Content strategy Making corporate web Web writing

Leave minor changes out of your full content review process

Editing content? It makes sense to review major changes as thoroughly as new content, and to have a shorter, easier process for minor changes. The hard part is defining each type of change.

You might be able to publish minor content changes without any approval, and just give the content owner an FYI. But it’s more common in large organisations that the minor process will cut out everything except the content owner’s sign-off. Either way frees up time that you’d otherwise spend getting little content fixes rubber-stamped.

Keep it simple: Only have two categories of change

“Major” and “minor” changes aren’t always easy to tell apart. Strong definitions help reduce the grey area between them. Whatever you do, don’t try to “clarify” things with more categories. All that does is create more grey areas and two new problems: spending more time grading content changes than actually working on them; and the thankless work of building multiple review processes. This quickly turns into ranking your stakeholders by importance, and Pandora herself couldn’t build a box strong enough to contain that political shit-storm.

So, stick with only two processes and reduce confusion by defining each change type as best you can.

Defining major and minor changes

More than one aspect of a change can make it major. List things that would make a change major: any one of them alone is enough to send your content through the major review process.

Changing the target audience is major

Even minor-looking changes can alter who you’re writing for, which changes the content’s strategic aim. Anything that touches the strategic level is a major content change.

Every piece of content should have a clearly defined target audience. Check whether your new version of the content still fits this audience.

Example: Returning a faulty Shiny Widget
Say you have a webpage about your company’s finest product, the Shiny Widget. The H1 is “Shiny Widget” and the page is all about it, but there’s nothing saying what people should do if their Shiny Widget breaks during the warranty period. You quickly draft a sentence or two, which seems minor.

But when you check who the page is for, you see that the audience is “Potential customers who haven’t got a Shiny Widget yet”. Your new content isn’t for that audience. Either you’ve spotted a strategic gap – there’s no content for people who have already bought a Shiny Widget – which needs a larger solution, or you’ve drafted words for the wrong page.

Changes to the content’s purpose are major

As well as its audience, the purpose of every piece of content needs to be defined and documented. This is another part of the content’s strategic intent, so any change to it is major.

If you’re looking at a dedicated sales page for the Shiny Widget and trying to fit in after-sales service, this isn’t a minor change.

Adding or removing an idea or concept is major

If you’re not just re-wording existing information but changing the content’s “informational load”, it’s a major change. This isn’t about the word count – it could be as little as half a sentence – but about what the content “knows”.

Examples include:

  • altering the Shiny Widget’s description to include a new weight
  • adding or removing one of the ways you can return a faulty Shiny Widget
  • putting in a new way to order a Shiny Widget.

All of these can be very light changes in terms of words, but they’re all new concepts that you want your reviewers to see, and fact-check.

Change in word count can be major

After every other condition, this is a catch-all. List both a numerical and a percentage change. If the word count crosses either threshold in either direction, it’s a major change.

Lots of minor changes over time can equal a major change. Compare your new content’s word count with the last version that went through full approvals. Don’t let minor changes stack up unchecked.

Typo fixes are minor

Adding a missing full stop? Fixing a spelling mistake? Just do it.

Stylistic changes can be minor

If you’re just fixing copy to meet your style guide or brand tone of voice, that’s minor. Your approvers and stakeholders should already know about these things so they don’t need to be involved again.

Filling a design gap can be minor

It’s not pretty, but you might “need some words to fill a gap”. If you plug it by basically repeating something that’s already on the page, that’s a minor content change. (You probably have a problem with your page design, though.)

Make sure all your reviewers know what counts as minor

Let your reviewers help define major and minor changes. You want a category of change that they’re not worried by, so they need a say. Without their buy-in this will never work. Be clear that the major-minor split will save time without hiding things from them.

If you’re not sure, treat a change as major

When you can’t be certain that a change is minor, the best policy is to keep your reviewers in the loop and treat it as major. It can be a good idea to ask whether they’d like to be included next time a similar change goes through – they might just count themselves out.

Reduce risk

Content reviews are risk management. By favouring too much review over too little, you’re at to the “cautious” end of the risk appetite continuum. Bosses don’t often like people at the “reckless” end of the scale.

Build trust

You’re better leaning towards consulting too often – being open about the things you’re changing and why – than appearing to hide changes from people who deserve a say.

(If you have stakeholders who don’t deserve a say, or who withhold approval for unnecessary reasons, taking your work underground will only make things worse between now and when you tackle these problems properly.)

The more often you work with a stakeholder the better they get to know you and your work, and vice versa. This helps builds trust and makes it easier to work together. It’s much better than appearing to be the uncollaborative sneak who doesn’t know when to ask for help.

All the guidelines, definitions and documented processes in the world can’t beat a trusting relationship between you and your stakeholders or reviewers.


This post is 1,073 words long with an average reading grade of 8.3.

Content strategy Making corporate web

Discovering your corporation’s hidden content strategy

After too many years of organic growth, your corporation has a messy online presence. Sound familiar? Even though there’s no strategy, your sprouting content has followed some guiding principles. Identifying these is an important step to constructing a proper content strategy. Here’s how to dig them up.

Big corporates have been on the web for the best part of 20 years, doing what we euphemistically call “growing organically”. Now their online content is messy, overgrown and plentiful. It’s unhelpfully constructed. New growth spurts where it can; where nothing can grow content ages and dies without ever disappearing.

But even organic growth has some rules or patterns. These don’t deserve the name “content strategy”, but finding them is a step towards forming the crafted, intentional strategy that your company needs. When you know what caused the patterns, or where the rules of your untamed website came from, you’ll understand why your online content contains what it does, see what’s worked (even if accidentally), and work out what needs to change.

You just need to know where to look and what to look for.

What’s grown the most? And where does your audience look?

Organic growth is disorganised, but it’s not random. Take a look at what’s grown successfully. Which parts of your website are biggest? You’ve probably got some expensive microsites – what are they about? What’s most prominent in the navigation?

There are two possible explanations for the winners of the organic race for life. Their oxygen came either from your audience, or from within your company.

Find the content that looks important, and then check your analytics to see what’s actually popular.

  • When prominence and popularity coincide, you’ve found good content. It’s probably obvious (“hey, we’re a chain of restaurants and our site visitors love our location finder – wow!”), but it’s good to know that your company’s hunches haven’t all been wrong.
  • If something stands out from the rest of the garden but the stats don’t back it up, this’s more interesting. Someone is spending time and money – and maybe political capital – on web content that isn’t working. Who are they? Where are they from? Why are they so influential? And why aren’t visitors coming? (This is just a guess, but is it your CEO’s profile page?)
  • In the opposite case – an untended but well-visited piece of content – you’ve found something that deserves your attention. Why do your workmates neglect it? Why doesn’t its audience matter?
  • Then there’s the fourth category – unpopular, untended content. Delete it or find a better place to put it.

How are you and your team measured? And what are you meant to do all day?

You also need to examine your company. The web content that you have, especially before you start planning it properly, is an expression of your corporation’s main preoccupations.

There are clues in the way your company manages those of you who work on its web content. I’m not naive enough to believe that there’s a perfect thread connecting your annual personal performance reviews, your boring monthly team progress reports, and the job descriptions that you all supposedly work to. But these things all reflect what your company cares about, so they’ve been affecting the shape and size of your organic web-garden for years.

What are your team’s most important “metrics”?

What counts as success for your web team? Even though you’re working without a proper content strategy, this is the corporate world – you’re still measured somehow. Your boss probably uses the horrible word “metrics” to describe the measurable things that matter most.

When your web team is in its long monthly or quarterly meeting and there’s a heap of Powerpoint being projected, what’s on the one slide that matters? It’s the slide with the graphs and numbers and the comparisons to last year. It’s the “how we’re doing against our main goal” slide.

What is that goal? Total visits? Sales conversions? Form completion rates? Whatever it is, this is a major part of your accidental content strategy. (Let me guess: Your company measures your online sales, which are doing just fine while your after-sales service content is out of date and out of place.)

What do you talk about in performance evaluations?

You’re probably given an annual going-over by your boss and your boss’s boss – what do they care about the most when they’re trying to work out if you should get a bonus this Christmas?

Is it the precision of the content you work on? Is it the amount that you produce? The response you earn in social media? Whatever your bosses care about, it’s been guiding the company’s content for as long as it’s been on their agenda.

What do your job descriptions say?

A third way to decode the “strategy” of your messy, organic site is to look at what the people who work it have officially been meant to care about. Anything that isn’t measured, but was written into a job description, could be a secondary part of the puzzle you’re putting together.

Reading through the organic confusion

Once you’ve worked through the evidence that’s online (the things that are fittest after having survived the unplanned world of old corporate web), in your web analytics, and in your company’s self-measurement (job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria and team targets), you’ll know why things have ended up the way they are.

Now you have a starting point as you start working on a proper content strategy. Onward!


This post is 920 words long, with an average reading grade of 9.0.

Making corporate web Web writing

Giving, and receiving, expert feedback on web copy

Approvals, sign-offs, stakeholders, feedback and other horrors

When you write corporate web content, a lot of approvals and sign-offs stand between your first draft and the big shiny “publish” button. I usually need 3-5 “stakeholders” to be happy with my work, but I’ve heard horror stories about companies with as many as 11 points of sign-off. Adding more people to the mix almost never improves quality, but you can keep crappiness at bay if everyone (including you) understands their role.

There are plenty of blogs out there where writers reel off instructions to reviewers (Bad Language’s “The Art of Feedback” is one of the better ones) [UPDATE, Nov 2019: Hmm, seems they’ve rebranded to Articulate Marketing, but the link still works], but that’s only half of what we need. Yes, it’s important to give reviewers a few pointers. But it’s just as crucial that you, the writer, know what you need to do too.

Web writing

Seven things new web writers need to know

A lot of people are interested in, and passionate about, writing but there’s not often a clear way to take that hobby and turn it into a career. One the best parts of my job is finding people in that position and helping them turn writing into a skill they can sell.

This list is lesson one. It’s seven things that I introduce to already well-practised writers who are starting in the web world. Without them they’ll never go from being spare-time writers to earning pay cheques that say “web writer”.

1. Web accessibility

This is almost always new to the writers I work with (which isn’t surprising, given how lowly accessibility rates within large parts of the web industry.) Writing accessible web content isn’t difficult but it can be the difference between silence and conversation.

Accessibility isn’t about disability, so I avoid the old example of “the blind man and the screen reader”. Separating out part of the web-using world as “people who need accessibility” infers that there’s no gain (or maybe even a cost) to the majority of users, which is wrong.

Accessible web content is inclusive. We’re not bolting an “extra” audience onto the side of our core audience. We’re making our core audience as large as possible by letting you be a part of it no matter how you navigate or read the web, or how well you see (if at all), or how you use assistive technology. And that makes our content easier to use.

Even better, the techniques that make written content more accessible overlap other things on this list. (My post on good link text gives an example.)

2. Search engine optimisation (SEO)

This is an easier “sell” than accessibility, even though both increase your audience. A little bit of SEO knowledge can be a bad thing – if you don’t believe me spend 3 minutes reading a keyword-stuffed content farm – so approach SEO with caution.

I’m against anything that strays too close to algorithm-chasing. If you’re writing for the robots first it doesn’t take long for human readers to work out that something’s not quite right. Your writing should make it clear to search robots what you’re writing about without being inhuman.

Writers need to know:

  • the basics of keyword research
  • how and when to use keywords (and when not to)
  • how to write metadata – title, description and keywords for a page.

3. Our in-house writing guidelines

Almost all of the writers I work are already publishing words in one way or another – usually they’re helping with things like brochures or letters, or they have personal blogs. Some are even freelancing on weekends. But so far none have had a style guide they need to stick to.

Like every other corporation we have an in-house guide that solves a lot of grammatical or stylistic things that would otherwise come down to preference, and so differ between authors. For example we keeps things consistent by preferring contractions (“isn’t” over “is not”) and using commas to divide thousands (as in 5,000). We also have additional web writing guidelines.

Referencing every stylistic quibble back to a pair of documents takes time and isn’t an easy habit to pick up, but once you have a feel for a given style it makes writing faster.

4. Our brand voice and tone

Another staple of the corporate world. As well as our style guides we also have a particular brand voice – a way that everything we say should sound. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone is a fantastic example.

Getting brand voice and tone right takes time and practise. Reading examples helps but nothing beats writing, failing and succeeding for yourself.

It’s a big change for a hobby writer, no matter how skilled, to have to sound like someone else. Writing the same thing in different voices can be a good start. (For example: explain your job in a paragraph or two. Then write that explanation like your boss would, then like a bored cynic, then like a hyperactive child.)

5. (Very) basic HTML

I haven’t found a better way to introduce and demystify HTML than to share Mandy Brown’s wonderful article “Markup”. She explains how HTML creates a relationship between your words and their appearance, and then puts designers and readers in control. Writers need to know what meaning HTML can give text (“this text is a heading” means a lot more than “this text is big and bold”), and how to mark up their own text.

Fortunately, there’s a plus side to all this: HTML is easy to learn. Even if you never peeked at the source for a website, never so much as authored an anchor tag, you already know most of the principles behind it, because they emerged from the texts themselves.

Update, May 2013: If you’re hungry for more, the wonderful Karen McGrane has written the main course to follow Mandy’s appitiser: WYSIWTF

6. Writing for scan reading

This starts with a hard truth: people aren’t going to read every word you write. Web users are time poor and task-focused, and they have the whole internet to choose from. They scan read and you need to work with that habit. More than anything else in this list, this shows you the difference between the hobby of writing for yourself and the work of writing for others.

7. Plain language

Plain language fits in with accessibility, SEO, and our company’s writing guidelines and brand voice. (If your company doesn’t encourage plain language, why haven’t you quit yet?) But it’s too important, too underappreciated, and sadly too rare to leave between the lines, so it has its own place in this list.

Without wanting to reduce plain language to the mechanical scoring of reading grades, that at least gives us a starting point.

More posts:


This post is 991 words long with an average reading grade of 8.5.

Content strategy

Sharing, not searching: The Atlantic’s new strategy for being found

A week ago this popped up on my Twitter feed:

Having collaborated with people who were happy to sacrifice anything – clarity, accuracy, grammar – just to please their Google overlords, I took notice. If you haven’t already followed Erin‘s (well, Stringbot’s) link, here are the abridged guts of the Mashable story “Why the Atlantic No Longer Cares About SEO”:

The Atlantic is adapting its editorial strategy to the growing importance of social networks, rather than search engines, as sources of traffic.

“Sixteen months ago we received the same number of monthly referrals from search as social. Now 40% of traffic comes from social media,” Scott Havens, senior vice president of finance and digital operations, said. “Our writers are not really thinking about SEO anymore. It’s about how we can spin a story so that it goes viral.”

Bob Cohn, editor of The Atlantic Digital, says that “assigning stories based on search returns was a cynical approach to journalism. We’re no longer writing to get the attention of Google algorithms. We’re writing to get you to share it.”

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t know a lot about The Atlantic. I doubt I’d even spent a cumulative hour on before I saw the tweet that kicked this post off. But I love the way that the people who call the shots there are following data (40% of traffic coming from social) to new strategic ideas for content.

Know how you’ll be found

No matter how many pairs of eyeballs you want on your site, the important thing isn’t being searched. The important thing is being found. For a lot of us the way to get found is through search, but The Atlantic’s shift shows that there can be more to it than that.

Earlier this month I posted what you need to know before you write. I know it’s wanky to quote yourself, but in that post I asked:

Where’s your audience coming from?
[…] Could they come in from search? Is this content that we might share through social media?

These questions are about your audience’s expectations (where are people looking for the stuff you make?) as much as they’re about your content’s strengths (for example, is it fun?).

The Atlantic have spotted a trend in their traffic data, and made what sounds like a site-wide decision. You might be able to use one approach as well, or you could need to work out what works for separate sections or pages on your site.

Either way, you need to know how people will find your content (and how you want them to find it) before the writing starts. A shareable version of your content would look and feel different to a search-optimised version. So which, if either, should you make?

When the social scene isn’t for you

In my day job I work for a big bank. I’ve written about how to find an ATM, what to do when you forget your credit card PIN, and your options when you can’t afford your bills. These aren’t subjects that people are going to share. They run the Gambit of Social Silence, from “mundane” to “embarrassing”.

There’ll always be topics that your readers need to know about but don’t want their friends or followers to be in on. I’m willing to bet that you’ll never see an ATM location in someone’s Facebook updates. And if you do, I’ll go double-or-nothing on advice about what your bank calls “financial hardship”.

SEO becomes more important as social sharing becomes less likely. Knowing when your audience will be indifferent or shy is knowing when Google is more likely to be their first point of call.

Going social and getting shared

So when will social trump search? Not until you’ve earned it.

Before social took the strategic place of SEO for The Atlantic, a buttload of time and effort went into it. Facebook timeline tells me that The Atlantic joined that network on 6 August, 2008. Twbirthday and How long have you been tweeting are a small time zone disagreement away from agreeing when @TheAtlantic started tweeting, but it was some time in late April 2009.

So it took around two-and-a-half years of Facebooking and 19 months of tweeting to get to the point 16 months ago when equal traffic came from search and social. That was one hell of a milestone: I hope there was a decent office party. To get regular people sharing as many click-worthy links as the giant server farms of Google (yes, ok, and Bing) was a massive piece of work. But it still wasn’t enough.

Since then it’s taken another 16 months – five quarters, in business-speak – to build a robust enough social standing (and social community) that it’s earned the job of “main route to findability”. That’s not a couple of Tweet buttons and one or two stories going viral every few months. It’s been carefully built and steadily earned, and it would certainly have needed a lot of likeable content.

This social strategy depends on:

  • people and trust, both of which are a hell of a lot harder to find and hold onto than keyword research
  • content that people want to share, which is only a subset of content that people want to read.

Switching from SEO to social – how does the strategy change the content?

Like any new strategy this thing still has to survive and thrive in the real world, which means making the jump from “business strategy” to “content strategy” to “ways to make content” without turning off the audience.

The first changes to the content should free writers up. Keywords become less important, for example, which makes a web writing gig feel less like you’re working as some sort of weird engineer of reverse-Google software.

Above the page level, though, things aren’t necessarily positive for keyboard tappers. One of the Atlantic suits says that “it’s about how we can spin a story so that it goes viral.” This could be a badly-worded version of a good intention or a threat to good journalism. That embarrassing or mundane, but nonetheless important, content that people sometimes need but don’t want to talk about becomes less important. In a journalism context this could revalue deep-thinking political analysis relative to, say, something about a horse that paints.

Ideally The Atlantic will aim to publish stuff that’s so good – rather than so cute or unique – that people want to share it. But it will be tempting to just make stuff that sounds like something people on Twitter want to read about. This would be the first banana peel at the top of a slippery slope to becoming the social media version of a content farm.

As I write this the most prominent article on The Atlantic home page looks encouragingly like real journalism:

Why Barack Obama Needs to Keep Joe Biden

But then it rolls over to something which reads suspiciously like a story built for Twitter:

Should you worry about 'Smartphone face'?
So congratulations to The Atlantic for your big new idea, and for having the sort of social media reach that lets you seriously prefer people-based sharing over search rankings. I like it. As for your execution, the jury’s still out.


This post is 1,239 words long with an average reading grade of 8.7.

Web writing

Writing content that’s easy to scan read

Web readers don’t read much

If you’re writing more than 2 or 3 paragraphs, it’s probably more than most of your readers will take in. As a web writer your job is to take what little attention the reader will give you and direct the bulk of it towards whatever goal the reader turned up with. You need to serve scan reading.

Web reading is goal-oriented. Your reader has a problem they want to solve or something they want to learn. They’ve come to your page with a task in mind and it’s your job to let them finish it quickly and easily.

Low word counts help readers

Start by keeping your word count down. Keep the path from “let’s see if this webpage has the information I want” to “great, I found it – thanks, Helpful Webpage!” as short as possible.

Don’t waste scarce reader attention on needless words. See what I just did there? This whole paragraph is repetitive guff. Sorry.

Shorter words and sentences help readers

It’s generally easier to read shorter words and sentences. That’s the theory behind reading grades which turn your count of letters, words, and sentences into an indication of how easy (or difficult) your work is to read.

Much like a low word count shortens your readers’ path, a good level of readability smooths the path out. It makes for a faster trip from A to B.

Let your reader know what’s coming next

A good subheading makes it really obvious what the next few sentences or paragraphs are about. There are different ways to do that.

  • Summarise the section. For example, the subheading above, “Shorter words and sentences help readers”, is a 6-word summary of the 5 sentences that follow.
  • If you can’t summarise it, describe the section. The next section of this page is called “How a good subheading helps”. This isn’t a proper summary, because it doesn’t tell you what helpful things subheadings can do. But it does give a clear idea of what you’d learn if you read that section.

How a good subheading helps

If your work’s word count is the length of your reader’s path and its readability is the smoothness, we can stretch this metaphor one more time. Subheadings are signposts. They let your reader choose whether to go into each section of your work, or skip past and keep looking.

Your readers are only going to take in a quarter or a third of your words, so help them quickly sort out “stuff I do want to read” and “stuff I don’t want to read”. Look back through the subheadings in this post and see how they directed you through it:

Web readers don’t read much
Low word counts help readers
Shorter words and sentences help readers
Let your reader know what’s coming next
How a good subheading helps

If you already knew about word counts, you knew that you could skip the second section. If all you wanted to know was what the benefit of a good subheading is, you could scroll to the last section.

As the writer I’m helping you make those calls. I’ve expected that you won’t read this whole thing, so I’ve helped you decide what to ignore and what to focus on. If I got it right you found what you wanted quickly and easily.


This post is 603 words long, with a reading grade of 6.6.