Tag: <span>Content Strategy</span>

Why are we still banging on about Content Strategy?

Is it really that hard?

A strategy shouldn’t be that tricky to formulate, especially as it’s concerning an area of expertise for many us, after all it’s only content, right? It’s not like it’s something new that none of us know anything about? So why is it so hard and why do we spend so much time talking about the whys and wherefores and, seemingly, so little time actually doing it?

Content Strategy is an area of our profession I’ve taken an increasing interest in. As the value of information rises, making sure you have a sensible strategy that is concerned about getting the best content required, for the right person in the right situation at the right time, has become increasingly important.

Even before Content Strategy became an entry on conference buzzword bingo sheets, making sure the content you were creating was offering the best ‘bang for the buck’ was something on the minds of all good technical writers. Sure, we could write documentation that would cover every aspect of the product but not only was that very difficult to achieve, leaving aside regulatory requirements, would all of that content be needed and used? Probably not.

Looking further afield, beyond documentation, many companies today are starting to realise that information and knowledge have more value than they realised, and so they are starting to treat content as a commodity. That means, for those of us who spend the majority of their time thinking about, planning, creating, and delivering content, our stock has risen and we have opportunities to do more, gain a stronger position in our organisations and flex our information management muscles!

And so we get to the tricky bit. For many people who don’t spend a lot of time worrying about content, it seems a bit grandiose to have to have a strategy around something that has been taken for granted or, in the worst cases, ignored altogether. Once you mention that having good control over the content being produced, with a view to improving how it is created and delivered, will cost money, suddenly the picture changes.

As companies start to better understand the link between content and the experience their customers have during their interactions with the company and the product they are using, so the need for better content, supporting and driving better user experiences, will rise.

None of this is new, these ideas have been talked about and debated for several years under the guise of Content Strategy, and for far longer than that in terms of ROI of content (and the teams who deliver it).

If you’ve been on the edge of any of these conversations, and wondered how on earth you could get such an initiative in place at your company then good news! Two leading experts in this area, Rahel Baillie and Noz Urbina, have combined their talents to write Content Strategy for Decision Makers.

Interestingly, you can’t buy the book in printed format yet, but you can read it and comment on it on the book website: http://contentstrategyfordecisionmakers.com/

It’s only online for the month of October, so I’d urge you to hurry along! It will be in print soon regardless, and I know it’s already on my wishlist.


I start this blog post with an admission and an apology.

Admission: I am a manager, I don’t spend a lot (any) of my time writing technical content these days.

Apology: One of my weakest areas is in the intricacies and ‘correctness’ of grammar. *

That said, there is one thing that continues to frustrate me about the technical communications profession, the constant ‘deep dive’ into every single aspect of one sentence, one clause. Dear grammar pedants, please stop!

Don’t get me wrong, I know that good written information is a keystone of our profession and I’m all for discussions to make sure things are being approached correctly and debated thoroughly, where appropriate.

Please note the last two words of the last sentence, “where appropriate”.

Maybe it’s just me, but as each of us write for a specific audience, likely to a specific style guide, such discussions become academic almost from the get go. What really irks is when discussions on other aspects of our profession are diverted towards this area. For example, “Content Strategy is important! … Yes, but ultimately the paragraph that someone reads once they have found it needs to be written in the active voice and never ever punctuate that bulleted list with commas… ”

And so on.

I’ve seen it so many times I’ve started using it as a guide. When any online discussion that isn’t explicitly about grammar and punctuation, whether forum or mailing list, reaches the point that someone reaches for the grammar gun, I stop reading, I disengage.

A few years ago, when the UA conference reached Edinburgh in 2008, one of the sessions was by Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, a noted linguist. It was the closing session and I approached it with some dread, a presentation on language would surely be all about the use of transitive verbs and the perils of infinitives which are split. How wrong I was, leaving the room at the end with a simple, repeated message.

Write as you speak. Write as if you were explaining something to someone sitting next to you, put aside the rules of grammar if needs be!

I blame my current stance, my dislike of long academic discussions on someone who, I’m sure, has initiated and partaken of many such discussions himself.

Forgive me if I’ve offend anyone, I’m not saying that correct grammar is a bad thing, far from it, I just think that in the current day and age we, as a profession, need to raise our view and focus on bigger things. The language will take care of itself, one way or another, let it go!

We should be looking to influence, to sell, to push ourselves to the forefront of our companies as the experts we are in that valuable (and its stock continues to rise) commodity, information.


* Yes, there are deliberate mistakes in this post. Feel free to point them out in the comments.


I went to a conference and it was good!

As ever the Technical Communications Conference sparked thought, debate and no little amount of revelation. The sessions I managed to attend were all well presented, well considered and well received, and the chats over lunch, dinner and at the bar prove to me that I’m in a profession full of driven, smart and engaged people. My impression of the attendees this year suggests there is a definite change in the attitude of the audience as well, a little more upbeat and vocal, all of which bodes well for Technical Communications in 2012.

As ever, I took sporadic, and somewhat random notes, and I’m happy to share them with you all… YMMV as to whether you understand them or not.

Tuesday 20/09/11

Workshop: Using the Tech Author Slide Rule by Alice Jane Emanuel

Should we enter our documentation into industry competitions? Probably worth it purely from a feedback point of view.

Scoring spreadsheet used in the workshop will be useful in a number of ways as it will:
– show areas of specific improvement in the product documentation
– provide numerical data to show we are improving the quality of the information
– help everyone understand what is required to provide good quality information (particularly new starts in the team)
– reporting on the numbers will raise awareness of what we do (targetting an ‘area’ will alert people we consider this important)
– drive internal team discussions on how we improve quality (some of the scoring will be subjective, so will need discussion to get agreement), have whoever scored an area present back their thoughts

Wednesday 21/09/11

Opening Keynote: Patrick Hoffman (Google)

Icon Designer for Google Maps, Patrick discussed visual design, how the smallest details make a difference, the part context plays in cognitive understanding of graphics, as well as the impact of culture/location on that understanding.

Good icons present a single core message (remove the adjectives from the graphics?)

Content Strategy from the Trenches by CJ Walker & Karen Mardahl

Interesting presentation concept with CJ interviewing Karen, fireside chat style.

Content Filtering becomes a strategy, our ‘articles’ are just a filtered view on to the bulk of the content
Analytics data – what are we using it for?
Change team ethos to focus on value add, adding info to docs is how we add to the value of the product

Writing for reuse by David Farbey

Define your goals for re-use – what influences the process? Know where the goals may fail and plan around them.
Taxonomy – spreadsheet for areas of re-use (categories of information we expect to re-use)
Metadata needed – consistent naming a must
Information Types – we already have these, do they meet our needs? Do we need to review them?
The less you want to write, the more you have to plan

Forget about the book!

Concept topics – learning something (About the….)
Task topics – doing something (Configuring… )
Reference topics – knowing something (Lists/Facts/Tables)

Other topic types, what are they for?

Thursday 22/09/11

Pattern Recognition by Kai Weber and Chris Atherton

“To understand a pattern you need examples”

Code examples – must be consistent to let reader derive the pattern to understand the rules
Little used patterns degrade over time. People forget.

Difference between how learn

Experienced users: Top Down – Uses prior knowledge, concepts > elements, emphasises context, quick; sometimes wrong (knowing, generalising, contextualising, applying).
New Users: Bottom Up – No prior knowledge, elements > concepts, emphasises relations, slow; usually correct (experiencing, acquiring, matching, segmenting).

? What patterns should we have? What patterns do we have already?
TOC can be a pattern – consist info titles, build the pattern, e.g. “How to” always displays topics that look a certain way and contain certain information.

Opportunities for reuse between documentation and training by Linda Urban

Reuse definition – for docs – single sourcing, topic level, granular (para) re-use

Re-use is hard due to context:
Training is about learning, building skills
Documentation is about “I’m working”, help me, quick answers

Training is about approach and doesn’t (shouldn’t) cover everything

Documentation is an external repository of information
Training creates an internal repository of patterns/information

In practice, re-use sometimes means repurpose

Re-use sweetspots: integration points

Bigger picture: need to plan the information in tandem, docs should compliment the training and vice versa

And finally…

I have to mention the entertainment provide as part of the Gala Dinner. A genius of word play and smithery, Judge The Poet was brilliant and perfect for the conference audience! You can see some of his work here.

As well taking notes during the sessions I attended, I also took some time to showcase what will be come the new ISTC website (sneak peek here), and hosted the Rants session which a lot of, noisy, fun! Alice Jane Emanuel kindly took notes and I’ll be getting them published in next months InfoPlus newsletter.


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A guest post by Noz Urbina, Mekon Senior Consultant and Congility 2011* Conference Chairperson

* Keep reading for discounted and even free entry opportunity.

The Hole in Holistic
There’s an industry buzz about Content Strategy. But, in it, there’s a tendency to define Content Strategy as near synonymous with internet marketing strategy, or worse, clever web copy writing.

There’s regularly an assumption that we’re talking about B2C mass-market writing where we’re trying to drive web conversions, ‘excite’ customers, and drive click-throughs.

Although web marketing projects need content strategy, I don’t think that adequately defines the discipline. All dentists are doctors, but not all doctors are dentists.

Content Strategy is in its adolescence, and the discipline is asking: Who are we? Why are we?


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I’m always wary of buzzwords and industry fads, and will always take, primarily, a business focused view on any new theory (or strategy) that I hear about until I fully understand its real life application. Such is the case with Content Strategy.

It’s something I’ve talked about on here before (under the guise of Information Strategy) but whilst I’ve a good idea of how it could benefit our company, I’ve struggled to get buy-in. Whilst Content Strategy discussions go well, everyone thinks that a coherent and consistent set of content is a good thing, where we seem to struggle is getting commitment to getting the actual work done to bring things into line. The high level Content Audit I completed about 18 months ago is about as far as we got.

So, rather than try and get everyone on-board from the outset we are now starting from the bottom up by providing a technical product information service to our sales team. Essentially, our team will be providing source content that can be used by our PreSales team to inform potential customers what our product can do. It’s an important part of our sales cycle, and will mean that we will have a consistent set of information, used across different areas of the company, all sourced and developed with a common view (and reuse) in mind.

The route we are taking towards a company wide content strategy may take us a while (my gutfeel is that, once the ball is rolling and word gets out, other areas of the company will soon come on board) but ultimately we will end up in the same place. The advantages are that we can make decisions on the way, replan a lot more easily (we don’t need to get it as ‘almost’ right as we would if we were tackling a larger amount of work) and crucially we don’t need any ‘stop the world’ moments.

I work in a fast paced company, we are light on paperwork, and whilst we apply good rigour and quality to what we do, we only do whatever we need, and are quick to change or drop processes if they bring no value. It’s a great place to work, but keeping up with the pace of change in our product is a constant challenge to the technical writing team, so this approach to tackling the introduction of a content strategy stands a very good chance of succeeding.

Naturally this approach will present some challenges, we will probably need to schedule some form of review of the work as it progresses to make sure it’s not becoming too focused on it’s initial use, and I’ve no doubt that we may have to rework some of the content later on when we have a better understanding of the big picture, but I think it will work.

And hey, life’s nothing without a challenge!