Digital Reviewer

#EmptyShelf 2016 #14: Content Strategy for the Web (New Riders, 2012)


Kristina Halvorson, Melissa Rach. New Riders, 2012 (2nd Edn)


There’s a foreword to this book by Sarah Cancilla, Content Strategist, Facebook. Back in 2009, Facebook was growing, but far from perfect – huge amounts of content meant confused and frustrated users – who were then walking away from the brand. Cancilla, on going for the interview, read the first edition of this book, and was hired on the strength of it. Many saw ‘content strategist’ as the same as ‘copy editor’ – that, however, deals with the details, whereas this should be looking holistically and methodologically at content across the board. In an organisation that preferred action over talk, Cancilla had to produce some easy wins – dealing with a small area of content which allowed users to invite friends to Facebook, tiny improvements soon demonstrated a big difference – 56% improvement in net traffic to the area – equating to 6 million extra users finding friends. Those quick wins were important to persuade those higher up to allow bigger changes, and Cancilla was careful to use the language of those she was seeking to persuade, framing requests within larger Facebook strategies for leaders, empirical results for engineers, and visual for designers.

Soon, people started to solicit my help on more complex problems. Questions about tone, structure and site-wide consistency began to outnumber those about grammar and syntax. The company began giving enthusiastic support (and budget) for longer-term, content-driven initiatives.

By 2012, there were 9 content-strategists at Facebook, with more expected, and content-standards sitewide were being developed. The notion of content strategist has grown globally, as the notion of it has been demystified, and senior executives have understood its value.


When the first edition was written in 2009, this was a niche industry, but by 2012, was a huge industry. The book focuses particularly on the practical ‘why’. A content strategist may take on many hats, but here, we focus upon strategy – for every medium, every platform, every device. There’s a note that content is not just text, but video, audio – and also e.g. product information, investor reports and press releases. Companies have always had this information, but the development of organisational websites highlighted the deficiency in organisational content strategy.


There’s a panic for some about content … and the book challenges a more proactive stance, rather than reactive. It suggests:

  • Get moving
  • Aim for less, not more
  • Look for what you already have/could source
  • Listen
  • Ensure accountability

Most businesses believe that more content enables hitting more sales objectives, but all content must support key business objectives, and fulfil user’s needs – and organisations are encouraged to lose the rest – because everything that is there needs to be maintained.

A key focus needs to be built around the calendar. The first act is to audit pre-existing content and consider quantitatively what is there and qualitatively whether it’s any good.

Organisations need to listen to their colleagues and to their users. The content strategist should not assume that they know the answers to all the questions. Colleagues can tell you what FAQs they get, and highlight business needs. Users can tell you the kind of information that they want and need.

The harder you listen, the better you’ll understand the rationale, politics, emotions, and motivations behind the reasons content-related decisions are (or aren’t) being made. After all, you’re not creating plans for some alternate reality in which everything perfectly unfolds according to The Strategy. You’re planning for human beings and their ever-shifting needs and desires – also known as the real world.

Ensure that someone is ‘in charge’ – they don’t have sole responsibility, but as with a newspaper, they are the editor-in-chief. Find somewhere small to smart. Content is often the last thing people see as important – an afterthought, rather than a key asset that needs consideration.

In digital spaces you get one (first) chance with visitors. Content is not a commodity – it’s an asset, but many businesses don’t give it real resources, use poor syndicated content, focus on volume of content, or relies upon user-generated content without any expectations of hard work. The communication of the value of this content takes both time and resources.

So many businesses do content without thinking and planning it. Why? It is not copywriting (find tune editing at the end of the process), but needs to be integral to the overall strategy. Content can also be very political – there are many people’s needs who need to be satisfied (e.g. owners, information architects, marketing, legal and CMS) – a solid content strategy makes this easier to manage. See p24:

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Content needs to regarded as a valuable business asset. Its goal is to serve the organisation and users. Organisations need to prioritise which initiatives to follow, then streamline for efficiency.

Content is … strategy, comprised for creation, delivery and governance – giving the directional lead. Sometimes that strategy is editorial, structural or technical, and sometimes it is high-level business strategies. A focus on the tools is a focus on tactics, not on strategy.

Four Areas:

  1. Substance: What kinds of content do we need (topics, types, sources, etc.)? What messages does content need to communicate to our audience?
  2. Structure: How is content prioritised, organised, formatted, and displayed? (Structure can include IA, metadata, data modelling, linking strategies, etc.)
  3. Workflow: What processes, tools, and human resources are required for content initiatives to launch successfully and maintain ongoing quality?
  4. Governance: How are key decisions about content and content strategy made? How are changes initiated and communicated?


Finding the connection between real people and real content components is key.

The importance of showing, not telling, to persuade is of key importance. The values evident in branding should inform content; web writing translates into IA, metadata and a content inventory, then there a whole lot of more specialist roles.


Content affects all areas of the organisation, so everyone needs to be on the same page. There needs to be common understanding, rather than consensus. Stakeholders need to be identified, convinced, kicked off, engaged and kept motivated. It’s more important to get people involved and on board from the start – far more important than the secrecy of a project. Stakeholders include: decision makers; funders; champions and influencers; political showstoppers and interested others. It’s not just about getting the managers involved, but the knowledgeable are more important.

To get people interested – need to find the story/hook,  including the problem/opportunity, the (business) urgency, a request for help,  description of participants, and the payoff/ROI. Do early research and then ask stakeholders to help fill in the gaps. In team sessions, introduce the project, introduce the people, set expectations for participation – with ongoing measurements/sharing, etc.

An audit helps saves money in the longer term, and can be referenced back to in making decisions (p50).

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Be clear on the goals for the audit – what/why, when, where, etc.

A quantitative audit simply describes the raw data that is available (technological tools could help collect this), whereas qualitative looks at the quality and effectiveness of content. Measurement means that the right details need to be collected for consistent data (sampling may be required). See p55:

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Effective recommendations need to be contextualised – by business goals, monetary constraints, user needs and competitor activities. External and internal factors need to be taken on board, and learnings communicated.

An early analysis saves ours of content creation, delivery and upkeep. Internal analysis involves listening to conversations – summarising the big themes and noting discrepancies. Different departments may have different stakeholders – need to define for each the messages to give and get from users. Identify pre-existing channels on which content you use – most organisations are using more than they realise, e.g. (p77)

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See p79 for what is important at different stages in the client lifecycle:

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The content strategist needs to be clear on who’s involved. A workflow is clear on who defines success at each stage and ensures legal compliance (p81).

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Be clear about your users – they have goals and expectations – if you don’t meet them, they go. You can’t make them do anything that they don’t want to! P83 outlines the importance of research, including analytics, testing, industry-wide research, interviews, and surveys.

In undertaking competitor analysis, don’t panic because they have what you don’t. You are seeking differentiation – but be clear why you are not if it is industry standard and you’re not doing it.

Look at your sources of information and seek to keep up to date. Identify who are your key influencers, including journals, forums, media, bloggers and social media.


The core strategy needs to be clear, team-driven and consistent. Consider what you want to achieve – how does the content help accomplish that, what do you want to be – what content products will you create … and what does the organisation need to do to support this effort.

Be aspirational and therefore inspirational – no one wants to work towards “let’s make our product content slightly less crappy”. There’s a need to be creative, which can be difficult in a business world of deliverables. Look for an informal, memorable statement (e.g. p101)

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Ensure you have parameters and priorities about who your content is for – be very specific about user groups (prospective, existing, which products, etc.). Create personas – basic bulleted lists are fine. Prioritise – with no ‘ties’ for positioning – and be prepared to negotiate this list!

Be key about the message that you want users to walk away with – core, secondary and details. See how all support the core message. The theme needs to be there – doesn’t necessarily need to be word-for-word. Create a topic map, and be clear that each area serves different needs. Content has different purposes (persuasion, information, validation, instruction or entertainment) – be clear which is which, and ensure that tone of voice gives the brand a personality.

Look at the range of content that is possible:

  • Original (valuable)
  • Co-created (influencers)
  • Aggregated (care with this)
  • Curated (themed/chosen)
  • Licences (care with dilution of good content)
  • User-generated (needs management)

Understand what content is key, as you’ll never publish everything you think of. Think about whether it’s required (legally/politically), who’s it going to reach, how relevant is it, how valuable/unique is content and how will affect revenue?

Thinking about whose job is whose – IA works on structure and functionality, content strategist works on the overall story and page-by-page details. Look at channel, platform and format. Think – where do your customers want you to be? Naming of different elements of the site is key in supporting the core messages. Links = give a lot of direction, microcopy affects contextual usability.

Structured content needs to be available for re-use – ensure that separate content and form. Metadata = supports content aims and findability. Sitemaps, wireframes and page tables are important.

Who owns the data, shared across different departments, but ensure that there is a central team. Roles include web-editor-in=chief, web manager, content creator, sourcing curator, SEO, subject matter expert and reviewer/approver.

An advisory council is important, especially for the transition stage – around 3 members could work. The audience voice is especially useful for voluntary organisations.

The workflow is circular – create/source/maintain and evaluate content. Requires editorial calendar, content requirements checklist, curation checklist, and migration spreadsheet. Ensure governance and documenting processes is clear.


To win over the CEO, need to speak up about what is required, and keep dropping the subject into the conversation. Focus on the efficiency games, identify that the competition is doing it, and show the hard data. Have a clear focus on budget – if necessary start small with a pilot project, and be clear about what is needed/why/potential ROI.

Rather than never being invited back to parties, p172 highlights how one can describe what one’s role is:

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Content always needs to be first (avoid the lorem ipsum text). Remember that a lot of this is not obvious/ordinary to others, so share, speak and blog about it, but more of all do it!

For more detail, buy the book.