Content strategy: learned, unlearned, and (just a little bit) uncensored

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been able to put any real time into writing a decent blog post – and I would likely never get round to publishing one if I were to make sure that it was perfectly written, eloquent, and clear. So, here’s my last year or so of content strategising (or just plain old contending with contenting) – unedited and uncensored.

2011 was dedicated to three projects: a website redesign for a global architecture company, another for a not-for-profit free expression/literary house, and one non-web-build project – a content strategy exercise for an ecommerce company. The projects belonged to the team, Exploded View, with whom I contract as a Content Strategist, Project Manager, and sometimes wireframer.

I come from a background of Fine Art (read: the ability to communicate concepts/emotion in non-obvious form), radio journalism (telling a story as if you’re whispering it into someone’s ear) and ecommerce management (refining open-source ecommerce platforms to serve all who will use them, and crafting content to solve unnecessary administrative tasks).

During 2011 I had the opportunity to use and combine all this experience and mould it into something cohesive and tangible – something which I can understand and which I can use in communicating concepts and strategies to other people, something of a content strategy and not just a, “Hey, I’ll fix that for you”.

The sudden tangibility of documents and meetings made my (previously pretty much impromptu and intuitive) process into something in which I could see the holes. I was also able to realise the things within a process which I cannot know (and told the client I could know), for example, the needs of a project before it was started. And I realised that content strategy is not about documentation, it can’t be and shouldn’t be, but rather, it’s about altering processes and about changing how people think and therefore how they create and communicate. Documents alone cannot do this.

This is not to say that I’ve got everything down pat, not by a long shot, but in the nascent world of content strategy (and the ever challenging and changing world of digital development and project management), I think I’m getting a good grip.

In honour of brevity, I’ll put aside the explanations and instead extend upon this with a list of the primary lessons I learned last year (2011). It’ll be great to look back on this list in 2013.

It’s all pretty simple stuff and setting it out like this makes me sound a little clueless (that’s the uncensored part – ordinarily I’d write about stuff that makes me sound clever). But whilst these are the biggest foibles I made last year, they’re also some of the most important lessons I learned perhaps even in the past 7 years of digital-doing.

(Thinking Tone of Voice, I usually try to stick to positives like ‘do’ or ‘rather’ but,  seeing that I’m going slightly uncensored, take a breath – here comes a list of ‘nevers’ and ‘don’ts’. It’s a wild world baby.)

  1. Never tell people what you’re going to do before you know what you’re going to do.
  2. Never promise to deliver documents about things when you don’t know that they need a document about those things.
  3. Don’t read a content strategy book, plot the process out as step 1 to 7 and then think you’ve got something to do.
  4. Don’t attempt to write documents without planning them like you would plan a website redesign. (Yeah, I know, I did this.)
  5. Don’t get your knickers tied in a knot because you realise that you’re not delivering a strategy at all but a voice branding exercise – sometimes this is what your client needs the most and it’s all you can do in the time you’ve got.
  6. (Ah, and here’s a ‘to do’.) Buy lots of techy shit – otherwise Her Majesty will practically own your little growing business before you’ve even gotten going.

Whilst the ‘formalisation’ of the field and practice of content strategy has in some ways made my life more challenging: in the past I would work in-house, I would learn about the audience by engaging with them, and I’d make small adjustments to systems and content over the space of months and years, until success was seen in improved sales figures and reduced admin costs. Now I need to apply these same skills but in a vastly shorter amount of time and as an outsider. I need to have a kick-off meeting, do steakholder (uh, honest typo, but I like it) interviews, audience research and profiles, and a whole lot of peeking inside analytics, CMS systems, office politics, ordering procedures, relationships with printers and designers – the list could go on.

Oh, yeah, that would be point no. 7: content strategy has more potential for scope creep than any other discipline I’ve ever come across. I mean, content is like vapour, it is everywhere and it can go everywhere. It can involve brand, ethics, legalities, workflow, SEO, production, maintenance, archiving, social media, shelf-life, psychology, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I’m going on a tangent here, but it’s an interesting one…

If you’re were a polymath specialising in psychology, sociology, human-computer interaction, linguistics, general tech-geekery, and even a little counselling (and you could recite ‘The Yahoo! Style Guide cover to cover), you’d be made! Being a bit of a control freak, I’ve had a hard time realising that I can’t give or do everything that a content strategy project might demand. If after R&D (or diagnosis as I prefer to call it) I see that the client would do well with improving their search engine results, I might call in an SEO expert to advise.

Point no. 8: I can’t and don’t have to be everything. My skill is being the clever-person who finds out what’s needed and then prescribes it – I might be able to personally fulfil the prescription, like suggest IA changes or work with the client to implement Tone of Voice changes, but I’m not a loser for not being able to do it all.

But maybe you all realised that long ago and I’m the only one that’s been sweating it out, trying to learn everything there is to know about content and everything around it. Well, I’ve caught up with you all. I now also know.

How all this has changed my process and what it looks like…

My approach to a content strategy job has changed a lot. I no longer think of content strategy as a linear step-by-step process but rather see it as something of an art form and, like art, a process and an outcome that cannot be wholly defined before it is complete. In order to give this rather amoebic arty form shape, I’ve needed to come up with a sturdy client-relationship and project process.

Here it is in overview:

So, in an ideal situation (meaning when you’re not grovelling for work to pay the bills/hunting for victims to perfect your art on):

  1. Get a clear top-end budget from the client.
  2. Estimate and bill for diagnosis (R&D).
  3. With diagnosis complete, take a strategic view of what you can deliver for the budget and what is most needed by your client.
  4. Give the client this diagnosis as a report – like a doctor giving a patient a prescription.
  5. As I have mentioned, there are some areas of diagnosis where you might want to refer the ‘patient’ onto a specialist. I let the client know where these areas are, why I’d like to call in a specialist, and how much it will cost.
  6. I’m no longer afraid to give some of the piece of the client-pie away – at the end of the day a happy client is a good client to have.
  7. With a diagnosis and a true-to-reality (and true to budget) project plan signed off, I’m ready to start thinking strategically. I’m ready not only to start writing documents but to start working with the client to create content creation and management processes and tools that work for them.

It was a super-busy year last year and I feel, in this post, that I’ve only just nibbled the tip of the ice-berg in sharing all the thoughts and realisations I had. These are things I need to note down for my own record, as much as for anyone elses’ use.

So, this year I’m going to be a better blogger. Yes I will. Oh, YES, I will.

(An easy thing to say when you’re between victims, or looking for a next victim – as I presently am – and have way too much time to write and do Twittery-stuff.)

As a taster, my next post is just about already written and it’s a bit of a mini-case study about the ecommerce client; it’s called something like, ‘Assumption, the mother of all…’

Oh, and I totally broke down and edited and de-typo’d (successfully I hope) this post.

I am after all a content person and simply not content with unedited content. Rah.


  1. Pingback: Brian Feeney » Content Strategy Is Changing the Future of the Web

  2. Thanks for your mention Brian. I love your designs. Kudos!

    And yes, I’m also thinking about what the future of ‘everything everywhere’ means for us and how we engage with/what we want from content. I think we have to start planning for these evolutions in engagement now.

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