Content strategy

On the content strategy quad, and what’s at the core

I love Brain Traffic’s content strategy quad. Melissa Rach launched it almost two years ago (“Brain Traffic Lands the Quad!”, she excitedly blogged) and it’s on one of the best pages in the great book she and Kristina Halvorson wrote. Its beauty is in how simply and logically it cuts the work of a content strategist up. Here’s the diagram:

Copyright Brain Traffic, 2011

It’s a wonderful thing. Content strategy splits into two content components, structure and substance, and two people components, workflow and governance. The strategic core is at the centre.

What’s wrong with what we call this picture?

If there are two content components, plus two people components, and the all-important core, why is thing called the quad? We’ve got a problem.

“Quad” means four. This diagram links five things together. Something’s being forgotten – left out of the limelight like whoever played drums for Simon and Garfunkel. No-one remembers who played drums for Simon and Garfunkel.

Look at the so-called quad again. The core is a bland circle in a sea of colour. It’s incredibly easy to miss, especially when the diagram’s name means you only look for four things. When Melissa and the Brain Traffic team pulled the quad out of their blog archive last year they gave it a makeover, but still drew the eye away from the core even though, in their words, it’s “the central idea for using content to achieve an organization’s business goals”. Why??

What content strategists do

Hiding the core of content strategy away is typical of the way too many content strategists go about things. We’re not business types. We don’t set big overarching goals for the organisation because that’s what bosses do. We’d rather get down to detail, find the people who make things appear online and help make their lives easier and their output better. The big “central idea” at the middle of everything? That’s not really our thing.

But the core is what we need to get right before we can even begin thinking about those four other components. What good is designing workflow or structuring content if you haven’t worked out how (or whether) your content is going to help the business do what it wants to? How often have you worked on content because it’s there, or because someone’s paid for it, or because it’s fun, without pausing to check whether the company you’re working for has anything more than a superficial need for it?

Too many people think of content strategy as the sum of workflow, governance, substance and structure. I was typical. Back when I was “just” a web writer, all I worked on was substance. As I realised that structure of a site and its content affected the substance, I expanded my view a bit. Once I’d wrapped my head around that I realised that a lot of my work seemed trapped in archaic sign-off processes, so workflow became an interest. And once I’d been around long enough to realise that older work of mine was falling out of date I added governance to the list of things that I needed to somehow influence.

So, hey presto! Four things to think about – that makes me a content strategist, right? Well, no. It makes me a frustrated web writer, trying to fix what looks like four different problems.

What content strategists ought to do

But they’re not four problems. They’re four ways to answer the same question: If the organisation wants to achieve X, how can the content we produce and the way we manage it help? This “core” thinking lifts our view up out of procedure and tactics and into strategy (which is where we’ve always wanted to be, even if if we weren’t sure how).

Without the core, we’re asking questions like:

  • “Who do I talk to about setting up a blog? I can’t believe we’re the only one in our industry without one.”
  • “Shall we put this new section of the website in ‘About us’ where Sarah thinks it should go, or in the main nav like I want to?”
  • “How can we make these damn legal people work faster and/or care less when they approve my content?”
  • “Who owns this old content? Should we delete it or update it?”

This is problem solving, which feels productive. In these four cases we’re analysing competitors, working on the information architecture (with a side of office politics), managing stakeholders and chasing absentee owners. That’s a full day.

But when there’s a core to build up from, these aren’t four problems to solve. Instead they’re four ways to help the organisation express the same thing. Say your organisation’s priority is to be known for doing things fast, like responding to events before your competitors do. This leads to changes in how your office works, a new marketing plan, and even new criteria for deciding who to employ. As a content strategist you can take this goal and know where to begin, no matter what content issue you’re working on.

So your four questions become:

  • “Will moving to blog-style publishing help us respond to events quicker?”
  • “Is this proposed new section of the website events-based? Is it easy to update? If so, let’s make it really visible.”
  • “Where are the workflow bottlenecks that slow us down? How can we avoid them when we’re trying to publish as quickly as possible?”
  • “Since we’re publishing ‘in the now’, what’s the best way for our content to age gracefully?”

With a core to your content work, you’re working on a single problem in different ways. You have a strategic view of your content and people components of the quad.

What I’m really saying, after 5 minutes in MS Paint, is that the quad – sorry, the quint – should look more like this:

Update, 21 February: My brother has emailed me to say that “no one remembers Simon & Garfunkel’s drummer because they used over a dozen different percussionists on albums and tours. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if their early pure folk work didn’t have drums at all, just tambourines and maracas and stuff (if that).”

So, yeah.

This post is 998 words long, with an average reading grade of 8.2.

By Max Johns

Content strategist and web writer.

2 replies on “On the content strategy quad, and what’s at the core”

I’m currently reading 2nd edition of Content Strategy for the web – I find your reflexion on the quad-quint very valuable for me and my task at hand. The authors should consider to adopt your thoughts ind the 3rd edition of the book. Thank you for sharing.

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