An Event Apart Minneapolis: Kristina Halvorson, “Message and Medium: Better Content by Design”

One of the most invigorating presentations at An Event Apart Minneapolis was given by Kristina, author of Content Strategy for the Web. Her session, “Message and Medium: Better Content by Design,” was summarized as follows:

Designing for multichannel content delivery (mobile, anyone?) means an entirely new set of considerations and challenges for web professionals everywhere. Unfortunately for content creators, it’s nearly impossible to predict whether their writing will maintain impact and readability across each and every platform. But forget about the medium for a minute; it’s the message that matters most. We’ll learn how to identify your key business messages, how they inform your content strategy, and how they impact multi-channel content development and design.

Her energy and dynamism were absolutely perfect to charge us up in the early afternoon. Of course, I am biased, as she is a fellow Minnesotan. When An Event Apart was consdering where to hold their conferences in 2010, they did a survey. Kristina confessed that she kept clearing her cookies so she could vote 20,000 times for for An Event Apart to come to Minneapolis. Exaggeration or not, I’m so glad she succeeded!

You know, when you think about it, what better way is there to talk about content design than to start with a big image of teeth.

Going to the dentist should be a great user experience, right? So, how do you find a new dentist? Ask your friends! She then showed some hilarious slides with pictures people at a party with speech bubbles, talking about dentistry. Two words pretty much sum up those slides: midget pony. Enough said.

So let’s say asking people about their favorite dentist at a party with a midget pony doesn’t get you the best results. How about googling for dentists in a certain location?

You do so. You find two sites. Which wins? The one whose content most speaks to your needs.

So, what do you want in dentist?

  • Feel safe.
  • Little pain.
  • Save money.
  • Get there easily.
  • Keep all your teeth.
  • Show off your smile.
  • Get out quickly.

Your mission should be to create a dentistry site that shows how this establishment of dentistry meets those needs. Not why this dentist loves dentistry so much, or his long family history with dentistry. The message should be what you, as a potential cavity drillee want, not what we as dentists are. Again, what you want, not what we are.

A lot of time you end up designing without copy and end up crafting metdata, titles, etc. together. This creates huge gaps in delivering message. Lorem ipsum is probably not your core message.

Content strategy plans for the creation, curation and delivery of content that is:

  • Useful
  • Usable
  • Purposeful
  • Productive
  • Profitable

People are not coming to your site for the design or the code, but for the content.

Content is text:

  • Page copy
  • Articles
  • Links
  • Labels
  • Flash
  • Alt attributes (she said “alt tags”—bad Kristina!)
  • Error messages
  • Task instructions
  • Form
  • Search results
  • Metadata

Strategy is a plan for obtaining a specific goal or result: how to get from where you are now to where you want to be.

Content strategy is not just about what, but also about:

  • Why
  • How
  • For whom
  • By whom
  • With what
  • When
  • Where
  • How often
  • What next
  • Who will create, implement content

So your core content strategy is surrounded by both content components (the substance and the structure of your content) and the people components (workflow and governance).

It is crucial to keep in mind that people are part of your content strategy. This is so often forgotten. You manage this aspect through the use of policies, procedures and saying no. Think about how changes in an organization might change workflow. All of these components are connected.

Remember, messaging is not a mission statement, brand promise or a tagline. Kristina gave us all permission to get mission statements off of our pages. Nobody. Freaking. Cares. Instead, we need to start with a core message that should be delivered across multiple platforms.

Internally, we need to make sure that with messaging, we prioritize content types and choices. Content should be consistent across various media and various times that it is created. Content strategy should guide design choices. We must align content owners with their content.

In creating content, the first thing to think about should be a call to action. Within one section, a user should have an emotional reaction to this call. Within ten seconds, the primary message should be clear. Within two minutes, secondary messages should be understood.

You want to get an emotional reaction first, before people react to the secondary message. Once somebody has grasped the important main message, the way the site is structured and highlighted should inform how people receive the secondary message.

Typically, you should have one primary message, three to six secondary messages and then all the dozens to thousands of details. Each of these message types are important components within your calls to action.

The primary message should instantly explain who you are, what you deliver, what the user gets. Remember, each word in a primary message is loaded with meaning. All other messages are born from this, so it should be focused like a laser and be memorable, burned into your brain.

Secondary messages should support the primary message. This provides context for the audience and various types of information, such as details on task completion, products or services.

Remember, “nice-to-have” content gets in the way of users getting more important content and messages.

Keep in mind page-level content hiearchies. These can differ for product descriptions, about us pages, case studies, help content, interface copy, search results and explainations of nomenclature.

So often we get into wireframing with no content except for the dreaded Lorem ipsum. Page templates empty as hollow shells are not enough.

Instead, think about coming up with tables about pages. A specific, wireframe-based content definition includes structures, details, implications and questions: specific messaging.

Ask yourself, for this page, what is the objective? What’s the source material (where will this page’s content come from)? How will this page be maintained over time?

The first thing users want to know when they go to your site: Who you are, what you deliver, and what I get.

Determine key page messages. Content strategists can figure out how to do an overview of a page’s content, appropriate links, etc.

As an example, Kristina showed us how Ben & Jerry’s core message played out over some key pages. Some content was fantastically on-message. Other parts, particularly in the frequently asked questions section and on Facebook, were way off message. You need to think not only about who creates the main pages on your site, but who creates content in all of these secondary locations.

Also, keep in mind that your content can be great, but everything still needs to tie together with design. A bunch of on-message micro-sites that look different from each other? Problematic.

Again, cross-channel consistency is key. Content is delivered across so many different mediums now. How do we structure content across media? As Kristina said, “We’ve gotta be on YouTube! We’ve gotta be on Facebook! We’ve gotta be on Twitter! OMG!” A lot of times content strategy can fall apart on Facebook, Twitter and search engine listing pages. You still need to deliver your core message. Always.

Luke Wroblewski, in his “Mobile First” talk, pointed out the importance of focusing on key information and tasks in mobile. This is true for content strategy everywhere.

You need to deliver your core message immediately and support this with important secondary details that are critical, not nice to have.

Remember, content is necessary for everything we do. Even if you don’t do the content, you can ask questions of people about content.

Make sure to make your content funny. Find your midget pony, whatever that might be. Engaging people in a conversation about content changes things.

Design is content. What we are delivering online is all content. Remember that when you are dividing things into silos, content strategy touches them all.

Kristina closed by saying again that design is content, “take that and cross-stritch it on a pillow.” I will pay cold hard cash for a pillow cross-stitched with “Design is Content” on it. And then I will give it to Kristina.

My take

Of all the sites I have worked on, content is always the biggest challenge. For small sites in particular, somebody can create a great design, but so often, content is in the hands of people who do not have the time to manage or create it, and who do not have the expertise to deliver key messages through that content. Whether a site is being designed from scratch or is being overhauled, content is nearly always the roadblock. Content always takes longer than you expect and is rarely delivered on time or in a shape ready for the web. People who can handle the wrangling of content are my friends. My bestest friends. Cat wranglers have nothing on content wranglers in my book.