Interview: Janine Warner on Content Strategy
Janine Warner recently presented Understanding Content Strategy to the Southern California Web Designers & Developers MeetUp group at Huge, Inc.’s new office in LA. After her presentation, I was able to sit down with her and talk a little more about LA, helping clients create content and how we can become better at content strategy.
Tell our readers a little bit about what you do.
I’m an author, web designer, content strategist… like many people in this business, I wear many hats. I am also the creator of digitalfamily.com which is an interactive design and training agency.
Your site has a lot of great content targeted towards small and medium-sized businesses.
Thanks. I created DigitalFamily.com to provide additional resources to people who buy my books and training videos and now it gets quite a bit of traffic on its own. Most of the content is basic web design 101, but you’ll also find tips on social media and, of course, content strategy. Because I’m the author of every edition of Dreamweaver For Dummies, you’ll also find a large collection of tutorials on Adobe Dreamweaver. It’s a good place for clients to begin their journey in web design and a place where I help people who want to create their own websites on important topics such as content strategy.
Are there advantages to working with small businesses?
In many ways the smaller clients are the most fun to work with because they haven’t figured out their content yet and that’s really where you get to do your best work if you’re into content strategy.
Sometimes it allows for more creative direction as well.
We see that you’re a fellow Angeleno. How do you use the city to motivate your work.
I often say Los Angeles is a city that you can choose to love or hate and I choose to love it. What I most love about LA is the diversity and the vibrancy, the great museums, the art scene and the creative talent you find here in every shape and form. And in large part because I run my own business, I get to choose where I get to live and work and I don’t have to commute every day in LA traffic! [laughs] That definitely makes people hate LA! I avoid rush hour whenever possible!
You’ve written a lot of books about the Internet. How has writing helped you become am expert in content strategy?
I studied journalism, and I remember one of my professors said, “If you want to be a great writer, the first thing you have to do is write hundreds of thousands of sentences. It almost doesn’t matter what those first two hundred thousand sentences are about. It’s more of a right of passage.” So after writing 25 books, I think finally know how to write [laughs]. I say that with great humility and passion for writing!
“If you want to be a great writer, the first thing you have to do is write hundreds of thousands of sentences…”
I call myself a journalist turned geek. I went from being a traditional reporter to being really interested in the internet, and then I realized that most people as techy as I am couldn’t write very well —some couldn’t communicate their expertise at all, so I found a niche for myself somewhere between technology and journalism, and that set me up well to become an expert in content strategy today.
If you can bridge the worlds of writing and technology, content production and development, and you understand something about multimedia and all the different forms of storytelling that exist today, you are in a really good position to work as a content strategist and guide the creation of content in the increasingly complicated world of content design and publishing.
I received similar advice from an art teacher, “First make 10,000 paintings and give them away to your friends. Once you’re done with that, you can then become an artist.”
[Laughs] So it sounds like we received similar advice. For me, there were two parts to it. One, it was great practice. But the other is maybe more related to my profession today in that much of working in technology is about learning new things all the time. In a funny way, writing books gave me an opportunity to go deep into a topic and thoroughly study it so that I could write a book about it. Writing books has afforded me the time to get new expertise that I could later use with clients and apply in my own business.
So the fact that I spend about half my time writing books, creating training videos, and teaching — and the half working with clients and doing fairly technical development myself works well for me. That way I’m constantly learning new things as an author, writer, researcher and constantly testing those theories out in practice with real clients.
Starting content for a new website can be intimidating. Where does one start for optimizing content strategy?
All big tasks are best done when broken down into little pieces. The same is true for content strategy. The first thing I do with a client is sit down and put together a production schedule with a lot of milestones. And one of the things I learned early on was that content development had to be started early in the process. I usually take a three-pronged approach to developing a website. One of them is getting the content started, the other is design, and third, developing the technology and programming. Some people wait to do the content until after the design and technology have been finished, but I think that is one of the biggest mistakes in web design. You really should be thinking about the content strategy from the start.
I think a lot of why content strategy is getting more attention today is that people are starting to realize that you need to think of content up front and the best websites are designed with a very holistic approach, developing some content and getting started with the message — what are the key things we need to get in — and then designing around that content so you create a design and content strategy that work well together.
“Some people wait to do the content after the design and technology have been finished, but I think that is one of the biggest mistakes in web design.”
Did I answer your question about getting clients started? [Laughs[ Content isn’t free and doesn’t grow on trees. There is an investment in time that someone has to make. But I think breaking it down into pieces can be helpful when it comes to content strategy.
In last night’s presentation you suggested having the client get away from the office when they’re having trouble writing content. When content creation stalls, how do you get the ball rolling again?
When you get the client away to a place without all the distractions, having a list of interview questions can help. I’ve seen this with videos, biographies and websites, if you just start by “What goes on the website?” the client kind of gets lost, or if you point a camera at someone and say, “Talk!”, it’s really hard to do. But, if you feed them some questions and just start a conversation, you can bring out those gems that can help start to shape the heart of the most important content.
So I’ve developed questionnaires that I use with clients. For example, What are your top goals? Who are you customers? What do you want people to do as a result of visiting your website? And the more specific you get with those questions the more you start walking them through a process that leads to creating content that is the most valuable for their site and a successful content strategy. If you can capture some of their answers in an interview format, then with a little editing and revising, you can massage it into content that you can use on the website.
“Clients need deadlines…”
One more thing. This might seem obvious, but client’s need deadlines the way everyone else does. Sometimes we think the client is boss and we should follow their lead, but most clients need to know that content strategy and creating content is an important part of the process. From my experience, client’s benefit when deadlines are set for them.
I will set up a schedule with milestones then I will reassure them that all they need by the first deadline is the first draft. It takes them off the hook just a little bit so that they can get something out, knowing that it doesn’t have to be perfect. One of the misconceptions for people have that haven’t written hundreds of thousands of sentences, is that they think it has to come out perfect the first time. It rarely does. The best writers revise and revise, and then have really good editors revise their writing some more. If writing and editing is not your skill set, consider hiring a writer or editor to help them.
If you’re not a professional writer you may underestimate how much everything you read has been edited. Every book I write has 3 or 4 editors that work on it with me. There is a technical editor who reviews all the technical aspects, a copy editor who makes sure everything is spelled right and that the commas are in the right place. Then there is a product editor who looks at the overall message and makes sure it is appropriate for the audience. And finally there is a proof reader who gives it a final review.
On small websites, most people don’t have a team like that. But leverage whatever you have. For example, get the administrative assistant to write the first draft, then have a good editor go over it, and finally let the client review it.
Part of being a Content Strategist is being able to training other people how to create good content. If there is no one on your team with writing and editing experience, you may need to find a freelancer to fill in that gap and part of what you may want them to do for you as part of the content strategy is to teach others how to develop content, too.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. We like to give our readers a tip they can take to work with them tomorrow. What advice would you give our readers to become better at content strategy?
One of the best ways to become a better writer and to become experiences in content strategy is to read a lot. A great way to make better websites is to look at a lot of websites and really study what they do right and where they fail. Companies like Apple and Mint have done a pretty solid job of summarizing complex concepts in a few words, illustrating them visually, and walking their audience through the points that tell their stories quickly and succinctly. Seeing how other content developers distill complex messages into a few works is a powerful way to learn to develop great content yourself. Just like readying a lot of fiction is a great way to write a better novel.
“Companies like Apple and Mint have done a pretty solid job of summarizing complex concepts in a few words, illustrating them visually and walking their audience through the points that tell their stories quickly and succinctly.”
It is very easy for us as web designers to get caught up in the projects we’re doing and forget that we should go out and surf the web every once in a while. One of the reasons I got my iPad is so that I can get away from my desk and sit and search and read and think and study for a while. It’s a very import part of keeping your skills up-to-date and integral to optimizing content strategy for any project.
Practice through imitation. Is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
Content Strategy is a hot new job category and a hot new term people are talking about, but it’s a skill a lot of people have had for a long time and a skill that has been evolving for a long time. You’ve probably been doing this for a while, but just didn’t have a name for it.
“It’s a pretty cool career for a lot of people.”
One of the things to recognize about content strategy is that it is an emerging specialty because it is increasingly needed, increasingly important and increasingly complicated because we have so many different kinds of content and publishing channels today.
But at its core, the skill set of content strategy is relevant for an audience is what a lot of us have honed over the years and many people do in related professions. Since a lot people in web and digital design come from the world of print or broadcast media, they bring these skills already they just don’t necessarily recognize that they and many are already pretty qualified for a Content Strategist position. They might just need to supplement what they know about content strategy with a little more understanding, a little more vocabulary, a little more experience, a little more thinking about how you tell a story in multimedia. It’s a pretty cool career for a lot of people.
Being in charge of content strategy and creation also brings you in a little earlier in the process. Being able to orchestrate all these pieces gives you a lot of creative opportunities.
In my own experience, projects that had someone in charge, whether it be the project manager, art director or an administrative assistant, typically were more successful than those that did not.
I’ve seen a lot of web designers run into trouble because they start into a project and they get stuck waiting on a client to deliver content, and it never happens. The more successful web designers tend to take a very proactive role in helping clients develop content and I think that is part of where this specialty is coming from. Many web design firms, and big businesses that produce a lot of content, have realized that not everyone is good at creating content.
“The more successful web designers tend to take a very proactive role in helping clients develop content…”
I think there is a lot of overlap between what traditional Creative Directors have done and what Content Strategists do today. It’s not just about writing copy, it’s about thinking through what the goals and objectives are considering what kinds of content will help move an audience towards those goals and objectives. Content Strategy takes a lot more than writing. It takes business sense and strategic sense and a deeper understanding of the audience and the company’s goals. It can definitely become a time consuming part of any web project.
I think that creative content strategy is an exciting area to work. Developing a brand’s voice and how it can lead a client toward their goals is a rewarding endeavour. Thanks Janine!
You can watch Janine’s course on Content Strategy on Lynda.com at
Or visit her website at http://www.digitalfamily.com/ to learn more about her books, videos, and consulting services, as well growing collection of free tutorials on web design.