Content strategy is one of the hot buzzwords in the web design world today. The main force behind all the attention content strategy is getting is simply how badly it is needed—so many sites have big problems with their content. After years of focusing on design, it is finally dawning on everyone that the design exists to serve the content, and that content needs to be more than an afterthought if you're going to build an effective site.
The explosion of interest in content strategy is also due, in no small part, to the efforts of Kristina Halvorson, whose landmark 2009 book Content Strategy for the Web is the most widely read book in the field. Her company, Brain Traffic, was one of the first to focus on content strategy work.
We caught up with Kristina after her talk at An Event Apart and recorded this interview. Although her work, and much of her book, focuses on the issues that face large-company sites, in this interview we discussed how freelance developers and small design shops can apply content strategy principles to small and midsize business sites.
Kristina also created a content strategy conference, Confab: The Content Strategy Conference, which will be held May 9-11, 2011 in Minneapolis. As an indication of the high interest in content strategy, the conference is already sold out, but you can join the waiting list.
You can follow Kristina on Twitter as @halvorson.
Michael: I’m Michael Slater from Webvanta and we are here interviewing a few people from An Event Apart to share some of the knowledge. Could you introduce yourself?
Michael: A landmark book, I must say.
Kristina: Thank you!
Michael: It gets pointed to all the time. How did you come to your focus on content strategy?
Kristina: I started out as a copywriter, and I started specializing in websites probably in 2003 or 2004. Content was always the last thing people would think about. I was always the last person they would call and every time I would go in ready to write there would be a million unanswered questions. Inevitably, I would go in and do my best work but there were too many obstacles in my way. So I sort of backed into content strategy in that I just became very persistent in asking a lot of questions, and the agencies I was working with would call me early next time.
Michael: It seems there is so much design focus on the web, but ultimately that design is there to present the content.
Kristina: Yes, sir! I’m a fan of that.
Michael: In a lot of what you talk about it sounds a lot like enterprise-level stuff, bigger companies, bigger budgets, bigger websites. We work with a lot with freelance designers and small design shops that are working on, you know, $5,000 websites for some small business. How do you apply this to that kind of project?
Kristina: Content strategy is about asking, at the heart of it, smart questions about the content very early in the process and being persistent about it. There is a lot of fancy documentation that goes along with any process. For a designer, or someone who is doing all the planning, project management, the design, the code, all of it, I think the most important thing you can do is making sure you are asking tough questions about the content within that first kick-off meeting. Not just, “Will you be providing the content?” “Yes, I’ll have the content ready for you,” because that never happens, it never works.
Who is going to be providing the content? How long does it typically take to get the content? Who owns the content on your website right now? Do you have any plans to take care of that content after you launch the website? What does that look like? Really, really digging in. Otherwise, what happens is it comes time to launch, or the client is pushing to launch, and they say, “oh, we’ll just go with the copy we have.”
Help the client understand that it’s not just about writing a little bit of copy, especially writing your own copy for your own website. If you are an independent proprietor, or a very small company, for whatever reason that tends to be much more emotional because your small company is your baby. You want to be sure that what you say about it is exactly right. So it becomes a time management issue more than anything, I think.
Michael: What level of projects does Brain Traffic typical work on? What’s the smallest sort of site you get involved in?
Kristina: It has shifted quite radically over the past 18 months since the book came out, and larger organizations started talking about content strategy really for the first time. We work almost solely now with larger enterprises. We aren’t doing enterprise strategy per say but we are working with smaller departments within them, on their specific web properties. We do have a couple of global initiatives that we are doing, and that has been really fun growing into those. But you know, I cut my teeth, and we cut our teeth as a firm, writing for small websites. So I know the challenges and the obstacles and the complexities are different, but they exist for content whether your site is 12 pages or 12,000.
Michael: Do you find that site owners typically get this now, or is it still a hard sell getting site owners to focus on the content?
Kristina: We are in a little bit of an unusual position in that when people call us now, they call us for content or content strategy. I think that agencies are still struggling with that, even when clients call them and say “We need a new website” or “We need a website redesign and we definitely want you to provide some of the content strategy.” What they really want are content deliverables, and not so much the strategic thinking. So that I think is still a challenge. I don’t think people understand that the entire point is not jumping to tactics. The entire point is to just think about content as an entirety that involves both product and people.
Michael: Do you deal with SEO? It seems like there is a lot of content marketing going on these days where people are just having content on their sites to draw traffic. So I assume you work with people initially about what the goal of the content on the site is? Is it about drawing traffic, or converting visitors into customers?
Kristina: We try to take even a step back from that and say, “What are your business objectives? Those need to be informing your web strategy. And the content you choose, the decisions you make about your content, that core content strategy really needs to be supported by your business strategy. I think that having a desire to attract traffic, that’s not enough, and that is going to result in content for the sake of content.
I understand the content marketing movement. Joe Pulizzi, who is sort of the godfather of content marketing, and I have been speaking to one another for years about that. He’s actually speaking at Confab, our content strategy conference, and I will be speaking at his Content Marketing World in September.
My concern is that, as with SEO, as with blogs when they came out, as with social media, that marketers in particular are going to say, “Yes! This is the next silver bullet. This is the trend that I need to focus on. I just need to go get content.” And that’s going to backfire. A, because you can’t just go get content. You can’t just pull it off a shelf in a warehouse. B, because I think actually delivering quality content to become a real resource, a real expert, which is what the content marketing movement is all about, requires an enormous amount of time. It requires a totally different skill set that a lot of entrepreneurs and small businesses maybe don’t have within their four walls.
So I think it’s a good thing to be paying attention to the power and value of content, but I think we are going to see a lot of organizations see it backfire because they take it on as a larger initiative without really understanding the level of commitment that they are taking on.
Michael: This latest Google search change seems like it’s backfiring on people now.
Kristina: Yes! That’s what I asked for for Christmas. So I’m delighted to see that.
Michael: Great, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Kristina: Sure, absolutely!