"Content Strategy, Manhattan Style" - my notes from the stage

 by Martin Belam, 15 April 2010

On Tuesday night I had the enjoyable task of moderating the "Content Strategy, Manhattan Style" event jointly organised by Content Strategy UK and London IA. We were lucky to have three great panel members over from the USA for the evening: Rachel Lovinger, Jeff MacIntyre and Karen McGrane.

There seemed to be a lot of pain in the audience from being involved in digital projects where 'the content' is an 11th hour afterthought, cobbled together by the intern and the marketing guy, with an interfering hand from the CEO, rather than a thought through part of the development process. The good news from the panel was that most businesses only need to see one of these type of project failures before learning that investing in content strategy is a must.

It isn't just an issue for launch. Jeff calls it the 'day 2' problem. Websites are not static entities, but need constant attention to stay relevant and fresh for users (and for the all-seeing Googlebot). If you start a company blog, he says, you are making an unwritten contract with your audience and customers that you will be keeping it updated. Even for traditional content producers this can be tough - a cursory glance into the list of BBC blogs, for example, will soon turn up content that hasn't been updated since (at the time of writing this) October 2009 or September 2008.

Another big theme from the audience questions was how to stop a business getting all starry-eyed about the latest web developments, and thinking they are a must have, rather than working hard on improving what they have now. Karen McGrane suggested that historically a lot of couples have tried to fix a bad relationship by having a baby to bring them closer, rather than address their underlying problems. She argues that, similarly, bolting on a time-consuming and demanding "Web 2.0" presence onto a neglected and stale website won't solve a dysfunctional digital strategy.

One of the descriptions of content strategy that struck an obvious chord with me was the idea that it is 'information architecture over time'. Many companies now find themselves also 'doing publishing' as part of their day-to-day marketing activities in the digital sphere, whether that is a web site, social media or good old email. In fact Jeff MacIntyre said he'd "struggle to find a company that wasn't in the content creation business". They may be in the business now, but they don't necessarily have experience of working out a publishing schedule, or a renewal plan. A good content strategy allows the design, templates and wireframes that make up a site to live and breath.

Now, personally I'm rather fortunate in that, working for a 'traditional' publisher, I have an army of people itching to put content into any wireframes or templates I design. I can easily get away with being a full-time lorem ipsum kind of guy. And if I ever want to test my ideas with real content, I've a decade's worth of digital newsaper content to play with, but that certainly isn't the case if you are a small business or a financial institution.

We'd opened the floor for questions in advance from Twitter, and Cennydd Bowles had asked whether A/B or multivariate testing helped or undermined content strategy. It is a key issue with overall UX design - if one variation tests badly this isn't always seen by clients as a vindication of the testing approach, but a cue to request that we "don't design bad stuff" in the future. Rachel Lovinger gave a great answer, saying that presumably you are not testing a good thing vs a crappy thing, but testing two comparable or alternative approaches which you expect to work, and so she thought testing strengthened a good strategy.

Digging around Twitter to see what people were chatting about during the event I spotted a couple of things - one, sorry there were no chairs, and two, this link seems to be a pretty definitive take on Why You Need A Content Strategist

And finally...

As an aside, the venue represented a nostalgic clash of my careers. Before doing all things digital, I used to work in record shops. For a while I had a regular DJ slot in the basement venue where Tuesday's talk was held, and for a long time in the early 2000s, my online avatar was a blurry picture of me at the decks there...

Martin Belam DJing in the past


Manhattan, I think...

Ahem....yes....corrected now Bill, thanks.

Content as an afterthought comes about from trying to please the CEO, rather than answering real questions a (potential) customer might have. Talk to the customer first.

Some good points there.

Too many businesses totally under estimate the amount of work that's required in preparing and updating content.

I remember one client envisaging they would prepare all the content for a new site over the summer holidays - suffice to say that never happened.

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