How I learned to stop worrying and love content strategy

By Elizabeth McGuane | 7 Comments

Three years ago, I was completely unaware of the world of web content. That is, I knew about the web, and I knew about writing, but I didn’t know about their complex, often awkward relationship.

In early 2007, I decided to leave my job at Ireland’s best weekly newspaper. The paper was great, but its website was an embarrassment, and I found myself increasingly drawn to the possibilities of the web. There was a whole other world out there that I only knew the surface of. And I wanted to know more.

One morning, I Googled ‘writing for the web training Dublin’. And found iQ Content.

Fast forward to today, both the web content field and I have come a long way. Content is no longer merely a brochure sliced and diced into scrappy HTML, nor is it just a pared down bulleted list, or a sales page overstuffed with meaningless keywords. This year, the web and business worlds have begun to wake up to the reality that in order for websites to excel, web content must be front and centre, and to get there it must be methodically planned, produced, and maintained.

In short, the web needs content strategy.

Editors of print publications may well crook a quizzical eyebrow that it took this long for us to figure that out. But we had other things to deal with. In a recent post on content strategy, Melissa Rach of Scroll Magazine compares the recent history of the web to a kid growing up. If we’re now in our Gen X period, then it’s high time things got serious.

I was a fledgling web nerd

In my first year at iQ, I quickly discovered that content wasn’t given the time or space it required in projects. We had this quaint idea called ‘the content phase’.


We’d do our discovery work and cascade our findings down through IA, wireframing and much client deliberation before feeding it through to the content team (back then, that was just me).

Mostly, my job meant rewriting existing on and offline content. And while my edits were – if I may – an improvement, I was still trapped in a demoralising situation: as soon as we handed over a fresh new site to a client, the content was the first thing to suffer, from either starvation or bloat. Either way, the results weren’t pretty.

What’s changed in iQ and out in the world

What’s happening today – and there is quite a groundswell going on (see #contentstrategy on Twitter) – is the natural evolution of a decade’s worth of work from writers and editors in the trenches of the web industry.

Here at iQ, we’ve evolved too: moving from our old traditional project methods toward a more agile approach – developing content, wireframes and prototypes in rapid iterations. Exciting times.

Introducing a content strategist – CS – role means we’ve moved beyond CMS administration and usability-focused web editing to a truly all-encompassing web content strategy.

And there’s a lot of complexity in the role: To paraphrase my high school history teacher: If content strategy is the mother science, then Analytics and SEO are tools in its service. Likewise, content is a tool in the service of sales. And the CS is there to tie all those threads together.

Spotting a content strategist in the wild

A true CS is someone who will go to bat for the site as a whole, and who truly owns its message and its direction. An editor in chief, if you will. They’ll have a detailed focus on the words, but a strategic overview of the tone, direction and objectives those words are a part of. And they’ll be passionate – maybe even a little bit scary.

Lloyd Clark,

Image from the University of Texas at Arlington

To make a truly great web experience, a site needs to be owned from the words on up. That’s why the ideal web team has evolved to mimic a rather traditional structure: a newspaper editorial department.

This coming April, the iQ Content content team (Elizabeth and Randall) will be talking about the Evolution of Content at the first European Content Strategy Forum. It’s in Paris, did we mention that? Find out more and register here.


7 responses to “How I learned to stop worrying and love content strategy

  1. Great post Elizabeth, I take it that this means you don’t like lorum ipsum wireframes :)

    Most of my experience along these lines is that it’s quite easy for design or ux to, for lack of a better phrase, “hit it an quit it”. In that if company X hires me to make their website easier to use, or offer a better experience, I can do that, and chances are 6 months later there will still be obvious remnants of my work, in the flows, form styles etc, so my work has lived on.

    In my experience content is the first casualty, possibly because it’s easier to tinker with text than CSS, and possibly because everyone has an opinion on what the company should be saying.

    What I’m wondering is, beyond content guidelines, is there any way to ensure that the content survives after the relaunch? Would you appoint an editor-in-chief as your successor?

  2. Great post Elizabeth, it really got me thinking about the increasing need for the role of a community manager in companies but also how that ties with the content strategist and the holistic approach as you suggest (not to mention the ux and stuff like that). We’ll hear a lot about content strategy this year as Des mentioned on Twitter today.

  3. Every time loreum ipsum is used, Des, tiny angels cry. In answer to your question: yes, an editor in chief is necessary. ‘But companies won’t hire a full time editor’: well, they need to, or their online presence will suffer. I’d argue that tinkering with content is deceptive in its ease (remember that episode of Father Ted where he tries to fix the dent in the car? It’s like that). Content guidelines are great, but they won’t solve the problem of keeping content at its best. It’s a people problem. It’s precisely because content is iterative that you need a resident gatekeeper. And they kind of have to be badass. It’s a tough job.

  4. Hey Elizabeth,

    I agree with you, it comes down to how seriously a company is taking the web, and I guess how frequently their content changes. Any big news site, or large organisation definitely needs an editor.

    Just to clarify when I said that tinkering with text is easier, I meant that it’s easier to jump into the CMS and change the text (for better or more likely for worse), than it is to change the layout of a page or alter the questions a form asks.

    I can’t wait to see job posting “Badass Editor in Chief needed to be passionate, scary, and willing to do battle with poloneck wearing 8pt font loving lunatics”

  5. Hard one for me Elizabeth. Let me try with something like: “A community manager is a person carrying at the same time the message of an organisation (whatever its size) and ensuring that the voice of the individuals and groups that connect with that organization is heard, in any given online environment/s of both parties’ choice (proprietary and/or a third party one). It’s role only crystalizes when both groups (organization and connective group) start regarding the community manager as a nexus whose existence is of true benefit to the communication and not mere messaging.
    That’s me, I’m sure there are better definition attempts out there, specially trying to merge it with a content strategist role :)

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