A content strategy clarion call: get out of the sidelines and onto the field

a rugby game

I was blessed to work on a project last year in which I was hired as a Content Strategist and yet made no documents. Not one.

Instead the entire project was about balls-to-the-wall making, coding and breaking. It was strategy in the midst of a muddy game, I guess. Whatever it was, I’ve not been the same since. In terms of finding projects that are truly going to satisfy me, I’m near ruined. I’ve tasted the nectar. If you’re a Matrix fan, I took the red pill.

In this post I’ll attempt to sketch for you, albeit in a haphazard way, the scene of that work, what I did, how strategy grew out of making and what worked and what didn’t.

Getting from outside to in on a project team

I so often hear of Content Strategists finding it difficult to get themselves and their processes satisfyingly integrated into a project team and design process; I’ve found this myself and have both failed and succeeded in wrangling my way in. I do wonder if this word ‘strategy’, used in days of advertising-old to spell out 1. expensive research, 2. documentation (and lots of) and 3. presentations – a primordial state of pre-ideas and pre-production – if it is not making matters worse? Is it this 1-2-3 approach that’s putting us in a position, or should I say ‘me’ and not assume a collective, of always skirting projects and never really being able to enjoy the flurry and design fury of the let’s-make-it-happen project storm?

Add to this my hooting-and-tooting to be called in earlier than I usually am i.e. when the client realises “holy shit, we have no content” and I’m almost never privy to the main course. No, that’s for the designers and coders, the people who make stuff.

Strategy is before anything gets made, content is last minute. Didn’t you know?

To use a football analogy: I believe that we as Content Strategists can and should be involved throughout a project process, not just as a referee shouting from the side lines or a goalie fending off bad scores, but with sleeves rolled up, shin guards on, locked in team play. Making and breaking with the rest of them.

(Sports fans and eagle-eyed readers: yes, the feature image references rugby and not football.)

A tally-ho about ‘strategy’ and ‘agile’

When I first came to call myself a Content Strategist I hauled my years of experience as a journalist and e-commerce manager into a new era. I listened to people so that I could pick up the lingo, read blogs and books, listened to podcasts and, most importantly, precise’d the one available content strategy book that existed at that time.

In short, I cobbled together a recipe which I thought would work and which seemed strategy-like – a process that developed a document. Research first, strategise second, document three and hope the makers test four, implement five and test again. Job done.

Without letting this disintegrate into a post about what content strategy means (I afforded myself that narcism in a previous post), it occurs to me that if strategy is stepped in implementation, as I’ve leaned towards in the past, even when I’ve been barking on about agile, it is in many ways incompatible with the of-the-moment and respond-as-you-go world of truly agile. I’m stepping into grey-area here I know.

None of this is to say that agile is not strategic and strategy cannot be agile, or that agile does not include strategy. No, not all. Any decent agile project relies at least on a jump board of well-researched strategic planning and, even more pertinently, on continuous strategic thinking and rethinking throughout the process, this I do not question. My current ho-hum is around how strategy is included, at least in my experience.

In its most useful manifestation agile is not a series of spontaneous and undirected responses, like the whiplash of a dog’s tail when it’s seen something nice, but something more cat-like – able to respond adroitly whilst falling from nine floors above and landing feet first as its paws touch the ground. But then anyone who’s worked in a well-organised agile environment is likely saying, ‘yeah, yeah Kate, move along, move along’. I only define it because it’s an oft-abused word. Agile projects do, can and must include strategy I think most will agree, but I now include: not before the making starts and after the making is done, as is most often the case, but as an alive, essential and intrinsic part of the process – the whole of it.

Indians and tea: an analogy

To say that Indians love tea is an understatement. Tea and cricket, they’re mainstays of Indian life. I’m going to ‘analogise’ tea to illustrate my agile/strategy point, even if just for my own mind-tilling benefit. (I’m writing this from Mumbai, India, and feeling locally inspired.)

To my mind, strategy shouldn’t be akin to sugar dropped into tea before it’s drunk down. No, it should be the boiled water – something so integral and essential to the tea experience that, without it, the whole process falls apart. It’s inextricable. I’m erring on the literary side of bullshit but you get my point?

In the same way, a project is no longer strategic when the strategy (and the strategist, I press) is not there.

To me it’s not enough to have a strategist cooking up ideas and documents at the start, then perhaps again at the end, but absent for the middle (and making) bit. The strategist, or at the very least a bastion for strategy, needs to be there insidiously and throughout – alive and kicking, screaming, running and scrumming along with the rest of the coding, designing, architecting, testing and writing team.

Strategy should never be locked down in a document, printed and bound. Not at the beginning, not in the middle, not at the end. Not ever. The print button is strategy’s death knoll. Strategy is not a decided thing, an “ah, I’m glad we’ve decided that now let’s write it down, sign it off, sit back and make things according to the rules we cooked up”. How many times I’ve done that in past years! and seen it not work. Rather, it should be constant observation and conversation. A responding and a steering. A meditation perhaps. Cheesy but true.

There is only one way this can happen: you, as a Content Strategist, need to be a fully integrated (as in a making and breaking part) of the design team. You need to get out of the side-lines, off of the bench and head out onto the field muddy boots, shin-guards and all.

How I got called on field

When I was first approached to work on my watershed project and asked for a project brief, I received the answer that I was simply to show up with the most out-the-box, creative, strategic and digital version of my brain I could muster.

I was to work for one of the largest universities in the UK and my job was to collaborate with the unspeakably brilliant digital team of mostly freelancers who had already been gathered for several months in redesigning the University’s website experience for one of its most valuable audiences – potential undergraduate students.

On arrival I wasn’t given a 40-page research document to read, though they were around and available, instead, the research was shared with me as a story via conversation, pictures, sketches, paste-ups and, most important, living and breathing CSS/XHTML prototypes.

A key ethos of the project was ‘show, don’t tell’. If we had an idea we were to make it, even if only to share within our team.

No PDFs or PSDs, no sketches and certainly no documents, no, you needed to build it in the prototype using XHTML and .php. We had all-access. Our machines whirred with TextWrangler and GitHub and nothing was locked down.

Start as you mean to go on – creatively and graphically

What we make is not documents or images. We don’t aim, I hope, to make websites that perform as digital brochures. We make multi-dimensional tools for information enjoyment and attainment. The research took on this form too.

A couple of years ago I stopped delivering research tomes, other than project management ones, opting instead to deliver infographics. Clichéd as that format may now be, it proved far more successful with clients and employees than the humble PDF. This project taught me to take that ethos one step further: forgo the infographic sleaze (sorry infoG. lovers, I coo over them too), roll up your sleeves and make the thing. Perhaps rough and ready and Frankenstein’ish but alive. Show your client/user/stakeholder/team exactly what you mean. Even, and especially, if you’re used to producing strategic documents that describe how things should be made.

Know this: as a strategist, you can make and you should make. The day has come.

Regards the university project, ideation and production was not about perfect and polished but about producing a concept creatively, quickly and efficiently so that we could discover whether it was valid or not and, if not, whether we needed to ditch it or tweak it.

Most ideas would go through a combination of making, tweaking, ditching and testing – perhaps a few times and not always in that order but in whatever order made most sense. All was interspersed with guerrilla testing, informal stakeholder presentations – good ol’ showing-and-telling to see just how people responded – and then we responding to that. Nothing outrageously expensive or fancy yet extremely effective and done regularly and often enough to produce impressive results.

Whilst pre-production user research was certainly done, and done very well (not by me but by the formidable Leisa Reichelt) we didn’t respond to it by making a final product (as if research plus our combined decades of design wit and wisdom meant we knew what to make). No, we assumed that research offered excellent clues to get going, that testing and show-and-tell, i.e. more research, offered even better clues as to where to head next and that, once live, user conversation, feedback and analytics would offer juicy sign-posts for further design reflection and innovation.

Leisa shares more about this approach, her approach, in her post ‘Experimentation beats expertise‘ which I see John Goode, the University’s digital lead extraordinaire, has also commented on.

The importance of the team

Leisa is a gem to work with. There is care, sincerity and thoroughness in her work yet no preciousness. You don’t hear the words “my design”. It’s all about the team. If the research I’m doing (casual meetings with professors proved extraordinarily useful) brings up a content need we’d not known about and if whilst incorporating that need I bump the architecture out of shape, no problem. As a team we’d review how we could reshape and work things in, then tweak, ditch, test and make again resulting in a more user-focused design.

There were no reports or theoretical wranglings and ideas didn’t always have to be discussed. It’s strategy come to life in gazillion-pixel technicolor.

All that reminds me of Mailchimp’s wonderous tone of voice, which you should really look at if you’ve not seen it before. What budget and gumption can produce, sigh… it inspires.

Before I get all the not-the-making-type content strategists backs up (I do come from a Fine Art/media production background and have conceptualised and made all my life), I’m not saying this is required on every single project. Okay, well, in truth, at this most enthusiastic stage of my content strategy life I am thinking that. I’m not however saying that doing things any other way is not right. It’s just different. Every project is different.

I learned long ago that being religious about something only leads to hypocrisy and inflexibility, both harbingers of failure when you’re working within a dynamic and every-changing environment. For the moment I’m evangelising this because it works (and it’s the grandest fun). A different shoe for every Cinderella though, right?

I found on this project that whilst I didn’t 1. research 2. strategist 3. create 4. test etc. that the tone of voice became clear, content prioritisation became clear, all the bits that I’d usually make a point of defining early on became clear as a part of the making process and really couldn’t have been fully defined before the actual making begun. Were we to have come up with concepts before we’d started making, I am sure the results would have been quite different.

Tone of voice as a case in point

I did do some thumbing through the research but not too much. Instead, I found it more useful to look at the content being produced by the student TV channel; read the posts created by students for the University’s blog; listen to students chatting whilst buying lunch in the canteen; and recall what it was like to be a 16 or 17 year old heading out into the world beyond school. I talked to professors about who their students were and what they liked and didn’t like and, most important, once I’d produced some prototype web pages (with real content) we placed it on verifyapp.com, baited students with free hoodies via the University’s Facebook page, and asked them to answer a question or two and tell us what they thought.

By constantly noting research and testing, we learned that potential students wanted to be spoken to in a mature tone of voice, one which respects their intelligence and new stature in the world. A young, colloquial and teeny tone was not going to impress them. Verbose, chatty or sale’sy would chase them away. Our design became the anti-billboard. Our students wanted good and solid information offered clearly and where it was needed most. Simples.

The elephant in the room

I learned that even with the best design process and the most sparkling team, if the content culture – not just the ‘content people’ but the whole of the culture – is not fully taken into consideration and addressed, that if your wonderfully crafted content does make it to surface there’s small chance it will stay that way.

It’s like calling an exotic-plant landscaper in when the residents care only for indigenous breeds; that synsepalum dulcificum contentium you’ve tended into fabulous life is not going to see the end of summer.

The content we prototyped as a design team was instrumental in convincing the top dogs that this revolutionary design was the way to go and I still think it is the way to go but the site did not launch that way and it is not maintained that way. It still works and the architecture is good but it’s not what we spent months designing. It just isn’t.

I think I now see (I’m currently consulting for the same university and exploring the same content models) where we, or I, could have improved. It’s subtle but important:

I failed to see that the making of the stories needed to be thought out more thoroughly. It’s one thing making and strategising for the whole experience but it’s another, and a vitally important ‘nother, to find the one content item that can tip the design experience from fabulous to nice. None of us are about making nice. Even very-nice.

Having a mind for maintenance is not new to any of us, we thought about that: the features we designed were not revolutionary in terms of work load or content need, the content architecture is ‘chunky’ and designed to keep content dynamic and malleable to iterations and varied usages in the long-term. We got that right. But getting things ‘right’ does not on its own produce pizzazz.

It’s one thing addressing all the techie/strategic details, it’s quite another spotting the life-blood of your content, or your content ‘haemoglobin’ as I now like to think of it. It’s that thing that circulates your entire site and which gives colour and life to the whole experience. When you’ve found it, make sure it is bomb-proof; take every aspect of the making of that element into consideration. Treat it as though it’s a micro-site; a micro-experience deserved of the same attention as the macro-experience.

This is probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a digital wrangler to date. Content haemoglobin.

It’s a whole new world.

Now, red pill or blue?


  1. Pingback: The Pastry Box Project | 30 November 2013, baked by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

  2. Kate,

    I’ve had this piece open in Chrome since it was written. I have continually pored over your words, and they are powerful. As a noob content strategist, your battle scars are mere nicks for me, but I can see the welts forming.

    I credit Karen McGrane, Erin Kissane, Kate Kiefer, Kristina Halvorson and, my mentor, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, for opening my eyes to what I should expect in the discipline.

    One of the biggest conclusions I’ve drawn is even as content, in and of itself, has grown in importance, it’s not very well understood by “experts,” whether in design, development or management. We’re still, in many ways, getting people to see beyond words, images and audio.

    Getting everyone in the room to value the import of UX or usability is a whole other story.

    Thanks very much, Kate, for your wonderful, honest post.


  3. Hello Ronell,

    I’ve just come across your comment now. I’m sorry it took me so long! Thank you and thank you.

    Getting everyone, beyond the digital team, in the room to value usability and to know that architecture, interaction and content must all play together nicely and equally sure is a whole other story. I’m still getting to grips with it. Loving the learning.


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