16 August 2012
Jantine Geldof
Jantine Geldof
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Content strategy

How to create content that users will value, instead of using content to create value

Even though the term content strategy existed before Kristina Halvorson’s “Content strategy for the web” was published, its usage only really took flight after that. Like all hot topics, it is used far and wide and for different purposes, but with a clear core message: content rules the web, for better or for worse.

In his in-depth article “Content: A Blessing, A Bubble, A Burden” (Smashing Magazine), Christopher Butler (a.k.a. @chrbutler) explores how the motto “Content is king” has taken shape in a nuclear explosion of (textual) information across the web, but above all, why. He links the prolific production of content in the form of text to the combination of the rules of marketing and the current nature of search engines.

This entire system — the complex interweaving of consumer demand for content and various industries’ demands for consumer attention — as far as it exists online, has been perpetuated by search engines. Because search engines are best suited to index words, written content has become the focus of marketing.”

In his opinion, a business’s need for consumer attraction and its method by means of advertising works really well online, but results in an enormous amounts of content, much of which is of dubious or even low quality, and far more concerned with the money it might make rather than being truly informative for the reader.

[I]t has worked so well that advertising-subsidized content has reached an inflection point at which the more apt phrase is content-subsidized advertising. But the term you’re likely more familiar with is one I used earlier: ‘content farming’, the process of creating content with such great prolificacy — if not promiscuity — that it becomes purely a platform for advertising.

Put simply, a content farm is distinguished by its prioritization of advertising opportunity over quality of content — a disingenuousness made clear to any user who arrives at one from a search, only to find its articles too brief, too promotional or just too stupid to be useful.

Ironically, the number of hits when you enter “content strategy” in Google is astronomical. According to Mr. Butler this result has more to do with the fact that marketers have upon seized content strategy as another way to create value, generate leads, and increase traffic, rather than, sadly, true respect for content.

In scrambling to get a piece of the action, we build our marketing strategies upon the same logic of “more” that failed to keep financial collapse at bay: If we create enough content, people will pay attention to us and line up, ready to buy. […] If publishers don’t care whether their websites’ content is read, what do they care about? It’s simple: they care about clicks, because clicks validate advertising.”

As mentioned earlier, the current nature of search engines in combing texts for indices results in reams of textual content, including instances where text is not the most appropriate way to present a product or service. This shows that content strategy, if practiced at all, often has more to do with making it into the search engine’s top ten instead of providing valuable information for potential customers. And that is not really what content strategy is about. That is a marketing strategy that makes use of content to create value. As Christopher Butler points out:

Sadly, the same thing is happening in marketing. Whereas a disconnect between money and value has created disastrous fiscal bubbles, a disconnect between content and value is inflating a bubble of its own. Content — today’s currency of attention — has taken the place of money as a panacea.”

So what should content strategy be about then? In my, and I think also in Christopher Butler’s opinion, the reverse of using content to create value, at least in the first place: create valuable content for users. If valuable content leads to more revenue, there is a win-win situation.

While nothing is inherently wrong with profitably matching user interest to content — specifically, in the various ways in which Google does so — the absence of value as an essential and reliable factor in the equation, as well as the fact that the structure of this economy is strongest when content is text, makes for the instability we are experiencing. Indeed, it has led me to question numerous times, for myself and my clients, whether written content truly is the best way to represent expertise.”

That means that when you start envisioning any service for your customers, content strategy should be a focus from the start of your project. Don’t ask what sort of text you need, but take ten steps back and ask “What information do our users need?”. Then gradually proceed towards the best way to present this information, and you probably will be in for a surprise.

Last, but not least, Mr. Butler has some useful, but often overlooked, tips that are crucial to practicing content strategy.

  1. Distinguish the strategy from the production of content.
  2. Make sure the strategy is carried out by a leading figure who can inspire and motivate authors and monitor the consistent quality of content over time, as Mr. Butler says ‘[N]o single piece of content, no matter how excellent, will be as successful as a steady, long-term flow of quality content.’
  3. If you have no resources to hire writers or editors, and have trouble creating your content, make sure you adhere to the four nonwritten disciplines of writing being reading, planning, research and editing.

There is no way the amount of hits Google will return when looking for ‘content strategy’ will fall any time soon, but we can at least try to make sure we practice content strategy in its purest form and with respect to content and its users.

Content strategy (18), User experience (37)

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