Is content strategy biased towards the written word?

I’ll bet that if you scratch the surface of just about any content strategist you will find a writer underneath. I’m no exception. It’s no surprise then that a great deal of the talk among practitioners tends to revolve around words. Add to that the fact that text was the original content of the web (they called it HyperText Markup Language for a reason). By default, it seems that content strategy is biased towards the written word.

But five minutes on Facebook are enough to show that most of what gets shared by the other 99.99999% of the planet IS NOT text. Sure there are links to articles, but they’re nothing compared to videos, photos and games. We get all flushed about things like Flipboard, Instapaper and Readability, but I can’t name one friend or colleague outside of my line of work who’s mentioned any of them to me.

Unwrite thyself

So, I’ve had to face up to the fact that when it comes to content, text isn’t always king. For example, over the past few months I’ve been working on a project where the primary content is video. My writing responsibilities stretch from storyboards, scripts and text for onscreen animations to more traditional articles.

This and other experiences have forced me to realize that although I’m a writer at heart, not everyone is a reader. And it’s not just because people are writing more than ever that they have an innate love of the written word. Sobering. It has challenged me to imagine content in other formats. To reframe my storytelling to use the right format for the story being told and the audience (and not lazily indulge in my own personal penchant for words).

Now, when I start thinking about content creation, I try to leave my mind open as long as possible. I find myself consciously refusing the urge to think in terms of pages and paragraphs. The goal is to find the best format for the job. Here’s my current crib sheet of content formats, in no specific order. I keep it near at hand early on, when content strategy is at its most embryonic.

  • Text (no, duh)
  • Infographics
  • Photography (I’m waging a private war against stock photography)
  • Illustration (underused IMHO)
  • Animation
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Slideshows
  • Apps
  • Webinars
  • Presentations (I’m really liking Prezi)
  • PDFs (don’t scream, some people actually like them)
  • Games/quizzes (serious and otherwise)

These kinds of content aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they are often most effective when combined. Think illustration and narration, think video and voiceovers. I like to call it hybrid content.

Writing myself out of a job?

I don’t think so. But I’ve had to evolve. When it comes to storytelling, I’m constantly on the lookout for new ways of achieving purpose. The inverted pyramid isn’t the only game in town. I’m increasingly intrigued by non-linear and contextual storytelling, for instance.

When it comes to content strategy, the plethora of formats has been a blessing and bane. A blessing because:

  • More tools mean more ways to be engaging.
  • It pushes content strategy in new directions.
  • I can “densify” information value in a given space without adding to clutter (hence my battle with meaningless stock photography).
  • Designers dig it.

A bane because clients aren’t always tooled to handle these new formats, either organizationally or technically.

I’m sure I’m neither the first nor the only person to have encountered these issues. What is your experience with other content formats in content strategy? I’d love to hear from you.

NOTE: I’ll be turning down the volume for the next couple weeks; I’ll be attending SXSW Interactive and making a swing through the Bay Area.

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5 comments on “Is content strategy biased towards the written word?

  1. Chris Moritz
    March 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    I can only speak for myself as a content strategist with a predilection for the written word (though I agree that this is probably widely true). That’s not to say that I don’t consider or recommend other content formats as part of my work – my presentations and reports are rife with calls for infographics, presentations, illustrations, and explanatory videos.

    Maybe it’s more about the proportions. I lend more concern and attention to the words because time and again it’s the most neglected thing that’s produced. By virtue of it’s deficit of regard, CS people like me step in to be a vocal advocate.

    • Rich
      March 4, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      Hi Chris. Thanks for the comment. I didn’t mean to imply the content strategists don’t think about content other than text, but rather I find myself fighting the urge to default to text. The web page is just one kind of content. The fact that we call it a “page” is telling. Because clients are often very familiar with print collateral and less so with online, they try to transpose “print” thinking and processes to online, with different degrees of success.

  2. Chris Moritz
    March 4, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    You’ve got a good point – it’s important to be vigilant about our own biases and content format preferences if we’re going to maintain credibility as advocates for content in all its forms.

    Now I’m going to go finish this content brief. Let’s see… “add some pictures and videos and stuff…”

  3. Adrian
    September 21, 2011 at 5:41 am #

    Nice to see a ‘writer’ comfortable with the idea of having the healthy balanced ego of a holistic pragmatist. As a curious hybrid myself (photographer of not-stock and ‘web strategist’ – not satisfied with just content!) the trend I’ve been least keen to promote is the “Attack of the Giant Infographic” – all that ‘meaning’ locked up in a flat, 2D image that is inaccessible to automated machine analysis (and to less able human users), often relying almost entirely on the eye-candy factor to encourage sharing, and often representing huge design effort for potentially short-term gain. Style over substance writ, or I should say vectored, large. Not many of the pretty pictures getting churned out have the merits of one of Mr. Tufte’s works.

    I’m hoping that many more designers and companies will knuckle down and spend the time needed to create rich visual/textual, and for that matter aural, content that blends words and images in layered and permeable ways that help us take the web somewhere fundamentally more useful. Alas, the ubiquity of cheap/free potential design assets and tools, coupled with client audiences still largely ignorant of the benefits, methodology, or even existence of alternative techniques or critical thinking, means that for every one great example there will be a thousand lumpen failures. Plus ultimately not many people actually care enough!

    Prezi – I think kinetic typography can be fun and sexy, and I see the appeal – beats a drier-than-Ryvita PowerPoint slide deck it’s true…but – my feeling is that those sorts of sparkly bits are best suited (on the web at least) to quick intros, short sales pitches, ‘soundbites’, or lecture notes. For one thing, it’s too proprietary and one of the biggest challenges still facing the web is to try and provide ‘platform-independent’ content.

    Totally with you on how under-valued illustration is these days – you only have to look at ALA to see how much it can add in a subtle, sometimes even subliminal, way – so it’s a fantastic way to differentiate from the competition – plus it speaks to your ‘densify’ point. The RSA Animate videos are good examples to me of enlivening and enriching content in an edu-taining way (http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/)

    Sorry for the long comment, I lacked the time etc. 🙂

  4. annacook
    September 21, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    Great points here. And *le sigh* the great content/copy dichotomy. Where elements of a website were once separated, we successfully convinced clients to think of the whole and call it ‘content’. Now we’re trying to wrestle the idea back from the writers and define the elements again.

    However, I will defend the power of words to describe the as-yet-intangible content in the strategy. When we’re planning video/design/photography content that hasn’t yet been created, we need to describe what it’ll look like.

    Some strategists might be at a place where they can brainstorm and plan with video and pictorial content but, as words are simply easier to create, I still think the written word rules. And writers are still the undisputed monarchs of the internet 😉

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