Content Strategy for Humans

Sometimes I get so stressed trying to keep up with the latest tactics and tools that I lose sight of the very human core of web content work. Ultimately, everything we do is about helping people create and receive useful content, from SEO to writing to governance. So if you adopt the people-first mindset, you’ll likely create models, strategies, and systems that work for your teammates, help your clients, and deliver great content to your users.

Brand tools built for people

I've seen myriad charts and graphics designed to help people communicate their brand. Message maps, identity prisms, and personality guides sit beautifully in pdfs or on internal websites waiting for writers and marketers to decipher their logic and bring content to life.

But there isn’t a right way to build these models, and some models just might not work for your people. What’s most important is that you have something your team actually uses that brings real substance to their writing. Maybe your message map isn’t doing the job, even if it’s what your branding firm delivered. Don't be afraid to repackage it and create something new.

Also, make sure it's super accessible. I have a hard time referencing style or message guidelines buried in a pdf. Maybe it's just me? Instead, I'd grab that info and put together a slim website, whittle the core down to one easy page, or make an engaging poster to tack above my desk. Poll your people. See what they use, what they don't, and how you can make your brand tools better.

Structures that make your team successful

Content models and structures simply help you reuse content and create information patterns for people. They give your writers and contributors guidelines and frameworks for content development. They help your web administrators load information quickly with minimal error. They allow you to contain data within defined slots and tag it with context so it can zip seamlessly into the multiple platforms your audiences use. And they deliver a consistent experience for your users.

But again, this is all a human process and there's no right way to do it. How you create and use your content models will look different depending on your context, tools, and people. When you start digging into structures, include the people who will take your ideas and make them a reality. Be sure to ask your team questions like:

How can content structures help our writers produce fantastic stuff?

How can they make loading more seamless?

How do our developers want to receive the requirements and specs?

When should designers get involved?

How do new structures affect what's already happening? What does this change for people?

As content strategists, creative directors, producers, or project managers, it's your job to continually tweak your methods so they help everyone create meaningful content, build useful systems, and make your projects successful.

Style guides geared for non-journalists

Traditional writers love rules. They revel in being expert grammarians and style junkies. But these days, lots of folks contribute content to the web. And most of these authors didn’t read the AP and Chicago style manuals during their undergrad years. Not that they can’t write good stuff, but they didn’t have style pounded into their brains by journalism profs. Or maybe they find conventional style guides cumbersome and complicated.

Your style is only as good as your contributors’ ability to execute it consistently. If your style guide isn’t being followed, rethink how it’s delivered. Create more actual examples of what good writing looks like for your project. Provide guidelines and tips based on specific content types. The more your style guide can match the writing scenarios of your people, the more it will be used.

SEO strategy focused on users

Although the rules for SEO will bend and shift, it never hurts to just plain write for your users instead of worrying so much about the Google machine. People like clear, useful headings because they make content scannable and easy to find. People want a good mobile experience because they need quick, easy access to stuff on their phones. Meaningful links with a strong info scent help people predict what they'll find, and sound descriptions, teasers, and labeling schemes give them even more context. People enjoy useful, delightful content that’s tailored to their needs and interests. From a content perspective, this is all SEO.

Google is trying it’s darndest to deliver the most relevant results to real, everyday people. So if you also coach your people to work their tails off to provide meaningful content, understand their audience, and follow some basic best practices, you’re likely going to do a fine job.

People coordination grounded in reality

New apps pop up every day that promise seamless communication, easy tracking, and met deadlines. But those who work in the belly of the system won't be fooled. We know that even the most easy-to-use software doesn’t necessarily keep a very human process running smoothly. It can certainly help, but no guarantees.

It’s important for web content people to understand a few good coordination apps, what they do best, and how they might work/not work in your context. Because each platform addresses a different need, I wouldn’t shy away from using multiple tools. Maybe you need Slack for real-time communication or GitHub for tracking bugs and enhancements while you're building something new. Don’t be afraid to test out an app on an isolated project and trash it if it doesn’t work.

But if you use multiple tools, make sure your team is on board. Help them understand why you want to use the tools and give them time to get comfortable. Don’t expect everyone to respond the same to new systems. It’s proven that those of us over 30 can’t intuitively navigate SnapChat. So some technologies just might not go over. What’s most important is that you have mechanisms for people to:

  • Track requirements and progress
  • Report issues or concerns
  • Interact with clients (be they internal or external)
  • Pass stuff for review and approval
  • Communicate in real time so you can problem solve together

In the frenzy of web gizmos and chachkies, don’t forget the power of face-to-face convos and standing meetings. And you can still do a heck of a lot with an old-fashioned spreadsheet.

Governance for the masses

Policies and procedures are all about people, but on a larger, less-personalized scale. They’re about finding ways to control the mob, bring people onto the common bandwagon, and herd wandering cats.

I have a lot of experience enforcing web policies, and I know it’s a drag to always says no, require training, or deny approvals until folks align with the standards. It can tick people off and cause tension. But at the end of the day, the pain of a few frustrated people is worth it if your policies help the collective maintain clean architecture, clear file naming schemes, and, ultimately, systems that operate smoothly for hundreds of people.

If you're hearing too many complaints or your leadership is concerned, that’s an indicator you should ask questions and get feedback. Maybe your team needs to communicate more often and get more buy-in. Maybe your process is confusing or cumbersome. Maybe a policy puts a real road block in the way of someone trying to carry out their core job duties. Don’t throw away governance when people get upset. But don't dig your spurs too deep either. Instead, use mass frustration as an opportunity to refine and improve.

But who are the right people?

Throughout this whole article, I've been advocating for content strategists to create tools, models, and systems that work for the humans that will use them. But sometimes the harsh truth is you don't have the right people. All of the feedback you get from writers, contributors, developers, clients, SEO experts, architects, marketers, and designers goes through your expert filter. Ultimately, you decide the right approach based on their needs and the project goals. And if you've set up a reasonable process that isn't working for someone, it's fair to evaluate if you have the right person.

If you don't have control over your human resources, you'll have to do your best to fit the process to the people. But if you help determine who's on first, sometimes you have to make the tough decision to rework team structure, make a new hire, or help someone transition out. It's not a bag of fun, but it's the challenging reality of being a leader and strategist.

Adopting the people mindset

What gnarly content task are you wrangling today? How can you think about the right people so your plans succeed? Because if your strategy works for the real humans who implement it and interact with the results, it doesn’t matter if your flow chart isn’t perfectly dazzling or you can’t afford a trendy techno tool. People have been organizing and delivering information for ages. So know that you got this and keep on doing great work for the people.