Three things we must stop putting before content

This blog post is written by Tracy Playle, CEO and Chief Content Strategist, Pickle Jar Communications & Founder of ContentEd (@tracyplayle)

There’s no right or wrong order for designing and implementing a content strategy. Some prefer a project-style sequential approach, while others prefer something more iterative, like Richard’s agile approach at the University of Bath. Personally, I prefer a blend of the two.

But while I say that there is no “wrong order” for content strategy, there are a few things that I consistently see organisations and agencies putting before content and content strategy. Almost always this is to the detriment of their approach and organisation, and to the detriment of the user experience.

So, here are three things that I insist (yes, insist) that we stop putting before thinking about content.


1. Your Content Management System (CMS)

“We need to get our new CMS in place before we’ll work on our content strategy.”

“We need to see what our CMS is capable of before we think about content.”

Nothing makes my blood boil more than these phrases (well, okay, maybe politics and social injustice… but this is up there with them).

Imagine this scenario… You want to buy a new car. Before you make that decision about buying a new car, you go to your local service shop (mechanic) and check out what tools they have in their workshop and what computer systems they can connect to in modern cars. You sign up to a three-year service package and then you make your decision about which car you’re going to buy based on the makes and models that they can service.

Insane, right? You buy whatever damn car you want (yeah, I know, and can afford) and then find the right people with the right tools to service it and keep that beauty motoring on and taking you places.

Letting your current CMS capability or CMS procurement process guide or determine your approach to content is pretty much the same thing as a driver purchasing a car based on the capabilities of the service shop.

By putting content strategy and planning before CMS procurement or capabilities, you do the following:

  • Set the requirements and capabilities that you need your CMS to have based around what you actually need it to do to in support of your content. This puts you in control of content decisions, not the CMS vendors
  • Challenge and offer a roadmap to vendors for developments and upgrades to existing systems. In other words, telling them how you – the customer – need their product to evolve. If we just develop our content and content strategies according to what our CMS can currently do, then nobody is developing and improving. Vendors need that input from you. The good ones will embrace that level of drive and involvement in their product development roadmap
  • Develop an unrestricted roadmap for yourself, thereby giving your content strategy longevity beyond what existing technologies can support. It empowers you to control and imagine the future of content management, not the CMS vendors.


2. Visual design and layout

I bet you’re surprised this one wasn’t first, right? Isn’t this the one that many (good) content strategists bang on about?

“We need to some design work first and then we’ll plug our content into that.”

New analogy. You hire an interior designer to reconfigure your living room. At the moment you never watch television (at all) you don’t even own one or want one, and all of your music is digitised. But the designer goes right ahead and puts a lovely flat-screen TV above the mantel and two hand-crafted CD towers either side of the chimney breast. Looks lovely.

And so, off you trot, to buy a load of CDs to fill those towers with, and suddenly you start watching re-runs of Friends just because you have that TV.

The interior designer (perhaps poorly briefed by you because they didn’t know your content needs), has created a space where design determines content. Content that you didn’t need and didn’t want.

Perhaps an extreme analogy, but that’s the position that we find ourselves in when design leads content. It might look pretty, but it’s not serving anyone’s needs other than the designer’s ego.

By putting content strategy and planning before design, you do the following:

  • Create clear requirements and priorities for space, layout and messaging that visual design can then support
  • Give the designer something real and tangible to work with. They’ll be grateful for a solid brief that a robust content strategy and plan offers them
  • Give designers real content to work with (lorem ipsum is the anti-Christ of all great user experience, but a brilliant get-out-of-jail-free card for graphic designers)
  • Empower structured content and the ability to see your content manipulated in different ways, by clearly defining what those building blocks need to be. In doing so you open up the world of personalisation and omniplatform publishing, as well as great data and information management. Do it the other way round and it just looks pretty. Bleurgh.


3. Your content

Huh? She just said stop putting content before content? WTAF?

Allow me to explain, dear reader…

“We need to work out how our existing content is gonna map across and be used here.”

A third analogy. You pop into your local bakery to buy some bread. The baker tells you that they’re going to overhaul their current range of cakes to offer the customer more of want they want and need (yes, cake is a “need”). To help them design their new product range they offer you a selection of their current cakes to try. They ask which you like best. Data gathered over the next three weeks tells the baker that customers love battenberg (who doesn’t?), eccles cakes, and cherry pie the best. So they make more of those.

There’s nothing new in that range, nothing different, just more of the same. That’s what also happens when we allow our current content, and insights about our current content alone to take priority over full content strategy and planning.

I’m not saying that some of your current content shouldn’t stay. It probably – almost certainly – should in some form. That’s what a robust content audit is there for. But to inform your content strategy and plan based only on what you already have isn’t strategic, doesn’t empower change, and doesn’t really address the issue of user need beyond what you currently offer. Maybe they NEED apple pie?

By putting holistic content strategy and planning (with great audience research) before your current content, you do the following:

  • Design a framework to audit your current content. This will help you to determine the factors and parameters that enable you to make informed decisions about what to do with that existing content. This must come through the lens of broad audience research and not just user testing on existing content alone
  • Gives you a blank slate with which to reimagine content and ask the tough questions to really boil down to the basics of user need
  • Frees you up to reimagine how to structure and order that content, and to map how it should fit and connect together.

By switching the order in which you do things and not allowing technologies, visual design, or existing content to guide your content strategy and plan, your outcomes and the user experience that you create will become much more impactful.


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