What is content strategy and why should you care?

The first thing to understand about content strategy is that no two people understand it the same way. It’s a relatively new — and extremely broad — discipline with no single definitive definition. A highly informative Knol on content strategy defines it as follows:

“Content strategy is an emerging field of practice encompassing every aspect of content, including its design, development, analysis, presentation, measurement, evaluation, production, management, and governance.”

This definition is a great place to start. Although the discipline has clearly evolved, this breakdown of its scope makes perfect sense. The aspects of content strategy that matter most to Web designers in this definition are design (obviously!), development, presentation and production. In this article, we’ll concentrate on the relationship between content strategy and design in creating, organizing and displaying Web copy.

As a writer and content strategist myself, I’ve worked with designers in all of these areas and find the creative process highly enriching. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with designers who are quick to challenge ideas that are unclear or unsound, who are brilliant at creating striking visual representations of even the most complex concepts. A lively interplay between design and content is not only fun, but is how spectacular results are achieved. This is why content strategy should matter a great deal to designers.

What Is Content Strategy, And Why Should A Designer Care?

Content strategy is the glue that holds a project together. When content strategy is ambiguous or absent, don’t be surprised if you end up with the Internet equivalent of Ishtar. When content strategy is in place and in its proper place, we’re on our way to producing beautiful and effective results.

While wrapping one’s head around content strategy might be difficult, the thing that makes it work is very simple: good communication. Sometimes a project moves along like a sports car on a superhighway. Other times, the road is so full of bumps and potholes that it’s a wonder we ever reach our destination. As we explore the relationship between content strategy and design, I’ll detail how I keep the channels of communication open and go over the workflow processes that I’ve used to support that effort. I hope that sharing my experiences (both positive and negative) will help you contribute to and manage projects more effectively and deliver better products to clients.

How To Get Started: The First Step Is The Longest

Project manager: We need a landing page for client X.

Designer: I can’t start the design until I see some content.

Writer: I can’t start writing until I see a design.

You may find this dialogue amusing… until it happens to you! At our firm, we find that the best way to get past such a standoff is to write first. This is because content strategy, at a fundamental level, frames a project for the designer. As a content strategist, my job is to articulate the why, where, who, what and how of the content:

  • Why is it important to convey this message? This speaks to purpose.
  • Where on the website should the message appear? This speaks to context.
  • Who is the audience? This speaks to the precision of the message.
  • What are we trying to say? This speaks to clarity.
  • How do we convey and sequence the information for maximum impact? This speaks to persuasiveness.

Bringing it down to a more detailed level, let’s consider a landing page. A content strategist will determine such things as the following:

  • Audience
    Is the audience sophisticated? Down to earth? College-level? Predominately male? Female? Etc.
  • Word count
    Some pitches scream for long copy, while others must be stripped to the bare minimum. SEO might factor into the equation as well.
  • Messaging priorities
    What is the most important point to convey? The least important? What needs to be said first (the hook)? What needs to be said just leading up to the call to action?
  • Call to action
    What will the precise wording be? What emotional and intellectual factors will motivate the visitor to click through?

Clear direction on these points not only helps the writer write, but helps the designer with layout, color palettes and image selection. When we start with words, we produce designs that are more reflective of the product’s purpose.

Landing pages are a great place to try this workflow, because in terms of content strategy, they are less complex than many other types of Web pages. A product category page, on the other hand, might have a less obvious purpose or multiple purposes, considerably greater word counts, more (and more involved) messaging points, and a variety of SEO considerations, all of which would affect its design.

Quick Tips for Getting Started

  • Make sure someone is specifically responsible for content strategy. If strategic responsibility is vague, your final product will be, too.
  • Slow down! Everybody, me included, is eager to dive headfirst into a new project. But “ready-aim-fire” is not a winning content strategy. Make sure everyone is on the same page conceptually before cranking out work.
  • If content strategy falls on your shoulders as a designer, cultivate an understanding of the discipline. Resources are listed at the end of this article to help you.
  • Make sure designers and writers understand what their roles are — and are not. There’s no need for writers to tell designers how to design, or for designers to tell writers how to write.

Perfecting The Process: Break Up Those Bottlenecks

Project manager: How are things coming along?

Developer: I’m waiting on design.

Designer: I’m waiting on content.

Writer: I’m waiting on project management.

Web development projects in particular involve a lot of moving parts, with potential bottlenecks everywhere. The graphic below describes our Web development process, with an emphasis on the design and content components. Chances are, whether you are freelancing or at an agency, at least parts of this should look familiar:

The process is by no means perfect, but it is continually improving. In the next section, we’ll look at the many types of content-design difficulties you might experience.

To help our designers lay out text for wireframes and designs, we utilize content templates based on various word counts. These templates also incorporate best practices for typography and SEO. When the designer drops the template into a wireframe, it looks like this:

The use of content templates not only takes a lot of guesswork out of the designer’s job, but also speeds up client reviews. When clients are able to see what the content will roughly look like in the allotted space, they tend to be more comfortable with the word counts and the placement of text on the page.

Communication can be streamlined using project management software. We use Basecamp, which is a popular system, but many other good ones are available. If you’re a freelancer, getting clients to work on your preferred project management platform can be an uphill battle, to say the least. Still, I encourage you to try; my experience in managing projects via email has been dismal, and many freelance designers I know express the same frustration.

The big advantage of a project management system is that it provides a single place for team members to manage tasks and interact. Internal reviews of design templates is one good example. The project manager can collect feedback from everyone in one place, and each participant can see what others have said and respond to it. Consolidating this information prevents the gaps and miscommunication that can occur when projects are managed through multiple email exchanges. Designers can see all of the feedback in one place — and only one place. This is a big time-saver.

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