Demonstrating Content Strategy: Goodness from the Oven?

In today’s conversation on the Content Strategy maillist, we’re once again struggling with how to show people “what content strategy looks like.” Of course we’re struggling! “Strategy” represents your whole approach—your planning, your understanding, your vision. “Strategy” is about your ideas, your insight into your audiences, and your sense of how best to reach them. “Strategy” is the lovely aroma from the oven when you’ve baked a loaf of bread—and not just any loaf, but the loaf that draws on years of experience and passion for baking.

Strategy: Just do this…

I love—LOVE—Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web. Everyone who worries about websites must buy it and read it. It gives the overall shape of the practice and offers nothing but encouragement and insightful advice the whole way through. On the other hand, I think that there will always be two responses from readers, which illuminate the nature of our struggle:

  1. Yes! This is what I’ve been doing—now I understand it better, and I can do it better. Thank you!!!
  2. Wait! You haven’t told me anything! How do I do that…?

Even when beautifully articulated, content strategy can come across like this:

Master Strategist (from the podium): “Content Strategy begins with understanding your goals and your audiences’ goals and preferences. Then you figure out what content will meet both sets of goals, and you plan how you’re going to create it. And oh yeah, don’t forget how you work out how you’re going to oversee and maintain it.”

Novice Strategist (blank look): “Right. Well, I’ll try that, then…”

Master (click, click, click…):  “Here…Let me show you some really good/bad websites, and we can talk about the good/bad content strategies underlying them.”

Novice (squinting at the screen): “Yes…but what does the strategy actually look like?”

Master (distributing handouts): “Ah, well let me show you these sample deliverables that document the strategies.”

Novice (passing them along): “But how did you come up with these? Are there templates?”

Master (nodding hesitantly): “Well, yes, but you have to adapt them to your own situation.”

Novice (hopefully): “Maybe if I could just see it in action. Are there case studies?”

Master (apologetically): “Yes, but not many: We’re working on pulling them together from other practitioners around the world. I included one in the handouts…”

Novice (reading): “Yes, I see…but my world isn’t really like that…”

Master (glancing helplessly back at the screen): “Well, really, all content strategy is the same: You just understand your goals and your audiences’ goals and preferences, and then you figure out what content will meet both. Then you plan how you’re going to create it, and oh yeah, then finally how you’re going to maintain it.”

Novice (in despair): “OK. I’ll try that, then…”

I mean absolutely no criticism of any content strategist who tries to explain what we do: I think this is just the way it goes when you try to explain something new to someone who’s never encountered it before. We talk with one another, and we nod in recognition: So why the blank looks and frustration when we try to tell others?

Doing and Being: Craft and Art

Content Strategy, like any field of endeavor, has two aspects: Craft and Art. In that order. For a reason. (Homage to Ian Alexander of Eat Media <g>)

Craft is about the doing of something: Skills, tools, techniques, artifacts, and expertise. The Craft is easy to watch, its results are easy to see, and its techniques are usually straightforward to demonstrate. That’s why we tend to demonstrate Craft first when people ask about the Art. We show the deliverables, give examples of good and bad, and tell stories.

Art, on the other hand, is about the being of something: Perspective, wisdom, creativity, perseverance, and experience. You can feel the power of the Art emanating from the artifact, and you can recognize the authentic wisdom in the artist, but that’s as close to it as you can get.

So when people read an excellent book on content strategy, those who have enough experience in the craft—those who have already been doing it—recognize what they already know: “Yes, of course!” And those who haven’t really started, don’t recognize it: “No, you haven’t told me anything!” The answer is dissatisfying because the more they understand what it is, the more clearly they see how complex it is and how much practice it really takes to do it well.

It is but a glimpse…

By all means, we who are doing content strategy should compile our deliverables and case studies for the benefit of those who want to learn, and we should tell our stories about what we do to anyone who will listen, but we must also acknowledge that as “artists” in our field, there is no way to convey all at once what we have spent our careers compiling.

And one more thing: We must not suggest to anyone that what we do is either easy or straightforward. Saying that only makes newcomers feel like they can never be successful. I know when experts say something is easy, they mean to be encouraging, but for the novice, it generally has the opposite effect. We just have to own up the fact: Content Strategy takes as much time to learn as any other discipline worthy of our effort. It can be learned, and there are tools to help, but it does take significant practice and support from mentors. So dive in! You can do it! It will just take a little while to find your way, and we’re all here to help!

One single comment

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Madsen, Seth Grimes, Melanie Seibert, Lise Janody and others. Lise Janody said: I was in the 'yes, of course!' camp: Smart observations on #contentstrategy by @RSGracey http://bit.ly/dSiXTo [...]

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