Cut first, then color

I was talking to a startup today about which part of their website project to tackle first.

The client was emphasizing starting with the company’s product pages and ecommerce flow.

I was emphasizing starting with a quick content inventory and site map.

Fearing I was sounding too much like a process princess, I said, “It’s same reason you get your hair cut before you get it colored.”

A great analogy, especially if my client had been UniKitty (“half unicorn, half anime kitten, and nonstop dance party”).

Fortunately this particular male cut me some slack, laughed a little, and agreed.

Content Marketing and Content Strategy are merging. Is that a good thing?

Just hear me out. One emerging practice (content strategy) + one tactic (content marketing) = I’m not really sure.

Content Marketing: “Content marketing is an umbrella term encompassing all marketing formats that involve the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumer bases. Content marketing subscribes to the notion that delivering high quality, relevant and valuable information to prospects and customers drives profitable consumer action. Content marketing has benefits in terms of retaining reader attention and improving brand loyalty.” —from the Content Marketing Wikipedia page created 25 February 2008

Content Strategy: “Content strategy has been growing as a practice within the industry of web development since the late 1990s. It is recognized as a field in user experience design but has also drawn interest from practitioners in adjacent communities such as content management, business analysis and technical communication.” –from the Content Strategy Wikipedia page created 08 April 2009

Then a funny thing happened about a year ago—the terms got squished together to form “Content Marketing Strategy.” I’m not sure how this happened or even what it means but it’s out there and to some people it means something.

In my opinion, “Content Marketing Strategy” is vacuous—there is no such thing. There is content marketing and there is content strategy. Or, to rollback a round of buzzwords, there is integrated marketing and there is UX Design. Either way, one is a tactic and one is a practice. I’m not shining a light on one to keep another one in the dark, but rather here to say that we all agree content is important. That includes IAs, ixDs, coders, graphic designers, and copywriters. It’s what we do about knowing content is important that counts. How we solve client’s problems is what matters.

Volume and repetition matter
The solution I hear most often from content marketing is “make more content, gain more trust.” From content strategy, it’s “content should drive all other practices.” Increasingly, you will find many articles that use the terms interchangeably, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing; primarily for the client who now has to deal with ever-finer slices of practitioner specialties and more difficult integration/PM issues.

I recently met with a friend of a friend about a website he was launching. His business was a data-based content creation & strategy play with all the requisite buzzwords in place, along with poor design, clunky marketing speak and a mish-mash of “content marketing” and “content strategy” definitions. I was at loss. Here was a very smart guy with good intentions going out into the market with one puzzle piece. The whole event felt like dropping your car off at a mechanic who asks you for a ride because his car doesn’t run.

Perhaps you don’t build trust?
Building trust goes way beyond the creation of content. (And yes, I’m guilty of oversimplifying its importance.) I’m slowing starting to realize that you can’t set out to build trust. When you do, it implies that you are building it in order to leverage it later—and that feels a little dirty. Trust has so many facets to it and is so subjective that I find it hard to believe there is a one size fits all solution that works. So if Content Marketing Strategy can live on the web, then I’m petitioning for Trust Strategy.

Perhaps content ________ isn’t about building anything but rather is just a requirement like air in your tires, ink in your pen and quality in your product/service.

A great user experience respects both the content and the reader (see Readability). A great user experience cares that labels fit inside buttons and ensures that “thanks for coming” takes precedence across all fields of practice from the first click to the last.


What would you do with $25,000?

At the initial Content Strategy Consortium in 2009 /IA Summit in Memphis I suggested we create a budget, a fake project and play out a content strategy budget scenario. The small group didn’t jump on the idea, but it has always sat with me as a worthwhile exercise.

So I’m offering up my experiment here to a broader audience of: Content Strategists, Design/Build Digital Shops, User Experience Designers and anyone else in the Strategic Branding, Digital Marketing space.


The Challenge:

How would you use this (purposefully) limited budget to solve this hypothetical client’s problem(s)? You can focus just on your expertise or spread the budget out across multiple practices.

The Rules:

You can ask 3 questions (email but you can’t say no to the job.

Industry: Financial Services

Budget: $25,000.00

Deadline: We’ll be collecting ideas until Thursday, May 5.

What’s in it for You:

We’ll be posting the best submissions on our blog sometime in May. And if we mention your submission, you’ll get a little gift from us.

Assessment of the Existing Website:

  • On a scale of 1-10 the site would score a 5 (design/IA/user experience).
  • Client has a 50 page website. Home/Services/About/Contact/Press.
  • Client’s target audience = 23-59 year old executives looking to invest in regional, high-yield markets.
  • They are only using organic search. 30 of their 50 pages are articles, press and marketing content.
  • Site is not converting pageviews to leads (email and one whitepaper download).

Assessment of Newsletter:

  • On a scale of 1-10 the newsletter would score a 4 (design/IA/user experience)
  • Newsletter is not performing well compared to industry opens and clicks.

Assessment of Social Media:

  • On a scale of 1-10 their social media interaction would score a 4 (content, frequency, relevance)
  • Twitter account that they intermittently post to – 1-3x a week with prompts to check out their services as well as some industry news.
  • No mobile strategy and website is not optimized for the web. All collateral is very dry and lacks a unique voice.
  • How do you allocate this (purposefully) limited budget? You can focus just on your expertise or spread the budget out across multiple practices.


Dig Deep or Leave it Alone

In the construction world carpenters who specialize in remodeling earn considerably more than those who build homes from scratch. If you know how to use a plumb bob, a square and a level you should be able to build a decent new home. Remodelers on the other hand have much broader set of challenges requiring a more comprehensive toolset in order to maintain aesthetics and work around existing infrastructure.

Many of these lessons can be transferred to content strategy and interactive solutions. If you want a new website and have never had one, you also don’t have legacy systems to untangle, databases to rejoin, layers of stakeholders to appease and vector versions of your logo to track down. In short you have a blank slate. While I am not advocating starting from scratch for many reasons including — SEO ranking, branding and resource allocation for starters — It is imperative to understand that working with an existing site presents both unique challenges and opportunities that require deeper digging. Dig deep my friends, dig deep.


Matt Brown @ Mix: Running with Wireframes

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Brown, Principal, thingsthatarebrown at SXSWi 2010. After completing his rounds in Austin, he trekked off to speak at Mix10 which he designed. Watch this presentation and learn how designers and IA’s need to be thinking about content and content strategy in wireframes. The stage has been set, now content creators and content strategists need to think more like designers and IA’s. Then we can all make our clients more happy, go to the gym more and go on vacation. (Freudian slippage revealed.)

If you can’t view (Silverlight download and microtext needs some CS love) view the excellent presentation here >> Running with Wireframes.


Strategy and Wireframing at 100mph

This video is titled “The Right Way to Wireframe.” I think there are many ways to wireframe if the end result meets/exceeds the client’s business objectives—but the video rocks nonetheless. The content strategy exercise and wireframing exercise are/should be inextricably linked, it’s all content we are experiencing but it is an experience we are creating.


CS and IA Unite Already, Will Ya!

Content Strategy is not Copywriting. Design is not Window Dressing. Information Architecture is not Boxes and Arrows.

Content Strategy (CS) isn’t a new practice, but it may be the most comprehensive practice, and one made possible through the maturation and morphing of many puzzle pieces—editorial, print, digital, design, CMS systems, SEO/SEM/search, IA/UX/IxD and advertising.

When done correctly, Content Strategy requires practitioners to follow every piece of content, in every direction, for every use case and optimize the message in order to support business goals. That last line is the anvil in the pillowcase—“in order to support business goals.” Long gone are the days of wanting a website because brick and mortar businesses were “old hat” and Red Herring was four inches thick.

Results matter. And if the downturn in the economy has taught us anything, it is this: Seeking out short-term gains are fools’ errands. Content Strategy, or at least the type Eat Media practices, is firmly rooted in a long term strategy we call “What Then?”

It goes like this:

“Let’s do a content inventory”

“What then?”

“We should tag it and see how it aligns with new biz strategy.”

“What then?”

“There’s going to be a boatload of content that doesn’t fit anymore.”

“What then?”

“We need to create a sustainable content cycle to support their message.”

“What then?”

“We should look at the CMS and see if it will support this new taxonomy.”

“What then?”

“We need to look into how their Social Media strategy is tied into this message.”

“What then?”

We zoom in and out, micro-to-macro until we have looked at a client’s content problem from every angle and we reach this:

“Traffic and sales are up. Way up.”

Getting to this result is all well and good, but how do we know, how well our CS work has actually performed? When paired with SEO/SEM, we can definitively tell what was clicked on, in what order at what time. When Content Strategy is paired with a quality information architecture plan, we can see measurable results that align with how information is organized throughout the site. Similarly, when partnered with tried and true user experience techniques, Content Strategy speaks volumes, and subtleties in button placement and checkout behaviors shine clear as daylight.

But on its own, not so much. The analytics attributed to Content Strategy remain an asked and unanswered question that many of us are still quantifying.

Listen up, Content Strategists

In order to make the leap from buzzword to boardroom, Content Strategy needs to do more, fast. Without analytics, measurement and a crystalline clarification, our relevance is not rising outside our circle. We are simply defining and redefining what is and isn’t CS—erecting and mending fences. While we (me included) think CS is the cat’s meow, many of the decision makers I talk to have a hard time discerning IA from UX from CS from “whatever the programmers are supposed to do.” This is where our work should be focused.

Here are my propositions:

1) I only differentiate IxD from UX by scope.

Go ahead slaughter me for this!

2) UX is its own animal. UX’ers initiate the kind of changes featured in Smashing Magazine. I speak some UX but feel it should be more intertwined with CS.

Someone may have written the speech, but UX is the face and the voice. And that’s just fine with me.

3) The best programmers I’ve worked with are uber-keen on message and user experience. As we begin to build leaner, more targeted applications and websites we need more programmers (front and back-end) to think more about content.

One programmer/friend is the best copy editor I’ve ever known.

4) IA can, but probably shouldn’t operate independent of CS.

See below.

5) CS and IA are the same thing, or at least they should be.

I, for one, cannot do CS without doing IA. You start talking about CS problems and I open up OmniGraffle/ConceptDraw and look for the nearest whiteboard. I start thinking about relationships and content life cycles and wireframes. I recently spoke with Karen McGrane, President of Bond Art and Science and this is what she had to say on this the CS/IA relationship

“I think all those ‘word’ functions should be owned by a single role, and the content strategist has a broader sense of ownership across a site. I could also make the argument that IA and CS are really the same role and you should recruit for whichever one (or both) will help you attract the right people. But in the long run I would imagine that information architecture would be seen as a function of CS rather than a role and a job title of its own.”

—Karen McGrane, President, Bond Art + Science.

Project-by-project practitioners develop, organize and choose the appropriate tools and tactics. While it is impossible for one person to excel at all these fields, it is time that we ask more of ourselves, and one another, in bridging the gap between practices. In my mind, IA and CS fusing into a single practice will deliver more a comprehensive, cost-effective solution with richer, more measurable results together than if they are separate. There will be less inter-dependency confusion within the practices, client’s business goals will be better supported and analytics will be more practical.

Without content, the web would be a search box and a check out cart. (Both the search box and the check out cart have been successfully monetized.) But all the stuff in between (content) requires fewer experts with broader skill sets, not more experts with more finite expertise (which requires longer integration and usually much more duct tape).


Eat Media, “Pointing out the elephant in the room since 2003”

—Ian  @eatmedia

I Write the Songs that Make the Whole Web Sing

Learn the all the notes. Sing all the songs.

Learn the all the notes. Sing all the songs

Whistle While You Work

Business goals, gap analysis and taxonomy definitions are useful tools for determining what should be said where. And the different tactical delivery methods: (video, how-to article, mobile, info-graphics, social media) dramatically affect the presentation and context of the content,  helping us determine the how. Combined with budgets, calendars, SEO, style guides and a host of other details, Content Strategy attempts to responsibly create quality content and put it where it is most appropriate, in the most viable format. What song we whistle while we are doing it is inconsequential, as long as it is in tune with rest of the symphony.

Content Strategy Mimids

Most everyone can recognize the song of the Blue jay, Seagull or (fill in your regional bird). Each bird’s song is distinctive and helps them mate, protect, and communicate. But Mimids, the family of birds that includes mockingbirds, are one of the few birds that can mimic the sounds of other animals, including other birds. This is their most powerful tool and the foundation of how they survive.

Content Strategy, a broadly under-defined term, fits rather well into the family of Mimidae (Mimids). Our tools and roles are centered on our ability to mimic, understand and interconnect many different practices. Sometimes due to our ability to whistle different tunes, we are viewed as extra, unnecessary or covered under the punch list of another practice. When this is true it is usually due to poor project management or unsatisfactory vendor assessment/selection.

Great content strategists are like that friend you have who is just as comfortable (and charming) discussing Renaissance art at an Upper West Side gathering as they are graffiti in a Brooklyn rail yard. They are the kind of people who, years after knowing them, you realize they speak Swahili and went to Rice on a basketball scholarship. They are multi-faced, fascinated and fascinating. They are happily many sides of many coins and their ability to sing the appropriate song at the appropriate time, without sticking to a style, or favorite key, is what makes them valuable.

In the Content Strategy (CS) world there are four basic families:

The Mimid Families

Content Strategy Technologists—are perfect for projects that are CMS heavy (assessments, migrations, template setups), or require medium-to-heavy code/data base lifting or understanding in order to bring a project to fruition. The technologists are usually technical project managers or coders who understand that technology that just pushes numbers around is called a calculator. And calculators aren’t all that engaging to read on a Sunday.

Content Strategy Editorialists—are perfect for projects that require managing and organizing content at the nuts and bolts level (content inventory, style guide creation, editorial calendaring and curation.) These folks are writers at heart but stole away from the Underwood years ago and realized that content needs technology. *See bankrupt magazines and newspapers.

Content Strategy UX/IA’ers—are perfect for projects that require managing and organizing content at both the macro and micro level (gap analysis, wire-frames, content identification). Content Strategists with IA/UX leanings are a powerful blend of logic, information architecture understanding and have a particularly valuable focus on the space where content meets and becomes information. Go Team OmniGraffle!

Content Strategy Designers—are perfect for projects that require managing and organizing content when design is a key element of how and why the information is being presented to the user. There are some designers who simply copy the text the copywriter gave them from WordPad to Photoshop and make it pretty. There are others who ask questions like “why are we saying this on this screen.” Wireframes, information architecture and even some front-end coding are tools in their belt. These people usually have great haircuts.

Detailing these four types of Content Strategists is not meant as a selective quadfurcation but more as a glossary of the broad skill-set under the Content Strategy umbrella. And while each of the above may have leanings towards one strength, be it Design, UX/IA, Editorial or Technology, the practice itself hinges on the practitioner’s ability to understand all the notes and know when to sing which song, when to listen and when to hit shuffle.