Let’s start with the question you’ve probably answered a million times. What is content strategy?
Well, I started out as a freelance Web writer. And what I quickly started realizing on the projects I was working on was that by the time they called me it was sort of at the end of the project. And it would be a disaster.
There would be 10 times more work than they originally scoped for, which also meant 1/10th of the time in which to do it. The source material they thought would work hadn’t been looked at very carefully. It was outdated or redundant or not very useful. The information architecture wasn’t detailed enough or didn’t give enough direction about what the messaging hierarchy should be. I could go on and on.
What would end up happening is I would either write what I could, as quickly as I could, and then not want to put it in my portfolio, or the client would decide at the last minute to just retrofit whatever content they currently had and then try to fix it later.
So I started asking questions and offering ideas about how things can be avoided the next time. I told them that if they would give me a few more weeks, I would do the work to get everything better prepared before starting to write.
And what I didn’t know at the time was that I was backing into something called content strategy.
While “content” has become a media, marketing and Internet buzzword, “content strategy” is still relatively obscure. Why do you think that is?
Content strategy has been around since the Web. It’s just that for Web professionals and practitioners it has been easier and more interesting to focus on the visual, on front- and back-end programming, on user experience design and now on application development.
All those questions that I said were left unanswered are not very exciting. No one wants to think about them. But those are the questions that are going to bridge the gap between the high-level strategy that’s been defined and the tactics that people will be able to use to implement that strategy.
The question is whether those tactics are really realistic with the time and the money and the internal resources that they have.
We recently spoke to Blake Eskin, The New Yorker’s Web editor, who has the tricky task of adapting the magazine’s highbrow narrative content for the online space. You’re an expert in writing for the Web, but how can print publications bring their existing print content online without compromising their voice?
This is something that so many organizations are still struggling with. I met Blake at SXSW and while his team is doing great work, they have incredibly limited resources and are still struggling to find an organized, sustainable content strategy.
People want to make the most of the content that they’ve put their time and money and energy into. It’s the same with brand work or technology that we have invested in. So I think that everybody’s rushing, which is understandable because magazines are fighting for their lives.
The critical component is sitting down, looking at what the current work flow is, what the current skill sets are, how many people they’re actually going to have working for them and how their time and attention and skills should be allocated.
It’s not just a matter of figuring out what you’re going to publish online or what technology you’re going to use. How are you going to sustain it internally without asking all your current writers and graphic designers to basically take on a second job?
Content marketing evangelist Joe Pulizzi wrote a piece for us last year called “Multitasking Makes You Stupid,” in which he argued that companies should outsource their content creation to copy writers or journalists. Do you agree, or do you think content should come from within the organization?
It totally depends. I know Joe and we’ve had lots of good conversations about this. I think that to say “Outsource your content” as a blanket statement is bad advice, because it’s simply not a good idea for everyone, especially if you’re a small organization. Because the message that’s sending is that more content is going to cost more money.
I just came back from the Government Web content managers conference in D.C. One of the quotes that got tweeted a lot was from the speaker from Starbucks who said, “Don’t outsource your voice.”
On the one hand, that’s a really great quotable line. On the other hand, refusing on principle to outsource content is just impossible for most organizations. If you can’t hire anyone internally to do the editorial stuff, you’re going to have to outsource because you can’t just publish Web content and leave it there. You have to take care of it over time.
In a presentation at last year’s Web 2.0 Expo [embedded at the bottom of this post], you quoted authors John Gerzema and Ed Lebar who wrote, “Brands are now used more than they are preferred.” Does it follow that branded content is only valuable insofar as it is useful to the consumer?
I have such a love-hate relationship with content marketing. Pushing people to do better content that audiences care about is great. Pushing people to acquire or create content and then try to get people into their site because of their content is doing those organizations a disservice.
If you’re an agency, yes. You need to be creating some sort of intellectual property to demonstrate your expertise. If you’re an e-commerce site, yes. You need to be creating content that positions you as having useful, usable, relevant information about whatever it is you’re purchasing.
But if you’re a construction company, your website is a one-stop hit where customers go to check out your credentials before engaging you in conversation. Why would you want them to keep coming back?
The first time I contacted Joe Pulizzi it was because I was so incensed by the title of his book, Get Content, Get Customers. I called him up and said, “You can’t just tell people to get content. That’s not how it works.” You can’t just go to the content website and load it on the content dolly!
I think that continued conversation between content marketing proponents who are saying, “This is what you need to do,” and content strategists who are saying, “This is how you need to do it and what you need to think about first,” is really critical.
Let’s talk about corporate blogs. It seems they’re either guilty of being too promotional and self-referential, or they simply die out because nobody’s reading them or because they don’t seem to be generating any ROI. Are corporate blogs still useful?
I feel like a broken record but I’ll start again: If you’re going to do a corporate blog, the first question is, “Why?”
Shelly Bowen, an independent consultant on the West coast just wrote a great blog post called “Should you blog? No, you should not.” Her whole point was that if you’re asking yourself if you should, you probably shouldn’t. You have to start with, “I want to,” or “I’m ready to.” You cannot fake authenticity.
When’s the last time you came across some truly useful branded content?
I come across useful branded content all the time. REI.com has a really great expert advice section with well-written text and well-shot video on what to look for when purchasing outdoor gear. That’s actually useful, so that makes sense.
Part of why I shop at Zappos is that I really like their product descriptions. They are really clearly written, not super marketing-y, and always answer my questions really quickly.
When people think about branded content they usually think blogs and articles. But you’ve also got your interface copy, you’ve got your help copy. If you’re just focusing on marketing copy you’re losing a huge opportunity to ensure that your content experience is really holistic and powerful.