Content strategy

Someone needs to have a plan

Chris Lawson

PSAC National

Workshop Introductions

Workshop outline

Expectations and limitations

You have a plan, don’t you?

There was a time when just having content on your website was impressive enough. That time may in fact be five seconds ago - when I finished that last sentence - and now it's not.

But I'm guessing if you're in this workshop it's because you've got to the point where you're looking for something more. Maybe because you feel your current effort is unsustainable and you're looking to make some changes. Maybe because you feel with a little help you could be up for a Webby Award.

Either way this is about improving both the quality of your content and the process by which it gets onto your site and making the most of the time you have available for creating content.

Because you’ve been working on this thing for lord knows how long and you’d like to see something for it. Or maybe you just want it to get a little easier.

Does this sound like you?

You already have one. Really you do. It might be best summarized by phrases like "madly off in all directions" or "everyone does whatever whenever however."

Kristina Halvorson describes it as a "recurring fire drill."

Do you notice how much effort, thought and planning goes into the creation of a newsletter? Or the execution of a press conference?

Compare and contrast with the forethought applied to the creation of a web page. I'm guessing there is no comparison.

Given the emphasis so many unions place on their web communication these days that should be a shocking statement. But in many cases, possibly most cases, the web still gets hand me downs from the newsletter, the leaflet or the press release.

What is content strategy

So the point of this workshop is to give you some tools to improve yours.

The content you want

The background work for most any content strategy consists generally of...

  • doing an audit of your existing content
  • doing user research
  • talking to your stakeholders

The content inventory

Your website may have been around for over a decade.

If you add new content weekly, that means you have 520 pages/units of content to think about and possibly move around. You might have thousands of pages. What are you going to do with them?

This question is a particularly thorny one if you're doing this inventory as a part of a redesign that also involves changing your publishing technology. Say you use Contribute, Dreamweaver or some other desktop page editor and you're moving to a web-based self-publishing system.

Because there you have to talk about - ulp - migration.

But if you have the luxury of already serving your content from a platform that you like or at least can tolerate, then your choices become more interesting.

The basic takeaway from this is that quantitative audits are more useful but more work. The work has a bigger payoff if you're facing the prospect of migrating content from old system to new.

User research

User needs analysis:

This one is a bit more complicated. And not all of this may be do-able or relevant. But it's probably a much more fruitful source of inspiration for the direction your redesign takes.

The data you gather can come from:

  • Interviews with website visitors
  • Online surveys
  • Website analytics
  • Search statistics

Be prepared. Your ideas about what the website should be doing and how well it's doing that may... ah... vary dramatically from those of your users.

Your analytics application can tell you a lot about what pages/functions people are using on your site. But if they're finding it, and using it, it's mission accomplished, isn't it?

The more significant stuff - where you really find room for improvement - won't be found in Google Analytics because it's stuff that isn't on the website at all.

Keep a log of what people phone about.

Ensure that emails from the 'Contact us' page get stored and categorized. Provide content that answers questions that keep coming up.

Keep track of what the union is still faxing or mailing out in hard copy.

What of that could be handled by a web page or application?

Different picture emerges of the site: we think it's all about the bits of text we put up with slavish devotion and almost diagnosable efficiency.

But in fact, our content may be of very little interest to most of the people who come to the site.

Maybe instead of putting up bits of text with dear leader's latest good words, we would do better by our users if we hooked them up with their servicing rep in under six hours?

We can't sort out everyone's problems with a web page. But maybe a chat application.

And for those whose questions could be answered on a web page - but aren't - we need a plan. A strategy dare I say. Because we've been at this website stuff for some time now and chances are that if there's no content up answering members' common questions, there's a reason for that. Getting at that reason and beating it into the ground is what content strategy is all about.

Stakeholder interviews

Mind the gaps

Your users are going to be pretty good at pointing out all the things about your site that are wrong. Content you don't have, things it doesn't do, things that are broken, your contribution to the downfall of western civilization etc etc.

And you can compare their feeback against your content audit. They might tell you that your site has no information on pensions and that made them sad. But you know from your audit that you actually have 24 pages about pensions. Only it's found under the "member resources" section. And that might lead you to question your information architecture.

Or you might find that your users are consistently looking for content you don't have. And that will tell you the sorts of things you should be creating content about.

Who are your people?

So does anyone have these titles on their business card? Didn't think so.

Content creators: people who are doing the writing, filming or recording. What are they actually creating now? For a lot of us, our content creators are focused on media other than the web. They produce leaflets, newsletters, news releases, briefs to government etc and then turning them over to the web person. They'd be communciations staff, members of the communications or newsletter committee but could also include a rep or elected officer who likes to write.

Subject experts: research staff, negotiators, specialist reps or staff lawyers, anyone who's got the last word on any topic or subject matter that concerns you as a union web wierdo. They may not be writers. They might have personal hygiene issues. Also called 'providers'.

Content sponsors: Anyone who asks you to create, change or remove content. Also called 'Requesters' or 'approvers'. Not all are created equal. Some requesters could be random members visiting your website and sending you email about a page they'd like to see. Your organization may also have a National Content Sponsor, National Executive Vice-Content Sponsor.

Content publishers: those who know how to work the intertubes to make the magic happen.

Your roster is going to need to include their skill sets, what their role is in the union, how much time they have, etc., and if there are any political/legal/interpersonal considerations in play. Staff union collective agreements, for example. You don't need to write all this down. In fact maybe if you didn't it would be better. Plausible deniability and all. But if there are landmines or obstacles to creating usable, appropriate and useful content, best plan for them.

Maybe your web dude doesn't write well in human languages. Maybe your national chief content sponsor hates bullet points.

Talk to them

Your people are generally known as "stakeholders". A lot of people despise this term but whether you're the markup monkey or the national president you have a stake in the success of you website.

You come at it from different perspectives.

Content requesters will want to talk about when pages get created, when they don't and why.

Content providers will want to talk about quality control and participation

Content creators will want to talk about workload and editorial control.

Content publishers will want to talk about the ignoramuses who just don't get technology. Getting corrections in Word and having to replace the whole document even though there's just one change. Or to have to go line by line through the content to see what they're on about.

Let them.

The most important thing about interviewing stakeholders is listening. They may have good ideas, they may be totally out to lunch.

But eventually everyone has to be on side with the changes that you want to bring about so that your content strategy will work.

By talking to everyone who has some involvement with the union and its web presence you may discover opportunities or ways to meet needs that help the union do a better job.

Most of us here probably have a background in communications. We have our own assumptions about what a website should be and how it is to be populated. And we expect everyone to share that goal and pursue it the same way.

In active voice, 30 word paragraphs and without excess capitalization.

But that's not everyone. In fact it's almost no one. Most people involved in a union do not produce material for public consumption. Reps who file grievances, conduct negotiations, researchers, shop stewards generally do not expect and are not expected to produce the pithy, emotionally potent over-simplifications of the communications people. They may write, but that writing takes another form entirely.

And then there are parts of the union that don't put out information at all. They hoard it. And they seek it. Membership departments, for example, keep all their info quite secret. But they want help from members keeping it up to date. Or rather they should.

Make sure that you also include the people doing the posting as stakeholders. In case that's not you.


Typical union website content flow

Workflow is the process by which something appears from someone's head, ends up on the website is maintained, updated and ultimately removed from the site.

It includes what tasks must be done to make the content useful and usable to your visitors, and who is responsible for performing these tasks, who ensures the content fits into the plan, who ultimately approves it, who decides when it's time to be updated or when it's time to be removed.

And it's a good idea to make a flow chart out of it.

It's possible that for some of you, the flow chart is basically a single dot. With your name on it. And you might envy those of us who have lots of company on our flow charts. But rest assured it's not always welcome company.

Web first. We need to talk about that. Is that how things happen where you work or are you presented print products as complete projects and expected to schlep them onto your website?

A tree or a funnel

The original union web workflow

I have a theory that most union websites started out being produced using the webmaster workflow. One person alone as the arbiter of all things technical, editorial and structural. That person probably also initiated any and all requests for content and was the default approver too, as those who had authority over other aspects of union communications probably didn't believe in the internet or certainly never looked at the website.

So the workflow probably looked like a dot.

Eventually, the dot grew whiskers, as other people started asking for stuff to be put on the site. And some of those whiskers curled back to other dots, as the content requesters started being interested in what was on their websites. Meanwhile, the normal approvers or people who we now consider content sponsors continued to move through their days in a world where the internet did not exist.

And then one day came when the powers that be discovered the internet. That day may even be immortalized somehow - a particularly bad coffee stain on a favourite shirt, a stab mark on your desk, an unusual scar - perhaps.

Meanwhile a dissatisfaction with the webmaster approach - primarily around delays in posting and seemingly arbitrary decisions about what content was posted - inspired a shift to distributed publishing.

I have to imagine the first content management systems were built by frustrated webmasters who were sick of listening to people complaining about how long it took to get stuff posted to the website.

They put together some form of copy paste and post system and then said "here, you do it. This ain't rocket science."

While it might not be rocket science, web content management is more complicated than copy paste and post.

And there's no point in doing it unless it's part of a strategy.

So without a plan in place, a couple of things could have happened.

  1. Nothing. Those clamouring for other people to create and post their content suddenly found the need for publishing content to be far less pressing, since it was now their job.
  2. Nothing. Those clamouring for other people to create and post their content were doing so because they really had no extra time to commit to publishing.
  3. Everything. A gajillion briefs, bulletins, leaflets, posters, pamphlets, tracts, meeting minutes, policy papers, constitutions, owners manuals, seminal religious texts and possibly even poetry and song lyrics were thrown up onto the site like so many pizza toppings.
  4. Bits and pieces. Some people or some departments lift the torch and carry it high, with greater or lesser skill and output. In other places there is silence. The union's top priorities have little to no bearing on where content production succeeds.

All four scenarios are problematic.

Saving distributed publishing from itself

High level messages are just that. They're not content. They're meant to be reflected in content.

They need to be discussed by the union's stakeholders because they're not always straight forward.

Is the union a powerful force that advances the rights and interests of its members or is it a victim of a thuggish, right wing regime hell bent on impoverishing and disenfranchising its members?

One message reassures activists, the other is aimed at building public sympathy.

Content Templates: are generally speaking word processor or spreadsheet documents that get content creators to fill in the blanks to create content. Because you've done your content audit, you've noticed patterns in the kinds of content the site's producers are writing.

They look like tables: one column describes what's supposed to be in that paragraph or sentence, an example is included, and there's a blank for where the content creator fills in their part of the story.

It's possible you won't be able to create a template for every possible form of content on your site.

But whatever you can template will help your newly anointed non-web-writer content creators bluff their way through the process.

Calendar: some deadlines are known. Conventions, rounds of bargaining, commemorative days. Those all have content requirements. Still other forms of content can be planned: items around enforcing health and safety legislation, hazards, clear language explanations of contract provisions, profiles of activists or leaders, etc etc. Not everything is an emergency.

Have a meeting of your team to put together a content calendar.

Websites need some of the lovin' that the newsletter gets.

Voice and tone: how much personality should your web content have? The classic, writerly approach is that no reader of your content should be thinking 'who wrote this' while they are reading your content. They should be focusing on the information and recognize its authorship only as "the union".

Now your union style could be cheeky, edgy irreverent and brash or it could be breathless and shrill, but the point is it should always be like that, whether it's a news item or the instructions on how to fill out a form.

This, of course runs counter to at least one other line of thinking in uniondom. Namely the accountability of your elected content approvers. These folks, it would seem, view every occasion where they put fingers to keyboard, as an exercise in accountability to the members who elected them.

Here, the officer's voice must, as a matter of highest democratic prinicple, come through in the content. For better or for worse. And be prepared for all the evidence marshalled by your user research, and everything we know about why people visit unions websites and how they approach reading on the web to be ignored. "Members want to hear from their president."

So what do you do with that? Change the channel. Wouldn't it be neat, comrade president, if all the members got a personalized email from you about this (burning issue). Or maybe they got a friend request from you on Facebook and you kept them up to date on your comings and goings that way?

Or what if, comrade president, you were to start posting your thoughts and activities on Twitter. And we could put your twitter feed on your page?

You're not done yet

This is what those in the business call "governance".

And it's critical.

Content that lives too long clutters your search index and makes the important content pieces harder to find. Some of it needs to die.

Mistakes will be found. Your visitors will have different interpretations of your content. That feedback needs to go to both the content creator as well as the person who can actually fix the error.

Content also needs to be reviewed periodically. You cannot totally crowdsource your quality control, as they say. Content gets out of date and you need to come up with a way to get it in front of your subject experts/content providers to make sure it's all still accurate and complete.

Do you still want to keep everything you ever published live on your site?


Further reading and resources

  • Balsamiq software for creating page mockups, wireframes and workflow diagrams
  • Loop11 - remote usability testing self-serve usability testing for a fraction of the price
  • Silverback DIY eyetracking and listening lab software to record and analyze your visitors as they try to figure out your website

My understanding of content strategy owes almost everything to these two. All misinterpretation and bad advice is mine, however.