Content strategy advice: focus on the tasks

Love this talk from Gerry McGovern at Content Strategy Forum 2011.

Gerry advocates focussing on our user’s tasks rather than thinking about content. Gerry gives good examples of websites bulging with unnecessary content that doesn’t help users achieve goals.

Gerry’s suggestion is worth noting, partly because there’s a danger that writers see words as the solution to every problem. But there are often cases where content is critical to the task. For example, if you’re in the market for a new web designer you’ll probably want to read a little bit about them, and see examples of their work (the content), before you try to contact them (the task).

Copywriters and content strategists are often at the front line of content decisions, and by thinking carefully about the purpose of every piece of content, we might be able to reduce the amount of clutter online.

Content strategy applied: creating better web content with page tables



Content creation can be an impossible task. After a content strategist has sketched out the grand plan, a copywriter must eventually write something.

Pen hits paper. Keys rattle. Words emerge. And it’s all wrong. Horribly wrong. Marketing hates it, sales despise it, it makes the MD feel physically sick and someone in HR cried after reading it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s too much wiffle, and not enough waffle. It doesn’t mention the G-Fex haemoglobber, or the Windlespan Chingnits. It doesn’t appeal to Middle England, and the language is too salesy, or not salesy enough, depending on who you ask, and the time of day you ask them.

To sum up, nobody can agree on what the content should be like. And in part that’s because every person reviewing the content is considering too many things. They’re not just considering what is written, but also how it’s written.

Divide and conquistador!

Getting copy approved by multiple corporate gatekeepers is easier when you split the task into two stages= content + style.

And page tables are the perfect container for pure content. Page tables are just a document you use to record the content requirements for pages of your website. You can specify the key messages, the audience, the calls to action, how the page fits with other sections and so on. Content strategists use page tables as a way to pass explicit instructions to content creators, so the wider strategy is implemented as intended.

The cunning copywriter’s secret weapon

Copywriters can also use page tables purely as a device to ease the difficult journey to FINAL copy. Rather than overwhelming reviewers with full-on copy, you can get acquainted over a page table. Tease them with content requirements. Tantalise them with your thoroughness and consideration of their key messages. Subdue them with content, because only then can you woo them with style.

Once reviewers have seen and signed off the page tables, agreeing the precise content for each page, you can write copy. And because stakeholders have been involved, they’re much more likely to love it.

Page table example (Google Doc template)

Content strategy applied: 5 tips for getting web content approved

DC State Fair Jam Contest

As I noted in my post defining ‘content strategy’, words and pictures are messy things, and organising and approving them is often a tricky process to navigate. In any project there will be many different opinions of what is ‘right’.

Content strategists, web editors and copywriters must all deal with the challenges of getting content accepted by reviewers. Here are five tips for making the process smooth and painless…

1. Reduce the number of reviewers

Every content reviewer should have a purpose, and not all content reviewers should review all of the content. So assign specialists to focus on their specialist area of the content. Don’t let Bob from supply chain review copy that is under the auspices of the sales team. Bob would only ruin it.

2. Structure the review process

Give reviewers instructions. Tell them what to look for, what kind of feedback is required, how to provide that feedback and when to provide it. Don’t let reviewers go off piste.

3. Separate style and content

This is my favourite technique for getting copy past reviewers (especially in large organisations).

The trick is to split the content from the style. So before you produce the content, you define the content with an outline. You can simply produce an outline of the content (whether it’s a page, a video, picture or audio clip) in rough form or bullet points. The outline simply details:

  • the information to be included in the content
  • the purpose of the content
  • the intended audience of the content
  • next steps – where does the content lead people?

You then give the content outlines to your nominated reviewers, along with instructions for reviewing it.

By doing this you allow people to reflect on the bare-bones content, without distracting them with matters of style or tone.

Once the outlines are approved, you can create content, using your outline as the foundation. Because your reviewers have been involved with the content already, they will be more likely to approve the finished content. And the final content reviews will focus purely on details of style and tone, because the information has been approved (by them!).

Okay, so you might think that creating outlines of every page will take too much time, but these outlines are more than a great device for approving content; they’re great to work from. Content outlines are useful if you’re producing your own content, and invaluable if the content production is being done by others, because it tells them precisely what is required.

4. Stay strong

Reviewers can be wrong. And if they’re wrong, and are requesting or demanding changes to the content that deviate from the style guide or project objectives, then tell them.

5. Have a client-side champion

If you’re producing content as an external supplier, it helps to have someone on the client’s side that believes in, and supports, your work. Your champion will need to dissuade doubters and gently convert dissenters (or crush them!).

Do you have any other ideas for making the content approval process easy and efficient? Share them!

Content strategy: a definition

The War Room

How do you define ‘content strategy’?

At a recent meeting of the Brighton Content Strategy Meetup (BCSM) the assembled writers, editors and strategists discussed the meaning of ‘content strategy’.

The chat was fun, but I resolved to try to define content strategy myself, if only so I have a handy definition to offer anyone who asks. Here goes…

Content strategy is:

A process used by organisations to define and plan how words, pictures, audio and video (content) are used to achieve objectives (such as increased sales or a reduction in support calls).

A content strategy provides a framework for the creation, publication and curation of content, and aligns those activities with the organisation’s wider strategy.

But this is how I explain content strategy to clients…

Content strategy is a response to the challenges posed by website content. Words, sounds, pictures and videos are all expensive to produce, difficult to maintain and easy to get wrong.

The best way to produce useful content is by taking a structured, strategic approach to content production, publication and curation.

A structured approach to content creation means…

So rather than just writing copy for your website, we take the time to think about what you are trying to achieve and how your copy can help you achieve it. Rather than just sprucing your existing content, we audit your content so we can judge it. Rather than letting your website drift along, we plan for future updates and ongoing maintenance.

Content strategy takes away the pain of…

As a copywriter I’m compelled to relate content strategy back to the problems it solves. In my experience, content strategy helps organisations avoid:

  • wasting money on content that doesn’t do a job
  • wasting time on haphazard content creation processes (rather than planning and structuring the work)
  • wasting company time on the content sign-off process (which can be a highly political process)
  • letting a website fall into disrepair with outdated or irrelevant content
  • letting a website become a corporate dumping ground for information.

So that’s my take on what ‘content strategy’ means. What do you think of my definition? How would you change it or improve it? All suggestions are welcome!

Brighton’s first content strategy meetup

Approaches to web content strategy

Brighton’s first content strategy meetup is happening on 23 February at iCrossing’s office in central Brighton.

Here’s the blurb from Charlie Peverett’s event page:

You are cordially invited to Brighton’s inaugural CS meetup! For strategists, web writers, editors, UX designers and IAs; from Brighton, London and beyond.

Starting with drinks and nibbles in the iCrossing canteen, we’ll kick things off with a group discussion around the theme (honouring the recent TedxBrighton)

Reasons to be cheerful (about the future of content)

If you’ve got a reason to be cheerful, please submit it (with URL if relevant) to by 5pm on the day, and be ready to tell us all what it’s all about.

Thanks to Richard Ingram for the lovely diagram illustrating this post.

In defence of web industry specialisms…

Specialists In Fresh Cream Eggless Cakes

The web is a big, messy thing. It’s complicated. There are many facets to the web, involving technologies, crafts and skills. Hardly surprising then that to make something wonderful on the web, you may need the help of specialists. You wouldn’t expect to build a house without the help of specialists, and you certainly wouldn’t expect an architect to carry a hod, or a roofer to plumb the toilets, or the builder to plan the wiring.

The need for web industry specialists seems obvious to me, but there is scepticism about some of the professionals helping to make better web experiences that work for both users and the organisations behind them. Let’s look at some of the sceptical remarks that have surfaced recently:

The sceptics view of web industry specialists…

…urm, actually, it’s impossible to quote the rambles of Olivier Blanchard, but you can gauge his ire by scanning his inflammatory but ultimately hollow blog post in which he rails against the current trend for content strategy.

And Ryan Carson tweeted his scepticism for user-experience designers:

But why should web designers stop at UX expertise? Surely they should also take on copywriting, usability testing, market research and cross-stitch too.

I’ve worked on web projects with dedicated UX people and seen those UX people carry out a range of functions that are quite different from web design – things like research, user tests and creating personas – things that warrant a specialist. Sure, a good web designer should take an interest in related fields like user experience design, information architecture and usability, but to expect every individual to become experts in so many broad areas is somewhat delusional. Should we all be the Jack of all trades, and master of none?

Content strategy – not snake oil

As more people talk about content strategy, there will be doubters. To some, content strategy is just a faddish name for things we’ve always been doing. And yes, while content strategy doesn’t bring many revelations to the web, it does package up a way of thinking about the challenges of web content. Content strategy isn’t about creating jobs or complicating web projects – it’s about bringing clarity to the often murky world of content, and helping businesses derive value from their content.

Content strategy isn’t for lone bloggers, just as you don’t need an architect to erect your shed. But content strategy does make sense when you’re wrangling hundreds or thousands of pages of content and a raft of business goals.

In closing…

I love the idea of simplifying the web. If the creation of great websites could be simplified, reduced to a formula, or a series of strokes on a keypad that unfurled a mesmerising website that met every objective and satisfied every faction of its audience – I’d be thrilled. But the reality is that building big and complicated web entities requires the skills of specialists.

Coming to terms with ‘content’

Common questions from the content creator

Not so long ago, I objected to the word ‘content’ when used to describe the words and pictures that populate websites. ‘Content’ seemed degrading, a lowly term for what might be carefully-crafted copy, perfectly-composed pictures or a web-cam wizard’s captivating video.

So ‘content’ doesn’t sound amazing. It’s a bit like calling the words between the covers of Don Quixote ‘filling’, or ‘text’.

But ‘content’ is what everyone calls content. The word works.

And now ‘content’ is increasingly discussed in a smarter way. We’re not just writing some stuff because there are pages to fill; we formulate content strategies to help us think bigger about what we’re doing. We think bigger and demonstrate a bigger intention. Copy is more than copy and that’s great for the web because it means copy and content can rise to their rightful place in the world of the web.

So I’ve come round to content.

Let’s chat about your projectContact us