Web Content Strategy Basics

Posted: August 14, 2011 under Web Design

Over the past few years there has been an increasing focus on quality content among web professionals and from this has emerged a new discipline, web content strategy.

In her book, Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson argues for web content strategy as a, "legitimate, necessary practice in the web consulting, design and development industries."

Her call to action has pushed the conversation about web content firmly into the spotlight and caught the attention of nearly everyone who makes websites for a living. 

But what exactly is web content strategy? Halvorson defines it as a discipline that, "plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content." Sounds great, but where to begin? Enter Erin Kissane.

Kissane works for Halvorson at the content strategy firm, Brain Traffic. Earlier this year she published what I consider to be an essential item in every web professional's library, The Elements of Content Strategy.

This post is the first in a series where I provide an overview of Ms. Kissane's book, but I very much encourage you to purchase it for yourself. It's not a long or difficult read and Kissane is an engaging writer with a lovely sense of humor. All the same, I know many of you reading this post are simply looking for the nickel tour of the subject, so shall we begin?

Good Web Content Is Appropriate

Kissane begins with a discussion of core principles of content strategists. She asks (and then splendidly answers) the question, 'What makes content good?'

The first characteristic of good web content is that it is appropriate. That doesn't mean that it refrains from picking its teeth at the dinner table or is in some other way well-mannered. It simply means that your content is appropriate for your business, your website and your users. It means that it fits. 

Content that is appropriate for your users helps them meet their goals; it helps them solve their problems. Content that is appropriate for your business is content that helps you meet your goals in a way that is sustainable (i.e. you won't go broke creating and maintaining it). Kissane sums it up nicely when she says, "This principle boils down to enlightened self interest: that which hurts your users hurts you."

Good Web Content Is Useful

The second principle Kissane discusses is that good content is useful. This may seem obvious at first, but how often is content added to websites with a clear understanding of what the content is specifically supposed to accomplish? That's really the key with this principle, being able to pin down how a given piece of content will help users and help your organization at the same time.

Too often content is posted to a website with only a vague sense of its purpose, for example, to sell more products. The point here is to understand the goals of the content more clearly and if you can't, then maybe that's telling you something about the usefulness of the content.

Good Web Content Is User-Centered

User-centered design helps to remind website owners/publishers that it's not all about them. In one passage that particularly resonated with me, Kissane says:

Publishing content that is self-absorbed in substance or style alienates readers. Most successful organizations have realized this, yet many sites are still built around internal org charts, and clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas.

 By creating content that focuses on your users you can meet their real needs. You become a solution for them instead of part of the problem.

Good Web Content Is Clear

You want your users to understand you, right? But unless you have a real understanding of your users and the way they think, you may not be getting your message across. I think all of us have visited sites intended for the general public, but that contain jargon or other overly technical writing. This lack of clarity hurts those sites.

But you may unintentionally be doing the same thing. Content strategists make a point of understanding their audience in a deep way so that the content speaks clearly to those users. Ideally, your content should be so clear that it is effortless for your audience to digest and use.

Good Web Content Is Consistent

This principle touches on something I think is a very common problem. Kissane points out that using consistent language makes it easier for people to understand what they read. If you have a lot of people contributing to your site, then maintaining a consistent voice can be a challenge. 

Style guides can be a big help in managing this problem, but so can hiring a web editor. There are still many organizations out there that haven't come to terms with the fact they are involved in publishing and if they don't get serious about their editorial processes, they will be missing opportunities as well as hurting their online reputations.

Good Web Content Is Concise

This principle is best expressed by Kissane herself in another passage that really struck a chord with me. She writes:

Some organizations love to publish a lot of content. Perhaps because they believe that having an org chart, a mission statement, a vision declaration, and a corporate inspirational video on the About Us page will retroactively validate the hours and days of time spent producing that content...the web offers the space to publish everything, and it's much easier to treat it like a hall closet with infinite stuffing-space than to impose constraints.

Keeping your content to that which is essential helps your users by creating clarity, and you remember the point about enlightened self interest, right? Hurting your users with unnecessary, useless content hurts you. If a site has a great design, but is filled with a lot of cruft, the site's quality level is diminished. It's not possible to separate content from design and this is the main reason I think designers should concern themselves with at least the basics of content strategy.

Good Web Content Is Supported

The final principle Kissane discusses is that good content is supported. A website is a living thing. Content has to be updated as facts surrounding it change, content has to be removed when it no longer serves a purpose and user-generated content has to be moderated (see If Your Website's Full of Assholes, It's Your Fault).

This is probably the most overlooked point concerning web content. Many sites are littered with outdated content, inaccurate information and even unmoderated user content that creates a negative environment for other users. A plan for supporting your published content solves these problems.

Wrapping It Up

With this foundation of web content strategy principles in place, I'll continue my discussion of Ms. Kissane's book in future posts. If you're ready for a more in-depth read on the subject, you should either purchase Kissane's book or Kristina Halvorson's, Content Strategy for the Web.

One observation I have on web content strategy is that not every organization is ready to fully implement an effective strategy. With resource constraints, the effort required makes many organizations take pause. However, I believe all sites can make small steps in the right direction and those that don't will increasingly find users clicking for the exit.

About the Author

John Hannah

I’m John Hannah, a front end developer at Lullabot . When I'm not building websites, I travel as much as possible and enjoy hanging out with my wonderful family. My favorite place to spend my coffee breaks is Twitter, so please feel free to connect with me there.