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Published on May 11th, 2010 | by Rahel Bailie

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Dispelling More Content Myths

My last post was about myths related to the content lifecycle. This post continues with five more myths, more to do with content than the actual lifecycle. However, some of these myths indicate a lack of content strategy. It could mean lack of editorial strategy or social media (yes, that’s content, too), or collaborative documentation strategy, or deficiencies in content modeling, or lack of a technology strategy, or a combination of several aspects of the overall content strategy. The technology aspects of the content lifecycle may be addressed quite thoroughly,  but that only deals with the “containers” into which the content fits. There are separate aspects of a content strategy that address the aspects to which the content itself needs to adhere.

A big thank-you to Destry Wion, Allison Casey, Melanie Seibert, Will Sansbury, Mark Poston, and contributors @crockerpayne and @anindita for contributing their favourite myths.

Myth #6: We have a social media strategy so we don’t need a content strategy.

Social media is a bit of a misnomer. It should be called social content, because the text, photos, video, and other contributions by the various participants is all content, and that content needs to be managed. And not to belabour the point, it needs to be managed through a content strategy. For example, if your social content consists of user-generated  product discussions, your social content likely supplements, extends, or at least supports the official documentation provided by the organization. Unless there is a content strategy for presenting both types of content in context, there is potential for chaos. The organization needs to make decisions around content creation, curation – how to wrangle all that contributed content so that it becomes useful to the content consumers, presentation, and preservation – a review and retention plan. The social content cannot exist in a divorced state from the rest of the corpus; the content strategy should look at the lifecycle of all content types and the interactions between them.

Myth #7: We know how people read our content, and that’s mostly what content strategy is about.

This myth encompasses a number of assumptions (often unsubstantiated, but that’s a whole other post) about how content consumers access, read, and otherwise use content. It’s worth looking at some of these assumptions before discussing how they fit into a discussion of content strategy and the content lifecycle.

  • The only content people see is “above the fold.” Actually, research says differently. Without diverging into the topic of scanning vs reading, and how people navigate browse paths, let’s say that you’ve adjusted your content to optimize its use by your primary user groups. This is a single aspect of a content content strategy that affects one quadrant of the content lifecycle: Collection.
  • Good content fits within the site design constraints. If you constrain content to the number of words that “looks right” with the graphic design, this is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. The site architecture should  start with the content that needs to be presented, and the design should support that.
  • We can leave it to users create the content. A naïve assumption is that if you build it, they will post. If you think that users just can’t wait to contribute awesome articles to the wiki-powered tabula rasa provided, you may be in for a nasty shock. There are success stories about organizations whose users clamored for a collaborative space to share information, but these are success stories because the implementation came after the content strategy was formulated. The Web is littered with not-such-success stories, where a wiki was slapped up without a sound strategy behind the implementation.

Myth #8: We can implement a content lifecycle without doing the basics: content inventory, audit, and analysis.

Definitely not. Listen, if you’re going to start by launching your site for France, don’t give me a file scrape from Brazil (because it’s smaller, so supposedly easier to categorize) and expect me to come up with a proper inventory, an accurate number of content types, or migration strategy. This statement may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated, but this scenario comes from a client (sanitized to protect the guilty parties, of course) in 2010.

Myth #9: The more that content is version-controlled by conventions (version number, file name, URL, and so on), the harder it is to maintain the content and its links.

The inability to manage properly versioned content is no more than a lack of imagination. Or a lack of willingness by corporate or departmental policy to accommodate it. Or both. Corporations that are vulnerable to negative consequences arising from delivery of incorrect content have figured out how to manage content versions in an appropriate way. They’ve realized that the ROI on investing in processes and/or technologies that support the management of content is far more advantageous than saving $100,000 only to lose a lawsuit of $1 million. I am not making up these numbers; my own clients and the clients of some of my mentors have cited the need to manage content with attention to version details involve sudden expenditures in terms of fines levied by regulators, lost lawsuits by injured customers who inadvertently misused a product, or loss of confidence by potential clients after adverse publicity arising from negative reports. All these examples have content-related disasters attached, some of them compounded by a lack of audit trail and poor versioning. A good content strategy should address this issue, and similar issues, and taking the time to develop the strategy pays for itself in no time.

Myth #10: More content is better content.

This myth should be called the “compensate for lack of quality with copious quantities of content” myth. When you don’t determine which content is appropriate in which places, that points to a lack of strategy. You can’t compensate with unfocused content, inaccurate content, wordy content, or other sleight-of-hand techniques. Can you imagine looking for a specific piece of information, and finding all sorts of irrelevant content? Oh, you probably have. And have made fun of the site, and perhaps told your friends in a ditting contest for who has had the worst user experience. Or perhaps told the world in a fit of pique through a Twitter post. And if this is your site, then it could be the butt of some of the same jibes, too.

I’ve had plenty of opportunity to watch fourth-year engineering students, employed part-time as computer technicians for organization such as Best Buy’s Geek Squad, look for content on the Web. They are usually searching for a solution to an esoteric problem with my laptop. These impromptu glimpses into  how they search for content has been fascinating. They do a Google search and choose the top result. If the content fills the screen, they immediately click the browser’s back button and go to the next search result. When I protest that in my speed-reading, I thought I saw the answer in the last paragraph on screen, they brush me off with a terse: “oh, it takes too long to read” and “I’ll find something shorter.”From their reactions, and what I’ve come to see as a wider reading pattern, is that readers often perceive it to be faster to look through search results for the page of content with the shortest, most concise and focused answer, than it is to read one or two longer pages. I may not agree with them, but I have observed this frequently enough that I no longer discount it as an behavioural anomaly.

These are the myths that made my Top Ten list. What are your favourite myths related to content strategy, the content lifecycle, or content itself?


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



2 Responses to Dispelling More Content Myths

  1. Related to 10, many people–even if they think less content is more–assume that content strategists think more is better. It’s as if they assume we view more content as job security! 😀

    In reality, as your other myths point out, content strategists are great at paring down the content to what works.

    Great list!

  2. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks, Rahel. This is a great list, and it really dispels a lot of misconceptions about content strategy. (I especially like Myth #5 and the “brand experience.” How true!)

    You could substitute almost anything for “social media strategy” in Myth #6. Coming from a technical communication background, I’m now realizing that even a documentation plan is no substitute for having a content strategy. I started writing a comment here and it ended up becoming a whole article: http://bit.ly/ap3L6y

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