Content Strategy is a Tool for Bringing the Web to Life

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in museums. I could never understand why so many exhibits would break–and never get fixed. Do you remember how you would push a button hoping some audio-animatronic figure would come to life, talk and move its eyes and hands, but then nothing would happen? It would sit there motionless under a film of dust. Remember that feeling of disappointment?

These push buttons were a cruel joke, like the crosswalk buttons scattered throughout New York that aren’t actually connected to anything. Why would world-class museums spend months of time and lots of money designing these amazing interactive exhibits, but have no maintenance plan?

When I began creating web sites I saw this same problem manifest itself in the launch-as-finish-line mentality that infects so many web development projects. Example: ten years ago I was looking through a site’s wireframes and noticed a “subscribe to updates” link was on nearly every top-level page. Innocently curious, I asked what visitors would be subscribing to. “It’s a sign up for our mailing list,” I was told. “What are you going to send them?” I asked. It turned out no one had thought about that. The subscribe function was treated as an interface design issue, and not much more.

This narrow conception of the subscribe feature was emblematic of a critical flaw in the entire site’s design, a flaw that even a group of really smart and thoughtful people who had put months of thought and work into it couldn’t avoid: The site was not conceived as part of a living system of communication and interaction, but as a set of pages that could explain the organization and its projects. It was brochureware. You pressed the button, and nothing happened.

As I’ll describe below, to help fix this problem and bring the site to life, I turned to the tools of content strategy. But first, I want to pose an alternative starting point for conceiving digital media. Begin by thinking about what you want people to be able to do that they can’t easily do now. Solve that problem.

The first commercial web site I ever built was an online book catalog for The Free Press division of Simon & Schuster, in 1996. It seems pretty clunky today, but so do many of the sites of that time. What I was proudest of was that customers could purchase books directly through the site with a credit card, a first for any major book publisher.

Making it possible for customers to buy books on the site* was a priority to me because I was looking at the web as a means of meeting my main business goal: sales. That was how I believed my performance as a marketing manager should be measured. This perspective framed my approach to the web. I conceived the web site not as an end product, but as steps in a sequence of actions designed to produce a desired result that could be measured — in this case: a sale.

Put more simply, I wanted the website to help me get work done. The same is true for any kind of marketing communications material: content lives in the ecosystem of people, devices, situations, and ideas that lead to concrete actions by people. Those actions make up our experience, and we need to design with that experience in mind, not simply the content or platform.

It’s the experience, stupid.

What distinguishes the marketers and designers I admire the most is that they imagine and create pleasurable experiences, not products. Products are merely tools for creating experiences. What makes Zappos and Netflix great is that they provide customers with fantastic experiences. In contrast, air travel is one of the most amazing creations in the history of humankind, yet the experience of air travel is rarely amazing and often unpleasant. Most airlines have built their businesses around logistics, rather than the flyer’s experience. Can you think of other examples where the focus on creating experiences is what separates the great from the mediocre?

Great experiences do not get made from strokes of brilliant creativity alone. Tools are required to harness the creative vision to an organization’s real-life assets and capabilities and point it in the direction of achieving concrete business goals. Content strategy provides those tools. Gap analysis, message hierarchies, content governance, maintenance plans, and the like may appear mundane, but they are essential if you want to have a process that enables you to rise above creating products to creating experiences.

It’s alive

Much more than its parent disciplines, content strategy helps us get past the launch mentality in web development. Getting back to the site whose visitors would be subscribing to nothing, the first thing we did was to create a more detailed editorial calendar, pulling together the dates and deadlines of work in the pipeline for the coming year and linking it to web content production. Next we tackled workflow and governance issues that set out the production and maintenance duties of each contributor, editor, and approver vis a vis the web, integrating web content into the production process for all communications materials. We also decided what content to send subscribers: a monthly e-mail that summarized the latest developments in the subject areas they selected.

This decision, along with the workflow diagram, led me to scrap the data model for the content management system we were building and start over. The CMS needed to support a more complex editorial process than originally envisioned, with latest developments that were discrete content elements. The CMS also had to enable the partly-automated production of the e-mail updates, and regularly-scheduled maintenance by contributors and editors to ensure the site stayed up to date and didn’t grow stale. We had the ambitious goal of having 90% of the site’s content to display a “last modified date” no more than two months old. The freshness of site’s content was a key component of the site’s credibility and the organization’s reputation.

Over the next few years, our process and procedures evolved as we learned what worked and what didn’t. Site and search analytics enabled us to discover which content mattered, and which could be jettisoned. All along, we relied on the toolbox of content strategy to guide the iterative process of producing and managing the organization’s web presence.

The first era of the web is ending. Shovelware and outbound marketing remain common, but social and mobile are driving the transformation from a static web of documents and ads to a living web of experiences and conversation. I believe that transformation isn’t possible without content strategy. Content strategy factors in the critical dimension of time to the design process, doing away with the idea that web development ends with launch and helping aim the design at creating experiences, not merely products. The tools of content strategy are what bring the web to life.


* The ability to buy a publisher’s books on the publisher’s web site may seem trivial today, but back then, though we sold books direct to consumers through traditional direct mail, publishers were uniformly wary of being seen to compete directly with booksellers on the web. The company’s flagship site, SimonSays.com, (created with Razorfish) had some neat interactive features, such as live chats, bulletin boards, and forms for readers to submit their own reviews of books — but you couldn’t buy a book there.

Don’t lose your customers in the supermarket: Organizing your content to take visitors on a journey

Preparing for a workshop on classification I was giving recently, I was struck at how the supermarket provides a lot of good lessons about how to organize your stuff, whether it be cantaloupes or web content. By the time I explain below why there are bananas in the cookie aisle, I hope you’ll see how important it is to organize your content so it takes your users on a journey, and how you need to place a variety of little pleasures along their path.

Since I moved from New York City to the United States four years ago, I’ve gotten to know the modern supermarket. These giant amusement park warehouses of food that anchor strip malls from sea to shining sea — and around the world — are nothing like their compressed Manhattan cousins with which I was familiar. At the typical Gristede’s, Key Food, or D’Agostino’s, the chips and mayonnaise are cheek-by-jowl with the fish, fruit, and cheese in tightly winding labyrinths whose design is largely determined by stratospheric real estate values. Hardly any two food stores in the city are alike, and few create much more than a functional shopping experience. But the non-urban supermarket follows a more predictable pattern, from which one can divine a set of organizing principles that may not be immediately apparent.

How is the modern supermarket organized? It is not simply a library of food with a single system determining the citation order of items. There are a number of overlapping purposes at work in the supermarket’s organization scheme, with the most important being getting you to spend more money. One way supermarkets do that is to tap into psychology (check out the video at the bottom after reading the rest of this article): the supermarket’s layout is a map of our relationship with food. The layout appeals to our human aspirations from best intentions to guilty pleasures.

Think about it. You enter with an idea or list of a few things you need to get, invariably including bread, eggs, milk, and fruits and vegetables. There is zero chance you’ll find all these items clustered together near the entrance, with a quick egress to the cash registers. No, you’ll have to go on a long journey. Most likely when you enter you’ll first see the fresh produce, with the fruit to your right. The milk, eggs, or bread will be far away at the other end of the store, guaranteeing you’ll traverse its entire length.

It’s a journey from innocence to experience. You start out, enticed by overflowing bins of nature’s brightly-colored sex organs: juicy peaches, profligate cherries, melons that beg to be touched. You wind up in the comforting safety of milk and cheese.

Along the way, you follow your best intentions, with the organic section usually soon after the produce, and then, the aisles of ingredients you’ll need to hold up your resolution to cook more from scratch: flour, sugar, pasta, oil, spices. Once you are feeling virtuous, you can allow yourself a dalliance with the cookies and crackers. But just so you don’t feel too guilty about these sugary, salty snacks, there might be a display of bananas, nature’s most convenient, healthy, individually-wrapped treat, to appeal to your primal instincts in another way.

The fish and meats await, sanitized of the scent of death and calling to the hunter’s stomach. Helpfully, there is a basket of jumbo lemons by the fish counter. You’ve glimpsed another organizing principle: pairings and threesomes of things that go naturally together are highlighted outside the dominant citation order of foods, or rearranged altogether. Next to the lettuce and tomatoes is a wire basket of pre-cooked bacon and jars of mayo. Peanut butter and jelly are often in the bread aisle rather than among the condiments. Wine won’t be far from the spaghetti. Beer is opposite pretzels. You’ll probably find water crackers slipped in with the gourmet cheeses.

There are some combinations that may have more to do with cultural inexperience, storage needs, or the particular demographics of the neighborhood. In the supermarket I go to, the tortillas are refrigerated with the hummous and baba ghanoush, while the pitas are several aisles away next to the onion rolls by the deli counter. In the organic section’s soy milk cold case, you will find Mrs. Gold’s Horseradish and Nancy’s Kim Chee. Meanwhile, the “Hispanic” and “Oriental” foods have moved out of the ghetto of the “Ethnic Foods” aisle to suburbs flanking the store’s rice section. And regardless of when Passover falls on the calendar, I know I can always find boxes of matzoh specially displayed in time for Easter.

Finally, there is another map overlaying the supermarket’s arrangement. As you bounce back-and-forth in the market’s interiors, you can’t avoid hitting the endcaps on the aisles. Food companies battle to outbid each other for these high-traffic bumpers, as well as other high-value slots throughout the store.

As you see, there isn’t any one perfect organizing principle to apply. If maximizing the money you spend were the only principle, it probably wouldn’t be a very satisfying experience for the customer. Feeling fleeced and confused, who would return to repeat the experience? It wouldn’t be very effective to leave customers lost and alienated in the supermarket as in the eponymous Joe Strummer song.

When we approach the task of organizing a web site — from designing a navigation to classifying content in a database — we can’t expect to find a single ideal arrangement. Like supermarket managers, we have to organize things to meet different, and sometimes competing purposes. We want to satisfy our customer’s urges and our suppliers needs, too. We need to place things where they won’t spoil. We want to avoid hiding anything, yet some stuff only has to be put on display at specific times of year.

Creating a classification scheme for your web site and its content may seem at times to be a dry, plodding and logical process. If you want to give your visitors the best experience, however, you’ll want to also step back a bit and think about organizing your site in terms of preparing their environment. Draw your visitors on a journey that keeps them going with appeals to their aspirations, conscience, and desires.

Bonus video: Even the Ozzies are in on the game. Watch Supermarket Psychology: Supermarket Layout:

What does it really mean to think like a publisher?

Thanks to the great work of people like Kristina Halvorson, Rachel Lovinger and others, content strategy has emerged as a key element of marketing today. For many businesses and organizations the focus on content brings a new and unfamiliar challenge: to think like a publisher. Experts may advise you to create a blog, an e-mail newsletter, videos, audio podcasts, presentations, or white papers.

Wait a minute, you might be saying, I work for a travel agency—or a candy shop, a library, a dry cleaning company, a day care center; (insert your business here). We’re too busy to be a publisher, we have a business to run.

There are different kinds of publishers. I think the correct model for thinking like a publisher is book publishing, rather than, say, newspapers. In the 1990s I worked for Simon & Schuster, the world’s largest book publisher at the time. It was an immense company that published tens of thousands of books each year. The company didn’t employ a single writer. Writers were contractors. No benefits. No retirement plan.

The company’s employees were editors, designers, production staff, copyeditors, marketers, a sales force—in other words, all the people required to support the company’s core competency: manufacturing and distributing books. The books themselves, however—that is, the content—were created by the authors.

So when you are told to think like a publisher, that doesn’t mean you are supposed create all the content yourself. Does that seem less daunting? I hope so. Your role is to be the editor-in-chief and distributor of the content.

That’s where the analogy ends. Remember, you are only thinking like a publisher, and in this role you are more of a curator than a producer.