Book review: Content Strategy for the web

This spring, I joined up with a book club centered around User Experience.  For the first meeting I was able to attend, we were reading “Content Strategy for the web” (second edition) by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach.

My experience with content strategy has been somewhat mixed.  My previous employer actively promoted cross pollination and multi-role activity within and across products.  This had the advantage of diverse awareness of the product as we wrote release and implementation documentation.  Care was taken to include as many roles as possible to manage our internal content (aka documentation) so that we would help inform each other of how the product worked, the best points to emphasize, and have spirited discussions about the direction our documentation should take.  In contrast, my present employer is much smaller, and as we were learning to handle our growth, we have similarly gone through growing pains with regard to managing our internal content about clients, vendors, and configurations.

The opening chapters (section title: “Reality”) resonated greatly with me.  How do you identify content management problems?  How do you identify and address your needs? When starting in an existing company where there there are mounds of un-managed or un-curated content, bringing it all into line can appear to be a herculean task.  Not a day, week, or month goes by where I’m not thinking about these things, mainly in the context of project management: why was an interface set up in a certain way, what is the broader context, what details need to be retained.  In software development, I believe (and have experienced) that the first thing to be let go is this sort of content about a project.  Documentation isn’t needed for launching the project, so it tends to be an afterthought, if at all.  I heard the trumpets and I was ready to march.

When the book progressed to the “discovery” phase of learning about one’s content (through audits and analysis), I felt like they were preaching to the converted.  I had been in the trenches.  I understand that content is important and that trying to manage or create it months or years after the fact seems like a waste of time.  I don’t need convincing of this.  There is one area of this beginning phase where I am always eager to reevaluate – convincing others of the importance of documentation/content strategy.  I found this statement particularly interesting:

“Alignment isn’t necessarily about creating consensus.  It’s about creating a common understanding.”

Sometimes it’s easy to convince others of the value of creating/maintaining certain content.  Others will not be heard.  I find that no matter what environment you find yourself in, it is best to integrate this into your daily practices.  Even if it’s a simple word doc dossier on a client for info that would have no other singular place to live, taking notes and actively compiling information is an important skill to have.  Even if there is no company wide strategy or there are gaps, work to fill those gaps as you find them.  Eventually, you collect enough little bits so you can take it to the next step, and even convince people to help you.  Our discussion about this was lively, and centered mainly on the fact that content is really just data, preferably in a database.

Content now is so dynamic, that you can’t limit your thinking to static pages and sub-pages.  Content lives in databases, and pages are simply views into your content and can depend on the role of the user accessing that content.  Treating your content as data in a database also gives you the opportunity to capture metrics about how your data/content is accessed and utilized.  Automatic data capture = automated reporting = easy win.

Another interesting comment from the table is that the content strategist role is likely the least motivated to cut corners for business motivations.  They always have the end user in mind because they are the direct users of your content.  They know what is and is not acceptable, what will entice users or drive them away.

Unfortunately, my copy only arrived days before our get-together, so I haven’t finished reading the book yet.  I skimmed through the rest of the book for the sake of book club and am looking forward to really reading the rest of it.  So far, the book has been very high level, making it great for consultants or people trying to work from within.  Personally, I’m eager to see examples of what people had to deal with and what people have come up with for their strategies. While the authors explicitly state that this book is just an introduction to content strategy, it would have been nice to see more spring boards or firm examples.

I’ll follow up with another post once I finish reading the book.

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