Messages from the Content Strategy Forum

I spent Friday at the Content Strategy 2010 Forum (#csforum10) in Paris, which was a remarkable event for many reasons. First of all (and I am allowing my personal prejudices as a technical writer to come to the fore here) although this event was organised by members of the France Chapter and the Trans-Alpine Chapter of the STC, this wasn’t a bog-standard technical writing event at all: in fact, hardly any of the the speakers, and barely a quarter of the delegates would describe themselves as technical writers.
Next, although this event was held in France, most of the speakers were not from France or even from Europe. Many had travelled from the USA and Canada specially for this event which they recognised as being of ground-breaking and international importance. (As I write, I am aware that many of the speakers and delegates at #csforum10 are marooned in Paris, as a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano has temporarily grounded national and international air transport over much of Europe.)
My third point is this: despite the fact that this was not a tech writing event, and despite that fact that the focus of content strategists today is clearly on the web, the amount of common ground that content strategists share with technical writers and information designers, in terms of their own attitudes and approaches, as well as in terms of reactions to their work, is enormous.
Let me explain this point with some messages from a few of the speakers. Here’s how opening keynote speaker Rahel Anne Bailie defined content strategy:

[a] repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire content lifecycle

This definition reminded me strongly of the “five-level publications-maturity model” promoted by Jo-Ann Hackos in Managing Your Documentation Projects, in which publications teams aim to be “organized and repeatable” at Level 3, and “managed and sustainable” at Level 4. Bailie pointed out that if a web site doesn’t easily allow a visitor to find what they are looking for they have a “broken experience” that reflects negatively on the site, the product and the brand. Isn’t that true of an online help system or user manual as well? Bailie also said that with so much social media around, anyone who has a “broken experience” can share their negative feelings with the world in seconds, and that’s true for negative feelings about tech pubs too. Content has to be central, said Bailie, and quoted Dorian Taylor:

The web doesn’t have content, the web is content

Here is another example. Clare O’Brien of the consultancy CDA defined the importance of evaluating content by quoting the legendary ad-man Bill Bernbach, who said:

It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen.

Bernbach could be describing technical writing best practices here. What is task-centric instructional writing about if not “concern with what the reader gets” from the text? If this is a key message for content strategists to get across to their clients, then clearly they are singing from the same hymn sheet as technical writers.

My last example comes from Colleen Jones of Content Science, who described how a public health agency client she worked with wanted to publish raw scientific articles on their website for the general public, and just leave them there. The information was accurate, but useless for the intended audience. It didn’t answer the questions that were driving people to visit the site in the first place. Her story was scarily familiar. I have met many subject matter experts who mistakenly think that everyone who is going to use their product is a clone of themselves and shares exactly their own interests in the underlying technology of whatever it is they are developing. If I had a pound for every time I’d told a product developer or a product manager that people reading the online help aren’t interested in all the technical details behind the product, they just want to know how to use the product to do their jobs, I could have retired on a generous pension by now!
These are just my first thoughts on the messages from Content Strategy Forum 2010 and their relevance for technical writers. In this post I haven’t mentioned all the excellent speakers I was privileged to listen to, and so I plan to return to this topic in the coming days.

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5 Responses to Messages from the Content Strategy Forum

  1. Good post. Reminds us that underneath all the differences, there are some common needs and methodologies.

  2. Nice summary, David. I have just taken on the role of Managing Editor/Content Strategist for the US Veterans Administration’s eBenefits Web Portal. I was selected for the position because of my extensive technical writing background. I am now part of a large, collaborative User Experience team. Companies are obviously recognizing where we fit in to this relatively new role.

  3. Flacke says:

    IMHO, Content Strategy = Web designers/Content Providers are discovering the basics of technical communication (Writing for your users, writing clearly, performing usability testing, etc.). Possible next steps: eye-tracking and readability indices…
    Marie-L. Flacke

  4. Roger Hart says:

    I can only agree with you, David. Although the “deliverables” (I can’t be the only technical communicator who loathes that word) differ for tech comms and content strategy, the skill sets are essentially the same. Optimising information for business and audience, and ensuring it stays optimal – this is the enterprise we’re all engaged in.

    This is something of an off-the-cuff thought, but I wonder, then, if the ascendancy of content strategy is a sign that technical communicators and marketing professionals are becoming less afraid of each other and each other’s worlds?

  5. Larry Kunz says:

    David, thanks for posting this article for those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to attend the Forum. It really is remarkable how much the content strategist’s priorities and the technical communicator’s priorities overlap.

    Roger Hart raises a good point, wondering whether the wall between technical communicators and marketing professionals is beginning to break down. I think that it is breaking down, and I think that it has to. Our readers don’t draw any distinction between technical content and marketing content. Why in the world should we?

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