What We Talk About When We Talk About Content

May 29, 2019
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“What are you trying to say?”

Reader, this is a question I had in mind during many rounds of revisions. I wanted to talk about how structured data is content, particularly for eCommerce sites. I wanted to talk about headless content management systems (CMS) and how their very nature forces a decoupling of content from presentation and touchpoints. I wanted to work in at least one joke about a hot dog being a sandwich (spoiler alert: it isn’t.).

But ultimately, none of those things are what I need to say. Content strategy is something that you need to address early in a project, because it directly impacts the experience and implementation.

During the course of my career working with clients in many different industries, I’ve seen content pushed farther and farther into a project plan until it was too late, leading to delays and trepidation. On the other hand, when I’ve been involved in projects where we start with content, they’ve been very different. 

When we talk about content at the kickoff in detail, we ask questions and work through an inventory and audit of an organization’s content. We have a good sense of what we’re saying in place before we make a single wireframe or comp. And while no project is 104% perfect, I need to tell you that those projects went better than if the content hadn’t been factored in from the beginning (common questions around content came up during design reviews, for instance, and all of them could be answered. That’s an amazing thing!).

I also need to say that content drives the overall experience. No matter how much time you invest in choosing a robust platform, creating a sharp user flow, or establishing brand guidelines, all of it will have limited success – all of it – if your content doesn’t support your users and your business. After all, when we’re shopping in an app, researching the history of avocado toast, or browsing Craigslist, the UX and UI are instrumental to connecting us to what we need to do, but the content is why we’re there in the first place.

One more thing I certainly need to tell you is that the whole idea of thinking in well-structured, well-maintained content edges a bit toward being future proof. Consider this: when your organization stood up a mobile website, and then later a mobile app, how much of that copy was rewritten, how much photography was recommissioned, and how many articles needed to be reworked because they were full of thorny HTML? Now consider how much rework might be necessary for voice interfaces. Then consider how much rework might be necessary for the inevitable Google contact lenses, or direct-to-brain interfaces, or Borg biological implants. If you treat content as a distinct, interrelated, and important thing and address it properly, you’ll be better prepared for everything and anything that might arise (although the Borg is arguably more about the UI, but, I digress.).

There’s another thing I need to say: focusing on content first, before touchpoints are designed, sets you up really well for personalization. Today you might have an About page that speaks to students, physicians, employees, engineers, IT, and customers the exact same way. Informed by user research and audience definition, a well-structured and decoupled approach to content gives you a larger palette to work with: a single About page that is still on-brand but pulls out what matters most to different people. 

Those are exciting possibilities, and without a reasoned approach to content, it’s really difficult to achieve them — which is to say that you should absolutely be thinking about content first.