People & Social Media: 2010 research (US based)

While nonprofit campaigners like to debate the merits of cause related marketing, according to the 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study, American consumers are huge supporters of cause marketing campaigns. In fact, these types of campaigns even inspire a new group of supporters. According to the study, high-touch engagement, such as volunteerism is up 11%, advocacy is up 8% and philanthropy is up 9% since Cone’s last study in 2008. Check out the comparison chart below.

The past two years have been tough on the American economy and 31% of Americans have even higher expectations of companies to support causes during a recession because it’s a time of need.

Check out some more statistics from the Cone study:

  • 41% of Americans say they have bought a product because it was associated with a cause or issue in the last year – doubling since they first began measuring this in 1993 (20%).
  • 90% of consumers want companies to tell them the ways they are supporting causes. Another words, 278+ million people in the U.S. want to know what a company is doing to benefit a cause.
  • 83% of Americans wish more of the products, services and retailers they use would support causes.
  • 61% of consumers are more likely to buy from the company who has made a long-term commitment to a focused issue. Consumer-choice campaigns (aka, inviting consumers to vote for their favorite causes) may be the cause marketing tactic du jour, but at the end of the day – or month, year or decade – consumers still want to know what a company stands for.
  • 53% say they like when businesses allow them to impact the donation by tying it to a purchase (e.g., Every time they purchase this product, $1 will be donated to the cause, up to $1 million)

The study also highlighted the important role and influence moms and Millennials play in consumer marketing. AsFrogloop has written about before, moms have become the chief purchasing officers and college-aged Millennials have near $40 billion in discretionary income to spend. Both demographics feel strongly about wanting to purchase products that support causes.

Moms and Consumer Marketing Statistics

  • 95% find cause marketing acceptable
  • 93% are likely to switch brands  
  • 92% want to buy a product that supports a cause

Millennials and Consumer Marketing Statistics

  • 85% buy a product in which a portion of the sales goes to the support of the cause or issue
  • 86% want to learn about a social or environmental issue
  • 82% Serve as an advocate for an issue they care about, such as signing a petition or engaging their community

While some nonprofits don’t feel that cause marketing is ethical because it gives some corporations an opportunity to do PR white washing in exchange for donations, it’s hard to deny that consumers want more companies to support causes. Will nonprofits be more open to cause marketing relationships? And more importantly, can nonprofits exert some of their influence over these companies to not only donate money but to become more socially responsible in their everyday business?


HOW TO: Turn Slacktivists into Activists with Social Media

Geoff Livingston co-founded Zoetica to focus on cause-related work, and released an award-winning book on new media Now is Gone in 2007.

Throughout the non-profit world, organizations struggle with social media’s impact on the volunteer and donor cycle. The rise of “slacktivism” — doing good without having to do much at all — challenges organizations to rethink the way they cultivate their core volunteers and donors.

There are some important social media strategies for transforming those one-click “slacktivists” into fully engaged activists. Here are five tips from some of the best in the non-profit business.

1. Stop Thinking of Them as Slacktivists

The term slacktivism has its own baggage. While social media can drive action on an unprecedented and exponential scale, labeling this previously untapped crop of casual contributors “slacktivists” punishes them out of the gate for doing good. In actuality, the new era of online cause action should excite non-profits.

“It irritates me that we have invented this term as a pejorative way to describe what should be viewed as the first steps to being involved in a cause in 2010,” said Katya Andresen, Chief Operating Officer of Network for Good. “Let’s not whine that people want to do easy things that make them feel they’ve somehow made a difference. It’s okay if someone’s initial commitment is modest -– and it’s truly an opportunity that it’s easier than ever to spread information, create new initiatives for social good, and take action.”

“What the world needs now is far more engagement by individual citizens, not less, and simple steps such as signing petitions or even sharing opinions/tweeting are steps in the right direction,” said Randy Paynter, CEO and Founder of Care2. “As Edmund Burke once said, ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.’ Because small steps can lead to bigger steps, being critical of small steps serves no good. It simply disenfranchises folks.”

2. Steward People Up the Engagement Ladder


Engagement Ladder Image




Social media provides a new first step on the engagement ladder. The methodology of approaching stakeholders and encouraging them to take deeper actions requires acceptance of their current level of activism, and well-crafted approaches towards deeper commitment.

“There are some slacktivists that will become fundraisers, but if you are messaging correctly, they will mostly self-select,” said Dan Morrison, CEO and Founder of Citizen Effect. “But the fastest way to lose slacktivists is to ask them [to do] what they hate doing the most — getting off their butt and [doing] something. My advice? Send out great content targeted at recruiting more fundraisers and driving people to donate, and empower the slacktivists to spread the word for you.”

“It is important to know how to meet people where they are at, and craft your conversation starters and calls to action appropriately so as to match the specific interest and commitment,” said Beth Kanter, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit.  “Organizations need to have good processes and strategies for stewarding people toward ever higher levels of engagement with their causes and campaigns.”

Full Disclosure: Beth is a partner of the author in Zoetica.

3. Reevaluate the Donor Funnel

The new volunteer and donor cultivation cycle changes the traditional “funnel” approach to getting stakeholders to act. Instead of sending out messages and expecting results, non-profits need to participate in larger online social ecosystems where hotbeds of activism are already taking place. Initial economic research shows this work is well worth it.

“Non-donors who take action online are 3.5 times more likely to donate than non-donors who have supplied their e-mail address (say, for a newsletter) but haven’t taken action,” said Paynter. “Donors who also take action are better donors.  Existing donors who’d taken action online were 2.3 times more likely to donate than donors in the e-mail file who hadn’t.”

“Our current funnel goes something like this: Blast out marketing, see who responds, ask them for money, send them a receipt, ask them for more money,” said Andresen. “The new funnel should work like this: Go out to where people are talking about our issue online, listen, reflect back on what you’re hearing, invite small acts of engagement, thank people and tell them the difference their small acts made, listen some more, invite them to speak, then ask for bigger acts.”

4. Shift Your Attitude

A non-profit’s tie to the casual online participant is a tenuous one at best. Their relationship ties are often personal and emotional, embedded in a social network, and conversational in nature. They are often committed to an issue, but not any specific organization, and thus have little incentive to interact. That means non-profits need a new approach than simply asking.

“Value the whole funnel, not just the top or not just the bottom,” said Kanter.  “Non-profits need to get into their stakeholders’ heads and understand what the hot buttons are to trigger their support from one level to the next. Small actions add up … Incorporate some sort of emotional tie – [understanding] that the clicking is a form of self-expression or love or way of helping.”

“I think slacktivists — like anyone else on social networks — need to be cultivated and feel appreciated for their contributions, as small as they may seem,” said Carie Lewis, director of emerging media at The Humane Society of the United States. “We message our cause supporters individually, and respond to (almost) every message that comes into us via social media. It takes a lot of time, but this individual engagement is what has made us successful.”

5. Create New Calls to Action


Protest March Image




Activist behavior and attitudes on social networks challenge non-profits to deploy new forms of engagement. Instead of simple “donate now” links, non-profits must create meaningful and repeatable ways for activists to take small action steps and foster long-term relationship development.

“Nobody joins these ‘I bet this potato can get more fans than seal clubbers’ type groups so that they can be involved in the group,” said Lewis. “They join them to make a statement. Facebook Causes is similar. Yes, some non-profits including us are raising real money. But its more about showing the world you believe in something, and showing your support.”

“Don’t focus on asking them to give, focus on asking them to retweet any and everything you tweet, post on their wall, forward e-mails, etc.,” said Morrison. “Focus on that, because that fits in their behavior pattern. Now, every once in a while, you can make a [money] appeal [to] the ones that [send] you a signal that they may be emerging from slacktivism.  If you build a relationship with them, they will naturally graduate up the value chain. You can give them a nudge, but trying to force them will make them leave in droves.”

More social good resources from Mashable:

– 8 Tips for a Successful Social Media Cause Campaign
– How Does Twitter’s New Social Good Initiative Stack Up?
– How Non-Profits are Using Social Media for Real Results
– 9 Ways to Do Good With 5 Minutes or $25
– 5 Ways Mega Charity Events Can Harness the Power of Social Media

[Image Credits: Edward LBeth KanterFritz Liess]


How do Social Networks applications incorporate the ladder of engagement?

I found this slideshare show by Michael Weiksner, BJ Fogg, and Xing Kin Lui from a class at Stanford called “Creating Engaging Applications on Facebook.”  They are taking a multi-disciplinary look at applications, including a focus onpersuasion technology.   The visual shows the results of a pattern analysis of the 100 most popular Facebook applications (video of lecture here).  What’s noted: “Adapted patterns are also cross-cutting techniques for increasing engagement and revenue.”

This analysis caught my eye because helped crystalize some thinking about Facebook causes based on an experiment I did as part my fundraising for the Sharing Foundation’s America’s Giving Challenge (please consider donating $10).   According to this analysis, Causes probably falls in the Adapted Patterns/Competition.

My colleague, Priscilla Brisbane from Australia (who is conducting her own online fundraising experiment) wrote a post about Levels of Engagement.   

In my levels of engagement chart, a simple action involves befriending (e.g. MySpace), subscribing, forwarding and/or learning. An easy action involves blogging, signing petitions, protesting and/or wearing a badge/shirt/wristband. A specific action involves donating, volunteering, finding events to attend, downloading and using online materials offline and/or creating and uploading video/images. Once you become an active member, you are doing offline actions more than online actions.

How does this play out in Facebook causes – particularly if you are starting as an individual or extra organizational activist.  You are invitation your friends …but cause invitation (at least in the America’s Giving Challenge) comes with a request for a specific action – donate!  So, maybe that’s why the low percentage of donors to joiners – even with an incentive of raising more money for the cause. In addition, the interface or interaction design doesn’t make it easy to get people who’ve joined personally involved.   It makes hard to implement what Priscilla suggests below and what I feel works for increased engagement.

Now there’s one slight problem for us online campaigners in all of this, and that’s how do we move supporters and activists from one point on the chart to the next? Particularly up the “sympathisers” end, it can be very difficult to move people along to the next level of engagement. I believe such committment needs to come from each individual, after all we’re not like priests “converting” people, all we can do is provide people with information and tools because people will be more committed once they can relate to a cause through personal experience rather than be guilt-tripped into participation 🙂 Feel welcome to debate this with me, though.


Anyway, I think that the best way to encourage supporters to become activists is simply to ask them how they want to be more involved. Sometimes when I do this, they are honoured that I’ve asked. Other times, they apologise that they can’t help right now because of personal circumstances. Nobody has abused me yet, so I’ll remain with this strategy for now and will let you know in time how I get on!


Priscilla also introduced me Nicholas Street’s work as well as Participate Online – User Motivation in Mass Participation (PDF) – the research seems to have been commissioned by the BBC and carried out by Sparkler in the UK.  Need to go digest.

So, how does the “competition” pattern for Facebook Design (for Causes) relate to a pattern that many activists use — the ladder of engagement?  Does the ladder of engagement apply to everyone or is it different based on your age/generation and/or comfort in using online tools?  Does competition really help engage people in a cause?  Has anyone done any research on this topic?  What am I not seeing?



The Web is primarily a text-driven medium and will remain so despite the rise of video.

“Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page — especially when they are in the upper left, and most often (but not always) when in the upper right,” according to Eyetrack III from Poynter Institute. This study of how people consume news websites found that, “Photographs, contrary to what you might expect (and contrary to findings of 1990 Poynter eyetracking research on print newspapers), aren’t typically the entry point to a homepage. Text rules on the PC screen — both in order viewed and in overall time spent looking at it.”

In traditional print media it has long been established that images are more powerful than text in getting attention. But the opposite is the case on the Web. Text dominates. Consider the Google business model. It makes most of its money from advertising. What sort of advertising? AdWords. Text. Google has never sold a graphical ad on

That is totally contrary to the traditional print and TV ad industry. There, the more color, the more fantastic the image, the bigger the impact. It’s the opposite on the Web.

What is interesting about Eyetrack III is how consistent its results are with various other web behavior studies that have been conducted over the years. It’s long been known that the first couple of words are vital if you want to keep people reading. The study found that:
1. When people look at blurbs (summaries) under headlines on news homepages, they often only look at the left one-third of the blurb. In other words, most people just look at the first couple of words — and only read on if they are engaged by those words.
2. People typically scan down a list of headlines, and often don’t view entire headlines. If the first words engage them, they seem likely to read on. On average, a headline has less than a second of a site visitor’s attention. For headlines — especially longer ones — it would appear that the first couple of words need to be real attention-grabbers if you want to capture eyes.

The study found that average blurb length varies from a low of about 10 words to a high of 25, with most sites coming in at around 17. In 2009, Customer Carewords did a study of over 500 news headlines. We found that 87 percent of headlines analyzed were between 5 and 9 words long, with the most popular headline length being 7 words.

Some people think that I hate images and video. Absolutely not. Anyone who has seen my presentations will know that I use hardly any text. It’s all visuals and images. Why? Because after doing thousands of presentations I’ve found that telling a story based on a series of powerful images is very effective. A list of text-based bullet points bores people to death.

The issue is not whether text is inherently better than images. It’s about using the right tool for the right medium. On the Web, text dominates. Will there be exceptions? Of course. But they will be exceptions that prove the rule: text dominates.


Seven Significant Trends in Mobile Usage

With mobile penetration in the US estimated by eMarketer at nearly 80% this year, and the increasing sophistication of handsets, there is a mature mobile market with a critical mass of users increasingly receptive to marketing and content. As the space becomes more important for marketers’ efforts, they must keep pace with the changing scene.

“As feature phones give way to smartphones and tablet devices, mobility is taking on new dimensions,” said Noah Elkin, eMarketer senior analyst and author of the new report “Seven Key Trends in Mobile Usage.” “The ability to consume, create and share more content than ever before translates into increased engagement on mobile devices. It also means enhanced opportunities for marketers to reach out to potential customers via mobile.”

One of the biggest keys to these new marketing opportunities is the rise of smartphones. The percentage of US consumers thinking about buying a smartphone has doubled since the beginning of 2008, according to ChangeWave Research, and Nielsen expects smartphones to be in the hands of half of US mobile users by the end of Q3 2011.


Smartphone Buying Plans*, 2008-2010 (% of US consumers)

As handsets change, so do mobile consumption and usage patterns. Voice is becoming less relevant, and carriers and their marketing and content partners have transitioned to a focus on data.

Social networks are fast becoming the primary way mobile users exchange information. According to comScore, use of social networking applications increased by 240% between April 2009 and April 2010.


Fastest-Growing US Mobile Application Categories, April 2009 & April 2010 (thousands of unique users and % change)

With social network users indexing higher for various forms of mobile content usage, according to Edison Research and Arbitron, the rise in mobile social media also suggests further increases in content consumption—and the need to pay for that content either through user fees or advertising.

The full report, “Seven Key Trends in Mobile Usage,” also includes information on these important developments:

  • The smartphone race is increasingly competitive.
  • The increased ownership of smart devices is driving growth in mobile web penetration.
  • The mobile-social nexus is all about location, location, location.
  • Content revenues will rise—and ad revenues will climb even faster.
  • The iPad and other devices are changing the face of mobility.

The full report is available to Total Access clients only. Total Access clients, log in and view the report now.



Content Templates to the Rescue

As an industry, we’ve mostly figured out that if we don’t want content problems to sabotage our web projects, we have to plan ahead. Whether we’re creating the content with our clients or helping them to create it on their own, we know that it’s important to hire a writer or editor if the project lacks one, to write content with real humans in mind, and to design content for reading. We know—or we should know, by now—that we must approach each page of website content with a clear set of goals. And yet, even knowing all these things, we face dozens of complexities when it’s time to conjure up content from the ruins of an old website or a shiny new set of empty wireframes.

One such complexity is the problem of getting information from the brains of the people who Know Stuff—about products, marketing campaigns, business units, financial regulations, and so on—into the brains of the people who can write web copy. The first group of people are sometimes called “subject matter experts,” but that’s really long and a bit redundant, so let’s just call them “experts.” We’ll call the second group of people “writers,” and if they don’t like it, they can throw tomatoes in the discussion section.

Now, getting even semi-publishable writing from experts is notoriously difficult; they may be immersed in their “real jobs” and too busy to write even a first draft of content, they may not understand why web content matters at all, they may not be fluent in the language(s) in which you publish your website, or they may just be terrible writers. This problem was bad enough back in the world of annual reports and quarterly brochure updates, and it’s become even worse as more companies have realized that effective websites require a steady diet of fresh, consistent, well-written content.

The bigger the organization, the harder it usually is to get content to flow smoothly from far-flung experts to web-savvy writers and editors to the website itself. If you’re working with (or within) a very small company in which the CEO knows everything that needs to be on your new website, this probably isn’t a problem. In just about every other situation, it is. Happily, there are ways to make the process smoother, faster, and much more likely to succeed:

  • Assign one person to manage the exchange of knowledge between your experts and your writer(s). That person might be a writer or a content strategist or just someone within your organization (or agency team) who cares about content and tends to get things done.
  • Give that person as much authority and backup as possible. If the leaders of your organization (or client’s organization) make it clear that your content lead’s requests are high priority, the work often magically gets done.
  • Define a content workflow as early as possible, preferably as part of a unified content strategy that includes a content audit (a detailed analysis of what content you have, what content you need, and how to bridge that gap), voice and tone guidelines, and a schedule for collecting and generating content.
  • Use smart tools to collect, track, and revise your content. This one sounds like common sense—and, let’s be honest, it also sounds like something that isn’t really all that important. In fact, the right tools can make a huge difference, so that’s what we’ll talk about next.

Content templates to the rescue

One tool I’ve found extremely helpful whenever more than a handful of people will touch the content on a new site is the content template. A content template is a simple document that serves two purposes: it’s a paragraph-level companion to your website’s wireframes (or other IA blueprints), and it’s a simple, effective means of getting useful information from your experts to your writers. (It is not the same thing as an HTML template you feed to your content management system.)

You might think of content templates as a kind of wizard for content development. Whereas branding, voice, and editorial guidelines are often prosy and stylish, the content templates I use are lo-fi, ugly, and relentlessly practical, and they contain at least the following information:

  • The page title.
  • A short description of each chunk of content that will be on the final page, including what each chunk of content must do, and what formats it can be in (paragraph, simple bulleted list, multi-level bulleted list, data table, screenshot, callout box, etc.).
  • Examples of each chunk of information, written by actual writers and supplemented by inline guidelines as needed.

Note: Content templates are usually created by content strategists, but if your project doesn’t have a dedicated content specialist, the templates can produced by information architect, project coordinator, or other person who is in charge of your content. (If no one is currently in charge of your content, you have bigger problems and should put this article down and go hire, assign, or persuade someone to oversee content for your site.)

How content templates help

Content templates can be useful for one-off pages like About Us, but they’re particularly effective when you’re working with whole classes of pages, like product pages or staff bios or departmental landing pages, all of which need to contain similar information, presented in a consistent way.

By letting you show your experts exactly what kind of content you need for each page, content templates can help you:

  • Collect information more quickly, by giving experts an easy fill-in-the-blank structure to work with.
  • Speed up and simplify the content development process by producing more uniform first drafts that are easier to turn into final web copy.
  • Improve the structural consistency of your final content.
  • Reveal any gaps between the communication needs of the organization’s various divisions and the content structure you thought you needed—while there’s still time to fix it.

What the final templates look like depends a lot on what you use them for. If you’re a consultant and your client is doing most or all of the content development work themselves, content templates can act as training wheels for the experts who need it, while also making life easier for the internal writers who will eventually produce final web copy. In this case, since they’ll be used to coach non-writer experts through the process of collecting and writing content drafts, they should include detailed instructions and plentiful inline examples.

If, on the other hand, they’ll mostly be used to organize the transfer of information from one brain to another, they can be extremely simple. (And if you happen to be working with a very clever client who can figure out how to automatically pull copy from a carefully prepared Microsoft Word content template straight into a content management system, then your content templates can also help prevent copy-and-paste-related repetitive-stress injuries, in which case everyone gets gold stars and cake.)

How to make them

Before you can create content templates, you need to know what each page is supposed to do, and you need to have a pretty good idea of what new content needs to be created. Depending on the size of the project, you may need to do a full-on content audit to get there, or you may be able to just piggyback on information architecture work. Either way, that’s a topic for another article, so we’ll fast-forward to the point at which you know, for the most part, what each page needs to do and say. Now you’re ready to start making content templates.

Let’s say you’re building a site for a company that makes widgets they sell to customers in several industries. On the current Widget-o-Rama corporate site—which lacks a place for the company’s new line of extra-fancy widgets—the product descriptions are terribly inconsistent, ranging from a single vague paragraph to a full page of text with a fourteen-line table of feature comparisons. Especially troubling is the fact that many of the product pages (especially for the Widget 2.0 line) never quite say what, exactly, a particular widget is and why customers should pony up extra money for the upgrade.

Let’s look at a content template for Widget-o-Rama’s product pages. We know that we need to tell visitors who the product is for, what it is, what it does, and why they should buy it—that is, why it’s better than the alternatives. In the content template, we’ll go through each of those points, spelling out exactly what information should go on the page, and approximately what format it should be in. The content template this example was based on was written for users on various marketing teams, so it’s designed to elicit near-final-draft content, which is why we’ve included formatting guidelines. Here’s the first part of the template:


Example: Widget-o-Rama: FancyWidget No. 5


Product Name:

Name of Product Line:

Short Description (two sentences):

Guidelines: The product description should answer the questions “What is it?” “Who is it for?” and “What does it do?” The description must include at least one real, actual noun besides the name of the product.

Example description: Widget-o-Rama’s FancyWidget No. 5 is an inverse reactive current supply mechanism used for operating nofer-trunnions and reducing sinusoidal depleneration when used in conjunction with a drawn reciprocating dingle arm. Note: This is where you would provide actual, approved copy for each chunk of content—examples the client could use as live content.

Sales contact information:

Guidelines: For the products you can buy immediately, this is just a link to the first step of the purchasing process. For product packages with variable volume discounts, this should include telephone and electronic contact info for the relevant sales team.


Benefit/feature pairs:

  • Benefit/feature pair #1
  • Benefit/feature pair #2
  • Benefit/feature pair #3

Guidelines: Benefits are about the customer and answer the question, “What will this do for me?” Features are about the product and answer the question, “How does the product work?” On the Widget-o-Rama website, they should come in pairs consisting of a very specific benefit, followed by the feature or features that make it possible. Use concrete terms whenever you can.


  • Reduces maintenance costs by up to 50% by replacing delicate gremlin studs with a robust spiral decommutator and eliminating the need for drammock oil after phase detractors are remissed.
  • Prevents side fumbling via the addition of pentametric fan consisting of six hydrocoptic marzelvanes fitted to the ambifacient lunar vaneshaft.
  • Increases production capacity through the use of a streamlined regurgitative purwell nubbled with a superaminative wennel-sprocket.

Formatting: Here, you can use either a simple list of three to five bullets or a set of headings (each of which describes a single benefit) followed by three to five bulleted features that explain how the benefit is attained. Whichever format you choose, keep these as concise as you can.


Depending on the product, you may want to include some of these optional details:

  • Features List—Some products have more important features than can be easily worked into a short benefits list. Those features would go here. This element does not replace the benefits list that goes on the first page.
  • Feature Table—Compares a single Widget-o-Rama product to similar products produced by competitors, or compares various widget configurations within a Widget-o-Rama product line.
  • New!—A paragraph or bulleted list briefly detailing new features after an update to the product line.

How do you use content templates?

Content templates won’t solve every workflow problem you encounter on a big web project, but in my experience working on both in-house and consulting teams, they can help speed up the information-collection process, improve consistency across the website, and make the editing process easier and more orderly. In this brief introduction, I’ve only considered one kind of template and a few ways of using them in one or two possible content strategy processes. If you use content templates in your work—or might consider doing so—please tell us about your methods and ideas in the discussion forum.


I am obliged to Rockwell Automated for detailed technical information about their astonishingly advanced Turbo-Encabulator—information I have shamelessly abused for my own amusement.

About the Author

 Erin KissaneErin Kissane is a writer and editorial strategist as well as a contributing editor toA List Apart. She writes about writing at A longer bio is available at Happy Cog.


Content Analysis: A Practical Approach

By Colleen Jones

Published: August 3, 2009

“Content analysis is an essentialpart of many UX design projects that involve existing content.”

To know your content is to love it. Content analysis is an essential part of many UX design projects that involve existing content. Examples of such projects include migrating a Web site to a new platform or design, merging multiple Web sites into one, or assessing Web content for reuse in a new channel. Just as you cannot nurture a garden without regularly inspecting its plants and flowers, you cannot take proper care of your content without looking at it closely. You must become familiar with your content to judge whether it’s effective, understand how it relates to other content, make decisions about how to use or format it, identify opportunities for improving it, and more. Content analysis, though time consuming, is fruitful, because your efforts provide the following benefits:

  • Content analysis results in a clear, tangible description of your content—which clients and stakeholders can perceive as nebulous—whether expressed in text or visually.
  • Content analysis provides the foundation for comparing existing content with either user needs or competitor content, letting you identify potential gaps and opportunities. [1]
  • Content analysis offers insights that help you make decisions about your content more easily—for example, what to prioritize.
  • Content analysis can reveal themes, relationships, and more.

In this column, I’ll walk you through a content analysis—and offer tips and tricks along the way that will help make your next content analysis more effective.

Start with the Roots: A Content Inventory

Before you can analyze your content, you must identify what content there is. For two useful perspectives on doing content inventories, see these essays:

Ultimately, a content inventory results in a detailed spreadsheet that, at a minimum, lists the existing content.

Weed Out the ROT

“A common method of analyzing content uses the ROT (Redundant, Outdated, Trivial) set of heuristics.”

A common method of analyzing content uses the ROT (Redundant, Outdated, Trivial) set of heuristics. Often an analysis using these heuristics is part of a broader content analysis, as the abovementioned essays note. This important analysis gets rid of the obviously bad content.

The problem? Many people end their content analyses there. For me, a ROT analysis is just the beginning. While it tells you what content is stale or woefully unimportant, it does not tell you what content is mediocre, inappropriate, inconsistent, or off brand. To reveal more useful insights about your content—and consequently, make better decisions about your content—you must take content analysis a step further.

Expand Your Tool Set, Then Work Away

Just as, to truly care for a garden, you need more than a weedeater, you need more than the ROT heuristics to analyze content effectively. In hisBoxes and Arrows article “Content Analysis Heuristics,” Fred Leise offers the following helpful heuristics [4], with a focus on information architecture:

  • collocation
  • differentiation
  • completeness
  • information scent
  • bounded horizons
  • accessibility
  • multiple access paths
  • appropriate structure
  • consistency
  • audience relevance
  • currency

In a recent UXmatters column, “Toward Content Quality,” I shared some basic characteristics of content quality, with an eye toward turning them into heuristics: [5]

  • usefulness and relevance
  • clarity and accuracy
  • completeness
  • influence and engagement
  • voice and style
  • usability and findability

Other important, basic characteristics include some of those noted in the content inventory essays I mentioned earlier:

  • type
  • format—for example, text, PDF, or image
  • intended audience
  • business or user priorities
“If there is a content characteristic you want to track or understand better, you need to include it in your content analysis.”

Plus, there are numeric ratings of quality or effectiveness you can use to judge whether content meets a heuristic.

Occasionally, you might want to add a characteristic to address a specific project issue, challenge, emphasis, or need. If there is a content characteristic you want to track or understand better, you need to include it in your content analysis.

Including every single heuristic or characteristic I just listed would make your content analysis extremely time consuming. You should select the combination of heuristics and characteristics that make the most sense for your project.

I recently decided to use a combination of some of these heuristics—taking some from each set—for a project that involved migrating and merging several disparate Web sites. After analyzing part of one Web site, I realized that a couple of my selections were not applicable or useful, so I dropped them.

Figure 1—Part of a content analysis spreadsheet

Content analysis spreadsheet

When I finished, I found the results quite helpful. I’ll give you a glimpse of them in the next section.

See the Content Forest Thanks to the Trees

“By synthesizing your analysis and developing descriptions, insights, and illustrative examples, you can gain information that is valuable in making strategic decisions about your content.”

Once you’ve completed a content analysis, you have the ability to paint an overall picture of your content’s current state. Specifically, you can synthesize your analysis into useful descriptions and insights. You can also identify examples of key content issues. By synthesizing your analysis and developing descriptions, insights, and illustrative examples, you can gain information that is valuable in making strategic decisions about your content.

Content Descriptions

Stakeholders and clients won’t always look at your ponderous spreadsheets—even if they should—but they will pay attention to useful visuals you’ve coupled with smart insights. Thanks to the magic of spreadsheets, you can create pivot tables, then graphic depictions of your content. Figure 2 shows a pie chart I created recently for a content analysis, showing the content formats that were present on a Web site.

Figure 2—Pie chart showing types of content on pages

Pie chart showing content types

For a project that involved assessing the content of multiple Web sites, in preparation for integrating them, I had an easy basis for comparison, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—Pie charts comparing content quality across several Web sites

Pie charts comparing content quality

“Depictions of data also provide a way of evaluating existing content in light of user needs or comparing your content to that on competitor Web sites and identifying gaps.”

Such depictions of data also provide a way of evaluating existing content in light of user needs or comparing your content to that on competitor Web sites and identifying gaps.

In a recent post to the Content Strategy Google Group, Kristina Halvorson noted that content auditing involves both quantitative and qualitative elements. I wholeheartedly agree. While the charts I’ve shown you so far focus mainly on quantitative descriptions, I’ve also used charts for qualitative ratings. Figure 4 shows a pie chart that illustrates the reasons for a content-quality rating.

Figure 4—Pie chart depicting reasons for a content-quality rating

Pie chart showing reasons for quality ratings

To help bring these qualitative ratings and the reasons for them to life, I illustrated them with specific examples.

Examples of Content Issues

“A content analysis lets you flag and refer to specific examples of content problems.”

If you tell a client or stakeholder their content has issues, they understandably want to know what issues and why they are issues and to see examples of the issues. A content analysis lets you flag and refer to specific examples of content problems—for example, different types of problems or anything else you want to illustrate. Consequently, you can easily snag a screen capture for a presentation or pull up a Web page during a meeting. Figure 5 shows a slide that depicts one of my favorite issues—missing an opportunity to influence.

Figure 5—Missing an opportunity to influence

Missed opportunity to influence

When meeting with a client or stakeholder, you can show particular content examples and quickly address many issues—even on multiple Web sites. I find that, not only does this help you to be efficient, it also assures a client or stakeholder that their content is in good hands. It’s surprising how often I point out examples a client or stakeholder is notaware of or had forgotten. But without my content analysis, I would have found it difficult to do this effectively.

In Closing: Get Out of It What You Put into It

“Content analysis reliably gives you returns on your investment. You get back what you put into it.”

Content analysis reliably gives you returns on your investment. You get back what you put into it. While choosing the right heuristics for your content analysis and synthesizing them properly takes practice and a bit of flair, the vision you gain makes your effort worthwhile.

In my opinion, an experienced UX professional is capable of assessing content more efficiently, thoroughly, and sensitively than someone with little experience. Proceed with caution if you turn a green intern completely loose on your content analysis, because the results you get are unlikely to help you see beyond the trees. Effective analysis and strategic thinking take maturity of vision.


[1] Sheffield, Richard. The Web Content Strategist’s Bible. Atlanta, GA: ClueFox Publishing, 2009.

[2] Veen, Jeffrey. “Doing a Content Inventory (Or, a Mind-Numbingly Detailed Odyssey Through Your Web Site).” Adaptive Path Essays, June 8, 2002. Retrieved July 18, 2009.

[3] Halvorson, Kristina. “The Content Inventory Is Your Friend.” Brain Traffic Blog, March 2, 2009. Retrieved July 18, 2009.

[4] Leise, Fred. “Content Analysis Heuristics.” Boxes and Arrows, February 26, 2007. Retrieved July 18, 2009.

[5] Jones, Colleen. “Toward Content Quality.” UXmatters, April 13, 2009. Retrieved July 18, 2009.


Content-tious Strategy


Lorem ipsum, that loyal chum of designers, is the placeholder signaling text-goes-here the world around. Text goes here, that is, in this ominous black box. It works, after a fashion: it gives us a valuable feel for the contours of a webpage, providing an undifferentiated pour of words down a page’s columns. It also distills copy down to an ornament, making decorations of our content assets and all but insisting the content will sort itself.

But a website isn’t a Christmas tree, and I’m not feeling festive.

Let’s level. It’s an open secret in our daily work how often the challenges posed by content elude our collective talents and acumen. We’ve all been there. For me, lorem ipsum makes it personal. It personifies the proposition at the heart of what content specialists do and mocks how often the manifold complexities of content can get the better of all of us.

It’s happening because we haven’t been talking.

The mission of Content Strategy

Everyone knows content is fundamental. You’ve also heard this about content: it’s complicated, it’s messy, and, it’s someone else’s problem.

Our wider profession has tried to take on the challenges of content. Information architecture has given us a grammar for presentation and organization. Visual design has helped users feel like readers, retaining the familiar look of print culture standbys: newspapers and magazines. Search engine optimization has delivered new strategies for content discovery, for serving audiences and finding new ones. As emerging technologies have become mainstream, technical architects have made the complex functional.

The field experts of content, often called content strategists, play a critical role not addressed by these colleagues. Our professional existence is staked on one particular stock in trade: the ability to reason out the real contents of that black box filled with lorem ipsum. Content strategy addresses the specific purpose, form, and development of the content assets that we have at hand, or those that circumstances (and our analysis) require us to produce. The analysis of content and assessment of its value lies at the core of our labors.

We all need desperately to get past lorem ipsum, but also to stop worrying content as though it were some daunting glyph. For that to happen, content strategy has to stand up and be counted.

Stalking the content specialist

For years now, content strategists have hidden in plain sight at design agencies and other organizations, particularly those that manage vast sets of information. But the field of content strategy lacks profile: defining texts, leading practitioners, conference panels, and intellectual property. There are consequences.

In a handful of years, the publishing and communication industry has seen an upheaval so comprehensive it’s doubtless sent Gutenberg’s corpse into full rotisserie twirl. We’re all consuming and producing exponentially more content than ever, even as our print culture fades—and the content strategy toolkit has not become part of the conversation, let alone kept pace with it.

Our training nominates us to be the sherpas, but in this chilly new landscape, our compass needles are stuck and frostbite is setting in.

Call it an identity crisis.

For one thing, content specialists remain a minority (bordering on statistical nonentity), resulting in too little attention to the work of too few[1]. For another, we’re word people and not given to flashy self-promotion. Finally, the unkind march of technology on our cousins in the print world—editors, copywriters, and publishers alike—has left that industry, the one we can help the most, suspicious. Are we the robo-copywriters hellbent on replacing them, or worse, the latest mealy-mouthed jaw artist the professional services world has coughed up?[2]

Given this, we need a model for articulating the merits of content strategy and a zoology of its native speakers.

Weasel words

Content strategy. The words just waterfall from the tongue, don’t they? Like sandpaper.

An emergent field of practice hatched from user experience design, the phrase “content strategy” greets most non-initiates as wordy, not word-wise.

Last winter, I set out to disprove that hypothesis. Pleading a need for healthy self-regard, I made tracks for Wikipedia, where a group of moderators summarily rejected my three attempts to submit a basic but faithfully researched entry for “content strategy.”

Forget griefers and trolls: there’s no existential put-down to compare with a righteous Wikipedian’s. They cited “weasel words”; I cited exasperation, and retired to a long night of the pseudo-professional soul. Now I know how information architects felt in 1995.

And the more things change, the more they don’t. A recent posting to an information architecture mailing list put the situation rather plaintively. An inquiring IA had been assigned to do some content strategy, and was wondering, understandably, just what this entailed. Fair question, but the answers were all over the proverbial map. Content strategy needs to get past its “dark continent” reputation, or live forevermore as the here-be-dragons squiggle on the edge of the user experience design map.

To make things more difficult, it seems that for some, “content strategy” is merely the latest in a sad parade of meaningless buzzwords. Particularly among marketers, it’s subject to furious name-dropping. To see what I mean, try my recipe for a dreary evening: set a Google Alert for every mention of “content strategy” and its derivations, read the results, stir well, and set oneself aflame.

The cocktail napkin model of content strategy

What I needed was a map of my profession; what it took was a cocktail napkin.

One day over drinks, a colleague pressed me for my personal take of the wider, uncharted CS world. A few hurried scrawls later, I had something that—love you, beer goggles!—made a good deal of sense. It was provisional, it had gaps, and it needed polish: but it stood up as a credible visual primer.

Content strategy is a broad field and can be usefully considered as a continuum that accounts for differences in approach, deliverables, and disciplinary interests.

The approach a content strategist uses depends strongly on her professional training and education. Many, for example, have library or information sciences backgrounds, which seem to predispose them to one approach; likewise, to the opposite extreme, for those with journalism training. Content strategists draw on skills across this spectrum, but any content specialist you know will adhere to one of these camps more than the others.


Between the left and right poles in my diagram lies the birthing ground of content strategy: information architecture itself. Information Architects (IAs) and copywriters seem to precede content strategists in many organizations. Where content strategists are absent in name, it is common to see information architects fulfilling similar duties. You know them and you love and/or loathe them: this is the domain of peerless grammarians, those sticklers for editorial polish.

Information architect-writer combos may act as copywriters as well, supporting IA and filling out copy decks for site content. Another common job for this sort of content strategist is to create a brand/messaging strategy that outlines how to communicate with users and with what types of content. They also commonly produce the humble but highly annotated sort of wireframes that, bursting with detail, explain exactly how both interaction and content will work. This is the model of the content strategist at her most holistic.


If your content strategist is detail-obsessed, she is a content analyst. The most prevalent content strategist working today has a background in library or information sciences. She functions most comfortably at the level of content as data, not copy (see above) nor product (see below). With a focus on metadata, taxonomy, the semantic web, and search engine optimization (SEO), the content analyst thrives in sifting large data sets, providing strategies to corral, deploy, and manage the content in an orderly or seductive fashion. By and large, she doesn’t dabble in copy.

Content analysts are gifted at understanding process flow, but don’t always recognize human or organizational factors in the creation and maintenance of content. They produce many common core content strategy deliverables, but are perhaps best suited to detailed content inventories or auditsmatrices, and gap analyses. They make fine architects of content management systems and scrupulous stewards of content migrations. Their skills are widely applicable.


Another type of content strategist is the media industry subject matter expert. Hailing from a digital publishing background, she retains the terms of reference of her former editorial masthead role, often becoming a consultant to publishers, producers, and backend staff alike. The editorial specialist’s perspective on content is as an editorial product. An editorial strategy, produced by such a specialist, outlines how different content producers can fulfill their roles as publishers. The content assignment at hand may not even resemble a magazine or television program—this may instead be the model she imposes to shape a strategy, knowing from experience how such organizations and revenue models work. Editorial products online are of course evolving rapidly, and the editorial specialist is only as sharp as her industry knowledge. Yesterday it was paid content archives and blog stables; today it’s social media and content syndication plays; tomorrow it’s lean-forward video.

The editorial specialist’s work reflects the intersection between product development and industry best practices. She may be conversant not just in the finer points of publishing or broadcasting, but also in business strategy, analytics, organizational roles, and workflow design. As a result, she is typically the most adept content strategist at managing editorial teams and liaising directly with organizational leadership to craft strategic objectives for content.

Further afield is the rising class of specialist content creators who are themselves increasingly as literate in, say, producing short-form online video, as in devising distribution plans or meeting performance targets.

Get me a rewrite

We need to clearly define our role, our tools, and our value.

Emboldened by my napkin epiphany and the encouragements of others, I’ve drafted a post online to continue sketching out the content strategy landscape. If you have a model for content strategy and the talents of its practitioners, I have time and an edit button waiting to be pressed. To my great delight, this is a task colleagues of mine are starting to undertake in earnest. Like the napkin-map, the result is bound to be untidy and imprecise, but it will be a success if we accomplish two things.

  1. We must expand the audience. Our content dialogue needs to engage the broader, nonspecialist community of content producers and consumers alike. In plain language, please: we all have a stake in the future of content.
  2. We must promote our work’s worth. If we’re going to advance our field of practice, we must offer our fellow content strategists fresh means and metaphors to help others understand what we do, and why.

A beginning

An innocuous blog post parked itself in my inbox the other day. Another “content strategy” alert…another sickening piece of spin? Yes and no.

Here was a post from a recently launched blog describing good jobs for English majors. And here was its summation for content strategist.

Content strategists combine the skills of writers, editors and publishers to think in a holistic way about what users should see when they visit a site[.]

Not bad at all.

It’s a start and it’s yours for the revising, colleagues of content. Ready your red pen: content strategy is ready for its rewrite. 


[1] In The Web Design Survey of A List Apart in 2007, a cumulative total of 1.2% of respondents identified themselves as writer-editors. Among design agencies of the sort that contract me, the number falls to 0.3% [Page 27; figure 1.1].

[2] See the Controversy section.

  • About the Author

Jeffrey MacIntyreJeffrey MacIntyre is the principal of Predicate, LLC, a content and editorial strategy consultancy for digital publishers, and a widely published freelance journalist. He lives in Brooklyn.



Content Strategy for the Web Professional

You’re a web professional: a designer, developer, information architect, or strategist. Your team has the web design disciplines covered: research, strategy, user experience design, standards-based development, and project management. But something’s going wrong with your projects; the user experience just isn’t meeting your expectations. You’re reasonably sure you know why: there’s a problem with the content.

You’ve tried all the obvious solutions: installing a powerful, easy-to-use content management system, or demanding that the client supply content upfront, or even writing all the copy yourself; but none of them seem to have much impact.

You realize that your team could use some help from the discipline of content strategy, but for whatever reason, hiring a dedicated content strategist isn’t a feasible option. So what can you do to add some content strategy to your projects?

The answer, as with so much in web design, is: Do It Yourself.

A Do It Yourself guide to content strategy

All web professionals can engage with content strategy, whether we’re content specialists or not.

It turns out that content strategy is a core discipline of user experience design. We’ve all practiced it to an extent, but most of us have neither been doing enough, nor getting the timing right. Stay with me and I’ll show you how using the approaches and techniques of content strategy, and advocating them among colleagues and stakeholders, can substantially improve the chances of meeting your projects’ goals, through an improved user experience.


A couple of definitions. By “content”, I mean text, images, audio, video; anything we publish online, and anything that our users expect to find on our website. For the discipline itself, see Kristina Halvorson’s “The Discipline of Content Strategy”:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

The pain of a broken experience

Before we learn how to use content strategy, it’s helpful to establish why we need it in the first place. So let’s talk about the problem: the pain of a broken experience.

Despite all the work we put into user experience design, the final experience often doesn’t meet our expectations, because the content isn’t right. Call it content-delay syndrome, a failure to design the words, or simply treating content as somebody else’s problem. So we try the obvious solutions.

Easy solutions that don’t work

How many of these easy solutions to the content problem have you seen?

  • Design the site with “lorem ipsum”, and hope the client comes up with the content later.
  • Demand that the client supplies all the content before you start work.
  • Install a content management system (CMS).
  • Hire a copywriter at the last minute.

Unfortunately, none of these “solutions” actually work.

“Lorem ipsum” produces a template, aesthetics-only design, which has no relationship with the actual purpose of the site. Demanding content from the client is better than nothing, but is unlikely to work unless your stakeholders have an exceptionally strong grasp of content strategy themselves. (It can work for launch day content, but the site soon goes stale.) Everyone loves a good CMS, but software isn’t magic pixie dust: a CMS without a content strategy leads to shovelware or worse. And even the most talented copywriter won’t be able to rescue your content at the last minute: content strategy isn’t all copywriting, and it needs to be practiced throughout the design process.

Wasting our time

No amount of research, information architecture, interaction design, or usability testing can create a great user experience if the content isn’t useful and usable—if it doesn’t help the user to get things done. (A possible exception is web apps, but even Gmail has a content strategy: brochure text, documentation, microcopy.) To an extent we’ve been wasting our time; trying our hardest to polish an experience, when the core of what we’re offering to the user hasn’t been properly thought through.

So we need content strategy.

The ideal: hire a specialist

How can we add some content strategy to our projects?

Ideally, we’d hire a content strategist: a specialist, who can lead a broad, upfront study, before we even sketch the first wireframe; and take responsibility for content throughout the project. She’d work alongside the information architect, designer, developer, copywriter; you name it. (Many copywriters would gladly take on the role of content strategist, if we’d only ask them.)

If you can do this, congratulations; you’re on the road to success.

The reality: you can’t

In practice, we’re often unable to hire a dedicated content strategist, for various reasons:

  • We don’t have the money.
  • We don’t have the time.
  • We don’t know any content strategists.
  • It’s a miracle the stakeholders tolerated a planning stage at all. Asking for yet another expert on board is too radical, at least for now.

But don’t despair. The internet publishing revolution is part of the “mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals,” in the words of Clay Shirky[1] Web professionals operate at the fast-moving threshold between amateur and professional: our professional work enables anyone to exploit the power of the web, without further help. (For example, consider blogging tools: created by experts, they empower non-experts to publish.)

So, those of us who aren’t content experts, let’s embrace that spirit, and practice content strategy for ourselves.

A core discipline of user experience design

How does “doing it for ourselves” fit into our existing practice as people who make websites? Well, I said earlier that content strategy is a core discipline of user experience design, and that you’re probably already doing some; let’s expand on that.

If you’re like me, you learned a great deal about web design from Jesse James Garrett’s famous diagram, “The Elements of User Experience” (PDF link), published in 2000. It still describes the field remarkably well, nine years on. But as Kristina Halvorson has pointed out, the diagram doesn’t treat content strategically: it’s treated like a feature, with nobody taking ownership until the last minute.

Things change. It turns out that the bridge between site objectives and user needs—the strategy itself—is content. To say it another way, people come to your site because they want content; you meet user needs by planning, creating, delivering, and governing content, and you meet site objectives in the same way. Often, the content strategy is the web strategy.

This has been obvious to some practitioners for years, many of whom have called themselves “content strategists” all along. For the rest of us, it’s a bit of a shock. What, we can’t just throw some copy in on launch day?

The good news: you’re already doing some

But since it’s fundamental, anyone who’s tried to bring order, planning, and purpose to a web design project—like you, dear reader—is already practicing a little content strategy. Maybe you’ve:

  • Asked the question, “who cares?”
  • Compiled a content inventory.
  • Used real content in a wireframe.
  • Written a style guide.
  • Planned an editorial workflow.

You might have called it web strategy, information architecture, usability; it doesn’t matter.

How to practice content strategy

So we’re already practicing some content strategy. But how can we do more, more effectively? Here are some suggestions.

Make it part of your web strategy campaign

Use the principles of content strategy as part of your campaign for a grown-up web strategy.

As enlightened web professionals, one of our constant struggles is adding some strategic planning to our clients’ projects. Lisa Welchman defines two key elements of web strategy:

  1. Establishing a set of guiding principles.
  2. Formalizing authority for the web in the organization.

Content strategy applies directly to both points, asking:

  1. What content are we creating, and why?, and
  2. Who is responsible for planning, creating, and maintaining it?

Practically, this often means allocating a large portion of the project schedule to upfront planning: research, web strategy, content strategy. Anything that allows you to design from the content out, by delaying the design phase until the content actually exists, will help.

Advocate it among stakeholders

Advocate content strategy when talking to stakeholders about their web projects.

Although clients often don’t realize it, commissioning a website is a big deal; for the client as much as for the design team. Talking about content strategy is a great way to communicate to your stakeholders just how much work they need to do. (See: Understanding web design.) The aim is to get your stakeholders to think like a publisher; and ideally to either narrow the scope, or increase the budget.

In my experience, clients appreciate the value of content strategy surprisingly quickly. I’ve had more success explaining its importance than with similar efforts for user-centered design or information architecture, for example.

Apply it to your design process

Apply the approaches and techniques of content strategy to your existing design process. Here are some starting points:

  • Ask questions about content, right from the start.
  • Utilize user research or personas to decide what content is needed: answer the question, “who cares?”
  • Establish key themes and messages.
  • Carry out a content audit, and a gap analysis.
  • Write a plan for creating and commissioning content.
  • Insist that the client plans for content production over time (an editorial calendar).
  • Annotate wireframes and sitemaps, to explain how both interaction and content will work.
  • Write comprehensive copy decks, based on common templates.
  • Write a style guide for tone of voice, SEO, linking policy, and community policy.
  • Specify CMS features like content models, metadata, and workflow based on the content strategy.

This only scratches the surface. For more on how to start practicing content strategy within a web design team, check out these presentations: “Explaining Content Strategy” by Jeffrey MacIntyre, and “Content is King” by Karen McGrane.

Engage with the community

Finally, engage with the community.

Some people have been practicing content strategy for years; they know what they’re talking about. It’s scary dealing with content experts—they eat grammar for breakfast—but imagine how they must feel about the CSS box model. They don’t seem to bite.

There’s a lively and growing community around content strategy. A few starting points are the Google group, the “knol”, and the twitter hashtag.

The benefits: look more accomplished

So why should you care about all this? You’re not even a content specialist.

Considering how well you managed to polish that user experience before, imagine what you’ll be able to accomplish when the site has a real content strategy. You’ll see a substantially improved user experience, increasing the chances of meeting the project’s goals; with the side effect of making your design seem more accomplished. Honestly: design an experience over a solid content strategy, and people will think you’re a genius. (Well, more of a genius than they thought you were already.)

The commercial aspect: this is going to be huge

Finally, a commercial- or career-oriented reason to get involved in content strategy.

Listen for a second. That crashing sound you hear is what we used to call the media industry, collapsing around us. All that destruction leaves a lot of space for web content. Web content strategy will be in demand for years to come.

So get out there, and Do It Yourself.


[1] “Here Comes Everybody”. Clay Shirky, Penguin. 2008. Page 55. (UK edition)


Strategic Content Management

by Jonathan Khan

Strategic Content Management

Trying to fix an organization’s content problems by installing a content management system (CMS) is like trying to save a marriage by booking a holiday. We know that a successful web project needs a content strategy—but when it comes to the CMS, we stop thinking strategically. Despite all the talk about user-centered design, we rarely consider the user experience of the editorial team—the people who implement the content strategy. We don’t design a CMS, we install it.

The problem: tools aren’t magic pixie dust

Any web project more complex than a blog requires custom CMS design work. It’s tempting to use familiar tools, and try to shoehorn content in—but we can’t select the appropriate tool until we’ve figured out the project’s specific needs.


As Karen McGrane says, it’s easy to sketch a faceted navigation on a wireframe. It’s more difficult to implement a CMS to power the implied taxonomy, and to commit to ongoing editorial maintenance over time. A wireframe without a corresponding content strategy and a realistic CMS design is a work of fantasy. A CMS that could realize one of these fantasy wireframes would need plenty of magic pixie dust. We need content strategy to help us decide which of our aspirations is feasible; CMS design is an essential part of that decision.


Most of the time we select a CMS by popularity, cultural affiliation, or corporate edict—that is, without properly considering the content we’re supposed to be publishing. This is crazy. Instead, we should use a design process to select and customize a CMS, based on our content strategy and the editorial team’s needs. This article will show you how. But first, let’s take a step back: what exactly is a CMS?

A CMS is a bunch of features

We’ll define a CMS as a set of software tools that enable non-technical people to manage web content. There are a bazillion different CMS tools out there. They tend to be sold on their features—and boy, do they have a lot of them. Here’s a taste:

  • content creation and editing,
  • content delivery,
  • taxonomy management,
  • curation and page composition,
  • editorial workflow, and
  • …continued ad infinitum.

Now, I love me a good CMS feature. But features alone can’t solve strategic, editorial, or governance problems. Too often, CMS projects become solutioneering, or throwing technology at problems. So what should a CMS give us, apart from a bunch of features?


To get value from a CMS, think beyond editing web pages. As Jeff Croft argues:

…[content management] ought to include structuring, organizing, searching on, filtering, and easily modifying your content… [allow you to] quickly define new types of content… [and] facilitate establishing meaningful relationships between disparate pieces of content. It ought to make your content more useful simply by virtue of the content being in the system.

Web pages are where our content ends up, but using a tool that can only edit pages is like marking up document headings using the div element; it might look fine on the surface, but proper, semantic heading elements are more useful. So a CMS needs a rich content model that can generate semantic web pages.


A product can’t fix content problems out of the box. Every CMS started out as a solution to a specific problem, later generalized to fit a wider range of problems. It’s an open secret that CMS tools need to be customized before they can be used on a real website. As D. Keith Robinson argues:

In truth most CMSs end up being custom, regardless of how they start out. From those that bill themselves as one-size fits all to the highly specialized systems which deal with specific industries or types of content. It’s just a matter of how much hacking you’ll need to do to get to what works for your people.

So a CMS is a bunch of powerful tools that add semantic richness to content, and that require customization to fit a specific project’s needs. Before we learn how to to apply them to a content strategy, let’s take a short history lesson.

Content strategy is shaking up the CMS industry

The rise of content strategy is dealing the content management industry a huge kick up the backside. In the web’s Wild West era, the CMS was run by the IT department—or sometimes a lone webmaster who knew HTML—so CMS choices were based on features, price, and cultural fit, rather than web or content strategy. It was the classic IT drill: selection committees, feature matrices, and business lunches with men wearing neckties.

The times they are a-changin’. According to Lisa Welchman, the web is now “the organization’s primary communications, sales, marketing, and transactional vehicle.” A CMS vendor’s target audience used to be the IT Director, and a successful outcome meant each department could easily update their content silo. Now, the target audience is an organization’s internal editorial infrastructure; and a successful outcome is a complex mix of achieving business objectives, implementing a content strategy, and crafting a user experience. The game just got more serious.

A process for selecting and customizing a CMS

We choose CMS tools for crazy reasons. See if you recognize any of these scenarios.

  • Choosing a tool because someone you admire uses it—and expecting results like theirs—is like buying the type of guitar Jimi Hendrix played and hoping to fill Madison Square Garden next week. (Giveaway: “All the cool kids use ACME product.”)
  • Choosing a tool based on your cultural attachment to it makes the project more about you than your client’s objectives and your users’ needs. Avoid holy wars. (Giveaway: “ACME product should be your next CMS.”)
  • Choosing a tool because the IT department says you have to is like accepting an artistic commission while handcuffed; it’s possible to do good work, but you’re set up to fail. (Giveway: “The client requires ACME product.”)

It’s as if we’re considering every factor apart from the content. Let’s take the advice of Karen McGrane and Jeff Eaton, and “reframe the conversation”:

Shift the discussion about the CMS away from “features” and towards “task flow.”

So what does a grown-up CMS selection process look like? Here’s a workflow diagram:

CMS design workflow

Fig. 1 Workflow of a CMS design process.

The inputs are the content strategy, which is made up of substance, structure, workflow, and governance; our editorial resources, i.e., the editorial team’s ongoing time commitment; and our technical resources, made up of infrastructure (e.g., hardware) and our technical team’s time commitment. Using the complementary design processes of content modeling and task analysis, we’ll create a CMS selection & customization plan, that describes which tools to use, how we’ll customize them, and how we’ll maintain them over time. Let’s take each in turn.

The gold mine: content strategy deliverables

First off, don’t panic: The content strategist is here to help. (No content strategist? Considerdoing it yourself.) Jeffrey MacIntyre’s Content-tious Strategy is a practical overview of the various flavors of content strategist, and their respective deliverables; taken together, these documents are a gold mine for making smart CMS design decisions. Here are some highlights:

  • An editorial strategy (“product development for content”) might include an editorial calendar, editorial workflows, and a style guide.
  • content analysis might include a content inventory, a gap analysis, a taxonomy, and a migration plan.
  • Copywriting and IA-related gems include content templates (also called page tables), copy-decks, and annotated wireframes.


We haven’t mentioned metadata—commonly defined as “data about data”—because the term itself is confusing. In fact, Deane Barker argues that the distinction between data and metadata isn’t helpful. But let’s consider Rachel Lovinger’s definition (PDF link), which defines three types:

  • descriptive metadata is taxonomy: classification systems for content;
  • administrative metadata specifies behind-the-scenes status of content, normally managed by the CMS itself; and,
  • structural metadata defines the content model.

Instead of using the same word for three distinct concepts, we’ll talk about taxonomy, administrative data, and the content model.

Content modeling: types, elements, relationships, oh my!

Based on the strategy, we’ll design a model to describe the website’s content: Types, elements, and relationships. You can think of a content model as a semantic structure for content, or a database schema; it’s part of the information architecture. (Don’t confuse it with the site map, which specifies top-down navigation.) Content modeling isn’t a straightforward, mechanical process; it requires human judgement and experience, and there’s no single correct solution.


Content modeling is about striking a balance between semantics and granularity. We can encapsulate it as the answer to two questions:

  1. What does this content represent? (Semantics)
  2. How much detail should we go into? (Granularity)

To demonstrate, suppose we’re designing a content model for a company that runs conferences. First, we’ll consider which content types are needed. (These aren’t media typeslike video or text: Each content type represents a separate entity in our model.) It’s easy to brainstorm possible content types: Events, presentations, speakers, attendees. But how much detail do we need? Should we model multiple conference “tracks” and schedules, or are presentations and speakers enough?

At the same time we’ll consider which content types are related to each other, and how. For example, if we model tracks, each presentation is related to a track; without tracks, each presentation is related directly to an event. We’ll also consider whether relationships are one-to-many or many-to-many (the technical term is “cardinality”). Next we’ll consider elements: What makes up each content type? In our example, do we need a “URL” element for each speaker, or is the “Biography” element sufficient? Finally we’ll decide which content types need classification, and which taxonomy to use.


If this sounds a bit abstract, don’t worry. We won’t sit here all day debating the nature of the world; we have a content strategy to implement. Based on the deliverables outlined above, we might design this content model:

Example content model diagram for a conference website

Fig. 2 Example content model for a conference website.

Each box represents a content type, and lists a few possible elements; the lines represent relationships between pieces of content. We’re modeling an event as a number of tracks, each featuring a number of presentations, each presented by one speaker. This semantic richness gives us the flexibility to present content in powerful ways. For example:

  • From the speaker biography we could link to their presentations at past events.
  • For each presentation we could automatically show what’s on before and after, and what’s happening simultaneously in other tracks.
  • Search could return intelligent results, e.g., a speaker and the events they’re due to present at.
  • There’s scope for a personalized conference schedule that attendees can use to plan their day.


Consider a conference you’ve attended; does this content model make sense for that conference? It probably doesn’t: What about events with a single track, or panels with several speakers? Or more significantly, what if the editorial strategy is based on publishing high quality videos of presentations? We’re not striving for the ultimate model; we need a pragmatic design that accommodates the real-world constraints of the content strategy. We won’t get it right first time: content models evolve, so we’ll allow for iteration and change over time.

Task analysis: what’s an editor to do?

But a model isn’t enough; an editor needs to create, edit, publish, and care for the content that lives in it. In real life, the editor will be short of time. Using task analysis we can make our content model more realistic by considering feasibility. It’s a great way to identify assumptions about the CMS interface upfront, and it lets us inform the project team about the true cost of content and features—taking into account ongoing editorial and technical time.


For web professionals, task analysis isn’t new. We’re always thinking from the user’s point of view, making tasks as straightforward as possible. But how often do we apply the same type of thinking to web editors? Here’s a four step guide:

  1. Brainstorm key tasks (based on the content model, editorial calendar, and content inventory).
  2. Sketch workflow diagrams for each task.
  3. Sketch wireframes of key interfaces.
  4. Estimate the editorial time required to complete each task.


Continuing with our conference example, how does our content model stand up to task analysis? It’s straightforward to list an editor’s key tasks: Publishing a news item, adding a speaker, adding a new presentation, etc. Here’s what the CMS task flow might look like for adding a new presentation, given our content model:

Example task flow for a conference website CMS

Fig. 3 Example task flow for a conference website CMS.

The diagram shows the five processes and two decision points involved in this task. A typical implementation might include five separate screens; we’ll estimate that an editor will take 10-20 minutes to complete it. We’ll also sketch simple wireframes for each process. (Would an Ajax-enabled design work better? We’ll need detailed sketches showing how the auto-complete or show/hide magic works.)

If we apply task analysis to the whole system, we can derive sensible estimates of the editorial time required to complete each task. We can then prioritize our scope based on the actual time available. It might turn out that parts of the content model are over-ambitious, while others need to be extended. This process helps us find a realistic balance between modeling and task flow based on strategic priorities rather than haphazard assumptions.

There’s another benefit: Identifying assumptions within the content model about the publishing process. For example, our task flow requires an editor to select a track before adding a presentation. Is that a valid assumption? What if we need to publish presentations before the tracks are finalized? And how will the front-end website present tracks anyway? Finding these assumptions before implementation saves time, money, and grief.

Decision time: CMS selection and customization plan

At this point, we have a revised content model, and a task analysis that specifies how editors will interact with the CMS. We also know which tasks are most important, which will help us to prioritize backend interface design work. This puts us in a strong position to shortlist and select CMS tools, and to scope customization.

There’s no silver bullet for CMS selection. The key is to specify the problem as clearly as possible, and then to insist on realistic time estimates for customization and implementation. We’re ready to ask the following questions:

  1. Can this tool handle our content model? Natively, or will it need customization?
  2. How much customization will be required to implement this task flow? How long will that take, given our technical resources?

If you aren’t a technical expert, you’ll need to consult your technical team, vendors, or online communities. Although there are other important factors to consider when selecting a CMS (e.g., platforms, licensing, hosting), don’t let anyone use them as an excuse to avoid answering these basic questions. If the tool can do what we’ve outlined, and there’s enough time and money to customize it, great. If not, we either need to consider a different tool, or scale down our plans so they’re feasible. A CMS project needs technical resources after launch day too, so be sure to get estimates for ongoing design changes and maintenance.

The output of this process is a project plan. We know which tools we’re using, and we’ve scoped the work required to get them to fit our needs. Now, buy yourself a drink.

That final arrow: back to the drawing board

We’re not quite finished, though: We can’t just pour in some content strategy, customize the CMS, and leave. CMS design is part of an ongoing, iterative process: Our selection and customization plan provides information about feasibility which will influence the content strategy itself. In practice, we’ll dream up ambitious plans which require unrealistic amounts of editorial and technical time to implement. So we’ll use the workflow diagram’s final arrow, go back to the drawing board, and scale down our plans to make them more realistic.


Our websites have been held back for too long by lackluster publishing tools. In this article we’ve explored ways to apply strategic thinking to CMS selection and customization, through design. It’s time to regain control of our content management systems by harnessing the power of content strategy. 

About the Author

Jonathan KahnJonathan Kahn is a web developer, content strategy advocate, and basmati rice aficionado. In 2008 he founded Together London, a collaborative web design agency. Jonathan listens to soul and jazz, and writes at lucid plot.