Confabulous: Content Strategy Basics


Last week, we went to Minneapolis to attend Confab, the first ever conference dedicated for people who do what we do. It was fabulous. Make that confabulous. Really, we can’t say enough good things about the event: There was a broad range of speakers who addressed interesting topics; the generally lovable nature of everyone we met; and the exhilarating sense that comes from feeling like you are part of a community that cares deeply about doing great work — plus some delicious cake and an excuse to consume large amounts of bourbon while making nerdy puns with new friends. For a professional event, it just doesn’t get any better. Here are some people that we met and recommend following on Twitter:

We brought back inspiration and knowledge that will make our work better. YAY! We thought we’d share some of the highlights with you, since many of our colleagues and client friends are working on similar projects, facing similar issues. Plus, we want to pay forward all the good will we soaked up in Minnesota.

First rule of content strategy club

“Content strategy is to copywriting what information architecture is to design.”

Content and content strategy drive the format and not the other way around! This rings true with us. Clients ask for deliverables, but what they really want are results. They often make statements like “we need to add a video” or “we need an app” or “we should be tweeting.” This drives strategists crazy because we should be starting with the goals and asking the question, “what do we want to achieve?” The next step is to identify what content is relevant and valuable to the target audience and then figure out what format is best for communicating that.

Practical advice

When you’re working with lots of content owners, don’t force the content providers to fully use the CMS right from the start. Focus on getting them to provide content. Over time, assess how competent they’ll be at using the CMS and teach them, gradually, according to each person’s capabilities.

Here are some useful tips for in-house web managers who have to gather a lot of content from various departments/groups within an organization:

  • Make a check list. Or give them form to fill out as a guide for how to write content.
  • Provide guidance. Give them simple tips for writing; e.g., active voice, no all caps, no bold. Put the tips online and bookmark them in the writer’s browser for them.
  • Provide structure and cultivate accountability. Put check-ins on their calendar and check in often—rather than leaving them alone until the “deadline.”
  • Drop tech jargon. All of it.

On writing well

Groupon’s @bcopple pulled the curtain back on one of the company’s most valuable business assets: editorial style. Here are some tips from the people who monetize writing, big time:

  • Use active, creative language. E.g.: “unleashes” instead of “offers”
  • Show don’t tell. Be more specific with descriptions rather than making blanket statements. For example, “You’ll be able to sample vinyasa, anusara and bikram yoga” instead of “You’ll be able to try different kinds of yoga.”
  • Research first. A writer needs to thoroughly understand the content before being able to communicate it in the right way.
  • Demystify the creative process. Groupon has reversed engineered humor—researched joke structures and provides writers with the “anatomy of a review”. They make many decisions up-front for the writers, so that they can save their creative energy for the reviews.
  • Hire young. They like to hire writers right out of school so that they don’t have a set style yet and can train them to do things “the right way.”
  • Take risks. You’ll get some haters, but you’ll also get people that really love you.


Link 27 September 2011 9:58 pm

Tim Anderson says:

Elizabeth and Amanda, great post and great site! The struggle I always have when creating a web site is getting clients to commit to the goal of the site. Normally they want to do everything.

Once you get them to focus, the design and setup become so much easier!

Then you have to create and focus on the content plan.

Subscribed to your RSS feed. Keep up the great work.

Link 3 October 2011 1:55 pm

Amanda Neville says:

Thanks. Totally agree that narrowing the priorities is one of the hardest parts (of any communications project, really).

We engage cleints in the content strategy phase (especially when creating the sitemap and wireframes) to focus the conversation. Do you have any tips to share?

Thanks for reading!

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