Sara Wachter-Boettcher: The Emerging Field of Content Strategy

At the recent Web Directions South 2012 conference held in Sydney, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, an independent content strategist, gave a talk on “Getting Unstuck: Content Strategy for the Future”. Among the detailed and varied presentations on everything from responsive design to MVC to JavaScript performance patterns, here was someone keen to step back and tackle the more nebulous subject of web content — specifically, what we’re meant to be doing with it.

Content is king, right? Well, maybe. The web would certainly be one lonely place without it. But while the technologies underpinning the web evolve at a dizzying rate, attitudes to how we publish content — the stuff that actually populates our applications and sites, whether video, text, forms, widgets, whatever — hasn’t necessarily kept pace. Many of the characteristics of contemporary web publishing still glaringly show their roots in the world of print media. Skeuomorphism remains in the most common design patterns. Grids, paragraphs, captions … is it time web content grew up?

Which is where content strategy comes in. It’s a field you may or may not have heard of — and if you have, you might not grasp its nuts and bolts. What does a content strategist do? Where did the vocation originate? Maybe it’s just best to let Sara explain.

Hi Sara. Before we drill into content strategy, it might help to tell us a bit about your background, and how you got into the field.

I went to journalism school in Oregon, then worked at community newspapers writing features. Then I moved to Arizona and ended up copywriting for ad agencies, which was fun for maybe six months. I just wrote clever little one liners and somebody would hand me some money. But it got boring really quickly.

And then you got into web editing.

I learned a lot of things along the way. The first few years I talked to developers and product managers, getting closer to project work, and asked tonnes of hard questions about why things were being done the way they were being done, and why the concept of content wasn’t being included in these projects. Projects often got delayed because the client was trying to work on their content — how could we stop this happening, so that the client wasn’t left with a website containing no content? These kinds of issues kept coming up again and again.

Then, around the end of 2008, I found people were talking about this thing called content strategy. It was just emerging. Shortly after that, Kristina Halvorson wrote an article for A List Apart about it,  and all of a sudden a name was attached to the practices I’d already started to formalize. It became clear that I needed to change where I sat with an organization and how I approached things. I wormed my way into dozens of projects with a content strategy approach, and that also led me to speaking and writing about content strategy. I realised other people were struggling with the same stuff. It’s useful to know you’re not the only one struggling.

Content strategy seems to cover a broad area, and the definition of what it is seems a little hazy. Do you have a definition for it?

The trouble with content strategy is that as much as it was an emerging discipline in 2008 or so, it also wasn’t — it had been around for a long time, but really hadn’t caught on. It was a term that had been in use in a few different communities — technical communication, some elements of the web, large-scale entertainment media. It’s not so much a practice as it is a collection of practices involving the planning of content that’s going to be good for an organisation and good for its users.

Purely in an online context?

Not necessarily. The online context tends to be the most important one because it’s changing so quickly and it is clear that businesses can’t operate without the internet anymore. Businesses can stop putting out brochures, say, but they couldn’t function without a website.

I believe there was always a need for content strategy. Endemic problems kept happening on the web projects I worked on, and I heard the same stories: “We’ve built a website and the client hasn’t entered their content into a CMS yet, so we can’t build the last 25% of the project!”. There were issues about content that was never completed, or was horribly out of date, or broke the design. I think I knew it was something that always needed consideration, but the reason we weren’t considering it was because we had people in the industry who were doing more complex designs, and clients became more demanding, so completing content became really hard. Dealing with lots of content got even harder. People didn’t want to do it.

There are issues of user-generated content, issues with mobile, issues that have made content even more of a challenge than it ever was. These problems aren’t always new, they’re just more pronounced, or harder to avoid. More organizations are willing to ask for help now.

You talk a lot about a mobile-first approach. How does that apply to content strategy? When we talk responsive design, for instance, it’s a lot simpler to delineate a design strategy for mobile — breakpoints, media queries, mobile wireframing. With content it seems more amorphous.

I hear people talk about mobile content and the desire to cut everything down to micro-size, and I take issue with that, because you’re making assumptions about what people might want. My take on it is that mobile content should probably be the same as your regular content for the most part, or at least, that’s your baseline. But for a long time we put whatever the hell we felt like up on the web, and didn’t necessarily think about what was going to provide the clearest solution for users. Different departments of the same companies have been posting overlapping content all over the place, resulting in humungous corporate sites.

Mobile is an opportunity to fix a lot of that, and bring things back to what is needed in the first place — to fix sad, excessive, outdated content that we’ve allowed to fester for so long. Mobile can make you focus on what really matters. The question you have to ask is, if a mobile user doesn’t need this, then does anybody need this? Especially when you start looking at trends with how mobile usage is going to overtake desktop usage. Trying to say that there is a single mobile usecase, you’re fighting a losing battle.

How do we get clients thinking about what a mobile approach might entail, rather than simply saying: “Make me a mobile site”?

I think it’ll take some time. It wasn’t very long ago that mobile was a novelty. But people are becoming comfortable with the idea that there isn’t a mobile web — it’s just the web.

You also mention clutter in your writing — specifically, that getting rid of clutter shouldn’t just be reserved for mobile development and design, but extended to web content in general; that there’s no room for cruft on the web.

Well … the thing is, there is room for cruft on the web — I mean, you can put anything you want up there! There’s room to do it and that’s why people have done it for so long. For a long time it didn’t occur to people that they needed to pay attention to what they put up. That’s the wrong perspective: it’s only the perspective of the person who’s posting. If you take the perspective of the person who has to wade through that information and buy your product or choose your service, things gets problematic.

Just because you can, you should? That goes against any strategic endeavour an organization would be involved in. If you’re putting up content that has no purpose, who are you serving? What’s the point?

And this is where content strategists come in?

The key to a good content strategist is they’ll realise if they want to publish good content, it’s not just a matter of who’s going to fix it, it’s a matter of actually changing how content is handled for the long term.

I think one problem regarding web publishing is that the bulk of content is delivered via a handful of similar content management systems.

I think what’s shocking is that a huge amount of content is not delivered via a CMS!

Really?

Start talking to organizations and you realise that a lot of big companies are actually hand coding a lot of things. Which is surprising, yeah. I talk to a lot of clients who say they want to get structure from their content, and have authors enter content into 12 different fields, say, to achieve that. They want to use an interface where an author can edit content literally like they would on the front end of the site. The problem is, this assumes a desktop perspective — it doesn’t deal with a mobile approach, it doesn’t get authors thinking differently about their content. It makes them think about it as just “stuff they put on a page”.

The interfaces we give the public can be beautiful and pleasurable to use, and the interfaces we give to authors are generally crap. We have not spent nearly enough time trying to improve the way our CMSs work.

Are there any CMSs you prefer, or recommend?

I’ve used a lot of custom CMSs. In tems of off-the-shelf ones, I’ve used Drupal a bit. But Drupal requires customization to achieve the things you want to do with it.

I don’t make CMS recommendations because I’m not a CMS person. And anyway, I could have a personal website that runs on WordPress, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for every situation. People can get hung up on one solution. After my talk at Web Directions, I had somebody send me a tweet that just said: “Drupal … that is all”. I think they missed the point, because Drupal might be well and good, but it doesn’t solve all the underlying problems about what you might need your content to do.

People also get hung up on the technology part. It’s easy to put blinders on. And developers have been encouraged to have their blinders on — there’s this mentality about not bothering the dev team, that they need to focus. They do need to focus in order to code — I get that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the decision making. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be part of a discussion about how to structure data in a way that users will benefit from.

Another concept you talk about is how we need to look at the web as a series of patterns, as opposed to pages. Can you elaborate a little on that?

When you’re dealing with a big site, and when you’re looking at hundreds or thousands of pages of content, you have to be able to see what’s underlying them. The word “page” isn’t a semantic term; it doesn’t mean anything in a web context. “Page” is a term we took from print.

You have to look at what the content actually comprises. What is it communicating? What purpose is it serving for that organization? What does it do for a user? And when you start evaluating those questions, you can find patterns — how content is similar in certain ways. You can’t isolate your content into merely pages, and then neglect to build any rules or systems for what happens to that content in different contexts. You need to have specifics built in so you can say, “OK … this type of content needs this type of treatment”. That’s how you respect what the content is communicating.

Finally, if SitePoint readers were interested in moving into a career in content strategy, what skills would they need, and where would they start?

There are many flavors of content strategists. Some of them come from editorial backgrounds, some from publishing. Some come from more technical fields, like technical communications, information architecture, or studying taxonomy and metadata.

The key is that if you want to get involved in content strategy, you have to be willing and able to ask tough questions, and get your organization or client talking. Facilitation is an important skill in addition to having expertise in some facet of content work. You have to be that bridge, capable of identifying areas where disconnects are happening and finding ways of overcoming them. So you have to be a therapist sometimes, too!

Sara, thanks for your insights. We’ll leave it there.

Thank you.

For anyone interested in finding out more about the future of content strategy, check out the details of Sara’s upcoming book, Strategy and Structure For Future-Ready Content.

 

 

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  • http://Www.bobology.com Bob Cohen

    While I think most Internet marketing people understand content stategy and perhaps larger organization marketing department do, I think there’s still a lot of education that has to be done. Senior management and small business owners seem to be at a loss in understanding why a content strategy and content marketing are driving the Internet. Aldo you have any recommendations for tools or examples that would help explain what a content strategy is and why it’s so important to have one?

    • http://tommuseth.com Tom Museth

      I’ve just added a link to Sara’s upcoming book on content strategy, Bob. You can set up an alert to let you know when it’s published.

  • http://jsatiffanylamps.com Larry Akers

    After reading this article I couldn’t help feeling like I had just drank a glass of air. There are questions, but no answers. The writer could improve the communication here by including a few examples of content without strategy, and content with strategy. The article did not deliver.

    Thanks,
    Larry

    • http://tommuseth.com Tom Museth

      Point taken Larry. One thing I took from Sara’s conversation is that this is still a developing field … it feels a bit like the “pioneering era” for content strategy. So while I don’t think there is a wealth of concrete solutions, content strategists emerged because of a need to ask tough questions. That’s an encouraging beginning, surely.

      • http://jsatiffanylamps.com Larry Akers

        I agree. I believe that we are dealing with something currently nebulous and I appreciate your identifying an emerging interest in developing some form of content awareness. While an IA is mainly concerned with the placement of content into an organized format with an identifiable hierarchy, I believe that the idea of content strategy can best be accomplished by a writer with a clear understanding of exactly what the content is to accomplish. The content can then be transformed into a form that most online readers can quickly scan for importance to their aim..

  • John

    I also thought this article had an unusually high (words:value) ratio!
    I do agree that the author side of most CMS systems remain primitive in terms of allowing one to know how it’s going to look to different users. I know you can do this subsequently but that’s not quite the same thing.

  • Richard Miller

    I’m sure this is a good article I just couldn’t get anything out of it. Perhaps I’ve had a long day!