Content Strategy: It’s what librarians already do.

"This Is Very Important" is painted on a bench.I have very little to add to this article but wanted to link it here because it is so, so good. As my colleagues know I have been on the content strategy soapbox of late, especially in light of our imminent website re-architecting/redesign. I’ve also been known to quote Ranganathan at unexpected moments, because his Five Laws of Library Science are still incredibly relevant to everything that we do to serve our users (and frankly, also because it’s nice that something I learned about in library school is still relevant – as opposed to, say, the pre-CSS HTML I spent hours hammering away upon!).

So when I came across this article on the (always excellent) Brain Traffic blog by content strategist (and former academic librarian) Claire Rasmussen, in which she looks at the Five Laws and applies them to the work of content strategy, I found myself bouncing in my chair with excitement. (Yes, I am a huge nerd. This is firmly established. Can we move on?) Librarians who create content for the web should read this and consider how the principles of content strategy can help us to achieve the basic goals and principles for which librarianship was developed in the first place. It’s what we already do, and content strategy will help us do it on our website too.

So read this, please, and if you have comments I’d love to hear them!

Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists


 [image credit:]

Writing for the Web

Comic: Venn diagram depicting intersection of "things on the front page of a university website" and "things people go to the site looking for"

I presented a workshop on “Writing for the Web” at the Libraries’ In-House Institute in early May. While I could certainly go on and on about this subject, here I will just provide a quick(ish) wrap-up and share my list of suggested readings. (You can find my slides and reading list at

Clear communication is essential to delivering an excellent user experience, which is why we have a Website Editor (me!) in the Digital User Experience department.

Writing for the web includes a broad range of strategies:

  • Style/usage (and careful proofreading – typographical errors impact our site’s credibility)
  • Understanding user needs
  • Content strategy

Who’s reading your content?

  • Who are you writing for? Different audiences respond to different terminology, tone, context. For example, if international students or stuffy faculty members are part of your expected readership, you probably want to avoid slang.
  • Context. Where are your readers in the research process? What have they already read?
  • Metrics can help you understand your readers – in the Libraries we use Google Analytics and Crazy Egg.

How are they reading your content?

  • People read differently on the web. They scan pages quickly.
  • LESS IS MORE – don’t bury the important content in filler
  • Mobile devices are heavily used, especially by college students. Will your content work on a smartphone or on a tablet? Does it need to?
  • Content may be repurposed. It might be included on a class page, listened to via a screen reader, shared on Facebook or Pinterest, maybe even (gasp!) printed out on paper.
  • Content structure and metadata make it easier for your content to flow into these various containers. Improved content management systems make this easier to accomplish.

Some practical suggestions.

Content Strategy!

Kristina Halvorson: Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

  • Plans – there is an overall plan for how content is created, stored, displayed, used and reused
  • Creation – style guide, training for content writers, metadata strategy
  • Publication – editorial strategy/workflow, appropriate use of metadata to help identify, organize, and reuse content
  • Governance – responsibility for content is clear; standards are communicated to content providers; content management systems are optimized to help writers provide well-managed content; search systems and info architecture are optimized to help users find and use published content; content lifecycle is defined so that content is regularly reviewed (ROT analysis: Redundant, Outdated, Trivial)
  • Useful content – we understand our users’ needs and provide content that helps them to further their goals
  • Usable content – content makes sense to our users; they can find what they need and they know what it is when they find it; it is placed in appropriate context for them

To sum up: We need to talk to our users and listen to them so that we understand why they are here and what they need to do. We can then create calls to action that make sense to our users and help them fulfill their goals.

Suggested Readings:

Continue reading “Writing for the Web”

The Facts About FAQs

There are many different ways that libraries can provide help and guidance to patrons in finding the information they’re seeking online. Web 2.0 applications, such as wikis and blogs, have become increasingly popular for this purpose. These tools deliver information about library resources and services while allowing users input via comments or (in some cases) editing privileges. Another way to help online users is via chat services, available now in many academic and public libraries. Instant messaging allows users to receive feedback and advice almost immediately with all the context and messiness of their question in mind. This is particularly useful for less common questions and unique situations. But by far the most ubiquitous online help resource is the FAQ.

 While the FAQ does not have the personal touch of an instant messaging service or the collaborative features of a blog or wiki, it has some distinct advantages. First, the large majority of users are familiar with the FAQ format. Many websites, whether commercial, personal, or informational, have an FAQ section. So if your patrons have used the internet before, they’ve most likely encountered at least one FAQ. Second, unlike a chat service, it does not require library staff to be immediately available. Although maintenance is a must (as will be discussed in further detail below), the FAQ is an independent animal that can, if properly constructed, be trusted on its own for a little while.

That said, there are many situations in which an FAQ is not appropriate and there are an infinite number of ways to execute an FAQ poorly. In this A List Apart article, R. Steven Gracey is particularly critical of the FAQ. It’s not all condemnation for this universal help tool, however. Gracey also gives some excellent pointers on how to make an FAQ effective and (gasp!) helpful for users. When done right, the FAQ can be a valuable tool for library websites that supports good content by making it discoverable to users. Below I enumerate some points made by Gracey, and a few of my own, on how to create an FAQ that is not a crutch for bad web content, but a scaffolding for good web content.

  • Include actual questions. If a real person has never asked some variation of the question, it probably doesn’t belong in your FAQ. After all, FAQ stands for “frequently asked questions,” not “questions I really think my users want to know, but they’ve never asked because they’re just too darn shy.”
  • Make it easy to find. If your FAQ isn’t findable, you’re in trouble. Big trouble. People are looking for the FAQ because they can’t locate the information they’re seeking. If the FAQ is difficult to find, you will have grumpy users.
  • Keep it manageable. The point of an FAQ is not to document every fact that can be found on your website. A scan of 112 academic library FAQs done at the University of Notre Dame revealed that some library FAQs had as many as 400 questions included. That’s too many. Period.
  • Maintenance! Seriously. If your collections have changed, or if you’ve had turnover in your staff, of if you’ve moved the copy machines, or if the sun has risen, there’s probably something that’s out of date on your FAQ. Update and weed frequently. Add when needed.
  • Make it searchable OR sort by category. No one wants to look through all 400 of your questions to find the answer they’re looking for. Allowing users to search or to scan categories makes the process a whole lot faster and less frustrating.
  • Assume the user won’t find her answer. Never suppose your FAQ can address every question. Provide a link or contact information somewhere on the FAQ page where the user can go for further help. In Libraryland, this will most often take the shape of a link to the chat service (if available) or an email address for a reference librarian.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and it is largely a product of my own experience with FAQs, rather than any kind of authoritative study. Questions (frequently asked, or otherwise) and comments welcome!

Image courtesy of flickr user Ciccio Pizzettaro

Nice to meet you, Content Strategy (A polite introduction)

If you hang out in the same general virtual space as information architects, user experience specialists, and the like, you may have started hearing the phrase “content strategy.” (Or maybe you haven’t – but I bet you will.) What the heck is that, you may wonder? And what’s that got to do with me?

Wonder no more. Reader, meet Content Strategy. Content Strategy, meet Reader.

As an emerging discipline, content strategy is one of those multi-talented beasties that draws from many different disciplines and sources. In general, it includes:

  • elements of editing, of curation, of information architecture, and of user experience design.
  • the process of managing – not necessarily creating – the content on a website (you know, the actual reason people come to your website in the first place), making sure it’s clear and usable, making sure there’s no ROT (content that is Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial), making sure information is displayed in places and in contexts that make sense, and so on.
  • analyzing and inventorying the existing content on a website, identifying redundancies and gaps.
  • managing the metadata on the site, so that people can find what they are looking for.
  • working with all of the site’s content providers to help them create content that is clear, timely, and consistent with the overall style and mission of the site.
  • selecting a content management system that will work with users in such a way as to make it easier for them to create good content, and will help them to repurpose content so that it can display in multiple places rather than rewriting it over and over (once for the mobile site, once for a branch library site, once for a policies page, once for a link on Oncourse… you get the idea).

Sound like stuff we might need to do with the IUB Libraries website? Well… yes indeed! Whether or not you hear the phrase “content strategy” in the near future, some of what you’ll be hearing from DUX as we move forward towards a better website will be driven by the principles of this emerging discipline.

If this all sounds kind of intriguing, here are a few resources that will help you understand content strategy a little better.

Start here: The Discipline of Content Strategy by Kristina Halvorson. This article from A List Apart is a nice introduction, covering some of what I mentioned above and more.

If you liked that, you might want to read more articles on content strategy from A List Apart; it’s one of the topics they cover regularly. Check out, for example, “Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs” – and then think about whether an FAQ is really the best “container” for the information you are offering your users. That’s content strategy in action!

Another introductory article I really like is “Content Strategy Can Save Us All From Slobdom” by Meghan Casey, from the Brain Traffic blog. This is not an in-depth article, but it uses a metaphor many of us understand all too well – trying to clean up a cluttered, messy bedroom. Read through the entertaining description of how the bedroom problem is solved and you will clearly see how the content strategy process works and how it can help your website be neat and tidy, with its contents easily findable. Plus, it has Fraggles! What’s not to love? Brain Traffic has much, much more to offer the budding content strategist or the curious onlooker – highly recommended.

For those of you (myself included!) who still love books made out of paper, here are a couple that we can recommend; DUX has desk copies of these but you may have trouble prying them out of our grubby little hands (we’re actually referring to them with some frequency as we begin to evaluate our website and plan a content analysis):

Content Strategy for the Web book cover Halvorson, Kristina. Content Strategy for the Web.
Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2010.
The Elements of Content Strategy book cover Kissane, Erin. The Elements of Content Strategy.
New York: A Book Apart, 2011.

Of course, most people who serve as content providers for a website like ours don’t need to become content strategy specialists. Not at all. But understanding the basic concepts will help you to understand how to create better web pages, and why DUX makes some of the decisions that it does about the Libraries’ website as a whole. (And as a bonus, it seems that content strategists are often pretty good writers – a lot of these articles are very readable and even entertaining!)

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Leave a comment on this blog post, use the “Contact Us” form, or talk to anyone in DUX! We’d love to hear from you.