I have a confession to make. Sometimes people ask me, casually, what it is that I do. And up until now I have always shuffled my feet, crinkled my brow for a second and settled for
‘I’m a writer. For websites, mostly.’
‘Oh, like blogs and things?’
‘Yeah. Mostly. Yeah.’
This is a 24 carat lie. And I need to stop it.
So, humour me. Let’s pretend we are stood having a quick coffee in the break at a conference. I’ve asked you what you do and you say that you run a business, selling through different channels but recently you’ve noticed a pick up in interest in your website. I nod and say
‘Yeah, I work on the web too.’
‘Oh really? What is it that you do?’
‘I’m a content strategist.’
‘Oh. Er, is that like a consultant?’
‘No. Well, sort of. Anyway, sit down. I’ve prepared a lecture with slides.’
(You can see why this might not work out so well in reality)
I am the ambassador for your poor, maligned content. Content has for too long been the ragged step-sister in the web fairytale. I am her fairy godmother and I’m here to ensure we all live happily ever after.
A content strategist looks after everything on your website that communicates with your audience. When we first meet, I ask a lot of questions about how your business works, what messages you want to get across and what your business’/ products’ best features are. I look at (and sometimes create) the wireframes and the proposed information architecture of your website, consider interaction instructions, and whether a message is best explained with a screencast or a series of step-by-step by pictures. It all starts with a spreadsheet and a four point plan:
I look at all your existing content across all channels, brand guidelines and any styleguides you might have.
I gather all that information into a couple of documents to guide our next steps. This means I put my eye over as much as your content as I possibly can, noting aspects of it in a spreadsheet for later reference, looking for good examples, articles that might need revision, items that are outdated, trivial or redundant, how searchable it is, what metadata there is and lots more besides.
After this I write editorial and authorship guidelines to guide the creation of future content. This means you have a singular place to refer to writing style, references to trademarked products, product description guidelines, tone of voice for articles and brand guidelines for online use.
This bit is vitally important as the outcome is an in-depth knowledge of what is on your current site, what should be on your new site and how it should sound to your readers, which every single person writing for your site can benefit from. The result will be disciplined content, that sounds consistent, on message and smart.
Now I have these documents that help me work out what the content should sound like, I can commission new articles, revise product descriptions, rewrite that redundant ‘about us’ page, remove the company mission statement that no-one reads. But to do it right, and in the right order, I work with an information architect to find what really needs to be on the site.
We start out by considering everything we could do – a company blog, a youtube video diary, a screencast for product use, regular articles addressing customer concerns, a weekly email out – and then focus on what will help with the goals of the company and of the users of the site. An important consideration is ‘What is possible?’. Is there someone responsible for this content and keeping it fresh and accurate? Are there resources for creating a video diary? Is there a budget for content (and if not, why not?!!)
I create a workflow to ensure there is a regular flow of new content and that it meets the standards we have set – either from within the company or commissioned from content creators, who can be briefed with the styleguide we created.
Let’s do this thing! We set in action the plan we have created. Sometimes I am responsible for creating this content, or seeking out people that can, and other times there is a dedicated content creator (or team) in the business, or someone from each product team.
That said, writing for your website shouldn’t be an extracurricular activity appended to anyone’s work description. Your content deserves better as it is the hardest working part of your website.
Let me say that again:
Your content is the hardest working part of your website.
Your content sells your services, captures the interest of potential customers, guides users through your site to achieve the goal they set out to do, instructs them on how to purchase from you, collects their information, lets people know the terms and conditions for a transaction with you, describes the unique collection you have for sale, rewards them for their brand loyalty, introduces customers to the positive experience they get shopping with you.
(At this point, I hope your coffee has been left to go cold and you are nodding, agog at the revelation of what a content strategist does, and taking notes to take home from this imaginary conference we met at. Remember? You asked what I did, in the break, and I broke out into a lecture?)
Taking care of business
So. How do I know if this content is doing what it should? There are two aspects to this. In the short term, I like to do some testing. A/B testing or multivariate testing of some aspects of the copy or a new screencast helps identify if your users are adapting to the new content well. Web analytic tools will also help measure if the content is doing the job you want it to do.
Right back at the beginning, when I was asking all those questions about your business and your current site, I was looking for the areas the content could improve and what about your business it could improve. Whether it is reach, penetration, upsell, customer retention or brand recognition (or any of a dozen more), we can use analytics to tell us if people are doing more with your site now than they were previously, or what might need tweaking.
And here is the long-term goal: Keep revising your content. A content strategist will rework the original audit to keep track of what had been created. Sign off on a project will involve the ceremonial handover of a spreadsheet telling you what you have, how it is performing, what is key to keeping it fresh, who is responsible for it within your content creation team and when it needs refreshing.
Content that gets written and then left to rot is no more of interest to your customers (and the health of your business) than the August 1997 copy Good Housekeeping in your doctor’s surgery. You only read it if there is nothing else. Unlike in the waiting room, your customers have plenty of other choices to go read on the web. Make sure the content you have keeps them reading and has them coming back, regularly, for more. Too many sites are a compost bin of rotting content that never gets reviewed, updated, polished or considered at all until someone thinks it stinks and gives it an annual forking through and turning over. That’s when content starts to seem like a big deal.
But here’s the thing: You – Yes, you! – can start this content revision process today!
Start by looking at what content you have right now and if it really matches up to what you would be telling your customers if they were sat with you, at your desk, or in your showroom, factory, wherever. The biggest difference you can make to your site is to look at every which way round your content, copy and those little interactions you make with every user. I promise you’ll find something that sparks a new idea for creating more custom.
So, go! Do it now! Open a spreadsheet program and type:
‘Title | URL | Content on page | Up to date? | Metadata | What could change?’
Start a content revolution, one page at a time.
(I’m so sorry. You just stopped for coffee in the break at this imaginary conference and I’ve gone into a full spiel about my work and it’s gone cold. Let me get you another one.)
And good news! Now if anyone asks what I do I can say ‘Here, take a look at this post on the Boagworld site.’