Discerning structure for content

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the content.

One of the most important things your content strategy must do is to define the structure that holds the content. Effective content has to have strong structure — I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it’s designed content. Not in terms of what it looks like — the fonts, the page layout [though that’s critically important, too] — but in terms of the internal structure of the content itself. The relationship between the content and meaning.

On a very simplistic level, we can break this down into the kinds of content structure that middle-aged Americans learned about in grammar class:

My 7th grader has never learned to diagram sentences, and I am not the first to complain that this is a flaw in modern education [though I have heard many more people shout praise to the heavens that this exercise has fallen by the wayside]. The value in diagramming is in evaluating the basic structure in our language. It gets you into the habit of seeing the structure behind the words.

When you think about the structure of your content on a web page, you can build a similar diagram. Most of us who’ve been around web design and development for any length of time have seen wireframes, the architectural drawings that reveal the structure of a web page.

But many wireframes simply separate the page into blocks or a grid; they are not content-specific. So as content strategists, we have to create our own structure for the content.

When we talk about the structure for content, we are getting to some of the core principles of information architecture. This structure might be quite simple, too. For instance, you might say that the structure of a blog post on this website is revealed here:

This starts to give us a very basic structure for the content itself. This level of structure is the basic information you need if you’re using a content management system or some kind of HTML or CSS. Different elements on the page are treated differently in the design and layout, because of their function. The headline gets a larger, colored font. The tags are links and are designed differently as a result. The date and the post each have their own look and feel.

But the implications of content structure go far beyond the design of the page. Done well, planning the structure of the content can also reveal or enhance the meaning, as well. This is where some real opportunity lies for content strategists to provide value in the web and software development process.

All words aren’t equal. My 3 paragraphs on banking aren’t the same as your 3 paragraphs. Neither will align with 1 paragraph and 2 bullet lists. When you start looking at the internal structure of your content itself, you will discover many ways to enhance your meaning. In some cases, you will discover opportunities to display your content differently, but almost every time, you will discover ways to structure your content differently to enhance the meaning. To discern the structure, evaluate the goal and your content’s message against the words on the page, and you’ll find the places where you need to improve the structure.

Some of this will again go back to grammar school for many of us, back to the fundamentals of good writing:

  • Do you have a topic sentence in your paragraph?
  • Are all the sentences in this paragraph on the same topic?
  • Do they flow?
  • When you need to introduce a secondary point, how will you separate it from the other text but still make it feel like part of the whole?
  • Are you delivering information in the most effective way?
  • Where do you need an image instead of a word?
  • Where a list instead of a paragraph?

These are structural elements that you’ll reveal on the page to the end user. For digital content, you also need a strong meta-structure to allow you to use your content effectively. More on that next time.

For now — how conscious of your content’s structure are you? Can more attention to structure strengthen your content?

Content strategy, content marketing and the name game

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of thought-provoking posts from Lise Janody and Ian Alexander, and I’ve been following the great conversation on the content strategy Google Group

I had to laugh this morning when I saw this tweet from UX champion Jared Spool:

Ah, the Content Strategy community has now caught the Define The Damn Thing virus. #DTDT #ContentStrategy

The situation has been circling for months, and it’s finally caught us. Guilty. We are engaged in a fight about what we are talking about. [“Fight” is really too inflammatory a word, as long as we’re trying to be specific. I think the fight is between us and our overly semantic selves, truly.] Let me be clear up front that I find the discussion useful and unimportant: Useful to help our discipline better define itself and better educate prospective clients [customers, our boss, the CFO, whoever] about the need for content strategy, not altogether important in that much of this dialogue is about our internal terminology, and we’ll never fully convince the people who sign our checks to use the terms we like. If you’d like to grow your business in today’s age, software to help with from content to marketing strategies, you may want to check out sites like https://www.salesforce.com/products/guide/lead-gen/ and research how they could help you grow to new heights in an over saturated market. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of thought-provoking posts from Lise Janody and Ian Alexander, and I’ve been following the great conversation on the content strategy Google Group. The Nashville Content Strategy Meetup also had a great discussion related to this topic at our event last Thursday. So all this has been swirling in my head recently. I’ll throw my thoughts out there, and I’d love your feedback. Here’s how I approach content strategy:

  • I love Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, and Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy. I think both are helpful definitions and provide great examples, particularly of some deliverables that are useful in content strategy.
  • I think content strategy is NOT about deliverables. Though this may seem to be a contradiction, keep reading. I’ll elaborate.
  • Content strategy is a mindset. That’s the real value we bring to our clients at Creekmore Consulting. We help them think about content in a new way. We often use deliverables like audits, inventories, taxonomies, style guides and more as part of our work, but those aren’t the real value. They help us reveal and demonstrate the value that true strategy brings to the table.

Now, about content marketing. Ian Alexander’s reference to content marketing kicked off some of the fuss in the Google Group, and I do think it’s a useful question he’s asked. How do we [internal to the discipline] differentiate content strategy and marketing? How does the marketplace [our clients and stakeholders] do so? I think he’s right in asking — I’ve seen lots of places where I felt the terms were used interchangeably, and incorrectly, I felt. My background includes a whole lot of content marketing, so I’ve got some definite opinions here. I think the word “content” is part of what confuses us in both content strategy and content marketing, but I don’t have a great substitute for it at this time. Content strategy: The mindset that puts content second*, whether you’re talking about enterprise content management, product development, web applications, mobile, print, marketing, whatever. This emerging discipline is particularly known for several of its web-content-based [but often more broadly useful] deliverables, like content audits, taxonomies, style guides, workflows and governance models. We put content second, because the business goal comes first. All else follows. Content marketing: As we know, content marketing is a particular marketing strategy, where marketers use content to build a trusting, reciprocal relationship with customers and prospects. The fuzzy: The confusion happens in the middle. To me, effective content marketing must have content strategy as a component. You have to have planned for the [to use Halvorson’s well-known definition] creation, delivery and governance of any content if you want it to meet your business goal. In my previous, custom media life, this distinction was clear. The custom magazines and websites we created for customers were content marketing, and we used principles of content strategy to ensure we met business goals and effectively managed operations. But I don’t think the distinction is always so clear. It’s sometimes hard to define whether a web property is a product, media or marketing….often, a single website can be all 3 at once. So it’s no wonder we’re confused about the terms. What’s the takeaway? I’m not sure. I think the conversation is good. I think we can draw some distinctions. And I think we have more work still to do.

Making content strategy a habit

When we’re working with our clients, we find that many people see the value in content strategy after just a conversation or two about how it can improve business results.

What’s harder is making content strategy a daily practice.

Some of our engagements are just about the strategy, doing research, learning the organization, providing advice and a framework for future decision-making. And some are longer-term, where we become a content partner on many projects over time.

Either way, doing things the content strategy way often involves organizational change. Organizations [outside the media world] didn’t use to sit down and say, hmm, here’s a new idea, what does our content team think? Do we have the content we need for this? How will content be part of the solution?

Making that mindset shift is often the hardest part of content strategy. You have to form the habit of content strategy for your organization. And, like forming a habit personally, this is hard work for an organization — perhaps even harder, since organizations are made up of many people.

When I’m trying to create a new habit myself, I find that it’s important to create an environment that allows me to succeed. I’m trying to eat better and be healthier right now, so I have written down some instructions for myself. You’ll laugh, but one is:

* Do not eat at Sonic until reaching your goal.

Sonic is my weakness! I’ve identified that point. And you won’t believe how much it matters that I’ve made my intentions so concrete. It used to be easy to say, I’ve eaten so well this week that one corn dog won’t hurt. But now, I’m reminding myself that the goal is what’s important, and this instruction will help me achieve my goal faster.

In your organization, if you’re working to create a content-strategic culture, you may want to create some specific instructions for yourself, too. How about:

* All project kick-offs include a discussion about the content strategy for the project.

Or maybe you have that down, but the trouble is on follow-through? So maybe your instruction is:

* Each project has someone assigned to content strategy.

Then it’s someone’s responsibility to cover this topic throughout the life of the project.

If your organization is ready and willing to include content strategy on its projects, you may just need to adjust your framework and process to give it space to succeed.