Does your content strategy have principles?

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of visual, UX and software designers recently. The practice of design has always fascinated me. It started early on, when I received a crash course on graphic design from the first art director I ever worked with. He taught me that I shouldn’t write or think in a bubble, disconnected from the design. He taught me that thanks to design the value of the whole was greater than the sum of the words and the pictures.

His early lessons clued me into the basic principles of design. Then, as my career took me into web content, I began hearing about design principles from the UX people I worked with.

Their design principles were different. They were like a manifesto for the project, steering design choices and serving as a litmus test for new features and developments. Here are some examples:

I discovered that what these design principles said – and how they said it – conveyed something much deeper than what you find in a set of boring technical specification or client brief (or a style guide for that matter).

Applicable to CS?

I think it would be a good idea if content strategy projects had their own set of content design principles.

Erin Kissane outlines seven basic principles of content strategy in the first chapter of her book The Elements of Content Strategy:

  • Good content is appropriate
  • Good content is useful
  • Good content is user-centered
  • Good content is clear
  • Good content is consistent
  • Good content is concise
  • Good content is supported

I totally agree with them; they are mandatories for all CS projects. But why not push the idea a step further and create design principles for your own project?

A marketing-driven project might have principles like:

  • When available, video content front and center
  • Demonstrates product benefits (show don’t tell)
  • Make content enjoyable on any device
  • Use questions as conversation starters
  • Digestible doses, not tedious screeds

While a customer service project might have these:

  • Write for your grandmother
  • Never talk down
  • Break answers into clear steps
  • Always ask if the content was helpful
  • English isn’t everyone’s mother tongue

I have found that writing design principles for a project’s content strategy can help:

  • Establish the tone of voice of the content before the creation begins
  • Obtain management buy-in (because they’re short)
  • Inform writers about style
  • Translate branding to content
  • Address business objectives
  • Guide UX
  • Clue in web designers to content requirements
  • Ward off backseat writers and grammarians

More deviously, they can also help battle my two pet peeves: best practices and the God Complex. Best practices are a good idea that has been perverted by laziness. They turn people into copiers and followers; they blunt ambition. Content strategy projects are typically too complex for one person to have all the answers. There’s no such thing as a right content strategy or a wrong strategy. You either have one or you don’t. Each one should be as original as your organization is.

In my experience, writing design principles helps move you from paying too much attention to what other people are doing and saying (and never making an original decision) to taking a clear first step towards full ownership of the content.

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