Is Content Strategy the Emperor’s New Clothes?

About 12 months ago, I thought I’d get down with the hip kids and gen up on Content Strategy. I read Kristina Halvorson’s book on the topic and attended a few events in that there London. I thought by this stage of the year my wrath and bile for the topic would have calmed down. But oh no.

Let’s take the long route to my point.

I started doing interactive things during my A-Levels in about 1990/91. (Blimey, that’s 20 years ago… how time flies, etc…) At college I learned about “multimedia” and *gasp* “hypermedia”. Several years later I looked back at some of my college notes and found handouts about Mr Nielsen, Ted Nelson (check out his Xanadu project) and even Doug Engelbart (who he?!). Of course at the time I was completely unaware just how important all of this stuff was going to be during my career. Indeed at the time I wasn’t even sure whether you could make a career out of it.

As someone who had (and still has) no design qualification or training – just a healthy and rapacious enthusiasm – my first jobs working on “interactive multimedia” were all about content. I made video for a touchscreen kiosk about how Camille Silvy created his groundbreaking photograph River Scene, France. I wrote voiceover scripts telling the story of World War 2 for a CD-ROM product (mentioned here as a BIMA award winner). I worked on the design of content for a Henley Centre product called Media Futures. (The Henley Centre are now known as the Futures Company).

I was taught and continually reminded by all of my peers and bosses in each of those jobs that interactive media was nothing without content. I went to a b-squillion client meetings and told all who would listen that “this project’s not going to happen unless you’re either providing or paying us to write the content”. Plus I made it clear that if the client was providing the content, they’ve got another thing coming if they think we’re just going to Apple-C, Apple-V what they gave us into the product. We’d edit it and get it right for the medium too.

When the first web agency boom started kicking off towards the end of the Nineties, it struck me that something happened that changed a lot of people’s attitudes towards making interactive products. I blame it on marketing. Suddenly what I would call “wizzy gadgets” started taking over from content as “the hero”.

I remember sitting in the same office as the AntiRom team (now part of trendy art and design collective Tomato) and thinking “this is cool, but where’s the substance?” The AntiRom product was all about the interface. I was all about the content. They sold a version of their product to Levi’s and possibly made a fortune. I didn’t.

As time moved on I worked for a small WPP agency, Grey Interactive, and then part of Euro RSCG. By 2002 I had done an six year stint in London web agencies. Admittedly not necessarily the best ones or the most famous or biggest. Nevertheless, apart from one particularly excellent and well-funded project I did with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which won a Learning On Screen award, I can’t really think of one client project that had a specific focus on content from the client’s point of view. (And the PwC project was run on the client side by a very good guy who had a history of programme making at the BBC – much like my bosses when I worked on the World War 2 project in 1995.)

The main conclusion I drew from these experiences was that most companies don’t tend to employ people who have the capabilities to create content. They bring that expertise in as freelancers or they employ agencies to do it for them. Indeed since moving to the client side in 2004, I have found that as a general rule, around 90% of people can barely craft a well-worded, customer-facing sentence, let alone think about words, pictures and video strategically.

Nevertheless, throughout that time my approach to web projects hasn’t really changed. It’s definitely evolved. Stuff like Balsamiq Mockups and Silverback and agile may have made my thinking a little more incremental and customer-focused than it once was. But every time I start on a new project, I’m always aware that we’re going to require substance, whether it’s price and availability data for a booking engine, “About us”-type copy for a corporate site or great photos for a Twitter feed.

More than that, I also factor in to my thinking that acquiring this substance is going to take resource and expertise (money and people, or alternatively, money for people), it’s going to take process to build in quality, it’s going to take systems to hold it and manage it. Ideally it’s going to take a well-structured approach to things like metadata and taxonomy. (That doesn’t always happen though, I admit).

Now. Here we are in 2010, and there’s a whole raft of people telling me that I need to be concerned about content. Content has been relegated to the bottom of the pile, particularly by UX types like me. I should lead with the content (seemingly no matter what – whatever happened to customer insight?!?). I should have a Content Strategist within my team – or even better I should be paying an agency to get one on board.

In her book, Kristina Halvorson memorably picks up on Jesse James Garrett’s infamous diagram The Elements of User Experience (PDF version) and notes, rather cuttingly, that there is “no place for content” within his now almost seminal positioning and explanation of user experience. This was cited as evidence for content “not being invited” to the UX party. I thought this was particularly mean. So in January I emailed Kristina. To be fair her response was very reasonable. But she stuck to her point that (and I quote)

Today’s UX practitioners design visuals, user interfaces, usability tests, and information systems (almost always without planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of the information for which they are designing their systems)

Not in my projects they don’t! And anyway, why is it that “most” UX practitioners don’t plan for content? Well that’s pretty clear to me. It’s because clients, especially ones sitting in marketing departments, don’t get content. They don’t see a need for it, they don’t buy it, they don’t provide it. Indeed it’s one of the most well-known problems that web designers cite when talking about frustrations with delivering websites.

And where were the Content Strategists in the first decade of the 21st century when marketing clients were refusing to pay for creating content at web agencies? Well, I would guess that most of them were working for the very same web agencies. A bit like me, in all honesty. But I called myself an Information Architect or a User Experience Architect. And on my projects I did manage to get content the position it deserved. In many cases, by hook or by crook; providing what was required myself, crafting the words from thin air as I have done throughout my career.

When a member of my team attended an econsultancy event earlier this year on Innovation in Content Strategy, she came back buzzing about how it could help what we were doing. She was brimming with personas and scenarios, with goals and tasks, with usability testing and split testing. You what? That’s certainly not Content Strategy. It may well be Web Strategy, or just simply “strategy”. And so this is where we get to my point…

Content Strategy is the Emperor’s New Clothes because it simply repackages thinking and activities that have always been a part of creating compelling interactive products.

The repackaging – alongside the rise of social media – may be encouraging marketing people to think again about content. This is welcome, but don’t believe the hype. From where I’m sitting, Content Strategy is designed to pay agencies for something they should have already been doing for clients.

Moreover, and ironically, the people pushing Content Strategy now are the same people who failed to persuade marketers of content’s importance during the Nineties and Noughties, leading to the relegation of content from prominence during the “rise of user experience” over the past 10 years.

Ta da! Well that was a cathartic start to my blog… I hope you enjoyed it.


10 thoughts on “Is Content Strategy the Emperor’s New Clothes?

  1. I’m not convinced. Your experience shows that the whole web-design industry lost its way back in the late ’90s and that for ten years content was undervalued. Now content is returning to its former prominence.If you’ve been thinking "content first" throughout the last decade, when everyone else was wandering in darkness, then good for you. But it doesn’t mean that the new emphasis on content is phony. For some people (the hip kids) it might actually be a new idea. For a lot of others it’s a much needed reminder of what their priorities ought to be.And, by the way, effective content strategy isn’t just about content. It’s <a href="">about the audience</a> first and foremost.

  2. If nothing else, this post proves that content strategy is key. In fact, your very words push the buttons that, at least in web design, content was relegated to a secondary status that rankled you. If anything, you were probably at the forefront of content strategy, just didn’t call it that.That said, There’s even more to this than the information on the web. I still think that Kristina’s view is a little limiting and that the strategy should encompass all customer-facing documentation so that there si a consistent, clear, and concise message. If you can manage things on a global level for a client, their entire information delivery improves.

  3. Content strategy doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with content development. We’ll pay an exorbitant amount of money to a content strategist and then outsource the actual content development (elance, guru, etc… "200 articles, 400-500 words each, 24-hour turnaround, US$2 each). And then they end up with crappy content that doesn’t serve the customers well.That said, juliov27612 makes a good point… an organization needs to have "consistent, clear, and concise message" across all levels of the organization, not just the website.

  4. @juliov27612 ‘s comment ("the strategy should encompass all customer-facing documentation") betrays the confusion found in some parts of the techcomm and CS domains. Product documentation describes how to use a product effectively to meet the user’s needs (yes, with controlled terminology/phraseology), whereas Strategic Marketing Communications (which is what CS actually is) is about guiding/persuading (potential) customers to do something. Two different things. The discussion continues …

  5. By "to do something" I mean "to engage further with my enterprise," especially to PURCHASE SOMETHING.

  6. No confusion here. Product documentation and marketing communications do have different purposes and audiences, but there are key messages that exist in both that must be coordinated and consistent. CS should look at both, otherwise there’s the old danger of sales promising what development cannot deliver.

  7. What is an example of the "key messages"? Too vague for me. Practically speaking, I think you must be talking about using a controlled vocabulary. Also, introductory material in the documentation can make use of boilerplate text that establishes the context for using products and set the enterprises "vision" etc. Other than that, describing ain’t persuading.

  8. Hi all, big thanks to you all for commenting – a really nice kick start for my humble blog’s beginnings :)To address the points raised:@larry_kunz I actually don’t think the new emphasis on content is "phony". One of the things that’s really great about what we do (can I use ‘we’ in that context? Too forward?) is that there is just *so much* to concentrate on with the web and digital, er, stuff, that at some point it was going to be content’s turn again.Just as in the past year we’ve had "persuasive" design wheeled out, as well as anything prefixed with the word "neuro". Don’t these people know that all that stuff comes from psych experiments in the 60s and 70s!Anyway, what *does* leave a rather appalling taste in my mouth, and what I’m railing against here, is the way in which "content" in it’s latest Content Strategy guise is being "repackaged" to be sold (oftentimes resold again!) to clients. While one shouldn’t "fix the blame" before fixing the problem, it’s digital agencies and web consultancies who are in my firing line here. (Perhaps that’s you too, to be fair… This blog is intended to be provocative, in a thinking way rather than in a personal vendetta way, if I can at all help it. Hopefully that’s how it’s being received.)Further, with a very little effort + Google and LinkedIn, I have found that many of the people now leading the charge on Content Strategy are (more or less, give or take) the very same people that prospered over the last 10 or 12 years in digital agencies. Where they just *had* to be creating "bells-and-whistles"-having, fluff-and-puff-no-insight-driven, eye-candy-but-no-utility-imbued overblown marketing microsites. And the like. When they could have been leading clients into a "golden age of content", or even better a "golden age of customer first thinking" where the "frosting" comes later. And probably for less overall marketing dollars too. What is so wrong with that, you might say. That was then, this is now, and so on. It’s all work for the working man to do. Perhaps you’re right. I’m a terribly jealous and vain person!However, my issue there is that, having done this as you say "wandering through the darkness" and with a modicum of success too (stayed in work, won awards etc), it is a little irritating to hear those same messages again, re-crafted in Web 2.0-style marketing-ese. As if they were derived from some oh-so-sparkly new and dramatic insight as to how we should do things, never heard before and all new to the ear.Irritating. Therefore, I call BS! Or at least poorly targeted communication.And to add to that I read your own blog post with interest. > For all the talk about how content is king, are we giving short > shrift to the people who use the content?Yes, you betcha we’re giving short shrift! I’ve only met a few people with Content Strategy leanings here in the UK. But even then, nobody I have met talked about usability testing, ethnography, contextual interviews or any kind of insight-driven approach to finding out what makes users tick FIRST. Disappointing. And really a missed opportunity for those people… The customer research techniques are not hard to learn and can lead to you becoming a very powerful "Voice of the Customer" within the organisation for which you’re working.@juliov27612 You’ll notice that nowhere did I say Content Strategy is not important. I think it’s critical as you rightly say. However when I were a lad, it certainly wasn’t called Content *Strategy*. It may have just been "Strategy". But then again digital agencies and consultancies need things to sell, I guess. And if those things have the word "Strategy" in them, more’s the better!@MikeStarr you’re absolutely right there. When things get "down and dirty" I’m guessing there won’t be much call for Content Strategists then, now will there! What clients really need first and foremost is to know how to write. Sounds silly and basic and hygiene-factor-ish, but it is a magical, special skill that needs nurturing, in the same way that things like design and engineering do.@BkwdGreenComet I think all of this smacks of "giving something the right name". This also happened in the UX community, and still does to an extent to this day. What I have learned from that experience is that there is no value in categorising and labelling things to death. (This is quite hard for me to admit as someone with a mild OCD fetish for re-organising my record collection.) However, I think the only reason to label and to categorise in this space is ultimately to package and to sell. This does me no favours in my job or my life. This is because a. it is boring and b. I am not an agency or a consultant.Beyond that I think most people who work in UX, tech writing and even marketing and so on would know that communication from a company, regardless of the purpose or intent of the communication, should be "branded" somehow to the personality of that organisation. (And if you don’t have or know that personality, call the brand police and get one, quick!)Now if we’re talking about online, we’re talking about a text-driven medium, fundamentally. That’s it’s origins anyway. Yeah you can do pictures and videos, but words are more or less all you have to differentiate that consistently work no matter connection speed, browser and whatnot. So from a creative perspective having the capability to communicate with words – and have those words be crafted in a distinctive manner – is becoming more important. Furthermore, once you’ve "got words" having the business process and systems to store, manage, distribute and drive those words (whatever they are!) to where they need to go is also more important.Ta da! New agency service – Content Strategy! Plus "did you hear we have our own CMS you can host all this stuff in too…" Cor, wow a bit of data lock in approach, whodathunkit!Finally, to pick you up on the point "describing ain’t persuading". I work in the travel industry. When you describe a holiday (vacation) or hotel really well with pictures and words, it can be incredibly persuasive. Truly amazing. I’ve seen it with our customers. It’s driven our site redesign – see links to Crystal Ski on your right – and it’s working right now on our conversion rates too. (We’re 30% up YOY following launch)I think this is because most companies don’t even describe well. You can’t begin to persuade when you don’t have the product details required to get customers to a basic purchase decision. So to me, describing is a first step on the road – probably a very long and most likely never-ending road – to persuasion.Right. Well that concludes my over-long and ranty comments for this evening. Thanks again all for getting involved and I look forward to further provocative discussion!CheersDJ

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  10. Hi David, for what it’s worth I agree.I suddenly started hearing about content strategy, and took a scan through Halvorson’s book, and was….well….disappointed. Nothing new here I’m afraid, other than the moniker "content strategy".Whether or not some in our industry didn’t pay enough attention to it in the past is a different point. My point is, this is not a new concept, and by tagging the word "strategy" onto the word content a new subject is not born (although maybe many new careers are being spawned by it)… All it means now is, when I need to hire a content manager or content specialist, I have to ask for a content strategist. Funnily enough they’re usually the same people.

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