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Why I Wrote Content Strategy FOR THE WEB

by Kristina Halvorson on November 11th, 2010

There’s an increasingly loud debate happening around content strategy. Many people, including people I very much admire, are seriously frustrated that much of the current conversation focuses strictly on Web content.

Their position is that content strategy—in order to actually have any positive, long-term effect on an organization—must consider multiple types of content across multichannel platforms, and that the Web is only a part of that ecosystem. Some context:

Now, of course content doesn’t begin and end on a website. If an organization only pays attention to the problem of content at the Web project level, they’re failing to deal with their actual “content ecosystem.” Social media. Marketing. Technology. Internal communications. Technical communications. Media. Do you know a company where these roles are even remotely aligned on how to create, deliver, and govern their organization’s content? Because I sure don’t.

So. If I believe all this, then why did I write a book that has helped make “content strategy” synonymous with “Web content”?

The answer is pretty simple: Because it was a good place to start.

CONVERSATION OPENER VS. CONVERSATION KILLER
Every time people ask me what I do, this is how I respond: “You know how, on your company’s website, most of the information is hard to find, or inconsistent, or totally irrelevant, or just really bad?”

And, every single time, they say, “Oh, yes, it is. It’s so embarrassing. I’m so frustrated that no one is fixing it.”

Then I tell them that’s what I do: I help fix bad content. And they say, “Oh, wow, I wish my boss would call you. You must be REALLY BUSY.”

Now, imagine if I responded like this: “You know how, in your company, the content lifecycle is totally undefined and ignored, and content is constantly getting produced in silos, and no one is fully accountable for all the messy stuff that goes along with it, and the problem is just getting worse because no one gets that content requires strategic consideration and dedicated resources?”

This person would likely fake an incoming call so they can run far, far away from me.

This is pretty much the reaction our clients and colleagues have been having for years. The latter explanation, while possibly more accurate about the scope of content strategy, freaks people out. It turns content into a hot potato. It's not working.

CONTENT + STRATEGY + WEB = LIGHT BULB
My publisher initially wanted me to call my book The Content Strategy Handbook. But I didn’t think that was a good idea, as I didn’t know the first thing about how to architect an all-things-considered content strategy. What I knew was how to create a strategic plan for creating, delivering, and governing content for websites. So that’s why I called it Content Strategy for the Web: to cover my ass.

Well, that’s part of the reason. I also knew that pointing to Web content as a big problem was something people would relate to, if not at first then fairly quickly.

Just like the way I describe my work, the phrase "content strategy for the Web” allowed me to introduce the practice as a solution to an immediate and unrelenting pain point so many of us share. I could explain content strategy’s basic principles using constraints (website vs. company-wide content lifecycle) that make it seem achievable.

I also knew from experience that focusing first on Web content strategy often ends up being a very sensible, non-scary starting point for the much larger discussion that inevitably arises: “This isn’t just about our website. This is about the way content moves throughout our organization and the way we manage our content assets.”

THIS IS WHERE I REVEAL MY GRAND MASTER PLAN
Here's the deal. I never had any illusions about writing The End-all-be-all Content Strategy Bible. I’m not the person to do that. What I had was an very big desire to get the conversation rolling. In order to do that, I had to convince my reader of a few very basic points:

  • Content isn’t copywriting.
  • Content is very, very complicated.
  • Content requires strategic consideration.
  • Content requires care and feeding.
  • Content is a critical business asset.

Nowhere are these truths more evident than on a website.

So. That’s why I wrote about Web content. And that’s why I’ll keep writing and talking about Web content.

As for the argument that content strategy can’t be discussed as something that’s “just for the Web,” I firmly disagree. Content strategy can be practiced as a Web-focused discipline, and with terrific results. In fact, I’ve built an entire business around it.

And, yes! We’re REALLY BUSY.

 

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  • Rahel Bailie

    I often say that content is too complex to be left to amateurs. (I realize that the statement isn’t quite right because the “amateurs” are often paid staff. But often the paid staff aren’t content professionals.) What you’re saying is all too true. From my side of the field, my clients care about stuff like re-use models, so I have to describe content strategy a little differently. Which is OK, because it’s such a big field that we can describe it differently and still be accurate.

    Love this post – onward and upward!

  • Angela Colter

    I wonder what it is about content strategy that provokes this kind of response?

    I mean, could you imagine anyone complaining to Ginny Redish, “Please, please, please could we stop talking about WRITING as though it applies to just the Web professional?” Same goes for Jakob Nielsen and usability, Jeffrey Zeldman and web design, etc., etc.

    Me either.

  • http://twitter.com/gigigriffis Gigi Griffis

    Can you imagine how many pages it would take to do a real Content Strategy Bible? It would be as long as the original Bible…

  • http://twitter.com/#!/jmkelly Josh Kelly

    Good post… I think that the “for the web” distinction is relevant because it really is the process of building websites that has driven the urgency/awareness for companies to sort themselves out from a content perspective. You used to be able to parse things in ads and segments and tactics and not have to worry so much about how things cohere. But on a site, everything you are and do is there, sorted for the taking, and linked to communities and interactions transparently. It all has to fit and make sense. You will realize within your first 15 minutes of attempting the most basic sitemap/outline with any level of rigor whether you even really know what business(es) you’re in. And on most sites you can tell where the confusion lingers long after launch. So you could start from this and end up taking many paths toward defining, redefining a company. But even if you don’t use content strategy as an excuse to do everything from re-organize to re-brand, there is value in using the web as a structure and medium through which to think things through at least well enough to execute a website/strategy. Because in the end, that’s probably where your customers will get the fullest picture of who you are.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    I suspect it’s that as each person in CS realizes there’s more to life than their specialty, they post about it. The field’s growth is outpacing the spread of commonly held ideas, so I think we’ve all been nosing along, inventing and revising our own versions of the wheel.

  • Anonymous

    It seems web-focused content strategy is highly relevant, since the web is still the digital “home” of organizations, while social media is still the spokes. I’m reading the book now, and it’s refreshing to have someone articulate the unspoken anxiety I experienced managing a large site and trying to wrangle content into some kind of manageable system.

  • Greg Ness

    Love your comment, “because it was a good place to start.” So many communication companies are trying to be all things to all clients nowadays. Maybe that’s a holdover from a bygone era when “full-service” advertising agencies tried to fulfill almost every communication need for clients.

    Content –especially web content – integrates with so many technologies and competencies. Companies without a focus are going to have great difficulty keeping up with the large and dynamic knowledge base needed to offer good advice and service.

    Yes content is bigger than the Web, but your book title and message was right on, and so is this blog post.

  • Anonymous

    Kristina,

    Thank you for this. Honestly, days I struggle as a Content Strategist. My problem, and I remember talking to you about this in Boston, is that I come from more of an enterprise content level (techcomm, instructional design etc). Therefore, I immediately want to weave CS practices into entire organizational content levels. Sometimes, it kicks my ass.

    However, my biggest takeaway from your entry is that you wrote from what you knew (web) and this very much is a starting point. Getting buy in for any content funding is difficult, but every CEO cares about their website. Why not start there. Seems smart to me.

    Rather than throw darts, I wish others would focus on the exciting infancy and avenues of CS, with less harping on the WEB vs everything else debate.

  • Constance Semler

    Good post? No. GREAT post.

    The Web is a great starting point because it’s easier in that context for people to understand that content is an asset — that it’s valuable and capable of generating additional value. I once worked for an organization with most of its lines of business based on content on and off the Web, and yet no one at the right level could quite grasp the importance of content strategy. And that’s partly because we weren’t explaining it properly. We had unwittingly presented it as a hot potato, a white elephant, an Untouchable.

  • Drew

    You peaked my interest when you said “content isn’t copywriting.” Can you expand a little on that?

  • Corinne Pierce

    In my view, starting with the Web is the opposite of a random starting point. Instead, it is highly strategic because a company web site behaves in some ways like the DNA of a company. So starting with web content strategy is like going straight to the core of your communications hub. Other aspects of communications are less central and more peripheral (and often a lot less visible, how many alumni really read through print magazines from their alma mater these days?). If you can’t glimpse a strategy from a web site, there’s a good chance the strategy is not clearly defined or communicated even within the organization!

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