Trends in content strategy

The Content Strategy Applied 2017 conference (9-10 Feb 2017) ended with a trend-spotting presentation from organisers Rahel Anne Bailie and Lucie Hyde. They brought their collective experience, along with the insights from conference presenters, to the podium.

One of the points Rahel made in this presentation was that content professionals today need to constantly work on keeping their skills and knowledge up-to-date.

Content professionals – get skilled up!

Rahel says, “The divide between content professionals who are upgrading their skills and those who are hanging onto the status quo – writing in word processing programs and emailing documents for ‘someone else’ to deal with things like metadata – will become more apparent.” 

Rahel heads Scroll’s content strategy arm. Scroll actively sifts content professionals to see who has the kind of skills and experience that content projects today require. We need to be confident we have the people with the best skills available on our books.

Rahel says, “Already, digital agencies who use content strategists vet CVs in ways that weed out the writers from those with advanced skills. The content professionals who decide to upgrade their skills will find that more opportunities open up for them.”

Content trends you need to learn about

We asked Rahel what she’d picked up on at the CSApplied 2017 conference that indicated future trends. Here’s what she has to say. If you want to be a content pro that really knows their stuff, these are the trends to watch.

And for lots of content professionals, I’d guess that all of these things represent both a need and a chance to start getting skilled up.

Building bridges across silos

One of the trends showed itself in the shadow of an announcement from one of the conference sponsors, Adobe. First, a little background.

Content strategists who do cross-silo strategies for omnichannel projects know that marketing content tends to be a layer of content over a huge amount of enabling or technical content. For example, a single product may have a bit of marketing content associated with it. But it will probably have hundreds of pieces of content that enables customers to use the product: warranty info, help content, user guides, admin guides, training material, microcopy for the interfaces, knowledge base articles, and so on.

When there is no way of integrating the content, it gets developed in multiple silos, with the usual discrepancies, inaccuracies, and duplication of effort that comes with a fragmented territory.

Adobe confirmed that the trend is for organisations who handle lots of content to want their CMS to be the repository for the content that gets delivered through the multiple channels. Until now, content developers creating large-scale enabling content do so in an external editing environment, and then get the content transferred into the web CMS. It seemed to Adobe that it was time to develop a technical solution to enable the integration of all customer content into a single place, while allowing authors to use their power editing tools. So,  Adobe’s created new XML Documentation Add-on for AEM. This makes AEM DITA-aware, extends its capabilities and transforms it into a full-edged enterprise-class component content management system.

Structured content tools are game-changers

Rahel sees this changing the content landscape in a big way (read her white paper: Expanding content scope to drive customer information needs).

She has seen a lot of resistance by technology departments to support content developers, often because they don’t understand the commercial value of content. But with one of the largest CMS on the market, AEM (Adobe Experience Manager), supporting a robust experience for content professionals who want to use the DITA standard for power-editing, it will be a huge game-changer.

This is a big deal for corporations, who increasingly accept that this kind of investment in content is vital for their bottom line. It’s also a big deal for content professionals, as relatively few know how to use a structured content tool or understand best practices in a collaborative writing environment. The content pros who upgrade their skills and knowledge to develop content that works for omnichannel delivery will be able to keep pace with these kinds of publishing environments.

Cognitive computing

For content people focusing on semantic content, cognitive computing came out of left field as the next big technology trend. Cognitive computing uses artificial intelligence to create self-learning programmes. And where there’s technology, there’s content, which means there will be a need for content meant for cognitive computing environments.

The technology side of the industry is moving much faster than the business side, which is creating an environment where technologists are looking to automate content. Sometimes that tactic works, but when it doesn’t, it can cause significant brand damage.

Increased automation of content delivery

There is a strong move to chatbots, Internet of Things, voice search, and related technologies. Some of these are to deliver service at scale, but a lot of it is in response to customer desire for ease of interaction. Examples include bots such as Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, where verbal search diverges from keyword search. This puts a higher demand on content, which has to sound conversational while being informative, and flow in particular patterns to make sense to humans while also making sense to the systems that deliver it up.

Shared, semantic content

For content to work within automated, cognitive computing environments, it needs to have enough structure and semantics that computing systems know when to pull specific content. Adaptive content, which allows content authors to tag content for specific contexts, is quickly becoming a core skill for content professionals in any environment where content gets delivered into shared spaces.

Resources

Content audit: how to define goals and scope

A good content audit is the cornerstone of many web projects. But starting a content audit can be scary. It’s like standing on a high board, preparing to dive into a sea of raw data.

If you want to avoid drowning in data, you need to invest time in defining the goals and scope of the audit. Work out what you want the content audit to achieve, and what content you actually want to audit.

Define your goals

You can look for almost anything in a content audit – from how well content performs in search to how well it converts for sales. So, before you start, you need to agree what you’re trying to achieve with this specific audit.

If you’re not the content strategist on this project, start talking to them now. Get an overview of the project the content is meant to inform. There is no point carefully checking metadata if this is primarily going to be a rebranding exercise.

Ask a lot of questions

Organisations are not necessarily sure what they need or can get from a content audit. The best way to define goals is to ask a lot of questions and try and read between the lines.

What they say: “We want to know which content is performing well / where we’re getting ROI.”

What this could mean: “We want to know…

  • how many people are seeing which bits of content
  • if people are acting on the content (for example, following a call to action)
  • if people are reading or otherwise using the content (not just leaving straight away)
  • if the content is doing what it’s intended to do; meeting user needs – or if there are gaps
  • if people are sharing the content on social media
  • if content is performing well in search
  • if the content is meeting our KPIs/business requirements”

What they say: “We want to know if the content is in good shape”

What this could mean: “We want to know if the content…

  • meets editorial best practice
  • meets UX best practice
  • meets branding, style, tone and voice guidelines
  • has an owner and is up-to-date
  • is accurate and relevant – on message, factually correct
  • has correct tags and metadata
  • is in correct format
  • is well-organised in a good IA”

Use the goals to define the work you need to do

Once you have agreed the goals, you will have a much clearer idea of how to conduct your audit. For example, if one goal is to work out which marketing content is giving a good return on investment, you could:

  • use analytics data and other site metrics to see which content is most popular
  • check where traffic to that content is coming from and going next
  • see how the content is being used
  • count social shares of the content
  • count conversions from the content
  • use any KPIs set by the business to evaluate

and so on.

Define scope (and acknowledge you can’t do it all)

Got the goals? Now define the scope. Work hard on getting the scope focused properly. Content audits are time-consuming work. You want a tight and accurate brief. You don’t want to spend time auditing duplicate content, or old news stories, or following redirects down rabbit holes, or anything else that does not help the client achieve their goals.

Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise

Budgets and time will almost certainly be tight. That means that you almost certainly won’t be able to get eyes on every single URL. Prioritise ruthlessly.

Quick wins

Generally, start with indexable HTML pages that a visitor can find through search. Ignore the rest, unless you’re conducting (for example) a specifically technical or SEO audit.

Double-check which bits of the digital estate you’re auditing – you might be able to ignore whole blogs and microsites.

Also, check if there any parts of a domain that are out of scope (for example all archived content, or all content in a certain /xxx/).

Find out how well the client knows their content:

  • Are there issues with URL duplication or other CMS-driven oddities you should know about?
  • Are there lists of content types or formats you can use?
  • Are there previous inventories or audits you can measure against?
  • Can you have access to someone who really knows the content and the CMS?

Look for representative samples

If there’s a repeated pattern in the content (for example annual reports, each of which comes with a standard set of links and assets) you can sometimes just audit a sample of these.

Have a think about what you need to know from these samples. Do you need to know how well a user journey is working? Or whether the assets are being downloaded? Or whether they are correctly branded and to style?

Site size rules of thumb

For sites under 500 pages, just check every page.

For sites 500-1,000 pages, focus on the most important content for full audit. This might be the business-critical content; the most-used content; the ‘top tasks’ content, or a combination of those things. It might be a few samples or patterns. Use the goals to inform this. Run a lighter audit of the rest of the content.

For massive sites, or if you need to do it all in a day, use the 80/20 rule. Identify the 20% of content that’s most important, and focus on that first. Make sure it includes:

  • representative samples of common content types and formats
  • representative samples of important user journeys
  • business-critical content
  • most-used content

Do what works

There are no hard rules about setting the scope. Successful audits depend on doing what works. Here’s one unconventional but effective solution by an anonymous content strategist.

“We divided all the content into 3 basic types: horrible, boring and important.

  • Horrible stuff. Content inside systems that could not practically be reorganised within the scope of the project. Solution: design around them and organise a future project to deal with them properly.
  • Boring stuff. Content that, due to time sensitive nature, was not worth spending effort on reorganising. Solution: Created an archiving process that involved minimal metadata changes.
  • Important stuff. Existing or imminent content that either had a long shelf life or would have high visibility at the time of the relaunch.

The Horrible and the Boring content represented the vast majority of the system and grouping them in this way allowed us leave them until another day.”

Leave room for surprises

Leave a bit of space in your schedule. Because you will almost certainly find hidden microsites, translations into strange languages, stub pages, odd redirects, and in some cases, entire sunken cities of content.

Dive in and do it!

If you define the goals and scope of your audit before you start, you will save a lot of time and energy – and in some cases your sanity. Write the goals and scope on a Post-It and put it on your screen.

Every time you feel analysis paralysis setting in, or the dread hand of spreadsheet confusion, read the Post-It. It’s the lifebouy that you can use to float happily through that sea of data.