May 27, 2011 - Methodology. An ugly word, to be sure. Cold and clinical, it marginalizes flexibility in the name of process.
Yet, we all seek it out. We all want a methodology – a guide to doing what we are going to do. We want it for us. We want it for our clients. We want to take the amorphous blob that is content strategy and define WHAT THAT MEANS on a task-related level.
Great. But how?
Why Methodology Matters
Let’s assume we’ve all read The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane’s rallying cry for the consistent definition of what it is we do. We’ve written down the steps and took them into a project and put them to work. And it’s worked. Somewhat.
But not completely.
Erin Kissane works for Brain Traffic. Before that, she worked independently. Before that, she worked at Happy Cog. Let’s just say she’s had a fantastic list of jobs and opportunities to work with major clients on major things.
I work for Blend Interactive. And while we also have major clients and major things, we’re small. I do content strategy. But I also do information architecture and occasional QA.
In other words: I work differently than Erin. Just as you do. Just as any content strategist does. Just as Erin herself does from project to project.
The one true path to content strategy gold is a fallacy, because no one has the same rhythm, the same skills, the same circumstances. That’s where the methodology comes into play.
Methodology: Targeting the Team
Over the past year, Blend has shaped and chopped apart and rearranged what we call our “Content Strategy Methodology.” We have done this as much for ourselves as for our clients. Our methodology serves as the framework from which we work. It includes everything. Every step. No matter how pedantic.
Why go through the trouble?
Because we are fallible creatures. We are human, after all. We skim. We skip. We adjust on the fly. And we require a codified process to help keep us on track.
“It’s all about cementing credibility in our practice and consistency in our approach,” as Jeffrey MacIntire mentioned in his 2010 Web Content talk “Audit, Plan, Build, Grow: A Methodology for Content Strategy.”
To be more specific, we’re cementing credibility in our practice and consistency within our companies and relationships. You could make it even more granular – we’re refining our methodologies across each project.
We’re not building consistency across every content strategy firm in the world. Instead, we’re building consistency between the people in our companies, between the people we subcontract, between our clients, between everyone who comes in contact with a project.
The methodology is for everyone. It keeps us honest. It gives us something to fall back on.
Let’s build one.
Planning a Methodology
It seems silly, someone telling you how to do your methodology, what with the allowances needed from project to project and company to company, but we can at least go over the basics.
Make a List
Make a list of everything. Everything. From initial planning meetings to major deliverables.
Do you provide site maps, or do you work with outside information architects? Does your process include copywriting and editing? Are there things you wish you could do? Put those down.
What you are beginning to create at this point is a complete content checklist, one that includes more than just deliverables. You should see meetings, internal tasks and approvals, as well as any internal checks and balances.
For example, at Blend we break our methodology into three categories: events, tasks and deliverables.
- Events include meetings, approvals and other non-task-oriented pieces. Discovery meetings and stage approvals, for instance.
- Tasks include internal worksheets and processes that the client may never see. We go through an analytics analysis at the same time as the content inventory, but we don’t present any findings until later in the process.
- Deliverables are what they are: documents delivered to the client.
Do not get hung up on how often an event, task or deliverable is actually used in practice. Treat the methodology as if it were being developed for a client with an unlimited budget. Probably unlimited patience, as well.
Organize the List
Once the list has been made, organize it. It’s that simple. If you were going through a project, what would you start with? What is your final hand-off? (And, yeah, everything in between, too.)
Part of organizing the task list is developing logical phases. These phases allow you to split the content strategy process into chunks of like-purposed events, tasks and deliverables. Blend employs a four-stage process:
- Discovery – Figuring out what we have, who our users are, and what they want
- Strategy – Developing a strategic content plan, including information architecture and pretty much everything else that happens before content is created. I.E.
- Execution – Making the sausage.
- Governance – Teaching the client how to continue making sausage long after you are gone.
Within each phase, sketch out the timeline. For example, our Discovery stage looks something like this:
1.1 – Content Inventory
Task – Analytics Review
Event – Initial Strategy Meeting
Event – User Interviews
1.2 – Audiences and Outcomes Document
1.3 – Personas
1.4 – Content Audit
- – 1.4.1 – Editorial Analysis
- – 1.4.2 – Competitive Analysis
- – 1.4.3 – Content Analysis
- – 1.4.4 – Analytics Analysis
- – 1.4.5 – Immediate Concerns
Event – Discovery Phase Acceptance
Then, fill in the steps. Pretend your firm has just hired a new employee, or you’ve just farmed out a section of a project. This person needs to understand your methodology, because this person is going to represent your content strategy process in some form.
Don’t forget: define your terms. One person’s “Content Audit” and “Content Inventory” are another person’s “Qualitative Audit” and “Quantitative Audit.”
And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t get hung up on the separation of stages or the order of things – especially on your first draft. You will screw things up. That’s okay – that’s part of learning. Let’s make mistakes™.
If you’re not storing away articles and notes and tweets and case studies and book references every day you’re doing a poor job at being a content strategist.
Your methodology document should be riddled with quotes, process diagrams, helpful notes and blog content. Go ahead. Steal it. Adjust it to fit your situation. Or, just copy the entire damned thing and paste it right in there. (Just remember to provide a link and attribution so you know where it came from.)
Your methodology is a company document. It is not being published. You are climbing the backs of much more talented people to help further the field, and I think we’re all okay with that, granted you don’t misrepresent the ideas or claim authorship.
We steal everything. Our methodology has entire sections dedicated to following Daniel Eizans’ work with context. It’s riddled with quotes from Erin’s book. It’s borrowed from Rahel Anne Bailey’s posts on content types and completely lifted Cleve Gibbon’s post on Web Standard Templates.
Again: if you’re not learning from your colleagues, you’re not doing your content process any favors.
Putting the Methodology to Work
In the beginning, follow the methodology to the letter. Unless you can’t. Be strict. Or don’t.
This is all away of saying, “You’ll know when you know.”
This methodology you’ve constructed? It’s a framework. It gives you a method with which to work, and it provides a list that you can show to clients who don’t understand the field. Most importantly, though, it gives you something to veer away from and the security of being able to veer back.
Adjustment takes place on a project-by-project basis. At Blend, if our budget is low, we streamline the process. We combine the analytics review with the audit. We only perform a partial inventory. We interview a handful of easy-to-reach internal stakeholders instead of a full battery of users. But we still touch on every part, somehow, someway.
A client with internal copywriters doesn’t need your copy work. So you cut it back, understanding that you’ll only need to provide a few sample pages within a content template. A small site with under a hundred pages of copy may not need a full editorial calendar. So we offer more basic editorial suggestions and guidance in its place.
Slaughter Your Darling(s)
Finally completed your methodology? Excellent. GET READY TO FAIL.
I know, right? Total downer. Still, it’s true: no methodology is ever complete. It is a complicated, living document. It adjusts for changes in landscape. It learns from misguided assumption. It shape shifts before your eyes, until it’s become a monstrous Word .doc the likes of which you never thought you’d write.
For example: it took us one project to understand that providing a qualitative content audit before defining the user personas was worthless. So we separated the audit from the quantitative inventory and threw it AFTER our user determination and persona deliverables. The result: a more natural flow of information and a lot less backtracking.
Just yesterday, we conducted a discovery meeting with a new client. We switched up the order of the first few steps, focusing on outcomes before audiences, and realized it didn’t work as well.
Both of these notes helped shape the latest version of our document, officially, the penultimate copy of our official content strategy methodology. That is, until the next set of changes to the penultimate copy of our official content strategy methodology.
See what I did there? Because it’s never finished, people. Never.
Your Methodology Sucks For Everyone But You.
This entire post can be summed up in one line: your methodology sucks for everyone but you.
There is no universal content strategy methodology.
Say it with me.
There is NO universal content strategy methodology.
We’re not robots. We don’t all work the same. Just as there’s no universal methodology for writing a book, or cleaning a house, or creating an award winning film, there is no universal way of developing usable and useful content for the Web.
Thankfully, there ARE thousands of eager and brilliant content strategists slowly working together their own methodologies. Some of these have been published. Some have been posted on blogs. All of them help shape the landscape, allowing us as content strategists to figure out what works best for our situation.
It’s like building an automobile. In the end, they all look different, and they’re all maximized for specific functions, but they ultimately take us where we want to go.
Now, if you don’t mind, I have a methodology to adjust. Again.