Put the Content in Content Strategy: ConFab 2011

Put the Content in Content Strategy: ConFab 2011

Vibrant, Compelling Copy: The Content in Content Strategy

Session description: If your content is going to help you meet your business goals, you need to satisfy your site visitors’ needs. See the power of thinking about content as conversation and how it impacts the way you organize content and engage your visitors.

Speaker: Ginny Redish, president of Redish & Associates

Things in quote marks are direct quotes. Other statements are paraphrased. For more from this session, search the hashtag #grcf on Twitter.

The skinny

Writer enthusiasm for Ginny’s presentation is palpable. If you care about words, this is the session for you. Since everyone at this conference cares about words, this room is way too small.

What she said

“For those of you who don’t know me, you can see I have been here a long time,” Ginny jokes, a reference to her long white hair. For her, the web is where her background as a linguist and her love of usability come together.

First up, Ginny asks us to think about the most recent time we went to another website. When? Why? What were you trying to do or what were you looking for? “When people come to your website, they have a goal. They have a need. And that makes the web a very different marketing channel from the ones you have been used to before.” It’s not you who are starting the conversation, it’s the site visitor. People just want to answer a question, solve a problem, do a task or share and contribute.

“I have been in so many projects where all the money has been spent on the home page design.” And the content can come later. “No.” She told a client once, “I don’t want to see you put down lorem ipsum again.”

Navigation and search are critical. Good, clear design is critical. Technology that works is critical. But the three legs don’t stand up by themselves: they all support the content.

“Think strategically about your content from the beginning to the end.” Steps include:

  • Plan
  • Coordinate
  • Manage
  • Review
  • Maintain
  • Remove

Message, tone and style

“Everything you do is a conversation, mediated by whatever technology you are using.” Sure, that’s social media and user-generated conversation at TripAdvisor or news sites with comment sections. But, remember, “on most sites, the site visitor starts the conversation.” How well does your web site converse? That’s the question.

Move planning for content from the high-level of strategy down to each piece of content. “Think first. Write second.” How does this topic / this page / this message fit into the content strategy? Ask yourself:

  • Why? What is the purpose of this content? Talk about purposes that focus on the people you’re having the conversation with. It’s the difference between saying “We want to sell shoes” vs “We want to have people buy our shoes” or “We have to inform people about…” vs “We want to answer people’s questions about…”
  • Who? Who are the personas? Put a name to the kinds of people.
  • What? What is the conversation? For good SEO and successful site search, the keywords in your site must match the keywords site visitors use. What words are in your site visitor’s mind?

To converse successfully:

  1. Imagine the conversation as you design. For example, take a military health website. Who is the persona visiting this site? Let’s call them Burt and Melissa. Why would they come to this website? Perhaps Melissa is pregnant. What link should they click on? Perhaps the site needs to ask for information from the persona to direct them to the right place. Another example: Mint.com. “Ron and Jen use Mint. Should we?” ask Bob and Carol. What questions would they first want to know from this site they know nothing about except the name? They might ask: What is it? What does it cost? Can I trust it? Their common questions are addressed immediately by both the display copy and the navigation copy on the home page and the landing pages.
  2. Don’t hog the conversation. Take turns. Headings are turns in the conversation. Don’t spew long text blocks—you’re a conversation hog. Subheds and navigation are pauses and turns for the persona.
  3. Start with a title that works for your site visitors. Bad: “Roadmap for Performance-based Navigation” is a title that leads to that FAA’s strategic plan for the next five years, not a page with a map. Good: “How much do Americans pay for fruits and vegetables?” Think not only about site visitors who should click on a link; also think about those who should not click on a link, which leads to frustration. Questions make great titles online. They invite visitors to join the conversation.
  4. Answer your site visitors’ questions. FAQ lists can be a sign that you didn’t answer important questions elsewhere in the copy on your site. If you’re managing content for a site that sells products, make sure that you answer all questions a person would have for the product. First, think through all the questions a person would ask, then write the copy or take the pictures. Linguists know that when we’re in a conversation, the first thing we do is establish that frame. Are we talking about the same thing? You can hear the conversation even as you write.
  5. Help people “grab and go.” “There’s no need to write complete sentences. Your idea is to give out information, not to spend words.”
  6. Talk to your site visitors. Your tone and style can be whatever is appropriate to your business. If you use Hootsuite, and you leave it long enough, the site writes you a nice little message about “snoozing” and the action button is “Wake up!” No matter your topic or tone, Ginny believes there is a place for “I” and “we” and “you” in site copy.
  7. Put people and actions in your copy. Bad: “Upon successful completion of the online renewal transaction, printing the registration card will be an option.” This sentence has no noun, and the verb is “will be.” Better: “When you finish renewing online, you can print your registration card.” Even if you’re traditional and serious, there is no need to write like the first sentence.
  8. Converse in forms. Forms are conversation, too. Experienced web visitors can “hear” conversation in a form. You hear “What is your email addresss?” “What is your name?” You don’t need it to be written out that way to hear it. That said, Amazon had great success adding questions to its sign in form. Why? Because it’s more conversational. An extreme version is the Mad Libs sign up form that Huffduffer uses. Use it carefully.
  9. Review your copy before you publish it. Check for grammar. You can lose your credibility when no one copy edits the text.
  10. Evaluate through your personas and their conversations. Do usability testing! Even before that, walk your personas through their conversations. See the site through their eyes with their words. Think conversation for all your content. It’s not a filing cabinet. If you’re not a newspaper, it’s not a news site. Even if you sells products, you’re not a catalog. “I think the web is a telephone.”

Audience participation

Does it matter whether you use “my” or “your”? That’s an excellent question! It doesn’t matter as long as it’s part of your content strategy and you’re consistent about it.

Do you have any tips for convincing people (such as upper management) that your site should be conversational? Do you have any research on your audiences? Create a persona, an actual person, give her a name: what would she do? Why would she come to this page? Let’s walk her through the site. Have we answered her questions? I would use that approach.

Arienne Holland

Arienne has spent 20 years in communications, ranging from graphic design to journalism to PR to marketing and formerly Raven's Director of Marketing and Education.

Arienne has spent 20 years in communications, ranging from graphic design to journalism to PR to marketing and formerly Raven's Director of Marketing and Education.