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Letter to a Content Strategist

June 5, 2010

Summary: In which I attempt to clarify content strategy by doing it in terms I understand: my own.

Content strategy is the the kind of thing that loses clarity when I try to look at it directly. I can glimpse it out of the corner of my eye, but attempt to stare it down, it hops away. (You know, the rabbits are just emerging in my neighborhood, so maybe that’s what I’m talking about.)

Information Architects and Content Strategists: Like kids in a sandbox. Kids that don't throw sand at each other.

Anyway, for the last couple years, I kept thinking to myself, if I just take a couple hours to sit and think about this, I’ll be able to nail it down. (Not talking about rabbits any more.) I’m frustrated with the characterization of content strategy as “good writing” or “operational issues.” They are unnecessarily limiting, even if taken in the context of the web. I know there’s a design component here, a newly emergent set of  challenges that comes with preparing information to be delivered online.

Content Strategy is Design

Content strategists are designers, just like I am. And like me, the information architect, the “stuff” content strategists design is somewhat more abstract, somewhat less defined than a couple million pixels. But, aside from the composition of content, content strategists haven’t (to my satisfaction anyway) defined what it is they design, what’s the output of their work.

I’m not sure I could do that for my profession either. It took me a decade to be able to say, “Information architects design structures.”

But what I can do is tell you what I need. I can tell you how I’d like to work with a content strategist as co-designers. I need you, Content Strategist Person, to tell me the following 10 things about content:

  1. Range of priorities: The range of priorities within a given content type. For example, is every press release going to be equally important (or unimportant), or is there a big spread between the most important and the least important press release?
  2. Algorithmic prioritization: Whether the relative priority among its peers can be determined by a rule, or if a human needs to decide. That is, given a set of five press releases, is there a rule I can reliably apply that will prioritize them? (For example: release date.)
  3. Inherent prioritization: Whether there is an inherent prioritization between content types. That is, is every press release going to be more important than every white paper?
  4. Plans for growth: The organization’s plans for growing or changing the content.
  5. Level of effort: The complexity of the production process for each content type. Which content is hard to produce? Which content is easy to produce? Which content can I count on to always be up-to-date? Which content should be prioritized when it appears, and otherwise remain in the background?
  6. Metadata authoring: The organization’s capacity for applying metadata, and what’s realistic in terms of populating a metadata framework. We’ll have lots of good ideas on how to link content together, but those ideas probably won’t work unless we understand the organization’s ability to tag the content.
  7. Metadata parameters: Parameters for different metadata fields. As we’re designing wireframes, let’s be smart about how much text we need to display.
  8. User needs: The need for transparency to the users about some of the underlying structures. How much do users care about content type? Help me distinguish administrative metadata from metadata that actually contributes to findability.
  9. Users needs (2): How the content fits into user scenarios. Is this transient content (stuff just to get them just to the next step) or destination content? How will people use the content once they find it? What are you doing to align the content with requirements specified in personas or elsewhere?
  10. Sample content: Finally, if you want me to put sample content in my wireframes, I’m totally game. Just give me the sample content.

Ultimately, my job is to design structures. These are structures that establish navigation pathways, search frameworks, and business rules for governing how to display information. In order to design those things, I need insight into what you want the content to be, how you want it to behave, and what structures will let the content thrive.

My Promise to You

Far be it for me to make demands without promising something in return. That’s thirteen years of marriage talking. (Who says our personal lives can’t affect our professional ones?)

What I promise to do for you:

  • Collaborate with you to establish a content model: a network of categories that classifies content by its function or structure. It’s easier to talk about content by its type, and content type should refer to a predictable format that enables it to fit into a structure.
  • Design structures that provide useful and meaningful ways to find content. You can already tell that I think of content as a living, breathing organism with a life independent of the structures I design. I hope that the structures I design align with that behavior, providing an ecosystem that doesn’t get in the way of the content.
  • Collaborate with you on determining a metadata framework. Content describes content, I know that. I can think laterally about the content as it uses metadata to draw relationships between it and other information on the site. I help explain the relationships I’d like to see between content to aid in findability and to teach users about the range of content available on the site.
  • Communicate the different ways in which I intend to chunk the content. When I say “chunking” I mean the different ways I can expose a composition in the interface. Sometimes I just want the title and author. Other times I need title and blurb. But sites are getting more complicated: more opportunities to chunk, and more things to chunk up. I can boil these opportunities down and create a structure to facilitate the display of content in a variety of situations and scenarios.
  • Establish flexible templates to accommodate the nuances of content. As simple as it is to make generalizations about content types, every composition is a different challenge. The templates provide a reasonable starting point, but we need to design them to provide some flexibility, allowing each article or story or posting to

That’s only five things, but I’ve got obligations to my visual designer, project manager, and usability guy.

So, what do you think? Can we work together? What else can you do for me? And what can I do for you?

Much affection,

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 2:48 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. We’re in the midst of hiring a manager of content development / strategy, and this gives us some great things to think about.

  2. Dan B. permalink*
    June 7, 2010 5:34 pm

    Just caught this on Twitter from @meghscase at BrainTraffic:

    I don’t get how one can “design structures” without answering the content questions first.

    Yes! As an IA, to design structures, I *do* need to answer questions about content first. And I do, but:

    • I’m better at thinking about abstract relationships between content types, classification frameworks, metadata elements, etc. than I am at looking at the specifics of content.
    • The scale of content web sites is much bigger. Having one person focus on the content and another the structure is at least one way of cutting up responsibilities.
    • I in no way meant to exclude good writing or editorial concerns from the domain of the content strategist. Those responsibilities just don’t impact me in the same way as having a understanding of how the content *works*.

    That last point is what triggered this post: Content strategists have helped me understand content as a living breathing thing, but I was struggling to articulate this and what it means.

  3. June 9, 2010 8:45 pm

    Excellent article!

    You’ve clearly identified the information that needs to be shared between content strategists and IAs, and the areas in which we need to collaborate.

    As far as what I design? I design experiences, through content. I operate on the same principles as any other user- or customer-experience designer, except that I take content into consideration at every stage. And I develop content that actually supports the experience that the designers and researchers (and businesses!) are trying to provide for their customers.

    It sounds like working with you would be a dream! Someone who knows what they need, and what they can provide. Keep spreading the word! I’d like to meet more IAs like you.

    – Kathy

  4. Martin permalink
    June 10, 2010 8:46 am

    Interesting thoughts. One teasing mechanical error though:

    “we need to design them to provide some flexibility, allowing each article or story or posting to”… what?

  5. June 10, 2010 12:52 pm

    Thank you for this Dan. Communication between IAs and Content Strategists need to happen if we are going to learn anything from each other.

    As content strategists we have a lot of work to do if we are to further the respect of those in peer professions.

    I can’t speak for all content strategists, but I know my personal goal for the second part of this year is to develop sound use cases that measure the success (or failure) of an implemented strategy. Also, and more daunting is placing metrics into my practice to more clearly define the success of a content strategy.


  6. Nathan permalink
    June 10, 2010 4:11 pm

    As we so often do, I agree with your thoughts and appreciate your writing.

    During nearly every project, I want to evangelize and get the “content strategist” into the process as a peer to interaction DESIGNERS and visual DESIGNERS in the sense that the content strategist is also a DESIGNER. I wonder if the posture, participation, and reception of that role in the process is in part influenced by the fact that their title is not “content DESIGNER” instead.

    Additionally, content strategists design experiences so that others can implement platforms and author content optimally. They design and communicate that experience through things as elementary as a “content deck” (typically, a Word doc with tables) that includes both instructions and blanks: “here is how to and where to insert your content.” However, it’s basic, devoid of the visual experience, siloed, and probably ignored by the rest of the design team. That alone is indicative of the disconnect of this role from the design process. Instead, the role of the content strategist needs to seriously define and enhance what it communicates, how it’s communicated alongside other design visualizations and deliverables, and how others (designers and stakeholders alike) engage with it. Today, it’s completely ambiguous.

  7. CC Holland permalink
    June 15, 2010 6:34 am

    Well said, Dan! And I must add that I hope this wasn’t inspired by frustration with any content strategists that you may be currently working with [cough cough].

    Totally agree with you on the need for content strategists to include metadata in their planning and prioritization. Wouldn’t hurt for them to get the nuts and bolts of taxonomy, too.

    One thing a good content strategist can bring to the table is the ability to bridge the silos in an organization…to work, in many cases, as a liaison between UX and IA and visual design and editorial and, heck, even IT. Because in addition to user needs (external), there are always business needs (internal); a sound content strategy needs to take both into account and parse that information to help the IA create his or her structure.

    Also agree wholeheartedly with Matt that the next evolution for content strategy is establishing KPIs and use cases that actually measure strategic successes and failures.

    Thanks for starting this conversation!

    – C.C.

  8. July 7, 2010 5:43 pm

    Thanks so much for this, Dan. It’s both a call to arms and a call to collaboration–maybe a “call to hugs”–that our industry needs to counter misguided attempts at definition through dismissal and competition.

    We often define our own roles by what we are not: as you said, “information architects design structure,” so it’s easy to say “that’s their responsibility, not mine.” Then again, as a content strategist, I design structures too. I plan for and prescribe the internal structure of product descriptions, page titles, and user comments. How? When I’m lucky, my recommendations are the product of collaboration with an information architect or information designer. We work together to determine the relationship of content types on a page and the goals of that content.

    I appreciate that you define our roles by what we actually do and are, in the broadest sense. I started out as a designer, and while my business cards say “content strategist,” I still consider myself a designer–just with different tools. Content strategy is design, as design is an approach for problem solving. I come from the Dick Buchanan school of thought on that (literally–BFA in design from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, where he taught design thinking and led the doctoral program). While visual designers might solve a problem through color, typography, and the density of information on a page, a content strategist can approach the same problem by pulling other levers: content types, word choice, style, tone, etc. Both are routes to solving problems of brand communication, information gathering, and user engagement; it’s only in tactical execution that they differ.

    A bigger challenge in defining content strategy and the expectations put on content strategists is that it’s a broad umbrella. Some content strategists specialize in establishing metadata frameworks and make their playgrounds in the semantic web. Others focus on auditing content and organizational culture for integration with a CMS. Others specialize in helping organizations communicate their brands through the right priority of messages and content types. As you point out, through all of this, content is “a living, breathing thing” that demands change and care in the long term. So can we say content strategy designs a plan to communicate over time? Too broad, or just enough?

  9. May 13, 2011 2:53 pm

    Hello Dan,

    let me share a little thought: Information Architecture can not end where Content Strategy starts.

    In other words:
    – content strategy is not a profession: it’s an aspect of a project.
    – Information Architecture is not just about connetting the dots: it is the dots too. It is the global shape that comes out.

    Immagine a chef saying: “don’t talk me about ingredients: I just cook”. What kind of recipes could he ever create?


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