Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Content Strategist’s View on Content in Wireframes

I had an interesting conversation the other day with an information architect regarding the use of greeking/lorem ipsum in Web design wireframes (yes, I know it’s actually Latin). As a content strategist, I was arguing in favor of using real client content and he was arguing in favor of using almost no content.

The funny thing is, once we talked it through, we finally came to agreement on almost all issues. The sticking point turned out to be our internal idea of what a wireframe is used for. He was focused on using a wireframe to communicate functionality to an application development team while I was using thinking about using a wireframe to communicate the implications of various design decisions to stakeholders. Two very different uses and two very different audiences.

We agreed that the higher the fidelity of the wireframe, them more it needs real, representative content.

His argument against real content was that stakeholders can be distracted by it and not focus on the design. My response was that I though having that distraction was a good thing. If a content strategist has been involved in the project and written wireframe content that fully represents final copy based on what he knows, then that needs to be verified.

If the content used is not very close to what the stakeholders envision the final content to be, then the design may have to change. In the end, the information needs to fit the architecture.

Just as in war where, “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force,” (Helmuth von Moltke) most wireframes need to be adjusted after the design is filled with real content for the first time.

The sooner we have the design come into contact with real content, the quicker we can react to misunderstandings, un-managed expectations, and design challenges that are now informed by reality, not assumptions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

O'Reilly Insights into E-books and Digital Content Strategy

A great quote from O'Reilly's Andrew Savikas about how they have re-tooled their book publishing production process to support the creation of multiple formats from a single source:

"Something my colleagues are probably sick of hearing me say around the office is that these are not printed books that we happen to sell in digital format--they're digital books that we might happen to sell in print. All publishing is now digital publishing, and all writing is now writing for the Web."

Absolutely. Read the full article...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Content Strategy - Why?

I used to get this content strategy question all the time, and I still hear it more than I would like - "Why do I need a content strategist on my project?"
The quick answer is easy -

"Because without a content strategist your project will be late, because content is hard. There are things you don't know, and you won't know what you don't know them until it's too late. You'll recover, but you will be late."

A straight, simple, confident answer based on my experience with dozens of projects. But it's often not a satisfying or convincing argument, so here's another way to respond.

"So let me answer your question with a question. Why do you need content?" You'd be surprised at how often that stumps people. Once you dig through that conversation a bunch of other questions come up:

  • "So how do you want to talk to your customers, conversationally, professionally, sarcastically?"
  • "How do your best sales people talk to customers?"
  • "Who are your best sales people? Are they male or female? How old?"
  • "You have a link to White Papers in the wireframes. Do you have any white papers? Have you ever written a white paper? Has anyone in your organization ever written a white paper? What goes into a white paper? Are you sure you want white papers and not case studies? In your mind, what is the difference?"
  • "You plan on re-using some existing print content. Does it need to be edited for the Web? Do you have the source files. Do you even own the source files? Do you know where the source files are? Not just the final flattened version in a Quark or Photoshop file, but the actual text that can be copied and pasted?"
  • "Who is going to be writing and reviewing all the content? Do they know and have they agreed? Don't they already have full-time jobs?"
  • "Do you have legal or regulatory content governance issues that must be evaluated and planned for?"
  • "Do you have all the content development milestones in your project plan? Who made the time estimates? Have they ever created content? When will you know if you are running late? Is it too late then?"
  • "Do you have a style guide for Web content? Do you say "website" or "Web site," and who gets to decide?"
  • "You say you want to translate the site into Spanish. Which version of Spanish? Mexican, Puerto Rican, South American, Castillian?"
  • "How complex is your Web Content Management System? Or are you going to be using a new WCMS? If your WCMS is hard to use or, heaven forbid, brand new - just go ahead and double are your content development times now."

To a good content strategist, these are not even hard questions. But the wrong answer to any one of them could delay your project for months.

The point is, if you don't know the answers to all these questions, and a hundred more, before you start development on you project, you can't create an accurate project plan. Without an accurate project plan you are just running on wishes and hopes. "Faith-based" projects rarely finish on time.

So that's the long answer.

Here's another short answer - How excited are you about paying your programmers to sit around and surf the Web and watch YouTube videos while you are waiting for your content? If the the answer is "not very" then find a content strategist.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Print Version Now Available for - The Web Content Strategist's Bible

Thanks everyone for pushing me to get this done. After receiving numerous requests for a print version of The Web Content Strategist's Bible, it is now available on my Web site.

Obviously, this is not news to the several of you who have already grabbed a copy today!

If you already have a copy of the ebook and you would like a printed version, drop me an email (sheff@mindspring.com) and we can work out a heavy discount that mostly depends on shipping costs.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Anti-Tech-Writer Bias in Content Strategist Hiring?

I keep a pretty good watch on what companies are looking for when seeking to hire a new content strategist. It's rare that I see a new requirement or new job responsibility listed. Most job ads are pretty much the same, they shamelessly copy one another. So I was pretty surprised to see this listed in a job ad posted by Perfect Link, Inc. in Oakland, CA looking for a senior-level content strategist.

Ignoring the eight or nine blatant spelling, grammar, and capitalization errors in just 30 words of text, and the fact that none of the Top 5 Skills listed are actually skills (impressive), the requirement for No Tech Writers really surprised me.

I'm guessing that this line was added for a couple of reasons.

First, I think there is a subtle bias against tech writers in the more "creative" agencies. They really don't understand a lot of what tech writers do these days and how much of their work is very similar to Information Architecture and Content Strategy. A lot of agency people still see tech writers as the people who produce those awful software user guides. They don't see, or make the connection, to all the online help and performance support system work.

Secondly, and more to the point, I don't think tech writers do a very good job when marketing themselves to agencies for Web content-related jobs. I've seen this myself when recruiting content strategists. Tech writers need to take a few minutes and adjust their resume to show more Web-related experience. In many cases it's just a matter of being a little creative with your job titles and description. Even if your actual job title is 'Technical Writer,' it's acceptable to list the role you performed on a project. So listing your "role" or "responsibility" as Web Writer or Web Editor is fine if that's what you were doing. You should also emphasize any work you did that was focused on marketing or customer communications. This helps reduce the negative impact of other, more technical, writing projects.

I've always said that tech writers make great content strategists. That was my background and I've worked with and hired others with similar backgrounds who were excellent content strategists. Hopefully this is a one-time thing and will not become widespread.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Do You Want to Hire a Content Strategist?

Despite the bad economy, many Web development projects must go on. If your organization is looking for a Content Strategist, the Web Content Strategy Job Board will expose your opening to a steady stream of highly-targeted readers. For just $49 you can post your job on the board for thirty days, plus I'll write a blog post about the job and send it to my email and Twitter lists of experienced Content Strategists and other skilled writers who are seeking content strategy positions.

If you have questions about the job board you can contact me directly at sheff@mindspring.com. You can take a look at the board and currently listings via the widget in this blog's right-hand side bar. If you are ready to get started, use this link to post your content strategist job now.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Content Strategy and SXSW

People frequently ask me why, as a Web content strategist, I list South by Southwest (SXSW) as my one, must-go-to, conference each year. SXSW panels are mostly about design, and User Experience, mixed with some small business/startup info, with a strong dash of blogging and social media. Not much at all that is strictly about content. So why do I go?

  • I already know how to create good Web content so that’s not what I’m looking for at a conference. What I get from SXSW is context. I get to see what is on the near horizon for new content delivery platforms. I get to see how content will be created and consumed two years down the road.
  • At SXSW, I always learn about what will be hot in about two years. The new apps that get a lot of attention there are not, brand new, and that’s important. Once an app starts to generate a lot of buzz at SXSW, it’s usually, almost ready for prime time. This is a large group of users, so people will actually be USING hot new apps, not just talking about them.
  • I don’t work for a hip design agency; I work for a big, results-focused, corporate giant. I don’t have time to play with new media toys and make bets on which ones will grow into the “next big thing”, and which ones will become, “what ever happened to?” SXSW distills a lot of what’s new down to the few hot ideas that actually have a following and a chance.

For what I go for, SXSW has a great track record. I learned about Twitter years before most at SXSW along with very early conversations about Facebook, LOLcats, wikis, Web 2.0, tagging, the semantic Web, blogging for dollars, AJAX, user generated content, cloud computing, Web services, and mashups. There's a content strategy implication in every one of those subjects.

When August rolls around, I’ll be completely behind again. But, for a week every March, I feel like I’m hip and completely caught up with what’s going on in my fast-moving industry.