March 8, 2011

· Books · Data · IT · Nerdery · Sociology

This morning I listened to an interesting interview on one of Dan Benjamin’s shows. He was talking to Erin Kissane about her new book, The Elements of Content Strategy. Say you are using a website to communicate something to someone, or enable communication between a group of people, or both. The something you are conveying or facilitating is your content. According to Kissane, the job of a “content strategist” is to figure out how best to make sure that content is assembled, presented, and maintained in a way that’s appropriate to its audience.

You might think that the term “Content Strategist” is evidence that the job market in the online sector must be picking up, because as an occupational title it’s got a slight buzzing sound around it. However, Kissane turned out to be a very thoughtful interviewee—one of those rare people who thinks about and then answers the questions they are asked. The book (which I bought and read over lunch: it’s short) is a handbook for this new occupation or, as the author calls it, discipline. Despite a denial at the outset, it’s also implicitly a manifesto for it. Content strategists, she argues, live at the intersection of editing, curation—the dread online phrase of 2010—and marketing. They help you decide who your site is for, and what it’s for, and then develop a framework that lets you choose, care for, and publicize your content. The Elements of Content Strategy is an elegant argument for some principles to bear in mind, and a useful summary of a few heuristics you might use, while executing that task. I could have done with it to back me up at more than one meeting I’ve suffered through on the topic of Redesigning Our Website or Why Don’t We Start A Blog About That, or Perhaps The Twitter Will Excite The Kids, or what have you.

I am not planning to become a Content Strategist myself. What’s interesting to me is the way the book defines one end of a spectrum occupied, way, way on the other end, by Tim Armstrong’s infamous memo, The AOL Way. Think of it as The Elements of Typographic Style vs Comic Sans for Fun and Profit. In Armstrong’s vision, content is a kind of homogenized product much like the cheapest sorts of lunchmeat. It should be extruded and shaped in accordance with the requirements of PV targets, SEO keys, Searchrank projections, and the demands of advertisers.

Kissane is well aware of the tension here, and addresses it directly. Marketing is one of the pillars of content strategy. Even if it pays the bills in the short term, it’s often at odds with the editorial and curatorial instinct:

… imagine going into a museum and trying to walk up to a Matisse, only to run into a glass wall ten feet away from the painting. To get past the wall—which is now frosted so you can’t see the painting at all—you have to write down your full name and address, and then show ID to prove that you are who you say you are. Once you’ve submitted to all this, you discover that the “painting” is only a small print— you have to go into another room full of billboards to see the original. Finally, you reach the painting. … That’s when the circus clowns pop out of the woodwork and start honking little horns and waving signs advertising tooth-whitening products and diet pills. This is content online.

“The fact that anyone reads anything at all online”, she remarks, “is a demonstration of an extraordinary hunger for content”.

In trying to define the occupation of “Content Strategist”, Kissane is also trying to give it a quasi-professional character. (Again, she routinely uses the word “discipline” to describe what she’s doing.) She wants—and many people like her want—to push toward a world where companies large and small will feel they need to hire someone good to think about this stuff, and she wants that someone to have a professional ethic of excellence and responsibility to back them up. That sort of ethic helps a lot when you have to tell someone higher up the ladder that their plan for monetizing this or that content is a stupid idea. The difficulty is that the bit about the connection between quality and success needs to be true in order for the case to be compelling. She asserts that it is:

Content is appropriate for your business when it helps you accomplish your business goals in a sustainable way … Fundamentally, though, “right for the business” and “right for the user” are the same thing. Without readers, viewers, and listeners, all content is meaningless, and content created without consideration for users’ needs harms publishers because ignored users leave. This principle boils down to enlightened self interest: that which hurts your users hurts you.

It ought to be true that good content strategy—editing, curation, marketing—will sell itself, making it in the interest of stakeholders to be aware of this fact. On the other hand, here we are in 2011. “User-centered” content is still rare, AOL lurches on zombie-like, Yahoo have killed or incapacitated almost every good thing about the Web 2.0 era that they managed to purchase, and Google recently rejigged its search algorithm in an effort to pump away the slurry produced by so-called “content farms”. It’s not at all clear that quality is its own best sales pitch.

A substantial portion of my job involves sitting around reading (or not reading) things, often online, so I hope Kissane is right in the long run. Her compact, lucid handbook is a strong advertisement for Doing Things Properly. The occupation she is defining is in its early days. Toward the end she remarks that a lot of the people doing what she does “mostly wandered in from one related field or another, found ourselves unable to stop fiddling with bad content, and decided to stick around and try to make things better”. As occupational pioneers like her work to institutionalize their niche, I wonder whether the job title will take hold in direct proportion to how much its professional ethos is bled out by the exigencies of short-run demands to show results, on the one hand, or long-run lack of vision about what’s possible, on the other.

In the meantime, the next time you’re stuck in an administrative meeting of the Garbage Can variety, and the Solution in Search of a Problem is the Department’s website, or the Lab’s blog, or the Grad Program’s twitter feed, consider having Chapter One of The Elements of Content Strategy on hand. It’ll help you out.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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