A case study in content strategy?

CSforum10 workshop
Karen McGrane and Rachel Lovinger present a workshop on content audits at CS Forum 2010 in Paris. © Fiona Cullinan/Flickr

Fascinating as Content Strategy Forum 2010 was two weeks ago, one major thing that came out of it was the need for benchmarked case studies that focus specifically on online content strategy, its effects and its impacts on the development and success of a website.

Serendipity landed Kristina Halvorson (queen of content strategy) next to me at lunchtime on #csforum10 Friday – which, by the way, was a three-course  à la carte lunch with wine. (Bless whoever decided to set the first-ever dedicated content strategy event in Paris in the springtime.)

Content is a hard sell
Halvorson admitted that content strategy can be a hard sell, particularly in an environment that is prioritised for design and development with content requirement boxes full of ‘lorum ipsem’ often only fulfilled with real content at the 11th hour.

There is a lot of advocacy for content strategy going on at the moment to sort out the mess of working this way.

Halvorson herself has spent the last 18 months being very vocal about why something as crucial as content should be considered not only upfront but throughout its lifecycle. She looks for content advocates within organisations to help make the case. And last year, she wrote Content Strategy for the Web, a handbook that outlines a repeatable process to take care of the whole messy content thing.

Finally, the content strategy buzz of 2009 means that clients are starting to request content strategy directly.

Lack of successful case studies
And yet, despite reading the book and saying ‘yes Yes YES’ like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally at the common sense that lies within, the finally page is a massive deflation:

‘At the time of writing, I’m not aware of a single case study available to the public that documents a content strategy successs story.’

It was something she echoed at lunch. Part of this is because projects are often not benchmarked from the outset and then monitored for change arising from content strategy changes. Partly, it’s because content advocates are still trying to get in on the act at an early enough stage.

But expect to see some case studies soon, I think.

Facebook’s content strategy success
It was great, for example, to hear Sarah Cancilla, the solo content strategist at Facebook, talk about some basic content tweaking to make the calls to action clearer on the ‘Get connected’ section. Some simple sub-editing here resulted in an overnight rise of 56% net traffic to those three links and six million more people connecting as a result of the change.

Six million! Now that’s what I call a justification.

Facebook is now also hiring a second content strategist, unsurprisingly.

A multi-tasking discipline
But as a former sub-editor, I’m not surprised. I come from a background of 20 years’ prepping raw copy for an audience, both in print and online, and trying to make it more engaging, clear and understandable for readers.

But content strategy is not just sub-editing and clever writing. And there is still a whole lot of new to take on board…

A content strategist has to get to grips with the disciplines of information architecture, user experience, monitoring and analytics, pinning down key business goals, auditing and analysis, alignment of stakeholders, and so on. All of these inform the choice of content.

It’s a lot to get your arms around, as Halvorson might say.

But forget arms. Since coming back from Paris, I’ve put my legs on backwards and kicked myself up the butt to initiate three content strategy projects for clients. I’m hoping to create a benchmarkable case with one of them in particular.

Fierce Festival as a case study
Fierce Festival
, an internationally renowned arts festival based in the West Midlands since 1997, has become a different beast over the years. It has developed a training arm for artists and consultancy arm for arts organisations. The festival itself is also morphing and this year has two new artistic directors, Harun and Laura.

With their arrival comes a clean slate. Past sites have been archived or taken offline and a blog has been set up as a conversation leading towards a future full-scale festival website, in which all the strands of Fierce will be brought together under one umbrella at last.

I’ve volunteered to help with this from a content perspective. It’s going to be a journey but I’ll be documenting some of the issues involved in trying to unify Fierce’s radical and innovative performance side with its practical training/consultancy side.

Halp!
Of course, I’m learning here too so I’m kind of on my own journey here with content strategy – and the arts, too, since the rest of the week I’m Grant Thornton‘s freelance blogger (they’re a large accountancy firm btw).

I hope the project will be interesting to watch, document or engage with. I should be blogging about it both here and possibly on Fierce’s blog as their journey develops.

Not having been in Birmingham at the same time as Fierce festival, I’m also fresh to it, but would love to hear from fans of Fierce if you want to give me a nudge about something.

(Afterthought: how much will people be looking for Fierce festival stuff on smartphones, do you think? Great slideshare from #csforum10 on optimising content for mobile by Erin Scime. Would hate to see web/blog stuff shovelled onto the small screen.)

RIP Sub-editing 1987-2008

My blog mentor used to say keep your posts short. One point per post. Three paragraphs should do it.

Well, here it is. The perfect post. Albeit leading to 3,000 >more< words of juicy goodness about a trade that is being eroded, outsourced and killed off as mainstream media declines. Over on Subs’ Standards, I’ve just posted up the final chunk of a three-part epic looking back over my 21 years as a sub-editor.

And here is it: RIP Sub-editing 1987-2008. Enjoy! Meanwhile check out these taster pics: of my old-skool kit and the changing size and shape of technology…

Typewriter, typescale, proof marks, reproduction computer
Typewriter, typescale, proof marks, reproduction computer
Typewriter vs laptop
Silver Reed vs MacBook

Why I am moving back to Brum…

Birmingham New Street station
Birmingham New St Station here I come

It looks like I’ve reached that moment in a blogger’s life when you log into your poor neglected blog(s), make apologies to folks for the lack of posting, explain why and then make a new promise to report back a bit more often in future.

Except… as Neil Gaiman once said (not sure who actually coined this): ‘Never apologise, never explain.’

Sooo, suffice it to say, that I have spent the last year in transition in many, many ways. One of the biggest changes has been going permanent on digital ‘stuff’ from a 20-year background in print journalism. How did this happen?

Well, in February 2008, I started a blog in my spare time (What to wear where), a good idea but ill-carried out by me while I got to grips with Web 2.0 changes.

Then I started Subs’ Standards in August 2008 – all about sub-editing and its changing nature in the digital world – and started to get the hang of things a bit more, thanks in the main to Pete Ashton‘s free social media surgeries. I’m well overdue to post on that blog, too, as I’m now only very occasionally subbing, and it’s digital subbing at that – which is quite a different type of ‘quality control’ beast.

Anyways… updating my digital chops late into the night after a hard day in print was exhausting – and salary-free. I did it for three months almost solidly but it got me into Seven Squared‘s digital team, which was in need of a web editor, back in January 2009. And now I’m busier than ever, corporate blogging for clients and producing a variety of digital work from ezines to SEO features.

Going to SXSWi back in March 2009 also gave me a load of context for working purely online, as well as a whole load of new ideas for playing with online content plus a contact book full of innerestin’ webby types from all over the world. I recommend it for anyone working online and trying to get their head around the bigger picture. (And yes, before you ask, it’s also a big festival with lots of bands and parties in the rather cool uni city of Austin, Texas.)

Unfortunately, working long hours in Seven’s digital bunker means I have little time to ‘rawk SXSW’ and so change has come again.

From October, I’ll be living and working in Birmingham, with my blog mentor Pete Ashton, as it happens. Turns out romance can blossom in the blurry gaps between online and offline.

I’ll still be corporate blogging for Seven Squared’s digital team, I hope, and maybe writing an SEO feature or two. And before I leave London I’ll also be joining a great new event (and site) for brand managers and those who represent a brand online, courtesy of Jo Geary – and maybe even guest-blogging on there if she’ll let me.

But for now I just want to say that I’m looking forward to the next era – to meet new people in Brum, and give myself some headspace to decide which projects to start/play with/experiment with in the West Mids, which seems to be something of a hot bed of  ‘social media’ goings-on, if the SXSW rival WXWM, the new FAILcamp and other such events are anything to go by.

I’ll also be looking for blogging or other content creation work, probably in the commercial sector, or quality control work for corporate clients. If you think you might want something like this, please do get in touch.

So, life has switched and instead of working in London and visiting Brum at weekends, I’ll be working and thinking  in Birmingham instead and visiting London for work days here and there, and sociables at the weekends. So if you’re in either vicinity, find me online (@fionacullinan if you’re on Twitter) and come say hi.

As they say, change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.

PS. (I’m a serial PS blogger.) Apologies if you get this 10 times in your feed, my WordPress preview appears to have karked it.