The mess we’re (not) in: Content strategy in the corporate world

I’m in Cape Town for CS Forum 2012. It’s great. Even better, I’m here to speak at CS Forum 2012. That’s exciting.

For reasons I can no longer remember, I shunned Powerpoint in favour of Prezi. Here’s the resulting presentation:

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.

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

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!

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

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.

Their 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), 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.
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When sign-off bloats your word count

As a web writer you’re the first (or if you’re working off a decent brief, second) person to work on creating something new. Because you’re human, you’ll end up feeling a bit proud and protective of the draft you end up with. Good! So you should.

But the process of approvals that your new work goes through can damage your copy (and hurt your ego). People who don’t understand your craft have a hand in what your work ends up looking like, and what it ends up saying. This approval process will, 99 times out of 100, bloat your word count.

Where word bloat comes from

Let’s say you’ve written a new 400-word article about a fantastic new widget that your company’s going to export to Asia. In a typical round of approvals your work might go through people from:

  • marketing, who add a couple of sentences cribbed from that print ads they’ve finalised that morning (because “it’s all about cross-channel integration!”)
  • legal, who try to “soften” what you’ve written about the widget (no matter how true it is), adding small print or some extra weasel words
  • a manager who’s trying to boost her profile online, so throws in a made-up quote from herself
  • branding, who compose a strange new paragraph about how important China has always been to your company.

By the time your 400 words get back to you, there’s suddenly 600 of them. Your short, carefully crafted article is half as long again, thanks to a bunch of people who don’t appreciate just how little online readers read, or how hard it is to keep people’s attention when they’re surfing. And it’s your job to stick to a brief for 350-400 words. What can you do?

Don’t let expert approvers work as editors

Approvers are necessary, and can do good things for your work. But they need to remember what their job is, and what it isn’t.

Ask for comments rather than direct edits of your copy – see Giving, and receiving, expert feedback on web copy (update: link added 19/06/12).

Include word bloat in your plan

You’re the only person in this process who’s going to care about word count. The reality is that everyone else will want to add, not subtract, words. Expect their bloat and plan for it. If you’re asked for 350-400 words, try to deliver 300 in your first draft. If you have 7 or 8 pages to fill, write enough for 6.

Adding to your own constraints in order to create some slack for others isn’t ideal. But it can be an easier to get things done this way rather than getting your copy back from its first round of approvals, editing it down, and then sending it back through the same process that bloated it up in the first place.

Make bloat-culling part of the approval process

I don’t normally suggest that you add hurdles for your copy to jump, but this is an exception. If you can, try to have a writing style sign-off in the same way there’s a legal or marketing sign-off. Find an editor that assigns your writing work, a web development lead who upholds standards of design and accessibility, or someone else who works with web content and make it part of their job to approve your copy from a stylistic sense.

So long as they know good web from bad web, they’ll understand that every word matters and won’t approve bloated copy. Then you’ll have a veto-wielding ally who can help you remove words. “We can’t say anything about this new widget if we can’t say it in 400 words. How much do we need your quote?”

Writing style sign-off is easier with more objective criteria. You should have guidelines like “Corporate blog posts are 400 words or shorter”, rather than “Keep it short when you can”.

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