Review: The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane

Elements of Content Strategy by Erin KissaneBrilliant. Funny. Useful. All words that quickly sum up Erin Kissane’s Elements of Content Strategy.

Kissane’s work is part of the A Book Apart series, which is bills its titles as “Brief books for people who build websites.” Elements of Content Strategy definitely follows that formula, yet still feels like a complete examination of the topic.

This work was absolutely needed in the content strategy space and couldn’t have come at a more important time given the explosion of interest in what we do. Elements doesn’t attempt to make an argument for the field’s practice, nor does it try to teach one how to get started. What it does, brilliantly, is describe the practice’s individual parts, pieces and points of view. In doing so, we start to learn how we got here in the first place and get an idea of where the field is going.

In this aim, Kissane comes through with true verve. Her writing is funny, witty and easy to understand (read as: minimal emphasis on jargon). The text flows in an entirely logical order, beginning with shared values that every content strategist should be paying close attention to. Here she touches on why content deserves special attention in the first place and what beliefs drive that focus.

She follows this with a thorough examination of the craft itself, reviewing various mindsets that content strategists tend to have when they approach their work. I very much enjoyed her humorous narrative looks into the minds of Editors, Curators, Marketers and Information Scientists and appreciated that she took the time to illuminate the points of view (and baggage) that those very different perspectives bring forward when practicing content strategy.

It’s in those explorations that Kissane fills the biggest gaps in the conversation around content strategy. With so many voices coming from different disciplines, she succeeds in bringing the reader to the realization that though we all have a different lens for our focus, the shared principles are the end goal. This chapter also supports my personal belief that most content strategists need to spend some time digging into each of these four areas to deliver a complete content strategy, as focusing on a single style will inevitably leave a hole in the end product.

Following the examination of the craft, Kissane provides insights into the tools and techniques that a content strategist has at her disposal. She addresses techniques for a wide range of CS deliverables; from strategy and design to content planning and curation. What I especially liked about this section was Kissane’s reassurance that not every tool is needed for every situation. More often than not, I find that many people see content strategy as a long, drawn out process that has too many steps. Elements of Content Strategy reminds us that what is truly important is having a communication strategy and set of deliverables that makes sense for our end user and our internal team that’s executing the production of content. Here you’ll also find some nice examples of content templates and get some insight into how Kissane approaches a project. All useful things.

In summation, the book is entirely useful and would serve both the experienced and novice content strategist well. For me, a book’s true value is whether or not I’m willing to let it take up the valuable real estate I set aside on my desk for reference. I’m happy to say that a paperback copy, just like the other titles in the A Book Apart series, already has a home waiting for it.

One more thing: Aside from being a great read, the book itself is beautifully designed. Credit for that goes to Jason Santa Maria. I’m a firm believer that beautiful design makes things inherently more approachable and Jason’s lovely choice of type and use of color helped make Elements of Content Strategy a joy to read.

The book will be released on March 8. A Book Apart isn’t taking pre-orders, but you’ll be able to buy it here next Tuesday.

Disclaimer: I feel it appropriate to mention that one of my charts and some of my thoughts were featured in the first chapter of this book. And while I’m humbled to be even the smallest of contributors to this text, I don’t believe it in any way influences my endorsement of the fine work that Erin has done.

Context in Content Strategy: Ambient Data

Context in Content Strategy: Situational-Behavioral Context is the final part of a series of posts discussing the need to account for context in the practice of content strategy. Did you miss the first four?


Though ambient factors sometimes fall into the information we gather and analyze when preparing for Personal-Behavioral Context, they call for some special attention when planning content.

Why do they call for this specialized treatment? One need not look too far past the photo above for the answer. Laptop user? Sitting up. iPad user? Leaning back.

A user’s posture matters to us, partly, in that it provides insight into her cognitive capacity for learning, appetite for content and preferences on the way the information is presented and designed. And while we have no way of always knowing exactly what posture a user may or may not be in, we can start to make some assumptions on how to present information based on the user interface options available on the device of her choosing.

For example, the leaned back user might have a higher threshold and appetite for elegant information design with a mix of media. That means the content should play nicely with the pinches, pulls and taps that come with a tablet device. Conversely, someone sitting up at a desktop PC or laptop might find relative linking and taxonomic structures to be more valuable because they’re alert, upright and (possibly) research oriented. I’d argue that we can even make the assertion that the user’s personal context and cognitive capacity would be different if the MacBook user were on a PC (but that’s a whole other post and gets super granular). Mobile users are an entirely different breed. They’re leaned forward.

Now, all this concern with lean forward, lean back and upright does not necessarily mean content strategists have to become Jane Goodall and study users the way she studies the Chimpanzees of Gombe. We’d never get a site live if we attempted to be that deep or narrowcasted. Still, posture and the way we learn differently on the various devices that access the web do call for our attention and thought … because the same content won’t be interpreted or learned in the same way across different devices. Our context changes because the things we use and our own physical actions change with each new gizmo.

If we’re calling for different content, it requires a different template or stylesheet for display and it’s entirely possible thanks to ever evolving code. This type of design (Responsive Web Design) is currently an area of great interest and a lot of debate, so it’s worth looking into if you’re not familiar with it. I won’t dig into all of the different ways content should or can be presented by different devices here. Special Note: Responsive Web Design can also be a way to attempt to force context of a site that was initially meant for viewing on a specific resolution. Without doing the additional work of having a content strategy, specific to the channel it’s attempting to fit, it’ll be pretty much useless. My only wish is that you start to pay closer attention to different devices when you’re creating your content strategies.

That said, device type is just one of the many ambient factors a content strategist can focus on.

Defining “Ambient”

“Ambient” by definition, is an adjective meaning:
1. of the surrounding area or environment or surrounding on all sides.
2. completely surrounding; encompassing: the ambient air.

The traditional definition starts to scratch the itch, but for content strategy purposes, we’ll refer to “ambient data” as being any factor of a user’s surrounding environment, which could influence their understanding of our content. Some of the other factors are included in the absolutely non-comprehensive things below:

• Time
• Connection type
• Geo-Location
• Browser
• Access Device (desktop, laptop, mobile, tablet, etc.)
• Weather Conditions
• Language Settings

Publishers have already started to play with elements of time. In November of 2009 Esquire published an augmented reality issue. One of their regular features, Funny Joke Told By A Beautiful Woman, featured three different jokes all told by Gillian Jacobs. One was in the physical print edition while the second and third were accessed through the augmented reality application. The third joke could only be accessed after midnight (when it became a ‘dirty’ joke told by a beautiful woman). You can learn more about it here.

It’s a bit of a novelty in this application, but is definitely something to think about if you’re selling a product or providing a service that might be require different content depending on the time of access. Similarly, weather could be a key factor that influences the way you present content. Imagine a nursery’s content shifting with the seasons or growing periods or reconfiguring to snow removal services during the winter months. Special mobile templates could allow for access to what’s most important to their customers based on events like … snowpocalypse.

Because ambient factors are a small piece of the bigger contextual puzzle, I won’t write dive any deeper into all of the factors. Sometimes none of the factors will fit for a content strategy project, while others may call for several. Point being, starting to think about ambient factors will only become more important as demands for more content come rolling in.

As the wranglers of content and the advocates for its brilliance, content strategists are responsible for understanding which ambient factors make the most sense for their projects. Not every client will be able to fund or be ready to cope with accounting for all of these factors when all they thought they needed was a site redesign. Start by offering a client small bites. Hold their hands while they take baby steps. Dip one toe in the water at a time and prove it through analytics and engagement.

Closing Argument For Context

Since this is the last post in this series, I wanted to take a moment to review context. Though all of the charts, big words and seemingly endless calls for you to research your user to no end seem somewhat taxing, they’re incredibly important. Above all, content strategy is about making content better. Better content achieves business goals, user goals and has substance above everything else. Context is what gives you that substance. It’s not a silver bullet, but it is the secret sauce that makes content engaging (or influential) enough to make your users give a damn.

Thanks for hanging in there with me through these long posts and for the notes, comments and tweets that have kept me going and helped me to breathe some much needed life and energy back into this dormant Web presence. For the first time in a long time, I’m really enjoying writing again and all of you have a lot to do with that. Cheers, and thanks for reading the series.

Photo by Alui0000 and used under Creative Commons License.

Context in Content Strategy: Situational-Behavioral Context

Context in Content Strategy: Situational-Behavioral Context is the fourth in a series of five blog posts discussing the need to account for context in the practice of content strategy. Did you miss the first three?


When we fuse user behaviors with a situation for content we have the basis for contextual content strategy, or Situational-Behavioral Context. And when we have Situational-Behavioral Context we can plug in the data from all of our hard work into content scenarios.

A content scenario can help a content strategist and UX pro in a lot of ways. They can be the basis for content filtering should the CMS or Cascading Style Sheets be sophisticated enough to handle the requests. They can help to define editorial guidelines for writers producing content for specific user personas facing unique situations and can serve as a guidepost for governing content as it nears the end of its lifecycle (i.e. does the context scenario still apply to our audience and its needs? What do we need to do to make it audience appropriate).

At their most basic level, content scenarios are a lot like the “If-Then” type of programming you’ll most likely find in Java. For example, IF we learn that our users are faced with certain scenario and that they have a given set of needs, THEN the content scenarios should deliver only the content that corresponds to true factors. The scenario also provides a secondary path when an “if” clause evaluates to false. Perhaps the true factors get a highly customized experience, while the false get a more generic experience.

So, you’re probably wondering what these templates look like and how we deploy them. Let’s dig right in, shall we?

Below, you’ll find a rough version of what I provide to a clients when we’re working through builds that require a lot of content to suit different users. As you can see, our old friend Kyle Fisher is back and we’ve framed up some of the things he needs to find that elusive Drake Motors SUV.

At the top of the template, we’ve narrated Kyle’s story by reviewing one of the two situations we created for him last post. In doing so, we’ve brought up a few of the individual NEEDS that applied to his SITUATION that we outlined in previous discussions on Personal Behavioral Context and Personal Situational Context.

Stating Kyle’s situation directly at the top of the template gives the context for the content requirements that follow.

Something that deserves some special mention is the Goal/Success Metric area directly beneath the content scenario. Since client goals are important and are included with goals for the site, the editorial tone of our content and the way it’s framed up is partially derived from this content. I always find it incredibly valuable to restate site goals across the majority of my documentation and in any deliverable that goes to the client. It keeps writers aware of the needs of the site and reminds the client that we always have success metrics on the brain as we develop and curate content for the site.

In this scenario, we want Kyle to request a vehicle quote, build his own version of an SUV or schedule a test drive at a local dealer, reminding us to include relevant paths and entry points to these areas and maintain a sales-oriented tone whenever appropriate while continuing to address the unique needs of his situation.

Below the goal statement, we find relevant navigation tabs or screens listed across the top of the table and the content types down the side. For this particular execution I’ve only listed two types of content, main and supporting, but it’s entirely possible there could be additional types depending on the size, scope and situation requiring it.

In each cell, we articulate the specific content needed for each page, which should follow directly from the Personal-Situational Context exploration we’ve completed. The scenario documents are expandable and may include entirely different fields depending on the device used to access them. For example, the fields would be VERY different for mobile or gaming browsers.

All that said, these templates are only as useful as you make them. They’re brilliant for A/B Testing, refining content or for creating new work that’s executing against the same or similar situations, but won’t be useful if your site designers don’t account for very specific content needs. This is why the communication between builders and strategists is so crucial. If the work can be done upfront, situational-behavioral context can be designed into the architecture of the site, allowing for highly custom content delivery.

Content scenarios should be modified based on evolving user habits. They should be held up against the success metric and analytic dashboard to evaluate if they’re still relevant. They should be modified or added to if you find content that wasn’t originally in the scenario begins contributing the success metrics or goals. They can also be incredibly helpful when you pair them with Responsive Web Design and factor in for other ambient factors (the final post in this crazy series).

Bottom line? They’re helpful little buggers. We’ll get into deploying them for ambient situations next week, which leaves me with one housekeeping note and plea to content strategists everywhere. Seriously folks, if you haven’t heard about the work being done in responsive web design, it’s going to blow the lid off all things digital – I promise you. In 2010, we started to get a look at the true power of HTML 5 and CSS3 and how Responsive Web Design can deliver truly custom experiences that vary by screen.

I urge all content strategists to do their homework on this stuff. There are some really smart folks writing about the evolving digital space right now, and it makes entirely perfect sense for content strategy to help pave the way, so long as we’re thinking of contextually relevant strategies that vary by device and situation. The screens are many and people will look at content in VERY different ways on each of them. I contend it’s our job to help sort out the content needs that will undoubtedly be left behind. Let’s wrap this thing up next week!