Content Stratification

Ever-Broadening Content Horizons
In her recent blog post ‘Content strategy – a revolution?’, Betty Tew is just touching the tip of the iceberg (or, whatever the equivalent in a cloud metaphor would be). I like how she refers to “the ever-broadening field of business and technical communications” because as I see it, tech writing (or technical communication) is becoming subsumed under larger circles in the Venn diagram of professional activities. It is still there and still important, but not the overarching discipline that it used to be. Silos that previously separated the specialties are going away. It’s time for us all to play together in the same space. Tech comm is playing a smaller part because more people want more types of information in more channels quicker. And no one has time to read it all, so we are working to automate part of the process and filter a lot of the content and design the interface so users don’t need so much explanation. So I think content strategy is part of the process of dealing with the disruption and change in our industry.

Challenge of Content Strategy
Last weekend I listened to Sarah O’Keefe’s webcast ‘Content strategy in technical communication’. When she got to the part where she asked the audience “What are YOUR challenges?”, I knew immediately – but I don’t think it is on her list of frequent responses. My biggest strategy challenge is not what amount or type of content to post or what format to deliver content, but how to build community, how to foster collaboration?
Content isn’t just something I create and send out to a willing audience. My strategy is to engage in conversation so content needs to flow both ways. Where in content strategy is any of that handled? Content strategy seems to focus on the content and the business value of content. But my customers do not need content (at least not content alone).
They need conversation. And how do you manage content once it is out there in social media, where others send it out, mix it up, create their own? When the conversation is happening and others join in, how does “content strategy” help?

How Separate?
I appreciate that Sarah wants so separate tech comm as a separate body of content with a different purpose from marketing communications and other more persuasive communications. It all might be blurring together and it might not be as useful as it was in the past to consider it as a separate type of content. Is segmenting persuasive comm. from tech. transfer useful? Let’s just say I’m not convinced yet. And talking about separate (but equal), can you really create a strategy for content that is separate from the rest of the company’s strategy? Is it really a separate process, a separate strategy? I’m wondering why we have content strategy as separate from sales strategy, service strategy, market strategy, product strategy, customer management strategy, etc.? Can anyone answer these questions for me?

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4 Responses to Content Stratification

  1. Hi Bill, thanks for jumping in.

    First, the issue of marcomm versus techcomm. I’m not advocating for separation; I just think that’s the reality at the moment. Over time, I suspect that that line will blur just as the line between training content and tech comm content is blurring today.

    Building user communities is actually in my list of business goals. For most of our customers, it’s a secondary goal, but we’re defining having a lot of discussions about it.

  2. Kai says:

    Hi, Bill, I’d like to comment on your very first question: “How to build community, how to foster collaboration?” My experience is that most of it depends on a product people care about. Beyond that you can’t really do much more than to provide the stage and the tools.

    I have two examples for you: Years ago, I was an intern for a US state’s chamber of commerce in Germany. My task was to find ways to promote tourism to that state. (This would be similar to your challenge to foster people’s engagement.) The results were dismal: Most Germans know neither the state nor any cities in it. The tourist attractions (and even industries) it offers are more easily available in Europe. In my opinion, getting Germans to vacation in that state would’ve required a huge effort to get Germans to know the state – and to care for it to boot.

    The second example is more successful: The help authoring tool MadCap Flare has a reputation of being powerful and quirky, with a steep learning curve for newbies. Yes, there is online help, there are tutorials and videos to get you started, but much of the tricky issues are worked out in the user forums. As far as I can tell, MadCap’s involvement in them is very small: They provide the stage (the forum) and the tools (for example, you get cute titles, such as “Propellus Maximus”). Beyond that, they mainly leave users to work it out among themselves. And it works pretty well. Because many MadCap users *care* for the product.

    As for your other “separating” questions: I think many of us talk about a separate content strategy at this point because many (C-level) managers have not yet understood content as a central *asset* of their companies, all talk of information economy and knowledge management notwithstanding. If we were to roll it all into the corporate strategy, it’d just get lost in the hubbub again.

  3. Betty Tew says:

    Bill, I think content strategy as a separate endeavor comes more into play when developing and maintaining large websites. Some corporate websites are so big now, they have no systematic way of enforcing consistency, which can hurt the brand and the user experience. I think this problem is the main impetus for the content strategy talks we’re hearing now. It is definitely an evolving field. I’m just learning about it myself, but as you noted, we’ve been doing strategy as tech communicators with our emphasis on user analysis, usability, and clear, concise writing.

    A few yrs ago when I worked on a large corporate website, we converted a lot of standalone docs into a website, segmented by user roles. We called our plan & method information design, which I think now would be considered a subset of content strategy. To me, content strategy is really stepping back and getting the biggest possible picture of your content.

    We need to acknowledge too that business content is really changing. All content is becoming webetized, even print. Everything is shorter, e.g., white papers, feature articles are about half the length they were 5 yrs ago. We as business communicators must reduce cognitive burden. All online content, I would say eventually, will be socialized also. I agree with you that the conversation is long over due with certain types of technical content. I’d love to see ratings, reviews & likes on technical support content. The main argument I’ve heard against using wikis and forums with public technical content is legal and monitoring issues.

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