15. April 2019

Content Strategy is the Same to Your Content as Marie Kondo is to Your Belongings

Just as I started to write my final thesis for my Content Strategy Master's Programme at FH Joanneum, a friend lent me the book "Magic Cleaning" by Marie Kondo. You might know her from her Netflix series "Tidying Up": 

I was instantly intrigued. Partly because I love tidying up and partly because I finally understood why I feel so drawn to content strategy: It's basically the same thing. Let me explain by going through the "KonMarie" method step-by-step and comparing each step to the related one of a content strategy process:

1. Assess What You Have AKA Do a Content Audit

Ms. Kondo tells her clients to first gather all clothes, or books, or kitchen gadgets in one place. This will give them a realistic picture of the amount of things they own. At the same time they can see in what condition each item is. That is what a content strategist does as well when conducting an audit: What does the organization have? Where is it? How old is it? The strategist wants to get a realistic view of the content she will deal with.

2. Take Out the Trash AKA Get Rid of Useless Content   

Tidying up with Marie Kondo is not about organizing the stuff you have but about organizing the stuff you want to keep. She encourages her clients to hold each of their items and to ask themselves whether they "spark joy". If not, they need to go. Not without being thanked for their service though. A content strategist could do the same: Before organizing the content audited, everything that is marked outdated or useless can be let go. It will not "spark joy" for any user.

3.  Store Your Things Neatly AKA Know Where Your Content is

After assessing what you have at home you can finally start organizing. Designate a "home" for every thing and keep it neat. Arrange your things in a way that it is easy for you to see and access them. A content strategy does this as well by modeling content and defining a governance plan. Ultimately a content strategist wants to make sure that content is always at the right place at the right time.

Maybe Marie Kondo should start a second career as a content strategist, what do you think? ;)

11. Januar 2019

Content Strategy in Organizations and in Life

Reaching the third semester of my Content Strategy Master's Program all the bits and pieces finally start making sense. I know, I'm a slow learner. It's exciting when it happens, though. Just a glimpse into what content strategy can be about:

  • We've learned much about auditing an organization's content, looking at the business needs and goals of that organization and determine whether goals and content fit together. 
  • We dove into rules and best practices when it comes to creating written, spoken and filmed content, and even peeked behind the curtains by making first steps in coding (probably the least popular lecture, I feel sympathy for our enthusiastic and patient lecturer).
  • Probably some of the most important lectures dealt with managing content. I think everyone is aware of the sheer amount of content around them and it is frightening when you realize that most of it is poorly managed. Thus content modeling will go a long way–soon hopefully. 
There is far more parts to the puzzle but this is what stuck with me most. I'm excited for what I can do with content now and I'm juggling ideas every day. I catch myself reading online articles with a content bias now: 'Have they modeled their content? That is, are all headlines defined? Is the author defined? What bits and pieces is it made of?' And it really soothes my mind when I can sense a strategy and a model behind a website's content. (Did I mention how much I enjoy a tidy home?)

Content Strategy I Learned from My Fellow Students

Foto: Sarolta Hershey // Edited in Canva

The best part of this Master's Program are my fellow students. We come from all over the world and many different industries. Thus I got to peek into companies, agencies and organizations I had no idea about before. And I learn from content initiatives there–as well as from the other students' ideas. Two examples:

The last thing we are learning from each other is not about the subjects taught. It's about life. Because let me tell you this: Going to work every day and studying in the evenings and on the weekends is tough. We need each other's encouragement and support. A few blog post have been written by us on the topic of managing professional and student life but Alexandra's New Year's Resolution has stuck with me: "Hand in the Master’s Thesis in June"–and don't wait until September. Wish me luck.

27. Dezember 2018

Starting Your Own Business Step 3:
Craft Your Content Strategy

You have spent time to define your offer and your target audience. You have also observed your competition and brands you call your role models. Now it’s time to look at all the material you have collected and draw clues from it for your own content strategy. The tips below are partly drawn from “The Content Strategy Toolkit” by Meghan Casey . It is the best hands-on book I know on the topic. If you want to dive deeper into the topic, get the book!
With your content strategy you want to make sure that you offer the right content, in the right place, at the right time, to the right people (Brain Traffic Blog). Now grab a bunch of sticky notes and a pen before you read on.
Photo: Laura Olsen, Unsplash

The Goal

What is your content supposed to accomplish? Do you want to inform? Is it supposed to sell right away? Do you want to offer help with something? Jot down each goal on a sticky note and stick them to a wall group them on a wall in a line.

The Right Content

Go through all your findings from the two steps before and ask the question: What content should I produce? What content will help get across my goals best? What will make my customers understand why they should buy from me, why they should trust me? You can look for inspiration to your competitors. Remember though that an ebook might not be as helpful for your customers as it is to theirs. Grab your sticky notes again, put down each idea on one of them and group them on the wall next to the goal it fits best. Maybe you need to duplicate some content ideas because they can help reach several goals.

The Right Place

Now to the next cluster: Where should you offer your content? It doesn’t always have to be your website. What about social media? Or a local event in your industry? Mark each of your content ideas with one or several little symbols that each stand for a place. In the example below the heart stands for a website, the circle for Instagram and the triangle for a newsletter.

15. November 2018

Starting Your Own Business Step 2:
Take a Look at the Competition

Welcome to the next step in creating your own content strategy. So far, you've defined your offer and your target audience. You know what you want to do and for whom. Now lets take a look at your competition.
Photo: Andrew Neel

Examining your competition does not mean you plan to copy them or will try to offer exactly the same (nor the exact opposite). This exercise will give you an overview of what’s out there in your field and it will probably inspire you. Your competition might well turn out to be your mentors. I've created a worksheet for your competitive analysis. Just download the spreadsheet for yourself to fill out.

This exercise will be as big or small as you want it to be. Pick at least three businesses in your field but not more than ten. Analyse their offers first and the content they offer second. You might find a blog or a newsletter or a really helpful ebook. What you see might inspire you to use a similar content type for your very own ideas. You might see things you would do completely differently. In the end, you will have gathered a lot of information about your market niche. Stay tuned for the third and last part of this series in four weeks.

18. Oktober 2018

Starting Your Own Business Step 1:
Define Your Offer & Your Customers

I'm a content strategist with a heart for small businesses, no: tiny businesses. I love the one-woman/man show. People who have an idea and dare to put themselves out there hoping to make a living off of their idea. Strategy-wise these solopreneurs often feel a bit lost though. Which is only natural if they are not setting out as business coaches. If you are starting out with your own business and need some strategy advice, this post is for you. 

What is a Content Strategy and Why Do You Need One?   

A content strategy is about finding out what content you need to reach your goals, how to produce it, where to publish it and how to manage it. You might also analyze your competition in the process. You could call it a business strategy that will immediately advise the best content output for your business. 

This sounds like it calls for a lot of reflection time, and it does. Like most solopreneurs, you will probably not have the time to sit down and work it out all before you start your venture. This is why I split the "sit down and write stuff down" part in three and will publish one step each month. You can define a content strategy at any step of your journey: Before you launch your business, while starting out or even years in when you are looking for ways to grow.

Step 1: Put Down Your Offer and Reflect on Your Customers

I've put together this reflection sheet for you that you can download and fill out. You don't like to write? Just record your thoughts with your phone. Or create a collage. If you have a specific product you might wonder why you should think about it. It will help you get a clearer picture of your own business and goals. Give it a go and stay tuned for the next step in the series. 

2. Juni 2018

Designing a Website? Be a Little Bit Lazy

The other day I watched a talk given by Ethan Marcotte at the Web Conference An Event Apart. It's titled "Laziness in the Time of Responsive Design". He got me at lazy. Yes, I do go to work every day, my apartment is fairly clean and I do my master's on the side BUT I'm also always on the search of possibilities that will make any of these areas of life a little less crowded. Did Ethan Marcotte deliver on his promise to show new ways of being lazy at work? Yes and no.

Let Go of the Idea of Controlling the Web Experience 

Here comes the lazy part. It's about letting go of the wish to be in full control of what the user of your website will see. What sounds so Zen is owed to the number of different devices we access the web on today. While in print you control exactly what goes where and what the reader will see, on the web you can't anymore. Not only are there countless different formats but also many different input mechanisms: keyboard, touch, speech or a combination of these.

What do you do as a web designer who has lost the control his print colleagues have? You let go. As designer Trent Walton beautifully put it: "I traded the control I had in Photoshop for a new kind of control – using flexible grids, flexible images, and media queries to build not a page, but a network of content that can be rearranged at any screen size to best convey a message." Today you can't plan out the whole experience but you can design the chunks of content which will make up the whole. These chunks will then be inserted into the grid of a site. Thus a website will look differently to many readers but it's up to the web designer to make sure all content is presented within a grid system that adapts well to all kinds of formats. And this is where laziness ends.

Design Your Website Grid Wisely 

Web designers need to mainly be concerned about the grid that holds their designs. Grid layouts offer an amazing amount of possibilities but they're not trivial to code nicely. When done perfectly, as a reader you will never think: "Oh, this website was meant to be read on desktop." or "That's a weird break here on this site." The grid will adapt seamlessly on any device, following Trent Walton's maxim: "Like cars designed to perform in extreme heat or on icy roads, websites should be built to face the reality of the web's inherent variability." 

Side Note: Regularly Take Out the Trash on Your Site

All of us producing content for the web are guilty of hoarding it. We don't want to throw out stuff that is still perfectly fine. Instead we hide non-priority content on level four of our navigation and hope for the best. Level four in your navigation is like the dark corner of your closet that never sees light and which you keep ignoring because you know it would take weeks to clean it out. And you don't need that corner so badly anyway, so... Guess what: As soon as you make your site responsive and cleverly hide your navigation behind a hamburger, your user will suffer from your mess. Ever opened a navigation on your smartphone and almost got stabbed by a navigation with a thousand sub navigation items where you totally got lost? Don't do that to your readers. Be nice and tidy up. Is really all of your content helpful? I don't think so either. Deactivate sites your user doesn't need and put your favorite content up on your portfolio if it makes you feel better. 

If you are a web designer and want to get more specific technical information on how it's done, watch the whole talk. It will be worth your time. 

29. Mai 2018

UX Design: The Invisible Magic
Behind Everything We Use

This semester of my master's program is a lot about user experience. Makes perfectly sense if you study content strategy. I expected a lot about font size, white space and button colors – the graphic designer in me would have loved that. To my surprise the whole subject went a lot deeper, five levels deep to be exact.

The Five Elements of User Experience

The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett, Illustration: Sarolta Hershey
When I look at an app or a website or anything for that matter, I first evaluate the thing in front of me by its appearance. If it's pretty, it has much better chances to be brought home. OF COURSE, I will check its functionality but you will often see me swearing under my breath because of the "stupid" vacuum cleaner or my fitness tracker, because I checked usability too late.

If you do UX properly you start out with answering the questions: What and for whom? Do you really know? Have you talked to your prospective users? Do you know what they need? Which of their problems are you trying to solve anyways? And what answers will your solution provide?

You work your way up from there. It's a long way, and it's stony, and it will rain often, and you will be hungry and cold, and you'll have to start over many times... Huh, UX design starts to sound a lot like Lord of the Rings! But if you follow the good path you will earn applause and fame and you will be showered with flower petals – not. If you really succeed, no one will ever take notice of your existence. Everything you've done will be taken for granted and only a small group of UX geeks will lay down flowers at your grave.

My Fitness Tracker Doesn't Speak Human or: How I learned to value great User Experience

Like many people, I skip manuals when it comes to software. I have become used to help text when I hover over buttons, I know that most apps and websites will use the same wording for similar things. As I've learned the language of the web, most functionalities have become self-explanatory. Be it on my phone or my laptop – most times I find what I am looking for fast. 

Only when this expectation is disappointed do I become aware of the great work of UX designers – or the lack of it. Last week, I was looking for the function on my fitness tracker that would light up the display when I raise my wrist into reading position. I skipped through all possibilities that would even faintly make sense to me and eventually gave up. Googling the manual I found out that I have to go to "Device" and click "Wake-up gesture". I would have looked under "Display". That I would have still found. My native language of German made it impossible for me though. There it says "Aktivierungsgeste" (translates to "activation gesture"). Just in case you wondered: That expression doesn't mean a thing in German.

Stumbling over this odd wording I skipped through all of the settings and came to the conclusion that they did not build a navigation that felt natural. It looks a lot more like the manufacturer had developed a huge set of great functions and then had trouble squeezing it all into a tiny navigation. After learning about UX design I wondered whether they had done proper user research and whether they had thoroughly tested the fitness tracker. We are talking about a big and well-known brand here, and still I think they probably skimped on some testing in order to get the product to market faster.

An Ode to the Unknown UX Designer

Now, when I come accross an application or a website that simply works, I grin broadly and silently thank the smart designer in the background. I will never know his name but will stay forever grateful.

By the way: Can anyone recommend a small fitness tracker that has GPS built in? Thanks in advance.