money people – Who is funding your project? They are likely the ultimate decision makers.
•Champions – Who will advocate for the project? Who sees the value of content strategy and will go out of their way to get others interested and invested?
•Showstoppers – Who could stop the project in its tracks? Likely these people have no official power but are politically necessary.
•Interested others –
Once you’ve identified your stakeholders you must get them interested by presenting your case in an interesting an compelling way. Describe the problem or opportunity, the urgency, why you need their help, who else will be involved and what the payoff will be. Kick things off right to gain early alignment – typically at a kickoff meeting where you’ll explain why you’re there and what’s been done so far, help everyone get to know each other and their roles, and set clear expectations for what comes next and when. Once you have your stakeholders engaged, you’re ready to move on to the audit and analysis of your content.
Without a solid understanding of how much content you have, where it comes from/where it lives, what it’s about, and whether or not it’s any good, you cannot effectively make even the most basic of decisions. Experience will show that although it can be time consuming, a content audit can deliver unbelievable value when it’s time to present a business case for any web content project. Audit tools are available that can crawl sites and capture basic information, and this can be a great way to start. But technology alone can’t provide a full understanding of your content, i.e., substance, quality and accuracy – that will require a human review. There are different types of reviews you can conduct, depending upon what you aim to learn:
•Quantitative inventory: provides a list of all your content – helps demonstrate the scope of your existing content, usually completed before content strategy begins. This is where audit tools come in handy.
•Qualitative audit: Best practices assessment: compares your content against industry best practices, which further allows you to prioritize content efforts, usually completed before content strategy begins or during early strategy development.
•Qualitative audit: Strategic assessment: provides an in-depth look at how your content measures up to your strategic goals. This type of audit helps you identify gaps between where you are and where you want to go, and is usually best performed after our core strategy and key strategic recommendations are complete.
How do you choose which type of audit you should do? That will depend upon many factors, including what you hope to learn, what you need to prove, how much time you have and where you are in the content strategy process. At the time you determine what type of audit to perform, you’ll also want to consider whether one person can do all the work, or if a team of auditors is needed, as well as whether or not to look at all of the content. If you have a relatively small site, all of the content should be reviewed, but for larger sites, you can opt to do content sampling and/or rolling audits. The authors provide helpful guidance in determining how this is accomplished.
Once you’ve completed your audit, tabulate your results and share your findings. But keep in mind that in order to make recommendations, you must analyze the internal and external forces that shape what your content is and what it could be. In chapter 6, the authors emphasize how important this is, challenging the reader to find the time and budget for completing the analysis, because what you will learn is so valuable.
You want your strategy to be built upon current, relevant information – consider what your internal impact factors are. You can gain perspective from people by conducting interviews, holding group discussions, or employing the use of questionnaires or surveys. Just keep in mind what we learned earlier – listening is the key. Once you’ve completed one or all of these activities you can summarize the big themes and note discrepancies.
Next you need to analyze the external impact factors that are beyond your control but impact your content – your users, competitors, influencers, current events and trends. Each of these requires a separate understanding of what they are and what they mean to you. You can’t deliver what your user needs, if you don’t know who your user is. Nor can you set yourself apart from the crowd, i.e., your competitors, if you don’t understand what others are doing. This doesn’t mean you go out and copy the work of your competitors – it merely means that you determine how you fit in and deliver compared to them.
Once again, you will need to share the results of your work with stakeholders; however this is not the time for recommendations. Your goal here is to ensure that everyone starts the content strategy process with the same information about the complex factors in which your content lives.
With these steps completed, the authors’ guide the reader into the development of the core strategy, defining what core strategy is, explaining how it is developed and defined, and finally what it looks like. They explain that your core strategy is going to connect all of the other components of your content strategy together. It will be flexible, aspirational, memorable, motivational, and inclusive. Its development will be accomplished by determining what it needs to achieve, what content products will need to be created, and what the organization will need to do to support the effort. It should be based not on today’s reality, but instead it should be a stretch for your organization. How it will look will depend upon what is meaningful for you, your team and the organization. It may be one or several sentences, a list, a mnemonic device, a graphic with caption, or other means. Just keep it short, memorable and focused on your content.
The focus moves next to the content of your website, and defining the content components (substance and structure) of the content strategy quad (Figure 1).
The substance is going to consider many factors, including:
•Audience – you must identify and prioritize your user groups. This will almost always involve discussion and negotiation. It can also be a great way to identify gaps in how you are addressing different user needs.
•Messaging – you want your users to come away with a specific understanding or knowledge. Messaging helps you define what this specific web content needs to communicate in order to get you closer to achieving your ultimate goals.
•Topics – while there may be many interesting topics to share, you need to narrow your focus based upon your audience and messaging needs. You can use develop a topic map (see sample on page 109) to show how your topics relate to each other, to user segments, messages, channels, or back-end infrastructure.
•Purpose – determine what job each piece of content is expected to fulfill. Your content may be intended to persuade, inform, validate, instruct and/or entertain. Determining the purpose helps you determine what does and does not fit.
•Voice and tone – utilize your company’s brand materials to determine what the voice should be – it is likely already defined for you. The tone will be informed by what you know about your user’s native voice, cultural differences, and what objective you are trying to meet.
•Sources – know where your content is coming from. There are multiple sources, including original content created by and for your organization, co-created content, aggregated content, curated content, licensed content and user generated content. All will require editorial oversight to ensure that your organization’s brand guidelines, web standards and user needs are met.
The structure is going to consider how the content will be presented to the user. Channels, platforms, and formats will be need to be considered, as well as navigation and nomenclature. You’ll also need to be aware of links – how and where they should appear, microcopy, and metadata and tagging. Use of various tools, such as sitemaps, wireframes or page tables can be helpful during this process.
After the content components of your content strategy have been addressed, it’s time to look at the people components, i.e., workflow and governance. These are not easily separated – workflow that is not informed by standards or oversight will be broken; conversely, you can have policies in place and people in charge, but if you don’t have a process for implementation, you won’t get very far.
So you start by defining ownership and roles. Each person must know (and agree on) what their role is and how it fits into the larger content process. Then you can design your workflow and governance processes, based upon these four common, complex sub-processes:
1.Create/source new material
2.Maintain existing content
3.Evaluate content effectiveness
4.Govern strategies, plans, policies and procedures
Chapter 9 leads the reader through each of these sub-processes, detailing the common tasks involved, questions to consider and helpful tools. Once your processes have been identified and designed, you have to tell people about them, and motivate them to adopt the process. Make people feel included (a key message throughout the book) communicate the benefits, and lastly, give it time. People need time to adapt to new processes, especially if they are learning new tools as well.
All of this is purely academic until you persuade your stakeholders to take on a content strategy project whether you are a consultant or working inside an organization. You’ll have to get people interested in content strategy and get them to participate. In Chapter 10, Halvorson and Rach explain strategies for determining how to start the conversation (including sharing a copy of this book), what to consider when “telling the story”, pitching the project and getting the budget.
This is closely followed by gaining, or providing, advocacy (Chapter 11) for content strategy. Find the right words to clearly explain what it is and why it matters – and don’t use tech talk. You want to champion “content first”. Not “content first” because content must be considered throughout and beyond any design and development project. Then you are ready to “Take It to the Streets”. Talk it up – don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have nothing to say. The authors content that you only feel this way because it seems so obvious and ordinary – but be assured that it is not. Halvorson and Rach reference a number of blogs that have been writing about content strategy for years, and challenge you to start blogging yourself. Give presentations at your company or other venues. Collect and share your own resources with others. To quote Nike, “Just Do It!”
The authors conclude by acknowledging that very few organizations have their acts together when it comes to content – but it’s not too late to join the party. Will it be hard work? Absolutely; especially when it comes to getting others to tag along. Start by nurturing friendships with other content strategists. You can do this by participating in an online group, e.g., Content Strategy Google Group or LinkedIn Content Strategy Group. You can also follow a content strategy group on Twitter, or you can go to, or start, a meetup event at meetup.com. Just be sure to share the dream and be prepared to be patient.
Without a doubt, whether you are new to the concept of content strategy for the web or are a practicing professional, this book is a must for your library, both as a personal resource as well as a tool to share with your stakeholders who still require some persuasion. It presents a clear, concise case for content strategy in a well structured, easily read format, and maps a clear path that anyone can follow.
Sources (for content strategy quad graphic)
Johnson, P. (2012, July 1). The Content Strategy Quad. Retrieved August 1, 2012, from Sundog Interactive: http://www.sundoginteractive.com/sunblog/posts/the-content-strategy-quad