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Managing Content, Managing Change
Managing Content, Managing Change

Content strategy is vital for effective communications

By Kim Fernandez


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When Donna Talarico, integrated marketing manager at Elizabethtown College, was tasked with redesigning the Pennsylvania institution's website back in 2009, she took a hard look at what was already online. And then she dumped it. All of it. Every word, every image, every scrap of information gone.

Talarico knew that starting over from scratch would be a large undertaking. It's a significant task no matter the size of the institution. But, she says, the decision to obliterate the old site and begin anew was for a good reason. It was the only way to really manage what ended up online.

"[The old site] wasn't a website set up with a marketing function. It was just a storehouse for information," she says. "People said, ‘Let's keep these PDFs here,' and ‘We'll put those documents here too.' It was kind of like what [comedian] George Carlin said—a place for my stuff."

When a website has become a virtual storage closet rather than a place where useful, usable content is created, published, and organized, there's a problem. If audiences can't quickly and easily find what they're looking for when they visit a website—and aren't interested in what they find when they get there—they'll get frustrated and leave. Making sure they can get what they came for—and discover reasons to stay—is where content strategy comes in.

Becoming strategic

Ask a handful of communications and marketing professionals what content strategy means, and you'll likely get several different answers. But the common thread will be a focus on mindful content creation.

"It's planning ahead and not just creating content because you need something to put on a website or in a brochure, but planning ahead for all the different channels, creating next steps, and coming up with calls to action," Talarico says. "Who is it for? What is it for? … It's looking at the big picture."

Others use more colorful terms. "It's eating the elephant," says Matt Herzberger, director of web communications at Florida International University. "We looked at bits and chunks in the past, but now we're looking at the whole thing: Is it useful? Can we analyze the content? In the long run, is it performing well?"

The goal, Herzberger says, is to curate sustainable content. "Everyone should be involved in this—web people, social media people, print and publications people, news and editorial people—because at the core, it's all about the content and communication and the web as a medium for that, not about the web as technology itself."

Considering how long websites have been around, content strategy is a relatively new field. There wasn't even really a name for it until about 2008, according to Kristina Halvorson, who literally wrote the book on the subject, Content Strategy for the Web. Websites have evolved from a time when everything was thrown online without much thought as to why or where it should go, Herzberger says, to an age when a website may be at the center of a larger communications strategy.

In fact, Herzberger likens content strategy to an airline's hub-and-spoke model. "We have our main sources of information, so this is about being sure that content, no matter where it was created, gets aligned with the right medium and speaks to the audience in the way they want to communicate," he says.

And with the rapid growth and expansion of social media, audiences are not only looking for information on websites but also on Facebook, Twitter, and other social channels. As a result, content strategy needs to go beyond the website to cover multiple platforms.

Getting results

"Content strategy, to me, is figuring out what result you want from what you write or what you publish and then working almost backwards to figure out how to produce content that ensures those results," says Tonya Oaks Smith, director of communications at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

That can be a shock to professionals who come to institutional communications from a more traditional news environment and have to start thinking about results-based communication. It can also be challenging to bring everyone involved on board to get those results, Oaks Smith says. She cites the example of a website for the law school's free mediation clinic, where students gain valuable experience working on pro bono cases. The site was receiving fewer requests from community members. When Oaks Smith and her team met with the clinic's staff about the issue, they discussed how the clinic's online content might work offline to better serve potential clients who are low-income, not fluent in English, and often lack access to a computer or the Internet.

"The content had to help a group of people who … still had to understand the offerings of the clinic," Oaks Smith says. "We talked about how to convert those people. The behavior we wanted was for them to submit requests for mediation."

Oaks Smith and her staff addressed the issue by developing a simplified printed informational piece and redesigning the online mediation request form to make it more understandable and easier to use. The team also created a paper version of the updated request form, which is included with the clinic's printed educational material.

"That's also part of content strategy," says Oaks Smith, one of the people behind higheredsolo.com, a website geared toward one-person communications shops in higher education. "Creating a form that allows you to get the information you need allows the user to interact with it more intuitively."

Reaching that resolution involved getting buy-in from a host of stakeholders, which is another essential and ongoing aspect of content strategy.

Convincing content producers

Part of gaining buy-in is ensuring that people understand why content strategy makes sense and how it will improve the content and storytelling on the website as well as other communications channels.

"Content strategy is a way to look at the very complicated and messy process of content development and break it down into recognizable, repeatable steps," says Kate Johnson, content strategy manager at the University of Denver.

As the communications and content strategy teams began the process of redesigning DU's home page last year, they looked at the content being produced on campus and how they could better use the home page to communicate the institution's brand and tell DU's story. Establishing a strategy and guidelines that prioritized stories based on brand messages and metrics made it clear what kinds of content would appear on the home page and why, and prevented battles for web real estate.

"When people think of websites, they think of design and structure, and then it'll have some content," she says with a laugh. "It's a really common point of view. And then they think about the pages they have to create and everything on them, and it becomes incredibly overwhelming."

To help the many content producers on campus, Johnson created a web content strategy tool kit that turns the content process and site redesign into manageable steps and helps people focus on putting content first. Johnson and her staff also act as advisors to campus departments and content producers.

Many people find the tool kit helpful, she notes, but at the other end of the spectrum are people who feel micromanaged when they're given content guidelines.

"They feel like you're interfering with their content and trying to mess with a process they already have nailed down," she says. As a result, Johnson's team tries to approach the content guidelines as a way to help manage change. "We bring this whole new process and workflow and way of thinking into their office, and we try and sell it as a benefit and not like we're forcing anything on them."

As the person responsible for ensuring that information coming from approximately 300 content producers across the State University of New York at Oswego fits within the campus's content strategy, Tim Nekritz, associate director of public affairs and director of web communication, is no stranger to the maneuvering involved in getting people on board with content strategy. All content producers receive content strategy training, an education that is critical in getting them to think about the process. It can be a difficult task when confronted with people's desire to have cool web design elements and videos, which don't matter if there's no strategic reason for using them.

"Everyone wants dessert. We try to emphasize that content strategy is the meat and potatoes," he says. "Any chance I get to talk with someone about navigating content, I try to do it."

After the training sessions, Nekritz follows up with positive reinforcement, such as analytics that show content strategy is improving results. He also emails tips and tricks related to content strategy for websites and social media. The campus social media user's guide also addresses content strategy on these channels.

"By the end of the process, we hope people will see where we're coming from," he says. "Sometimes, a person higher up says he has to have a certain PDF or that a logo has to be bigger. You can try and talk with them and make them understand, but they're not going to comply 100 percent of the time."

Getting people to understand the how and why of content strategy is important. "We explain that we want to make sure the stuff on your site and in your social media is as good as possible," Nekritz says. "We want to get good students and recruit the best professors and make sure alumni stay in touch with us. People are receptive to that. We make it clear that we're looking for a win-win here, and we're not being the know-it-all telling them what to do."

Georgy Cohen, director of online content at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, says that sort of explanation can make a world of difference when it comes to using a content strategy across an institution.

"People talk about content and think about web pages and sites and text and energy," says Cohen, who co-founded Meet Content, a content strategy resource that focuses on the higher education community. "Before I worry about those things, I worry about the people. It's about people and relationships and how you manage those relationships and [have] relationships with people you want to deal with." Cohen emphasizes the rationale for content strategy and the role that campus content producers play in following the process and making the site work well. This also helps ensure that "nobody's taking shots in the dark," she says.

Responding to change

Content strategy is changing more than content—it's changing the nature of how communications professionals do their jobs.

"The whole process of doing content strategy at the beginning rather than at the end has really changed how our whole team approaches the work," says Rebecca Salerno, director of creative services at Indiana University. "People are seeing that having us rewrite the copy is the way to go. If they have writers, we work with them on the strategy and coach them through the process to create a better, more effective process." Either way, the intended result is compelling, clear, and concise copy.

IU embraced the tough work of content strategy about three years ago, says Salerno. "People often have websites that are too long for staff to continue to maintain. In those cases, cutting hundreds of pages through strategy makes a lot of sense and gives them something they can manage," she says. But it's not always easy to cut through to what's actually necessary.

Salerno says her job is quite different than it was when her department began the process. "We are thinking from a strategic standpoint about the words we want and why," she says. "We're getting our writers to think about the emotion of the user who's going through various stages when they're doing something like career development. They may be optimistic at the beginning [of a search], but if they have trouble finding a job or an internship, those emotions are going to change." As a result, her team is working on developing a more personal and engaging tone, and creating different kinds of copy to improve visitors' overall web experience.

Salerno has also been working on integrating electronic communications to develop an overall strategy that marries everything seamlessly. "Part of what we're doing is getting our clients in the university to rethink how the web fits into their overall communications goals," she says. "That's really important."

Technological shifts within the past few years have helped move content strategy to the forefront as well, particularly the growing use of mobile devices and the push toward responsive web design. When a user accesses a website and the site automatically responds to the type of device (computer, tablet, smartphone, etc.) being used by rendering a web page that works on that specific platform, the site is using responsive web design. Oaks Smith of UALR says she realized just how important that was after seeing the results of several recent surveys that show more than half of cell phone users routinely access websites on their phones. This information led her to look at how the law school's content works on mobile devices.

"If something doesn't download on my phone, I'll go to another link. I just will," she says. "When you start thinking about the elements on your page in that way, it means finding a different way to write content or finding a different way to render photos."

What's important, Suffolk's Cohen says, is creating web experiences that can live up to any device context you put them through.

"If you create a separate mobile site, you're making decisions on behalf of your users," she says. "You're saying that users on smartphones and laptops have different needs, and you're going to go ahead and decide what those are. Research shows that people are not just using smartphones for location-based things but sitting on their couches researching grad school options. That is the new normal."

Salerno of IU says that having a responsively designed site has benefited her institution. "We are under pressure to have projects that are within a budget," she says. "To have a separate mobile experience was cost-prohibitive. Now, we can make our sites responsive and have that mobile experience at the same time."

Thinking about how people view and use web content, particularly on mobile devices, is a driving force of the content strategy movement.

"Some things on a site are purely informational," says Talarico. "But really, everything should have a next step to it. What happens next? You can't just think of content as being one page or one piece of information. You have to think about the whole." While rebuilding Elizabethtown's content from the ground up was a lot of work, Talarico is proud of the end product, which is streamlined, more efficient, and more consistent.

Oaks Smith offers anecdotal proof that focusing on content is working at UALR: "Communicating our three core values in every way we can is part of our content strategy," she says. "When alumni and students and faculty members start using those words in everyday conversation, when we hear them relate to something they're doing in their lives that is part of the public service we stress, that is the height of what we're trying to do. We have changed how their language is formed."

In Short

A place for funny. Re-evaluating the content on Elizabethtown College's website made Donna Talarico, integrated marketing manager at the Pennsylvania institution, think of the late George Carlin's classic stand-up comedy routine "A Place for My Stuff." Whether your website is streamlined and strategic or you're working to produce that result, you deserve a five-minute break. Coincidentally, that's all the time you'll need to enjoy the comedic legend performing some of his best-known material. Warning: This video contains coarse language, so consider your audience before including it in a presentation about why it's time to focus on content strategy.

Go-to guides. Kristina Halvorson is practically viewed as the mother of content strategy. In fact, when she wrote the first edition of Content Strategy for the Web, which was published in 2009, it was the only book on the subject. Since then, content strategy has become a movement. The updated second edition, which was released last year, features more tools to help navigate the process and case studies that demonstrate the effects of content strategy within organizations. Today, the book has company, such as A Book Apart's The Elements of Content Strategy and Content Strategy for Mobile.

Content confab. Content strategy is a burgeoning field—one in which higher education communications professionals are keenly interested. And it must be evident because Confab: The Content Strategy Conference (a brainchild of Kristina Halvorson's Brain Traffic) will host a tailor-made offshoot later this year, Confab Higher Ed. The inaugural conference, produced in partnership with Rick Allen and Georgy Cohen of Meet Content, will be held Nov. 11–12 in Atlanta and "focus on the unique challenges and opportunities for content strategy in higher education." Details are still in the works, so if you want to stay in the loop, join the mailing list or follow @ConfabEvents on Twitter.

Tough stuff. Content strategy isn't easy—even the field's top experts say so. In fact, they spent an entertaining hour talking about those challenges at the 2012 South by Southwest Interactive Festival in the session Rude Awakening: Content Strategy Is Super Hard. During a wide-ranging and sometimes fiery discussion, panelists—including Erin Kissane, editor of the online magazine Contents, and Karen McGrane, managing partner of Bond Art+Science—advised content strategists to show their work. Demonstrating that they can improve the end product and make other people's jobs easier commands attention. Listen to the discussion.

About the Author Kim Fernandez

Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer who has written for Smithsonian magazine, The Washington Post, AARP the Magazine, and many other association and trade publications.

 

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