Rahel Bailie Provides A Content Strategy Primer

By Rahel Anne Bailie, Content Strategist, Intentional Design

Rahel Anne Bailie, Content Strategist

Rahel Anne Bailie, Content Strategist

Content strategy seems to be the 2009 catch phrase in the writing world. It’s new, it’s sexy, and it holds the promise of good things to come. What exactly is content strategy, and why should we be concerned with this new practice area?

Content strategy has been described by various practitioners as “the practice of planning for content creation, delivery, and governance” and “a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project.” Don’t be fooled by this narrow definition of content strategy. Much like Web publishing of content is a narrow slice, a single delivery channel, content strategy for technical communicators is wider and more complex, with more variables than many Web writers need to consider.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this phenomenon. Looking back at the late 1990s, books and articles written about areas such as usability and information architecture were limited to websites. The usability studies that writing professionals did on print material was not reflected anywhere. Prior to the Web, we conducted usability studies – back then, we called field studies – on our technical manuals, and many of us continued to refine our testing methods for technical content along side the usability field as they refined theirs. However, any methods we employed were dwarfed by the massive amounts of work done on websites, and the authors of the new books were centered in the web world. Usability on technical material wasn’t sexy, and didn’t get even a nod from publishers.

It’s almost two decades later, and we see content strategy almost taking the same path. Ann Rockley‘s book, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy discusses multi-channel content delivery back in 2003, but the excitement now revolves around recent books and articles published about Web content strategies. This time around, however, the type of content strategy of interest to technical communicators will not be overlooked. The Content Wrangler Community has a Content Strategy group that I lead, and I’m the special interest group manager for the Society for Technical Communication Content Strategy SIG.

So what is bigger definition of content strategy?

Content strategy deals with the planning aspects of managing content throughout its lifecycle, and includes aligning content to business goals, analysis, and modeling, and influences the development, production, presentation, evaluation, measurement, and sunsetting of content, including governance. What content strategy is not is the implementation side. The actual content development, management, and delivery is the tactical outcomes of the strategy that need to be carried out for the strategy to be effective.

Where is the difference, then, between strategic and tactical aspects of a content strategy? The strategy involves talking to executive stakeholders to figure out how the content can support business goals, interviewing users to discover how they actually use the content and how they would like to use the content, discussing with the writers and technologists how content is gathered, written, produced, managed, and delivered, and sitting down to create a plan, a strategy, that will balance the needs of the enterprise, the users, and the intermediaries who make the magic happen.

Content Strategy versus Implementation

Content Strategy versus Implementation

The implementation phase is generally of far greater proportion, resourcing and time-wise, than the preparation of the strategy itself. Creating the plan can take a few weeks to a few months. Carrying out the strategy can take a significant amount of time, due to the simple fact that the amount of content, particularly technical content, can be massive.

The output is shown as the largest portion in the illustration because any effort in the implementation phase can result in multiple output channels. That could mean public-facing XHTML plus PDF plus print, plus output to be shared by training, plus output to be shared by customer support, plus an XHTML variant destined for the intranet, and possibly an XHTML variant that a sister business unit might rebrand for their own uses. That’s before we get into the output that is localized for various markets.

Sound daunting? That’s why figuring out the strategy up front is critical. When there is that much content at stake, and that many variant outputs, it doesn’t make sense to start in the middle, with content creation, or near the end, with technology decisions. It makes sense to fiddle and fuss and get the strategic side correct, from the get-go, so the tactics can be implemented with confidence.

This may all sound daunting, so it’s nice to know that there are already resources out, in the form of books, articles, and knowledge banks, and communities of experienced practitioners who have a culture of collegial sharing.

There are more resources listed on the Society for Technical Communication Content Strategy SIG, from books to presentations to articles. You can also follow along on Twitter, by using #contentstrategy.

About Rahel Anne Bailie

Rahel Anne Bailie is a seasoned content strategist. She operates Intentional Design Inc., a microconsultancy providing content strategies for organizations that want to managie their content like the valuable content assets they are. Rahel was elected Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication in 2009, and stays current in related practice areas through membership in organizations such as Information Architecture Institute, Usability Professionals Association, and Content Management Professionals.

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