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06 Oct 2010

Expert Interview on Content Strategy with Rick Allen

My plunge deep into the heart of Content Strategy continues this week with my discussion with Rick Allen an accomplished manager of complex web-related projects, with ten years experience in creating dynamic web identities for knowledge-centric organizations. Rick is the principal of ePublish Media, a web publishing agency focused on content strategy, user experience design, and marketing communications.

Rick writes and speaks regularly on the topics of content strategy, online communications, and web analytics strategy. He is also the founder of Content Strategy New England, a community of web content professionals aiming to bring clear communication to online user experiences through the evolving discipline of content strategy.

Elise Redlin-Cook: I often hear the phrase “content strategy” used in different contexts and ways. How would you define content strategy?

Rick Allen: A commonly accepted definition of content strategy is found in Content Strategy for the Web, by Kristina Halvorson. It reads: “content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” This clear, concise description has had tremendous impact on the establishment and widespread adoption of content strategy. I often add “effective” as a modifier when defining content strategy for students and clients. I find it helps people to understand why quality content is valuable.
Useful and usable describes the what, effective describes the why—the result. Effective content meets business objectives and user goals.

When you get into the intricacies of content strategy, you appreciate the challenge of establishing a clear definition. But, for the discipline to be valued in the industry, it is important for practitioners to articulate it well. As your question indicates, there’s still room for improvement.

Elise: After conducting my own content inventory, I realize that this process can be a long and tedious process and it can sometimes feel like you’ll never finish. How do you stay motivated during this process?

Rick: Hmm. Long and tedious? Whatever do you mean? Content inventories can certainly be time-consuming, but the process can also be fun. Yes, fun! It’s like cleaning your basement. Who knows what’s down there? You might find your high school yearbook or your old baseball card collection. Seriously, content strategists tend to thrive on organization. At the beginning of a web project, content is overwhelming, massive and seemingly unmanageable. A content inventory simplifies a web project by allowing people to see content more clearly. Personally, I’m motivated by discovery and insight: making sense of existing content, understanding the project scope, and realizing potential content challenges. Admittedly, I still can’t find my childhood baseball card collection. I find spreadsheets easier to manage than boxes and duct tape.

Elise: Fantastic!  What does the typical content lifecycle look like, and are there ways that you’ve found to extend the life of content?

Rick: This is an important topic. Understanding an organization’s content lifecycle is critical for a content strategy to succeed. If you don’t know who or what is involved in the analysis, creation, publishing, and maintenance of content, you can’t effectively govern it.

A content lifecycle is complex in scope—accounting for every point at which content is created, evaluated, and managed—so for clarity it helps to break it down into categories. At the very least, it should include content analysis, planning, creation, and maintenance. Two great diagrams on the topic, by content strategists Erin Scime and Rahel Bailie illustrate content lifecycles well.

One way to extend the life of content is to evaluate its potential value for new audiences. Organizations often consider content for a single purpose when it often has much more potential. For example, in higher education, community news and events targeted at current students, faculty, and staff can also benefit prospective students, alumni, and affiliates by providing insights into the school. Student and faculty profiles are useful for admissions materials, but also for community building when shared through social media, including blogs.

Elise: Great Examples, thanks! So, how exactly does content strategy fit with other UX processes and disciplines?

Rick: Most often the focus is content deliverables. However, a hidden value of content strategy is its ability to improve the web publishing process, supporting related disciplines in their roles. At a recent Content Strategy New England event, an attendee said, “I can’t be a great designer if the content sucks.” Indeed, if the content is of poor quality, so will go the design, usability, SEO, marketing, UX, and much more. How can a visual designer be effective without understanding the content needs and editorial style guide? How can an SEO specialist effectively attract relevant traffic without understanding the site message architecture and brand-appropriate keywords? Content strategists support collaboration between designers, SEO specialists, analysts, project managers, and others, by focusing on a shared element: content.

Elise: I’ve been finding out that many content strategists come from very different parts of the industry with very diverse backgrounds. How did you find yourself in this specialization?

Rick: It’s true that content strategists come from diverse backgrounds—some technical, some creative. Content strategists also have diverse specialties, focusing on branding, analysis, editorial strategy, content delivery, metadata strategy, and more.

I was guided toward content strategy through studies in writing and publishing, and professional work in academic technology, project management, web strategy, and marketing communications. As my career evolved, content strategy for the web was a natural fit.

A background in creative writing taught me storytelling: how to convey ideas and evoke an emotional response. Such training now assists me in helping organizations to be storytellers as well, to convey their brand message in a compelling way that attracts and engages, not just informs. My graduate degree in publishing was readily applicable to content strategy. To succeed online, organizations must treat their website as a publishing platform, which demands the same quality standards as traditional publishing. Editorial calendars, style guides, and quality content are all equally important on the web.

Through my early work in academic technology and marketing communication, I developed and managed large-scale web projects. This training helped me bridge the gap between writing and technology and motivated me to expand my knowledge in related web disciplines.

Elise: Where would you say that Content Strategy is going now? Do you see any big changes on the horizon?

Rick: Content strategy will certainly continue to grow in popularity and demand. However, there will be less talk about whether a content strategist is needed and more talk about who is going to do the work. The value of owning quality content will rise and website owners will be more mindful of the responsibilities needed to produce and govern that content.

I also foresee that content strategy will be challenged to better demonstrate results. People understand that content strategy is important, but how do they know it works for their organization? What metrics can be used to effectively measure success? This is a topic I’m excited about and will be discussing more.

Elise: Are you inspired by anything in particular outside of your Content Strategy field?

Rick: I’ve always been enamored with the power of words and how the simplest turn of phrase alters meaning. Similarly, I’m often impressed by the ability to visually communicate complex ideas. I love to experiment with photography and visual design to enhance meaning and evoke emotion. I admire visual thinkers who naturally work in this mindset. It’s a tremendous communication skill.

Elise: I completely agree!