26 November 2012
Bas Evers
Bas Evers

Content strategy for decision makers

A book review

Content strategist Bas Evers reviews “Content Strategy for Decision Makers“, a manuscript by Rahel Bailie and Noz Urbina. He highlights five important lessons for organizations and discusses whether the book lives up to its title.

Rahel Bailie (@rahelab) is a veteran content strategist from Canada with a background in technical communication. Noz Urbina (@nozurbina) is a UK-based content consultant to Fortune 500 companies. Both are experienced in content creation for multiple channels and platforms. Together they are writing a book called “Content Strategy for Decision Makers“.

Urbina and Bailie say “a good content strategist is a management consultant with a specialty in improving performance of content.” Not just any content, but business-critical content or relationship content. Everything your organization uses in the context of forming and maintaining persistent relationships with your customers. The difficulty lies in aligning user and organizational goals to create an optimal user experience. That sometimes requires out-of-the-box thinking. “Strategists are not the carpenters to whom every problem looks like it needs the same hammer-and-nail solution.”

The authors have expressly not written a how-to book; instead, they say it’s intended for “executives and team leads who need to understand content strategy and know enough about it to talk about it intelligently with staff and other stakeholders.” These decision makers can expect a content strategy deliverable in the form of “a comprehensive process that builds a framework to create, manage, deliver, share, and archive or renew content in reliable ways.”

Let me start this review by highlighting five important points that I distilled from the book.

1. The user experience is defined by content

Bailie and Urbina are bold: “Content is everything. Content is brand. Without quality content at the center of your user’s experience, that experience is simply broken.” I like the metaphor of a treasure hunt they introduce. Consumers are on a hunt for content. Traditional UX elements (interaction, visual design) resemble the hunt, but the treasure is in the content.

Restaurant websites are often a good example of an exciting hunt where, in the end, the treasure (something as simple as a telephone number) is too hard to find or even missing. Customers don’t mind cute, but they want smart too, say the authors. There are quick wins here. Mentioning your telephone number in the meta-description, which shows up on a Google search result page, is good restaurant practice.

By no means are Urbina and Bailie saying that “traditional UX” is becoming less important. They stress the need for “better content within the context of a better user experience, and better content makes better business sense.” Therefore, content must be an integral part of the design team, so content can take its place at the center of the user experience. The experience as a whole (including relevant content) is a competitive advantage for any business.

2. Content is a corporate asset

Whether people come to your website directly or find your content in other ways – content may form the first impression of your organization online. Our living in a knowledge economy makes content an even more important corporate asset. The authors argue: “You are not delivering a complete product or service without good information about it.”

Content is the ambassador of your brand. Bailie and Urbina quote from market research where consumers associate the quality of the product with the quality of its accompanying documentation. If the content fails them, they question their brand loyalty.

So each and every organization needs to realize they are a corporate publisher. If the content can be found online by the various audiences, you will be judged upon it. Content can no longer be seen as a nice-to-have peripheral. Instead, think of it as valuable product collateral. In the authors’ words: “Content is a business asset that persists across projects, that crosses format and deliverable boundaries and can be leveraged over for various aims and strategic goals.”

3. Content needs governance

Bailie and Urbina do not consider content strategy the Holy Grail. They stress the need for a corporate digital strategy, which has been formalized into a governance structure. This digital strategy captures a common vision of how business will be done online. Creating the infrastructure to do so is the next step. When creating it, the architecture and design should support the content, not dictate it. And the content itself should always be kept aligned with business objectives.

The authors believe your organization should see content as a corporate information asset. Therefore, it requires the same level of custodial care as other types of assets. One way of incorporating the care for content into your corporate DNA is through what the authors call a content lifecycle. Because content generally does not have a single lifespan, but instead has multiple iterations and reincarnations along the way, you need a strategy to follow a repeatable system that governs content management throughout its entire lifecycle.

It can be difficult planning for content care because of content’s complex nature. While user-centered design has an ISO standard these days, it is unlikely ever to appear for developing content. Urbina and Bailie stress the ISO standard is about user-centered design that surrounds the content; not the content itself. Yet people coming to your site do so to consume content.

4. Content should be structured and semantic

Bailie and Urbina devote a lot of attention to what they call bringing techno-power to copy. Structured content is the first step. You should create a single source of content that can adapt to new devices, contexts, and users. To support the rapid developments, it is essential to chunk content into discrete modules and fragments. Each module contains content of a clearly-defined type. And each module is tagged to indicate content relationships.

The authors spend some time explaining the benefits of adding semantics to content using a specific mark-up language: XML (‘Extensible Markup Language’). “XML explains to computers what humans immediately know about content just by looking at it.” The prime advantage of adding this type of metadata is therefore to make it machine-readable. But Urbina and Bailie argue that it also helps humans make better sense of the content.

They do warn that making multi-channel publishing possible is an implementation aspect. Before editorial and technological aspects can be decided upon, you need to know what the content needs to do, from a business perspective. A great quote: “Even the most sophisticated CMS cannot save a flawed strategy.” And for decision makers trying to save costs in the content management department, Urbina and Bailie are blunt: “Good content costs money. Get over it.”

5. Practical content creates loyal customers

Urbina and Bailie repeatedly warn that, even though organizations focus heavily upon it, marketing content is not the most important type of content. It is only the icing on the cake. Product content is the cake itself. Marketing content helps winning someone over for a first date, but managing the essential content is like marriage. The long-term success of the relationship heavily depends upon the ongoing effort you put into it.

They emphasize that a customer makes a first purchase only once. Whether they will remain loyal to your brand depends on good communication. Listen to your customers and have good information ready when they need it. That information is post-sales. Not the flashy campaign, but the features list, FAQ, and an accurate manual. To quote the authors: not just the “shiny content, but also nuts-and-bolts content that your audience really needs.”

Many organizations are using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to measure customer loyalty. Obviously all digital efforts are meant to increase this score. But Bailie and Urbina have an important observation in this respect: “The internet cannot create promoters, it can only facilitate and attract already satisfied customers to communicate.”

So, what’s the verdict?

Rahel Bailie and Noz Urbina are writing an important book. I recognize the struggle to convince organizations that investing in good content is worthwhile. The book does exactly that. It focuses on the strategic value of content. Indeed, it is more of a strategy outline than a how-to book. There are even concrete ROI calculations from example projects in there.

Coming back to the title “Content Strategy for Decision Makers,” I do get the idea that the authors have decision makers in mind who are already “into” content. Take the techno-power stuff. That’s extremely important, but maybe a bit too detailed and focused on the XML technology for decision makers who are not that “into” content. At some points I got a “we as content strategists” feeling.

In the end, more content strategists will read this book than decision makers. That’s actually not a bad thing, because I believe for now there will be more content strategists that need to convince organizations of the added value of it than organizations that have already recognized the importance and employ internal decision makers arguing for a strategic view on content. The latter group is who the authors appeal to. Smart move.

About the author

Bas Evers (@everbass) is content strategist at Informaat and fellow initiator of ContentCafé, a Dutch networking event around content strategy. He has evangelized content strategy at UXCamp Europe (Berlin), Design by Fire (Utrecht) and The Web and Beyond (Amsterdam).

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