Sophie’s choice: Well-crafted content or empowered content owners?

It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate a hard truth about myself: I’m a content geek. I know I’m not the only one. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably a content geek, too. But if you’re like me, the realization that you might be fundamentally different from the normal people around you has been a long time in coming, and it’s only after years of stripping the formatting out of other people’s documents and spending more hours in “code view” than in WYSIWYG that it becomes clear: Not everyone can do what we do.

And as a content manager, I have a terrible choice to make: Do I apply my content geek powers toward crafting web content myself, or do I hand the keys of my CMS over to the content owners, who say that if only they had access, they’d create and maintain all their own content?

This is a timely question of content strategy because not only does a content strategy shape the form and substance of your web content, but it also specifies how it gets designed and produced. So who’s going to do it: The geeks or the owners? Two recent blog posts make the case very well:

Seth Gottlieb at Content Here debunks the “Myth of the Occasional CMS User,” and calls all organizations not to believe the promises:

“Often, one of the big justifications for a CMS is removing the webmaster bottleneck and delegating content entry to the people who have the information. The implicit assumption is that everyone wants to directly maintain their portion of the website but technology is standing in the way. But if you visit a CMS customer a while after implementation you are likely to find that the responsibility of adding content is still concentrated in a relatively small proportion of the employee population.”

Jeff Cram at The CMS Myth expands on Gottlieb’s post and advises that you “Stop Letting People Use Your CMS.”

“So, I’ll take it one step further than Seth. Stop letting people use your CMS unless they are an integrated part of your web and editorial team and need to be in it on a regular basis. Even then, they may not need to be in the tool.”

What is Content Craft?

Being a content geek—at least for me— means that I see the crafting of content through insect-like, multifaceted eyes:

First, there’s the substance of the content. What is it? For whom is it intended? What’s its underlying message? What are we expecting it to accomplish?

Second, there’s the fashioning of it. Have we chosen the right language, the right images, the right arrangement, the right granularity, and the right length to accomplish our goals?

So far, so good. Any good writer can do as much.

But then, there’s the structure of the content. Not in the sense of how the piece is composed, but of the technical aspects of the headings, the various kinds of paragraphs, the selection of appropriate keywords for linking to other content, and it’s position within the website.

THEN, there are the content modeling and metadata. How is this class of content the same as or different from other classes? Into which section of the site does this content go? How will it be tagged so that it comes up in the right places or at the tops of searches? Can I really build this specific set of attributes into my CMS templates?

And finally, there’s the markup. What HTML elements are we using (and NOT using)? How have we chosen identifiers and classes for the CSS code, so that it reads like Ibsen in the source view?

Content geeks can manage all these facets like playing with Legos. We have an instinctive compass that points true north: We connect the pieces across web space and keep the links consisent.

Subject Matter Experts, Not Content Experts

Once upon a time, I was all about empowering my content owners. I tried to teach them the difference between “bold” and a “heading.” I tried to teach them to use “styles” in MS Word, rather than formatting each piece on top of “normal.” I showed them how beautiful and consistent content could be when you paid attention to these simple details, how you could instantly reshape the whole piece by shifting templates. Their eyes would just glaze over, or they would simply decide that it was far too much work. Now, I’ve decided that for the really important stuff, I do it myself, and with pride.

In the end, there is a profound difference between subject matter expertise and content crafting skill. Every now and then, the two can coincide in a single human being. For the most part, however, when content owners pour their subject matter expertise into web pages, someone else ends up going through it to “clean it up,” not out of a pathological need for beautiful code, but because the whole user experience will be best served by clean, consistent, well-crafted content. And isn’t our website really there to serve the visitors?

The Bottleneck is the Real Work

When your CMS sales rep sings the praises of the system you’re evaluating, and especially how content owners’ creativity and productivity will be unleashed because they won’t need any “technical skill” to build web pages, don’t you believe the bull. Publishing web content takes technical skill and time, no matter what system or tools you use, and just as in every other professional endeavor, it is best entrusted to web content gee…er…professionals like you and I.

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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