Time to Revisit Your Content Strategy?

by Alan Eggleston

Happy New Year! The change in calendar year is often the trigger to revisit your content calendar and your whole content strategy. If January or February is a down time in your organization, this is a perfect time to do one.

Does your current content work?

Photo by Victor1558 by Creative Commons license.

Photo by Victor1558 with Creative Commons license.

Many web editors often do a sweep of their content at this time and decide any big changes. This may happen at other times of the year or more often than once a year, such as at change in fiscal calendar or concurrent with annual share holder meetings, but often New Years is a convenient trigger. Maybe now is when you decide when that time should be and plan for it.

A more useful strategy is to revisit your analytics at least quarterly and adjust your content strategy based on site performance. Online publishing is amazing for its quick turnaround –  make that work for you.

What does your data tell you?

A deciding factor for changes in content direction is website performance. Take a look at analytics and decide what your stats are telling you – is your current content working and thus worth continuing, or do the numbers tell you that readers want something different? Are visits down or perhaps never really up in the first place? Do visitors stick around or do they come in and get out quickly? Do they visit a lot of pages per visit or do they hit where they enter and leave? Do they arrive at the home page or come in to the site in-depth? Where do searches bring visitors and what do they do when they arrive? Are purchases up? Have you experienced growth in any of those numbers? Analytics can provide you with a ton of great strategic information.

What is your search performance?

Another decision, and one where many web editors historically have been weak, is about search performance. How does your site do in a search? How many of your visits are from searches and how many from people who simply know how to find you? What search terms are they using, and are they the search terms you were expecting (and upon which you base your optimization strategy)? Which search engines are driving the most traffic to you? How many come to you by outside links or by social media and what does that say about your link and social media strategies? What is your search strategy and is it working (do a search audit to find out), or should you rethink that as well? If you don’t have a search strategy – a strategy to improve how your site is found in a search – now is the time to start working on one.

Search performance is often tied to search engine policy. Have you read and followed search engine guidelines or are you unwittingly running afoul of their rules and being punished for it?

What are the search engines telling you?

If there’s any possibility your site isn’t performing well in a search – and, thus, not driving traffic to you – it is worth your time and energy to register for and use search engine webmaster tools. First determine which search engines are driving the most traffic to your site. It may not be Google like you think. However, Google in particular will provide you a lot of feedback if your site is doing something wrong – if they can’t index your pages, for instance; if you have troublesome links; if you aren’t measuring up to their standards. And Google will often suggest changes to help you meet their needs and allow you to resubmit your site for indexing (a “reconsideration request“). If they’re penalizing you, finding out why and doing something about it is a great benefit. Explore the other search engine webmaster tool sites to see what they can tell you and help you fix if they are key to your search strategy.

Google introduced major changes to its algorithm the past couple of years that may have affected your search performance. Are you aware of them and how running afoul of them could affect your site performance?

  • Google Panda* – filtered for poor quality content such as unreasonable duplicate content.
  • Google Hummingbird – entirely rethinks search to add nuance, handle questions, and adjust for mobile search.

*Panda and Penguin were folded into Hummingbird.

Panda could affect your search performance if you run a lot of duplicate content or if your content is of little value in Google’s eyes. Google is OK with duplicate content for globalized sites where different versions of a site contain regionalized versions of the same content. But to aid sites, they introduced the “canonical tag” for URLs to distinguish original content.

Penguin could affect your search performance if your content contains low quality links, including link farms or doorway pages and spammy content and links in your comments sections, such as in blogs or news sections.

If any of these algorithms may have dampened your search performance, now is a good time to rethink how to revise your content to remove the penalties. For instance:

  • More actively administer blog comments to eliminate comment spam, which is rampant.
  • Recode content to add the canonical tag for original content.
  • Make sure writers create only original content and that editors filter for duplicate content (run a search on segments of content to look for duplicates).
  • Eliminate gratuitous link trading and external links that don’t make sense for your content.
  • Revise major current content to build more nuance to improve search performance.
  • Strategize how to build nuance into your new pages to improve search performance.
  • Ensure your site is designed to handle mobile, which Google has also said is now important.

Growth is about improving the search

Today, content is about more than providing interesting text on a page for readers. It’s also about how you attract readers to your page and sustain readership. It’s as much about how you build the page and work with search engines as it is about publishing itself. As you rethink your content calendar – now, at New Years, or at any other time of the year – think about how you bring the reader to you.

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Content Strategy for Higher Ed: Tips from Confab

by Rebecca Del Giudice

On November 11-12, 2013, Confab: Higher Ed took place in Atlanta. This was the first time that Confab, a content strategy conference founded by well-known content strategy expert Kristina Halvorson, held a session focused on a particular industry.

While I did not attend Confab, I did sit in on a great recap session put together by the folks at Meet Content, a web firm that specializes in content strategy for higher education. At the recap session, some of the people who had presented at the conference shared summaries of their own talks and what they had heard from others. There were also several people who had attended the conference and gave their views on the most important takeaways.

As someone who provides content strategy and editorial support to higher education clients (among others), I found the session very helpful. Here are five themes that emerged:

Empathy: One of the big themes of the conference, and one that every editor can relate to, was empathy. As Lisa Maria Martin, User Experience & Information Architecture Specialist at The George Washington University, said in her talk, “People make content. And people have feelings.”

The theme of empathy resonated with many of the recappers. Empathy means understanding your audience’s needs, and it also means finding ways to work with your content owners (in the case of higher ed, this could be everyone from the dean’s office and alumni relations to faculty and students, etc.) Sometimes in our day-to-day struggles with making and maintaining great web experiences, we forget to look at our work from others’ point of view. That could mean remembering to value your business partners (who may not understand what you do, but who contribute institutional and academic knowledge). Or it might mean taking a step back and thinking about how your latest web page or social media post looks to students, and whether or not it is meeting their needs. Staying in our silos with our blinders on does not allow us to grow and to help our audience get the information they need in the best possible ways.

The mobile mandate: Many of the recappers, especially Jenny MacIntosh of Boston University,  talked about the impact of Karen McGrane’s talk. McGrane, the author of an influential book on mobile content strategy, mentioned some striking statistics from the Pew Internet survey:

  • 35% of Americans still have no internet access at home
  • 20% of Americans have no internet access at all
  • 91% of Americans have a cellphone, and
  • 63% of Americans are using a smartphone

What does this mean for editors? It means we must champion mobile. The fact that a significant percentage of Americans, including prospective students, can only access our content via their phones, provides a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that our websites are easy to view and engage with on mobile.

Reuse and transmedia storytelling: The concept of COPE (create once, publish everywhere) resonated with Confab attendees. It is more important than ever in this era of shrinking budgets and understaffed departments to leverage content in as many ways as possible. But with this idea comes the equally critical idea that you should be prepared to meet your audience where they are. This means determining what stories you want to tell and making sure those stories can be told across multiple channels, not just where your university is comfortable or has an existing presence. One example came from Ma’ayan Plaut from Oberlin College. In her Confab talk, she mentioned that in one case she had posted an event to Buzzfeed instead of to Oberlin’s social media accounts, because she knew that was where her target audience was. 

The idea of transmedia storytelling takes COPE a step farther. It asks you to leverage the same story on different platforms, but also to take into account that you may tell different parts of the same story and the platform determines what you highlight. For example, you might have created a series of alumni profiles that includes interactive video, still photos, and text with pull quotes. You may decide to pin the pull quotes on Pinterest, post the still photos to Instagram, and highlight the interactive videos on Vine, and you might put all of the content on your website. For each channel, take into account how your audience engages with you and what parts of the story will resonate the most.

Speak in a language your audience understands. This one is near and dear to most editors, and in higher ed it’s no different. We struggle with overly wordy, non-web friendly text that our colleagues want to post on the website. Remember the empathy theme and look for ways to help your colleagues understand why it’s important to use clear, easy-to-understand language and avoid jargon. Jargon will turn off prospective students, alumni, and others who visit your site. Jargon is another example of lack of empathy, because it is as if you don’t care that your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying. One recapper recalled a great suggestion: look through your analytics and search logs to see what terms site visitors are using. Do those terms match up with the vocabulary you’re using on your website?

Make students the hero of your content. As an editor in higher ed, you should ensure that the content you review puts the spotlight on students, not the college, whenever possible. There is a natural tendency to make the university the hero in an effort to promote your school to outsiders. But showcasing your amazing students is the right way not only to support their achievements, but also to show how much students can thrive at your institution.

For more on the Confab Higher Ed event, check out Meet Content’s recaps and the Confab site.

“Content Strategy for the Web” – Key Points

by Alison Lueders, Great Green Editing

My summer reading tends toward mysteries – Dan Brown’s “Inferno” – that sort of thing, But this month I read Kristina Halvorson’s “Content Strategy for the Web.” Ideally web editing occurs within the context of a content strategy. Here are some key points to ponder while you sip that cool lemonade or iced tea.

Some definitions

We don’t create content for its own sake. It usually exists to meet some organizational objective.

According to Halvorson, “Content is what the user came to read, learn, see or experience.” And content strategy does several things:

  • “defines how you are going to use content to meet business objectives
  • guides decisions about content throughout its lifecycle
  • sets benchmarks against which to measure the success of your content”

Content strategy crosses disciplines, including:

  • messaging and branding
  • web writing
  • information architecture
  • SEO
  • metadata strategy
  • content management strategy

Sound complicated? It is, but Halvorson exhorts us to “call it what you want – just get it done.”

Web writing – “a whole lot more than smart copywriting”

Halvorson describes web writing as “the practice of writing useful, usable content specifically intended for delivery online. This is a whole lot more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must:

  • understand the basics of usability design
  • be able to translate information architecture documents
  • write effective metadata
  • manage an ever-changing content inventory”

I hadn’t seen this distinction expressed quite like this, but I found it helpful.

Developing a content strategy

The book describes the steps involved in developing a content strategy. While these can flex significantly in practice, the basics include:

  • stakeholder alignment – getting key people to support your content efforts
  • audit – identifying what content you currently have
  • analysis – understanding the world in which your content lives
  • core strategy – setting the long-term direction for all your content initiatives
  • content – defining the substance, structure, workflow and governance of your content

People

It’s telling that the last 4 chapters of the books discuss “people issues” – from content job descriptions to governance approaches to ways to pitch content efforts to upper management.

In my experience, it’s not developing the content or implementing the technology that’s the biggest challenge. It’s managing the people issues.

Adaptive content – what does it mean for web editing?

In discussing the future of content, the book makes the point that “we need to start thinking about content as something that lives beyond a particular publishing platform.” So true. As web editors, is our work really confined to one platform? Or is our focus increasingly on content, regardless of form?

Bottom line: The book sums up the importance of content this way: “Better content means better business.” I really believe that. The book does a great job of explaining why this “no-brainer” idea is both important to understand – and really hard to do right.

What books about web writing and related topics do you read? Share your favorites here!

Content Strategy for Web Editors

By Jennifer Ford

I believe content strategy is something web editors should understand and incorporate into daily practice. But I am no content strategy expert, so I invited a friend and long-time content strategist to answer a few questions. Monica Hays has been a web content strategy professional for 6 years and shares some information here you won’t want to miss.

1. What is content strategy? 

Such a simple question and if you ask 100 people, you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Here’s my stab at it.

Content strategy is the planning, implementation, and maintenance of a successful experience for the end user using words.

Using words? Sounds pretty basic. But at a base level, a successful user experience is comprehension. Did the user accomplish what she wanted from your site? Were you able to get across your business goals to the end user? A content strategist looks to achieve goals for both the end user and the business using words.

2. Who uses it?

We all use it. But before I invoke the ire of content strategists everywhere, let me explain: in planning for a site, app, process, or anything that will be consumed by your user, there are three equally important elements that work together. The content strategy, information architecture, and design. In my organization, we’re fortunate enough to have individuals working in these three roles. In our planning sessions, the information architect will chime in on how she thinks something should be written, the designer will chime in with how the page should be organized, and I will chime in with how I think something should look. But ultimately, we each have our disciplines in which we focus and are responsible. The content strategist (and subsequently the editor) is the decision maker when it comes to how we speak to our end user.

3. How do you use it in your current role?

I work for a relatively large organization where I’m able to focus on the words and their presentation. This entails visioning with the information architect, designer, subject matter experts, business managers, etc. In this planning process, we research what the client wants and how we are uniquely capable of delivering it. Then we devise how we want to present this to the user. My job is to write to this, marrying the clients needs with business objectives.

But it doesn’t end there. I work with the development teams using a content management system. I adhere to style guides and follow brand standards. I govern and maintain this content through elevation and into post-production. In my world, all of these elements run concurrently which leads to additional challenges (cough, agile methodology, cough), but that’s another topic for another day.

I must admit that I’m lucky to have all of these roles in place. So many of my colleagues and respected leaders in the CS community are freelancers, consultants, or they are simply the only person on the team wearing the UX hat. But when it comes to content strategy, the goal is the same: to help the user achieve success using content that is clear and concise. (For more info about what “clear and concise content” actually means, please see question 4.)

4. How can web editors incorporate content strategy into their work with managing website content?

This is a really great question. Editors are integral to a successful content strategy. While I may write the content and figure out the best way to speak to users, I’ve had the benefit of countless hours of research with subject matter experts and planning with IAs and designers. Editors are often brought in near the end of the project cycle and as such will have no effect on changing the organization, look, or feel of the page or flow. The editor is then limited to moving around words on a page or even worse, be relegated to simply proofreading for grammar and misspellings. (Not that this is bad per se, but the editors I know generally enjoy flexing their red pens in a more meaningful manner.)

Join your writer or content strategist often and early in visioning and development. Ask questions. Learn the goals of the project. The biggest challenge I face (and probably to the frustration of my editor) is that I’ll send my copy for review but then I’ll need to disregard suggestions because they just don’t align with the project. Perhaps the changes don’t mesh with how we want to speak to the user. Or even worse, the edits just won’t work in the space given.

These suggestions are definitely perfect world scenarios. Where there are writers, there are even fewer editors. But I think being engaged with the different elements of the project will provide a broader understanding and will only make the edits more meaningful to produce a winning content strategy.

5. Can you recommend resources you find helpful for learning more about content strategy?

Join your local content strategy Meetup group! In Philadelphia, we generally try to meet once a month where we’ll have cool speakers, fun workshops, or just a happy hour for mingling and networking (http://www.meetup.com/Philly-Content-Strategy/).

Read the CS bibles. Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern (@gerrymcgovern), Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson (@halvorson), and The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane (@kissane).  I’m also really looking forward to Karen McGrane’s (@karenmcgrane) book, Content Strategy for Mobile.

Follow peers in the industry. I love the Brain Traffic blog, and I read a ton of great articles linked from super smarties I follow on Twitter (@abookapart, @GeraldGant, @angelacolter, @ahaval, @hejhejnatalya, @rahelabto name a VERY small few).

_________________

Monica Hays is a content strategist for an investment firm, where she plays with words and fights against excessive ellipses. Follow her at @SuprMonica.

I’d love to hear from you if you’re a web editor and a content strategist in one. Share your experiences below!

More on Quality Content

by Alison Lueders

Last month, I enjoyed Gazalla Gaya’s post listing 4 keys to quality content:

  • Original
  • Well-written
  • Simple to understand
  • Educational

It’s a short, memorable list that’s easy to use in practice.

As I write for my clients on sustainable business issues, I realize that there are 4 more qualities that I try to incorporate in my content. They are:

  • A positive tone. There are plenty of climate change stories that are full of gloom and doom. They are accurate, but it’s hard to take a steady diet of “hell and high water.” Understanding the facts is essential, even if they are gloomy. But if I must write about gloomy facts, then I go to some trouble to share information about successes and progress being made. There is actually quite a bit of good news, if you look.
  • Action-based information. With green issues in particular, it’s easy to overwhelm people with both the size of the problems and the multitude of possible solutions. No one can put out the Colorado wildfires or stem sea level rise singlehandedly. So I include simple actions that people can take to move in the right direction. The old proverb, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” underlies this approach. People feel better if they know what to do about a situation.
  • More story-telling. In business, there is sometimes a bias towards “just the facts, ma’am” writing, and that’s appropriate in some contexts. As I work with clients, it often makes more sense to tell the stories of their green and sustainable businesses in a less formal way. Well-told stories can grab attention, make a business concept concrete, and win over customers who recognize themselves in the stories of these entrepreneurs.
  • A global view. Sustainability issues affect everyone, whether they know it or not. So I explicitly link local business stories to national and international trends. It broadens people’s perspectives, lets them know they are not alone, and offers valuable information they might otherwise miss in the press of everyday business.

Do these attributes resonate with you? Do you have an explicit content quality checklist to which you adhere?

SEO Shapes the Web. Should It?

For me, two of the most valuable aspects of the web are:

  • how accessible it has made mass communication—bringing it within reach for individuals and small, independent businesses
  • how simple it is for communities to develop around shared interests, no matter how small the niche and regardless of geographic boundaries

These are ideals—the promise of what the web can be and occasionally is.

The Web Now

The reality is that the gems are buried in the avalanche of low-quality, spammy, and boring content—the duds. But why is so much of the web piles of duds and so little of it gems? Can we change the ratio?

Setting aside the obvious types of web duds, the spam-like/scam-like and the anonymous and trollish drivel, I think another big category of dud pages are the marketing-driven “templates,” designed to appeal to the masses.

It recently occurred to me that search and SEO play a role in this deluge of duds because bots can do algorithms really well, and lots of them. So we get huge volumes of pages written to formulas, which is great for marketers. They get a lot of data to measure and “templates” for generating standardized content.

The gems online, however, are usually narrow in focus, addressed to smaller audiences, and focused on quality rather than quantity; they need the right readers more than they need a large number of them.

SEO and Content: Two Takes

A memorable talk I went to a few weeks ago got me thinking about the ways search and SEO influence which WWW we have now (mostly duds) and which one we’ll end up with (mostly gems?). Search, SEO and content strategy were the topics at the talk; the speakers were SEOs and the audience was mainly content strategists. The focus was on bridging these two disciplines, often seen as poles apart on debates such as writing for bots vs. writing for people.

The Traditionalist

The first speaker walked us through how to write with SEO in mind:

  • Write headlines that front-load keywords, that are specific, and that answer readers’ questions.
  • Immediately—in the first line of body copy—deliver on the expectations promised by the headline.
  • Use subheads, also with keywords, and white space to break up walls of copy.
  • Include keywords in the prime real estate: titles, SERP description copy, links, etc.
  • Make sure your CTA is above the fold.
  • In fact, try to get everything above the fold.

All well and good.

The Heretic

The next speaker got up, and right off the bat we knew it would be different.

She complimented the other speaker’s presentation, and then said her take on the topic was completely different. “I’m a heretic,” she said.

The heresy? Write whatever you want, however you want.

  • Write long. People will scroll.
  • Write in your natural voice. Your tribe will find you.
  • Write well, and write for real and living readers. The search bots will catch up; they are already quite savvy and improving at an astonishing pace.

Refreshing, even exciting.

The Web to Come

Until the heretic gave her speech, I hadn’t realized just how uninspiring the traditional methods are. But on further thought, it makes sense that traditional methods will wear thin quickly because those methods are tuned to the ways robots (web crawlers) can quantify what humans read and respond to. It needs to be formulaic, algorithmic, and appeal to the masses—bots can rank those things.

On the other hand, if we can write for people—if the robots are now sophisticated enough to accurately index human writing for other humans who search for it—we may just end up with a web with a lot more gems.

Comments welcome.
@EditorAM

Content: Original or Reused?

by Alison Lueders

One of the bits of advice you often hear is, “offer original content” if you want to draw people to your website. Offer something that they can’t find elsewhere.

This makes sense, but recently my work has included content aggregation – scanning broadly on a subject and filtering down to just a few key bits of information for dissemination – and content condensation – as in, summarizing a 250+ page book into a 10 page summary for a small group. Neither of these resulted in original content, but the value for the respective audiences was substantial.

For as long as I have been in business, people have complained of “information overload”. And it IS a huge challenge. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt noted last year that we now create 5 exabytes of information every 2 days. An exabyte is a 1 with 18 zeroes after it – an incomprehensibly large number. We read about “big data analytics” and “cloud computing” as tools to help manage all this, and I hope they do.

Yet even as our tools get better, there is still value in a human filtering through a subset of information to identify the best, most relevant material for a given client or readership. Tools can’t recognize, serendipitously, when things that might appear to be unrelated could, in fact, be or become related. That’s where creativity, imagination and experience come into play. And that kind of leap is something still beyond the reach of the content aggregation tools that I have seen.

The value of content condensation is more straightforward. It saves time for the reader while still imparting a substantial chunk of the intelligence contained in a full-length book. Something is always lost with condensation, but it can be useful in jump-starting a conversation in class or spurring questions. Time is the resource people lack most, so content condensation, while not sexy, can be quite valuable.

So while I do add original content to the 5-exabytes-every-2-days mountain, I also scan what’s out there and bring the best to the attention of my time-starved customers. They might otherwise miss both relevant and thought-provoking information that can help grow their businesses, or take them in new directions.

As a web editor, what portion of your time do you spend managing original content versus content from secondary sources? Which do your readers value most?