The practitioner experience of content strategy

I’m ten weeks late in blogging about this. We’ve just finished the third and final course in my Storytelling & Content Strategy certificate program, but I haven’t yet blogged about the second class, “The User Experience of Content Strategy.”

It covered the typical deliverables of a content strategist: content audit, content inventory, user journey map, mapping user tasks to content topics, messaging hierarchy, workflow, and content model. I wish I could share with you the deliverables I created during the quarter for my class project, but they were for my contract at Starbucks and covered by NDA.

Since you can’t see them, I can tell you that they were awesome, amazing deliverables. 🙂 No, seriously, I think they were okay, and our instructor was great, very thoughtful and organized (Peter Luyckx of Ready4Content). But I also felt that something was missing during that quarter. I think it was the collaboration described in M.J. Metts’ article, “Practical Content Strategy: Making the Journey.” It’s important to know how to create the deliverables, but ironically, they’re not what you’re really delivering. Content strategy is a collaborative exercise, and the act of co-creation is the real deliverable.

To me, this means that “content strategy” is a bit of a misnomer. It implies being strategic, which is good, but it also creates a mental image of going off and making plans that exist separate from the execution. And in content strategy, the devil’s in the execution. Last month, Kristina Halvorson, one of the founders of content strategy, tweeted this article: “No one should have the word ‘strategy’ in their job title”, by Kevin J. Delaney.

The “content” part has its problems too; using that term means we’re defining the message by its medium. And it makes it feel like an afterthought. Like “just add water,” just add writing, images and video. No big deal! But being contained in a website (or increasingly, an app) isn’t the heart of what content is. Keri Maijala says, “I’m a content strategist. This means I help clients and companies figure out how, when, and why to talk to their audiences.” And that’s really what it’s about: communication.

Some folks in the field prefer to call themselves content designers or communication designers. I’ve heard “content engineer” too, for those who are more focused on the back-end work of content modeling and CMS design. Jessica Collier came up with the lyrical term “narrative UX,” described in her Medium post, “What is Narrative UX?”. Ahava Leibtag in her book The Digital Crown recommended that content teams be called “audience engagement teams,” to reflect the goal rather than the technology. And that’s just what we call ourselves, of course! Other people call us copywriter, senior editor, content manager, content writer, content developer, and project manager.

I understand there is value to the term “strategy.” I can’t remember where I read it or who it was, but a well-known content strategist wrote that content strategy was started by copywriters who noticed the same problems cropping up again and again and wanted to do something about it. That’s why we try to figure out things like the goal of the content, and brand identity stuff like voice and tone, before we start creating content. That way you don’t end up halfway through a project and suddenly the realize that it just doesn’t sound like how your company wants to represent itself, or the content doesn’t meet the goals it needs to (or that you have no idea if it’s meeting goals because you didn’t establish any KPIs). So it is important to be strategic and know what you want to measure.

I don’t have the answers, of course. But I am having fun thinking about the questions.

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