How Visuals Can Help Content Strategists Find Their Voice

Posted by on Oct 12, 2012 in Blog | 2 Comments

I just returned home from leading a workshop at the fabulous Content Strategy Workshops in Portland, OR. The workshop title: Worth a Thousand Words – Visualizing Content Audits for the C-Suite. The goal: to give content strategists tools for captivating an executive audience. The unexpected result: giving content strategists power and permission to not just have an opinion but to express it unapologetically.

My workshop participants huddled in groups to build visual representations of audit data and to anchor those visuals with a persuasive, bold statement. We transformed standard content audit language like this:

Into visual arguments like this:

I chose this subject for my workshop because at SUBTXT we believe that visuals give content strategists a stronger voice. Most of us content strategists crunch our data, analyze it, and think silently: wow, about a third of this client’s content is seriously messing with their goals.

But we file those thoughts away and hand our clients a thorough, polite content matrix and audit report. Of course, we speak intelligently about the facts of the audit results and our recommendations, but we often don’t stake a bold claim and we don’t make waves.

Why? Well, most agency projects go something like this: the biz dev team sells work to the client, often without even mentioning content strategy. Discovery starts, and the user experience team does some competitive analysis, develops a UX brief, and sells the client on a goal. Then there’s some design exploration, and after some effort, the client and the creatives arrive on a vision. Finally, a content strategist hears about the project (in the kitchen or the bathroom, perhaps) and asks somewhat apologetically if they can take a look at what’s going on.

With some reluctance (because CS is “expensive” and the client didn’t want to pay for an audit for a site “refresh”), the CS gets permission to spend a few hours giving the project a quick pass. The CS checks out the client’s site and goals, reviews the UX brief and the design directions and thinks, oh man, this is not going to work. Why didn’t they bring me in sooner?

When we’re put in the position of being the grim reaper of profit margin, or wrench-throwers for our colleagues, we are usually one of two things: pissed off, or apologetic. Or both. In any case, we are not in position of power.

And now I’m in a hotel banquet room asking these beleaguered, smart, jaded, yet still optimistic people, not just to use data visualizations, but to be bold, take a stand, have an opinion and express it unapologetically to the CEO.

When I contrasted the standard audit report copy with the bold, position-taking data visualization, someone in the front row looked me in the eye and slowly asked, perhaps more to herself than to me or the other attendees, “Why don’t we always do this?”

Why, indeed. In our field, bold statements are often reserved for the creative directors or marketing people. We’re usually behind the scenes as “doers,” and not on the front lines as “thinkers”.

But if the web is content, as it surely is, who better to be on the front lines than a content strategist? Who knows the content, the “stuff between the tags” as Rahel Bailie memorably called it at the same conference, better than content strategists? Why are we letting other people silence our opinions? We have so much to say, because we know so much.

No choice, no voice?

I think we are often silent because we feel backed into a corner. Maybe we’re brought in too late to the project, so we can’t make recommendations that would contradict or compromise the work that’s already been done. Maybe our project manager cautions us that the client doesn’t want to hear anything that would be upsetting about their content, however true it may be, because they’re just migrating it.

Our work often asks people to confront the ugly truth NOW, instead of waiting to handle it “some day”.  We’re not picking color themes or even doing user research with our clients. We’re giving them tough news that they may not be ready to hear.

But make no mistake: what we have are facts. We have exactly what the client NEEDS to hear, whether they want to or not. Design is a vision. UX is a goal. Content strategy is a reality. And reality should get first dibs.

No More Mr./Ms. Nice Content Strategist

One way to start demanding the respect we deserve is to punctuate our findings with visuals, even just internally at your company or agency. We already have the data; we just need to transform that data into information (as in the sample used in the workshop, shown here in this post).

It’s not just clients who are compelled by visuals. Visuals grab everyone’s attention in meaningful, memorable ways, whether we’re trying to influence project managers or CMOs. Content strategists use words to argue our points, yet our colleagues (UX and Creative, and even Project Management) use visuals. We should, too. Not sure how to turn data into information? Fear not, we’ll have an instructional post up very soon. If you can’t wait, Dan Roam can help.

I’m sure there are content strategists out there who never have to fight for the right to weigh in on a project and are never told to behave or keep their findings on the D.L. And that’s great. If you’re one of the lucky ones, leave a comment. Tell us all why you think it’s different where you work. Tell us how they do it. Tell us where you work, in fact. I know a few people who would be interested in working there.  ;)


  1. David More
    October 15, 2012

    Time to rediscover what the information design community has been doing for the last 40 years, perhaps.
    I didn’t read the whole article: far too much prose, not enough visuals to show overview, structure and flavour. That makes the point well, though!

    • Tosca
      October 16, 2012

      David, if you’d read the whole post, you’d see that you and I actually agree. Information design is used by nearly everyone else in the webdev project world, yet (many) content strategists have yet to embrace it. And I think we need to.