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,, (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.