The Art and Science of Content Strategy


Most of the projects we take on at Atomic don’t involve a huge amount of content. The great majority of our work has to do with solving complex problems for humans through the intersection of software and hardware. However, I have had the opportunity to work with organizations for whom the path to a successful redesign project has involved wrangling large amounts of content. As a result, I’ve gained practice in the art of content strategy. I’ve seen what success looks like, and learned how to gauge when you’ve arrived.

Your Content ≠ User Goals

“Success” in the realm of content is a sticky subject. You’d think that the beginning of a project would involve setting some specific, measurable goals that everyone could agree upon, and then monitoring specific metrics. However, when it comes to content, the ability of stakeholders to recognize success becomes fuzzy and amorphous.

When we make success specific and measurable, the possibility of  eliminating large pieces of content that aren’t contributing to success becomes very real. Often, clients with large amounts of content are under the impression that they are in the business of generating content. They believe that the content is the product. The more of it there is, the more success they will have, right?

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Without consumers of content, what purpose does content have? Users aren’t cruising around the internet looking for a collection of images, symbols, and phrases. They have deeper, more important goals for themselves. For most, content is a means to some other end, not an end in itself.

By subverting this idea about the value of content, we touch on a dearly held supposition. As Arthur Quiller-Couch (author of “On the Art of Writing”) said in a 1914 lecture: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

As designers, we need to tread carefully and be sensitive to our clients’ feelings, as they may feel that we are asking them to terminate dear things. We must also come prepared with a complete argument for eliminating unnecessary content.

Quality over Quantity?

An important step toward success is to convince our clients that quality of content is more important than quantity. But first a caveat: High-quality content is just one of the many keys to success. Past academic studies have shown that aesthetics do, indeed, affect the degree to which users will interact with content. Navigability, aided by a “less is more” approach, is an important factor, but responsiveness and interactivity also affect user recruitment and retention. We must weigh all these things as we evaluate success factors in any content strategy project.

But the question remains: If all of these aforementioned things are equal, does quantity of information help us meet the goals for a content-heavy website?

In their paper “Do visitors’ interest level and perceived quantity of web page content matter in shaping the attitude toward a web site?”, Kang and Kim ask the following questions:

  1. All else being equal, is it a good idea to pack a web site with an overabundance of content?
  2. Does the relationship between content quantity and site evaluation depend on a consumer’s level of interest?

Kang and Kim began by putting users into two classes: high-interest users and low-interest users. Users with high interest in content will put out higher levels of effort to consume and take action on that content. Inversely, users with low interest in content will put out less effort to digest content.

What does that mean for our clients? Whether they are a software-as-a-service organization, a think tank, or an enterprise web app, they all want highly engaged and interested users. These are the types of users that convert, spend money, and share content they’ve consumed with others. If our clients like money (most of them do) or social change, this is the type of user they want.

Kang and Kim then tested the hypothesis that interested users will revisit a website that has “fresh” content. They found this to be mostly correct, noting that both types of users were impressed by quality content, but only low-interest users were drawn to quantity of information.

The type of user that comes back frequently for high volume of content is not the type of user that we are interested in. Additionally, I would venture that most organizations cannot generate more content without experiencing a drop in quality. Therefore, generation of content above a focus on quality alienates users in two ways: It subjects them to a firehose of content, and it lowers the quality of information they are looking for. There is a choice to be made: You can either generate large amounts of content, or provide less content of a higher quality.

Maintaining Interest

With all of the above being equal, Kang and Kim found that less interested users were more drawn to entertaining and easily navigated content, while more interested users connected with information that was useful first, navigable second, and lastly, entertaining. In other words, more valuable users will be attracted to content that is useful.

According to Batra and Ray, “interest” is an attitude toward a thing which possesses “utilitarian affects” and “hedonic affects.” This lines up quite closely with Kang and Kim’s findings. Essentially, Batra and Ray found that content which is useful and entertaining leads users of all types to have a more positive post-visit attitude toward the website they just visited. If what we want are the most dedicated, patient, and engaged users, we need to give them content they will find useful first, and entertaining second.

That leads us to the next logical question: How can we ensure that our content is informative and useful to users?

The Key to Success

To be successful, any organization or business needs a reason to exist. And that reason for existing should intersect with the interests of their users or customers. Without that condition, there probably isn’t a market, and the business won’t exist for long. The same principle must apply to each piece of content we produce. If there isn’t a market for it, it can’t be useful.

This begs the question: How aware are you of your users’ goals? I’ll give you a clue about what their goal isn’t. It’s not to wake up, open a web browser, and navigate to a page to read what you have to say. It isn’t to launch your app on their smartphone. And it isn’t to use your integrated medical device on a regular basis. They use all those things to further a different goal that has more to do with their lives than it does your business.

Educating yourself about your users is one of the single most important business practices you can undertake. Finding that intersection between your organization’s goals and the interests of your users, while leveraging your content accordingly, is the most important step toward success in any software project. This is especially true in a content-heavy website.

Once that intersection is clear, you have the criteria to evaluate the worth of the already available content. From there, it’s up to you whether you want to focus in on the most engaged users in your community or not.

In my next post, I’ll go into detail about how to connect with your users and find ways to equip your content with pathways that will intersect with their needs. I’ll also provide some objective ways to gauge the success of the content strategy of your redesign project beyond stakeholder satisfaction.