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If there's one thing near and dear to a writer's hard little heart, it's content. Unfortunately through much of the history of the web, content is always the last thing people worry about when building a site. Content Strategist Kristina Halvorson, CEO and Founder of BrainTraffic.com, aims to change all that.

An Apt Metaphor

Halvorson is a fan of the movie WALL-E. In part, she's a fan because to her this movie exemplifies the content problem as she sees it. Just as WALL-E lives in a world drowning in a mountain of junk, today she sees us drowning online in "mountains of useless crap."

As WALL-E takes pile after pile of junk, forms it into blocks and builds big tidy towers out of the refuse, she sees the CMS. In many cases, to her a CMS is our "tower of useless junk" where no one can find anything. Some might wince at that as maybe being a bit harsh, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who can immediately think of a number of large profile corporate sites that match this description.

Throughout the story, WALL-E sometimes finds something special. Something that delights, excites and engages him. Halvorson says that for us, these are the moments when we find a piece of content that's actually meaningful to us.

When WALL-E finds these exciting items, what does he want to do? He wants to share them, which is exactly the same impulse that drives us to share links and precious resources across social networking.

The Problem

We live in a world with an overwhelming amount of content that's building more and more of control, just like the one poor WALL-E was left to deal with. Every day, Halvorson points out, that content gets older.

She shared an email she received a week ago that exemplifies the problem. In it, a fan and reader states that while he enjoys what he does, it's always bothered him that designers and developers seem to avoid the issue of content all together. "Oh," he says, "just build a block for the content to go in and let the client worry about it."

The result? The content the client has, says the reader, is never as long or short as the designed blocks. Every single time he has to modify the design and code to address this, no matter how much he begs them to think more about it up front.

How Does This Happen?

A number of people tried to make sense of our digital mountains of useless crap. Richard Saul Wurman  founded the concept of Information Architecture (not to mention the TED conference series). Edward Tufte champions the concept of beautiful designs that communicate information.

Both of these men empowered people before the advent of the web. Yet the web is a visual medium that needs machines to make it go, so corporations turned to developers and visual designers to lead the charge. When Jesse James Garrett wrote the User-Centered Design for the Web, people latched onto the word Time in his seminal Elements of User Experience diagram and took the representation as a process rather than the representation of layers it was meant to be.

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Elements of User Experience, from Jesse James Garrett.

The reality that this situation creates is one that Halvorson is well familiar with. She started as a copy writer herself before becoming a web writer, and then evolving into the Content Strategist of today. Referencing an interactive media job roles diagram from Skillset.org, she discusses that in most situations many of these roles are filled by a single person juggling hats.

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The many roles involved in interactive media, from Skillset.org.

Often what happens is that all of the developers and designers sit around a table and hash things out. They build all kinds of user stories to describe the people who might visit the site and what their use cases might be. The teams then make pretty wireframes and start building.

As they near completion, they realize that gee, maybe they should start replacing those Ipsums with actual content. From her own experience, that's when she'd get the call as the copy writer. She'd be handed a creative brief, a site map and its functional requirements. Then within the next seven business days they wanted her to create every piece of content that went onto the site, including imagining all possible error messages and writing them.

Maybe you have to be a writer to really get how broken this process is and how it is not destined to provide excellent and useful sites.

It's Just Copy

Halvorson says that are four common excuses for acting as though content is the last thing anyone needs to worry about:

  • The client can take care of it
  • Don't we have it already?
  • Don't we have too much content already?
  • Just use what we have, we're out of budget anyway

Content is not just text, or a check in a checklist box. Content is not a feature! We talk about managing and delivering content, yet looking at content in this way turns us into poor WALL-E.

Digging Ourselves Out

How do we stop the madness? Halvorson defines content strategy for the web as having "plans for the creation, publication and governance of useful, usable content." Over the last six to nine months, this terminology has started to pick up steam.

While content comes in many forms, she focuses on text, which lacks the process that organizations typically have around types such as audio and video. Text is more fluid. The task of writing is never really done, as it can be edited and adjusted at any time. And every single type of text on your site counts as content.

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Content refers to all forms of text, provided by Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic.

Recognize this fact up front. Bring a list to your client at the very beginning, pointing out every type of content they'll need to make. At least they can have these items in the back of their minds as you proceed. Have a content strategy.

A strategy is a plan for obtaining a specific goal or result. Don't just ask "what will we create" in terms of content. Ask a much broader range of questions, such as why are you creating it, how are you creating it, and so on. Don't build a thing until you've discussed every one of these.

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Every one of these questions is essential to build a really useful site, provided by Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic.

How Does Content Strategy Really Help?

Halvorson took us through a series of corporate site examples to show what happens if you don't use this approach. Let me summarize one of them. Say that you're completely overwhelmed by your finances. You're seriously in debt, credit cards maxed and are on the edge of panic. You need to get the chaos under control.

You go to the website of a company well-known for providing personal finance software. You see a tag line, an ad for their online service, a series of pictures of product boxes listing which product is which and what they cost, some pointers to tips and how to's, and an ad for the credit card the company offers.

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You need help and you get ... this. Provided by Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic.

Don't you feel helped? Halvorson points out that this page is a breakdown of messaging. It completely ignores the user's real goals and priorities.

Hoping that the Products page might offer more assistance, they just get more of the same. They'll have to dig further through the site to understand why they should buy this product and which version is right for them.

Create Your Content Strategy

There are four essential steps to creating a content strategy:

  • Plan
  • Create
  • Deliver
  • Govern

In the planning stage you don't get to say, "OMG [content] is so not my problem." Ask your content owners:

  • What their business objectives are
  • What their users are trying to do
  • What's broken about what they have now
  • What works with what they have now

Beyond this, Halvorson does live in the real world and knows that no matter how well-intentioned, you can't change your clients overnight. Concrete suggestions of "stuff you can do that won't hurt too much" starts with doing a content audit. Apparently this process involves a lot of drinking, but it also involves building out lists of what pages you have with information such as their URLs, and what they contain.

Unless you have a small site, this is a process that people often accomplish a bit at a time (sometimes using a technique called a rolling audit for huge sites), which she promises spreads out the drinking. Once you have your list you can find out who owns the content on each page, which is not as straightforward of an exercise as it sounds.

The second tactic is to ask all of those questions we discussed earlier (why are we doing this, what are we doing, etc.). Don't assume that the only way to fix the mountains of junk is a huge bonfire. When the client says they want something, ask why. Then ask why to clarify. Continue asking why until you feel you've reached the heart of the matter. If it drills down to "because it's cool" then steer them toward their business objectives and goals.

Third in the list of tactics is analyze internal needs and capabilities:

  • What is the technology they're currently using?
  • What's going on with their content and how is it broken?
  • How much do they know about writing for the web?
  • Are they using a publishing calendar or publishing reactively?
  • What are their business objectives?

Halvorson admits that going through this particular process is difficult. She suggests starting by spending 15 to 20 minutes a day thinking on it.

The fourth tactic is to align everything into an actionable plan for real content creation.

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Having an actionable plan produces a site that gives users what they actually need.

And finally, the phrase that many dread. You have to assume responsibility. By this, she means take the responsibility to look at what's going on, ask smart questions and prod things along in a direction that's good for the client and their users.

Your reward for learning this new way of doing things?

Halvorson says you will receive happiness in the form of:

  • A better user experience
  • Greater brand consistency
  • New operational efficiencies
  • Better risk management through better controls
  • Improved SEO and analytics
  • More effective personalization and targeting

And if you're lucky a bit more drinking. (Okay, that last bit was me, not her.)