I won’t lie to you, Marge. Here’s the truth: I spend as much, if not more of my time, in multi-layered spreadsheets as I do writing or planning content. There, I said it! So much for a creative job; I’m a slave to excel.
The thing is that it’s really important. Long before I knew about the practice of Content Strategy, I was printing out pages of sites for editing and making lists and tables and notes. I never did it in a spreadsheet – because who touches a spreadsheet unless they are told to? – but now I wish I had done. The trouble is the IT lessons I had at school persuaded me that spreadsheets were for Maths Work but, my friends, this is poppycock.
When it comes to content, spreadsheets are for comparisons, notes and order.
One of the very first things I do when presented with creating or editing content for a site is go and see What Has Gone Before. What existing content is there, online or not, and how does it relate to the new site I’m tackling? Very few people know every page that is on their site – let alone what it says, when it was updated and how it is performing for them.
Some questions about your content just to ponder for a moment: Is it relevant? Does it meet core requirements? Is it readable? How is it performing in searches? Are people finding the page for the right things? When was it last updated? What metadata is attached to it? What the hell kind of document is it anyway?
And can you answer that for every single page on your site?
With a content audit you can.
A content audit is two things. The first thing it can be defined as is a document that lays out every page on your site, every link, what the page is called, who owns the content, what role it plays and whether it is doing a good job.
Jeff Venn has a great, simple example of a content audit doc to play with. (He is sadly right in that article about the mind-numbing aspect but let’s concentrate on the odyssey, hmm?)
The other thing a content audit is, crucially, is the act of putting human eyeballs on every which way around your site and seeing what the heck is on there. It opens a whole heap of questions not just about your current content but about what could be better, what you might want in the future or how you might avoid pitfalls that have befallen you this time around.
Now this is all fun and games (actually I lie, it isn’t very exciting compared to writing) but want I want to do in the next couple of weeks is point you to some of my work for Headscape that covers just this sort of stuff, including my own adaption of Adaptive Path‘s document, with notes for use.
And yes, it can be a tedious ol’ job doing this stuff but it will repay you over and over so don’t break a sweat over it. Open a spreadsheet creation tool of your choice, type ‘1.0 Home’ and put in the first bits of your navigation. You can just do a little everyday. Unless you’re me, in which case, it is quite a lot everyday.
Enough of this blogging frivolity. Time to don the mask! I have some cell-wrangling to do!
(Huh. ‘The Auditor’ is never going to be a good wrestling name, is it? You should help me come up with a better one.
Tell it to me on twitter.)
Let’s talk about style. More specifically still, let’s talk about styleguides. I love these suckas for a few reasons but chief among them is they help to bring order to chaos; calm and stillness to a cacophony.
You see, many websites suffer from The Little Voices. They start off with a defined purpose but then Roger from Marketing mentions that the company’s premium products aren’t prominent enough for current clients and Dawn from Account Management says they should really have the picture of the company at that fancy awards dinner they won a gong at, to impress potential clients, and the CEO’s husband thinks that they should really mention the upcoming charity ball he is organising and BOOM!
The site is overrun with Little Voices.
The Little Voices that write in their own style, with their own considerations, and pass it along to some poor sock puppet at the bottom of the pile in the I.T department to shovel into the content management system, with little consideration for way or how it will fit in with what’s already there on the site.
Now, as I’m sure you clever people have discerned, there are a whole heap of issues with that methodology (and I use the word in the loosest sense) but the easiest thing to tackle is Little Voice Syndrome and we do that with a styleguide.
A styleguide is essentially a document that states very clearly, for everyone, ‘This is how we write when we are writing for the website.’ It goes from simple rules on punctuation, to discerning on matters of taste (if the boss loathes split infinitives with a passion, it can be noted here) and encouraging writers to ditch the passive voice for positive, demonstrative copy that earns its place on the site with clear examples of good writing and good practice for links, headlines and different article types.
The information starts pretty broadly with good English and then gets more finely detailed, with decisions specific to the company (how do we write our own name in the first instance, second instance, thereafter in an article) or even to a product (we use a trademark with our products but not with our company name, ie, Microsoft Word ™ and Microsoft.). It may include points of visual and typographical consideration that affect the content.
Some of it is very simple, some of it is about coming to a consensus and more still is about learning something new before writing for the website. And the kicker is not one company will have a team that agree on all the points. The styleguide is the decider as to what is a good link description and what is the best way to refer to the process descriptions they use with clients. Everyone will know what fits and what doesn’t – and they can take responsibility for checking their content against the guidelines before passing it to the sock monkey with the CMS login.
As for getting the Little Voices to consider the message of their content and what it brings to the website (if anything), that’s for another day. First we need to know what we are dealing with. Time to audit …
(Also, I’m sorry to pass this particularly beast of burden onto you but, you see, this post needs an earworm. You see we are talking about styleguides and who better to illustrate the point than Groove Armada:
Don’t blame me! The Little Voices made me post it!. Just know that every time I think about writing a styleguide, this song starts playing on a loop in my head.
(PS- Do you suffer from Little Voices Invading Your Content Syndrome? Tell me on twitter and let’s commiserate together.
So, I phoned my mum the other week to tell her I’d taken a position as a content strategist at Headscape and she was thrilled. Aren’t mums great?
To be honest I’m pretty certain that, after years working as a jobbing writer for radio and then this new-fangled internet thing, she was pleased to hear that someone was going to give me a proper grown up job with the prospects of sick-pay and a pension. And then, of course, came the question.
‘But what is it that you do again?’
Which really translates to ‘What can I tell the relatives you do again?’
As a content strategist, I help clients figure out what their website should say and how it should be said. In order to do this well, I team up with an information architect, who helps figure out which content should go where. Together, with the help of a web writer (who’s good at writing copy that works well online), we help businesses make websites that help their customers gather information and complete tasks without any hassle.
Me, I’m a little more flexible. A little of column A, a little from row B and a dash from bottle C. But, for an easy explanation of what a content strategist does, I think Julie has it right on, don’t you?
So there we have it, kids. Content Strategy is a Proper Job: 100% Mum Approved.
(Can you think of other ways of dealing with the ‘What exactly is content strategy?’ question? I’d love to hear about it so feel free to tell all to me on twitter.)