As the structured/adaptive content conversation progresses, metadata and taxonomies will also become more and more important. To participate in the conversation, you don’t need to know everything—but you do need to understand the essential foundations so you can ask the right questions.
For the record, I’m no expert. At the end of the post, I’ve listed a series of resources from some super-smart people who are.
The goal of this post is to provide an introduction to the concepts, so you can get a general understanding and feel comfortable digging into more information.
Now, this conversation gets big in a hurry—but don’t be intimidated. These terms have been around much longer than the Web, and can be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In the hopes of making this post a bit more approachable, I’m going to fast-forward through the structured content conversation with the diagram below.
Simple enough, right? I’ll be skipping past why and how to break your content up into components, and instead focus on how metadata and taxonomies get applied to content components.
The information provided in metadata makes the content findable and understandable to either a human or a computer. There are lots of definitions out there, but when it comes to metadata, I look to Rachel Lovinger, the metadata guru. She defines metadata as “information about the content that provides structure, context, and meaning.”
There are three main types of metadata:
Structural: Defines the metadata elements that need to be collected; labels like title, author, date created, subject, purpose, etc. Defining these structural elements is typically based on a mix of organizational and system needs, along with standard schemas like Dublin Core.
Administrative: Often created automatically when content is entered into the CMS, these values are used to manage the content. Administrative metadata includes things like date created or author. They can sometimes include sub-elements about rights-management or preservation.
Descriptive: These values describe aspects specific to each content component, like title, subject, audience, and/or purpose.
Some of each of the three types of metadata is likely to be used on a typical piece of content, but how and when they get defined is very different. The structural metadata gets identified as part of your system requirements. Administrative and descriptive metadata are identified during the creation or curation of specific content. If you think of it like a form, the structural metadata supports which information needs to be collected (fields on the page), and the descriptive and administrative metadata provide the values for those form fields.
Here’s how they work together:
The term taxonomy gets applied across a range of contexts. In the biology world, it means grouping organisms into hierarchical groups (e.g., kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species).
The web/digital world typically applies it to any kind of structure that organizes information. Information science people sometimes say “controlled vocabularies” instead of taxonomies. Regardless of the term, the underlying goals are to create some level of consistency and control over the information used to describe a content component, and clarify relationships between them.
Common types include:
Term list: A standardized list of terms created to insure consistent tagging and indexing. Think of it as a list of “preferred language.” Term lists typically provide a series of metadata values to pick from for elements like format or content type.
Hierarchies: Often called a “taxonomy,” a hierarchy defines the structural framework used to classify terms into parent/child or broad-to-narrow relationships. Hierarchies are specifically used to support layered groups of information and not simply for the convenience of creating groupings—although each level of a hierarchy is commonly referred to as a “category.”
Thesauri: A thesaurus translates conceptual relationships between the content, often made naturally by humans, into something a computer can understand. Thesauri typically address three types of relationships: equivalent (synonyms), hierarchical (broad-to-narrow terms), and/or associative (related terms).
Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah
At its simplest, a taxonomy organizes information, and metadata describes it. For the taxonomy to be able to organize the information, terms need to be stored as metadata. It all works together to make the content findable, recognizable, and useful.
Not every site needs every one of these things, but this diagram illustrates how these elements can feed into each other and how they help display content to the user.
Admittedly, I’ve over-simplified these concepts to make them easier to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about metadata, taxonomies, and structured content, there’s no end to the list of resources out there.
Whether your content is produced in-house or licensed from a third party, make sure it’s complete from top to bottom. Otherwise, you might send someone off in a JAZZ RAGE.
LISTENING TO MUSIC HAS CHANGED
I love music. After a lifetime of being hooked on CDs and LPs, I recently jumped into the realm of getting a music subscription online. The charm of these services is that they don’t require any downloads—all of the music is streamed on-demand.
Services like this are not new. They’ve been around for some time, actually.
I took the plunge because one of the services, Rdio, had finally created an online experience with the things I wanted. It’s easy to use. And easy to sync across different devices and locations. BUT, there are some common content issues that keep it from being a fantastic experience.
PROVIDERS NEED CONTENT
Services like Rdio work by licensing content, making it available each month to eager listeners for a subscription fee. Record labels strike deals with these online services to provide access to their catalog of titles.
Rdio has done their part, making the layout and features downright lovely. So lovely, in fact, that I’ve been going about as if I were a salesman for the company, begging people to sign up.
Being a jazz nerd, I immediately typed “Miles Davis” into the search box on my first visit. This is where the trouble started.
BUT SOMETHING MAKES ME KIND OF BLUE
First, some jazz history: Miles Davis played trumpet with bebop sax legend Charlie Parker early in his career. They made fabulous recordings. Rdio makes enjoying these rather difficult. To illustrate, here are the entries for Miles and Charlie Parker:
Figure 1. Miles is agitated. (Click to enlarge/exasperate.)
Although it’s likely not the fault of Rdio, there are some serious content problems here. Content is duplicated. Other content has frustratingly incorrect or incomplete metadata. Some content suffers both problems.
Some of these distinctions make sense. But others feature almost comical misspellings or strange divisions (comma or hyphen or slash or semi-colon or … ).
A careful audit of this content prior to publication would have surfaced these content classification crimes. Miles himself would arrest you for such offenses against his music.
Figure 2. The Miles Davis album “You’re Under Arrest.”
At any rate, this many misleading options will bewilder even seasoned enthusiasts.
CONTENT MILESTONES OF THE UNWANTED SORT
Even more jazz history: In 1958, Miles recorded a classic album titled “Milestones.” Get it? Miles? Tones? Milestones? (This is as good as jazz humor gets, folks.)
That search I mentioned earlier? For Miles Davis? It yields 368 separate album choices. If you wanted to listen to the “Milestones” album on Rdio, you would be presented with yet another content conundrum:
Figure 3. (Click to enlarge/enrage.)
When faced with 368 album choices, a listener can get overwhelmed, to say the least. They may switch from navigating the search results via text to relying on visual cues (in the form of album covers).
In Rdio’s case, album covers and artist names are considered metadata. Inaccurate and incomplete metadata makes navigating the options difficult, if not impossible.
When metadata is incomplete or inaccurate, people will flee. They’ll unsubscribe from your service and take their money with them. You don’t want that.
METADATA TO THE RESCUE
In the interest of creating a satisfying user experience, the record companies would do well to clean up the catalog they license to services like Rdio. As newer editions of “Milestones” are released, this user experience will only become more unwieldy.
Complete and accurate metadata will make your life easier now.
New technology and its applications will find new uses for content in coming years. Make sure that your content—and by extension, your metadata—is complete and accurate. Because it just may make your life easier in the future, too.
No matter how many good ideas are strategized and agreed upon for a website’s content, somebody has to take responsibility for that content. Otherwise, just like an abandoned home where the owners have up and left, it will very likely fail from the get-go or fall into disrepair after its debut. Content ownership is important.
But assigning ownership isn’t enough. Owners need to be excited about the benefits and purpose of the content, understand their responsibilities, and commit the time it takes to make great content. You need content owners who care.
Just like a beautiful, functional home requires an owner who cares, so does great content. So how do you get content owners invested in making great content?
CARING FOR YOUR HOME
I own my house. Which means that here in Minneapolis, I shovel my sidewalks in the winter. I fix the furnace when it breaks. I plant flowers in the spring. I take time to care for my home.
But not everybody cares so much about their home. The house on the left shows all the signs of neglect. It’s weather-beaten, faded, and falling apart. Whoever owns it certainly doesn’t care much about it—and it shows.
House in need of care (left), house in good care (right).
CARING FOR YOUR CONTENT
Just like the house with weathered siding and an unstable foundation, content without a caring owner is easy to spot:
Content in need of care
No clear purpose
Too much or not enough information
Dead-end; no clear next steps
Boring; overly complex or simple
Inaccurate or outdated
Content in good care
Serves a business or user need
Appropriate length and format
Grammatically accurate; tone and voice are consistent and reflect the brand
THE BENEFITS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF CONTENT OWNERSHIP
Content ownership has its benefits—useful, usable, purposeful content. And just like home maintenance, content ownership requires dedication and time commitment from owners:
Save or make money (operational efficiencies, profits)
Bolster reputation or mission
Achieve business or user goals or results
Define the purpose for content
Be involved with creating content
Keep content up to date as things change
Review content over time to make sure it’s still serving its purpose
GETTING CONTENT OWNERS ON BOARD
Caring for online content can be a thankless job. So how can you get content owners excited? The best way is to show them why it matters and give them the tools and information they need to do it well.
Make content ownership a measurable, written part of job responsibilities. By tying the content responsibilities to work goals and performance, you give content owners a personal stake. You also give content owners a realistic understanding of responsibilities and expectations—including expected time allocation.
Tie content to business goals, results, objectives, or purposes.
Identify content owners who are already invested in achieving the desired business and user outcomes.
Tell owners why they specifically were chosen, and what special skills or knowledge they bring.
Ask owners to help identify the purpose and benefits of the content.
Get owners excited about the benefits the content can provide, even if they are indirect.
Get your organization excited about the benefits of great content. Find an executive sponsor who champions and supports the importance of content within your organization.
Give content owners the tools they need to create and care for compelling content—which may include writers, designers, photographers, style guides, tipsheets, training on best practices, regular reports, user research, analytics, etc. Tailor your approach to the skills and experience of your content owners.
Check in with your content owners on a regular basis—don’t let them let content linger.
Don’t be afraid to retire content if it has no clear benefit or owner.
When content owners are invested in the success of their content, they make the difference between content that is just so-so and exceptional content that exceeds business and user expectations. What’s worked for your organization? How have you gotten content owners excited? Have a story, or something to add? Please share it in the comments.
("Disrepair" image on left by Flickr user Throwingbull (cc: by 2.0) )
One of the things that's consistently difficult about governance—the long-term management of content—is keeping sufficient resources available after a site launches.
If you think finding people to write, review, and revise content leading up to launch is tricky … you're completely right. But it's still easier than keeping those people available later on, once the adrenaline rush of launch has subsided and the never-ending process of reviewing and improving site content has kicked in.
One thing that helps is a set of good tools:
A style guide that genuinely supports your culture as well as providing clear mechanical guidelines;
A CMS that supports your workflow and makes publishing easier;
Page tables or content templates that clarify the fundamental purpose of each major piece of content.
But tools only work when there’s someone to use them.
People are really, really busy
The people who have the subject-matter expertise required to create and maintain content are often some of the most overworked employees in any organization—which is saying a lot, given the larger corporate trend toward over-commitment.
Content work—and especially online content work—is more often presented as an "extra" job for subject-matter experts and anyone else expected to contribute content whose title isn't "web editor." And when the work is presented as an extra task that isn’t central to employees’ job descriptions, it tends not to get done.
So although most content strategists aren’t especially well versed in the management side of organizational dynamics, the problem of governance forces us to consider ways of reserving time, freeing up resources, and recognizing effort. And that’s why a video made by content strategy thinkers at Autodesk has cheered me up so much this week: it does so much right, and sets a wonderful example for dealing with this seemingly intractable problem.
Here’s the video:
What’s so wonderful about this approach is that the video itself is aimed at an internal audience. It explains the purpose and importance of the Autodesk content strategy initiative in clear, unpretentious terms and then goes a step further by breaking down the ways in which the efforts of people who contribute to the initiative will be recognized and considered as a part of their overall performance.
(The underlying content strategy is also based on what appears to be a very smart, disciplined system of measuring and refining content over time, but that’s another whole conversation.)
Dragging governance into the mainstream
The problems that this video addresses so directly have been around for ages, and we’ve all had to find ways of trying to resolve them. And because it’s not yet a given that organizations know they need to staff and support their online communications, many of our attempts have necessarily been workarounds.
For example, when a company really needs more people to handle content work, but can’t hire another expert, I’ve sometimes suggested hiring a part-time administrative person to help ease the burden of paperwork and free existing experts to spend more time on content. And a great web editor can often perform a certain amount of resource-allocation magic through sheer force of personality. But these are temporary solutions, not sustainable long-term plans.
By bringing the realities of content-related resource allocation into the mainstream of performance management, the Autodesk team has provided a clear example of simple ways of bringing content development and governance into the core of an organization. And their strategy was developed within, rather than being brought in from outside, which is a great sign. When organizations begin to understand content strategy at that level, the whole CS conversation can become more sophisticated.
Whether you do content work within an organization or as a consultant, you’ve probably bumped into governance challenges. So let’s talk. Are you finding it easier to explain the need for long-term content resources, or are things holding still for you? What kinds of strategies are working for you?
Every couple of weeks, one of my colleagues in the content strategy community wigs out a little bit about marketing people co-opting “our” terms and processes for their own (presumably nefarious) ends.
As a content strategist who comes from the world formerly known as “web design” (and now mostly called “user experience”), I’ve felt sympathetic twitches when I see these complaints. Not out of territorialism, necessarily, but I, too, dislike seeing the whole sweep of content strategy work reduced to “content = customer acquisition!” After all, we’ve fought to have content strategy recognized as a core component of user experience work.
So it was with this bias that I sat down, a few months back, to write a book. And one of the first things I had to work out was what I really meant by “content strategy”—and why I felt it didn’t rightfully belong to the folks with “social media marketing” in their Twitter bios. Along the way, I discovered something slightly upsetting, which is that content strategy doesn’t really belong to user experience, either.
Bear with me, UXers. You can put the diagram down for a second.
What We Talk About When We Talk About …
The thing is, marketing people talk about CS and mean “content strategy as it applies to selling things, building brands, and providing customer service in ways that make people want to buy more things.” A lot of this sort of content strategy revolves around distribution channels, messages, branding, and sometimes, editorial workflow. User-centered design principles may or may not be involved.
Enterprise content strategy people, on the other hand—the people working with data and DITA and knowledge management systems—talk about CS and mean data modeling, technical workflow, documentation, planning for content reuse, and content management, often on a very large scale. Their attention to customer service and support tends to be about increasing efficiency, reducing redundant effort, and achieving consistency. Again, user-centered design principles may be involved, but are unlikely to be a primary focus.
When people from the media world talk about CS, they tend to mean discussions of business models, distribution channels, and the development of content as a product, with secondary focus on marketing and customer service (unless they’re all Paul Ford). User-centered design principles may come up, but they’re far from the center of the conversation, which doesn’t usually get into the details of user experience.
And content people who come from or work in the UX world say content strategy and mean bits of all of the above, but with user-centered design at the core of the work. Product design becomes feature design; messaging and branding become content goals and style guides; data modeling becomes content templates and page tables.
But this sort of content strategy isn’t the One True CS. And even when we do it within user experience projects, content strategy doesn’t fit neatly within the usual boundaries of UX. Content strategy must often precede true UX work, as when it involves the organizational communication planning that must happen before a web design project can begin.
And, of course, all that messy editorial planning and workflow stuff tends to continue long after interface design and front-end development are complete. No other part of a UX project necessarily involves the implementation of long-term organizational practices (unless you expand “UX” to the IT resources that support systems over time, which is a stretch).
The Marmot Wars
You might think of each of these separate kinds of content strategy work as gophers, or maybe marmots. Each tunneling toward a cherished meadow as quickly as its wee marmot paws can manage, until, suddenly, it pops out into the open air—only to discover STRANGE OUTSIDER MARMOTS WITH WEIRD MARKINGS stumbling out of their own holes and blinking in the sun. And then you get the posturing and barking and little finger-snapping marmot West Side Story dances, and it’s all very tiring and no one gets a snack.
My point is not that the marmot-meadow is big enough for everyone, though it mostly is. The differing models of CS do sometimes come into competition, especially when clients aren’t quite sure what they need. User science people will probably never get along with the folks on the ad-world end of the marketing continuum, and editorial nerds will probably continue to underestimate the value of data wonks (and vice-versa).
But, we should nevertheless recognize that content strategy is a big, big world. It’s not just that we all have different specializations and approaches, though that’s true. Content strategy is a big ol’ loosely connected network of practices, and it doesn’t belong to any of us any more than graphic design belongs to advertising or project management to aerospace engineering.
I’ve met more than a few real, actual marmots, and let me tell you—we’re smarter than they are. So let’s give the rodenty turf wars a rest and try talking about content strategy in ways that admit the possibility of other useful kinds of CS work.
There’s value in looking beyond our industry-specific tunnels and expanding our own capabilities to include some of those other kinds of CS, so we have more to offer our clients when they need it. That’s one of the reasons I’m stupidly excited about Confab.
The fact that so many of the sharpest minds from the far reaches of Big Tent Content Strategy are all going to be in one place—and I don’t just mean as speakers, either—can only mean good things for the curious content specialist.
With rapid growth comes weird pressures and the potential for irrational infighting, and we are definitely in a spell of rapid growth. We need a gathering of the tribes. And I daresay we could use a big party, while we’re at it.
So I hope to see you there—or around, online—whether you come from social media marketing or the geekiest depths of the data-wrangling world, WEIRD MARKINGS and all.
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?
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.
With all of the focus on content strategy recently, discussions about the definition of the word “content” have erupted into a philosophical debate that would make Kant, Descartes, and Heidegger proud. Some people say “everything is content.” Others say “there’s no such thing as content.” And then there are the hundreds of well-argued definitions in between.
It was all fun and games, until reality hit
While philosophical debates can be super fun (René Descartes was a drunken fart, Immanuel Kant was a real pissant, etc.), they can make day-to-day project work confusing. If content is everything, where does content strategy begin and end? And, if content is nothing, why does it seem to be so important to businesses?
We admit it. We Brain Traffickers lean philosophically toward the “content is everything” camp. But, we realized early on that content strategy projects require a simple, flexible, and limiting definition of content that everyone on a project team can align on.
At first, finding the right way to corral content was a struggle. Things finally clicked when we started differentiating between content and content-related elements we call “content facilitators.” (Apologies to people who are called content facilitators. We’re stealing your job title until we think of something else.)
So, what is “content”?
Content isn’t always a confusing word. When you talk about offline channels, such as books or presentations, content is a pretty easy concept to define.
Consider this: What is the content of an average biology textbook? If you’re like most people, you’d probably say something like, “It’s about biology: cells, animals, plants, and stuff.” And, if you happen to have a biology textbook, you could grab it and look at the (ahem) “table of contents” to get more specific details.
Although other communication channels are often more complex, the basic concept remains the same. The content is the meat—it’s what the user came to read, learn, see, or experience. From the business perspective, the content is the critical information the book, site, etc., was created to contain or communicate. (Think contents, not content.)
And, what are “content facilitators”?
Every communication channel has content facilitators—informational elements that exist to help people find, use, and understand the content. The real confusion about content started with the advent of the web, where the line between content and content facilitators started to blur.
Our biology book has several facilitators, such as a table of contents, an index, a bio of the author, and an unnecessarily large picture of a dewy grasshopper on the front cover. All of these things are helpful (even the grasshopper provides context), but they’re not the reason most people buy the book. In fact, they’re really optional.
Online, however, facilitators—such as navigation, metadata, taxonomy, brand imagery, help text, etc.—are mission critical. The content is unusable and unrecognizable without them.
Let’s face it. With a few exceptions (you know who you are), people don’t go online to see metadata. But they’d be awfully screwed without it. Metadata generally doesn’t fit our definition of content, but it sure as heck needs to be considered during the content strategy process.
Philosophically speaking …
Establishing working definitions for content and content facilitators has made a big difference in our content strategy practice. Although both are extremely important in any content strategy, distinguishing between the two makes it easier for us to communicate project goals, set priorities, and work with partners.
As an added bonus, clients like it. They have an easier time communicating internally, and because our definition of content isn’t limited by format (text, pictures, data, etc.), topic, or channel, Brain Traffic is better able to adapt our work to every client’s specific situation.
I’ve noticed a bit of a trend lately in content strategy blog posts. A lot of them only talk about the content side of content strategy—what content is needed, why it’s needed, who it’s for, what format it should be in, etc.
A whole lot of them are missing a really important component of content strategy: Governance. Specifically, the importance of:
Getting everyone to agree with the core purpose—and structure—of the site, and the messages it needs to convey
Empowering someone (or a small group of someones) to make long-term and day-to-day decisions about content
These things are just as important, if not more important, than the content itself.
Content strategy – governance = face-hating
Consider this made-up story of what can happen without governance, even with the best of intentions:
Once upon a time, a Content Strategist arrived at work, coffee in hand, eager to continue the challenging—yet fulfilling—task of overseeing his employer’s website content. Months before, he developed and implemented a content strategy for the site. It included a lot of really great stuff, from content objectives to an editorial calendar, and everything in between.
All of these things had helped to dramatically improve the site’s content. Content drafts required less editing. Calls to action were more compelling. Customer service was getting fewer calls from people who couldn’t find what they were looking for.
With all of these positive results, the Content Strategist was surprised—jaw-droppingly aghast, even—when he opened the site and found something on the home page that didn’t fit with the content strategy. Even worse, he knew nothing about it.
It was an interactive, Flash-based “Letter from the President,” full of company pats on the back, corporate speak, industry jargon, and nothing of value to site users. And, it clearly cost a lot of money to produce. Like half of the annual content creation budget.
The Content Strategist exclaimed, “Ellllgghhhh. Who did this? I hate his face.”
Once he determined that it was the Director of Executive Communications who was responsible, the Content Strategist grabbed his Editorial Specialist colleague for moral support and marched to the Director’s office. The following heated conversation occurred. It might sound familiar.*
"Did you order the interactive Letter from the President?"
Director of Executive Communications
"You want answers?"
"I think I’m entitled."
Director of Executive Communications
"You want answers?"
"I want the truth!"
Director of Executive Communications
"You can't handle the truth!
Son, I serve the most powerful person in this company. The person who signs our paychecks.
Who’s going to keep the CEO happy? You? You, Mr. Editorial Specialist?
I have more responsibility than you can fathom.
You weep for the home page and curse the CEO’s office of communications.
You don't know what I know. That interactive Letter from the President saved jobs.
And my existence, while grotesque to you, appeases the person who approves your budget.
But deep down, in places you don't talk about at content meetings, you need me in the CEO’s office.
I haven't the time or inclination to explain myself to someone who needs my protection but questions the way I provide it.
Better just to thank me. Or sit in a meeting with the CEO and indulge her every whim.
Either way, I don't give a darn what you think you are entitled to!"
"Did you order the interactive Letter from the President?"
Director of Executive Communications
"You're gosh darn right I did!"
And so the Content Strategist bowed his head and left the office, with no recourse to fix the situation.
Hindsight is 20/20
The Content Strategist learned a lot from this experience. Rather than agonizing in his defeat, he took a more proactive approach. One that allowed him to salvage all the great stuff in his content strategy and prevent such a thing from happening again.
To gain alignment with the CEO’s office, he scheduled a meeting to discuss a few things with the Director of Executive Communications, including:
Why content strategy is important to the business
The content strategy document he uses to guide content decisions
A proposal for establishing governance that includes stakeholder alignment, content planning processes, and a decision-making model
Recommendations for how the interactive Letter from the President could be re-purposed to meet business goals and user needs
A request to present the same information to the CEO to get her buy-in and support
The meeting was a success. You see, the Director of Executive Communications knew the interactive Letter from the President was a bad idea. But, with nothing compelling to stop him from following his marching orders, he found it easiest to please his boss rather than push back.
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you know that it’s pretty hard to say no when you don’t have anything formal or documented to back it up. Get some governance—and get more control.
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.
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.
(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.
The best way to properly take care of your content is to give it an owner. With ownership comes responsibility. With responsibility comes reward. That reward? Content that helps you achieve your business goals.
An example of ownership: my dad’s truck
My dad takes meticulous care of his truck. He changes the oil on a regular basis and performs regular tune-ups. He keeps an ear out for funny sounds that the engine might be making. He washes it. All of the time.
He needs to do this because he depends on it. It does the work he asks it to do—hauling things, towing things, etc.
It’s also a source of leisure for him. Every fall, he puts a truck camper on the back and goes far out West for a couple of weeks with my mom.
Not only is this truck getting them from one place to another, but it’s also serving as their lodging whilst in the mountains where the deer and antelope play.
If he were to neglect that truck, ignore regular servicing, and pay no mind to its proper operation, he and Mom may end up stranded on some mountain pass with a wild grizzly bear. (See dramatization in photo above.)
His mindful ownership minimizes that risk.
Content needs ownership
Now, keep in mind, things can be owned—and not cared for. This often leads to less-than-stellar (or even catastrophic) results. I’ve seen it happen with trucks. We sometimes see it with content.
Organizations are beginning to recognize the need for useful, usable content that will help them accomplish their business goals.
But, what they often fail to recognize is the need for staff resources and processes, which are required for the responsible ownership of that content. Or, they assign ownership to the content, but don’t tie ownership to website goals.
These organizations don’t look beyond that very instant the “publish” button is pushed. They might even think (and say) things like:
“The web is like a filing cabinet that never gets full.”
“Someone might look for that content, so keep it on the site.”
“Just get the content up there, we’ll deal with it later.”
“We’ll have an intern keep an eye on the content.”
“We haven’t touched it since 1999.”
Without ownership, and the maintenance and monitoring that go with it, content suffers. Goals become much harder to accomplish. Which puts us perilously close to having our content stranded on a proverbial mountain pass, with the grizzly bear of ineptitude pacing outside.
Have your content serviced every 3,000 miles
The best content owners do far more than just ensuring content makes it to the website. Regular service intervals apply to both Dad’s truck AND effective content.
Mindful content owners make a regularly scheduled habit of:
Monitoring content performance against goals and benchmarks
Ensuring ongoing relevance of content to business goals
Verifying the accuracy of content
Maintaining usefulness and usability of content for those using it
Content (or truck) owners acting as good stewards will be able to use their content (or trucks) to do what their goals demand. People visiting their websites will be instructed and entertained, and they will accomplish tasks. Or take vacations with truck campers. Without fear of grizzly bears.