How do you fold content strategy into your process whether its UX for a product or website or establishing an editorial routine for a marketing team? Some organizations and agencies have content strategists to help guide the process. But many people from business owners to interaction designers find they are in charge of content, without explicit roles or instructions for managing it. This article briefly introduces content audits, workflow, the inverted pyramid, and interface copywriting and a set of tools we can use to help make content better aligned and executed.
Since Content Strategy is a huge field with many specializations and all kinds of practitioners, knowing where to start can be difficult. For my students and new employees, I like to point out a few areas which they may not have encountered in school or online that can help make their work more content-aware. This isn’t meant to replace a full content strategy, but even a little bit of content nerdery can make for a better overall user experience.
Being content-aware means you know how to ensure that content is a complement to function and design. That it drives search, supports relevancy, and leads people towards taking action. When you start out knowing how important content will be to your product or campaign, you can make sure that you and your team are better prepared to create, maintain, measure, and improve it over time.
To dive into content strategy and start doing it right away, I recommend Content Strategy for the Web by Halvorson and Rach and the Content Strategy Toolkit by Meghan Casey. For just a taste of the awesome things content tools can bring to a project, read on.
This is my favorite topic and activity in content strategy. Why? If you’ve done one, you know they can be tedious, exhausting and often, not very well received by people who do not like hearing there is that much wrong with their beautiful website. But audits are gaining popularity. More and more articles recommend them and offer quick tips to getting started and getting it done. Why is that? Because they are so freaking useful.
Content audits help you know what you have and what you don’t. And if what you have is any good.
In-house or in agency, knowing the scope and variety of content on your website (or video library, social media channels, intranet, etc.) helps you know how much work needs to be done. It helps you understand what content you have, where it is, whether or not it meets standards for accessibility, SEO, writing for the web, and is useful to your audiences.
The amount of ways and things you can audit is enormous so always start with a plan. A content inventory can tell you how much you are working with. Analytics can tell you what’s performing and what isn’t. But a valuable content audit will mean you look at each of the pages or pieces of content and evaluate their quality. Does this page deserve to exist? A systematic approach of looking at a well-scoped group of content and applying a set of heuristics to each one equally can give you valuable data that’s always available. Inventories and audits give you a list, analysis, and eventually a set of recommendations about what’s really going on and what to do about it.
Some of my favorite audit heuristics.
- Does it support a business goal?
- Is it in user-centered or audience-friendly language?
- Does it answer their questions?
- Provide valuable and useful information?
- Does it offer a compelling call to action and functional next step?
- Is it accurate, up-to-date, and in the same design template or voice and tone as the rest of your communications?
I use the CAT, Content Analysis Tool. Full disclosure, I worked there briefly because I wanted a tool exactly like it to exist. I’ve worked with many SEOs in the past years and lots of people have their own favorite tools. That’s mine but I use others to complement CAT with deeper SEO or accessibility feedback. Find your favorite tool. If you have questions about CAT, I’m always happy to help you explore.
For deciding what to audit and how, I review Content Audits and Inventories by Paula Land. It has the most examples and situations, so you can plan out the right audit for you and your project. I also use the creating valuable content checklist [pdf] by Ahava Leibtag, especially, when I can only take a best practices assessment approach to a content audit.
Content is people. People are political. When teaching, I constantly remind my students that content does not exist in a vacuum. Many of the problems we find in doing our research and conducting audits come from how content is created, maintained and promoted in an organization. A content-aware approach means understanding the resources an organization has to create and maintain its content from website to blog to social media to every other little communication it makes. We have to have empathy for our clients and their employees.
In my experience, even an organization with great talent and great content can have problems with workflow. C-suite members may not see the value that their content team brings. Content teams may not have a clear path of communication with other silos. Emails are handled over here by this group that doesn’t talk to the marketing team or the copywriters. There’s a million variations on how communication breaks down. What can you do?
Figure out the workflow. Interview the internal staff (and good luck, by the way, it’s not always easy to make happen but it is worth it.) Find out how they are making content happen now including maintenance and measurement. Work with them to help streamline processes from ideation to approval. Show the C-suite person who’s out of town 3 weeks of the month that her approval on each blog post may not be the most efficient process. Workflow can mean changing how people work so approach with caution, make everyone feel heard, show them the benefits they will all enjoy.
My workflow hero is Vanessa Casavant, who you can see at Confab this June. Her work is featured in Content Strategy at Work by Margot Bloomstein. I’ve used her approach and style on many projects and it’s enormously helpful. Track each step in the process and hand-off for each kind of content. You’ll show the team how much work making high quality content really involves and find efficiencies. Sometimes, you’ll be documenting a process that works well, sometimes you’ll be creating a process that works much, much better.
Content Strategy, Inc (and Melissa Breker, another personal hero) has an excellent tool for defining roles and responsibilities around content. RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) charts can help you track down content responsibilities in a fair and open process.
Interviewing stakeholders, and then a big wall and a lot of post it notes is my favorite tool for the beginning phase of discovering workflow.
I studied journalism. The inverted pyramid was drilled into my head early on. Edward Baldwin (in an article I can no longer find online) applies the inverted pyramid to content showing that the idea of the most important message comes first and ideally leads us to an appropriate and persuasive call to action in the end. Instead of starting with a lead, we begin with a hook. To me, that hook is relevancy. Someone should absolutely know the link they clicked took them to the information they want.
For each piece of content, especially anything long-form such as web pages, blog posts, articles, videos, it’s important to define the purpose of the piece and prioritize all information for the intended audience. Keep organizational politics and marketing speak out of your leads and hooks. Put what readers or viewers need first and entertain them along the way to their next step.
For understanding content purpose, I recommend the Core Model. Illustrated by Ida Aalen in an A List Apart article in 2015, the core model, though not new, is a great tool for collaborating with stakeholders and finding alignment. It helps build content value as well as information architecture inside and outside of your website. It respects reality and people’s lives. I’ve had clients do it alone and I’ve done it with teams, either way, it’s a cheap, fast way to make sure you have what you need before you start building.
For priority, I still love Page Description Diagrams. Though, I call them panel description diagrams or whatever unit of content I’m working with at the time. Nick Finck introduced me to them 10 years ago and I will hug him every time I see him for that introduction. Even if it’s with post it notes or a white board, description diagrams help us define each element and its order of importance from the user or audience’s perspective. This tool is another fast, cheap way to make sure you’ve got the content and elements prioritized before you make a prototype or build.
These days, I see the job title UX Writer or Interface Copywriter. To me, it shows that people are starting to understand a word person or content-nerd needs to be involved in the interface process. Interface copywriting, when you look closely, is about CARING. It helps you carry voice and tone throughout every interaction with a customer. It means avoiding mixed messages, bad grammar, or flat-out insults to your customers. I don’t always get to be involved with this end of the process but I audit and edit enough websites to know that interface copywriters are brilliant, wonderful people we should give high fives to daily.
Personally, I take the audit approach for critical web content, combing through every word, icon, and call to action buttons, ensuring that they are aligned with messaging, accurate, and persuasive. I do not love writing interface copy because I am a perfectionist – but I’m lucky enough to work with others who will get down to the syntax with me and help create messages that are clear, consistent, and show our empathy for audiences.
I create content libraries in Google docs or dropbox folders, so that my team members and I can treat reusuable content elements as designers treat elements in pattern libraries.
Nicole Fenton is my go-to. She has an excellent article on interface writing as well as the book, Nicely Said. Of course, the MailChimp style guide is the most commonly used example of how to ensure that voice and tone as well as message consistent across your communications.
That’s just 4 things
I know there are dozens more. But if you’re new to content strategy, these resources are quick to read, easy and understand, and very useful. If you are a crazy passionate content strategy nerd like me, then here’s some favorites I hope you enjoy discovering or revisiting. And if you find other tools that help with audits, workflow, priority or interface copywriting, please let me know – you can reach me at @ meaningmeasure on the Twitter.