April 19, 2011What is content strategy? And is a copywriter the best person to define it?

How do you define content strategy? If you’re a digital copywriter like me, you’ll probably define content strategy very differently to a web designer or a user experience architect. For example, a copywriter will focus primarily on how his words appear, in context. While a designer might be more interested in the context — how his design fits around the words.

Fellow copywriter Leif Kendall recently wrote a blog post attempting to define content strategy. He said:

Content strategy is a process used by organisations to define and plan how words, pictures, audio and video (content) are used to achieve objectives (such as increased sales or a reduction in support calls). A content strategy provides a framework for the creation, publication and curation of content, and aligns those activities with the organisation’s wider strategy.

He’s right. However, his explanation to clients falls a little short. Leif argues that content strategy is a structured approach. But he doesn’t explain what that structure is.

Arguably, that’s because there’s no right-or-wrong approach to content strategy  —

Content strategy is simply the act of creating a structure for generating content and a framework for displaying that content in place, according to set goals.

The question is, what should that structure be?

Is there an ideal “content strategy” most people can use and adapt?

Naturally, I’m biased. As a copywriter, I think words should always come first. If I had my way, I’d start every new build with a copy document, give it to the designer, and tell him to work his ideas around it. Of course, I know it doesn’t happen that way — and even if it did, it would produce results almost as poor as giving the task to a designer first, then getting in a copywriter to fill in the “lorem ipsum” text, treating content as a mere afterthought.

But the fact is, that’s the way most people design and build a website. When I ask my clients what their content strategy is, the most usual reply I get is “Content strategy? You mean blogging?”

1. The difference between content marketing and content strategy

Content marketing is a process where you use content to draw visitors to your site — in effect, linkbait. A classic example I like to use is of a bakery giving away free recipes online to promote its cakes — it’s providing content like this as a “free” draw to the thing you’re really selling. This blog is another example of content marketing. I’m giving away my expertise in the hope that you’ll hire me as a copywriter.

Content strategy is the process of devising and planning both the type of content you’ll be providing (from a page with recipes on it to a regularly updated video blog, content isn’t just text — it’s video and images and everything else, too), as well as deciding how it will be displayed.

And it’s that last part that people usually get wrong.

2. Content strategy is about making sure content has a context.

Content strategy is all about treating content like it’s part of the design process, rather than an “extra’ to be added in later. In other words, it’s all about creating content — or at least deciding how that content will look — side by side with the other creative processes that go into a web design.

The entire “tone of voice” for a copy document I recently wrote depended on whether the headings and sub-headings were to be displayed in burnt orange or neon pink. One required friendly. The other required boldness. A simple colour choice affected the tone of the entire site. That’s what I mean by putting content in context. But not all changes are as simple as a quick colour fix.

If you decide how content will be displayed before you decide on the content, you end up picking the picture based on the design you’ve chosen for the frame. That’s why it’s essential that content strategy is devised before design work is finalised.

3. Content strategy at a conceptual level

Content strategy starts with two things: an objective, and a concept. My objective is to convince people I’m a knowledgeable and experienced copywriter. We decided on a pyramidal content strategy — the site opens with short bursts of sales-led text to get my message across, followed by a more detailed “about” section, then a broad-ranging set of portfolio sub-pages, followed by, finally, a blog.

In other words, the design of my site matches the objectives I want my copy to achieve. If you’re interested in increasing your sales figures — perhaps using “bolder” copy would be better. But you can’t provide bold copy when the style has already been set as “friendly”.

Last year a client came to me asking for “punchy” headlines for his site. The lorem ipsum space for his “headlines” was almost 20 words, two sentences long. “You’ll have to change these,” I told the client. He couldn’t — because he’d already signed off on the design and didn’t want to pay the designer any more money. So I was expected to do the impossible: create a headline that was punchy and snappy but took 20 words to do.

So to me, content strategy is all about context — and if you treat your content as an afterthought to the way it’s being displayed, you end up having to adapt your content style in a way that might not meet your objectives.

Naturally, that’s a copywriter’s perspective on content strategy. A user experience architect might be much more interested in making sure content gets found by ensuring clear menu paths and hierarchies, for example. And a designer will be much more visual, interested in colour, shape, and form.

My point is simple: you need to consider all aspects of content creation at the same time as you’re considering design and user experience.

In other words: a copywriter isn’t the best person to decide on your content strategy. But he’s an integral part of the team.

You don’t need to come up with a complete copy document for your site before your designer gets to work. But you should give him something — some headlines, a page or two, even a paragraph — to help him get the tone of your site right.

Otherwise you end up with a “production line” feel to digital copywriting that leaves most people cold, with bland copy that looks uninspired, the same way template websites look mass-produced and cheap.

The best structure for a new site build:

Having worked on a lot of new builds since becoming a freelance copywriter, I can confidently state that I think copy should be created at the same time as a design concept is mooted. Not all the copy, but at least a choice of headlines and some draft copy for the “home” or “about” page.

I suggest the following structure for your new build:

1. Hire a copywriter and a designer. Get them in a room together to throw ideas and concepts at each other. One will think visually. The other thinks in words. To get a joined-up content and design strategy, ask both for their opinions at the same time. And make sure they talk to each other, too.

2. Get your copywriter to produce a few headlines and a couple of hundred words of sample text. Have the designer create concepts based around this initial meeting and document.

3. Get a user experience expert involved, if you can afford one. It’ll pay dividends in terms of monetizing your site much more efficiently. Most good designers will have a fair idea about user experience — creating clean, highly structured, easy to navigate sites. Ask your designer about his user experience experience. If he doesn’t have enough, consider employing a separate specialist — or finding a designer who does.

4. Get a full first draft of the copy to your designer while he’s still working on the site. Add sample copy and test out whether or not everything gels — if something doesn’t work, if the copy looks out of place, don’t just tell your copywriter or your designer to change things. Get them in a room together (or at least over the phone or on skype) to talk through why things aren’t working — and come up with a mutual way to improve the site.

5. Testing. Test, test, and test again. Everyone involved in the build should have an input — on all aspects of the site. You might be surprised at how much a copywriter knows about design, or vice versa. But don’t forget — you’re paying each person to be an expert in their field. If your copywriter has an opinion about design, great. But 99.99% of the time, your designer will know better (the same goes for designers commenting on copy!).


Ongoing content creation after your site goes live

Of course, with most sites these days being built using a CMS like WordPress and requiring regular updates and additions, it’s impossible to create all the content at a pre-launch stage. That’s why it’s important to have two things settled —

1. A clear structure for the creation of ongoing content — who will produce it? How will it appear? How easy is it to add and remove pages? This is acontent issue, but it primarily needs to be resolved by designers and user experience specialists.

2. A clear style for the creation of ongoing content — in effect, every website that has ongoing copy being added to it should have a style guide. The copywriter who originally worked on the concept for the site should write a brief guide to tone-of-voice, headline size, vocabulary, etc — it’s a vital link to creating joined-up content from multiple sources (for example, having your own staff / PR department writing regular blog entries) once your site has gone live.


In conclusion

I’ve only touched on one small area of content strategy: namely that of devising a content strategy for a new web build, and (as a copywriter), mostly just concentrating on written content and how it fits in with your general design.

The reason why “content strategy” is so hard to define is because it means so many different things to so many different people depending on their background — and to many (who’ve only heard of content marketing) it means very little at all.

Many people don’t see the value in defining a content strategy before the design process is complete. Those people generally have to settle for second-rate “assembly line” websites where content ends up being defined by design — not by the client’s objectives.

That’s why it’s vital to employ a copywriter as part of your content strategy team. Whether the copywriter takes the lead, gives advice, or just makes sure content gets represented at key phases in the design process, you’ll end up with a better, more considered design.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 at 3:34 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, Digital. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One comment

  1. Ardin Lalui says:

    Great blog. I love ideas bringing writing and design together. Effective communication requires both.

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