I originally published this post on August 24, 2008 on leenjones.com. I’m told it’s still useful, so I moved it here.

Hear the term “content strategy” often but aren’t sure what it means? That’s not surprising because different people use the term in very different ways. And as a relatively new term to the user experience (UX) glossary, content strategy’s definition is still taking shape. A few takes on content strategy include…

Content Strategy as Data Philosophy

A significant article on content strategy in the UX world is Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data. Filled with some good insights, I especially like how this article expands the definition of content beyond copy. Content the text, images, video, and audio that make up an experience. However, I don’t think defining content strategy as data philosophy is as helpful to practitioners and clients as potentially other approaches. I also think the article focuses on tactics to implement a content strategy, such as creating an inventory of content. Finally, this article associates content strategy with information architecture but not interaction design. In my experience, content plays an important role in conversion interactions (such as adding a product to a cart, checking out, subscribing to a service, etc.).

Content Strategy As A Role And Collection of Tasks

A presentation by Kristina Halvorson, Content Strategy: The Mania, The Myth, The Method, likewise has some nice insights. I value her argument for the importance of content and her practical explanation for why content often is ignored in the design process. (Getting into a client’s content really is messy.) But the presentation doesn’t seem to define what a content strategy is or offer an example of one. It describes the role of a content strategist and the tasks a content strategist, as well as a writer and editor, perform. Helpful and practical, but I’m still left wondering what the heck a content strategy is. This presentation (along with the follow up interview / essay) also tends to associate content strategy with information architecture, not interaction design.

Content Strategy as Restraint

Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern and Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish do not talk about content strategy per se. But they are go-to books for content, so I think their approach has some influence on people’s perceptions of content strategy. Both of these books emphasize cutting content, “brutal” concision, and the like. While I don’t completely disagree, I think this approach is misinterpreted easily as “Don’t include a lot of content because it’s not that important.” Both of these authors are reacting to their experiences with government websites, where unuseful content proliferates very quickly. That’s often not the case in the private sector.

Content Strategy: Another Perspective

Here’s my take on content strategy.

It’s a statement.

A content strategy states the approach to content. This statement usually can be a few sentences or paragraphs. I’ve also written a content strategy as a slide presentation that included examples, expounded on reasons for the strategic direction, or noted some tactics to achieve the strategy. But the content strategy itself should be fairly succinct. This helps everyone working on the content stay focused on the strategy.

It supports, complements, or otherwise relates to the user experience strategy.

You certainly don’t want your experience strategy to conflict with your content strategy. For instance, if your experience strategy is for customers to research, compare, and buy a large range of products effortlessly and safely, then your content strategy should focus on the content that helps customers perform those tasks. If the focus of the product or service is content, then the content strategy may actually be integrated into the experience strategy. For instance, I would consider the experience strategy and content strategy for flickr to be essentially the same.
It covers areas such as:

Content Purposes and Contexts
Critical to the strategy is what the content is supposed to accomplish and in what situations. From these two considerations the other aspects of the strategy should flow. For instance, a content purpose may be to convince people to subscribe to a service, and a content situation may be the user is researching service options.

Content Topics and Types (High Level)
The strategy can state the major topic areas, such as product specifications and product benefits, as well as the main types of content (text, blog posts, audio, video, etc.).

Content Distribution
The strategy notes what content, if any, will be appropriate for distribution and through what distribution mechanisms (feeds, social networking sites, etc.).

Search Engine Optimization (High-Level)
SEO involves its own strategy but overlaps with content concerns. I like for a content strategy to state whether SEO is a priority and note any key consequences, such as whether content for landing pages is needed.

Content Tone
Tone is critical to conveying a brand image and to developing a consistent “voice” for the content. Not everyone would consider it strategy. I like including it because it helps everyone working on the content stay consistent with the tone. I also have encountered clients who have not thoroughly thought through tone before, so discussing it as part of strategy helps get agreement on the tone.

Content Management, Governance, Standards, and Maintenance
This can be fleshed out in other documents, but whether a content management system, governance board, set of standards, or a maintenance plan are needed should be stated in the strategy. These items are especially important for larger organizations or organizations where the creation of content is highly decentralized (i.e., many different groups contribute content).

Where Does Persuasion Fit In?

If you know me, you know I love to point out the role of persuasion and rhetoric in user experience. For content, I see persuasion as part of the content purpose and context, which drives choices in the other areas. Specific persuasive and rhetorical techniques get into content tactics.

 

The Author

Colleen Jones is the founder and CEO of Content Science, a growing content intelligence and strategy firm based in Atlanta GA. Content Science owns Content Science Review and the content intelligence software  ContentWRX.  Colleen regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content. Colleen shares insights and guidance from her experience regularly on Content Science Review, at events around the world, and in these highly rated books:

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