Content Strategy: Is there any flexibility? Do you seriously want me to do that?

I am a regular contributor to the mStoner blog. My recent post there is cross-posted here.

I go to a lot of conferences, I read a lot of blogs, and I follow a lot of web professionals on Twitter. One trend is consistent among them. Lately, they are all shining a light on the topic of content strategy.

In 2008, this blog post written by Kristina Halvorson defined content strategy this way: “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

During the coming year, I’ll be focusing on content strategy. And, because I’m leading the mStoner content strategy practice, I wrote this piece for the January issue of the mStoner newsletter, Intelligence.

Content strategy isn’t new. Ten years ago, when we launched mStoner, we committed to an approach that focuses on much more than how websites look. Since then, our work with .edu uses a process that includes a careful review of what content our clients produce, how they use it, and how they sustain it. And, starting in 2009, we began helping clients include content from the social web on their institutional sites.

We get it. In fact, we’re so dedicated to the discipline of content strategy that we are a sponsor of Confab 2012. We expect the .edu contingent at Confab to be even larger this year and we’ll be hosting a higher education lounge during the conference. We hope we’ll see many of you there.

Yet we wonder, is that enough? We recognize how much those of us in .edu still have to do to convince our campuses and our leadership to understand and care about content strategy. Frankly, that’s not the only challenge. What if you are a web team of one or two? What if your .edu website includes content from hundreds of web editors across campus? How do you get started on the web content inventory recommended by content strategy experts without getting overwhelmed? What’s the most practical approach?

Leading up to Confab, we’ll continue to share our best thinking about content strategy on the mStoner blog and through upcoming conference presentations. We’ll help you try to answer questions like these:

  • How is content strategy different from content management?
  • What’s the relationship with information architecture?
  • How do you integrate social media content as well as content from print collateral?

In the meantime, we’ve got some homework for you. Do some reading about content strategy:

  • Michael Stoner’s post about Confab 2011 offers some background about the topic from the higher ed perspective.
  • We also recommend Content Strategy for the Web written by Kristina Halvorson (@halvorson).
  • Meet Content is blog written by higher ed professionals Georgy Cohen and Rick Allen focusing on how to create and sustain web content.

I raise my right hand and swear that I believe in content strategy. Some of my best friends… (Seriously, content is king for me, always has been.) The purpose of this post is to admit that I’m struggling with what’s recommended by the experts. I’m still formulating some ideas but here’s what’s rattling around in my brain:

The content audit as described in Halvorson’s book and as explained by Margot Bloomstein when I heard her speak at edUi 2011 scares the crap out of me. Why? I wonder if it’s always necessary. Why else? I’m not sure most web teams have enough resources to make it a viable option.

A few years ago, I had a whopper of a website to relaunch. It was university wide with 122 departments and 5 graduate and professional schools. Me and five other people I came to love like family were charged with the web redesign. At the time, we did not manage the website but we were asked to lead the redesign. Much of our .edu site had been untended for years. While building the project plan, I determined I didn’t have the resources, the inclination, or the patience to catalog and characterize every page, every image, every file. Never mind that the thousands of pages we had were best off deleted; they were out of date and the copy was awful. (We scrapped it all, paid for exceptional writing by an mStoner writer for the top-level sections, and rewrote the rest ourselves.) We did not prepare a content audit. Did we violate the principles of content strategy? I guess we did.

And what about the social media content stream? How does it fit into the content inventory spreadsheet that identifies what you have and how good it is? Although the web is primary for communication at colleges and universities, there’s still a lot of printing going on. How do you capture content from print for the inventory?

Let me close with the idea that there might be diminishing returns for time spent on creating a comprehensive content inventory and then painstakingly maintaining it into the future. Now, I am, at heart (and soul!), a planner. But I also recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Is the full-blown content inventory recommended by content strategy experts a level of perfection that will divert some web teams from capturing an amazing academic event on video or writing a feature about an alumnae who eloquently ties her success back to her time on campus? On the other hand, maybe the level of commitment it takes to produce a content inventory is the evidence needed to convince campus leaders that more positions are needed to support a web presence.

This isn’t settled for me. I’m going to keep thinking about it. More to come.

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Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

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