Making Time for Content Strategy
Taking time to slow down and really think about content can seem impossible. But it’s a crucial step for the health of your business (and self).
Sustainable content success depends greatly on how much time people in the organization who care about content generally are allowed to care about content professionally. That is, as part of their normal jobs.
Unfortunately, that allowance is often quite low (if it exists at all). Most places still don’t properly value writing and content as critical aspects of customer experience, even in companies with supposedly mature design practices. (What is all that design without content, anyway?) Overworked, undervalued content practitioners like you are being asked to “wordsmith” interface text and “punch up” last-minute content requests amidst all of your other duties. It ain’t easy. So good job.
But now I need to say something you already know: While late nights and content crunch time may be unavoidable now and then, they shouldn’t be—can’t be—the norm for you or the people you work with.
Not if your company wants content to be a valuable business asset.
Not if they want the people who work on content to get better at what they do.
Not if they want those people to actually enjoy their jobs and not burn out and leave. (Not that you’ve thought about it … )
For most of us, the only time that content gets is time to make content. Rarely do we get time to think, plan, reflect, manage, and improve. We need more of that kind of time. Not just time for content, but time for content strategy.
How do we make that kind of time?
Scope the gaps in your content strategy and prioritize.
When content people talk about a content gap analysis, they usually mean doing a content audit to identify any user needs not being met by your current content footprint. That’s a very good thing to do, but it’s not the place to start if you’re already overwhelmed. What I’m suggesting is looking for gaps in your content strategy.
If it feels like the ship is sinking, plug the biggest holes first. We need to figure out what’s getting in the way, align on that truth with leadership, and make a plan to deal with it.
Work with your team to think through the big areas that drive content and figure out where it hurts the most. Use higher-level lenses than content auditing (such as Brain Traffic’s content strategy quad) to examine things like the shape of your content ecosystem, the clarity (or lack thereof) of your functional business strategy, and your current-state content workflows, such as they are.
You’ll have to make time for this work, of course, but it’s amazing what you can do in just a day of focused discussion. And much of it is significantly less effortful than, say, auditing tens of thousands of content items.
Think very, very carefully about how much capital you gain by saying “yes.”
It’s not choosing your battles if you always surrender. Saying “yes” to unplanned content requests, saying “yes” to an hour (and then three more) to “throw some ideas around” about the homepage, saying “yes” to publishing that press release you know deep in your soul absolutely no one, anywhere, is going to care about … all these yeses and hours add up.
Clients often tell me that this git’r-done attitude is about winning friends and influencing people; scratching their back now so they’ll scratch yours later. Or at least so they’ll potentially complain less later on when you have to move their digital cheese. And sometimes this approach works. Sometimes.
I know you know what you’re doing. I trust you. But as your content strategy friend, I just want to ask if YOU still trust you? Have you deeply reflected recently on how helpful all of this “content team player” stuff has been? That’s all I want. Just give it a think. There’s nothing wrong with being a line cook, but if you aspire to be head chef, you might have to nominate yourself for the promotion.
Demand content requests in writing.
I thought about replacing “demand” with a less strong word here: get, request, ask for …
But no. You need to demand it. A demand is firm. A demand is a must-have. Dictionary.com gives it as:
> to ask for with proper authority; claim as a right
You absolutely have the right to ask for content requests in writing. If someone will not thoughtfully fill out a content request form or even just describe what they want in a paragraph in an email, they probably haven’t thought very much about what they actually want or need. And that is going to end up wasting everyone’s time—especially yours.
You can demand it nicely, but you still need to demand it. Try very hard to prevent content requests getting “thrown over the wall” and find ways to facilitate conversation around what’s needed. Twenty minutes sitting alongside someone to help them fill out a content brief is going to save everyone time in the long run, anyway.
Getting things in writing also begins a paper trail that you can use later to fight scope creep and keep things moving. It can feel tedious, even boring, to document simple requests, but this kind of documentation is the foundation of thoughtful content strategy work.
Ask for time (very) far in advance.
Can I get three days of your time next week? How about three hours later today?
Obviously "no," right? That’s unreasonable.
How about just one day of your time six months from now? And, hey: this time will make the six months that follow it twice as productive for everyone. Win-win.
That’s much easier to say “yes” to, isn’t it? It’s frustrating to wait, but as much as my increasingly-graying beard might not like it, six months can pass by in a blink.
I’ve led several workshops where executive leadership have told their team they’d only be able to pop in for an hour at the beginning of the content strategy workshop. An hour later, they’ve realized how critical all this content strategy stuff is, and their calendars magically clear for the day.
Get some time on the calendar now, however far out you have to plan. (Then do it again, right at the end of the meeting!)
Budget (limited) hours for “content emergencies.”
Some people that you can’t afford to upset just can’t plan. They’re going to miss the workshop you scheduled six months out because they can’t plan, and they’re going to need a lot of help at the last minute because they can’t plan, and they’re going to try to commit your time without asking you because they can’t plan.
People, am I right?
However much time you make for setting strategy, real or imagined content emergencies will always be a part of your content world. This is something to plan for. It could be with office hours, a content help channel on Slack, or even an agency-style, in-house team to rapidly respond to sudden content needs. Accepting that these requests will still come up empowers you to plan a dedicated workflow for managing them and communicating that workflow back to stakeholders.
Ideally, as you get more time for content strategy work, you can start to check in regularly with these non-planners, and find facilitation and planning techniques that work to help surface their needs in advance. But in the meantime, you’ll just have to stay nimble.
Build a coalition of the exhausted.
If you’re at a big place, you’re not the only content person at your company struggling with these issues. There are nuances to every company culture, and it may be that someone else has had successes they can share in encouraging folks to slow down, do less, and be thoughtful about content.
Find allies to build your own squeaky wheel, and make it loud enough that folks start to pay attention. Being able to cite other internal successes when asking for time for things like alignment workshops, content councils, and editorial planning activities makes these pills easier to swallow.
And finally: make time for you.
If it’s always crunch time—if all of the content-making is happening at night when you’re home after a day full of spuriously valuable meetings—it’s even more important to find ways to take care of yourself and the team you’re supporting.
If your company’s entire content world rests on your shoulders, it’s important for you and the company to give those shoulders a break from time to time. This can be instructive, too. If the world falls apart because one person isn’t going to be checking email for a week, well, I can’t really think of a better argument for content strategy.
I hope I’ve challenged you to take a fresh look at why there’s “no time” for strategy, and given you some ideas to start making that time. I’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments.
Scott Kubie is the lead content strategist here at Brain Traffic and the author of Writing for Designers from A Book Apart. Scott has focused on the content side of digital experiences since 2009, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram Research. He grew up in rural Nebraska, and studied electronic media and journalism at Drake University.