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Published on March 26th, 2012 | by Rahel Bailie


Toward a common content strategy vocabulary

If there’s one thing about the content strategy community that can be crazy-making, it’s the lack of a consistent vocabulary to describe the various activities, deliverables, and outputs of the work that we do. The current situation reminds me a bit of the conversations we had in the 1990s about a then new field called information architecture. There were many tortured discussions about the name itself (can we even call it architecture?), the deliverables (what is the difference between a “conceptual IA” and a “physical IA”?), and outputs (what exactly do you mean by a “wireframe”?). Twenty years later, and those discussions have given way to a common vocabulary and a certainty that allows for smooth discussion amongst practitioners and between practitioners in adjoining fields.

We’re at a similar stage in the content strategy field. Here’s a rough recreation of a discussion between a group of professionals that include a content strategist, project manager, developer, CMS integrator, and user experience professional:
CS: The writers are using template A to do this and template B to do that.
CMI: It’s all the same template.
UX: No it’s not. This template goes here and and that template goes on that page.
CMI: But those pages are the same template. The modules are just different.
PM: We contracted for a maximum of eight templates. Is this one of those templates, or is this something different?
Dev: It’s the base template, with variations based on modules.
UX: By module, do you mean widget?
CMI: What’s a widget?
UX: The thing that goes on the page with the tabs where the writers put these four types of content.
CS: Just to clarify, the UX guy isn’t talking about content types.
CMI: But that has nothing to do with the template.
Dev: I think you are calling it a widget when it’s just another kind of module.
UX: So the thing that works this way in the right rail has the same name as the other thing that works a different way in the center column?
CMI: Yes, because they all go into a template.
CS: Whoa! Hold on. Can we do a round of definitions before we go any further?

It turned out that each person in the room had a different definition of what was meant by content type, module, and template. No wonder we couldn’t come to a speedy decision. Fifteen minutes later, we ended up with a common project vocabulary that we could use to discuss the many moving parts of the project. One of the more interesting outcomes was the conclusion that the word “template” could not be used without a modifier. There are CMS templates, UX templates, and editorial templates. In fact, the writers adopted the word “stencil” as a confusion-reducing alternative.

The topic of vocabulary has arisen a number of times recently. While preparing a workshop for a client, my research uncovered a wide range of vocabulary discrepancies that made it difficult for me to convey concepts easily to a multi-disciplinary team. I could talk about “object-oriented content” to explain topic-based content to a developer familiar with object-oriented programming, but when the developer didn’t want to attend a workshop that included content typing (because he thought typing meant how to type, as in use a keyboard), I knew it was time to tackle the topic.

In a discussion with the co-author of my book, Noz, Urbina, we engaged in a similar discussion. The resolution came after a screen-sharing session where numerous screen shots were carefully labelled and annotated. As Noz and I discover quite often, we had both been working through similar issues at the same time. We built on each other’s work, and will each publish a post about the topic with the definitions we particularly feel strongly about.

In my next article, I will present a vocabulary that creates a foundation for content strategists.


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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 Toward a common content strategy vocabulary

  1. Noz Urbina says:

    Definitely a crazy-maker! One of the other key ones that makes me crazy in projects is ‘format’. Besides being a short term for ‘file format’ (doc vs html vs xml), it’s a verb – to format a document. It’s also used interchangeably with ‘style’, in the visual design sense, both as a noun and a verb. Arg!

  2. Pingback: Thinking about language | The Ringtail

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