Understanding Content

For a small business owner looking to keep his or her loyal customer base and potentially expand it, or a team member tasked with re-vamping a company’s web presence, understanding content strategy is crucial in accomplishing these project goals.

Content Strategy for the Web and Content Strategy for Mobile cover similar topics with a similar process that can influence the management of such project goals. Each book begins with a framing of the situation at hand, be it “bad” content or determining what mobile means, and moves into analyzing content: what type it is, where it is, and what it does. After which, solutions to accomplish goals of websites and mobile apps are explored in detail.

The sections outlined in the Content Strategy for the Web are:

  • Reality
    • Now, Problem, Solution
  • Discovery
    • Alignment, Audit, Analysis
  • Strategy
    • Core, Content, People
  • Success
    • Persuasion, Advocacy, Hero

In Content Strategy for Mobile, chapters are:

  • Your Content, Now Mobile
  • Content Before Platform
  • Adaptive Content
  • Strategy and Planning
  • Writing and Editing
  • Information Architecture
  • People and Process

Section and chapter titles of each illustrate the point above about similarity in flow of the material. This similarity indicates that developing content strategy follows a logical order regardless of the vessel the content will be going into.

Both Content Strategy for the Web and Content Strategy for Mobile discuss, whether explicitly or not, that before creating a content strategy, one must first reconsider how we think about content, what it is, and how people use it.

McGrane first writes about the reality of mobile and misconceptions surrounding its use. Three common misconceptions are that mobile should be designed for task-based functionality rather than information-seeking content, that designing for mobile can be an excuse to make it inferior, and that getting all content onto mobile is not necessary.

McGrane debunks these misconceptions in detailing the importance of understanding content types, how to launch a plan to implement or create that content, and what it takes to maintain it and keep it useful.

Content needs to be adaptive, responsive, and structured – all descriptors that give content a kind of vibrancy and the idea that content will be in flux, evolving, and not static.

This initial step is essential to creating a successful content strategy, particularly when considering the misconceptions that McGrane lists that people often have about mobile. If the type of content that is needed is misunderstood, or how people will use that content, or whether or not all website content also needs to be mobile (yes), the content will suffer and results of the work won’t be half as fruitful.

McGrane also describes the necessity of content that is “ready to go anywhere,” further adding to the idea that content, whether on a website, mobile, or elsewhere, is dynamic and has movement and significance of its own once created. McGrane uses the word “automagically” to describe responsive content, content that can reformat itself for different screen sizes or platforms and showing particular content depending on the interface, device capability, bandwidth, or user context.

Content Strategy for Mobile offers a content concept that will be useful in developing content strategies as technology advances and the fluidity between content channels/vessels increases.

The Creative Process

When I taught introductory philosophy courses as a teaching fellow, I tried to emphasize that philosophy was about asking questions, as cliche as that seems. There were sleepy-eyed freshmen staring at me and waiting for me to tell them why philosophy matters – and that’s one of the things I had to offer them.

I wanted to impart the wisdom that someone had once given me: though you might not find a definitive answer to your/life’s major questions, at least you’re eliminating some of the things that won’t work as an answer. So, you’re getting closer! In theory.

In the brand identity process as written by Wheeler, I see a similar endeavor. In Phase 1, Wheeler uses a quote from Michael Cronan that relates to my point and my “teachings:” “Answering questions is relatively easy. Asking the right question is more difficult.” It depends on the question, I would say for the former part of this quote, but for the latter, I completely agree.

Phase one of the brand identity process is critical. The questions asked for baseline information about a business or company, and the questions behind research done for audits and usability testing, set up information essential to the next four phases. These questions need to be the “right” questions. Here, I use the word “right” to mean “most useful, and most pertinent to the objectives and goals of the business in creating a brand identity.”

Some of my favorite questions that Wheeler curates in discussing insight include:

“Why do we exist?”

“What will we become?”

-Keith Yamashita, Chairman, SYPartners

“If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?”

-Marcel Proust

Though these questions might not seem specific, Wheeler also emphasizes that it’s important to ask bigger questions that can lead to profound changes for brands. The bigger questions end up digging at the heart of a business or company. The heart becomes the brand identity.

The next phase of the brand identity process is also a philosophical endeavor. It could’ve come right out of my Introduction to Philosophy syllabus, as I asked my students to “discuss what philosophizing means to them.”

An answer I wish I’d had at the start of 2016 when I began teaching is the Phase 2 overview:

“It is about analysis, discovery, synthesis, simplicity, and clarity.” And Wheeler nails what it takes to be a young philosopher and brand identity genius. She also describes designers as those who work at the “intersection of strategic imagination, intuition, design, excellence, and experience.”

All this to say: the brand identity process is a creative process. The branding part of communication requires creativity and a deeper level of thinking than what is required of someone to properly edit a manual or design a flyer. In embarking on the process of branding and creating representations of one’s business or company, one must first examine what it’s going to be. And if it’s the case, re-examine what already exists. From there, begin making, thinking, throwing out, clarifying, and all of the things that are necessary in a creative, philosophical process in creating one’s brand identity.

Know Thyself

In beginning Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler, I searched for where content strategy would pop up. Where in the process are we talking content strategy here? I found familiar concepts from content strategy integrated into brand basics, as Wheeler weaves content strategy ideas (knowingly? Unknowingly?) into the reference guide useful for content strategists and marketing people alike.

These familiar concepts are:

  • Know thyself
  • Use what you know
  • Maintain what you’ve created

Wheeler mixes in wise words from various sources, those experienced in the field as well as long-dead philosophers.

She quotes Chris Grams from The Ad-Free Brand, “Brand mantras are poetry. And they are powerful tools, not just for building brands, but for building organizations.” Here, Grams is referring to the brand tagline as a mantra – a phrase that captures a company’s brand essence, and also invokes action and elicits recognition. The birth of a tagline comes from an intensive strategic and creative process, a process that familiarizes the creator with a brand’s personality and positioning, making it its own entity.

In pages following, she uses Plato to drive home the importance of authenticity as a brand ideal, quoting “Know thyself.” Supporting Grams’ mantra quote, knowing oneself leads into building a brand and ultimately building an organization. Core messages, targeted messages, visuals such as look and feel and a logo, stem from an organization knowing who they are and what they stand for. (Now where did it come from, and where is it going?)

I’m hooked. It’s realizing the essence of the self but applied to a non-human entity.

It seems that in studying both content strategy and brand identity, one recurring goal is highlighted as essential to succeeding in your objectives. This goal is having a content strategy statement, carefully selected word-for-word, and having a tagline, also carefully selected word-for-word, both meant to represent a project or brand going forward. The weight of each word and phrase is enormous, and much thought needs to go into choosing the verbs and nouns used in content strategy statements and taglines. If you know who you are and what you stand for, you should be able to develop a content strategy statement or tagline much more easily than if you didn’t.

One manifestation of knowing your brand is the development of characters to represent in a familiar form (usually an animal, if not a human being) the brand. Historically, these characters hold a lot of weight. They became and have become cultural icons that children and customers both cherish. If you stop to think about their significance in the time period in which they were born, these characters might also (if they were real) have a lot to say about the world and things like war, capitalism, etc.

I’m referring to Uncle Sam, aiding in the sale of war bonds, who actually became a character because of the consumers, rather than the company coming up with the idea first. I’m talking about Aunt Jemima, affiliated with pancake mix and syrup, but also with an awful part of American history. I have to give the nonhuman characters some recognition as well: consider Elsie the Cow, beloved amongst all whole milk drinkers who helped revitalize Borden Dairy during a pricing war with its competitors, and the Energizer Bunny, power source of children’s toys and household useful things all over the world.

These brand characters have a place in history, almost as much as the human designers behind them do. That’s monumental. They’re fictional, and they’re made up, but they made it into the memories and lives of generations. This is how branding is powerful and permeating.

Content Always

Halvorson and Rach wrap up the practice of content strategy nicely in last half of Content Strategy for the Web. Chapters seven through twelve, titled Strategy and Success, neatly and appropriately follow chapters one through six, Reality and Discovery. It’s conceptual, then practical, and they emphasize an ongoing, circular content strategy throughout the book.

I think I can try my hand at content strategizing with the helpful tools that they list for each of the four areas of focus in the content development process. These are:

  • Create/source new content
  • Maintain existing content
  • Evaluate content effectiveness
  • Govern strategies, plans, policies, and procedures

In two of these four focuses, Maintaining Content and Evaluating Content, Halvorson and Rach mention a content inventory and qualitative audit, respectively, as useful tools for said focuses. I appreciate the connection and emphasis they place on the value of completing an inventory/audit. Even more so, I appreciate that style guides and other tools that aren’t news to me are included in that list.

In Content Strategy for the Web, Halvorson and Rach note the technologies, tools, and information products that I’m more familiar with (style guides, audience analysis and personas, voice and tone, etc.) and show how it relates to the content development process. It’s comforting to know that despite the changes and growth in technical communication, what I learned as an undergraduate and practiced a bit as a graduate student is still useful.  There’s a circular, continuous theme underlying the content development process, which is also reflected in the core strategy quad to which they repeatedly refer. (The nifty version below is from uxmag.com).


It’s a great mnemonic device when advocating for content strategy, but more importantly, when considering the critical components of content strategy. Substance, structure, workflow, and governance affect whether content ends up usable and valuable, both to users and to the business employing the content strategy. Substance and structure deal mostly with content, while workflow and governance have to do with the people part of content strategizing.

The topic that resonated most with me from the substance list that Halvorson and Rach provide is that every piece of content needs a job, or purpose. It prevents the “what’s the point?” question that would inevitably pop up if I were to shoot an article I find interesting to my supervisor before sharing it on our social media. I’ll try to remember the handy list of content purposes before I ask for approval (that way, I’ll also have a response should they ask). I also used the MailChimp case study today to explain my voice and tone for when I do make posts on Facebook and Twitter, “fun but not childish, informal but not sloppy,” to name a couple of my favorites. MailChimp’s voice and tone guide is the happy medium between extremes for good content for the user.

From the people components, I tried to decipher my own responsibilities and landed on somewhat being a content creator and somewhat a curator. I make things and I find things. I am not quite a specialist. I can see myself using Content Strategy for the Web to refer to when I’m faced with a new project, or I find myself in a new workplace.

Reality & Discovery

My concept of content strategy before reading Halvorson and Rach’s “Content Strategy for the Web” didn’t really include the future. For some reason, my focus when considering content for the social media sites that I help out with was really short-sighted.

I thought about the events coming up the next week, and maybe a month in advance. Their definition of content strategy considers the big picture of an organization much more than my own uninformed definition. Theirs is worth adopting.

Content strategy should guide one’s plans for creation, delivery, and governance of the content. This means that a strategy will set direction for the future. In short, I hadn’t been thinking about strategizing and was focusing mainly on content for the user. Halvorson and Rach list what content strategy is NOT, and I’m guilty of thinking that it was at least a couple of these things:

  • Social media accounts (see above)
  • Blog posts
  • Educational articles
  • Online knowledge bases

Not to say that these things can’t be some of the channels that are part of an organization’s content strategy, but they will never be enough alone.

My previous approach to thinking about and developing a content strategy also reflects some of the obstacles that Halvorson and Rach attribute to why bad content is not turned into better content.

I don’t view content as a commodity, and certainly, it should be engaging to users and answer their questions or motivate them to act. The obstacle to good content that I would likely create, should I ever become a content strategist, is racing right past strategy and into execution. I would like to blame my enthusiasm for getting things done, or the pressure to deliver, as they write in Chapter 2.

Reasons not to rush past planning include the following:

  • No one who matters will know what you’re doing.
  • You won’t know what you’re doing.
  • Your content will suffer.
  • You will suffer.

Though I know in my core that the planning phase is critical to a successful project, I usually just want to get started on rolling out the emails and creating things.

Halvorson and Rach emphasize the importance of getting stakeholders on board with your project right from the start. Identifying people by how they will impact your project will have a significant impact on how you complete it. It’s also important to spin a compelling story about the necessity of a content strategy to them once you know who they are. Halvorson and Rauch dedicate an entire chapter to this initial stage called “Alignment,” that starts in the discovery process and continues throughout the project. It’s not linear, but a circular cycle in which the content strategist marathons.

Halvorson, Kristina. & Rach, Melissa. (2012). Content Strategy for the Web. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.