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7 things writers just won’t believe about content design

Our guest blogger is Harry Ades, writer and long-time Scrollie. Harry’s new book, ‘An Opinionated Guide to London Green Spaces’, will be published in Spring 2020.

Do you remember the first time?

Do you remember the first time you heard the term ‘content design’? No doubt, your reaction was the same as everybody else’s: ‘What the hell is that?’

Following the initial confusion, two responses were common.

Denial

The first – as with the five stages of grief – was denial. This isn’t anything new, you told yourself. This is just the same old stuff under a fancy new name; ‘civil enforcement officers’ patrol the streets issuing parking tickets just like the traffic wardens of yore.

We’d still be writing and editing for the web as we had done for years, trying to make the best hash of experts’ and policy teams’ ramblings, while sneaking in the odd keyword for search. No need to panic.

Anger

And then, stage two – anger. Hang on a minute. Content?! Your finely crafted copy was now mere ‘content’! Your words were to be relegated to little more than placeholders, black and white squiggles, chunked and boxed to dress the page, adornments shoehorned around the things that really mattered, like adverts.

In a world of ‘content’, how could writers champion the craft? How could we look ourselves in the mirror? More importantly, how would we make a living? Soon it might as well be ‘lorem ipsum’ anyway, perhaps with an occasional request from marketing for some clickbait headlines. A postgraduate journalism degree and 20 years’ experience as a hack for this? Churning out perfunctory labels and signposts for videos of cats sneezing? ‘7 Things You Just Won’t Believe Come out of a Cat’s Nose.’ There, done.

Id response

It all seemed to confirm your worst fears about the internet. Had it finally come to this – that people no longer had the time or attention to read (properly read) online anymore? Faced with words on the screen, web users were nothing more than unthinking automata, brain stems feeding unconditioned id responses to the index finger resting on the left mouse button – always a gnat’s heartbeat away from the next click-through.

The Department of Internal Affairs just published its 212-page policy on street furniture improvement. Wait, what’s this? ‘You just won’t believe what John Craven looks like now?!’ Click, click, click!

Acceptance

When the dust settled, it became clearer what the brave new world of content design actually was. And it wasn’t the end of writing or the triumph of the banal.

Ultimately, it was an acknowledgement of the changing ways we look for and consume information online. It was recognition that what an organisation wants to say about itself is not necessarily the same as what users want to know.

It was an upending of the hierarchy of information transfer, putting users at the top. It reminded everybody in the chain that content is dead if nobody reads it. For that reason, the needs of the user were all important, often more important than the aspirations of the policy team, legal department, and even the CEO.

Liberation and enlightenment

It turned out that content design wasn’t the end of writing and writers, as many of us once feared. Quite the reverse. Thanks to the elevation of user needs to the top of the heap, writers now have more power than ever.

We became the champions of the user. Our job is to stick up for the people consuming information, fighting for their needs in the face of competing organisational demands. With our insight into what users want and our skill at communicating it, we have never been in a better position.

 

Embracing content design

It would be wrong to think that content design is just writing with a different hat on. Writers need a few extra tricks up their sleeves to emerge from the chrysalis as fully-fledged content designers.  Yes, that’s hats, sleeves, pupae and fledglings all at once, but never mind about that.

What’s important for content designers is an understanding of metrics and analytics – how we measure the effectiveness of our content. Writers tend to think that such judgements are subjective. In content design, they’re not. Success can be measured in page traffic, time spent reading, number of social media shares and so on.

In bigger organisations, there’ll be people dedicated solely to user research, so your grasp doesn’t even have to be that profound. Knowing what the key metrics are and how to interpret them is usually enough.

User research is immensely valuable.  It can win you battle after battle with people who have forgotten to put users first. When an organisation learns that literally no-one is reading their dense expert-driven expositions, but there are hits galore for the same information sweetly transformed by a content designer – that’s when the penny drops. The numbers don’t lie.

Writers make amazing content designers. Our skills enable us to attract, entertain and maintain an audience. We’re the ones who can identify the intersection between what an organisation wants to say and what a user wants to read. And into that intersection we’re the ones who deliver crisp, concise and sparkling content.

Those 7 things

It wasn’t clickbait. Well, it was a bit. But we do have a few points to make about content design for (possibly sceptical) writers.

Content design:

  1.     isn’t a denigration of the written word
  2.     has changed the way we write for the web
  3.     is about prioritising the needs of users
  4.     is perfectly suited to writers and editors
  5.     has made it easier for writers to say what they want to say
  6.     has given writers greater control of the process
  7.     has put good writers and editors in high demand

Add to your skills

If you want to know more about content design or becoming a content designer, please get in touch. We not only offer professional content training, but we’re also always on the lookout for talented writers, editors and content designers to work with us.

 


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