Gerry McGovern, Melissa Rach and Margot Bloomstein at Content Strategy Forum 2011

 by Martin Belam, 5 September 2011

Download this, and all of my notes from the Content Strategy Forum as one printable PDF or in epub format for iBooks

This morning I have been at the Content Strategy Forum in London. I’m entirely unconvinced that I can keep up this pace of blogging, refine my own talk for tomorrow, and handle all the feedback from last week’s “How digital transformed the news cycle - and what you can do about it” essay, but here - in an Adam Tinworth style - are my notes from the opening sessions:

Gerry McGovern - “Manage the tasks, not the content”

Gerry McGovern used humour to good effect during the opening keynote to make some vital points about the way that navigation and labels fail to help users with tasks.

“Do you have a quick links sections on your website?” he asked. A few tentative hands went up. “So what are the other ones on the page then? Medium-paced links?”

One of his main arguments was that we are measuring the wrong things, and holding people responsible for the wrong things. He gave an example of the NHS Choices site.

The majority of people use health sites to check a symptom on behalf of themselves or their child. He showed how two successive iterations of search functionality on the site directed people with queries about a mild stomach pain to articles about stomach cancer. The auto-complete even raises the spectre of cancer as soon as you type in “stom”. As Gerry put it, how would you like going to a doctor, who as soon as you said “I have pains in my stom” interrupted you with “It might be cancer and you might die”.

He argues that there are lots of people in the NHS responsible for the blogs, and responsible for the search engine technology, and responsible for usability testing, but nobody is actually responsible for the task of “helping users find out about their symptoms”

Gerry said that everything he has learned about the web is that people want to do stuff when they come to your website. The essence of content on the web is not sentences he argued, it is links, and great websites bring the essence of what they are about up to the top, and then make it instantly doable.

Gerry made a plea for less content: “This is the age of overload, we are producing far too much irrelevant content.” Most websites, he said, need to get rid of 90% of their content, citing a telco who had reduced their a website from 4,000 pages to 500, and seen a corresponding 100% increase in conversion. “Content people are too in love with their words”, he said. “We need to strip away, strip away, strip away, and focus on what is the task”.

Melissa Rach - “Content strategy methodology: a DIY project”

Melissa Rach said that she had been involved in three “emerging industries” and content strategy was the third (after very early involvement in the web with Gopher, and being an IA). She saw the content strategy discipline being at a crucial moment as it tries to form “The methodology” to rule them all.

Rach explain a bit about how Brain Traffic do their content strategy work. The core of it was:

  • Get set: Create clarity and get the environment for change ready.
  • Bet: What are the options we are going to try out?
  • Vet: take the big ideas and drill them down into the details - wireframes, taxonomy, copy. Do the options we are betting on work?
  • Sweat: The long process of creating and polishing the content that will be the outcome.

Melissa urged people not to treat methodology as sacred, but instead to see it as a way that a smart person has already discovered to do something more easily.

Margot Bloomstein - “First things first: message matters”

Margot Bloomstein focused her talk on how to define a message architecture. It needs to made of concrete shared terminology. Often you'll hear people say “we want to look traditional, but edgy”. Words like that are meaningless if we don’t give them context.

Margot suggests sometimes card-sorting can help to define: who we are, who we’re not, and who we’d like to be. She starts with a stack of 150 adjectives, and asks people to explain what they mean as they put down the terms. This helps her grasp corporate culture and later informs the copy-writing exercise.

Prioritisation of these messages then helps you save time and money, because creative briefs and copy can usually be done more “on message”. It can also be used during the content audit stage - allowing you to judge existing content against the aspirational message, and identify content gaps.

The message architecture is a powerful tool because it can be a little thing with big impact. She gives the example of the launch of the Mini in the US - the “buckets” included that the car featured premium technology, but was also was a bit “cheeky” and “punny”. That went on to inform nearly everything about the campaign, from the angles the car was shot at, to the legalese in the footer of emails being injected with a bit of hipsterism.

My favourite quote?

“If you clutter up the page with more words, they just fight with each other for attention”

So true, and so often ignored by businesses that would never do the same with their print marketing or print products.


I’m looking forward to the next set of sessions, and I am sure there will be more blogposts from #csforum11 to come, starting with Karen McGrane’s brilliant talk.

This is one of a series of blog posts written at the Content Strategy Forum 2011 in London:
Download all the blog posts in one PDF or in epub format for iBooks
“How the Guardian’s custom CMS & API helped take content strategy to a traditional publisher” - Martin Belam
Gerry McGovern, Melissa Rach and Margot Bloomstein at Content Strategy Forum 2011
“CMS - the software UX forgot” - Karen McGrane
Lisa Welchman and Eric Reiss at Content Strategy Forum 2011
“Making sense of the (new) new content landscape” - Erin Kissane
“Agile and content strategy” - Lisa Moore
“Measurement, not fairy tales” - Catherine Toole
“Topic maps, disambiguation, and multi-disciplinary teams” - Elizabeth McGuane
You might also be interested in these notes on these talks from the August London Content Strategy meet-up:
Lisa Welchman, Sophie Dennis and Tyler Tate

Keep up to date on my new blog