An existentialist’s content strategy

by Elizabeth McGuane

One day not too long ago, I sat down with a client on a big account - an account with problems far beyond the purview of my ‘strategic’ project role.



I found myself with one of those people who float under the radar, yet have a deep knowledge of how things really are in a business. If going to work was a war, they’d be the doctor in the trenches. Or maybe the chaplain: they can’t really fix anything - all they can do is pray.

This client was not a stakeholder on my project, though she held a great deal of information crucial to its success. And she was ready to judge it by her own measures.

I like to think that what I do ends up being an improvement on a client’s current digital-publishing reality. I suggested as much to her - that the CMS, while not perfect, was an improvement; that our new content guidelines would make writing more consistent and signoff easier to achieve: at this she pursed her lips into a pained smirk, and died a little more behind the eyes.

And why wouldn’t she? Every new effort, every new system that streamed her way came with a new strategic vision document. And then there were the visions that were only whispered about, and never seen.

Hers was a business riddled with warren-like sign-off channels, information scurrying around but never gathered, streamlined or made more efficient. It had too many micro-generals, and no battles, no real reckonings or measures of success - just objectives that meant someone above you got a bonus, or not. Reality could be held at arm’s length.

Where strategy happens

When you have access to - or are - the person at the top, you have limited time, and limited time means limited access to the people on the ground. So usually, you must rely on insight. Your own, hopefully, as well as the stream of data we now call ‘insight’.

At its best, top-level strategy is insightful in the original sense of the word. It draws on deep knowledge sprung from a lifetime of experience. With great effort and a culture that rewards clear thought and real results, a strategic thinker in this position - or someone who has their ear - can isolate the key issues that have a chance to make real change for a company. That goes for its content, and its content processes, too.

But there is another level of working life - the middle. It’s where nearly everything happens, and where nearly everything goes to die.

Most strategy is useless

It was a need to do my own job more effectively that led me to content strategy. But poor strategy is, if not better than no strategy at all, at least harder to identify and eradicate. It is easier to build from zero than to rebuild something bad.

I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Rumelt lately. He says that by their nature, strategists must seek to make things change.

An insight, once obtained, is clearly novel but is not necessarily productive… embracing [it] may require you to cast aside whole doctrines, beliefs, philosophies, and ways of organizing work. To adopt a strategic insight one must also push aside an alternate living reality.

Reality doesn’t really like to shift of its own accord. And yet, we cannot wait for some cosmic event to shift things. Yes, when the zombies arrive, it will be easy to break down the divisions that make work less efficient, more maddening - when you really need to make changes, the most important ones to make become obvious. You grab the flamethrower, not the axe. But until then, we have to kind of put our shoulder into things and lean.

And the more people you have to lean with, the more force you’ll have. That’s just science.

Altering your reality

Real change happens bit by bit, emergency by emergency - but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply strategic thinking to it. If I were a doctor in the trenches and couldn’t perform exacting surgery, I’d still try to keep people’s legs on.

The reality of every business changes all the time, yet strategies and projects takes months if not years to materialise. Businesses themselves are usually aware of this changing reality to varying degrees, but that awareness is often present in hard-to-find places. So finding that person who knows what’s what - and trying to make their job easier - isn’t a bad place for a strategist to start.

My client is going to have a new CMS in a few months, and her problems won’t end there. She’ll have a bunch of new content to deal with, too - but together with that, she’ll have a system of understanding that content - understanding why it was designed the way it was - that will help her manage it better with her own team. It’s a system that was created not just from a strategist’s perspective, but from the perspective of user experience architects, developers and visual designers. A hardscrabble team, working together to create something imperfect, not quite elegant, but meaningful. And real.

I’ll be talking more about working with that hardscrabble, dedicated team next Tuesday at the Content Strategy Forum in London.


Written by
Elizabeth McGuane
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About Mapped.

We're two writers who make web things. We're interested in what makes stories go: in our brains, online, in design, fiction, culture and everywhere.