It is ironic, as we’re all professional communicators of types, that we suffer so at the hands of our own labelling and terminology.
We are all responsible for creating, curating and disseminating content to support an overall strategy, yet we hold onto vertical, department, or (heaven forbid) technology and tool-specific communities as if our lives depended on it.
This isn’t a message just for web marketing folk or technical communicators, it’s for all content professionals.
Content Strategy is something that crosses departments and verticals and channels, because the business strategy isn’t divided up by department. You don’t have the product team saying “We’re going to develop for the home user” and the marketing team saying “We’re going to market into the B2B space!”.
Tech Comms is sometimes under product, sometimes under marketing. Either way, they can’t be off on their own writing help or manuals thinking “So… we’ve defined our users as all being nurses who speak English as a second language”.
We have to align content across agreed audience profiles and speak to them in a cohesive, brand-enhancing way.
You would never want a web marketing team to say “We’re going to approach the under-25s with a hip and conversational messaging architecture” and the print team to say “We’re going after the over 40s with a professional and academic tone”. Or, if you do, that’s bad business strategy.
To do content strategically, we have to talk to each other across the currently-held boundaries.
Images of Content Strategy
I’ve heard Content Strategy described in a breath-taking variety of ways (it’s almost as bad as ‘structured content’ or ‘XML’).
When Ann Rockley began using it in the first editions of “A Unified Content Strategy” (Second Edition features a case study by me by the way, so check me out with my bad self…) it was a holistic term, crossing silos and formats. The term didn’t really take hold of the popular imagination for a decade or so (real innovation takes time to bed in), and it first took hold in the web marketing world, so it looked like this:
Since then, we’ve been hearing more of an a collaborative message between the core externally-facing communications team, which I think looks like this (which is not too bad frankly!):
Finally, and most inspiring to me, truly ‘holistic’ content strategy doesn’t limit itself to departments or points in the content and customer lifecycle. For example it doesn’t just look at external marketing messaging architecture and copy, but market-requirements documents and product strategy documentation which is internal. Similarly, it isn’t about ‘technical communications’ in the sense of external docs, but any technical content on intranets, engineering specifications and so on inside the development process of product content:
I know few organisations will ever be this sophisticated, but it’s a nice idea… isn’t it?
Even if we get it, the customers don’t…
The message I get from most professionals is that this is a harsh business reality. Their customers are only ready for the most basic and superficial interpretations of content strategy. I think that that’s partly true and as professionals we have to try to educate the market while not going out of business talking about “beyond mobile” publishing with clients that resolutely can’t get their heads out of printed pages.
So although it feels like it took us years and years to get this far in the practioners communities, it’s going to be years more that we’re explaining it to the rest of industry to have the concept of content strategy – looking at a content as an asset that can help achieve strategic goals – sink in.
Please, someone disagree with me…!
PS – If you are a technical communicator, please check out David Farbey’s latest post on exactly this. It’s no small thanks to David’s post that I was inspired to write this.
PPS – I know I often allude to my crushing project schedule, but right now is really bad. I shouldn’t even be blogging right now frankly but I couldn’t resist… so sorry if this was at all a garbled mess. I think I need a content strategy and process for my blog… 🙂
It’s very kind of you to mention my post, and I really don’t deserve any credit for your article here, which is an excellent analysis of where content is – or isn’t – in a business.
Ann Rockley’s huge contribution was in making it clear – in money terms – that there was business value in investing in a strategic approach to content development and dissemination. Kristina Halvorson’s contribution has been in making talking about content, and paying attention to content, something that’s popular amongst the people who are responsible for doing business on the web.
But in the enterprise back office, content still isn’t seen as an asset – despite Ann’s convincing arguments, businesses are still hugely reluctant to invest. We all need to work hard to bring the popularity of and enthusiasm for content in from the web design office and into the heart of the business. If we could do that we would all – writers, businesses, and customers – be winners.
You provided inspiration and motivation – there’s few things that deserve more credit when it comes to creating anything!
Hi David, I have sort of left it implied that I agree with your comments by not elaborating or commenting.
I should add however that, to you and Larry’s comment, for TechComm at least, the organisations where I see traction are not those where the value of content is eventually made clear, but the link between content and actionable corporate knowledge is made.
When we are able to demonstrate, or at least make a compelling argument, for the idea that content is the brand’s memory, and therefore its ability to retain knowledge needed to operate effectively and profitably, then up-to-date, easily consumed product information suddenly becomes of interest. Otherwise it is vastly difficult to not sound like you are talking about content for content’s sake. Worse still, when we start talking not even about content, but ‘the help’, or worse ‘manuals’.
Phrases which sound good to TechComm folk like ‘a poor manual impacts out brand’ can often and with varying degrees of accuracy, be beaten back by ‘Lots of profitable companies have bad manuals and make up for it other ways – ways the consumer cares more about like support, training and social communities.’
Hard to argue that… in my opinion we need to recast the content in terms of what it does, and never focus on what it is. I’ve presented before on the idea that sometimes the manual *is* important, but in other businesses it’s simply no longer the right way to be delivering knowledge. Far too many technical communication folk see their jobs as synonymous with manuals. We have to get out of that mindset.
Important note: ‘content’ is rarely a word that connects with decision-making staff. It is usually ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’ which are more intuitive and broad to an audience outside the comms teams.
Noz, this is a great analysis of where we’ve been and where we are. I’m especially interested in your statement that the customers just don’t get it. They shouldn’t have to get it, any more than I have to have a detailed knowledge of internal combustion engines before I can drive my car.
If we, using the principles of content strategy, can deliver information to customers in such a way that they get what they need, when they need it, that’s all that matters. Maybe one day some of them will stop and say, “Hey, using this company’s product is a lot easier than back when I had to search through a PDF.”
In short, I don’t think the customers are clamoring for printed pages and PDFs — although I’ll concede that in many cases they might be resigned to them.
Hi Unknown, long time no chat! 😉
Actually you point out an interesting point of perspective. This was written to contracting or agency content professionals or corporate teams that refer to the budget holder as “the customer”. If you mean the “customer” like the end user of the content, I totally agree. If you mean the customer of the content services the content strategist supplies – aka the brand – then I think they do need to understand the value of what they are paying for and engage with the process. World write more but I’m on a cell phone!
The “unknown” comment was mine. For some reason I can’t log in to comment as myself . It’s not just your blog – it’s something about Blogspot.
Anyway, Noz, thanks for clarifying what you meant by “customer.” I wish I could say that you’re wrong, that they really do understand the strategic value of content. But my experience is like yours, I’m afraid.
– Larry Kunz (Twitter: @larry_kunz)
I like the article, Noz. I agree with you that the customers (in this case I think you mean the purse string holders) don’t get it. The sad thing is that even when you can demonstrate clearly how a content strategy will provide value, someone controlling the budget will say, “We can’t afford it.” Even when you tell them that you need to evolve to the final state.
The bottom line is that until all communications are seen as effecting the bottom-line, the desire to move to a complete content strategy (nice graphic, btw) as you’ve described will be difficult to implement. It’s when a corporate entity finally realizes that they truly have a problem that is absorbing some of their revenue that they might act.
Thanks, Julio. For me, what’s poignant about what you say is “…until all communications are seen as effecting the bottom-line…” which carries a painful irony. We see endless studies and seminars about how on the interpersonal level, *all* aspects of our communications, not only intentional, verbal or conscious communications, affect how we are perceived.
Yet on an organisational level, we still hang onto the idea that fragmented or siloed communications aren’t always affecting the brand and therefore the bottom line. The fragmentation of our communication screams messages in between the lines that we write. The organisation’s users hear the message, but the organisation is deaf to it.
To badly mix a metaphor: it’s like we can’t smell our own smells, only those of others. : )