This discipline runs on strategy (photo by ribarnica)
For the past couple days, I’ve been having fun casting “Content Strategy: The Movie,” but this morning I woke up and it’s starting to look like this indie film project is going to be a tense drama. So now it’s polemic time, people. We need to talk about this big “S” Strategy vs. small “s” strategy debate. I think many of you are missing part of the picture.
Maybe I shouldn’t look at Twitter in the morning before I get ready for work, but I do. And today a tweet from Destry Wion alerted me to a discussion about a Wikipedia page on Content Engineering. It describes an engineering specialty that includes “content production, content management, content modelling, content conversion, and content use and repurposing.” The woman who started the discussion is Kate Towsey, a self-described content strategy consultant in the UK. In a series of tweets, she speculated that maybe Content Engineering was a better description of what she does.
I understand Kate’s concerns – I’m interested in similar aspects of content, and sometimes it seems like these topics are in the margins of content strategy discussions. But I (and others) firmly believe these discussions do belong in this discipline, so we keep at it. I tweeted back:
Elsewhere in the Twitterverse, two leaders in UX and Content Strategy seemed to be about to throw down. I don’t know the back story, but the exchange led me to discover a blog post taking the opposing point of view, that content strategy has been too tactical, to the point where our use of the word “strategy” has become a meaningless buzzword. This view of “strategy” seems to be very marketing-oriented. That is to say, exclusively outward facing.
A few weeks ago Luke Wroblewski told me that he considers “structured content” to be a tactic, not a strategy. I shrugged it off, even though I strongly disagree, but I was left with lingering mixed feelings about it. Why would the very people who have turned up the volume on the rallying call for structured content – the Future Friendly Responsive Web Designers – be so nonchalant about how structured content happens? There are no magic content elves who come into your servers at night and leave you a shiny pile of structured content in the morning.
Structuring content requires synthesizing a swath of sources, designing usable systems, changing organizations, training personnel, soothing egos, adjusting priorities, allaying fears, reallocating resources… all while trying not to disrupt an existing content production process that cannot just stop while you sort out all this stuff. Does that sound easy? It shouldn’t. This is big “S” strategy, and it requires understanding, insight, diplomacy, negotiation, and persuasion.
So yes, it’s an implementation. It’s engineering. And it’s strategic. But it’s the kind of strategy that faces inwards, at the needs and pains of your (or your client’s) organization – the poor people whose day-to-day lives are about to be completely upended by the launch of your new widget. The small set of users whose buy-in you absolutely need in order to make sure your digital product has a longer shelf life than a few months. You need them to love this product and own it, not gripe and cry and phone it in. If they don’t love it, they will never be able to sustain the delightful, engaging experiences you’ve envisioned for your end users.
Between that conversation with Luke and the Tweets I saw this morning, I had a thought-provoking conversation with Paul Ford that renewed my sense of commitment to this point of view. Like me, he has a background of working with traditional publishers and he brings this experience to bear on his work in the digital realm. He seems to share my sentiment that it’s shortsighted, and perhaps a bit naïve, to ignore the impact of organizational change when introducing new “content tactics.” Failing to recognize that Strategy (big “S”!) is necessary in order to pave the way for new tactics is a great way to make sure your project, initiative, or shiny widget fails.
Don’t just take my word for it. Other people thinking about these issues:
- Erin Scime: There’s a People Problem Lurking Behind Your Digital Strategy
- Sara Wachter-Boetcher: New Forms, Old Places
- Karen McGrane & Jeff Eaton: Baby Got Backend: Content Administrators are Users Too