I’m pleased to announce that for the next few weeks I’ll be reaching out to some of the thought leaders in my own specialty, Content Strategy. You can probably imagine that I’m just tickled pink with the opportunity! I’ve decided to kick it off with someone who I’ve yet to meet in person but found her writing and especially her slide decks shared on slideshare.com very useful in development of my own personal take on the field. Without further adieu, Margot Bloomstein, Brand and Content Strategy Consultant at Appropriate, Inc. She was a participant in the inaugural Content Strategy Consortium, and speaks regularly on the evolution of content strategy within interactive agencies; recent engagements include SXSW, Web Content 2010, A List Apart, and more intimate regional events across the country.
Elise Redlin-Cook: I hear the phrase “content strategy” used in different contexts and ways. How would you define content strategy?
Margot Bloomstein: Content strategy is planning for the creation, aggregation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable, and appropriate content in an experience. Whew! Specific, right? Every word is in there for a reason. While most of that definition came from the Content Strategy Consortium at the 2009 IA Summit, I add “appropriate” because I focus on brand-driven content strategy that starts with and manifests a message architecture appropriate to the needs of a brand. If content fails to do that, if it fails to accurately project a brand in a manner conducive to the medium, communication suffers. The user experience suffers. It might still be useful and usable, but it could also be out of character or generic. Nobody wants to be generic.
Elise: Very concise! 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?
Margot: Short answer? Dunkin Donuts iced French vanilla, skim milk and two Splendas please.
Outside of tasty beverages, it helps to really, really love a comprehensive spreadsheet—and, more importantly, to appreciate the information it reveals: gaps, opportunities, loss of revenue, wasted time, and great ideas mired in outdated contexts. Keep your eyes on the prize: you’re not conducting the inventory to compile data. You’re conducting the inventory to analyze the data, get at all that information, and determine the scope of work. And because content in a website or other experience will likely need to grow and change over time, it’s important to make the content inventory an ongoing process you periodically revisit.
Elise: Great point on revisiting! So, what are the primary elements or pieces of a complete content strategy?
Margot: A complete content strategy speaks to the many parties and states that comprise the “rhetorical arena.” When that arena is a corporate website, I try to balance the needs of the two main parties, the brand and the target audience. But it’s a space that exists in time, so I also work to balance the current state with longer-term aspirations. A website overhaul is an aspirational initiative; if you’re not addressing the long term, you’re not fully addressing content strategy.
What does that all mean? First, content strategy needs to address both the brand’s communication goals and the target audience’s information needs. In focusing on brand-driven content strategy, I always start by working with the client to establish a message architecture. What do we need to communicate, and in what order of priority? Drawing on user research, we can determine the most appropriate content types to serve users in their path through an experience, and refine this through the content model.
Moving forward, I use the message architecture to inform the audit and inventory process. This is where it helps to start thinking of the website as a space defined by time and changes of state. That’s not some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo; rather, I work to develop an understanding of the content that is both descriptive and prescriptive. An audit offers a descriptive snapshot of the current state, but is most useful when a team reviews it with a prescriptive plan in mind to evolve the architecture and content. Where can we “translate” copy to better articulate the message architecture? What content types would serve us well, and what content types seem trite? And do we really need more customer quotes anyhow?
A prescriptive content plan details the content we’ll need to create or aggregate in terms of content type, character count, runtime, keywords, and other specifications. Editorial style guidelines explain how to do that. Along with guidance like a governance model and editorial calendar, editorial style guidelines help to ensure consistency and cohesion across the content in an experience over time—whether we’re creating a corporate website, social media campaign, or multichannel presence.
Elise: Great! In your opinion, how exactly does content strategy fit with other UX processes and disciplines?
Margot: In short, “plays well with others.” Visual designers and IAs alike benefit from collaborating with a content strategist. Prioritized communication goals, working with real copy, on-brand nomenclature and instructional copy, and a better sense of scope beyond mere page count all work to facilitate other UX processes and deliverables from the broader team.
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?
Margot: Well, I was walking past a bar one day, heard someone heckling a style guide, and thought, man, those people are having fun and that bourbon looks tasty and so what if it’s 11AM!
Or maybe this is the true version: I studied visual design in college, earning my BFA from long hours exploring typography, information design, color theory, and design thinking. I learned to communicate between brands and their target audiences by pulling levers of typeface, color, and density of information on the page. As a content strategist, I effect similar communication, but by working with style, tone, diction, content types; I apply the same problem solving skills, but use different tools along the way. Smart mentors, patient managers, and encouraging clients all helped me refine that toolkit.
Elise: Well, where would you say that Content Strategy is going now? Do you see any big changes on the horizon?
Margot: Over the past two years, content strategy has “hardened” into a more mature discipline with definitions, expectations, inputs, and outputs that its practitioners evangelize and deliver. Agencies large and small are bringing content strategy in house; they realize they can’t sell “full-service interactive” without addressing the very substance of those interactive experiences. Content strategy will continue to evolve in its impact in nontraditional media. Expect to see more of a focus on dynamic context as content strategy addresses location-based experiences. If your business embraces “Enterprise 2.0” beyond the buzzword, expect to discuss content strategy for user-generated content. I’m especially excited about discussing the ethical implications of content strategy, especially as we explore curation as a means of creating new meaning.
Elise: And lastly, are you inspired by anything in particular outside of your Content Strategy field?
Margot: As I mentioned, I approach content strategy from a background in design. In school, I spent many hours in museums: drawing skeletons to better understand figure-ground composition, exploring exhibits designed for moving audiences, and guiding visitors as a docent. Museum exhibit design inspires me because exhibit designers encounter challenges similar to those we find on the web: how do you convey a message architecture to one or more target audiences through a range of content types, along several main paths? Through copy etched in glass, aqua walls and azure floors, and artifacts like mukluks or harpoons, they can pull children and adults alike into an arctic experience and help them form new opinions about the impact of global warming. That’s impressive—and when done right, it’s an incredible model for what we do too.