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April program report: The Content Strategy Paradox

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Article by Josh Stubbs, Photos by Marika Piehler

Published: May 2012 in Meeting Reviews

Many companies treat content like tissues—use once then toss.

Rahel Baille, a vocal advocate of content strategy, addressed its challenges. Realizing the connection between business communications, technical communication, information architecture, usability, and content and information management enabled her to develop the role of content strategist. However, most companies tackle content strategy from the angle of web design or marketing. Rarely is actual content addressed.

In fact, companies do not agree on what content is. Some think of content as every piece of written material from online help to social media materials. Programmers may think of content as data between tags. To relate, Rahel told of wearing a nerdy T-shirt where the slogan was enclosed in XML tags. Those wandering the conference floor parsed the tags and simply acknowledged “Valid!” Point taken. Content unnoticed.

Cycle v chain
Given that content can have a variety of uses and contexts, it is important that a strategy be in place to measure its full value. Rahel pointed out that many companies treat content like tissues—use once then toss. Proper content management treats content in different ways and uses it several times over. Content management should be thought as more of a cycle than a chain. A system that governs the management of the content through the entire cycle should be repeatable.
Assess and specialize
Since content can be used in so many ways, there can be many specializations. Within content management there is DITA, online help systems, and Rahel likened this to the specializations in medicine. After receiving a basis in medicine, a student may then specialize in plastic surgery, podiatry, or psychiatry. Beyond the general background, there may not be any overlap in what medical specialists offer patients. The common basis shared by content managers should be the ability to recognize good content.
Auditing is not for amateurs
Considering how many ways are available to manage content, it should be assigned to someone with a strong understanding of the goals and strategy for this content. Despite corporate thinking that content management is as simple as training a few employees on CMS software, content management is too complex to leave to amateurs. As Rahel pointed out, these decision-makers haven’t grasped how to use styles in Word.
Since so many options are available an audit would need to be conducted to determine what content is needed. Returning to the medicine comparison, you wouldn’t need to see a plastic surgeon, podiatrist, and psychiatrist for the flu just because those options were available. The audit is also key in defining project deliverables (as deliverables are needed to get paid).

Improving content passionately
Rahel then presented some examples of poor content management from a national air carrier and a public utility, one of which improved after she applied her CM expertise. Good examples of content management included instructional videos, written instruction, and referrals to similar articles and even videos hosted on YouTube. She understood that proper content management was really about serving a customer. Whether designing a system for a home appliance or a public utility, Rahel spoke passionately and engagingly about the need for an overall content strategy. How dedicated is Rahel to all things content? The presentation concluded with image of her licence plate “XML”.

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