Writing for goldfish: confessions of an accidental content strategist
Josephmark’s content director Helen Dewar shares her journey from copywriter to content strategist and beyond.
It turned out that – much like my confirmed status as a pluviophile, and as the lifelong bearer of a terrifyingly bitchy resting face – I was a content strategist long before I knew it was a thing. Back in 2013 I’d been a copywriter at Josephmark for a number of years, happily getting my word-nerd on each and every day, when my boss gently suggested I think about changing my title to content strategist. I politely but firmly declined, wondering what had given her the idea I ever did anything remotely strategic. I decided she must have been talking to someone else – the guy behind me, perhaps. He looked like he thought strategically. He had a tidy desk, and I was pretty sure I’d seen him use a spreadsheet. Yes, I thought. She must definitely mean him.
A few months later, my boss repeated the suggestion. Keen not to offend her, but now positive she had me confused with someone else, I made a variety of noncommittal noises and gave a strange nod-shake of the head that must have looked like I was having a mild fit. As I watched her walk away (possibly to call an ambulance, or check if I was due some leave), I wondered if I was unintentionally giving off a strategic vibe. I vowed to never again straighten up my notebooks.
The third time my (let’s face it, incredibly patient) boss raised the subject, I decided it was time to find out what content strategy was and then explain why it wasn’t for me. This time though, ready to meet my noncommittal mumbling and potential medical issues head-on, she handed me a book – The Elements of Content Strategy. Keen to draw a line under the whole sorry saga I took the book home, read it cover-to-cover, and discovered she was 100% right, and content strategy was pretty much what I’d been doing this whole time anyway. Whoops.
As a copywriter at a company that had honed a laser-sharp focus on digital work, my role had quietly evolved into that of content strategist. When writing for a client’s new platform I scrutinised their competitors, their industry and their benchmarks. When refreshing a live site I’d instinctively narrow down what the visitor really needed – taking note of the current copy and then separating the chaff from the essential wordy wheat. On every project I’d consider the user journey – how they got to a page, what they needed and where they’d go next – and then plan the content accordingly. And it turned out all of this was content strategy! You could’ve knocked me down with a quill.
In my shaky defence, back then content strategy was still a relatively new term – and even now, several years after my slow awakening, there are a multitude of definitions knocking round the web. Amidst the confusion I think it prudent to turn to the closest thing us nerds have to a supreme leader, Kristina Halvorson – she of Brain Traffic and the mighty Confab – who describes content strategy as: “. . . planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.”
That’s a great definition. Please, all hail our leader. Because in this digital age, it’s no longer enough to just write the copy. My role has evolved into something bigger, and more complex. My words aren’t being printed to sit somewhere on their own and unchanged for all eternity – to be read in context and digested in peace. Instead everything I produce is being published amidst a deafening cacophony of content, all yelling and updating and just generally showing off. My work has one shot at capturing the attention of a visitor who gives it less time than a goldfish gives an ornamental bridge (seriously – attention-span wise, THE GOLDFISH ARE NOW BEATING US). If we don’t give users what they need – be it video, or infographic, or even ye olde words – exactly when they need it, they’ll happily click away elsewhere. Digital content must be meticulously considered and produced, with a long-term maintenance plan that works for the capacity of the team. It’s no longer enough to just deal in the words. We have to think of the why, and the how, and the where and the when. The who is the easy one. The who is always the goldfish.
Because of the online racket, it’s crucial we accidental strategists think of what a site doesn’t need as much as what it does. We need to approach existing work with the ruthless intention of stripping it to its bones, and doing away with everything that’s outdated, or distracting, or just plain wrong. Too much content can do immeasurable harm. It confuses the goldfish – and deep down, we’re all goldfish. We know that feeling of content overwhelm. It switches us off. It makes our fins itch.
Instead we must create content that’s both attractive and exacting – a capsule wardrobe of content, if you will. Not in the sense that it’s prohibitively expensive and something only twelve incredibly chic, probably Parisian women have ever actually achieved, but rather that the content is just what’s needed, and works really well together, and stands the test of time and heck, maybe even brings out the colour of your eyes. In content, as in our clothes, there’s just no room for the tassels and the fringing; the frippery and the fads. There’s no need to hang on to those patent thigh boots that were a thing for ten minutes in 2013. And a drop-crotch onesie, like Everything In Title Case, never really looks that good*.
If I’ve learned one hugely important thing from being a content strategist in an agency (apart from what content strategy means, but I mean shoosh now, could’ve happened to anyone, etc etc), it’s that it’s crucial to be there from the start. No good comes of a situation where copy must either be either mindlessly padded or brutally culled to fit a given space. At Josephmark we prioritise having a content strategist in those initial client meetings – performing audits, extracting brand values and just getting to know the user and the client. During those earliest stages, content strategists work closely with UX designers to create wireframes that fit the content that’s needed, and that anticipate the natural user journey. And then, like that one drunk party guest, we just never leave. We’re popping up in all the meetings, keeping content front-and-centre. We’re making sure the less glamorous corners of the site – the drop-down menus, the error messages, the terms and conditions – don’t fall between the cracks or end up with last-minute, placeholder copy. We’re always there, plodding alongside the team, creating tone of voice documents that grow and blossom with the site. Throughout the whole project we’re the big picture and the little details, and we stick around ’til they turn on the lights.
That sense of doggedness is, for me, the final piece of the content puzzle. Digital is missing the finality of print, and good content should react quickly to feedback, user behaviour and industry shifts. A wise soul once proclaimed that your search bar should be your best friend (joint-tied with J-Law, obvs), and it’s so true. Once content’s up and running, those charged with its care should be looking at what visitors are searching for. What are they missing? Where are they going? What are we making them work too hard to find? Because even if everything seems finished – it’s all signed off, the bills are paid and the team’s left the building – content is a work in progress. Yes, content strategy has deliverables – we can create an in-depth audit or a beautiful tone of voice – but at its core it’s an ongoing process and a long-term commitment. Throughout all of this, my challenge is to be more engaging than an ornamental bridge. Some days, I even think I’m winning.
*This is just my opinion obviously. You may think differently. Your Aunt Mildred may look astounding in a drop-crotch onesie.