Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Molly Niendorf, content and social media manager for Emma email marketing software.
If you work in content, you know that your job involves a lot more than the content you produce. If you write a blog post or publish a webinar or post a YouTube video without a coordinated content strategy in place, your content is no more than the sum of its parts. In fact, it’s probably less.
Author of Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson defines content strategy as the practice of planning for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content. It’s a helpful definition, and it’s worth exploring. Useful: does your content support a business objective? Usable: does it actually help a user complete a task or solve a problem? Even just focusing on those two goals goes a long way toward effective content. (By the way, If you haven’t read Content Strategy for the Web, get your hands on it. The second edition just came out. Yay!)
You may have a pitch-perfect content strategy in place and a well-oiled content machine (with dutiful content worker bees who deliver the content honey on call) and no competing departmental needs to navigate. (If you do, please call me from utopia.) If your company is on earth, you probably have a working strategy, lots of contingencies to manage and a changing product schedule — and the need to reassess and reformulate your plans often.
That’s where children’s books come in. Believe me when I tell you that, while Halvorson’s book is a veritable tome in the CS world, you might just find some of the best lessons in the children’s books you read and loved in Kindergarten. If you think this sounds silly, give me a moment to convince you.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
You know how this one goes. If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to get thirsty. So he’ll ask for a glass of milk. And then he’ll want a straw for his milk. Pretty soon you’ll be running around trying to suit lovable, needy Mr. Mouse’s every whim (gimme a napkin! scissors! a broom!). You’ll find yourself frantic and exhausted — and, in the end, you won’t have a lot to show for it.
The lesson: We all know what it’s like to be super busy, but is the state of busyness just a seductive farce? Oftentimes, yes. A successful content strategy doesn’t mean doing more; it often means doing less very well. Just because you have pages and pages of content doesn’t mean you’re supporting your customers any better. But if you’ve been smart about creating that one resource that helps users answer a burning question, that they want to share with others, that even makes them smile? You’re onto something.
Your work is also for naught if you’re simply listing everything that needs to get done and moving one-by-one through that list. If all of your content to-do’s start to look like they’re carrying the same weight, chances are you’re entering fat-and-happy-Mr.-Mouse territory. That is, you’re answering to others — or to the situation at hand — without really setting priorities. If you know the content landscape at your company — if you’ve listened to your customers, analyzed how they use your product and site, and strategized a plan for creating, producing and maintaining content — then you should be well-suited to figure out what’s most relevant and needed now. You’re also well-positioned to say no to those things that sound fun but will direct your energies away from what’s needed (and those things can be fun, too).
Remember sweet Corduroy and his quest for a missing button? While he searches throughout the department store at night, he imagines that the elevator might be a mountain, the furniture section of the store is surely a castle. His curiosity infuses ordinary things with whimsy and adventure.
The lesson: You know how I said content priorities can be fun? It’s true. But it’s easy to get caught up in the details: Have we done enough user research? Are these articles labeled with the right meta keywords? Is this page template easy to navigate? Is that author going to finish their article on time?
Step back for a moment. Realize what happens when the details come together. You’re not just working on a bunch of disparate projects; you’re telling your company’s story. And you’re instilling your brand’s values in everything that you say and do. And those users? Hey, look at them: they’re people. They’ve got their own stories and values and backgrounds that affect how you interact with them.
When you start to see the situation as more than a bunch of ordinary moving pieces, something sort of spectacular starts to happen. It’s a content castle, folks.
Bread and Jam for Frances
Just saying this title makes me want some toast. Dear, picky Frances only likes bread and jam. She won’t eat a hard-boiled egg. She turns away a chicken salad sandwich. She’s loathe to try a veal cutlet. (How much do you love that veal cutlets are a meal de rigueur in this storybook from the 1970s?)
The lesson: We all have our bread and jam, that piece of the content process that we really like, that we’re probably pretty good at. And that we may get a little hung up on, because it’s where we want to spend most of our time.
But if you’re always paying attention to your bread and jam, you may be overlooking, or even outright ignoring, another piece of the puzzle. And if you find yourself answering the same sorts of questions with the same sorts of answers (every single time) — This button worked before! Let’s use it again! Let’s always use it! — you might be rushing to the finish line without finding the right answer.
It’s terrific when you’ve discovered tried-and-true practices that work, but don’t let yourself fall into a rut. See each challenge with a fresh perspective, and find the best solution — even if it’s veal cutlets — for the situation at hand.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The first line of this book says it all: “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on my skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
The lesson: The Alexander affliction is certainly not unique to folks who work in content, but you’ll know it when you see it. That point in the project where you begin doubting everything that’s led you here and questioning everything that must happen next. It’s usually accompanied by a lot of self-defeating talk and derisive snorting. You’ll ask, have we identified the right business goal? You’ll answer, no. You’ll ask, are users getting what they need from this content? Um, no. Are we adequately measuring the success of this content? Again, no. You’ll throw up your hands and say everything’s awful.
Okay, hang on a sec. It might be true that you need to re-assess your objectives and workflow, but it’s not likely that you need to start from scratch. Abandoning ship does one (or both) of two things: 1) It denies all of the work, research and preparation you’ve done up to this point and 2) If you don’t address the roadblocks that you’re coming upon right now, you’re going to come upon them all over again when you get back here.
To use another expression from childhood: Stop, look and listen. Identify what’s really going on. Call in some backup — a coworker who works more closely with customers, a UX designer who’s an expert in IA, a sales member who’s up-to-speed on what competitors are doing.
And give yourself a reality check. If content strategy were easy, it’d be called Eating Cookies. The reasons you’re feeling stuck are some of the same reasons why you do this work: it’s challenging, multifarious and it’s never done. Stick with it. When you arm yourself with the right resources, tools and teams, and when you push for the right answers, not just the easy ones, you end up in a lovely place: where useful, usable content becomes the rule, not the exception.
Molly Niendorf is Emma’s content and social media manager, working from the company’s Portland office. She dislikes rainy weather (go figure), loves color-coordinated office supplies and is an Honorary Member of the World’s Biggest Cheese Eaters Club (well, she would be, if that were a thing). Read more from Molly on the Emma blog, and try Emma for free at myemma.com.