Content strategy as vegetable gardening

Anyone for some ripe content?

Back when the web was young I’d often compare creating a company’s first website to receiving a houseplant or a puppy as a gift. All of the sudden, the new owner had to start thinking about proper care and feeding, if the gift was going to live and be enjoyable to own. It was a good way to start the conversation about content strategy.

But now everyone has a website (some are in better health than others), so I’ve been digging around for a new metaphor.

Hey, buddy, can you spare a metaphor?

As someone who’s entered the content strategy space through the copywriting door, I’ve never been 100% comfortable with the analogy of content strategists as digital curators. While there are similarities it puts too much emphasis, in my opinion, on maintaining and managing assets.

So I’ve been fishing around for another metaphor. One occurred to me the other day while watering some young zucchini plants.

Content strategist as a vegetable gardener

I think of websites as vegetable gardens — and content strategists as gardeners. As with curating, there’s lots of maintenance and management in vegetable gardening. But at the end of the day it’s all about production and consumption.

In my view, this is the crucial difference between vegetable gardens and flower gardens is in the purpose. (Full disclosure: I also grow flowers). The fundamental difference in “user experience” between the two kinds of gardens is determined by the strategic “why” not the tactical “how”. Most of the gardening skills are the same. Ditto for the other technical aspects (soil, temperature, sunlight, etc).

So what’s the big deal about purpose? Well, let’s face it: in most cases, people don’t eat flowers. Sometimes they are cut for arrangements, but most of the time flower gardens are there for decoration and on-site appreciation. Don’t get me wrong. Flower gardens have their place and a clear purpose. But it’s not where I go when I’m hungry or want to cook. Problems arise because many clients and agencies still think of websites as flower gardens, while most of site’s visitors are there because they want to make a meal.

This doesn’t mean that vegetable gardens can’t be beautiful. Nor does it mean there’s no place for flowers among vegetables (in fact, they can often be very helpful. See #7). But I’m pretty sure that what non-gardeners will remember about a vegetable garden isn’t the color scheme, the layout or the topiary – what they’ll remember is the taste of the produce.

10 content strategy lessons from the potager

  1. Size is important. Don’t make your plot too big. You don’t want it to be too vast to manage, nor too small to feed your family. Start small and expand gradually.
  2. Variety counts. It’s hard enough getting people to eat their veggies. It’s even harder to convince them to eat only turnips for 3 weeks. Not everyone likes the same vegetables, so you’ve got to understand their palates. Also, some crops grow faster than other. To maximize enjoyment for the eater and motivate the gardener, plant crops that produce fast as well as ones that take time to ripen. Think radishes versus tomatoes. You want to mix instant gratification with suspense.
  3. Plant with purpose. Coordinate with the kitchen. What’s the point of raising strawberries if you aren’t going to make desserts or jam? Don’t grow things that won’t get eaten, no matter how amusing it is. It’s a waste of resources.
  4. Plan your planting. You don’t want all your produce ripening at the same time. You’ll never be able to eat it all. Also, some crops play well together; others don’t. Where you place them matters. (See #6).
  5. Plant for consumption. Is your produce being eaten raw by visitors, used in the family kitchen or sold in the market? Ugly can be ok, if it’s ripe and tasty.
  6. Architecture affects effort and enjoyment. The layout of your garden will simplify or complicate everything you do. For example, raised beds are easier to weed and harvest. Some short crops will thrive in the shade of taller plants while others will be starved of precious sunlight.
  7. Make room for the flowers. They can help with pollination, attract good insects and repel bad ones, increase biodiversity and add visual interest.
  8. Be realistic. You have finite resources and gardening is hard work. You can’t grow everything. Some crops will grow better in certain soil and climate than others. Dirty secret: sometimes it’s cheaper and less work to buy some vegetables from the store. Focus on what you’re best at and what the kitchen needs the most.
  9. Be patient and observant. Vegetable gardening forces you operate on a different timescale. Watch carefully as things evolve. Take notes. Replicate successes; learn from your mistakes. Adapt to the environment; embrace the unforseen. You can’t fight the seasons and you can’t avoid the elements. Grow the crops that thrive in your climate.
  10. Favor quality over quantity. Maximize taste, minimize waste. Grow crops people want. Take care of your soil (think twice about what kind of fertilizers and insecticides you use).

It’s not a perfect metaphor. Metaphors never are. So, how green is your thumb?


5 comments on “Content strategy as vegetable gardening

  1. Peter
    April 18, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    Great analogy! I really like it!
    Recently I started posting interestnig analogies I found on the web on I thought it could be a good idea to create a place where people can share useful analogies.

  2. flip holsinger
    April 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    seriously, this is exactly the metaphor (and guidance) we need today as we plan our RD retreat for 5 May! As a once was physical-architect-to-be I understand that far too often the architecture becomes the goal (because we are architects) rather than what the architecture will facilitate. And this is the correct word–facilitate, not perform. We are farmers not designers! I love it.

  3. Jodi Alcock
    April 19, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    As a fellow gardener (of flowers and vegetables) and as my office’s unofficial I.T. person/SEO expert/blogger/web designer/////the list goes on and on, I think you made the perfect analogy between websites and vegetable gardens. I plan to use your story to help others understand just what it is that makes a website successful. Thank you for the fantastic post.

  4. Jeri Hastava
    April 23, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    Lovely analogy. I look forward to sharing it.

  5. CJ Walker
    May 21, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    Richard, Great analogy! I loved it. It helps break it down into the right-sized bits to share. Keep them coming!

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