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James Perrin

The Content Strategy Forum 2011 – Day One

7th Sep 2011 Content Marketing, News, Industry News 13 minutes to read

Having just spent the last two days amongst some of the most interesting, intelligent and forward thinking individuals, I’ve come to appreciate a greater understanding of what exactly content strategy is all about.

What I’m most interested in is how it can relate the world I work in. I’m a copywriter and I write onsite and offsite content, that’s a strategy in itself, but am I going to establish another strategy, something more relevant to SEO and how it can drive traffic? Well that was my intention, but I got a whole lot more than that…thanks to my employers, I’ve come across something much larger than my initial pursuit for what helps drive traffic.

The conference was split into two days. On day one every attendee sat in the auditorium watching the brainchild’s of this evolving discipline. First up was the Gerry McGovern. With great humour Gerry explained the importance of the task when it comes to content.


Manage the tasks, not the content

What is the task of your content? What do you want people to do with your content? Instead of managing the content itself, Gerry advocates managing the use of the content. So what does this actually mean? It means helping your customers achieve what they want in the fastest possible time, this will help your site become more successful.

The essence of Gerry’s talk is that helpful and supportive content will help people find exactly what they want quickly and effectively. Fluff won’t do this…it’s all about support content; this is the new marketing in Gerry’s opinion.

So how do we know what supportive content to write? Well this obviously depends on the client, but it’s incredibly important to focus on what the user wants. He uses great examples from Liverpool Council and the NHS to name a few, where simple changes to the site structure and the language used can help a lot. In this sense it’s all about site links, removing the clutter with simple drop down bars where you can select exactly the page you’re after.

To establish what to cut and what to change it’s important that we measure what people are doing; it has to be evidence based. SEO is driven by data, so why can’t the content on the site be as well? The way that people respond to specific words and sentences needs to be rigorously tested, and then we can look forward. A point that Gerry makes is that we succeed based on facts, not opinions, and so we need to be methodical and scientific when it comes to web content as we want to drive behaviour.

Takeaway: Support content is the new marketing


Content strategy methodology: a DIY project

Next up was Melissa Rach who provided a great insight into creating a content strategy methodology. What we learned was that methodologies are different to strategies. When we think of methodology we think of something that is repeatable. Methodologies are specific methods that are efficient, predictable, and easy to communicate. Strategies are different because methodologies and specific methods all have the same outcome; strategies are to get people to an area that we don’t know about. So in this respect, there isn’t a one size fits all approach to content strategy.

So what’s the solution and where do we start? Well using her work from Brain Traffic, the core of their content strategy work is to:

Get set: Make sure everyone is ready for change.
Bet: Establishing our options and what we are going to try out.
Vet: Taking big ideas and drilling them down into the details.
Sweat: Creating, publishing and updating content.

As an approach to content strategy, this is fascinating, but how do we get to this stage? What are the building blocks?

1.    What is your role as a strategist? Create clarity, facilitate smart decisions, align stakeholders and help operationalise change.
2.    What about documentation? You can start conversations, document decisions and reference materials. This is very much a by product of a methodology.
3.    Look at areas of a content strategy. Consider the content, so that’s the Substance and structure, and also look at the people delivering the content, so that’s workflow and governance.
4.    Start the Strategic process. Most of them go through four stages as we discovered. Get set, bet, vet and sweat.

Melissa was keen to stress that content strategy products take a long time, and the industry is moving faster than that. So it’s crucial for us to share. The competitive advantage we get is from learning from other people.

Takeaway: Share our knowledge!


First things first: message matters

Margot Bloomstein‘s talk focussed on the message architecture; it’s a little thing with a big impact! In order to understand what it is we are trying to communicate, we should establish a message architecture made up of shared concrete terminology.

This is where we need to converse with the client about the words they want to use; and Margot demonstrates a case study where they get ideas from a client about relevant words, which they then sort, all 150 adjectives. Known as card sorting they can discover with the client more about the words they want to use by sorting them into three columns; who we are, who we are not and who we would like to be.

Always ask the client, “What do you mean by that word?” this opens them up and enables her to establish the corporate culture which forms the copy they later write. The final step is to then prioritise these goals and tell the story of their aspirations.

Why do this? Because it saves money. This can also help with content audits, where you discover what is accurate to the brand and the message architecture. Using an example from the Mini launch in the US, their site was consistent with the language they used right down to the legal pages.

Explore the message architecture; it has many benefits including analysis and content audit. This way you can judge existing content by the standards you’ve established and you’ll be able to see what content works and what doesn’t.

Takeaway: a messaging strategy is relevant to a brand strategy


The way forward: what’s next for content strategy

One of the most inspiring speakers was Karen McGrane, especially for those who have or are establishing themselves as content strategists, focussed on the user experience. Whilst my day to day work doesn’t deal with the sophistication of what Karen and her clients are looking achieve, not yet anyway, it does present perfectly the future of this rapidly evolving discipline and profession.

Karen works with a lot of publishers who come to her saying they need redesigns of their CMS because they are overloaded with different platforms and because they can’t use their CMS to facilitate all of them.

Using a wonderful anecdote she tells us about a business that have employed a war correspondent, one so good he managed to negotiate the Soviets and the Afghanistan forces to sit down and talk. Once his duties were over, they tasked him with overseeing the changes to their CMS, to incorporate many platforms that all departments were happy with. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years, three years to be exact. Why? Because the man that got opposing forces to communicate couldn’t even get the IT and editorial departments to agree on an effective CMS – it’s that tough!

For clients of hers, Karen is experiencing these major problems amongst companies:

Fragmented content management
Fragmented organisations structure
Fragmented devices and platforms

So where do we go from here?

1.    Bridging web marketing and technology through user experience.
2.    Get businesses to restructure to get them up to date. To do so we need to embrace the loveable fool. This may sound random, but it makes so much sense when negotiating change in a business. People listen to the lovable fool, they like them, they don’t like the jerk, not matter how competent or incompetent he or she is.
3.    There is no ‘mobile’. Using NPR as an example, who dedicated time developing an API enabling them to create one piece of copy which can be redistributed to a variety of different platforms. Unsexy, yes, but they have seen a drastic increases in sales because of it.

The mobile ‘problem’ presents us with an opportunity to say to businesses that they need a CMS fit for purpose. It’s an exciting future with huge problems to solve and it seems that the NPR case study is an example for many to behold.

Takeaway: Your CMS workflow is integral to making money


On All the Different “Web Governances” in the Universe

“Why is content strategy so hard?” asks Lisa Welchman. Well she answers her own question, “it’s not”. Content seems hard because it exists in a dynamic context. Multi channel delivery, web, mobile, print, fax, phone, email. Some of these are on their way out and some are on the way in.

Due to its dynamism, not everyone believes it’s content, because other people (depending on their role) say it’s different; they may call content records, documents, meta, knowledge, information, data. It’s not either or, it’s a big AND. So information has become uncertain. But what do you do with all these different terms?

This is where Lisa’s profession comes in – Web Governance. Helping change organisational structures from hierarchical based to object based. “Eh?” I hear you shout. In other words every single person in a business needs to collaborate around shared goals. This will help you refer to a set of standards agreed by the relevant experts in each area.

Governance can start grand but eventually gets funnelled down to content governance. However, Lisa warns that if corporate governance is confused at the top, then it’ll be confusing at every stage.

Takeaway: Don’t be a barrier to the organisational change, but be open to the governing process.


Content strategists: the men and women of a new Renaissance

Eric Reiss is worried that we will all commit the same problems that have happened in the past. Having sent his first email in 1981, he jokingly confirms that he outranks all of us in the digital world – I can’t argue with that.

The strategy part is easy. It’s about reaching the business goals of the client whilst satisfying the goals of the users. We have to define, acquire, publish and link useful, usable, quality, and fresh content. The rest is tactics.

So what are we getting wrong? Well using a great example of two websites that sell hiking boots, L.L. Bean and Lands’ End. One sell more hiking boots than the other based on a simple tactical difference; and it’s nothing new, shoe makers have been doing it for years to the point where he shows images from the early 1900’s of the same effective solution – show the sole of the boot when presenting the image.

It’s all about a Shared Reference, give people what they want. In the case above, it’s the image of the boot with the sole, it’s traditional and effective. Context is incredibly important too, especially when building a story. From bars, to coffee shops and fruit and veg stores, they all have content strategies displaying their contextually relevant content. It’s worked for years so we don’t need to change it. McDonalds have their content strategy down to a tee. Burger, fries….and….yep you guessed it, drink.

Content strategy is nothing new, and there are other disciplines that do what we do. So there’s no point in over thinking it or defining it, let’s just do it.

Takeaway: if content is king, then context is the kingdom.


Making sense of the (new) new content landscape

“Things are odd and they’re getting odder by the day” according to Erin Kissane. So what are we going to do?

A new framework? If that is the answer then it needs to make good publishing decisions now and in the future, and it needs to work for all of us. This is because we all have different approaches. So how do we bridge all of these approaches together?

Using her love for Christopher Alexander and what he calls space architecture, she is able to establish that the patterns which work and make us feel better are the ones that have life and bring things to life. “Life is good thing to focus on” and using an example from her favourite magazine, Wired, she shows how the app for Wired needs to take heed and come to life. Here’s how…


Finding out what people need, and harmonising their needs. Useful, accessible, searchable, findable, portable, and fundamentally usable in many ways.


Ways of building hooks, to allow the content we produce to interconnect with people’s real lives. This isn’t the share icons at the bottom of every page (this blog included), it’s the way Twitter on the mobile has become the mobile water cooler for everyone.

The Times have ostensibly given up their interconnectedness because of its a pay wall. However The NY Times is different. It’s still accessible and permeable because it’s more important to keep people on the web, so much so this is known as a ‘paid fence’, not a ‘paid wall’.


Base isolation; this is, for example, how architects and builders construct buildings which are earthquake proof. Don’t be too dependent on third party APIs because they are vulnerable.

Takeaway: bringing things to life is critical to content strategy now


The language of software: the role of content strategy in software development

Des Traynor provided a hugely entertaining yet informative and knowledgeable speech on the language of interfaces focussing on how websites are all turning into web apps and what we need to do to be a part of it.

What we know is that the web is being rebuilt around people e.g. Trip advisor and Facebook – people come to read the content. But content strategy needs to be ingrained into software development and contribute significantly to the whole process.

So how is content strategy going to do this?

Design a user interface for user generated content. Language influences behaviour, it influences the actions and relationships we encounter. Whether you tweet, like, plus one, they are different and influence relationships. It’s all about context too, because ‘friends’ are different to people that you ‘follow’.

Create content for users to consume. So you have a blank slate, but what do I say on a blank wall? What do I tweet and update with? Traynor likens this to talk radio; they set the tone but let the listeners fill the void. It’s the same with web content and the way design decisions control user behaviour. To show his point we are presented with hilarious examples from YouTube comments and yahoo answers.

Takeaway: content strategy contributes in two ways – designing interfaces to drive content and create consumable content


How did we all get here?

Richard Ingram presents a fascinating account, rich in data that was pooled together from all the attendees in the months leading to the conference.

Among so much else, Richard discovered that ‘content strategy’ is a field that is approximately made up of 60% females and 40% males. Also the vast majority of the backgrounds of study for content strategists are English language, English literature and journalism. You can see all of Richard’s data compiled on his own site.

From a selfish point of view, this was very reassuring for me. On arrival to the conference I immediately realised that as a copywriter I did belong here, but where exactly? Everyone else had so much more strategic or technical experience, and I realised this will come in time and we have to start somewhere, but the fact that the majority of people were educated in these fields and started out as copywriters reaffirmed my belief in content strategy.


Lightening Talks

The final part of the first day saw four incredibly brave and fast talking specialists take to the stage to talk about their strategies, case studies and thoughts on this discipline going forward. Shelly Wilson, Matthew Grocki, Nicole Jones, Sara Wachter-Boettcher deserve a big congratulations for what seemed like impossible but very enlightening talks.

The day was rounded off perfectly with a drinks reception where everyone mingled, networked and discussed their thoughts on the day. Fun was had by all, but it was only the first day, day two was to follow…

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