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Stakeholder Interviews: Engage the Octopus

by Melissa Rach on July 26th, 2012

Most of the time when a content project begins, there are interviews with key stakeholders within the organization. The project sponsors and/or their outside consultants often talk to the “strategic decision makers”—generally the highest ranking people you have access to, such as the VP of marketing or the director of such-and-such. It’s a good place to start. After all, strategic decision makers have important insights (and budgets).

But bigwigs rarely maintain web content. In fact, in a lot of cases strategic decision makers don’t have the subject matter knowledge needed to select or create the content in the first place. In his book, What Is Strategy, and Does It Matter?, Richard Whittingham says, “Knowledge resides inside the heads of lower ranking staff, not in the files of top management.”

When it comes to content, organizations are a bit like an octopus. The strategic decision makers are in the head of octopus—setting the overall direction. But just like an octopus needs all eight arms to move forward, good web content needs help from people at all levels of the organization. If it’s a manufacturing company, the most accurate information about the products may live in the heads of the engineering or R&D teams. A healthcare organization that wants to publish content about diseases or treatments will likely need help from healthcare practitioners, like doctors. And, no matter what an organization does, the people who are assigned to create and maintain content know the most about how much they can realistically accomplish.

Engage The Octopus

Here is a DIY octopus org chart from bigactivities.com!

So, don’t just interview the people in the executive suite. Engage the entire octopus. Identify subject matter experts and people responsible for the content, and interview a few of them, too.  Ask them things like:

  • How much time do you have to spend on content (for the initial launch AND ongoing maintenance)?
  • What is your role in the content process (e.g., subject matter expert, content creator, content approver… all of the above)?
  • How does content get created in the organization—is there a set process or is it bedlam? If there is a set process, is it tenable or do people use workarounds to avoid it?  
  • What information or messages would you most like to convey to the user?
  • If you talk to the users regularly, what kind of information do the users ask you for or need?

Now, interviewing these people doesn’t mean you have to do everything they suggest. But, knowing what the content-specific stakeholders want and need will help you (and the strategic decision makers) understand opportunities and risks associated with content. Maybe the site you’re designing would require the organization to hire more people to update the content appropriately. Maybe you can see that a certain subject matter expert has something unexpectedly great to say.  Or, maybe just talking to content stakeholders will get them excited to help your project succeed.

Whatever you learn, by engaging the whole octopus, you’ll have far fewer unpleasant surprises when you hand over the reins to the “content doers” after launch.

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Posted in Content Strategy

From the Archive: Brain Traffic Lands the Quad

by Melissa Rach on July 5th, 2012

Happy (belated) Fourth of July! On holidays, Brain Traffic celebrates by reposting a favorite blog from our archive. Since our minds are back on the Olympics, we thought this blog post from March 2011 was appropriate this week. And we’ve updated the design of our “quad” with new colors, adding yet another thrill to the make-your-own-medal craft project at the bottom of the post.

At the last Winter Olympics, figure skater Evan Lysacek won the gold medal without a quad jump, much to the chagrin of the Russian favorite, Evgeni “The-KGB-stole-Steve-Perry’s-mullet-for-me” Plushenko.

Afterwards, Evgeni glowered and ranted. He briefly stood on the gold medal platform at the medals ceremony. His official website declared him the “platinum” medal winner. He made it clear that you need a quad to compete. Vladimir Putin agreed.

I don’t know about you, but we at Brain Traffic got the message. I mean, seriously, Evgeni and Vladimir are not guys you want mad at you. So, we got to work.

The Content Strategy Quad

As of today, the Brain Traffic team has been landing its own quad regularly for more than a year. But our quad isn’t an ice-skating feat—it’s an infographic describing the critical components we consider in every content strategy.

Brain Traffic Content Strategy Quad

What It All Means

At the center is the core content strategy, the central idea for using content to achieve an organization's business goals. To achieve that strategy most effectively, we look at four closely related components (the four areas of the quad):

Content-focused components

  1. Substance—What kind of content do we need (topics, types, sources, etc.), and what messages does content need to communicate to our audience? 
  2. Structure—How is content prioritized, organized, formatted, and displayed? (Structure can include communication planning, IA, metadata, data modeling, linking strategies, etc.)  

People-focused components

  1. Workflow—What processes, tools, and human resources are required for content initiatives to launch successfully and maintain ongoing quality?
  2. Governance—How are key decisions about content and content strategy made? How are changes initiated and communicated?

So Far, It's Getting High Marks

Our quad will probably never be discussed by Dick Button and Scott Hamilton, but over the past year it has received consistently high marks from clients and seminar attendees. The quad helps people quickly understand the complexity of content strategy and puts their content challenges into perspective.

Bonus quad-related craft project

Want to look like a content strategy Olympian? Here’s how:

  1. Print this page
  2. Cut out the quad
  3. Poke a hole in the middle
  4. Put it on a string around your neck

Presto, you’re just like Evgeni.

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Posted in Uncategorized

Mining for (Source) Content Gold

by Amy Wallace on June 21st, 2012

As a writer or editor, it’s ideal to get solid content strategy and background information before you start creating content. But sometimes you need to fend for yourself.

The scenario plays out like this: You’ve been assigned to write the content for a website, and you’re ready to get started (hooray!). Even if there is no strategy, you hope there’s loads of source material. Or at least enough to support the proposed site structure and objectives.

Then, you’re presented with one measly PDF. Good luck!

Not exactly enough to create a website with, is it? If your source content is non-existent, then you’re going to have to find it. You can do it. Here’s how.

gus chiggins

Old prospectors found gold. And you can, too!
(Will Ferrell as Gus Chiggins on Saturday Night Live)

Identify subject matter experts (SMEs)

Whether you’re working with a client or an internal team, you’ll need to identify your project’s key players. And they aren’t necessarily the ones that give sign-offs and approvals. You’re looking for the people that know the product or service inside and out—researchers, product developers, customer service representatives, marketing folks. People who spend their days immersed in the very stuff you need to write about.

Sit down with your project sponsor and talk about who these people might be. Get a list of names and job titles. Then schedule some time to chat with each one of them.

Create a discussion guide

Once you’ve determined who you’ll be interviewing, it’s a good idea to create a discussion guide. Nothing too rigid or overdeveloped—think outline or talking points. Something that will help you keep the conversation on track, and get to the heart of the information you really need: content priorities for both users and the business, as well as tangible knowledge about the product or service.

Ask simple, open-ended questions like:

  • What is the <product or service>?
  • What are the benefits to consumers? How is this <product or service> different from similar offerings in the market?
  • What is some typical feedback (positive or negative) that you hear from consumers about the <product or service>?
  • If you could convey one key message, what would it be?
  • Are there any existing written materials or other information about <product or service> that you could share with me?

Whether it’s a module, a few web pages, or an entire site, the content needs to exist for a reason (this, of course, in an ideal world where pet projects and knee-jerk reactions to competitors don’t exist). It’s your job to find out why—and why users should care.

Talk … and listen

You’ll be leading the discussion, but let your SME do the talking. Ask questions—and let the silence sit. Give them time to process and think. Count to 10 in your head. This may feel a little awkward (OK, it does feel awkward), but you’ll get better, more thoughtful answers in the end.  

However, sometimes, you’ll find that people need a little coaxing. This often happens when they’re unsure about their own knowledge. Many times, we’ve come across situations where people are hesitant to answer certain questions because they don’t think they’re the “expert” on the topic. And each time, we assure the person that any perspective they offer can be helpful.

In fact, it’s often those “non-expert” interpretations that help us develop the most user-focused copy—because they’re free of details that are too specific, complicated, or just plain unnecessary for the average consumer. Wherever your SME may reside on the corporate or organizational totem pole, their opinion matters. Make sure they know that, and encourage them to share.

Begin writing and reevaluating

Once you’ve gathered all of your source content, it’s time to get to work. And once you begin writing, you’ll quickly realize what’s possible and what’s not, in terms of initial priorities and site structure.

For instance, maybe the proposed sitemap doesn’t really support the content you’ve gathered. Maybe the priorities are different, now that you’ve heard from the actual people in the trenches.

Don’t be afraid to recommend structural changes. Just as your SMEs understand the product or service, you understand the content and what it needs to do to be the most effective, for users and the business. If you see an opportunity to make the content (and user experience) better, don’t ignore it.

So, eureka! There you have it. With a little initiative, nurturing, and planning, you can create relevant, focused source content. And that’s pure gold.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Web Writing

Lessons Learned From the Overnight Website Challenge

by Meghan Seawell on June 14th, 2012

Earlier this year, I was among the lucky nerds chosen to participate in The Nerdery’s Overnight Website Challenge. It’s a competition where teams of web professionals get together in a large, sweaty room and (attempt to) build websites for worthy nonprofits in 24 hours. That’s right. Whole websites, overnight.

I was in charge of content for my team. Here are some lessons I learned while trying to do content strategy on a super tight timeline (which, as I understand it, sometimes happens in the real world, too).

Lesson 1: Prepare

Every content strategy project starts out with a few unknowns. In this instance, you don’t even know which nonprofit you’re working with until the day of the event. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare.

Make a plan

Before the event, my team created a project plan based the only thing we knew: timeline. We gave ourselves benchmarks to reach at specific times, and for the most part, it worked. We completed the initial stakeholder interview, site map, and key page templates ahead of schedule. But, we may have missed a beat when our content timeline’s final milestone was slated for Hour 8 and simply said, “Begin writing!” We probably could have used a little more structure for the ensuing 16 hours (like, “Complete first draft,” or “First round of editing”). Heh.

Gather your tools

I wanted to be ready for every possible scenario. In my case, this involved me lugging around a printer and a bunch of books, just in case someone wanted me to talk about Mobile First (they didn’t). It’s a good idea to look through favorite resources or past project work for inspiration (and anything you can beg, borrow, or steal).

Lesson 2: Get clear on roles and responsibilities

When you need to work quickly, everyone needs to know exactly what they need to do. This is especially important if you’re working with people for the first time. Unlike many other teams, my teammates and I do not work together daily. We each brought unique experiences and processes to the table.

Be sure to take time to get a thorough understanding of what everyone’s responsibilities are and how decisions in each “department” impact the others. On our team, gaps in knowledge across team members resulted in:

  • Duplicative work. Oh hey. We just made a decision that renders this work moot. Can you redo it real quick?
  • Last-minute scrambles. Um, I know we didn’t tell you this was coming, but we kind of need it right now. Can you make that happen? Like, immediately?
  • Less-than-optimal timelines. Why didn’t we save more time for this? Oh, that’s right. We didn’t know it even existed.

Well, now we know for next time.

Lesson 3: Figure out when to stop planning and start producing

As content strategists, we like to plan. We love to architect systems and think about how things should be done. It can be hard to stop thinking and start working, and not surprisingly, I found myself reluctant to make the leap. It’s difficult to find the “go” moment. For each project, it will be different. Just make sure you don’t spend all your time thinking when you have a lot of creating to do.

Lesson 4: Know when to let things go

When you’re working at the speed of light, you don’t have time to be stubborn. That means, sometimes you have to let go of things you hold near to your heart, such as:

Your favorite idea

Before the event, I designed a rather elaborate documentation system based on a common theme among participating nonprofits: making it ridiculously easy for a team of volunteers to update the site. It was lovely. Really. But as it turns out, our nonprofit only has one person updating the bitty little 25-page website, approximately quarterly. Elaborate documentation systems weren’t really necessary. So I let it go.

Your process

It helps to remember that your regular process (or parts of it) may be totally weird and inappropriate in a different setting. I got it in my head we should use page tables. That’s what content people do, right? I wrote it into the timeline and set it up and explained it to my teammates. Then, after we spent about an hour diligently describing the content we were about to write, my teammate said to me, “These page tables are really stressing me out.” I realized I was also stressed and could by no means justify continuing the process. So I let that go, too.

Your printer

Whoops. I carried a printer all around campus and didn’t print a single piece of paper. This hurt more than anything else. Literally. The printer was heavy. I hope to someday let this go.

Lesson 5: Stay positive

Working on projects, especially in extremely taxing circumstances, can cause tensions to rise. We’ve all been there. Deadlines loom, mistakes surface, and your teammates suddenly start resembling dart boards. The most important thing you can do is stay positive, remember that everyone is under stress, and just smile through it.

At the end of the project, whether you succeed or fail, you’ll be left with your relationships with your teammates. The stronger you make those relationships, the more likely you are to work through failures, build on successes, and create great work together in the future.

So, while our site didn’t launch at the 24th hour, we did have a lot of fun. And we produced some really solid work for a great organization—Community Neighborhood Housing Services (CNHS), a nonprofit that provides homeowner and homebuyer assistance. Here’s the final product: communitynhs.org.

I’m excited to take these lessons, build on them, and try again next year.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists

by Claire Rasmussen on June 7th, 2012

Before becoming a content strategist, I worked as an academic librarian for five years. Although academia and consulting can sometimes seem like different planets, content strategists and librarians have a lot in common—after all, we all love content. Selecting it. Categorizing it. Making it findable and relevant for users.

S.R. Ranganathan

S.R. Ranganathan, father of library science, author of The 5 Laws of Library Science, and creator of the Colon Classification System.

Image courtesy of Aaron Schmidt

Like content strategists, librarians enjoy a good credo. In 1931, S.R. Ranganathan developed five laws of library science, as a philosophy behind the work librarians do. He said:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

With a few simple adaptations, Ranganathan’s laws serve as good reminders for content strategists, too. Let’s take a closer look.

  1. Content is for use

    Librarians love a hard-luck case. I’ve known many a library staff member who experienced heartfelt regret at having to weed out titles used only once in the past 30 years—because what about that one patron out there for whom this is the perfect source? And what about the poor, neglected book—why doesn’t someone, anyone, love it?

    This kind of heartache is also familiar to content strategists, when our clients express reluctance to part with that beloved, woefully underused PDF leftover from the days of yore. It’s important to remember, websites are not the Library of Alexandria, charged with collecting all of the world’s knowledge.

    When content isn’t being used, it’s best not to let it sit there sad and neglected. Maybe that PDF is brimming with good information, and all it needs is an HTML makeover to make a good impression. Or, maybe it simply can’t be saved. If we can’t make it relevant, we need to make it disappear.

  2. Every user his or her content

    Wouldn’t it be great if all of your content could be targeted to one specific user: say, Harry, age 56, a prospective customer in Reno, Nevada? Realistically, businesses have a lot of different audiences: employees, customers, partners, and so on. Every user his or her content tells us that different kinds of users need different kinds of content. The trick is making all that different content findable without asking every user to wade through a top-heavy navigation system or a hopelessly cluttered homepage.

    Let me tell you how we do it in libraries: We provide different kinds of collections for different kinds of users—and patrons prefer that it that way. Libraries have browsing collections that are easy to find and intended to appeal to the population at large, and special collections with limited, rarefied interest.

    Patrons looking for the latest bestseller want to find it as quickly as possible. Conversely, the patron who wants to browse some obscure special collection (i.e., nurse romance novels or bloodletting resources) generally enjoys the pleasure of the hunt, especially if you make the search enjoyable and stroke their ego a bit for their exceptional—even if only exceptionally weird—taste.

    Painful as it is to admit, all content is not created equal. It may be that the audience for some content is small. The enlightened few, if you will. Those users need access to their content, but it can be ensconced somewhere that is out of the way yet easily findable. That might mean making an intranet for employees or a partner portal. Or it may mean ensuring your website’s keyword search works effectively.

    "Wayward Nurse" book cover

    Image courtesy of University of WisconsinMilwaukee Libraries

  3. Every content its user AND

  4. Save the time of the user

    The third law, every content its user, encourages us to act as modern day matchmakers between information and users. Rather romantically, Ranganathan says that even as users are looking for content, that content is “looking” for them, too. The fourth law, save the time of the user, reminds us that users don’t have a lot of time to spend in the matchmaking process.

    So, the pressure is on. Both librarians and content strategists are responsible for helping content find the users that want and need it the most—as quickly as possible.

    In libraries, we push content by creating book displays with poster board, glitter, and other shiny stuff. In the web world, we use things like SEO and information architecture. Regardless of where your content lives, one thing is certain: Well-groomed (organized), articulate (well-written), and well-connected (findable) content is far more likely to reach the right user, right when they need it.

  5. The content corpus is a growing organism

    Of all the things we can learn from Ranganathan, the fifth law may be the most important.

    A lot has changed since The 5 Laws of Library Science were created in 1931. Content no longer lives predominantly in the library setting—it is now part of almost every aspect of our lives. As a result, today’s poor users are tasked with sifting through more and more dubious content to get to the good stuff. This is not news.

    Way back in 1998, Roger Ebert said, "Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly." Fourteen years later, the Web is still in need of tidying and we have the additional task of accommodating an increasing number of platforms.

    There is a joke around Brain Traffic that most content strategists fantasize about being a librarian. Well, if you’re one of those fantasizers, you’re in luck. For hundreds of years, librarians have been the primary caretakers of the content corpus. But somebody needs to care for the content that never makes it into a library’s collections, too.

    As content strategists, caring for the content biome is an important part of our job. We are in a position to help keep the litter to a minimum and ensure viable, valuable content can flourish. How? By helping our clients strategize (hey hey) how to create content responsibly—advising them to focus not just on what they can do, but what they can do well.

So go on. Make Ranganathan proud.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Know Your Context

by Christine Anameier on May 31st, 2012

We all know that you can’t create effective content without understanding your audience. But audience isn’t just about who—it’s also about when and why. (There’s also how, but that’s another blog post.) In other words, you need to understand the context for your content.

An example from the technical writing world

Before becoming a content strategist, I spent several years writing end-user support documentation, where your content decisions are determined by one inescapable fact: You’re writing for people who are trying to complete a task—and most likely failing. And they are cranky.

Nobody picks up the manual until they’ve exhausted every other avenue, including trial-and-error and asking their coworker. By that point, they’re usually irked and running out of time. So tech writers learn to adopt a spare, no-nonsense style. If you’re writing user manuals, on-screen instructions, or other types of technical communication …

  • Get right to the point. Skip the “Welcome to the WidgetCo Widgetmeister user manual, 3rd edition” happy talk. Don’t expect users to read anything about how to use the manual.
  • Don’t try to be funny. Nobody is laughing when they’re frustrated.
  • Be task-oriented. Users aren’t reading your content for fun. Understand what they’re trying to do, and help them do it.

How does this apply to other types of content?

Support content may be an especially clear example, but when and why are crucial for other kinds of content too.

Let’s say you’re a plumber and you create a website about your services. Your audience could be almost anyone—we can assume they own or manage property, but other than that, everything’s an unknown. So you write your content in the most clear and simple language you can, knowing that some of your audience may not be native speakers. You steer away from making assumptions about how much they know. All good, so far …

But consider the scenarios in which they use your site:

Plumbing scenarios and content needs

(Click table to enlarge)

These two scenarios are almost like two audiences: They may be the same people, but they differ in the type (and depth) of content needed and their level of patience with extraneous content.

Your plumbing content priorities will be determined by use context. Most likely, you’ll settle on a content strategy that provides (in this order of priority):

  1. Quick, easy-to-use, simple information for customers having plumbing emergencies. These users will probably account for the majority of visits to your site.
  2. Helpful plumbing-related content that educates your customers and boosts your credibility. Who will see it? Maybe past customers who return to learn more after the emergency has passed. Maybe prospective customers who think they may see clues of a plumbing issue, or want to locate trustworthy service providers in case of a future problem.

Identifying use context

Unless your content is pure entertainment, chances are your audience uses it for something. You can set—or adjust—your content priorities by asking yourself and your stakeholders these questions:

Who uses our content? Identify your primary and secondary audiences.

What do they use our content for?

  • Spell out specific scenarios
  • Distinguish goals (big-picture objectives) from tasks (mini-objectives leading toward goals)
  • Determine the relative frequency of these scenarios (for example, on a manufacturer’s website: researching or buying a product, 99%; looking for a job, 1%)

How are they likely to feel about their task or goal?

  • If your audience uses your content to deal with personal issues like health or finances, think about their frame of mind. Anxious? Careful? Fearful? Optimistic?
  • Think about what stage of a lifecycle your content addresses. For example, a veterinarian may want light-hearted content for “Introducing a new pet to your home,” but an entirely different tone for “Facing the loss of your pet.” Same audience, but different context.

Understand your audience—not just who they are, but what they’re doing and how they feel. By knowing the why and when, you can get one big step closer to delivering the right content at the right time.

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Posted in Content Strategy

July Is Content Strategy Meetup Month!

by Kristina Halvorson on May 24th, 2012

Confab 2012 is over, and man, was it fun. Our speakers were amazing! Our audience was engaging and enthusiastic! Betty Crocker made us cake!

One of the things people seem to love most about Confab is the opportunity to hang out with folks they have so much in common with. More than a few times, people thanked us for providing them with the community they so desperately needed. Content strategy can feel like a lonely battle, and knowing there are others who share similar experiences is both a relief and an inspiration.

London Content Strategy Meetup

London Content Strategy Meetup

Image courtesy of Together London

So, let’s keep the community spirit momentum going. I have a job for you. Yes. You. It’s time to go find your people. It’s time to get your meetup on.

Let’s officially make July “Content Strategy Meetup Month”

Why July? Why not. Did you know …

  • There are 41 Content Strategy (CS) Meetups around the world?
  • There are 2,526 people waiting for CS Meetups in their cities?
  • That CS Meetups aren’t just for “official” content strategists? They’re for anyone who works with content.
  • That content-lovers are generally smart, fun-loving people who are passionate about their craft?
  • That CS Meetups are all kinds of fun?

What are you waiting for?

If you run a CS Meetup …

  1. Hold one in July. Let me know when it is—I’ll tweet about it and list it on a follow-up blog post. And remember: Meetups don’t always require formal programming. Hanging out at a bar, restaurant, park, or seedy bus station also counts.
  2. Try to keep this one free, or at least cheap. If you have to charge something, see if you can let first-timers in for free!
  3. Find a central location. The easier it is for people to attend, the better.
  4. Send out a few reminders. That is, hassle people to show up.
  5. Take a photo at the meetup—we’ll create a Flickr group (watch for details at the end of June via Twitter) to post them on. That way, we can see the CS community in action. Seeing is believing.

If you already belong to a CS Meetup …

  1. Make sure there’s one planned in July. If there isn’t, bug the organizer.
  2. Go. Invite at least one person to join you.
  3. When you attend, be a good host and seek out the newbies. Use your innate charm and razor-like wit to make them feel welcome.

If you haven’t been to a CS Meetup …

Find out if there’s one near you! Here’s how:

Find one? Then go. Take a deep breath, leave your inner introvert at home, and do it. Even better, bring a friend.

London Content Strategy Meetup

Don't be shy. Content people are friendly!

Image courtesy of Together London

If there’s not a CS Meetup near you …

Then it’s time to start one.

Sound intimidating? It’s actually pretty easy. And, once you’ve met for the first time, you can probably find a co-organizer or two to help you plan future meetups.

Just go here and start typing: http://www.meetup.com/create/

Worried whether or not people will come? I’ll give you two reasons not to:

  1. Check out this list of people waiting for Content Strategy Meetups in their cities: http://content-strategy.meetup.com/all/

    Do you see your city? You DO? Excellent. When you start a CS Meetup, those people will automatically receive an email notifying them of said meetup. So, in this case, if you build it, they actually will come.

  2. Remember, I’ll tweet your new meetup info and list it in a follow-up blog post here. Free publicity, FTW.

    (NOTE: There are lots of meetups that list “content strategy” as one of their areas of focus. That’s cool, but you might want to find or start a CS-focused meetup. Just sayin’.)

OK. Let’s get going!

I foresee a fun content strategy party in your near future. Please report back in the comments below. And watch this space for more fun instructions. (Do you like how I call them “instructions” instead of “suggestions”? It’s because I am bossy. It’s part of my charm.)

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Posted in Content Strategy

Confab 2012 Is a Wrap!

by Kristina Halvorson on May 17th, 2012

Confab: The Content Strategy Conference 2012 came to a close yesterday. Once again, it was inspiring and amazing and incredibly fun. Thanks a million to those who joined us.

Confab closing remarks

Kristina and Erik wrap up Confab 2012

Image © Sean Tubridy

Though the conference is over, the memories live on …

Confab is returning to Minneapolis June 3–5, 2013. We sold out nearly five months in advance this year, so you’ll want to get your tickets early! We’ll announce when registration opens later this fall.

Don’t miss out in 2013! Get on the Confab email list.

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Posted in Brain Traffic

Doogie Howser, C.S.

by Lee Thomas on May 10th, 2012

Content strategy is a pretty young field. As a result, it gets carded in bars and has trouble renting a car. Occasionally, content strategy looks so young it has to work hard to convince people it deserves to be taken seriously.

Doogie Howser, M.D.

Too young to know what he's doing?

Image courtesy of sharetv.org

Youthful as it may appear, content strategy is descended from a very established family tree with some very old roots. Among content strategy’s respected ancestors: the art of rhetoric.

I know it’s an election year, but bear with me

Over the years, the word “rhetoric” has gotten a bad rap. It stood too close to the political arena for too long and picked up the stench of something manipulative, scheming, and unscrupulous. While it’s true that rhetoric can be defined as “pretentious words” or “insincere or empty language,” those aren’t the only definitions. Rhetoric is also defined as:

  • “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion”1
  • "Instrumental communication" that seeks change by using appeals to affect people’s conduct2

Content strategists do both of those things: We study how content (written, spoken, or otherwise presented) functions “as a means of communication or persuasion.” And we use content as an instrument to effect change. Rhetoric is not only relevant to content strategy, it’s at the heart of the matter3.

The change we seek

With limited exceptions, the companies and organizations that employ content strategists aren’t producing content for the heck of it, or for artistic expression alone. They produce content as a means to achieve specific business goals (or organizational goals). Those goals are expressions of the kind of change they want to see. For example, an organization may want to change:

  • The number of products sold
  • The number of new subscribers or online registrations
  • The number of calls to the support center
  • A brand’s reputation among certain people
  • The level of support for a particular idea
  • The rate of adoption of a particular activity

For desirable changes like these to become a reality, people’s behavior must change. They need to buy, sign up, believe, participate, donate, take action, or otherwise behave in ways they don’t right now. As content strategists, we aim to shape an organization’s content so that it will influence audiences to behave in those beneficial ways. In so doing, we practice what Aristotle, father or rhetoric, called "the art of discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case." We practice rhetoric.

The rhetorical situation: then and now

“Discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case” means examining the particular situation at hand. This is referred to as the rhetorical situation, and it includes some key components:

  • A rhetor (i.e., a speaker, agent, or originator of the content or communication)
  • An audience
  • An exigence (i.e., a problem, issue, or objective to address)
  • Constraints (anything that limits the options or gets in the way)

Back in Aristotle’s day, a typical situation involved in-person, oral communication. A rhetor gave a speech in an attempt to persuade audience members to believe or behave in a particular way. These speeches contained various arguments and means of persuasion to make a case. In so doing, the rhetor used what he knew of the audience (pretty much other privileged, educated men) to shape the content of his speech in ways he believed would be effective. The rhetorical situation looked something like this:

Rhetorical situation in Aristotle's day

Here in the 21st century, content strategists work within different conditions. Our typical situation looks something like the picture below:

Rhetorical situation in the 21st century

There are some obvious differences between the two illustrations: number of players, makeup of the audience, distance between rhetor and audience, reach and speed of the communication, technology and medium, etc.

But as the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Both situations have a rhetor, an audience, exigencies, and constraints. Both rhetors use what’s known about the audience to craft persuasive content in an attempt to influence behavior and achieve goals.

Out of the Ivory Tower

At this point, at least some of you reading this are thinking, “This is just an academic way of describing what content strategists—and many other communications professionals—do every day. We think about business goals, study target audiences, consider myriad internal and external factors, and strive to craft content that works in a given situation. We do this all the time, day in and day out.”

Exactly. Content strategy isn’t so young after all; it’s built on centuries-old theories about fundamental elements of human communication. That’s useful to today’s content strategists in a number of ways.

For starters, there’s a lot to learn from rhetoric. For example, using logos (logic and reason), ethos (credibility and reputation), and pathos (emotion) as means of persuasion4.

In addition, there’s something powerful and incisive about approaching content strategy work with a rhetorical mindset. It helps cut through the circumstantial to get at more fundamental elements of human communication. Shifting organizational politics, rival projects, new media, limiting tools, incompatible technologies, style choices, fleeting trends, noisy competition, tapped-out resources —these circumstances surround CS projects and bombard the people who work on them. These things are often noisy and demand a lot of attention.

But at the core of content work, a few fundamentals remain: rhetor, audience, exigencies, and constraints. Sharpening the focus on these fundamentals can be very useful when working on a project. This is not to say that the circumstances listed in the above paragraph are unimportant or shouldn’t be addressed; they are real and often must be addressed. But refocusing on the fundamentals of the rhetorical situation tackles the core of the issue and moves the circumstances to the periphery.

This is useful when conversations about an organization’s content get mired in whatever circumstances have recently flared up:

  • “We don’t really know what the audience needs or wants, so let’s just put everything on the site and see what sticks.”
  • “eBooks are hot, we need to publish one.”
  • “The sales team wants to run promotions for the new product suite inside the Help content.”

Looking at the rhetorical situation in each of these cases can provide a useful framework for combatting crazy ideas while simultaneously elevating the good ones. And then help us craft those good ideas into content strategies that are as effective as they can be.

You all look great (for your age)

Content strategy, as we know and describe it today, is changing fast—as demand grows, as media and devices are invented and reinvented, and as the ways people engage content evolve. All this shifting can sometimes make content strategy feel like trying to build a house on sand piles. In the face of that, it’s useful, even reassuring, to remember that this is still human communication, and that there are centuries-old models to describe and think about that endeavor. They still apply today, even if they go by different names.


1 Merriam Webster Dictionary

2 Hauser, Gerard. Introduction to Rhetoric. 1986. Page 45.

3 Others have pointed this out, including Colleen Jones in Clout and Erin Kissane in The Elements of Content Strategy. As well as James Mathewson.

4 By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend throwing these terms around while in a meeting with clients, stakeholders, or project teams. Words like “exigence” aren’t likely to persuade those audiences.

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When You Know Your Content Is Bad

by Tenessa Gemelke on May 3rd, 2012

Time and again, we meet people who hang their heads in shame, remorsefully confiding, “I don’t even want you to look at our website.” It’s usually whispered like a guilty confession, as if this one delinquent person is solely responsible for letting down the entire Internet.

Whether you’re in a decision-making position or not, it can be difficult to figure out how to use your powers for good to defeat bad content. Fear not! If you’ve been quietly suffering the knowledge—nay, the CERTAINTY—that your content stinks, here are a few ways to take steps in the right direction.

Quantify “bad”

The danger of writing off a website as “bad” is that making such blanket statements can obscure opportunities. That’s the kind of thinking that results in waiting for the next redesign—which, by the way, has no budget, is not currently on the schedule, and may or may not happen in the next three years. Many of us know from experience that there’s nothing sadder than neglecting your content indefinitely.

Rather than throwing up your hands in despair, see if you can get a handle on the badness:

  • Is all of the content bad, or just some of it? It’s possible that your generalized concern is actually reflected only in a few high-profile areas of the site, such as the help content or the product descriptions in the store. Conducting a qualitative content audit can help you document and narrow in on the biggest problem areas.
  • What are the consequences? Low quality is one thing, but awful user experience spells even more trouble. Take a close look at unclear calls to action, broken purchase paths, and other flawed conversion activities. Be sure you understand how the user’s dissatisfaction relates to your business model.
  • Is it really the content that’s bad? Once you start evaluating the situation, you may discover other problems. Determine whether content is the culprit. Poor functionality or design can cause frustration or distract attention from important content. Try to pinpoint exactly which things aren’t working.

Once you have a good handle on the problems, it’s much easier to convince others to invest in efforts to fix your content.

Make way for better content

As content creation moves forward, find ways to avoid the mistakes of the past. Rally your team to take better care of your content:

  • Clean out the fridge. When people report that their content has gone “bad,” they often mean that—like a forgotten carton of milk—some of it has passed its expiration date. Out-of-date, inaccurate, or irrelevant leftovers languish, unwanted and moldy, enticing nobody. Clear out all of that yucky stuff nobody should be consuming.
  • Step up your style. Sure, your style guide covers the use of trademarks, but does it truly help content creators write well? Rather than simply addressing grammatical rules, develop nuanced style guidelines to describe your company’s voice and tone. Use “less like” and “more like” examples to demonstrate exactly what you want to avoid and achieve.
  • Rethink your roles. Maybe everyone on your team has the best intentions, but it’s not clear who is doing what, or how their tasks fit together. Fill in any gaps in your workflow that contribute to the problems you’ve identified.
  • Allow time for success. High-quality content almost never happens in an accidental rush. Plan for a manageable quantity, and put it on a schedule. Adhere to an editorial calendar that reflects what you’re actually capable of accomplishing rather than a reactive, haphazard plan that sets you up to fail.

So. You’ve figured out what’s wrong, and you’ve figured out what’s right. But there’s one more thing you need to recognize if you’re truly going to reform your wayward content …

Canary on stretcher

Unfortunately, this canary didn’t make it out of the content coal mine.

Image courtesy of erozen

Bravely shut things down

Now is the part where I say that thing you quietly know in your heart of hearts: Not every problem is worth fixing. (Forgive me while I pause for emphasis and resort to all caps.) NOT EVERY PROBLEM IS WORTH FIXING. Go ahead. Print that out and stick it up on your cubicle wall. It’s true that there may be portions of your content that simply need to disappear quietly.

Nobody wants to believe they’ve been working hard on the wrong thing. But the fact is, some content efforts are so time-consuming, costly, and fruitless that there’s no point in continuing them. Maybe it’s an abandoned forum or a newsletter that generates little or no response. Whatever the case, you may need to be the person who says, “Hey, guys? The canary doesn’t look so good.”

Make a new life for yourself

You may identify yourself as someone who has criminally neglected your content, but please accept our forgiveness. You can put the past behind you. You’ve seen the error of your ways. You’ve paid your penance. You’ve turned over a new leaf!

But if you have trouble escaping your life of content crime? Call us. We can help.

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