January 11th, 2010

On discovering content strategy

I know – and, I assume, every copywriter worth his or her weight in legal pads knows – that the days of living solely on print copy and television scripts are waning.

And while there may be a few that can continue spitting out inspired old-media copy for 40 hours a week, whether because the agency they work for is large enough to supply the work or because they possess an exceptional niche talent for it, I suspect the idea of a dedicated copywriter in a smaller agency is going to slowly fade away.

Not for the bad, though. For the good.

For the best, actually. Especially if you know where the future is.

Enter the field of Web Content Strategy.

My Discovery

Here’s a big stupid secret: I like the Web. I like Web sites.

In 1997, I created a Web site for a local hardcore band, Floodplain. It wasn’t very good, but let’s face it – compared to today’s standards, no one’s Web sites were very good in 1997.

In 1998, I began what would turn out to be an early-stage blog. I had no idea what CSS was (though, in my defense, few did) but I still hand-coded and archived daily entries into a journal of my navel-gazing, Get Up Kids-fueled sophomore year.

And then, I stopped. I worked toward a bio ed degree, unconvinced that either writing nor Web could bring anything of substance.

Oops.

That was then. Now, I work with words, and often those words end up on the Internet, and when they do, I’m often surprised how little care is taken for other peoples’ Internet words. Words don’t matter on the Internet, it seemed.

“Gross,” I thought. Doesn’t anyone care?

And that’s when I learned about content strategy. Not the idea, but the practice. That there are people who care about it, and it’s their job to care about it, and I thought to myself, OH MY GOD NOW I HAVE SOMETHING TO DO THAT ISN’T WRITING A PRINT AD.

It felt like an awakening.

Spreading the Word

Understanding the impact of this discovery is akin to hearing about a great underground album for the first time. You LOVE it. It’s a bit quirky, and it’s certainly never going to get major radio time, but it’s quickly becoming one of your favorite albums.

But no one else has heard of it. You can’t talk to anyone about it. They just don’t get it, and here it is, this beautiful, amazing suite of music, absolutely changing your life, but it’s only sold 10,000 nationwide and you’re pretty sure not one of those copies has landed anywhere within a 100-mile radius of your home.

And then you go online and find a message board for the band. You find the band’s Web site. You read reviews in college newspapers, and you discover an intense following among a subset of people that really aren’t any different from you. You know these people. YOU CAN FINALLY TALK TO SOMEONE!

You discover new music, you dye your hair orange, you move to San Francisco and start your own band. Or something like that.

That’s me with this content strategy business.

And Now…

All of this is leading somewhere. Which is why, much to the chagrin of the established Web community in Sioux Falls – and probably to some of my co-workers – this subtle shift has led to a new tag-along mentality, in which I seek out more information, more contact, more firepower. Like the young punker who strives to hang out with the established bands, gradually weaseling his way into acceptance, I stalk content strategy and its followers.

Because, really, I’ve got this deep-seated longing to be a crafty Web designer or coder. To enter with the collective language of Web coding, a language as necessary to today’s global market as anything you’d learn from Rosetta Stone, and leave with something both usable and beautiful is an unachievable dream.

But I know I’ll never be a star Web designer or a developer. However, I now see that I – and writers in general – can at least participate in the game, fostering change within my current position and growing as both a professional and as a Web aficionado.

There is life after print. There is life after radio.

Adapting as a writer in today’s Web-centric world has little to do with becoming better at old media. Instead, it has everything to do with reaching wider, not becoming more skilled at what we already know, but branching into the fields we’ll be asked to work with.

Web content strategy takes what we as writers already cherish – the written word, the communication of themes and concepts through language – and combines it with higher level skills; strategy, organization, architecture, big picture stuff that goes beyond a link or headline.

It’s not just the future, you guys. It’s happening now.

The death of the 30-second spot? The decline of newspaper advertising? The fracturing of viewership and the iPod’s savage destruction of traditional radio?

When it comes to the Web, those scares are only words. Only content. Which, in turn, is the only thing passed from person to person: content, searched for and archived and tweeted and e-mailed and read and remembered.

If content is still king, Web content strategy is how kings are made.


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