Content Strategy: unless you are making something small, you need it

The first time I actually worked on something we could term User Experience, I was changing the default positions of my icons on a UNIX workstation running some version of SunOS (in other words, it was a long effing time ago) and part of that was designing some icons in black and white, pixel by pixel, for programs that did not have icons. These days I make big things for many people, and I wouldn’t release anything on an app or website unless it had been made by a trained, experienced, graphics professional, which I am not.
I used to be able to code a website front to back too, and I stopped doing that as part of all my other tasks in 2006 and now it’s so complicated you can’t just do it as a side task of many. Thinking I have the knowledge to do everything myself on an app or website to high quality is just so arrogant it is stupid.

The same goes for content. That might seem like a no-brainer, but you can tell who still doesn’t have these brains: teams who design with Lorem Ipsum, or teams on a project with more than ten pages who think all they need for their content is a copywriter.

I was there myself a few years ago inside a big agency, thinking that content is just something you quickly commissioned and wrote. I should have already totally been over that when a previous project for a car brand fell apart when they wanted a whole new website and the sole copywriter they hired wasn’t fast enough and didn’t really know what to do, so I was told I should just use last year’s copy. The result was a mess, and yet I had not learned my lesson. A huge strategic gap in the creation of a rich, vast website with existing content was staring me in the face and I simply did not see it.

At first I did not know how to deal with Content Strategists, but now I am glad the agency had the foresight to sell their services to the client who wanted a re-platform and a re-vamp that reflected the aspirations of their high-end brand, whether it was just to raise the billable hours or not. By working with Content Strategists, a whole weight fell off my shoulders as a UX Director and I could focus my team better. The whole question of what the hell are we going to do for educational content about the brand and its USP and its products, what can we re-use from the existing site, what is even there in their twenty-thousand pages, and how do we get our brand’s point across coherently, was now being handled by a group of people whose main focus was indeed making coherent publications.

They had tools to find out what was already there, and patience to inventory and tally what content users obviously already liked, or needed. The Content Strategists created criteria for what should be considered success, and failure, in an article, based on their knowledge as editors of how people absorb corpora on information. I could focus helping users find what they needed to do, they focused on what users needed to know to get it done, and then get good at it.
It is a absolutely indispensable discipline when you either know that the user has deep educational needs in the service you provide, or the client already has a vast collection of content that is usually stale and no longer to the point. Just being able to walk up to them with some existing content around a form and being able to ask “Does this live on? Do we re-use it? Is it any good?” and getting an answer based on usefulness, current use, current satisfaction, and adherence to tone of voice, sped up my designers to no end as we never had to come up with our own placeholders or use lorem ipsum, which the agency, correctly, had banned anyway.

If you are going to be content-driven, having people who do content research at the beginning of the project, based on the user needs UX and Research have worked out, is mandatory–and these days, being content driven as a site in itself is mandatory.

I am currently consulting for a large consumer-finance brand, so established and large it is basically an institution. They have their (semi-)celebrity blog on consumer hints and myths, their social content, random pages for SEO value, and more articles of which we know the user is searching for them and desperately needs education. None of it is linked through from the current web site where they have their account. What they do have in educational content inside the service part of the website is about 60 questions, so-called frequently asked. I begged for a content strategist, trying to make clear that just having a copywriter for gaps isn’t enough. I am now working with a Content Strategy team in what I consider a model cooperation.

  • We worked together to agree on a view of who our users are (very tricky in this specific case, because nominally we are designing for everybody here, so we had to agree on levels of understanding, language, and progression. The usual case is working from your personas).
  • The Content Strategists made an inventory of everything already there, and held it up to brand values, tone of voice, and user needs as we understood them.
  • My Product / UX team focused on the clicks and buttons and page journeys for the core service the brand provides.
  • We look together at these service pages and note the educational needs on each page. The Content Strategists either suggested a link, or extracts or videos from existing content, or we identified we had a gap and they started on writing briefs and getting the necessary content made ASAP.
  • They showed me their plan for all the articles and frequent questions and video and info-graphics: how they were grouped according to how they saw users currently search, what educational needs they satisfied, what was already available.
  • My Product / UX team worked with them to re-design a library section of our website that could contain or point to all this content according to our joint user research, from hub pages to article templates
  • My Product Managers are working with the third party that will host all this content, based on my UX templates. We needed a 3d party because this corpus needs to be easily seen by our phone support people, and integrate with their phone support tools in a piece of service design. Usually the content goes in the same CMS the website is being made with.
  • I don’t have to worry about porting the content, filling in the gaps, or making sure it all looks good. The Content team is on it, commissioning writers, illustrators, photography, and videographers. They write and execute the plan for governance and approval, maintenance, and adaptation of the content in the future. They got this. I don’t have to.

This all creates such an increase in speed and especially quality, that they are totally worth the investment. Furthermore, their expertise in re-use and adaptation is saving money where my UX team would have been unable to accurately identify the gaps or articulate to content creators how they should be filled.

(The best part is watching them go to a client with a presentation like “You have 20.000 pages of SEO garbage. Yes, we counted. Your users hit about 600 of those, if that. You can save a ton of money by getting rid of those 19.400 pages, and guess what, you also won’t look like cheap hucksters in a list of Google results anymore.” The look on a client’s face when they realize how much they have wasted on old-school SEO is priceless. Make sure your Content Strategist at that meeting is both authoritative and really soothing.)

What has made these collaborations so good is their knowledge gained from specialization; most of the Content Strategists I have worked with come from the worlds of journalism and publishing, where having a single voice over many kinds of content, focusing on what people want or need to know, understanding where and who your readers really are, and  how they absorb information, is a basic ingrained task. It’s where they always have lived and now live in a new medium.

I raise some hackles left and right these days when I proclaim I consider them part of User Experience (or Customer Experience, or Service Design, or whatever we are calling ourselves these days) as much as the visual graphics team or the user research team: many UX people do not understand their value yet, and Content Strategists themselves are still so isolated often this viewpoint is new to them. But I won’t work on one of the large websites I usually get asked for without them. I do not have the knowledge of what they are so good at, and I definitely do not have the time.