Content Strategy is the Corporate Little Black Dress

Model showing off stylish black dress

Content strategy: No corporate wardrobe is complete without it

It’s been a (long) while since I last blogged, but I swear, I have a good excuse: I was job- and/or client-hunting.

Not that that completely makes up for the fact that it’s been radio silence around here for a while, but juggling resumes, interviews, networking, conferences, travel, and — oh yeah — the holidays kinda knocked me off the blogging path.

But I have good news to report. Not only is my dance card full again (and then some!), and my blogging block lifted; my journey revealed something pretty interesting: Content strategists are the new “cool kids.”

Yep, that’s right. We’re popular. In demand. And (dare I say it?) respected and appreciated, at least by Silicon Valley companies.

I was amazed to see how many top-tier organizations (I’d name names, but heck, you can imagine who they are) are looking to expand their ranks by adding to, or starting, a content-strategy practice. Seems like someone out there (yes, I’m looking at you, Kristina Halvorson, Erin Kissane, and Ann Rockley) has done a dang good job of getting the word out about why we’re helpful, useful, and pretty much essential these days.

Sort of like the little black dress that every woman must have in her closet.

And this makes me happy, not just for myself and my brethren, but for what that implies about the direction smart businesses are taking. Dare we imagine a future where branding, messaging, governance, usability, UX, SEO, copy writing, and editorial planning work hand-in-glove to create seamless, user-friendly experiences — both on the Web and beyond?

Yes. I think we dare. Because let’s face it: Content strategy looks good on everyone.

image courtesy of Tsvetok via a Creative Commons license

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Is content strategy a luxury you can’t afford?

The sultan's crown jewels in Indonesia

Is content strategy an extravagant luxury? Nope.

A new manager at one of my client organizations has opined that “content strategy is a luxury we can’t afford.” As a result, this manager plans to divide the many content-strategy responsibilities within the company among a handful of disparate people, some of whom have never worked together before.

Mistake.

BIG mistake.

Why? Because content strategy is a luxury only if you have an incredible surplus of time, money, brainpower, immunity to criticism, and shareholder patience. Here’s my reasoning.

  • Time: If you don’t mind making iteration after iteration, revision after revision to your content, by all means forgo content strategy. Who needs a unified approach to how your content reflects branding, messaging, and business priorities? Just throw any old content out there. If it’s not right, someone will tell you. And then you can change it. And change it again. If you’ve got all the time in the world, that shouldn’t bother you one little bit.
  • Money: All those iterations will cost something, right? Good thing you have endlessly deep pockets to pay those writerly types who fix the content…and the editor types who edit the content…and the tech types who put the content into a CMS or (gasp) hard-code it in HTML. And maybe even a contractor or two to help with those tasks, because maybe (just maybe) those folks have more pressing things to do than fix bad content all the time.
  • Brainpower: You’ve got brilliant, motivated employees who would like nothing better than to learn about user experience, SEO, semantics, analytics, editorial best practices, style guides, and usability in their free time, right? And they can suck up that knowledge immediately, being the Rhodes-scholar type. No experience in content strategy necessary. Ta da! Not to mention that they’re incredible at working across silos, communicating what they do to people who have no clue about their roles, and solving cross-company problems with aplomb.
  • Immunity to criticism: Since all those fixes and iterations and people trying to become experts overnight is likely to result in some less-than-stellar content on your website, it’s a good thing you’ve got a thick skin. Just let all those concerns voiced by people in the C-suite roll off your back. After all, you’ve got all the time and money in the world, and your people will be experts in this stuff any day now. (Bonus: If you have the ability to pass the buck, finger-point, and blame others, consider yourself even more lucky! You can ignore some of the criticism and just pass the rest along.)
  • Shareholder patience: Thank goodness you have such an understanding group of shareholders who are willing to wait just as long as it takes for your website to reach those projected sales numbers, or conversions, or click-throughs (or however you measure success). It’s super cool that they’re not like the typical shareholders who want to see actual results in a finite time period. So go ahead, keep doing what you’re doing! They’ll stick around endlessly waiting for results.

Yes, I’m being snarky. But for good reason. Content strategy — as so many people are finally realizing — isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity, as much so as information architecture and user experience. Now I understand that content strategy is a bit of the new kid on the block, much as those fields once were. But as time has proven, without good IA and UX, you’re left with a mess of a site. And you can add content strategy to the list, too.

Is content strategy a luxury? No. But living in denial certainly is.

Image courtesy Ken Traub via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

For better content curation, think about seahorses

Image of a seahorse

Content is like seahorses: Feature the best ones keep visitors' interest

Over the weekend, I visited the stunning California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s a jaw-dropping experience every time, even after the umpteenth visit: a living rainforest, an aquarium, a natural-history museum, and a planetarium all under one (living) roof.

But one thing I really noticed this time out was what an amazing job the Academy folks have done of whittling down all their options to present the best, most interesting exhibits and specimens. For example, take the seahorses at the Steinhart Aquarium. They’re fascinating, super-cute, and a huge favorite of my kids. But while there are at least 32 species of seahorse known to scientists, only a handful of varieties are featured here.

Why? Because, while seahorses are pretty cool, people don’t come to an aquarium to see three dozen different exhibits showcasing one type of animal. So the biologists practice curation — deciding which species would best represent seahorses while capturing the attention and interest of visitors.

In a way, your content is like a bunch of different seahorses. All of it has some value, but some of it will be more interesting to your audience than the rest. I think many websites value quantity over quality without thinking about curation. Overwhelming your visitor, or sales prospect, or reader, with tons of redundant content — or content that’s a mere variation on a theme — doesn’t make you look more complete or current or savvy. It just makes things confusing.

Or even…boring. Just imagine visiting an aquarium with 32 different tanks of seahorses, and gazing into them one at a time. By the end, it’d be really hard to distinguish what made one seahorse different from the other, wouldn’t it? And you’d probably be pretty sick of seahorses, too.

So when you’re deciding what content is essential to your web experience, whatever it may be, think about seahorses. Pick the brightest, most interesting, most compelling content to feature, and let the rest float away.

image courtesy of Ellen & Martijn Rietveld via Flickr under a Creative Commons license