Content strategy methodology

Content strategy: the five pillars approach

Our guest blogger this month is Rahel Bailie. She writes about her approach to developing content strategy and shares a framework for you to use in your own work.

Rahel is a highly experienced content strategist and was formerly Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll.

Content strategy methodology

When a client calls you in as a content strategist, it’s because they have a content problem that they want solved, and they are counting on you to solve it. They want to know that you have a process, and that the process will result in a productive outcome. In this article, I’m going to outline a standardised approach that I’ve developed over the years that is centred around five pillars of inquiry.

The approach is rooted in the basic management consulting process. It works because it’s familiar to both mid-level management and upper-level executives, and they know what to expect as an outcome. I’ve been fond of saying that most management consultants do financial turnarounds, whereas content strategists do content turnarounds.

Adapting management consulting methodology means keeping the process, but changing the substance within the steps. Let’s look at both the process and then at the substance.

Discovery phase

First comes the discovery. Basically, you want to determine why the organisation has brought you in. Are they trying to solve a business problem or reach an elusive business goal that involves content? You need to figure out what they think their problem is, and where they want to end up.

What’s important is not to take their report of their problem at face value. When clients lack the knowledge or vocabulary to express the actual problem, they’ll describe symptoms and solutions that might be way off base. (Heads up: as the metaphor queen, it’s my prerogative to use as many metaphors as I need to make my points. You’ve been warned.) 

If you ask a person how they’ll get from the UK to Ireland, and they’ve never heard of air travel, they’ll probably describe a boat. It might be any type of boat, from a rowboat to an ocean liner and every type of boat in between, but it will be a boat. As a content strategist, you’ll have heard of the content equivalent of air travel, and it’s up to you to listen between the lines and realise that their problem is actually about efficiency of travel, not what size or colour of boat.

In other words, the goal is to listen to the organisation’s descriptions of their business problems or goals, and then extrapolate the salient information. The outcome is information that frames the questions for the gap analysis.

Gap analysis

The second stage is the gap analysis. This is where you determine what the organisation is doing now – the current state – and what business value the organisation wants their content to deliver – the future state – and what the gap is between these states. That will tell you what’s missing, and what they need to succeed.

Questions for discovery and gap analysis

The questions you ask in discovery and gap analysis can range wildly. It depends on which department your interviewees are in, who is being interviewed from which team in that department, and what they happen to be working on. After all, whatever problems are top of mind at a given moment is what gets discussed. It’s easy to conduct a range of interviews and then realise that you’ve missed a critical aspect of the potential problem because the topic arose only in the last interviews.

This is where the five pillars approach comes in. This framework gives you a way to structure your interviews, and to synthesise the results in a way that addresses the five umbrella areas of any organisation.

By the time you’ve developed the strategy, you’ll want to have asked questions about each of the five areas. This will help you understand:

  • the business problem
  • the current and future states, so that you can calculate the gap
  • conditions that might affect how you put together the roadmap, such as budget, governance, or infrastructure constraints

The five pillars

The goal is to gather enough information about how the organisation currently works and their aspirations for a future state, and be able to reframe that information in a way that can be fed back to the client for validation, and suitable recommendations in each of the areas. The outcome is generally a presentation or report that organises the information into logical buckets, the five pillars, so that management gets a clear picture of what’s happening in their organisation, with a series of recommendations.

Pillar 1: organisational needs

The organisation was concerned enough about how content is affecting business that they have sought out your expertise. The executives are going to want to know that you are hearing their concerns and are motivated to help rectify the situation.

Pillar 2: user needs

Ideally, user needs and organisational needs are two sides to the same coin. One of the things that the organisation wants is generally for users to succeed, and these questions get to the heart of what users need to be successful.

Pillar 3: content needs

The content itself is an actor in this process. There may be a need for particular types of content, or particular metadata or structures, or outputs. All of the content needs should be gathered so that you have a strong sense of how they are delivering content and what they need to do in order to get to their future state.

Pillar 4: operational needs

Content operations covers the various aspects of the system to produce content. Operations starts with the people doing the authoring, and whether they can do their jobs efficiently, and radiates out to the reviewers and workflow processes, and other such operational pain points.

Pillar five: technology needs

Questions about technology are left to last because you need to understand how they need to perform before you can determine whether the existing technical infrastructure is adequate or needs an upgrade. These questions are meant to match tools to the functions to ensure that what you will recommend in the roadmap is fit for purpose.

Building a roadmap

The roadmap is the synthesis of the work you’ve done in the previous stages, where you have listened to the patient’s symptoms, made a diagnosis, and are now writing a treatment plan. The roadmap is highly situational. There are no cookie-cutter businesses, and no cookie-cutter roadmaps. Even when the situation may feel like you’re writing the same prescription for the same flu, there will be subtle differences in the details.

The client is counting on your expertise to help them understand their ailment, and to provide the context that gives them a richer comprehension of both the problem and the steps needed to rectify the problem. 

The roadmap should refer back to the five pillars approach. In fact, I try to do the final presentation in a way that repeats the five areas, first in the needs, and then in the recommendations, before I bring them together into a sequence of dependencies.

 The goal is to give the organisation a high-level plan that they can use, either with or without your help, to move forward. They should be able to see how the plan addresses each of the recommendations from the gap analysis, and what they need to do, and in which order. 

It’s highly unlikely to be able to give the organisation a project plan with assigned dates, as there are too many variables within the organisation around processes and approvals. However, you can sequence the events on the roadmap to demonstrate which activities must be done, and decisions taken, in relation to other activities and decisions.

Use the five pillars framework

The five pillars approach is an overview, a framework for the part of the discovery phase and gap analysis to do with questions during interviews. Within the activities applicable to each pillar, you will most certainly employ the familiar techniques of doing a content inventory and audit, qualitative analysis, look at personas, analyse metadata, and so on. 

I have built this approach based on my experience providing consulting services for nearly 20 years. It will help you ensure that the questions you ask of an organisation are balanced across the five areas and the four stages. The questions that have been included are generic, and meant as a starting point for deeper investigation. Your  questions will certainly be deeper and more focused in each of the areas. We are providing this resource as a toolkit, which is free to use and to adapt to your needs:

Download the five pillars approach toolkit

Download the five pillars approach toolkit [PDF] to amend and use for your project.

What’s in a professional name – part 2 of 3 about content roles and skills

What’s in a professional name

In this 4-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

Does it matter what a content person is called, as long as they get the job done? In the first part of this series, we asked how a person is supposed to make sense of the content landscape. When practitioners can’t even agree on terminology, it’s not surprising that trying to hire staff or contractors, or even commission work, can cause confusion. And looking for a good fit for a job or contract is even harder when companies create a job description for, say, a content marketer, and then put a content strategy title on the job ad. Everyone gets frustrated.

Content job titles are not standardised

One senior manager at a large agency said that she needs to see about 80 CVs before she finds a content strategist who has the skillset she feels should be standard for that role. It’s not that candidates are purposefully trying to inflate their CVs. Content is not a regulated profession, where job titles are attached to specific roles: a paediatrician, a corporate tax lawyer, or an electrical engineer. It does not have a guiding body that standardises practices, methods, and deliveries, such as the Project Management Institute or International Institute of Business Analysis, where you know what to expect when you ask for a PRINCE2 or Agile certification. Content is usually not even a category in professional lists. Content professionals need to shoehorn themselves into categories like ‘Technology’, ‘Consulting’, or the catch-all ‘Advertising, Editorial and Management’.

Job titles differ globally

When I joined Scroll, I struggled to understand how the role of a copywriter differed from a digital content manager. Or how a content designer differed from a technical communicator. For example, in North America, the Society for Technical Communication defined technical writing as “simplifying the complex. Inherent in such a concise and deceptively simple definition is a whole range of skills and characteristics that address nearly every field of human endeavour at some level.”

Technical communicators became synonymous with writers who wrote user-facing content (customers, administrative users, or technical users) for software or hardware, but in reality, they write any informational or enabling content for any audience. I’ve met technical communicators who write everything from consumer instructions, user guides, recipes, medical procedures, and policies and procedures, to documentation for APIs, engineering specifications, and technical marketing datasheets.

In the UK, technical authors seem to occupy a much more niche area. A technical writer used to mean, in North American parlance, a science writer: someone who had some domain knowledge and wrote technical content in that domain. But that’s changing. Now, technical authors are more likely to be called technical writers or technical communicators. The remit is more content development, where writing is a small part of the process that begins with user research and ends with user-centered content. In the UK, they are the communicators brought in to develop technical content for technical audiences. They often use specialised authoring software that allows them to create output at great scale.

Guidance writers, technical writers, content designers…

In the UK, writing instructions for non-technical audiences is done by guidance writers, a designation I’d never heard outside of the UK. After some deductive reasoning, I determined that guidance is a combination of informational and instructional content – it ‘guides’ users to complete a task or understand information. Yet, a search for guidance writing seems to point to documents such as standard operating procedures, user guides, and so on.

So far, so good. Now let’s add content designers into the mix. Some searches for guidance writers points to content designers. The differences between a content designer and technical communicators or guidance writers are subtle and also not codified. So, is a content designer the same as a guidance writer the same as a technical communicator? Seems to be, but not so fast.

The UK government hires technical writers to write technical content for technical audiences – for example, API documentation for developers on their digital teams. There is no mention of the use of specialised software, though in my books, any technical writer worth their salt knows their way around a help authoring tool, even if they’re not provided access to that software in their job. There is also no mention of the methodology, which has multiple aspects, spelled out in the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) for Technical Communicators.

The UK government has a very clear definition of a content designer, which I’ve described as a writer focused on ‘the UX of content’. There is a prescribed process that starts with user research, evidence-based decisions, and an outcome of user-centered content based on that research. Because of the clarity around the designation, it’s not surprising that industry is asking for “content designers with GDS experience”. There is a certain comfort level in knowing what is expected, both in terms of method and outputs.

To some professionals in the content industry, the content design process seems self-evident: every writer does that, right? After all, the expectations of a content designer is also part of the TCBOK, with a slightly different vocabulary and more variants to the methods. But to others, there is a world of difference, in which copywriters are given the mandate to “just write X” whereas content designers are expected to question whether content X is even needed in the first place before starting to write (or rewrite), and then deliver the content in a new way, if warranted. A content designer might request that a tool be created (what used to be called a wizard and more recently, an assistant) to deliver the content in a more user-centered way, as do technical communicators.

A rich professional landscape

Once we fill out this cluster of professions with some of the other common designations we encounter in our field, we end up with a rich, though sometimes confusing, professional landscape. Given the breadth and variety of the naming conventions and practices across the content field, how can we navigate this complicated landscape? How do we know whether we’re rejecting a perfectly qualified candidate because of a difference in vocabulary? In the next installment of the Summer of Content, I take a crack at creating a graphic representation of the various designations that content people wear. Fair warning, though: I’m a word nerd, so my graphic skills are limited.  I’ll map out some of the more popular names on a basic grid with liberal annotation.

Read the rest of the series

Digital asset management (DAM) at Content, Seriously

Two industry experts presented on DAM and taxonomies at the latest meetup for people who take content seriously. In this special one-off event, participants got to experience an eclectic corner of London in an even more eclectic venue.

About the venue: Rotherhithe Picture Research Library

The Rotherhithe Picture Research Library is an extensive collection of visual media – photos, drawings, paintings, maps, video, and even costumes – that media producers use to study eras and areas when conducting background research for their films and plays.

What makes this venue and collection unique is the approach that one Managing Director, Olivier Stockman, takes in managing the collection: the index is completely analog.

Stockman explains his philosophy behind the decision. He wanted to create an environment of discovery. The idea that someone would do an online search and settle on a single answer belies the richness of the material.

Researching a topic for a film, for example, could involve looking at streets and architecture, typical household items or clothing from that period, or typical work and holiday activities. Call this way of research the equivalent to the slow food movement, where one is expected to take the time to savour and digest what’s before you. But more on that later.

Digital asset management (DAM): Theresa Regli

The first speaker was Theresa Regli, one of the top DAM (Digital Asset Management) consultants in the industry and a new transplant to London. Hers was more of a conversation than a formal presentation, where she answered questions about how DAM systems work, and some of the challenges around managing digital assets. Here are some highlights.

About DAM systems

DAM systems are, in some respects, the new kid on the block, though the functionality is growing in sophistication quite rapidly. The need to manage digital assets grew out of organisations such as museums and corporations having large numbers of images that weren’t being stored in ways that were useful for finding and using them later on.

Digital assets aren’t just images

The notion of digital assets are expanding from static images, such as drawings and photos, to items such as video, 3D renderings, and other properties that contribute to virtual reality environments. This could range from gaming companies looking to manage all of the minutiae that gets combined in a multitude of ways during the development of games, to multinational corporations managing virtual reality apps that let you see furniture at home before you buy.

Connecting digital assets with physical assets

In the more interesting projects that Regli has worked on, there has been a need to connect the digital assets with physical ones. For example, one multinational had an extensive collection of physical objects from their century-old corporate history, and what was displayed online had to be keyed to its physical location in a warehouse.

Categorisation and data modelling

Whether you’re a company trying to organise your website images or an organisation with complex digital asset needs, Regli warned of the dangers of thinking that a technology will fix what is essentially a categorisation problem. Before pouring data into a DAM system, the organisation must do the up-front work of thinking through the business problem to be solved, analysing the assets, and then creating a categorisation system – a taxonomy or ontology – that forms the foundation of the data modelling to be done within the system. Regli says it may be a hard conversation, but it’s a disservice not to tell clients that buying the system without having the right complement of people to do the preliminary and ongoing work will be wasted, an expensive exercise.

Treasure hunting in analog

With Regli’s words of wisdom ringing in our ears, participants engaged in a treasure hunt through the stacks of the library. Regli provided a handful of topics to find, and participants could choose which topic to locate. The familiarisation on where the stacks were and how to look through them went fairly quickly, and several people chose “hops” as their topic. Hops played – and to an extent, still plays – an important part in the British economy.

Soon the oversized, loosely-bound packets of photos appeared on the desks. One of the photos found was of families picking hops in Kent. This discovery led to a discussion about how families who wanted to take a vacation, but really couldn’t afford one, would go to Kent for a week and pick hops. It seems that Stockman’s discovery method proved itself that evening.

Creating successful taxonomies: Andreas Blumauer

Wrapping up the triple-bill of DAM activities, Andreas Blumauer discussed the organisation at the heart of any digital management: taxonomies. Organising content for presentation is not as simple as it seems. Presentation needs to happen in context, and the relationships between entities are what provides enough context to give us a better understanding of a topic. Indeed, Blumauer introduced himself using an example of relationship categorisation to demonstrate the principles.

Image of Andreas Blumauer categorised

Creating successful taxonomies: Andreas Blumauer (slide 3 from his presentation)

Using recognised standards like SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organisation System)

There are a great number of factors that make a taxonomy successful, with a few of them standing out in Blumauer’s presentation. It’s important to keep in mind that a taxonomy is not meant for presentation, as is an information architecture. The taxonomy is meant for storage, to create classification, thereby contributing to knowledge.

First, effectiveness depends on the taxonomy being understood by the systems, search engines, and so on. This means using recognised standards. SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organisation System) is developing standards for knowledge systems – and the W3C is working to ensure that there is alignment between the ISO 25964-1 standard and SKOS.

Mapping to create context

Second, effectiveness depends on mappings to create context. Using a simple example, Blumauer demonstrated how connecting terms and labels creates a wider understanding of a topic.

A simple hierarchy is:

– Glassware
– – Stemware
– – – Champagne flute

Non-hierarchical connections would include:

– Champagne flute is used for Bellinis
(And then Bellini gets connected back to champagne flutes)
– Champagne flute is a champagne coupe
– Champagne is served at Tony’s cocktail bar
(And then Tony’s Bar gets connected back to champagne cocktails)

Mapping is business dependent, so it’s important to build a solid foundation and then to maintain the taxonomy. Nothing stays static, and new connections need to be made on an ongoing basis.

Include semantics in content architecture

Third, it’s important to connect the content lifecycle with a four-layer content architecture that includes a semantic layer. The semantic layer contributes to the success of search – semantic search, recommendation systems, analytics and in presenting the right content within content management systems: dynamic content publishing and automatic content authoring.

About the speakers

Theresa Regli worked for many years as a taxonomist and then as a DAM consultant for The Real Story in the US. She is now based in London, where she helps organisations turn content into digital assets, simplify complexity, and realise their potential in the digital world.

Theresa started as a journalist, transitioned to web development, and taxonomy, and then became director of content management at a systems integration firm. She has advised over 100 businesses on their digital strategies, including 20% of the Fortune 500. She is the author of the definitive book on managing digital marketing & media assets, Digital & Marketing Asset Management.

Andreas Blumauer is managing partner of the Semantic Web Company, and has experienced with large-scale semantic technology projects in various industry sectors. He is also responsible for the strategic development and product management of PoolParty Semantic Suite. Andreas has been a pioneer in the area of linked data and the semantic web since 2002; he is co-founder of SEMANTiCS conference series, and editor of one of the first comprehensive books in the area of the semantic web for the German speaking community. Andreas holds a master’s degree in Computer Sciences and Business Administration from the University of Vienna/Austria.

Join one of our meetups

London Content Strategy meetup

A relaxed atmosphere where content professionals can learn about best practices and emerging trends, and network with your counterparts in related fields.

Content, Seriously meetup

This meetup is for in-depth presentations, short workshops, and interactive sessions for professionals who may need a deeper understanding in a particular area. Suitable for content people and managers tasked with managing content.


Latest news in content: Summer 2017

A round-up of the best advice, thinking, tools and news in content. This has all appeared in the fortnightly Scroll newsletter. (Sign up on the right, never miss out again…) Enjoy your summer!

News, thought pieces, advice

Content and emotions
Rule #1 for emotion-driven content: never assume you know how your user is feeling. Rather, focus on what you can do for them.

Mailchimp wins again
This is still the best tone guide around. That’s partly because they have focused on content types, so people know where they can vary tone as well as how to vary tone. That means this is more actionable than most. Annoyingly good.

Required reading for accessibility
Excellent, detailed advice and tools to help you meet AA compliance for accessibility. Good on the balance between font size, colour and contrast.

Government is service design
A classic by @mattedgar. Expresses why anyone who works in government, not just in digital, needs to develop design thinking capability. Required reading.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How to get hired – advice for contractors
Top advice on getting hired, from an expert. Hetty Meyric Hughes is the Scroll partner in charge of matching contractors with jobs.

Voice and tone tables
Nice, simple way to explain tone and voice. Conveys a lot of information in an easy format.

How to SEO your video content
Excellent best practice advice, updated for 2017.


Distraction-free writing app
Of the many distraction-free writing apps around, we like Focus Writer the best. Good for working when it’s sunny outside.

And finally…

The Cat in the Hat style guide
The Bank of England uses Dr Seuss to train staff in the art of clear writing.


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.

What’s new in content

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Scroll Training newsletter in November. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best tools, tips and tricks in content strategy and content design. Sign up, don’t miss out…

News, thought pieces, advice

It doesn’t matter what you call it

Struggling to explain what content strategists do? Put the work before the words. Client panics at the sound of a ‘content audit’? Call it a ‘content check’.

A content designer is not just a web editor

Here’s how our friend Beck moved from writing words for websites to designing content based on user needs. (Take our content design bootcamp to get these skills.)

Reasons to be cheerful

Optimistic UI design.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How hashtags work

Hashtags have different effects on different social media. This explains how they work and how to get the best out of them.

20-minute Twitter audit

Find out how well your client’s Twitter account is performing in less time than it takes to get your Deliveroo.

Design better forms

Simple fixes for common mistakes.


Clever tools for UI writers

Some useful ways to mock up designs to help you test your UI copy, or explain it to developers or designers.

And finally…

It’s content advent calendar time

And look who’s behind door #4. Don’t you wish he could run all your content projects?



Content Strategy Applied

  • Content Strategy Applied: 2-day conference
  • Theme: Benchmarking content
  • 9 and 10 Feb 2017
  • London

Scroll is delighted to sponsor this year’s Content Strategy Applied content conference.

The focus is on the practice of content strategy – problems, solutions and case studies that professional content strategists are dealing with now. The aim is that you can grow your content experience in just 2 days, and take away practical techniques you can apply straight away.

Keynote speakers

Keynote speakers Madi Weland Solomon and James Mathewson both bring a huge amount of experience and knowledge with them, and we are thrilled that they will be headlining.

Find out more about our speakers.

Bookings now open

Registration includes:

  • Two full days of sessions and workshops
  • Continental breakfast, lunches and refreshments
  • Networking and social events
  • Special meetup: Content Seriously

Book your tickets now.

How to cope with the increased demands on content

The complexity of producing and delivering content has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, as the demands for content have grown. In simpler times, content was produced as a single-channel deliverable. We would write an article for a magazine, or a user guide, or a maintenance manual. There was one piece of content and one deliverable.

Writing content in simpler times

When the web came along, things changed considerably. We made the transition from writing in the book model for print and chunking the copy up for the web, to writing in topics for the web and then stitching the contents together for the print version that got delivered to customers.

For the most part, we still worked alone on a content deliverable. Each person on a team would be assigned an area to cover. For example, a company that produced a product would have:

  • marketing collateral in print done by a marketing team
  • marketing collateral on the website done by a digital marketing team
  • a user guide done by a technical communicator/technical author
  • a maintenance manual done by a different technical communicator
  • PDFs of the product material, uploaded (and forgotten) by a webmaster

Content got more complicated

As time went on, content got more complicated. The inconsistencies between digital and traditional channels became more apparent, and less tolerated, by customers. There were more demands on content, and more channels demanding content to fill them. There was not only the marketing funnel waiting to be filled, which makes up about 20% of any large website, but also product support material, the other 80%. Traditional product content was needed, such as quick start guides, user guides, training manuals, and service-center material. New channels also needed content: forums, knowledge bases, social, and so on. This didn’t account for the additional channels for that content, such as tablets, smartphones, wearables, and newer channels such as chat bots.

Multiplicity and the demands on content

Organisations are now in a situation where the volume of content and number of delivery variables means that the complexity of producing and delivering content has reached a tipping point. The demands on the business, the content developers, the technologies, and the content itself have grown exponentially, and it’s harder and harder to keep up.

For a moment, let’s picture 4 unique pieces of content that come together to describe a feature of a product. Now let’s say that that particular feature is used in 4 different product lines; that content is now being used 16 times. Now, imagine that each product line has four products within each line that uses that feature. Those 4 pieces of content get repeated 64 times. Now, multiply by 4 delivery channels, and that means those original 4 pieces of content are used a whopping 256 times. That’s a lot of copy-and-pasting.

4 pieces of content can be used 256 times.

How 4 pieces of content can balloon to 256 different uses.

This example of multiplicity is not understated. In fact, the phenomenon is all too common. As organisations develop more products and services, they create more content deliverables to support them, and deliver that content through multiple channels. At its best, content re-use is a laborious, time-consuming way to track where content is used and re-used. At worst, the process of tracking content use becomes a maintenance nightmare.

Finding a way to cope

How are organisations coping with this explosion of content? In my experience, not well. Too many clients have finally broken down and sought help because they’ve run out of spreadsheet management capacity – even in environments with a web CMS. Yet the demands on content continue to grow, and a greater level of sophistication is needed to deliver on the value propositions anticipated by the business.

So how can organisations cope? With a CODA (Create Once, Deliver Anywhere) strategy based on the COPE (Create One, Publish Everywhere) strategy used by the US’s NPR (National Public Radio). The basic idea is that a piece of content can be created once, and then re-used through automation, instead of using a copy-and-paste approach.

By pulling content into the many places it gets used, content developers experience a marked decrease in maintenance effort. After all, CODA also means Fix Once, Fix Everywhere. This is because when content is re-used by ‘transclusion’, the original piece of content is the only actual instance of the content. All of the other ‘copies’ are actually only a reference of the original. Fix a typo in the original piece of content, and all of the derivative content is automatically fixed as well.

Multichannel content

How 4 pieces of content can exist in multiple channels, in multiple contexts.


What goes into CODA

Creating CODA content is based on the principles of intelligent content. This means that content is structurally rich and semantically categorised. The definition, created by Ann Rockley, goes on to say that this makes content automatically discoverable, re-usable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. Those may sounds like technical benefits, so perhaps they are best rephrased in business terms.

  • Business efficiency. With less maintenance overhead, content developers can focus less on low-level tasks like searching for duplicate content and filling in spreadsheets, and spend more time on value-add activities. On one recent project, a particular task that took several staff several months to complete could have been completed in a matter of minutes, had the content been highly structured and semantically categorised.
  • Accountability. When a CODA framework is implemented well, there is a granular audit trail that would make any auditor swoon with delight.
  • Accuracy. Brand, marketing, legal, and compliance are all concerned with content accuracy. Having a single source of truth to draw from means less mistakes, fewer review cycles, and less legal checks before content goes live.
  • Personalisation. Whatever personalisation means to your organisation, it is more easily done within a CODA framework. The semantics added to content means the content is adaptive – in other words, it’s easier to change a sentence or two within a message to reach a different audience, to vary an offering, to output specific parts of a block of content to different devices, and so on. This can be done without losing the context, and makes maintenance so much easier.
  • Extension of reach. The idea that content can be produced in a tighter way also means that the company can leverage the content in new ways. Going into new markets, adding new product lines, taking new languages on board – all of these are possibilities that can be supported with content. No more lag between the intent and action.
  • Dynamic publishing. In companies with large quantities of content, the ability to publish content on the fly, collect existing content into new contexts, and create new assets for customers, whether paid or promotional, becomes competitive advantage.

Adopting CODA

A logical question is, “If CODA is so good, why isn’t everyone doing it?” The content developers who have been doing CODA for decades ask that question a lot. It’s a technique that has been used extensively for large bodies of content (in all fairness, the technique has traditionally been applied to post-sales content such as technical documentation, customer support content, and training material) to cope with demanding production schedules and a high likelihood of post-publication maintenance.

However, as the complexity of content delivery grows and the demand on content grows with it, the imperative for well-structured, highly semantic content will need to become the norm. It has implications for all areas of business, from how we create content to how we deliver it, and all the steps in between.


Must-read only: what’s new in content

Too much internet to wade through before you find the worthwhile stuff? Never fear – we read it for you, cut the dross and keep the best. Then we put it all together in this round-up of the latest thinking, advice, tools and events in content strategy and content design. (Hint: you can get this straight to your inbox if you sign up for the Digital Content Academy newsletter. Never miss out again…)

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How hashtags work
Hashtags have different effects on different social media. This explains how they work and how to get the best out of them.

Run a user journey mapping workshop
Brilliant post on how (and why) to run a user journey mapping workshop. Sample takeaway: you really don’t need a fancy template to create a user journey map. Digital agencies make these to justify their fees…

Make your content live longer
Publishing brilliant content is one thing. Sustaining its life is another. Here’s some good advice.

Tools, tools, glorious tools

Clever tools for UI writers
Some useful ways to mock up designs to help you test your UI copy, or explain it to developers or designers.

Trello for Slack
We’re one step closer to achieving mind-meld.

News, thinking, advice

It doesn’t matter what you call it
Struggling to explain what content strategists do? Put the work before the words. Client panics at the sound of a ‘content audit’? Call it a ‘content check’.

Cognitive pyschology and content design
Content designers need to be able to explain their decisions – it’s not enough to say ‘because it’s in the style guide’. What we do is based on sound evidence, and you can learn about some of that here.

A content designer is not just a web editor
Here’s how our friend Beck moved from writing words for websites to designing content based on user needs. (Take our content design bootcamp to get these skills.)

Forgotten your password?
So have 82% of other people. Here’s the latest thinking on design patterns for log in pages.

And finally…

“We’re going digital!”

Rahel Bailie named in the top 25 content strategy influencers

Scroll’s own content strategy guru, Rahel Bailie, has been named one of the top 25 content strategist influencers 2016 by MindTouch.

MindTouch evaluated thousands of content strategists and created a measurement that took into account a wide range of metrics, including internet presence, influence, community engagement and participation. This is a snapshot of what’s happening (and who’s hot) in the world of content strategy today.

Read the list of top 25 content strategist influencers on the MindTouch site.

Get the best bits! The latest thinking in content design and content strategy

Here’s what you might have missed while you had your ‘Out of Office’ on (metaphorically or not) for a sunny, summery August.

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Digital Content Academy newsletter in August. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design. Sign up, don’t miss out…

News, thought pieces, advice

Agile is for everyone
New to/terrified of agile? Think a sprint is something to do with Usain Bolt? Here is some excellent advice on how to find your feet as a content person on an agile project.

Pandas, penguins and hummingbirds
Penguin 4.0 is launching ‘soon’, says Google. If that means nothing to you, maybe read this cheatsheet.

Content strategy at non-profits
Content strategy work at non-profits has some specific issues – budgets are tiny, resources are tight, and there is generally a huge content / tech debt to sort out. Here’s how Josh Tong did it.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

Are you sure?
How to write a confirmation dialogue. Brilliant.

Writing a style guide? How to explain tone
It’s insanely hard to pin down tone in a style guide – to explain it in a way that makes sense to senior management and is actionable by content creators. This Nielsen article gives a good example of a tone scale (and quantifies customer reaction to changes in tone.)

Do better UX for video
We watch 4 billion YouTube videos every day. Mark Zuckerberg says that soon the majority of content we consume will be video. So let’s start learning what good video content looks like for users.


Best. Graphic design tool for dummies. Ever.

And finally…

No more postcodes
Mongolia is changing all its addresses to 3-word phrases. (I know, I also thought it was a hoax, but it’s definitely a thing – look at what3words.) Developed because 75% of the world’s population have no mailing address.


Image copyright: Chris Blakely, Flickr CC

What happens when content design crashes into the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?


What would it be like to produce content in a total data vacuum? Picture yourself working in soundproofed blacked-out box with a computer that can only send but never receive information. You have a brief to design some content, but you haven’t been given much information about your users. You’re going to have to rely on intuition and assumption about their needs, interests and behaviour. No matter – you’re a resourceful person, so you make the best of it and cobble together some best-guess content. It’s a relief to press send.

Off it goes into the ether and you’ll never have to think about it, the users or their needs again – because there won’t be any feedback. That includes all metrics, page views, click-throughs, bounces and everything else you’re used to for assessing whether your work is fulfilling its aims. It sounds like a recipe for awful content, doesn’t it? It must be – though of course you won’t get to know either way.

Data drives content

For content professionals, such a scenario in the real world is unthinkable. Content is driven by data and databases, from analytics to A/B testing. Data is the beating heart of how content designers think about user needs and what we do to deliver on them. It’s also the biggest weapon in our armoury when it comes to dealing with sceptical and obstructive forces in the organisations we work for.

And yet, the situation above isn’t just a thought exercise. Working in a data void – or at best with a seriously diminished data set – could well become a reality for many of us in a couple of years if we don’t take timely steps to stay compliant with imminent new data protection legislation, according to Hazel Southwell, Data Protection Consultant, speaking at a recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Ignore data protection at your peril

Content producers who ignore the new rules will be destined to launch their content into the void, she warned, like the Soviet scientists who shot Laika, a Moscow street dog, into space with scant means of monitoring her progress and no hope of her survival. The ill-fated dog died from overheating after only a couple of hours and the scientists learned next to nothing from the adventure. At least she got to be the first animal in orbit – which is far more than content producers can hope for in return for their doomed efforts.

Producing content without user research and analytics (both pre and post publication) makes it far more likely to be irrelevant to target audiences – and useless to our objectives. More than that, data is the trump card, the invincible ace of spades, in any argument about the direction that content should be taking.

How often does data come to our rescue when subject matter experts are blocking improvements to clarity and readability, or when managers are resistant to important content changes? They can’t argue with the data. Without data in the armoury, we’re fighting blindfold with both arms tied behind our back.

Say hello to the General Data Protection Regulation

On 25 May 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force, making sweeping changes to rules governing the way we collect, use and store data. It will have an impact on any organisation, whether based inside or outside the European Union, that processes the personal data of any resident of the EU or any EU citizen elsewhere.

Companies will no longer be able to sidestep data protection obligations because their head office is in the US, say, or their servers are in Vanuatu. If they’re dealing with the personal data of EU citizens then they must comply with the rules. So Brexit will not provide a way out for UK organisations either.

The UK currently has one of the toughest data regimes in the world in the Data Protection Act 1998, backed up by the enforcements of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But the GDPR knocks that into the shade, not least with sanctions that are designed to bring the global tech behemoths out in a cold sweat. Even the likes of Google and Facebook might think twice about transgressions, faced with fines totalling €20 million or 4% of worldwide annual turnover – whichever is greater.

Personal data will include photos, email addresses, bank details, social media posts, cookies and IP addresses – anything, in fact, that identifies you directly or indirectly in your private, professional or public life. And if you’re processing this data, whether you’re a multinational or working from your front room, whether you’re turning a profit or not, then you’ll need to comply.

It might be a shock for a humble WordPress blogger to find their use of tools such as Google Analytics (much of which is based on monitoring IP addresses) could fall foul of the law. And their difficulties will be compounded if they deal with personalised content tailored to their audiences – for example, if they use a formula whereby 2 users might see a different paragraph within a single page depending on their age. It seems the quest for making highly relevant content is to become even more tortuous.

So how do you comply with the GDPR?

You’ll have to get explicit consent for obtaining and keeping personal data, which must be given to you freely, rather than as a bargaining chip for accessing your services. You’ll need to ask for it in clear and obvious way, not just imply you’re taking it and going ahead.

Having obtained consent fair and square you’ll have to store it, not only so the ICO can check you’re doing things right, but also so individuals concerned can see what you have on them. They should be able to transfer their data to other data controllers if they want – what’s being described as a new right of ‘data portability’.

Consent can be withdrawn as well as given, and you’ll have to erase data or correct inaccurate data if requested, or restrict processing data if you get an objection. If the data you’re keeping gets compromised through a security breach you may have to notify the relevant authority, the individual concerned or the public at large.

You’ll have to demonstrate that you’re complying with the GDPR, through policies and procedures, staff training, monitoring, documentation – and if your organisation is large enough, with the appointment of a designated data protection officer and appropriate records of your data processing activities.

Privacy will be prioritised by better design (privacy by design) and through more stringent default settings (privacy by default), and you’ll be encouraged to use data only when strictly necessary for your services.

Privacy fights back

If it sounds tough, that’s because it is. There are some obvious exemptions to the rules – such as for national security, defence, law enforcement, public services and health and so on – but it seems the EU has had enough of companies storing and selling huge quantities of personal information, our interests, health, social background, jobs, wealth, education and much more – information that has very likely been obtained in ways we were not wholly aware.

While we unwittingly surrender the details of our address books, calendars, emails and map co-ordinates to apps and companies that seem to have no call to know them, many of us are only dimly realising that our most private information is forming part of a vast global trade far beyond our control. Marketing giant Acxiom, for instance, is said to have stockpiled up to 3,000 separate nuggets of information on each of the 700 million people in its files.

In this context, the GDPR could be a welcome rebalancing in favour of the individual. Even so, EU member states still have some flexibility about how they implement many of the GDPR’s 99 Articles – not to mention the uncertainty of how a post-Brexit UK might slot into those arrangements.

There may also be ways to anonymise or ‘pseudonymise’ data so that it can be used without stepping on anyone’s toes, or making the most of exemptions for statistical research that doesn’t rely on the identifying aspects of the data. The sweep of the legislation may be fixed, but the crispness of its final boundaries are still to be defined.

Respect privacy, improve content, win trust

However the cookie in your cache might crumble come May 2018, content strategists must start putting data protection much higher up the agenda now. Content professionals are creative people and will be able to conjure up inventive and unimposing ways for users to give consent about their personal data.

It’s in everyone’s interests that content is engaging and relevant, and it won’t take much for users to understand how important data is for the best in content creation. It will be even more important for content professionals to create the kind of compelling content that will make users care enough to click the consent button – in whatever form it takes – without a second thought.

Many thanks to Hazel Southwell for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.



Talk to us


Don’t miss this – advice, tips and tricks for content strategy and content design

Here’s what you might have missed last month while you were busy with Brexit and related drama…

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Digital Content Academy newsletter in June. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design.

The newsletter goes out every second Thursday. Don’t miss out.

News, advice, thought pieces

Government digital needs you!
The Government Digital Trends survey shows that, while the digital transformation agenda is a growing force in government, lack of skills is a major blocker.

Data + narrative = user journey
This is a brilliant case study, showing how you need to understand the analytics and also the narrative, the story arc, if you really want to craft a journey that works for users. So imaginative.

How millennials behave online
Confident, error-prone, different to everyone else.

Practical advice and how-tos

How to do remote moderated user testing
Common excuses for not doing user research: 1. no budget 2. don’t know what to test 3. don’t know who to test it on 4. actually don’t really know how to do it. (If you want to keep using those excuses, don’t read this post.)

Link to 1 thing, once only
This is the user experience rule we probably don’t follow enough.

Google’s style tips for UI
Writing copy for user interfaces? These will really help you up your game. Sample: ‘Focus on the user and what they can do with your app, rather than what you or your app is doing for the user.’


Amazing visual search tool
We love this tool. It scrapes Google search suggestions to provide keywords, but powerfully grouped into question facets. And then beautifully visualised.

Exactly what people do on your website
HotJar is a brilliant little tool to help you (and your clients) understand how people are using your site. Heatmaps, visitor recordings, conversion funnels and form analytics. Free to try.

And finally….

Exit strategy
A level-headed look at why you need a strategy in case you need to exit a position – be that a CMS, a social media channel or, say, a political union of countries. Emphasises the need to plan carefully, to account for what could go wrong, and to be prepared to act if the worst happens. Deserves to be widely read.

Get these newsletters

Sign up here for the Digital Content Academy newsletters, every second Thursday.

Prevent content from being a project blocker

A common time for organisations to take a long, hard look at their content is during a ‘web refresh’ project. This is when an organisation wants to update the look and feel of its website. It’s usually prompted by a business need – new functionality, rebranding after an acquisition or merger, or a simple update to keep the brand fresh. 

Often now, the scope of such projects goes beyond the website – complexity grows as we see more mobile access, more personalised content delivery as part of omnichannel environments, and more connectivity between software systems. So the term ‘web refresh’ is showing its age – but that’s a whole different article.

 One of the common choke points during a web refresh project is content.  At the end of a conference presentation, it’s not uncommon to be approached by a developer, manager, or other project team member with tales of woe about the state of their content. These reveal common themes:

  • “It’s been two years since we finished our end of the work, but the site hasn’t launched yet because they don’t have the content for it.”
  • “We had our user experience guy do the information architecture, but migrating the content over from the old system is such a nightmare.”
  • “We wanted our bid to be competitive so we excluded content, and the client has no idea how to deal with it, and we’re not prepared to deal with it.”
  • “We did this great design, and now we have to make all these adjustments because the content doesn’t fit.”

The systemic bias against content

The industry adage is that ‘content is king’, yet experience shows that it more often gets treated like the court jester. This bias against content is real. On digital projects, the visual designers are asked to mock something up to show the client. They might even be asked to mock up some functionality – a slider or a carousel. The content that goes into that mockup is often some dummy Latin text as a placeholder. The assumption is that the client will be persuaded by the beauty of the container, no matter what goes inside.



To use a metaphor, let’s pretend that your company is a coffee chain, and you ask an agency to update your business presence. They obsess about the signage, the shop windows, the furniture, the fancy barista equipment, the colour of the coffee cups and the angle of the lids. But when it comes to the actual coffee? They’ve brought in a couple of teenagers, handed them a jar of instant and an electric kettle, and poured something brown into the cup.

This is too often the case with content.

Look inside the digital agencies that get the web refresh contracts, from the boutique micro-consultancy to the world’s largest and most reputable, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find qualified content professionals. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find content professionals at all. You will find developers and designers, because they are perceived as specialists and their work has therefore become valued.

Content, however, is perceived as ‘that stuff that anyone can do’. Agencies are happy to leave content to the client – hoping that the client can figure it out on their own.

Content development as a business skill

If the business adage is ‘content is king’, there’s an adage among content pros that goes something like ‘just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can write professionally’. We all learned to write in primary school, but that writing bears little resemblance to the work that content professionals do. You might enjoy your Sunday bike rides, but that’s got nothing to do with the Tour de France.



So, writing is no longer ‘just’ writing; it’s no longer adequate to simply create copy. The craft has become content development – and it can get complicated.

To give you a few examples, the difference between writing for business communication and writing for digital delivery is like the difference between making a sandwich at home and running a restaurant. It’s not just the amount of content that is the difference. It’s the planning and scheduling; it’s understanding the differences of writing for desktop and writing for mobile; it’s the tagging and metadata to make sure the content can be processed properly and is findable by search engines. To quote a client, “this is what separates amateur speculators from professionals.”

Also, let’s not forget the external forces that content developers need to factor into their work. One example is organic search. A professional content developer pays attention to the changes to the algorithms that search engines, particularly Google, use to determine what is ‘good’ content. Content developers need to understand the implications so they can adjust their writing styles, metadata, and schema use, to help search engines find content.

Putting content to work

We have established that content is central to how you describe your products and services. It’s the articles that people read. It’s the instructions that people follow. It’s the photo and the description, the infographic or chart, the product specs, and the supporting material that persuades consumers to click the ‘Buy’ button. Copy is the content that consumers see, and metadata is the content that consumers don’t see. Together, the copy plus metadata comprise content that can be searched and found, delivered and viewed, understood, and acted on.

What goes into the making of digital content starts with a strategy and culminates in the content itself. Here are some of the basic considerations.

The content structure

The structure, codified in a content model, defines how content works within delivery systems, such as a CMS (content management system). The model is created by determining all the kinds of content that need to be created and work together to meet the business requirements. A content strategist would create a domain model, content types, content flows, and then consolidate them into a model. The developers or CMS integrators use this model to build rules about how content gets transported through the system, and delivered to a publishing system or shared with other software systems.

The semantics

There are various standards that technologies such as a CMS use to deliver content to other technologies. The content needs to conform to these standards. A content strategist would work with the technologists to determine which schemas are used, how the taxonomy is set up, which metadata fields are required and how they will be configured, how many channels the content needs to get published to, and so on.

The content

The copy must engage consumers, and fulfil their expectations in terms of user experience. A content professional also writes the adaptive copy that will be delivered to specific channels or outputs. They then add the metadata that allows systems to automatically process the content and provides search engines with the right information. The content also needs to be checked for editorial quality, factual accuracy, consistency, and technical integrity.

Remove the blockers from your project

Given the prominent role that content plays, and the complexity involved in dealing with the setup and management of content, it is time for organisations and their agencies step up their game. Rather than minimise the role of content in digital projects, and the role of the professionals who develop it, it is in the best interest to involve them throughout the project. 

Involve a content strategist while the vision and strategy are being formulated. Have the strategist work alongside the CMS integrators to develop the content model, or at least contribute to it. The content strategist will understand the vision for delivering content to meet business requirements, and their perspective will inform what the content model looks like.

Assign content strategists or content designers to work alongside the user experience team as they flesh out the presentation framework. Content takes time to develop, whether it’s new content or content rewritten to work in the new content model or on the new site, and this gives the content professional time to work on the launch-critical content.

Have a content professional work with the client-side writers to teach them how content will work in the new system, and what the expectations are around creating and maintaining the content. This is often a new experience for writers, who need some training around topics such as using formats and templates, semantic structures, metadata, and taxonomies. They may also need help with content governance, such as setting up and following workflow.

In the end, the best strategy toward removing blockers from content is to embrace the role of content and face the challenge head on: put content in the centre of your project. Getting your content in order is an integral part of the process – and integral suggests integrating content into the overall fabric of a project.

There is no magic bullet, but when done right, the result *is* magic.



How to produce quality content

We all want quality content. Nothing is more likely to lose an audience than badly designed, poorly written, uninformative content – and no-one sets out to produce that.

But what is quality? How do we know when we are getting it right? How can we measure it?

Content is the difference

What we do know is that content is king. In a multi-channel universe with millions of sites shouting for attention, there’s only one thing that differentiates your page from the rest – content.

Content is also all you have working for you at the crucial “zero moment of truth”, the period in a user’s decision-making process when the research is done before buying, according to Andrew Bredenkamp. He is the founder and CEO of Acrolinx, a linguistic analytics software platform, and he was a speaker at the recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Companies are slowly waking up to the reality that content matters for the bottom line. We’ve moved from a time when content was operating as little more than glorified placeholder on websites whose sole purpose was to carve out a corner of the web and bag a domain name.

Companies had to have content, but cared little about it, Dr Bredenkamp said. Now, they still have to have it but they want it, because they know content gives them a competitive advantage. Whether your aim is to get new customers or to retain existing ones, it’s content that’s going to do the job.

Who decides what quality is?

So, how do we make sure our content has the quality it needs to deliver? The problem is that quality is deeply subjective, meaning many things to many people. Ask copywriters and content designers what good quality is, and they’ll talk about the words, grammar, spelling, style and tone. They’ll want tight copy with a logical structure that’s clear and easy to read, in short sentences and paragraphs, free from typos and inconsistencies. They’ll also be concerned about the substance of the material: how engaging, interesting and informative it is.

They’d have an eye on what we might call its authorial quality too. Is the content coming from an expert or enthusiast who knows the subject inside out and wants to communicate that knowledge for others’ benefit? Does the content have authority, build a relationship of trust with the reader and genuinely put their interests first?

The content strategist’s view

The content strategist, meanwhile, would look at the bigger picture. They’d be thinking about content and its role in the sequence of steps users are likely to take fulfil their needs, and how content could create a consistently positive experience throughout the user journey regardless of the platform or device they’re using.

In larger organisations this could involve co-ordinating a number of content-producing teams who each have their particular agenda to push. If the sales team’s material sings in harmony with the after sales team, for instance, then customers are more likely to get a unified, integrated experience. Uneven content that pulls in opposite directions conjures up a chaotic vision of a brand. Disjointed, inconsistent content tracks with poor ratings for reputation, Dr Bredenkamp said.

Quality for marketing

Ask marketeers the same question about quality and you’d get a quite different answer. No doubt they’d be delighted if the content did everything the content strategist and content designer wanted – though this isn’t their primary concern.

They’re far more interested in the findability of the content. They need hits – and whether this is on the back of fancy prose is irrelevant. What use is well-written high-quality content if no one finds and reads it? Quality content for them scores highly on the search engine results page (SERP), and draws users towards their website and away from their competitors.

Don’t try to trick Google

Working out what Google wants has long been the preserve of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) experts, who have traditionally used every weapon in the armoury to give their content an edge. What is becoming clearer is that the old SEO techniques are not nearly as effective as they once were. As many people in SEO will tell you, the days of using content as a vehicle for keywords and backlinks to dupe Google’s algorithms are numbered.

Google is doing what it can to neutralise the tricks of the trade and people who game the system. After all, the search engine wants to offer content of high quality too – search results that provide good information to the people looking for it. It doesn’t want to give them a parade of keyword-bloated SEO-tweaked trickery that fools algorithms as much as it short-changes its users.

Searching for quality

A measure of how important this is to Google can be seen with the care it takes over perfecting its search processes. Every year it makes at least 500 changes to its search algorithm, occasionally adding to this with major overhauls, such as Google Penguin and Google Hummingbird, that can make significant differences to how it gathers results.

Google’s systems are further augmented with the input of real people – providing a human element to Google’s search iterations that is better able to evaluate content and detect true quality. Google search quality evaluators, as they’re known, scour pages looking for characteristics such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, satisfying information and a positive website reputation – measures that are far more difficult for an algorithm to assess.

Make your own quality

As Google gets more interested in the question of content quality and how to measure it, where does this leave us? Should we just accept that quality is whatever Google says it is? Doing so would be to fall back into the old modes of second-guessing Google’s designs – and this contradicts what Google has been trying to tell us for the last few years. Their message is clear: think less about trying to please Google and more about delivering the best possible experience for users. Get that right, and, in theory at least, high search rankings will follow as a matter of course.

We are in a position, then, that the meaning of “quality” among those who have a stake in creating it, is becoming far more closely aligned than it has been previously. Quality for copywriters, content designers, marketeers, content strategists and search engine optimisers seems to be increasingly about responding closely to the needs of users and ensuring a positive experience for them across platforms.

It’s not just user needs

But there’s more – and this point can be painful to hear for people passionate about content.

It’s not all about the user. Our services to users are built upon the aims and objectives of our organisations. Quality requires time, thought, investment, planning – among the reasons that many companies have been slow to embrace it. There’s no reason to go to the trouble if your quality content is not achieving what you want it to.

High quality content does not automatically become highly effective content, as Lucie Hyde, Barclaycard’s Head of Content and Digital Channels, said in a later presentation at the meetup. A Bach cantata is of exquisite quality, but it’s not going to be a dancefloor hit in Ibiza.

Getting the conversion

Your content has to be effective. This could be commercial effectiveness, clinching the sale, or it could be non-commercial, fulfilling an obligation. It has to achieve what it sets out to – and make what Bredenkamp called the ‘conversion’. It’s not enough for content to be of a high standard – although it definitely helps. The more problems there are with the content, the lower the conversion rate tends to be, he said; the fewer style errors there are, the higher the rate.

You have to know the needs of your organisation to create a definition of quality. When you work out exactly what your business needs are, then you’re better able not only to recognise quality, but measure it too. Comparing the conversion rate of one page against another very quickly gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t, he said. Your notion of quality can then be supported by something indisputable – data.

Quality is driven by data

There’s nothing like data to cut across disagreements in the meeting room about the direction content should be taking. Content producers may have style sheets and writing guides, they may be writing “on brand” and “on board”, they may be getting the top readability scores and high search rankings. But, as football commentators are so fond of saying, there’s only one statistic that really matters – and with content it’s the conversion rate, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness and quality of your content.

Quality is about context as much as standards. It’s about recognising user needs and mapping them to the objectives of your organisation – and it all has to be done with the right style, tone, accuracy and relevance to engage and entertain. It’s a lot to ask, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy.

Many thanks to Dr. Andrew Bredenkamp for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @abredenkamp

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Webinar: Delivery – the misunderstood piece of the product content puzzle

Content professionals spend a lot of time talking about the content creation and content management phases of the content lifecycle, but they seldom talk much about delivery. That’s because delivery is often misunderstood. And, it can be challenging. It requires a different skill set and specialized tools designed for the job.

Webinar with Rahel Bailie: 21 June

On Tuesday, June 21, 2016, join Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, for part one of a three-part webinar series on content delivery. The first webinar in the series kicks off with a discussion about delivery with content strategy maven Rahel Anne Bailie, Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll UK, and intelligent content guru, Joe Gelb, President of Zoomin Software.

You’ll learn what delivery is, where it fits, why it’s important, and how it works. You’ll discover how some forward-thinking organizations leverage the power of dynamic content delivery to ensure prospects and customers alike have access to the right product content when, where, and how they need it.

Live online: 21 June at 6pm UK time.
On demand after.
60 mins.
Sign up for the webinar.

Content strategy tips for future-friendly content

No one likes stale content. That’s why we do our best to give it a long life, making it interesting and relevant to our audience in ways that could endure weeks, months or even years.

The same goes for content design, but this has the added difficulty of going past its sell-by date because of the technology it relies on.

The past is another planet

Only a decade ago, your phone was a tiny thing with a small screen and numeric buttons like a school calculator. You used it to make a call – it’s a phone, isn’t it?

Somewhere in its labyrinthine menus was an option to go online, but once you’re there it was so slow and clunky that you didn’t bother, and did all your surfing on your computer at home.

Anyway, there was no hurry, no relentless soundtrack of pings from incoming emails, chat and tweets. Twitter, Apple Push Notifications, apps hadn’t been invented. Social media was just a fuzz on the dim horizon that only a few were coming to realise would be massive.

It’s not that long ago, a decade, and yet in terms of the way we communicate with and relate to each other, it might as well be another epoch.

When Wikipedia was launched, there was up to a five year time-to-obsolescence on web-enabled services. Now it’s around 12 months, and shortening all the time – a rate of change known as ‘velocity of obsolescence’.

And if change is ever quicker for software and hardware, where does this leave content design? How can content designers meet the goal of providing fresh engaging content across time, space and devices?

A content-first approach

We may not know what the future has in store for us, but this doesn’t have to be an obstacle, according to Mike Atherton, veteran information architect and UX coach. For him, it’s not so much about defying time, but about being future friendly.

Talking at Scroll’s Content, Seriously meetup recently, he stressed the importance of putting content first. Design the content before thinking about the interface, and the future isn’t such an issue. Users get to engage with your content as and when they please, whether on a laptop, tablet, phone or watch.

He illustrated his point with his design for the latest website of the upcoming IA Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, a new site had to be designed every year from scratch, which was a good exercise for volunteers, but left the summit without a clear and enduring brand.

The task, then, was to create a future-friendly website that could be easily updated and applied to changing user needs, regardless of interface or location.

Complexity behind, clarity in front

The trick, he said, was to create a ‘domain model’ from the off, which describes the subject and how all the concepts and relationships hold together within that. It’s not the same as a sitemap – it’s a stage removed from websites – and nor is it just a summary of content.

The domain model explains the complexity of the subject and enables content designers to decide which parts they want to show on what interface. It also enables them to balance comprehensive detail against user accessibility, what Mike called ‘complexity behind the scenes and clarity up front’.

He showed how the domain model described the relationship of the main concepts to each other, such as event, venue, location, person, role, session and session format. If domain models capture the overall context, the content model zooms in to detail, its properties and how it’s offered to users, giving it its structure.

In his example, the ‘person’ concept from the domain model becomes explained in terms of its inherent properties, such as name, company, job title, biography, job title, associated website and Twitter ID.

Once content is broken down into these atoms, it’s only at this stage that the design needs inform the ‘granularity’ of the content model, where and how the atoms appear in relation to each other.

Structured content is future friendly

This makes it straightforward to apply the structured content into the content management system (CMS), which can deal with it in terms of its properties, content types and relationships.

Use an unstructured CMS and you get what Mike called ‘blob’ content – a mess of pages, titles and rambling body fields, in which the relationships between each part are lost, formatting is made ad hoc and links are added by hand.

Style clashes are far more likely, but even worse from a user’s point of view is that the core concepts that hold the content together become trapped in and swamped by the body field.

Future-friendly content, he said, is ‘stored, structured, and connected outside any interface’, but ‘ready to use in every interface’.

In ten years from now, as we zip around on hoverboards, browsing the web on our trousers, these principles are still likely to be true.

Next steps

Buzzzzt! Content is energy

Content. We hear that word all the time. But think for a minute, what does ‘content’ mean to you?

The way we think about content has a profound effect on how we approach content-related problems – and how we solve them.

For some, content is a commodity to be packed, packaged, displayed and (we hope) consumed. If it’s a popular, desirable commodity, the value is reflected in an accumulation of views, likes, shares and comments.

The trouble with this perception though is that it gives content a passive role, not only in its relationship to users, but also to the organisations it’s supposed to serve.

A decade ago, this view prevailed. Websites were built with rigid, lifeless layouts that attempted to recreate print documents online.

Unfortunately, many organisations still treat their content this way.

A dynamic view of content

At Scroll’s last Content, Seriously meetup, Kate Thomas suggested a more dynamic view.

A long-time content strategist and former Head of Content at ORM London, Kate argues that content is better seen as energy – the vital, sizzling force that powers the page.

Some content is like kinetic energy – the short, snappy, vibrant, engaging material that crackles off the page.

Other content is more like potential energy, ready to unleash its potential at the click of a mouse. You can store up this kind of content on the site – it’s always fresh, relevant, and interesting to users.

Content should fizz and pop like electricity – but it does no good if left as a livewire, wasting its power and frying you and your clients in the process.

That’s where content strategy comes in.

Harnessing content energy for business benefits

If it’s going to work properly for you, you must harness the energy of your content. A good content strategist has the systems, processes and tools to do just that.

They can plan ahead, with a full understanding of the users’ needs, backed up with analysis of the data, and fit the plan to the organisation’s editorial calendars. They understand the systems, the governance structures, the content models and content plans.

They oversee the resources, whether human, financial or content-related; and they know how to utilise the technology, including software, hardware and hard copy, applying the right media and channels to the message.

Unlike colleagues such as copywriters, SEO experts, UX teams, content designers and so on, it’s the content strategist’s job to see the whole picture and make sure it all works together. Their goal is getting the right content, at the right time, to the right people.

In this way, the content strategist channels the power of content to support the client’s business goals.

The result is real-world benefits, not just a rack-up of shares, likes and retweets in the ether.

In one of Kate’s recent projects, for example, her client saw gains of £600,000 because of improvements she made through the content strategy.

Correctly harnessed, content is the current of a digital presence – a liquid and energetic force that powers effective responses to business and user needs.

Next steps

Evidence-based content strategy and design

There is a lot of talk about evidence-based design these days. A quick search for evidence-based design, or EBD, returns results mostly focused on health care and the construction industry. Both of these professions have a vested interest in developing an empirical understanding of how people interact with their environments so that their practices can improve the effectiveness of project outcomes.

In healthcare, this means improving patient and staff well-being, patient healing, stress reduction, and safety.

In construction, the goal of evidence-based design is to improve the performance of buildings, and not only looks at ways that people interact with the built environment, but also how the various components of buildings interact as a complex system.


Evidence-based design method – Wikipedia

Evidence-Based Design Journal

Evidence-based design in digital services

In the realm of interactive digital services, the term evidence-design has crept in, largely unheralded. The benefits are seen as credibility.

Evidence-based design bases decisions on research, both user and scholarly, and increases the likelihood of effectiveness and ultimately success. Human Factors International, a consultancy known for its scholarly contributions and its accreditation program, describes the process as:

  • clarify the question being asked regarding UX methods or design
  • identify sources of research or best practice to help answer the question
  • find available research or best practice
  • review for credibility and applicability
  • check to see if other research or practice has come to the same conclusions
  • save copies of the materials along with links or citations for future reference
  • communicate and apply what you have learned


Evidence-Based Best Practices and Research – Human Factors International

Evidence-based content strategy and design

The more research we do into evidence-based design, the more that Scroll can attest that all along, it has been using an evidence-based design approach to content strategy and content design.

The methodologies are quite similar.

Evidence-based content strategy

Content strategy recognises that an organisation is a complex system, where various components interact to optimise content performance. A successful project outcome requires foresight and planning.

The discovery phase of a content strategy involves making a diagnosis, and then finding the right prescription.

The steps are:

  1. Clarify the organisational problem that content is being asked to solve.
  2. Research the content requirements of the organisation, the content consumers, the content developers, the technologies used to manage content, and the content itself.
  3. Conduct a gap analysis by looking at the difference between the current state and the ideal state.
  4. Determine the gaps that have prevented the organisation from reaching their ideal future state.
  5. Research content lifecycles, and identify best practices for the context.
  6. Map out a high-level solution and validate for feasibility and applicability.
  7. Communicate findings and get buy-in to proceed with implementation.

Once there is organisational clarity and agreement around the roadmap to a solution, the evidence-based content design process takes over.

Evidence-based content design

Once the big-picture goals have been established, the implementation phase begins. This is where content design comes in.

The content has to work from an editorial perspective, a user experience perspective, a comprehension perspective, and a technical perspective before it’s fit-for-purpose. That doesn’t happen by accident:

  1. Use evidence from analytics, user research and elsewhere to clarify the problem the content is being asked to solve (the user need).
  2. Research the requirements that allow the content to make the user of the content successful at their tasks (the acceptance criteria).
  3. Find the best practices for developing and delivering content in that context.
  4. Validate for credibility and applicability.
  5. Communicate findings and create the content.

Qualifying this approach as evidence-based design

Developing content and content systems is subject to the same rigour that goes into designing a healthcare environment or a building envelope that improves the performance of a complex system.

There is no room for opinions and conjecture.

An organisation must know they have a better system than before, and that their new system delivers better-performing content than before. They must be able to demonstrate this with data.

In content design, this is done through an empirical understanding of how people interact with content, combined with deep domain knowledge of editorial processes, learning theory, comprehension techniques, information architecture, and content development theories and practices. Once the content is live its performance can be measured using various metrics from web analytics, as well as through direct feedback from users.

In content strategy, this is done through a knowledge of content design combined with an understanding of the various ecosystems used for content development, management, and delivery.

In both disciplines, the experts at Scroll have a keen understanding of using content as a business asset to further organisational goals.

© Scroll Ltd.