Content Strategy Divination: A Woolly Discipline?

Professor Trelawney is among my favorite characters in the Harry Potter saga. She’s the professor of the art of “divination,” the ability to view the invisible and discern the indiscernible. At one point in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, at least in the cinematic version, Hermione Granger denounces divination as a “woolly discipline,” preferring ancient runes, but perhaps she dismisses it too quickly.

I am convinced that every website has a content strategy behind it—whether intentional or not. With a little investigation, inference, and imagination, therefore, we ought to be able to “read” the strategy—without trances, tea leaves, or even a gazing crystal. What better way for content strategy noobs like us to learn what makes a really good content strategy, than learning to recognize them at work in others’ sites?

Of course, there’s more to content strategy than what you can see on the surface—how the content is created, produced, and published—but we’ll save that behind-the-scenes stuff for another time.

So, where to begin a “content strategy reading?”

First, pick a site that you don’t know. You might try StumbleUpon and click the stumble button a few times to find something you like.

Step 1: Overall Statement in Less than 5 Seconds

Glance at the site for just a few seconds, and then record your impressions:

  • What is the site about?
  • What does its primary purpose seem to be?
  • How would you state, in 140 characters or fewer, the ultimate raison d’être of the site before you?

This overall statement is the goal toward which the entire content strategy points. Now you may say, and rightly so, that much of the initial impression of a website has more to do with visual design than content. After all, you can hardly grasp the content in a few seconds. Shouldn’t the visual design, though, strive to communicate the content strategy?

Step 2: Who Are You?

Next, we look more deeply at the home page, but from a particular perspective.Who does this website think you are? What does the site believe about you? Capture some of the aspects from the text, the images, the advertisements, or anything that communicates the intended audience.

  • Are you an individual or a group?
  • If an individual, how old are you? Are you male or female? What is your nationality or faith?
  • What language and vocabulary do you use? (e.g., academic, casual conversation, highly technical, literary, street talk, etc.)
  • If an organization, what is your primary mission or goal?
  • What are your needs, interests, or concerns as a visitor to this website?
  • Are you all work and no play, or do you have a sense of humor?

Step 3: Who Are They?

In the same way, look through the home page as if it were a window on the creators of the site. Who are they? What does the content tell you about those who published it? For example…

  • Is it a person or a group behind the site?
  • What do they want from you?
  • What do they want to give or do for you?
  • Are they open to your input or participation, or do they expect for this to be a one-way conversation?

Step 3: Content Types

At this point, you can begin to identify the various content types. A content type is a whole kind of a thing, a general category of meaningful content

For example, a “press release” is a content type, as is an “article.” Some sites have “recipes,” and some have “instruction manuals.” But content types aren’t always chunks of text. Some sites might offer “user images” or “user demonstrations,” if someone who buys a product uploads his or her own picture or video of using the product.

Tools can be content types. Link lists can be content types. Events are content types.

A content type has form and format. When done well, content types are consistent across the site.

For each content type, then, you can explore its intended purpose. What are you, the user, supposed to be able to do with this content type? Can you interact with it? Does it lead you toward something else?

This step has the potential to overwhelm, and if you’re really enjoying yourself, you can identify hundreds of content types for a single website. So I recommend doing this step only enough that you get a sense of what kinds of “content things” make up the bulk of the site.

Step 4: Synthesis and Summary

Looking back over the questions and considerations, what patterns do you see? How would you articulate the overall content strategy? How do the components of the strategy fit together? And most important, in your view, how effectively does the strategy support what seems to be the primary goal for the site?

Reading YOUR content strategy

Now, having given someone else’s site a thorough once-over, you can give your own website the same examination.

As you explore the goal of your site, its vision of its users, what it says about you and your organization, and how its content types support the overall goal, it should become a little clearer which parts of your own strategy are working for you, and which aren’t. It should also give you a sense of which parts of your content strategy need some fleshing out.

Content strategy is a multidisciplinary, multifaceted pursuit with lots of overlap with other fields of practice and study, but it doesn’t have to be nebulous or ineffable. With a little practice, maybe we can all learn to divine the strategy working in our sites, so that they can be a little less mysterious and a lot more powerful.

Note: I’m sure I’ve missed a lot here. Please make suggestions for how to improve the content strategy reading! Do you have specific aspects of content strategy that you’re exploring and you’d like us to think about together? Let me know.

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.

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  1. […] idea is related closely to my previous post on Content Strategy Divination, but it addresses more directly the content types on the website under […]