On Wednesday 30th of May the basement of Hyves’ headquarters in Amsterdam was the stage for “Small screens, big changes”, a workshop by Karen McGrane. Together with about 24 other interaction and content professionals, I spent a day learning about how to make the most of the challenging design questions mobile developments pose.

Content strategy for mobile

As the title of this review suggests, Karen McGrane (@karenmcgrane) starts her workshop by saying there is no such thing as a content strategy for mobile. On the contrary, separating mobile from other devices will only result in a lot of problems down the road. There is no way any strategy is going to keep up with the pace of new developments, resolutions and devices, so we have to prepare for our crazy, multi-device future.

Choosing content for the user

It’s tempting to make assumptions about what people use their phones for and to provide content according to those assumptions, but there is no way we can guess what people use their mobile devices for, where or when, because the user is in control. We have to make all the content we want to share with the user accessible, navigable and useful, and they choose for themselves how they are going to consume it.

Nowadays in the United States, 25-28% of internet users use the mobile web and hardly ever have access to a desktop computer. Researchers have calculated that by 2015 there will be more mobile than desktop users, so what are we waiting for? We need a content strategy for every user on every device.

Adaptive content

Content is the main reason why people go online, so we must cater for content that can adapt to all kinds of environments. The only way to achieve this is to put content at the centre of all these platforms, and create bits of content that can be reused in many places and managed in one place.

Adaptive content

Image from Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content by Karen McGrane (Slide 44)

In order to create adaptive content, there are 4 important aspects:

  1. Strategy and planning
  2. Messaging and editing
  3. Information architecture
  4. Workflow and governance

Strategy and planning

When we go to clients we should ask them: Why do you want whatever you’re envisioning? To answer this question they should look at their user needs and their business goals. This means data. Data about current use, unmet needs, and future needs, but also about actions that increased or decreased sales and missed opportunities. Once we know what the true problem is and what goals an organization sets itself, we can get to work.

Prepare the ground

Sometimes it can be hard to convince the decision makers about the need for content strategy, or about the need to also be present on mobile devices. Karen gives us an exercise to think of objections and arguments to tackle those. Depending on what organizational culture we’re up against, we can basically choose to convince by fear (we’re not going to survive otherwise!), embarrassment (look at the great stuff our competitors come up with!) or seduction (we could increase sales by 75%!). Without backup we cannot hope to succeed.

Forking? No forking way!

And when we get started and are going to decide what we want to say in the first place, make sure to say the same thing on all devices. Whatever content there will be, someone is going to want it on mobile. Of course there will always be the most popular pages that form the head of a graph we get when we set pages against popularity. However, there is what Karen calls “the long tail of content”, meaning the fair amount of pages that are not so popular, but together still add up to a large number of views.

The long tail

Let’s not break Google search

Separate mobile sites that omit that “long tail” content will make someone unhappy because the site is incomplete, and they’re also going to break Google search. If someone approaches a site through Google search (where the page he needs comes up in the results), as soon as he tries to follow the link, he will be redirected to the mobile site where just that trivial bit of information is missing. Therefore, use mobile as a filter, not as a fork.

Messaging and editing

Before getting started on creating or improving content, first we really should make an inventory of what is already there. Depending on the size of the website, this could be all content or a representative sample. Then we should do an audit on this content, checking whether it is jargony, rambling, unnecessary, outdated, unstructured or burying the lede (main point). If so, there is not only a lot of dumping and rewriting to do, but also educating.

The people who are and will be in charge will have to learn how to create and maintain good content. Make sure to show them lots of best practices. If there are people who are scared to take on new things, teach them why improving content helps and make them feel confident about the decisions they will have to make. Do they need persuasion? Then show them charts and figures, give them expert advice and/or show results from usability tests.

Information architecture

In order for content to be able to come to life in different environments, structure is crucial. We can no longer put an entire page in one blob on a WYSIWYG CMS page, but we have to identify chunks in the blob and put them in appropriate, predefined places that can be found by good navigation.

That’s where content modelling comes in. We have to move away from page thinking and create content packages that are made up of building blocks that can be reused. Create varieties of blocks that can be used either on mobile (for example a short, SEO-friendly title), on tablet (a slightly longer title), and on desktop (a combination of both that still makes sense). Make sure titles don’t break off in mid-sentence, truncation is not a content strategy. Also think about varieties for images, not just different resolutions, but also different crop sizes. Add editorial metadata to direct the content to its proper place and to be able to query the content.

The great thing about this, is that the blocks don’t need to be stored in different systems, but can be maintained in one place.

The CMS dilemma

Well, in one place, that might be a bit utopian. Most current systems (coupled CMSs that support creation and publication of content) are not able to do multi-platform publishing. Decoupled CMSs are able to publish through different channels, but they pose other problems, like where the metadata is kept and how user comments are managed. There is no great solution yet, but Karen strongly advises us not to build our own CMS, and not to have separate CMSs for separate devices. This will only result in double publishing processes and lots of inconsistencies.

Workflow and governance

So, once the content is in order, we have to make sure it is future-proof. Guess what? It can only become future-proof if we manage it well. We have to invest in a proper publishing life cycle which is supported by a good CMS. In order to know what our content does, we have to analyse it on all its platforms and make sure we oversee what we put out there and when it needs to be reviewed. It makes sense to merge web and mobile teams, so they don’t have to compete internally.

Let’s do this thing!

Karen’s fast-paced, knowledge-packed workshop definitely helped me to understand content strategy better. Even though I have worked with structured content and content blocks for years, it was an eye-opener to hear that we can work with varieties of blocks for different devices and still keep them in one place. I think the crazy, multi-device future will make my job even more challenging than it is now, but with people like Karen around, sharing her knowledge, it is going to be a lot of fun.

About the author

Jantine Geldof Pluim (@JantineG) has five years of experience as a web editor and content specialist. Working at Informaat, she focuses on structuring and creating content that enhances user experience. She has a particular interest in storytelling. Jantine has a Master’s degree in comparative literature from Utrecht University.