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Doogie Howser, C.S.

by Lee Thomas

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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Posted in Content Strategy

Brown Paper Packages

by Lee Thomas

A comprehensive content strategy must address a wide range of factors: business goals, audience needs, the competitive landscape, available resources, various platforms and channels, timelines, structural configurations, keywords, migration plans—the list goes on. It can feel like all the unanswered questions might swirl into a funnel cloud and engulf the project. When that happens, what can we hold on to?

Sometimes, a metaphor helps. One I find useful is the brown paper package.

Let’s go shopping

Imagine a retail store. Inside, the shelves are lined with unlabeled packages. What’s inside each? Fireworks? Creamed corn? Live mice? All of the above? (Let’s hope not.) Customers don’t buy unlabeled packages; they need to know what they’re going to get. (For starters, is it eight live mice? Or a full dozen?)

What’s in the box?

If you put your website (or organization’s) content in a box, what would the label say? For many organizations, this is the central question of their content strategy: What are we going to put in here that our audience will want and find useful?

Knowing what goes in the box—and why—is the core of your content strategy. The concrete image of the package can aid thinking and facilitate decisions about content: What is the primary value of this content package? What will be worth the audience’s time, attention, or money? What accessories should we include? How will we make this? Imagining the content in this way has various advantages:

  • It demands clarity around substance. Although content takes physical form eventually, it often feels more abstract than, say, creamed corn. That’s one reason why defining the content’s substance—what it’s about—is a big part of content strategy. This seems easy enough on the surface. In fact, sometimes, project teams blow past this step because they assume the answer is obvious, already set in stone, or otherwise predetermined. But writing out the package’s label forces a useful specificity and can reveal previously unspoken differences of opinion. (“That’s not what I thought it was about,” etc.)
  • It’s a reminder to focus on the audience. Organizations spend a lot of time and energy publishing things they want the audience to notice or use. Are those packages users will pay attention to and open? Or will they be ignored like socks on Christmas morning? If the package isn’t full of content that users really want or need, it’s probably time to revisit what’s going inside the box up at the assembly line.
  • It’s an opportunity to differentiate. Put your package of content on the table, next to the packages the competitors offer. Make note of the packaging itself (it matters), but really pay attention to who’s got the goods inside the box. Who’s offering breadth? Depth? Authority? Who’s got an unusual angle? Now, what changes would make the content you’re offering a more attractive, unique, or specialized option?
  • It’s the essence of the content strategy. Actual box manufacturers aside, organizations don’t create an infrastructure and staff-up so they can send empty packages out the door. Likewise, structure, workflow, and taxonomy don’t mean very much if the box is empty, or filled with random bits and pieces the audience doesn’t want or need.

A few hypothetical examples:

  • A health foods maker might label their content box this way: Daily recipes, shopping lists, coupons, and resources to help people eat healthier every day.
  • Because of the complex and customized nature of its products, a health information technology company might downplay its 500 product sheets and instead highlight: Technology-based success stories about health and modern medicine.
  • An employee intranet might avoid becoming a dumping ground for old documents by defining its content package as: An essential guide to help our people manage their employment and work-life.

Cue the asterisk

The metaphor has limitations. It’s easier to think of some kinds of content as product in a box than other kinds. Some organizations create multiple “packages” to serve different audiences or purposes. And technology keeps changing the way audiences “shop” for content. A metaphor like this won’t answer every question about a content strategy, but I do find this technique to be useful in certain situations. It can help explain content strategy work to clients and stakeholders, too.

Tied up with string

Knowing what goes in the box and writing out a label for it can help stimulate and refine the thinking that goes into developing a viable content strategy. Of course, many decisions still need to be made and work needs to be done before that box gets into the hands of an audience. Having a concrete image of the content can facilitate those decisions and keep the work on track.

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Posted in Content Strategy

What We Say and What We Mean

by Lee Thomas

You say po-TAY-toe. I say po-TAH-toe. But we both know we’re talking about a starchy vegetable that can be baked, fried, mashed, or hashed.

But what if I say, “content type?” Do you know immediately what I mean? Do you think, okay, he probably means:

  1. The nature of the content. For example, it’s educational, reference, entertainment, etc.
  2. The type of thing we publish. Namely, local concert info, show calendars, and reviews.
  3. Some types of content are editorially created; others are curated, sponsored, or user-generated.
  4. The content will include text articles, slideshows, video clips, and podcasts.
  5. Different types of content appear on the landing page, overview page, and product detail pages.
  6. The content will be quirky, sassy, and cheeky. Unlike the boring type seen elsewhere.
  7. None of the above. And why is he talking about potatoes when it’s clearly cheese curd season?

If content strategy is part of your work, chances are good you see the differences between these interpretations immediately. Each addresses a particular aspect of content:

  1. is a broad descriptor
  2. is about substance
  3. is about authorship
  4. is about format
  5. is about structure
  6. is about tone
  7. is about deliciousness

In this instance, the word “type” is admittedly vague. Any discrepancy between what you understand “content type” to mean and what I intend would likely be revealed if we discussed it. Moving forward, we’d agree to use more specific terms. But if that discussion doesn’t happen, you and I may proceed in different ways, and our content project may run into trouble down the road.

What’s in a name?

When it comes to content strategy, some of the terms we use and encounter don’t yet have commonly shared definitions. In the CS community, different practitioners use the same term to mean different things. Certainly clients interpret some terms in different ways, depending on their point of view and familiarity with content strategy.

I’ve observed this especially at the front end of strategy projects, when the discussion is rather conceptual. The Brain Traffic quad establishes a helpful framework for talking about the major concepts of substance, structure, workflow, and governance. However, go a level deeper—when working on actual client projects—and we often need labels to help explain specific concepts. Especially concepts related to content substance and how it comes together in structure. For example:

  • Discussions about substance often include terms like content mix, subjects, topics, or types. Generally, these terms come up when exploring the parameters of what should, and should not, be included in the content. Like the example I opened with, such terms can be applied and interpreted in different ways. Even around the Brain Traffic office, these terms are used differently depending on the person, project, and when the work was done.
  • Discussions about structure may include terms like module, container, component, collection, view, or element. Such terms are necessary when exploring the different ways content can be assembled, broken down, atomized, and reassembled. Because content can take many shapes within different media and presentation devices/modes, the meaning of such terms can vary wildly. That’s not necessarily bad; in fact, the flexibility can be useful.

Three steps toward clarity

Like any field, content strategy will continue to develop a vocabulary. We’ll agree on definitions for some terms and debate others. Along the way, we can help our clients, colleagues, teams, and partners by aiming for clarity. We can:

  • Speak our assumptions. It’s easy to assume that people share an understanding of a term, especially when it’s a common word like the examples mentioned in this post. But when a term is used to identify a particular aspect of content strategy work during the course of a project, assumptions are ill-advised and potentially risky. Avoid this by explicitly defining terms and labels as they are introduced.
  • Examine our choices. In the rush to meet a deadline, the terms used in a draft recommendations document may not be the most accurate or useful. Pause and consider how well each term expresses the intended meaning: Is there a more accurate word? Are the various terms used distinct from one another?
  • Use terms consistently. Is the same term used to mean one thing in one deliverable, but something else in a related deliverable? Are two different terms used to refer to the same thing at different times? These things are easy to fix, if we take the time to notice. (A good proofreader will help spot them, too.)

Content people know that words matter, and that context, usage, and nuance can affect meaning in subtle or substantial ways. Paying attention to the terminology we use can help ensure our work is understood as intended, and lead to more successful projects.

Have you run into terminology issues in your content strategy work? What are some of the terms that caused debate or misunderstandings? Let’s hear from you in the comments.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Shrink to Fit

by Lee Thomas

Whether it’s the printed word, television, or text messages, a new medium is often cause for debate: Some people lament what might be lost and warn of lurking dangers. Others celebrate the new possibilities and buy a new gadget from Apple.

So, it’s no surprise that new communication tools based on short formats—like Facebook, Twitter, and text messages—would prompt such a discussion. What are all those status updates, Tweets, and texts doing to our brains? Are they rotting our attention spans? Making us more distracted than a cat at a laser light show? Changing the very way we think?

Cat dancing with lasers

Mittens is so totally into Floyd.

There’s a thoughtful piece about this over at Tom Johnson’s blog, I’d Rather Be Writing, discussing contemporary reading behaviors and short formats. The post was prompted by feedback Tom received suggesting that he shred some already sparse content because “no one’s going to sit through this.” In the accompanying thread, Tom and his readers discuss the more vs. less balance in different media and situations in detail, so I won’t try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, as content strategists, the issue of enough vs. too much never goes away.

How much? How many? How often?

My favorite comment in the above thread comes from Tim Rich, who proposes the following mantra: “As little as possible, as much as necessary.”

Tim’s handy phrase caught my attention because clients still ask: What’s the “right” number of navigation buttons and content categories? What’s the “right” length for a piece of web copy? How far will users scroll? How many clicks are too many?

Say it with me now: It depends.

That answer is a running joke, but it’s also true. One-size-fits-all works for a pretty small number of things. (Scarves, for example.  And possibly, eye patches.)

Most situations call for some kind of assessment. Certainly that’s true of messy human endeavors like communication, knowledge, and understanding—all of which are interlaced with content.

As content strategists, we know there’s no simple answer to the question, How much content do we need?  We have to assess a host of factors, including audience needs and tasks, business goals, the delivery medium, the nature of the content, the environment in which the content is accessed and used, and so on. And then we have to use human judgment, skill, and craftsmanship in our attempt to find the right balance.

Some clients can handle that kind of ambiguity—offer up a metaphor about tailors or house builders, and they get it; they see the value in a thoughtful, customized answer to complex questions.

Other clients want us to cite best practices or to emulate what the competition is doing. Best practices are useful, sure, but applying them blindly and without consideration for the particular situation misses a whole lot of opportunity and may even cause damage.

Less is more. Except when I want more.

Maybe Goldilocks was fickle. Then again, maybe she really knew her own mind and didn’t want to settle for something that didn’t fit her needs.

Recently, I wrote about the benefits of a less-is-more content strategy. I wasn’t advocating a “gut-and-cut” approach to content or for brevity above all. Like cocktails, politics, and reality TV, maxims should be consumed in moderation.

In the post I commented on the value of ditching excess in order to make room for what’s essential. The thing is, what’s essential changes with every situation, and imposing strict limits based on what’s “right” is arbitrary and counterproductive. Random examples:

  •  Most books aimed at young adults are under 200 pages. There are exceptions. When the content is good and in demand, attention spans stretch to accommodate 784 pages. Sales were good.
  •  Most help content is short for a reason: users want quick answers in order to get a task done and move on. But there is such a thing as too sparse. I’m looking at you, Spøklaår nightstand.

“As little as possible, as much as necessary.”

Tim’s mantra is reasonable and useful. It may be only slightly less ambiguous than “it depends,” but it is more to the point. An answer like that might help clients understand that content strategists aren’t trying to apply a set of one-size-fits-all rules. Instead, we’re trying to create bespoke solutions that fit the needs of audiences and businesses in specific situations.

(Image above adapted from adorable! by Flickr user brianschulman (cc: by-sa 2.0) and Ministry Of Sound – Laser Light Show with DJs Deep Dish by Flickr user Anirudh Koul (cc: by-nc 2.0))

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Content

Tidings of Content & Calm

by Lee Thomas

Hello, December … hello, chaos. Take the usual 9-to-5 and everyday commitments, and add all the extras that come with the winter holidays: Weeks filled with social gatherings. Packages to wrap, address, and send. Air travel. And of course, the list of gifts to hunt down and buy. It’s enough to make an introvert like me cry into his figgy pudding.

Or it would be if I let it. A couple of years ago, I decided to trim my holiday activities. Most notably, I suggested to my family that we forego gifts, and to my yuletide joy, they agreed.

Now I glide through the holidays with less dashing through the snow, more relaxing by the fireplace. Yes, we gave up gifts, but we all got something we really want: more time and less stress. 

Give more with less

So what does this have to do with content? Publishing more stuff, more often, is easier than ever with today’s tools. But do audiences need it all? Do they want it all? Or are they getting a lot of pink bunny pajamas instead of the Red Rider BB gun they really want?

Perhaps there’s something to be gained by following one of the guiding principles of minimalism:  choose the essential.

Part of a content strategy should be determining what not to publish—what to cut from the website, what to trim from the page. This means focusing (again) on the essential content people really want and getting rid of the excess. Why? Because it gets in the way.

Some stakeholders may resist such cuts, given the nearly unlimited space available online. But letting go can lead to greater gains in the end.

Google’s gift

For example, take Google. Back in the day, Google attracted attention for its famously minimal home page design. While a competitor crammed more and more on to its home page—and tried to be all things to all people—Google gave audiences something truly valuable: an oasis of simplicity amid the increasing clutter of cyberspace.

That clear focus helped users get to what they really wanted: search results for their particular need. Things turned out okay for Google. Meanwhile, (for multiple reasons) that competitor is struggling.

That’s not a new example, but I was reminded of it recently when Gmail streamlined its home page. I noticed the change immediately. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why, but the site just felt calmer and cleaner (even more than usual). The difference is subtle, but when I compared the before and after it became clear how Google’s trimming helped:

  • Focus the message. The same benefits are there, but fewer distractions (visuals and words) mean the benefits can stand out.
  • Focus the user’s attention. Fewer distractions also help users scan quickly and get to where the real action is: account sign-up or sign-in. Behind which Gmail starts making money with paid ads.

Gmail screenshot comparison

(Screen images from Google's Gmail Blog)

Ready to reduce?

If clutter and excess are weighing down your web content, it may be time to trim. Help the good stuff emerge stronger so your audiences can find and use it. Here are a couple of places to start:

  • Site metrics. Do the metrics show long-forgotten pages or whole sections of your site that are no longer generating traffic? If so, maybe it’s time to retire that content.
  • User profiles. Knowing what audiences want is hard. They’re not homogenous—what they want changes, and there are a lot of circumstances involved. Still, revisiting user profiles and comparing content to what users want is worthwhile. If the profiles are out of date, maybe it’s time to invest in some new user research. With a clearer idea of what audiences really want, you can cut content that doesn’t make the wish list.
  • At the page level. Google’s post states that they cut 250 words in streamlining. Chances are your web editor would love an invitation to do the same.


Cutting back can produce some unexpected benefits, including clearer focus and happier audiences. Users may be joyful about less quantity, more quality. When looking at content for places to trim, there’s a refrain that runs through my head (and oh boy, do I wish I could say it’s, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”): Give users what they want. Cut the excess. Choose the essential.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, User Experience, Web Content