Why you need a content strategist

Are you investing in your content? Do you have a strategy? If not then help is at hand. You need a content strategist, but who are they and what do they do?

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.

Relly

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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:

Audit

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it in a spreadsheet for later reference, looking for good examples, articles that might need revision, items that are outdated, trivial or redundant, how searchable it is, what metadata there is and lots more besides.

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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.

Plan

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?!!)

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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.

Creation

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.

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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.

Google Analytics

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.’

Even better news! You can discuss your content with Relly in her content clinic.
  • http://www.meltdowntech.com Ben Everard

    I spotted a type…

    :D ha, how ironic would that be, nice post Relly.

  • http://www.meltdowntech.com Ben Everard

    Balls!

    Typo* <– now that is ironic, and stupid :D

  • http://onegirlcircus.com Karen

    Fabulous piece. I saw a session at Mix10 in Las Vegas on content strategy and was intrigued, now I’m positively fascinated. Thank you for standing up on behalf of content.

  • http://www.markboultondesign.com Emma Boulton

    Excellent post Relly. I couldn’t agree more. Content is key to telling the right brand story.

  • http://www.headscape.co.uk Relly Annett-Baker

    There’s always one ^_^. Being a good writer does mean a grasp of spelling and grammar but a mistake in a post isn’t an instant indication that the author is a bad writer, editor or whatever.

    My spelling when I type is terrible because partially we learn to spell by the flow and shape of writing a word, something that is broken when we take it to a keyboard. Also, I am typo-tastic as I think faster than I can type.

    I’d rather people tried to take away the contents of the article than pick apart how hurried my copy-editing of it was but as it was mentioned, yes, I do try and copy-edit my own pieces and anyone else’s carefully when I’ve been paid to. Outside of that, it gets my usual courtesy glance ;-)

    • http://www.meltdowntech.com Ben Everard

      Oh Relly, at the pace I read it through I didn’t find any spelling / grammar mistakes, I was just trying to be clever… it has clearly back fired ;-)

      Still great post, it’s in my bookmarks :-)

      Ben

  • http://www.joeloverton.com/ Joel Overton

    Great article, Relly. Immensely helpful and – for me – somewhat foreboding. It’s just made me realise what a woeful position I’m starting from on a current project. If content can be left to rot I think some of ours must be compost by now.

    Still, applying this process to the current mess will be much more productive than starting from scratch. I hope!

  • http://japh.com.au/ Japh

    Fantastic introductory post, Relly. Very much enjoyed the read, and I really like your writing style.

    Best of luck! :)

  • http://twitter.com/sturobson sturobson

    Great 1st Post – Enjoyable read for a gloomy afternoon in Wiltshire :-D – good luck with this new job thing too :-)

  • Nick Spillum

    It is a fascinating post. I would love to have a content strategist come and consult for us on our web site. But then if you need a content strategist, you may as well get an SEO specialist, an SEM marketer, a community manager, a specialist copy writer, an “analytics analyst”, an affiliate manager in addition to the webmaster and we haven’t even got to the content producers yet. All of a sudden you have a team of 20 people you need to pay salaries too…

    Am I wrong?

    • http://www.headscape.co.uk Relly Annett-Baker

      Nick Spillum – if you have a large enough community – say, like ivillage – to consider a community manager, then yes, you probably need one. If you need to watch your an analytics like a hawk – like ebay or uSwitch – then you need an analytics manager. If you feel SEO is the core of your business, then that is where you might lay your money. All of these things are dependent on your business model.

      But Every Single Website in the world has content. So you need a content strategy – either that you source, create and implement yourself, or you get a specialist in to do it. In the same way you got a specialist to make and host your site in the first place.

  • http://jeffpfaller.com Jeff

    Nice long elevator-ride pitch for people new to the discipline. I think your tips on tackling things one-page at a time is a great one – with medium/large sites the idea of revising all your content is daunting, but if you just focus on refreshing bits of it at a time, the continuous improvement will pay off.

  • http://ensignjenpersonallog.wordpress.com/ Ensign_Jen

    Nice article Relly, most people give up listening before I can explain to them what I do in this much detail!

    I have to admit that as a content editor, the area I continually struggle with is the analytics side. I’ve had access to some pretty cool software (although not really had the time to use it!) but more specifically, I’ve never been sure of what exactly I should be measuring.

    Previously I’ve looked at page visits, exit rates, length of time on page (is a long time on the page a good result or a bad one?), the users’ journey and most importantly, conversions. But I can’t help but think, how useful are these numbers? Can they really tell us what customers think of the site content, or is really just a ‘rough guide’ – the best alternative we have to constantly asking our customers (the dream)?

  • http://klcesarz.wordpress.com Kevin Cesarz

    Well done. Content strategy is like herding cats sometimes, but so worth the effort when you look at the end results. Thanks for taking a turn to make it clear. Here’s my humble attempt – http://klcesarz.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/what-is-a-content-strategist-you-ask/

  • Gonzalo González Mora

    Nice post! I’m actually in the process of reading Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson. It has been quite an eye-opener to be honest, sometimes we don’t stop and think things thoroughly, we do them like that because that’s how we always did it! (btw, have you read this book? what’s your opinion on it?)

    Anyway, I hope to see more content-strategy-related posts in the future, it’s certainly a really interesting area.

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Relly, congratulations on a terrific first post! (Selfishly, I’m extra-excited because it’s about content strategy. Woooo!)

    Because the international community of content strategists is really depending on each other right now for conversations and insights just like yours, I’d like to invite you and your readers to take advantage of the following resources and communities:

    Finally, I’m in Paris at the moment as the first-ever Content Strategy Forum is happening tomorrow and Friday. Materials will be made available after the conference… follow #csforum10 on Twitter to join in the fun!

    • http://www.headscape.co.uk Relly Annett-Baker

      Thanks Kristina! I would wholeheartedly endorse the lovely Ms.Halvorson’a book Content Strategy for the Web to anyone who has anything to do with doing something, anything, on the web.

      Content Strategy is basically awesome, so the more people talking about it and asking questions the better I say.

  • http://id.andr3.net André Luís

    Relly, first and foremost, wishing you all the best at headscape!

    Despite not being a content strategist myself, I struggle every day for taking careful consideration on every bit of content and how it’s delivered to our users. A big part of my job is to review websites before launching (I work in quality assurance) so your post will help a lot in improving how I review the content.

    Just to let you know this little “spiel” as you put it over a-now-cold coffee during a break at a conference benefits more than just content strategists. Thank you for that.

    ‘Title | URL | Content on page | Up to date? | Metadata | What could change?’
    ^ This could be the “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” of this content revolution you speak of… :P

  • http://www.eatmedia.net/blog Ian Alexander

    Kept wanting to poke you at SXSW to say how much I enjoyed your show and blog. This post is just one more small reason. Great stuff.

    —Ian

  • http://blueprintds.com chicago web design

    great article, Ive never thought of it that way. Using a strategist in a web company could pay off to be hugely beneficial. Thanks bunches!

  • Andy Wickes

    Nice one Relly – amazing it has taken us so long to come round to giving content as high a priority as design and development. Wishing you well in the new job – enjoyed your interview in the Boagworld 200th and will be sure to put some of those learnings into action on future projects!

  • Trond

    Listening to this was great. Learned a lot.

    Trond

  • Trond

    Just a comment regarding “why it’s three”:
    This is due to our cultural background. Here in the west we have three as our “holy” number
    Examples are Three wise men, peter, paul and mary, Huey, Dewey and Louie and so on.
    If we were Chinese our holy number would be eight…

  • http://www.lofwebdesign.com Jeri

    Well done Relly!

    Thanks for your very logical and compelling article. I particularly appreciate your acknowledgement that content includes a great deal more than just copywriting, and content strategy requires skills and committment that go beyond writing.

    As a content advocate “when content wasn’t cool,” it’s been very exciting to see the role of content taking it’s rightful, if messy place (thank you Kristina) as a valuable asset.

  • http://www.ju2.com Jim Williams

    Well done Relly. A great contribution to the ever excellent BoagWorld (no this isn’t Paul writing under a pseudonym).

    At one point you said that perhaps most people could write content using a set of guidelines. I have often given clients a informal set of guidelines for them to use when writing for their website. But I really struggle with the words to describe the voice they should use when writing.

    I there am wonder how you approach this topic – do you for instance refer to other websites, magazines, TV programmes and tell them to write like that? Also how do web site owners check to see if they are writing to a level appropriate to their visitors regards sentence structure and length.

    Keep up the good work.

    Jim.

  • http://laura-marquez.com Laura

    This is a great article. It opens your mind on ideas of how to optimyze content. I think you should definitely expand it on how to exactly do a content audit, and also what tools you can use to measure it.

  • http://www.katherinekenny.ie Katherine

    What an inspiring article! It’s so frustrating when content is the last thing to be considered in the creation of a website.

  • Kristine

    Liked your article, too – though wish you had used your own diagrams and examples to illustrate your deliverables, rather than using stock photos. I think this is where most people fall down. People want content strategy, but they don’t know what the deliverables should look like.

  • http://www.cakecontent.com lizzie

    Exactly! After years of fine-tuning, I also settled on “I’m a writer for websites”. Usually they then ask, “Oh can you write for other things too?” and I say “Er, yes I’ve done a couple of print articles…” and the conversation is just completely off track. Now I can focus it: “I’m a content strategist! Hear my roar!”

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