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Three Lessons Learned Doing Content Strategy for a Startup

by Ben Barone-Nugent
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A gig with a startup teaches a seasoned content strategist the real difference between web writing and UX writing.

A couple of friends recently quit their jobs at a big agency to start their own company called ClickFork. It’s a simple but powerful platform designed to improve the online presence of restaurants and bars. They asked me to help out with copywriting, UX, and content strategy.

How hard could it be? I’ve spent a lot of time putting together content strategies for companies like American Express, Qantas, and Honda, so it seemed like this would be a walk in the park.

Well, as it turns out, there were some lessons to be learned.

1. There’s a Big Difference Between UX Writing and Web Writing

I guess I’d always known this from an academic standpoint, but seeing a product through from the rudimentary beginnings to the first beta really drove it home.

The difference between UX content and web content falls loosely in line with the function versus form adage. One aims to make the product easy to use, the other aims to make it beautiful. But there are also key differences in workflow and mindset.

UX writing is deeply intuitive and relies on technical understanding. It needs to merge the user’s existing knowledge and instincts with a technical product. As with UX design, UX writing needs to help people get to where they want to go as seamlessly as possible.

Web writing is all about content and brand. We write headlines and prose designed to sell the product and make it seem distinct and unique. Web writing is a brand exercise. It’s more about the form of a product than its function, although it does still play a key role in user experience.

This divide really struck me when, during testing, I found myself asking certain types of questions about each type of copy.

UX copy:

“Do you know where this button will take you?”

“Which form label was clearer?”

“Does that error message make sense?”

 

Web writing:

“Which headline do you like more?”

“Which subheading do you think is more important?”

“What product features are most important to you?”

 

I’ve been a digital writer for a long time and had always viewed writing as a spectrum thing—you start with the small elements then move to bigger ones, or do them simultaneously.

This isn’t a bad approach, and it generally works well. But because we tested every element of ClickFork in a single, fully-developed batch (we didn’t have a comprehensive pre-design testing phase), I got a sense of how important it is to separate the UX copy from the other copy.

… it occurred to me that the content strategist is more of a “tactical experience strategist”

While both UX writing and web writing are deeply intertwined and overlapping, the processes behind each and their individual goals are quite different. Working with a small company on a technical product like ClickFork illuminated the need for understanding the different skills writers can bring to each project.

2. Content Strategy isn’t About Content at All

There was a moment as I was debating the merits of two different headlines describing the responsive design features of the product when I realized that the headline alone does little work. It’s the cohesiveness of the whole experience that really matters. As long as this headline logically ties the experience together and makes the product clear, users will be happy.

The same can be said for video content, branded content, tools, and utilities. Users only care that the end-to-end experience is useful, fun, and relevant. A headline—or any bit of content—will only stand out if it doesn’t cohere with everything else. Likewise, no single piece of great content can remedy a mediocre online experience.

This isn’t to say we didn’t dwell over the emotional impact of certain headlines, but it did shift our course on how much attention we paid to other elements. Working on this problem, it occurred to me that the content strategist is more of a “tactical experience strategist” whose job it is to realize goals as pieces of content that glue an experience together.

This encompasses everything from the copy on buttons to the tone of marketing communications. It extends to stakeholder management and migration plans that are designed to make sure that users don’t suffer confused or inconsistent content.

ClickFork won’t be a success because of its neat headlines or video content. It will be successful because it’s fun and useful. When it comes to how we examine content on bigger products, we need to consider how the content strategist is able to cohere, realize, and define the experience.

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3. Scale Up, Scale Down

Content strategy ties design elements to overall strategy, technology, and creative elements in important ways that are often overlooked. A different way approach it is in terms of scalability. Content strategists need to be able to scale from being a UX writer concerned with minor UI elements to a big picture strategist who can build a channel plan.

This scalability means we’re more relevant and valuable to a bigger range of tasks, clients, and projects. It also means we can properly architect and realize the experiences we’re charged with creating.

Working on this little startup from its raw beginning to its semi-polished first iteration, I got a clear glimpse into the role content strategists are supposed to play: the uniters of experiences big and small.

Conclusion

These lessons won’t revolutionize our trade, but they do serve as a reminder of how holistic the role of content strategist is. Hopefully, this will inform the way I structure my own position and think about projects.

Have you had any experiences that have changed the way you approach content strategy? What do you think roles of writers and content strategists are in the UX, design, and development processes? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Image of man with three apples courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorBen Barone-Nugent

Ben Barone-Nugent,

Ben is Content Strategy Lead and UX Strategist at Proximity BBDO in Melbourne, Australia. He's previously worked for TBWA/DAN and DTDigital on clients as diverse as McCain, Qantas, American Express, and Honda. Ben also works with ClickFork, a startup that brings great online experiences to the restaurant industry. Outside of that, he's written for The Guardian, Thought Catalog, B&T and a few others. Check out some of his stuff at benbn.me.

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