The Scoop on Content Strategy: An Interview with Kristina Halvorson
Published: October 19, 2009
As a participant in the Content Strategy Consortium at the IA Summit 2009, I have enjoyed watching content strategy grow into a user experience discipline. The most recent and significant sign of content strategy’s rise is the release of Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson. Kristina is a renowned content strategist, co-curator of the Content Strategy Consortium, and president of Brain Traffic. I was honored to chat recently with Kristina about her new book.
Tell us, what is content strategy?
Kristina: There are lots of different definitions floating around out there. It was important to me to talk about content strategy in a way that people can understand easily. I define content strategy as planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.
Planning is the key. Planning is about asking the right questions to collect data and information, with the goal of delivering a plan that gets you from where you are now to where you want to be.
Content strategy sounds like a big job. What does each element of planning involve?
Kristina: It’s extraordinarily complicated. There are internal considerations, ranging from what the workflow is to what your businesses goals are to what the Web strategy is. The external considerations are just as complex and include how politics are changing and what competitors are doing. You need to put all of these considerations together into an achievable plan.
Content creation considers how to actually create the content, including editorial strategy, messaging, and more. Delivery focuses on technical and structural aspects such as metadata, content modules, and components. At Brain Traffic, we look for two types of content strategists—those who focus on editorial and messaging and those who focus on information architecture and structure.
Of course, a huge part of content strategy is governance. Without it, the creation and delivery don’t matter. Governance is about measuring results, making iterative changes, creating an editorial calendar in line with what’s happening in the business and in the world, and establishing style guidelines.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a content strategist?
Kristina: In my 20s, I had a lot of silly jobs. I was in cell phone sales and marketing communications when cellular service became a commodity. That experience was like a mini MBA on the ground. From there, I continued in marketing, sales, and public relations communications for software companies. Around 9/11, I lost my job. I decided to go out on my own. My first contract was for a small Web firm. The more I watched what that firm was doing on the Web, the more I realized their text was not effective. I offered to pitch in and solve the problem. I quickly got a lot of experience as a Web writer—usually called in at the eleventh hour. So, I backed into content strategy in an effort to avoid those eleventh-hour calls.
I think many people assume a writer, a magical fairy, or users will take care of content. Why do you think UX professionals should care about it?
Kristina: I speak a lot about this in presentations. I think user experience has overlooked content and mostly treated it as copywriting. If content is bad, it will be embarrassing for everyone involved, but we haven’t treated it as our problem. We assume marketing or technical communications will take care of it. My goal is to have content strategy be a critical component of user experience.
In the book, you suggest rethinking the concept of user experience design. Could you elaborate?
Kristina: User experience is a squishy term. Early in the history of the Web, people recognized its content needed structure, and the concept of information architecture was born. Jesse James Garrett conveyed his conception of user experience eloquently in his influential diagram and description of the elements of user experience. But his diagram mentions content only as content requirements. Even though Garrett did not intend for his diagram to represent a process, I think many people interpreted it that way.
Design also is a tough term. If you ask most people what design is, they say the colors and the visuals. We, as UX professionals, might mean more by the term, but the rest of the world thinks we’re talking about visuals, structure, and maybe flow—not words.
So, I think these things have resulted in what Karen McGrane calls the “unwitting abdication of responsibility” for dealing with content. We need to rethink that.
You note in your book that people view content as a commodity. Why is that? How should people view it?
Kristina: Content is everywhere. It is very easy to publish. There is way more content than we could possibly get our arms around—a million formats delivered in a million channels. It is overwhelming.
Content strategy is not about more content, as Ian Alexander of EatMedia recently posted on Twitter. But there is this misconception we can simply get more content when we need it, as if there is a warehouse of content. That’s because design processes tend to marginalize content creation, making content the last thing a team thinks about on a project. So, people try to get content rather than do the hard work of content strategy.
We need to make the case for content as being more than a commodity. I’m calling all content strategists to think about why content is valuable and critical—and how to articulate it.
How does content strategy fit with other UX processes and disciplines? What can UX professionals do to improve content?
Kristina: The very first time you begin to think about a user experience project, get a content strategist at the table. Make sure you have someone at the very beginning who has a clear eye to useful, usable, persuasive content. That person needs to work alongside the project team during research and discovery, analysis, and design. Content strategy work is complex—just as complicated as other specialties within user experience. That work should happen in parallel, and a content strategist always has an eye on the content.
To learn more about content strategy, check out Kristina’s book Content Strategy for the Web, from New Riders.