The Web Content Strategist’s Bible, Developing Content for Large-Scale Websites, by Richard Sheffield, provides a background and methodology for how content strategists (CS) apply their discipline to the work of planning and managing large corporate websites.
Sheffield walks you through the content development life cycle and how the CS is involved in each phase: Discovery, Analysis, Design, Build, and Maintenance. Sheffield portrays the CS role as primarily that of a project manager, involved in overseeing all the content requirements and creating all content strategy project deliverables for each phase. These include a suite of planning documents containing the results of content and business analysis and related process recommendations. Among the key documents are the Content Matrix and the Content Strategy Document.
Sheffield provides a detailed look at the role and responsibilities of the CS. The CS is a key decision maker, manager and performer of several functions within the overall web content project, such as
- managing and performing content inventories and audits
- developing content requirements
- developing taxonomy and metadata frameworks
- hiring and managing content writers
- establishing style guides and editorial guidelines if there are none (new content often creates the need for new styles)
- developing and managing content workflow processes
- developing content migration plans
- managing the content schedule to ensure work flows stay on track
- coordinating content workflows with the development team
Given the variety of tasks and skills that Sheffield describes, the CS seems to be a fluid role that would adapt to the needs of the project and perhaps share some tasks with other roles, such as an information architect. I’ve done bits and pieces of similar work myself, though it was never referred to as content strategy. For example, outlining is generally part of the content development work that writers do. The site outline is similar to the content matrix deliverable for the CS, but less detailed.
Sheffield defines content strategy as “a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project, from very early tasks such as analyzing and classifying readers to the very last tasks, such as planning for the ongoing content maintenance after the project launches.”
Thus, the CS is keenly involved with managing a high-level process to align with business goals, interfacing frequently with stakeholders, while the actual content is developed by web content writers and editors and other content producers. However, Sheffield encourages writers to go after content strategy jobs, suggesting this would be an easy transition if you understand how to organize content coherently and “communicate value and a good story.”
At a minimum, the two roles of writer and strategist feed much input into the other. I can see how on a relatively modest-sized website, the two functions might even be performed by the same person. A content developer can wear many hats, often taking on a managing editor role and style guide development in addition to writing. However, in the case of the combined content writer/strategist, I would expect a user experience professional and a marketing or program manager to fill out the strategist role.
The wide reach of the CS role may raise questions in the reader’s mind, such as where does this function begin and where does it end? The CS role seems to be all encompassing. I suspect it has more to do with the scope of the project than the actual tasks the CS performs. And though Sheffield talks about the need for more accurate content scheduling as a major reason for content strategy, some additional insights into what can go wrong (other than missing deadlines) when there is no content strategy would have been useful.
I think this book is helpful, however, in providing a broad overview of content strategy functions in the context of a large-scale website project. It is not likely that all aspects of this function will be needed on every web content project. Neither is it likely, in my opinion, that all aspects of the content strategy be performed by a single person. However, it’s clear that someone must own this role and coordinate with the other team members who either do some part of it or contribute to it.
Is web content strategy the right career for you? You will know after reading this book. In any case, The Web Content Strategist’s Bible succeeds in describing a detailed content strategy workflow and list of tasks and deliverables that will help web content professionals support this vital and complex role.
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