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Content Strategy, or, Let’s Make a Mixtape

by Clinton Forry on April 16th, 2010

While digging through my box of cassettes the other day, I had a minor epiphany. Content strategy and the creation of mixtapes are shockingly similar.

As it has been said, content strategy plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content. For a website, certainly. But for the creation of a mixtape?

For those unfamiliar, a mixtape:

  • Is a compilation of songs (just as websites are collections of content)
  • Created for a specific someone (consider your audience)
  • Communicates a specific message (in service of business objectives)
  • Should elicit a particular response (meet user needs/assist in task completion)

Although they can now be a collection of downloads, “mixtape” is a throwback to their heyday in the 1980s when they were cassettes. Later, they took the form of burned CDs, then mp3 playlists.

For those unfamiliar, a review of some basic tenets of content strategy:

  • Analysis: Objectives defined, assumptions and risks noted, success metrics established. Account for internal and external forces that might influence them.
  • Audit: A quantitative or qualitative review of your current content landscape.
  • Strategy: Actionable, achievable recommendations. Includes editorial workflows, calendars, messaging hierarchy, content types, formats, plus much more!

First is analysis. "What do I want to do with this website (or mixtape)?" Surely you've a recipient in mind. Otherwise, you wouldn't be making a website (or mixtape), right? This goes hand in hand with the objectives and message. All websites (and mixtapes) need clear objectives. They can both do many, many things, but a focused approach will make their creation and delivery much easier.

The objective of creating a mixtape might be to musically convince the recipient that you are indeed cool, or in love, or sorry, or over them (or in rare cases, all of the above). Focus on a theme and/or purpose for the mixtape, give it a title, and dig in.

To put together a website (or mixtape), you'll need source content (songs, in this case). Now would be a good time to perform a qualitative content audit. The audit should note what content (here, your music collection) is currently available, and if it is usable.

Websites brimming with content that is redundant, outdated, and trivial are frustrating and often impossible to use. Broken links, five year old “news” articles, and duplicative pages get in the way of achieving objectives. An audit helps to determine what can stay and what gets the boot.

The same applies for the content for your mixtape. For example, your Bee Gees 8-tracks won't make it onto a mixtape if you don't have an 8-track player. Is that vinyl LP copy of "Thriller" too scratched to use? Did the tape deck in your friend's Camaro eat your copy of Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet," rendering "Wanted Dead or Alive" more dead than alive? Perhaps your computer hard drive crashed, corrupting all of your Justin Bieber downloads.

On this mixtape, you might choose to include some content (songs) you don’t actually have in your collection. How will you decide where to get it? The provider of that content will be selected on the basis of what best suits your needs. For instance, you may already have an ongoing relationship with a content provider. Is it the funny-smelling record store down the street? Amazon.com or iTunes? You might also pick a place all your friends are raving about. Or you might avoid one your parents happen to frequent.

With source content in hand, selecting the songs from the pool begins the mixtape editorial workflow. These questions will help you get started:

  • Does this content (or song) support the overall message?
  • Does it make sense in this context? (Not everyone will “get” your raga references.)
  • Does its place next to other selections make for a pleasing experience?
  • Will it fit in the remaining time on side B of the cassette?

Make sure that the content (song selection) is relevant to the lucky recipient/user. Putting punk songs and opera and hip-hop tracks one right after the next might be jarring for some, but not for others.

Remember: Stay true to the focus of the theme, consider the recipient, and assert your coolness.

A few additional tips:

  • Create your mix with the end user in mind (be aware of their pop culture knowledge).
  • Clearly state the title.
  • Write the title and track list in a language they can read (as opposed to Esperanto. Or Klingon.)
  • If you are making a cassette, make sure they have a cassette player.

The associated “metadata” (in this case, title, track list, and any totally sweet, custom artwork) completes the package. The tone and voice of the title and artwork are all additional opportunities to continue the theme and message of the mixtape. The track list rounds out the experience by providing a reference to the greatness you've compiled. If you follow these important rules, your final product will be so much more than the consumable tape or CD alone.  

Just like creating a mixtape is more than slapping a couple of songs together haphazardly on a cassette, creating websites with useful, usable content is more than just slapping words on a page. Taking the time and effort to carefully go through these processes will produce an end result that will make your website users happy (or your mixtape listeners happy).

  • jonathansalembaskin

    Really interesting read, although I though that the driving force behind making a mix tape was to present your favorite songs to someone else. Isn't content strategy based on understanding what your consumers want first and foremost?

  • @TariqPiracha

    All that's missing is the analogy of the length of tape. For example, we want to provide clear and concise web content with as little scrolling as possible which is like a 60 minute tape with great songs that your girlfriend would listen to from beginning to end as opposed to a wordy web page with lots of scrolling which is like a 120 minute tape with too many songs, having to fast forward, the tape gets tangled and messed up, the message becomes inaudible and garbled, your girlfriend tosses the broken tape and dumps your sorry a**… I mean, uh…nevermind!

  • jerihastava

    Love the analogy. :-) Thank you.

  • naumannclature

    I love this analogy, because making a mixtape (as I recall – it’s been awhile) is all about communicating an important, passionate message to an individual rather than dispassionately relaying information to a nameless, faceless audience.

  • clintonforry

    Thanks for reading!

    Content strategy indeed needs to be inclusive of consumer needs. Those needs are to be met in a sustainable fashion by using existing content or creating/acquiring new content.

    For me, mixtapes have been about taking the content you have (or can sustainably acquire) to an audience in hopes of conveying a specific message. That message can be as simple as “I have amazing taste in music” or as complex as “Let's move to Fiji, this tape will explain why.”

  • clintonforry

    Indeed! I remember getting C-30 tapes with 15 minutes per side. That made for less-is-more selecting, for sure. More content is not always the best answer, as your C-120 example shows. There are tons of real-life examples of that online.

  • maleyneil

    “For those unfamiliar, a review of some basic tenants of content strategy:”

    I think you mean “tenets.”
    Great analogy, and great post.

  • http://mybusinessmarketing.org/content-strategy/ Tony Srye

    I'm a big fan of mixtapes but never pictured them like content strategy. Good analogy, good info.

    Keep it going

  • clintonforry

    As one who figuratively dwells in the world of content strategy as well as upholding its principles, it appears that I confused the two terms. It has been corrected.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for the heads up!

  • http://www.decimal152.com/blog J. Todd Bennett

    Clinton, this is brilliant! (Have you been listening to Avenue Q?) As someone perpetually stuck in the 80's, I wish I had thought of this.

    In the past I have described how iTunes has changed the way we listen to music by freeing songs from their pre-determined package/order as a metaphor for how CMSs have facilitated the separation of content from design, freeing it for reuse.

    But I think the idea of the mixtape really emphases the thoughtfulness content strategy brings to this. So many people have used technology to free their content, but still haven't applied the thought (strategy & curation) that really makes the collective content compelling.

    Hey, I think you've just inspired my next blog post!

  • clintonforry

    Thanks for reading!

    A co-worker here at Brain Traffic sent me the link to the Avenue Q Mixtape Song after this post was published, in fact.

    The iTunes analogy is very fitting. Music examples are some of the most effective ways of illustrating these thoughts.

    Looking forward to that next blog post!

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Pwnd. I spent countless hours in high school and college tuning mixtapes, trying one flow after another and testing flows based on chord sequences and BPM and thematic content. This post explains so much about my subsequent career.

  • jeffcram

    As luck would have it, we recently created a CMS Mix tape (also available on iTunes). You can read about it on our blog. Although I think content strategy as a discipline could use its own special tracks. ;-)


    Jeff Cram

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