Content Strategy Applied in review

The practical direction of Content Strategy Applied, the UK’s first CS conference, was a smart move. The field’s abstract leanings have attracted the attention of those who’ve considered content a downstream function, but have also proven too elusive for some. At last, we had a chance to see the nuts and bolts.

The two days gave a wide view of the discipline, from a tour of the values, content and community of JamieOliver.com (courtesy of Monisha Saldanha and Danny McCubbin) to deliverable detail from LBi‘s Head of Content Julie Mahoney. Unsurprisingly, there were clear parallels with the early days of information architecture. Content strategists are gaining strength from recognising common ground and joining with others. The conversation is moving from stealth—“What is it you do again?“—to genuine influence—“We get it. Now what can you do for us?”. As such, the community’s challenges are familiar to any UX veteran: learning the language of business, demonstrating ROI, getting a seat at the strategy table.

The similarities extend from the communities’ lifecycles to the landscape under discussion. I’ll admit that my first instinct was to react defensively to the territorial issues. Should content strategists really do wireframes and layout work? Do they have the library and information skills required to create large site architectures? Aren’t these “content fails” you’re showing simply WebPagesThatSuck-era usability?

But there’s no need to feel threatened. Although CS and IA are approaching the same battleground, it is as allies. Our goals are largely indistinguishable, and once the armies meet we will better appreciate both the vocabulary and history of the other force: LIS and design on one side, writing and publishing on the other.

That’s not to say that friendly rivalry is out of the question. Keynoter Kristina Halvorson in particular has taken aim at the UX community’s content-ignorant approaches, and she continued by teasing the sacred cows of JJG and Tufte. All in good sport, but some underlying subtexts of the conference did make me feel less at home. Publishing and marketing reverberated throughout, with the word audience far more prevalent than user. Presenters spoke of how companies can present themselves through brand, messaging hierarchy, and calls to action, but there was less of what users need and want. User experience attendees were thin on the ground, and more focus on this angle next time would resonate better with the UX community.

With time, the community’s presentation skills will improve too. As expected the content was strong, but to be blunt, the design community has the CS community licked when it comes to compelling presentations. However, message is more important than showmanship. Content Strategy Applied tried to unite the nascent British CS community, share ideas, and inspire through good practice. Mission accomplished, and hopefully it can act as a stepping stone for the community to earn further influence.