The Content Strategy of Product (Part 2)

This post concludes a two-part consideration of where the intersection of product and content thinking can take the practice of content strategy. (Read the initial post.)

Arc90 has been practicing content strategy fundamentals in its client and product work for years. But there is much to be said for what’s distinctive in their approach and where it marries with mine.

When Content Meets Product

1. BROADEN HORIZONS WITH “BIG TENT” CONTENT STRATEGY.

Content is a critical business asset, but where content is the business asset—think namely, but not exclusively, of publishing or broadcast media—the principles of product development apply. This is part of what I call “big tent” content strategy, wherein we try to solve business problems with content rather than limiting ourselves to addressing (sometimes parochial) content problems alone. A big tent content strategy accounts for product, platform, and people considerations.

Incidentally, this is how we become better critics of something like the AOL content strategy. Seasoned content strategists are uniquely qualified to contribute to wider industry conversations.

In the big picture, content and product are a weave of business strategy. Our work practice, pluralistic as it is, can ladder up to address bigger needs. For example, how can an organization single-source its content production, enabling a genuine “author once, publish everywhere” publishing solution, and what’s the ROI? Process and technology standardization here influences how this organization works with content, yet no one would say such analysis is native to content experts. Content work is a catholic practice and content strategy’s credibility rests on how its practitioners rise to the wider collaborative challenge.

2. DAY 2 IS A PRODUCT PROBLEM.

A product development approach to content strategy addresses the Day 2 problem: namely, what do we do after launch day to be effective with content? The postlaunch paradigm requires editorial strategy—that is, dealing with content problems, and engaging an audience, over time.

Again, this is familiar territory to traditional publishers and product professionals. There is a specific name for ongoing, serial content in this context: editorial. In broadcast television, the equivalent to editorial content is programming. Entire businesses, such as the video on demand field led by Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, are predicated on the scope, volume, and inventory of its programming. Day 2 is where content matters most to many areas of business. Questions of product licensing and syndication are completely germane to the content expert.

3. EDITORIAL STRATEGY IS PRODUCT STRATEGY EXECUTED.

As Paul Ford has argued, real editors ship—meaning they are involved in active product development work. The proverbial Day 2, the operational life of an organization, is where both publishing and product development rises or falls. (It’s also where content strategy successes and failures are best evaluated.)

This is the meaning behind editorial strategy as I practice it. Put another way: an editorial strategy is the follow-through, or the operationalization, of a content strategy. Your website is not a magazine, but it should be, inasmuch as it commits itself to the planning and resources required of ongoing professional content care and feeding. Likewise, masthead workflow and conventional publishing practices, like style guides and editorial calendars, are instructive of what’s entailed by being an effective publisher online, or anywhere else. This is why content strategy is “an integrative practice,” to use Joe Gollner’s tidy expression.

4. BUSINESS MODELS ARE THE BUSINESS OF CONTENT PEOPLE.

The marriage of product and content strategy does not stop at support documentation and knowledge bases. As experts in how content, technology, and organizations interact, we’re all management consultants now.

A genuine product strategy for a content offering must consider the business model, remembering always that content is expensive. Free, paid or otherwise on the one hand, and the possibilities of licensing and syndicating content on the other, a complete content strategy must take a position and rationale on the business case of its recommendations. This is being played out all over the web today, in paid content models of subscriptions and advertising, and from SEO-friendly pay fences to apps to content “windowing.” All of this should be core to an understanding of content strategy; it’s prerequisite to knowing product.

5. TACKLE WIDESPREAD USER PROBLEMS.

Content production and consumption are the twin frays of Day 2.

Content production problems are rife in organizations today, as are the opportunities for developing next-generation editorial planning tools. The rise of big data (and efforts like database.com) all but ensures a wave of them around the bend. Like any UXer, content strategists can see problems through to products, and I’m excited to see our analytical chops and problem solving reach wider audiences this way.

Similarly, as user experience professionals, we understand intuitively that content of any stripe can exacerbate general information overload. Done well, great content exerperiences can combat it, too, standing apart from the alternatives. As such, content consumption is an experience to be designed for with care and empathy.

The Content Strategy of Readability

Arc90’s Readability is an example of a product—with its own highly innovative and rapidly evolving business model—solving particularly for the challenges of content consumption.

Readability has cut a fresh path forward for readers and publishers alike by insisting that pleasurable reading, reading on readers’ own terms, is an experience for which people will pay. Credit the entire team here, and incomparable talents like Erin Kissane, for turning a simple sentiment into a real product. In a fragmented market glutted with players trying to rethink how we read online, Readability simultaneously takes a stab at advancing web standards, radically refashioning the reader-writer-publisher relationship, and building a revenue bridge for publishers to the economics of “read later.” (More on that another time.)

As the proverbial read later reader myself, traveling 100 miles a day by train, I cannot imagine a project that has gone further more rapidly than Readability in space-launching beyond our parochial user experience hobbyhorses to breathe fresh life into the future-of-content conversation.

Are You Going Our Way?

The future of content, and certainly that of reading and publishing, will be played out in product.

Somewhere between expertise, experience, energy, and luck, you get the work you deserve. But you don’t pick your time, which makes 2011 all the more exciting for what’s ahead of us.

The future of content, and certainly that of reading and publishing, will be played out in product. There are no more first drafts. The world does not need another wireframe. Ideas and inklings—a Readability, a Donahue, the next new thing—these simply must get out into the world, realized, to find their footing.

It’s true what you’re hearing: Arc90 is rising up as a big-think, liberal arts 37Signals—but its own beast, too, dripping with heart and talent. In New York UX circles, it’s already beaten down the door of best kept secret. I’m proud to thicken its ranks.

Readers and writers, advocates and fans: all of us have a horse in this race about where content is headed. It’s the call of brighter prospects for the stuff we cherish, enjoy, and appreciate. Here’s to leveling up, and to all that’s next for everyone invested in the project of making content matter.

Jeffrey MacIntyre, Arc90 Lead Strategist, is forming its content strategy and information architecture practice.