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rsgracey

You just might be a content strategist if…


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We owe Jeff Foxworthy of debt of gratitude for this comedic formula, and I think that it serves us well in content strategy. We who work in the content of websites generally are already doing “content strategy,” because being a content strategist is really more about who you are and how you do your job, than your job title or responsibilities.

You just might be content strategist if:

  • You spend a lot of time looking at websites, wondering, “What am I supposed to do with THIS??”
  • Your internal customers tell you that they want you to build them their own section of the website. They provide you with wireframes and a new logo because they say they don’t want it to look like the REST of the site. For content, they provide you with 10 “webpages” of rambling business gobbledygook that could really be edited down to one bulleted list. They think you’re being difficult when you suggest that no one’s going to read it because it doesn’t say anything.
  • You break down people’s monolithic documents into manageable chunks, so that people won’t have to wade through them because you know that creating content for the web isn’t just about text, text, text, and annoying pop-up ads.
  • At the end of your work day, you look at your organization’s website and think, “Our users deserve better than this.”
  • Your favorite websites may not be “pretty,” but you just keep going back to them again and again because you just feel so at home in what they say.
  • You approach every content project with two questions in mind: “What does my audience need from this piece?” and “How does this fit in the overall strategy of the website?”
  • You squeeze out a little of your day to cull outdated and neglected content from the website because no one else seems to recognize that it needs to be done.
  • You have definite ideas when people complain that no one seems to be “responsible” for the content on the website.
  • You read “content strategy” blogs and mail lists hungrily, yearning to contribute and feeling like there must be some initiation into this bright and shiny world…

I invite everyone in the community to add to this list. Basically, if you work in content, you’re probably a content strategist, at least in some, small way. So you can tell people when they ask you what you do, “Well, my title is [blank], but I’m a content strategist.” We do that now, anyway, until the titles catch up to our jobs.

Demonstrating Content Strategy: Goodness from the Oven?


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In today’s conversation on the Content Strategy maillist, we’re once again struggling with how to show people “what content strategy looks like.” Of course we’re struggling! “Strategy” represents your whole approach—your planning, your understanding, your vision. “Strategy” is about your ideas, your insight into your audiences, and your sense of how best to reach them. “Strategy” is the lovely aroma from the oven when you’ve baked a loaf of bread—and not just any loaf, but the loaf that draws on years of experience and passion for baking.

Strategy: Just do this…

I love—LOVE—Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web. Everyone who worries about websites must buy it and read it. It gives the overall shape of the practice and offers nothing but encouragement and insightful advice the whole way through. On the other hand, I think that there will always be two responses from readers, which illuminate the nature of our struggle:

  1. Yes! This is what I’ve been doing—now I understand it better, and I can do it better. Thank you!!!
  2. Wait! You haven’t told me anything! How do I do that…?

Even when beautifully articulated, content strategy can come across like this:

Master Strategist (from the podium): “Content Strategy begins with understanding your goals and your audiences’ goals and preferences. Then you figure out what content will meet both sets of goals, and you plan how you’re going to create it. And oh yeah, don’t forget how you work out how you’re going to oversee and maintain it.”

Novice Strategist (blank look): “Right. Well, I’ll try that, then…”

Master (click, click, click…):  “Here…Let me show you some really good/bad websites, and we can talk about the good/bad content strategies underlying them.”

Novice (squinting at the screen): “Yes…but what does the strategy actually look like?”

Master (distributing handouts): “Ah, well let me show you these sample deliverables that document the strategies.”

Novice (passing them along): “But how did you come up with these? Are there templates?”

Master (nodding hesitantly): “Well, yes, but you have to adapt them to your own situation.”

Novice (hopefully): “Maybe if I could just see it in action. Are there case studies?”

Master (apologetically): “Yes, but not many: We’re working on pulling them together from other practitioners around the world. I included one in the handouts…”

Novice (reading): “Yes, I see…but my world isn’t really like that…”

Master (glancing helplessly back at the screen): “Well, really, all content strategy is the same: You just understand your goals and your audiences’ goals and preferences, and then you figure out what content will meet both. Then you plan how you’re going to create it, and oh yeah, then finally how you’re going to maintain it.”

Novice (in despair): “OK. I’ll try that, then…”

I mean absolutely no criticism of any content strategist who tries to explain what we do: I think this is just the way it goes when you try to explain something new to someone who’s never encountered it before. We talk with one another, and we nod in recognition: So why the blank looks and frustration when we try to tell others?

Doing and Being: Craft and Art

Content Strategy, like any field of endeavor, has two aspects: Craft and Art. In that order. For a reason. (Homage to Ian Alexander of Eat Media <g>)

Craft is about the doing of something: Skills, tools, techniques, artifacts, and expertise. The Craft is easy to watch, its results are easy to see, and its techniques are usually straightforward to demonstrate. That’s why we tend to demonstrate Craft first when people ask about the Art. We show the deliverables, give examples of good and bad, and tell stories.

Art, on the other hand, is about the being of something: Perspective, wisdom, creativity, perseverance, and experience. You can feel the power of the Art emanating from the artifact, and you can recognize the authentic wisdom in the artist, but that’s as close to it as you can get.

So when people read an excellent book on content strategy, those who have enough experience in the craft—those who have already been doing it—recognize what they already know: “Yes, of course!” And those who haven’t really started, don’t recognize it: “No, you haven’t told me anything!” The answer is dissatisfying because the more they understand what it is, the more clearly they see how complex it is and how much practice it really takes to do it well.

It is but a glimpse…

By all means, we who are doing content strategy should compile our deliverables and case studies for the benefit of those who want to learn, and we should tell our stories about what we do to anyone who will listen, but we must also acknowledge that as “artists” in our field, there is no way to convey all at once what we have spent our careers compiling.

And one more thing: We must not suggest to anyone that what we do is either easy or straightforward. Saying that only makes newcomers feel like they can never be successful. I know when experts say something is easy, they mean to be encouraging, but for the novice, it generally has the opposite effect. We just have to own up the fact: Content Strategy takes as much time to learn as any other discipline worthy of our effort. It can be learned, and there are tools to help, but it does take significant practice and support from mentors. So dive in! You can do it! It will just take a little while to find your way, and we’re all here to help!

Common Sense: Don’t believe everything you think!


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Paul Krugman has a great editorial in the New York Times today, wherein he criticizes economists (and the Minneapolis Fed’s president in particular) for saying that unemployment is deeply rooted and therefore difficult to solve. It begins like this:

“What can be done about mass unemployment? All the wise heads agree: there are no quick or easy answers. There is work to be done, but workers aren’t ready to do it — they’re in the wrong places, or they have the wrong skills. Our problems are “structural,” and will take many years to solve.”

And then he said something that sounded a gi-normous gong for me:

“But don’t bother asking for evidence that justifies this bleak view. There isn’t any.”

I encounter this phenomenon time and time again in my efforts to advocate for the users of the websites for which I’m responsible. Content owners will come to me with all sorts of statements about who’s using their content, what they’re using it for, and why the way they (the content owners) think the content should be formatted, organized, etc. is the best way for their users.

But when I ask, “How do you know that?” They immediately perceive a roadblock to accomplishing their objectives. When I show them survey results that call their statements into question (even if the data don’t contradict the statements directly), they get angry, and tell me that they’re the content owners and that it should be done the way they want it. I’ve taken sometimes to calling some of them “data-free.”

“Common Sense” is a dangerous basis for strategy…or almost anything, for that matter. In fact, rather than  common “sense,” we ought to call it “Common Presumption.” If I were to upack the sentence, “It’s just common sense,” I would restate it as:

“This is what I believe to be true because it draws upon a reservoir of beliefs held by people who are like me, who see things in the same way as I do, and who are close to me, and so we don’t need to look any more closely at the situation.”

Why is that? Why do people not want to look more closely at the situation? Why do people not want to know the “truth” about the phenomenon they understand by “common sense?” And more importantly, why do we allow each other to get away with it?

I think part of the answer is fear: Fear of being proven wrong. Fear of having to rework an entire understanding of the universe. Fear of having to work out a whole new set of principles about how it all works. I can sympathize with those reasons. It’s exhausting (and it’s also why psychotherapy takes so much work). A little bit of information can be a fundamental threat to one’s worldview.

But on the other hand, why else are we engaged in this work? Content owners: Don’t you want to know that you’re accomplishing what you say you want to? The cynic would say, “Probably not. They just want to check off their objectives for the Balanced Scorecard.”

I don’t have any simple answers either. In the United States, we’re not really taught critical thinking anymore. Some of the skills come from science and math, it’s true: The scientific method is deliberate and at its best, is to be used precisely to counteract “common sense.” But some of the skills are part of art and literature, too: Being able to distinguish our own perspectives from others’. Being able to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously and to interpret where they do and don’t cross.

To my content owners (and yours!) I say, “Don’t believe everything you think.”–At least until you ask your users directly and gather some evidence to see whether you’re right.

Taxonomy: A “Disambiguation”


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I was not able to attend the several workshops on “taxonomy” at the recent WebContent2010 conference (#wcconf) in Chicago: Tough choices were made. Yet I think I got a lot out of those workshops because of the seriously faithful tweeting coming out of them, and when I said so to some new friends, they almost all said, “How? I didn’t understand any of it…overwhelming.” I replied that when you follow a tweetstream, you only see what people understand, already interpreted for you. (Which is a recommendation, really, to follow conferences you can’t attend: Done well, the tweets will give you at least the essential points.)

Amid the summary tweets of the workshops’ content, however, I saw comments such as these:

“A workshop and a session on taxonomy and I’m still confused. Is it just me? #wcconf” – @EvanKittleton

“Ouch. My head hurts. Taxonomy not an easy beast to wrestle. #wcconf” –  @cc_holland

A lot of the confusion centered on how the idea of taxonomy relates to—and differs from—other elements of Information Architecture, such as sitemaps and navigation. Are they the same thing? Is it just your metadata?

With the guidance of my best-bud colleague Becky Bristol as technical reviewer (@paintingblue) I’m going to try to “disambiguate” it, that is, to explain and clarify.

Disclaimer: I’m an explainer, not a taxonomist, so if you’d like to help with the definition, please by all means chime in.

The Roots of Taxonomy

“Taxonomy” is an ancient scientific practice. It means to find names for things. In naming things, you try to figure out how sets of things are related to one another, so that each, unique item will not only have a unique name, but also a reference to the others to which it relates.

Taxonomy creates a hierarchy of inheritance, from general down to specific and back: A giant tree, on which there is a unique place for every item, like the leaves at the ends of twigs at the ends of branches connected to a trunk and running deep into the earth.

In order to build a taxonomy in the scientific sense, you have to create a framework that tells you how to name a thing. This is the “schema.” The most famous schema was created by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th Century Swedish botanist, to categorize and name life on Earth. It has eight, major taxonomic ranks:

Domain -> Kingdom -> Phylum (botany)/Division (zoology) -> Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species

If you’re REALLY geeky, you can lay it out in Latin:

Regio -> Regnum -> Phylum/Divisio -> Classis -> Ordo -> Familia -> Genus -> Species

There are only certain terms you can put into those fields. Imagine drop-down boxes from which you MUST choose. Let’s try it on ourselves, humans:

Domain Kingdom Division Class Order Family Genus Species
Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo H. Sapiens

When the terms don’t apply at a certain point, then you get to pick a new term, which at that point, creates a new branch. If you find a new item in nature, something that hasn’t been named before, you get to name it yourself, but you will use the same set of terms down the tree as far as you can to demonstrate your new species’s relationship to all other life.

Taken altogether, this classification system becomes the official way of understanding the whole world of animals, plants, and bacteria. Taxonomy is powerful because it is universally adopted: You could try to work out a new system, but then you’d have to explain it to everyone and get buy-in for it to mean anything to anyone else but you. It is at this point that we make the transition to the Web…

Taxonomy on the Web

Now at some point, the word “taxonomy” was appropriated by information architects to talk about web content. When one discipline borrows from another’s, the meaning and use of the term can change significantly, and so “taxonomy” doesn’t mean to the web professional quite what it means to the biologist.

A website’s taxonomy describes how all the content relates to each other. Through its rigidly controlled network of meaning, there is a way to say with confidence:

“Item X and Item Y are in the same group. When you look at Item X, you may also be interested in Item Y.”

We take this kind of connection for granted these days because Amazon and other e-commerce giants have made such ubiquitous and successful use of taxonomy to sell related things, but it’s really quite difficult to establish those kinds of relationships in your content without taxonomy.

In summary to this point, then, “taxonomy” on a website is a classification system that maps all your content to other content. Taxonomy on a website creates a scaffold that holds your content together.

Not one taxonomy, but many

It gets a little more complicated from here. Whereas in a biological taxonomy, we’re dealing with only one dimension of relationship, the ultimate relationship of one species to another through its name, on a website, there can be many classification systems to govern the relationship of content along many dimensions.

Let’s take with a clothing retailer. The most basic taxonomy would divide the products into groups of “kind” to answer the question, “What article of clothing is this?”

Clothing for the upper body

  • Shirts
    • Blouses
    • T-shirts
    • Polos
    • Turtlenecks
  • Jackets
    • Blazer
    • Windbreaker
  • Sweaters
    • Cardigan
    • Pull-over
    • Vest

Clothing for the legs

  • Pants
    • Dress pants
    • Jeans
    • Shorts
  • Skirts
    • Full-length
    • Wraps
    • Culottes (really a hybrid)

Accessories

  • Jewelry
    • Rings
    • Earrings
    • Watches
    • Necklaces
  • Belts
  • Hats
  • Bags

So far, so good. We have a system for identifying items by basic type. But that’s not so good for sales.

There will be, then, additional taxonomies to build up a multidimensional system that organizes products into classes: For women or men, girls or boys; for casual, work or formal contexts; for outdoor or indoor; by color; by season; by ethnic origin; and so on, and so on…

But that’s just the products. There will be other content that accompanies these products, and all that content must also be organized into categories.

  • “How to” content might include tieing neckties, caring for leather, assembling an ensemble for an evening out in Paris.
  • “About us” content might go through all the ways that this company works for environmental activism.
  • Product information might include stories about where the materials came from, or who made them.

The taxonomy must account for all these dimensions of content description and classification, so that when you pull up the product page for that pair of shoes you’re considering, you also can see:

  • What other colors are available?
  • What other shoes are in its class?
  • How do you care for them?
  • What accessories would complete your outfit?
  • How have other customers worn this item? (From their photos)
  • How long it would take to get them if you clicked the button right now…?

Taxonomy implemented through metadata

All this work of understanding the interrelationship of content has a specific and practical end: Metadata.

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the process of developing taxonomic systems and how they are then translated into metdata for your web content. It is crucial, however, to recognize that having a clear, controlled system of metadata, which is then meticulously and consistently connected to your content, is the only way to ensure that your search and coordinated applications serve up the content the user expects, in the language the user expects, in combinations that make sense to the user.

Rich, interactive experiences require taxonomy

Creating rich internet applications (RIAs) is partly about the technology to evaluate and serve up all these connections, but it is impossible without care, design, and maintenance of your content’s taxonomy.

Again, unlike our scientific counterparts, there can be no, single, universal taxonomy for web content because each content domain has its own context of purpose, vocabulary, and peculiarity.  There are commercially available taxonomic systems to get you started, but they all have to be evaluated for your specific purpose, and there will always be adaptation of the metadata.

Taxonomy, Navigation, and Sitemaps

A lot of the confusion in the workshops dealt with how a website’s taxonomy relates to the other aspects of its information architecture. As we explore these concepts, keep in mind that when done well, the taxonomy is completely invisible to the user. It just makes everything run smoothly.

Sitemaps

The sitemap reveals the website’s overall organization. Every bit of content on a website needs a primary “home.” Ultimately, when you reach a content item, you are (virtually, of course) in a particular location on the site. The information architect’s job is to choose from the infinite range of organizational possibilities to anchor the user experience, which then is the foundation for the richness that the taxonomy creates.

The sitemap probably will reflect some basic aspects of the taxonomy underlying the content, but when you consider the richness and complexity described above, any relation between the sitemap and the taxonomy will be loose.

Navigation

Navigation is more closely related to the sitemap than to the taxonomy. The main navigation provides the user an organized path around the website, intended for browsing. Like the sitemap, it may reflect some aspects of the taxonomy, but it doesn’t have to.

The taxonomy will enable, however, the local navigation options through access points to content elsewhere on the site, reached through the relatedness of content.

IAs help you put it together!

It’s the job of information architects to work all these intricacies out. The skills for designing the taxonomy and associated metadata are extensive and precise. The content strategist helps to define the content domain and the language that will best represent it, but the IA will be able to build an organizational framework that links the content domain with the technical wizardry that serves up the user experience.

In conclusion, as my best-bud Becky says, “There is no right or wrong way of [creating taxonomy]. The trick is to come up with a taxonomy that works for your users.”

I hope that this article has helped to clarify the definition of taxonomy and its application. Please offer corrections, amplifications, and clarification. It’s a matter to wide importance, and we need to get it right!

Toward a taxonomy of content


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This week, @dhh from @37signals published an article on the insufficiency of the term “content” to mean…well…content. I understand. It’s like how I love the container label “resources” or “tools” to hold all sorts of items: People always seems to suggest them for labels, yet when you turn it around and ask, “So…what would you expect to find in a drawer with that label?” The only possible answer is “Resources.” So helpful.

“Content” is in many respects an unhelpful label because it’s often expanded as “everything on your website.” While it can be useful to distinguish the “stuff” on your site from the “design” of your site, or its “architecture,” “content” doesn’t tell you anything about what kind of content you envision there, nor what that content is supposed to do.

Why “content” isn’t enough

There are practical ramifications to the term’s generality. When “content owners” are talking about what they own and want to convey, they themselves are rarely able to put it into specific buckets, let alone craft the contents of those buckets to succeed for their intended audience. Recently, I was working with an HR group that wanted to “update” their content. I suggested that they “explain” the HR processes and policies, which hadn’t necessarily changed, and so didn’t need to be updated. It caused a big fright, though, because no one had ever undertaken to “explain” how it all works, and suddenly it was all at risk of being revealed and clear. They weren’t sure they wanted to go there.

So I have been considering trying to classify content, literally into “classes,” according to what those classes “do” or “intend.” These content classes differ fundamentally from content “models.” A content model is the encoding of a parcel for a content management system, comprising the metadata and components that bring it to live on the web page. Content classes are more like your content goals. For example, you have a paragraph of text on a web page (or a video, or a photo, or a chart). That content is sitting there trying with all its might to do something. What is that something? Is it a description? Is it an explanation? Is it an opinion? Is it a sales pitch? If you don’t know what that content is trying to do, how can you tell whether it has succeeded? The answer will be specific to that class.

For exmple, an “explanation” intends to make something clear to the reader, or at least to answer the reader’s question. Has the reader understood the explanation? At least we know the right question to judge its effectiveness. Another example: An “overview” intends to give the user a good sense of all the material covered in a particular area. Can the user, after having read or watched the overview, describe the general layout of the material about to be covered?

A Taxonomy of Content

I offer this first attempt to classify to engender conversation in the Content Strategy community. I’ve just brainstormed it into existence today. I want to highlight that these classes are irrespective of “medium.” A block of text, a video, or a drawing might all be intending to accomplish the same goal. So while you might think of text initially as you read these classes, try to think also of other media for doing the same thing.

As I’ll explore later on, these classes and subclasses can then be combined into compound and complex systems of content.

Exposition

Most content is just straight out “expository.” It relates some topic, it teaches something, it expands an idea, or it conveys a series of facts or ideas in prose. Some of the sub-classes of exposition might include:

  • Definition
  • Explanation
  • Instruction
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Story
  • Demonstration
  • Interpretation
  • Exploration
  • Comment
  • Analysis
  • Theory
  • Framework
  • Translation

Evaluation

Content often offers an evaluation of something, whether a product, a vacation, an idea, or a candidate. There are many types of evaluations on the web, from blog rants to customer reviews. These include:

  • Recommendation
  • Critique
  • Review
  • Report
  • Comparison
  • Opinion
  • Rating
  • Complaint

Summary

A summary is different from an exposition because it reduces content into a more focused, compact form. We use them all the time:

  • Overview
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Context
  • Abstract
  • Conclusion
  • Bullet
  • Update
  • Profile
  • Message

Persuasion

There are many kinds of persuasive content, much of it marketing, but sometimes it’s just trying to win over people’s views or call them to action. We might think of:

  • Advertisement
  • Case
  • Position
  • Slogan
  • Call
  • Invitation

Announcement

Communities rely on brief bits of information that call attention to things. I call these announcements, but they also include all the practical messaging on the website:

  • Warning
  • Notice
  • Error Message
  • Alert
  • Reminder

Boundary

Content that draws the line around a topic or field of endeavor indicates a boundary. Lots of web content is specifically intended to draw lines around thing, like the terms of service, or the return policy.

  • Rule
  • Priority
  • Specification
  • Standard
  • Guideline
  • Policy
  • Protocol
  • Procedure
  • Terms

Inquiry

Any effort to gather information, whether practical or rhetorical, fits into the inquiry class.

  • Question
  • Survey
  • Request

List

Web pages are full of lists, of all kinds. A list is a fundamental content class, and includes any simple collection of items:

  • Gallery
  • Sequence
  • Inventory

Reference

Reference content simply points to other content somewhere else. Like in a paper when sources are listed at the bottom, or when one article points to another, related article. These include:

  • Link
  • Citation
  • Source
  • Date

Enrollment

Every form to sign up for something, and any shopping cart to buy something, and any commitment to receive e-mail blasts fits within the enrollment class.

  • Registration
  • Subscription
  • Purchase
  • Application

Location

Location content just helps in wayfinding. It includes signs and signals, maps, breadcrumbs, navigational links, and menus.

  • Map
  • Position
  • Path
  • Coordinates
  • Directions
  • Navigation

Plan

Content that makes the expected course of action clear is a plan. Conference programs, educational curricula, and menus of options might go here. I’d also include processes.

  • Agenda
  • Process
  • Curriculum
  • Menu

Identification

A lot of the content on websites serves to identify things, like product names, company logos, intended audiences, authors, article titles, list headings, and even deep in the code, the “class” assigned to html elements.

  • Name (Title)
  • Target
  • Logo
  • Icon
  • Label
  • Heading
  • Example
  • Class

Data and Visualization

When we publish data, we often include some sort of visualization. Among this class you might find:

  • Schematic
  • Chart
  • Table
  • Dataset
  • Model
  • Fact
  • Statistic
  • Illustration
  • Photograph
  • Organization chart

How content classes become content types

OK, so if my ideas are helpful, if you were looking to build a new kind of content for your website, you could use these classes to make sure that you ended up with a full content type. Taking the example from my previous writing about content modeling, if you were launching a cooking site, each recipe might draw upon a whole series of classes:

Recipe

  • Description of the dish and its origins
  • List of ingredients, and perhaps of the tools required
  • Instruction in the preparation of the dish
  • Demonstration of the more obscure, technical steps
  • Specifications for the quality of ingredients, the times to cook, and the temperatures.
  • Illustration of particular steps and the final product.
  • Recommendations for serving, or for adjustments from other cooks’ commentaries
  • Plan for a complete menu to accompany this dish, and perhaps a schedule for make-ahead preparations
  • Ratings from other cooks who have made this dish

Just the beginning…

In conclusion, I think of this sort of taxonomic exercise as important both to combat overly-general labels and to provide some way to evaluate content effectiveness. If you find this kind of approach helpful, let’s see whether we can’t build it out into some useful framework.