Content curation has been on my mind a lot lately. What has brought this to the forefront is partially because of my current contract, but also because of my day-to-day personal experiences while going about my business on the Web. Content curation may sound very esoteric, like a museum curator putting content into a glass case for visitors to admire. Yet that isn’t the case at all. Content curation is a hot topic right now because organizations are finding themselves with way too much content that has accumulated over the course of time, sometimes decades, which now needs to be grouped into some sort of order for visitors to make sense of it.
Margot Bloomstein, a prominent content strategist, recently said something that got my attention: “Curation is an act of creating new meaning by combining existing content with new perspective.” Think of a natural science museum, and how they organize their exhibits to promote contextual understanding. They may organize their content by geographic location – for example, grouping all rocks and gems by region. This promotes an understanding of the range of geological diversity by region. Other exhibits might have their content grouped by “like objects” – for example, all samples of diamonds or all granite, to contrast and compare the types and quality of a particular type of stone. These groupings of content give visitors different contexts, and different ways to understand the same artifacts.
Cities have a similar need to present information that “tells a story”, and this is precipitating a move away from departmental content silos to contextual content. For example, the City of Vancouver states its intent to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. The concept of “going green” affects an array of departments and transactions with the city, from changes in trash and recycling to green building practices, from promotion of trees and urban gardening to the promotion of public transit and urban cycling.
There is an abundance of content related to the Greenest City 2020 initiative is aggregated in a single place, so that residents can understand all the ways that individuals, businesses, and the City, can contribute to a green city. Having the content consolidated into a single place provides a particular context. The content covers a ten-point initiative: a green economy, climate leadership, green buildings, green transportation, a zero waste initiative, access to nature, clean air and water, local food, and a lighter footprint. It is the mother lode of content for the environmentalist, but could be overwhelming to the casual website user.
However, the content is being curated in a way that helps people understand this city-wide initiative in context. We can look at the example of a bike and pedestrian bridge that was part of a public transit initiative crossing the Fraser River that separates Vancouver from the suburb of Richmond. The construction of a public transit line from downtown Vancouver to Richmond is part of a larger initiative with a green component. The attachment of a pedestrian bridge to the transit line allows cyclists and pedestrians to cross the river in a safe and pleasant way, and encourages walking and cycling as part of the carbon-reduction aspect of greening the city.
The project started out as the “proposed bike bridge” as part of the Cambie Corridor project back in 2008 was in its planning stages. Then, when the project was complete in 2009, the bike bridge was the “new bike bridge” and its description became part of the day’s news. Now, a few years later, the feature is simply “the bike bridge” and having the content in the area of the website where Vancouver describes its cycling routes, pedestrian walkways, and where the bridge and its features are described provides a different context to visitors who may not head for the Green Vancouver area but are keenly interested in cycling.
If that example doesn’t resonate, think of the furniture giant, IKEA. Their catalogues are a good example of content curation. The catalogues have pages of storage units, pages of accessories, and pages of specific furniture types – sofas, chairs, tables – so you can contrast and compare like products. Those same items are often shown on “room” pages, where a particular room type is staged, with a storage unit, a sofa, a chair, and a couple of tables, so you can see how those items in context of a living room, bedroom, or den.
In organizations that don’t depend on their websites for their livelihood, there is often a mandate and clear responsibility for one department – perhaps even an assigned author – to create content while the project is in its planning stage. Then there will be clear responsibility for one department – and an assigned author – to create a news release when the project goes live. But there is often no clear responsibility, nor authorship, to transition the content to its best place(s) on a website for the long-term. In corporations where website content has a direct effect on the bottom line, there is immense attention paid to the presentation of content in whatever context will promote product perusal and ultimately sales.
This is where content curators come in. This is part of how an organization tells its “story” and provides perspective on itself, its products or services, and its operations. The writers with responsibility for the overall story, mandated with keeping an eye on the entire body of content, need to have the view, the authority, and the vision to be able to keep on top of content throughout its transitions, and ensure that the content is present, accurate, and in current context. This is no small feat, as any content strategist will tell you. It means maintaining liaisons with all stakeholder groups, and being able to do the content justice as it move through one content lifecycle and into the next iteration.
The idea of content curation is nothing new to communications professionals, whether it was known by that term or by jargon of another industry. What is changing is the growing amount of content that organizations are expecting to have curated. Content “clean-up” has a much different connotation than content curation. The former has been treated as a low-level task, given to a junior staff member or even an intern. That latter is treated as a task worthy of a senior staffer, who understands the corporate vision and digital strategy, and can implement it through careful content selection and placement. In a time of growing complexity of content variations – different geographic destinations, different languages, different platforms, different interfaces – organizations are discovering that ensuring this responsibility is held at an appropriately senior level is a good investment.
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