Content Management Tidbits

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Succinct Wisdom: Traps You Set for Yourself

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This brand new column is for short and very practical suggestions. Enjoy!

Who’s the Content Manager’s worst enemy? The Content Manager, of course, who should be smart enough to write/author content needing as little updating as possible. Remember this, next time you land on a page reporting the statement that something is x years old.

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Written by Paola

March 25, 2008 at 7:39 am

Many Hands, Just One Voice

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Reading back the previous entries, I realized that I focused mostly on the essence of the role of a CM, and I didn’t give any of those nice tips&tricks people so badly need when they make their reaserches online… (if you want, put a colon and a closing bracket here — yours truly doesn’t like emoticons too much!)

So, let me make up for my academical ramblings, and let’s take a closer look together at the daily routine of managing content. One of the first qualities you want your content to display is: consistency. You want your web content to be consistent with the offline materials: style, tone, vocabulary… you name it. Different content, sure, but same facts, and a “familiar” way to present them. The user must recognize the “tune” your company is singing.

It’s an easier task when your company is small: you may end up managing all the content, thus having the most consistent communication around (and maybe no life whatsoever outside the work premises). It gets more complicated when you manage a team for a bigger company: many heads, many styles. It gets really tricky when you manage localized pieces of content. It can become a living nightmare when you juggle with all the above variables in a complex multinational company.

So… where do you start?

Keeping. It. Simple. (Stupid. No, I’m not insulting you, I promise! That’s a not-so-obscure reference for the first-hour web designers. KISS. Internal joke. Sorry, it’s such an amazing day today, it’s almost exhilarating! I can’t help it! OK, Back to business.)

So, here’s the first über-practical tip.
Write simply.
Can it be that simple? Yes, it is that simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy.

First, because every writer is (or should be) pretty literate. And sometimes pretty literate people tend to overdo when writing: it’s like an intoxication of words, it takes a while to sweat it off your system.

Secondly, because some languages demand complex synthax. It may come pretty easily for the English/American natives. I know for sure that it’s not so easy at all for Romance languages speakers.

So: short phrases. Second-guess your well-formed sentences. If you feel like describing a noun with two adjectives just stop and think: “Do I really need the second adjective?”. More often than not you don’t. And if you think really hard you may end up realizing that you don’t even need the first one. And that choosing another — more fitting — noun would address the problem to the root.

I can hear somebody in the background coughing. You’re right. Busted. I. Don’t. Write. Very. Simply. At least here. But I have two major excuses. First, this is my blog: that is my very personal corner, which probably tells more about the way my mind works than about the work I do. And, last but not least, I just finished re-reading for the twentieth time Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco: a triumph of logical, synctactical, lexical and erudite complexity (four adjectives! FOUR!). It’s so intoxicating, it will take me weeks to sweat it off.

In the meanwhile, we can do some exercises together. I’m sure it will help.

Subject. Verb. Complement. If any, that is. And then, a nice round period.

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Written by Paola

March 20, 2008 at 1:32 pm

10 Ways To Not Step on the Information Architect’s Toes

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Due to some copywriting deadlines (yes! I’m currently back to my old freelance job), I’ve been neglecting the blog for a few weeks. For which I’m sorry.

But I’m even sorrier because I basically lied to capture your attention. So let me spill the beans.

There’s no way a Content Manager can avoid stepping on the IA’s toes. There are several ways a CM and an IA can coexist peacefully (and, sometimes, productively) instead.

First and only rule is: being flexible. Not all web projects are alike. For instance an e-commerce website requires a great deal of attention to product presentation and to the purchasing process (if we are smart enough the post-purchase phase will be considered too); the rest is a (very important, but still) accessory. A digital magazine, on the other hand, must be built having in mind the whole picture: it’s like a multi-purpose building, and for each and every purpose we must preview a solution; architecture is pivotal.

So, how do an IA and a CM interact on this? Let’s make it a little trivial: the CM must know every single component of the website, and the IA must envision the big picture. More often than not, when a CM and an IA talk to each other, it helps them achieving their particular knowledge: from micro to macro, from small to big, from the single part to the whole, in web projects constant communication between the two helps improving the final outcome. For content may have some quirkiness that helps the IA coming up with an alternative (and better) solution; and, on the other hand, an unorthodox architecture could spark new ideas in the CM’s mind about a new way to propose content to the audience.

In any case, be always ready to correct, improve or dramatically change your initial ideas in the process. And never (ever) take it personally. Defend your ideas, but don’t get too attached to them: two heads think better than one. Especially when they think in unison.

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Written by Paola

March 15, 2008 at 1:03 pm

Designing and Writing (and Managing, Yes)

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People involved in the content publishing process often talk about the content lifecycle, a concept that comes in handy especially when you have to adopt a Content Management System. But I don’t want to talk about technologies. Yet. Let’s stick for a moment to the sheer (human) tasks and skills of somebody who’s in charge of being the voice of a company. Be it on or offline (did I stress that enough?).

The job of a Content Manager consists of three main tasks: designing, writing and managing. And, depending on the organization, it can easily cover all the three. Let’s take a closer look at the first two tasks (I will save the last one for another tidbit: indigestion could be lethal!)

Design? Yes, content is a very vague entity, a raw material that needs to be cut and shaped to fit the needs of a company. It has nothing (let me state it once again: nothing) to do with graphics, and it has a lot to do with having a vision. Let’s make an example: your organization needs a website. Not a corporate website, but a simpler product website. Maybe they need something eye-catching, or they’re thinking about a mixed strategy (an online competition? A support for a direct mailing? You name it, web is the limit). The staff in the Communication department came up with ideas, and they’re smart enough to ask for the Content Manager’s advice. After a thorough analysis of the documentation, a lot of questions should arise. What do we have to say in this website? What’s the more effective way to say it? Will it be periodically updated? Where do we gather data from? Can this be done internally or do we have to rely on external contributors? Who will be our internal point of reference? How can we bind them so that data don’t stop flowing abruptly after the first month online?
It looks pretty overwhelming, doesn’t it? But, in fact, this is not. A check of the strenghts and the limits of a project, content-wise, pretty much shapes the content design by itself. Remember: content design is not about drawing the perfect website, but about serving the users’ needs within a budget (and within the limits of an organization).

Writing. Whether you manage content or you manage people producing content, it can’t be simpler than that: a Content Manager must be a good writer. Not as in “My prose has been published on the New Yorker”, of course, but a CM must be able to tame the power of words. When I started working in the content arena, there was no way of being trained as a Content Manager, and in Italy, for instance, you could count the number of CMs by the tens. They were copywriters, journalists, freelancers, embarking on a new endeavor. Personally, I started working at a monthly magazine that was just projecting its website — a great opportunity to learn how the traditional publishing process works. But it was also the right environment to learn how to take care of content, how to shape it, how to tell a good piece of work from a bad one. And in the meanwhile I was popping out article after article for on and offline newspapers: it was the greatest informal CM training I could get. Just the last personal memory: a couple of years after, I was working as a Content Manager for a web agency, and I needed to find a junior. A girl walks in for the interview, and she starts telling me what a great CM she would do, even if she’s fresh out of college, and how she dreams about managing writers, and so on. Great. I ask her: “Can I see some of your writings?”. She looks at me as if I asked her to produce her criminal record, and replied “I don’t write. I am a Content Manager”. Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

Written by Paola

February 5, 2008 at 9:47 am

Web Content Manager or Content Manager?

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Browsing through job listings you can see that companies look either for a Content Manager or a Web Content Manager. Is there any difference between the two?

No. I mean, yes.

No, because Content Managers were born more or less with the first big wave of corporate websites.
Yes, because, in time, companies with a vision realized that managing web content can’t be really detached from the task of managing the whole content produced within a company.

Those companies understand the pivotal importance of centralizing their content: communication-wise, of course, but also money-wise. I will deal with the economic aspect of this process later: now I just want to stress the importance of having a strong unified strategy when the means of communicating with people tend to multiply. Websites, intranets, corporate blogs, newsletters, forums, but also brochures, houseorgans, direct mailing, press releases. Can you imagine so many heads delivering so many different forms of content without a unified strategy? In the best case scenario (where there are no redundancies, or, worse, inconsistencies) the overall time spent by all heads involved will be anti-economic for the company. The worst case scenario (well depicted by the analogy of silos in Managing Enterprise Content by Ann Rockley) is so scary I will have to devote multiple posts to give a faint idea of the horror.

So, back to the differences:

  • do we always need a Web Content Manager? Yes, if you are a company and you want your Internet presence to be at least not damaging;
  • do we always need a Content Manager? Yes, if you are a company and you want your content to be effective and consistent, and you don’t want to invest (and lose) loads of money on producing it;
  • do they have to be different persons? No, not necessarily. It depends on the size and on the type of the organization the company has.

Written by Paola

February 1, 2008 at 1:40 pm

The Advent of Content Managers

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Content Managers appeared one day, when it became evident that there was more to websites than flashy graphics and hard coding. On that day organizations realized that websites had to communicate with users, and not just catch their eye. And, when they tried to put their communication strategies into words, they realized that the traditional figures weren’t really useful anymore: most copywriters (and rightfully so) needed a confined frame (format) and an exhaustive brief to deliver their work, and they couldn’t be held responsible for the whole editorial plan.

Did I just say “editorial”? Did I just use a term coming from the last ice age?

Yes, I did. In a world where “publishing” has become a synonym with “hitting a button”, we tend to forget that, in order to “communicate” effectively, you need a plan. Communicators draw the strategic lines, but someone has to turn those lines into practical guidelines, make them into a structure, and only then put content in it. A good Content Manager is able to analyze the overall communication goals and come up with a plan about a) what should be told (content) and b) how (format/structure).

In the next tidbit: Web Content Manager or Content Manager?

Written by Paola

January 28, 2008 at 12:45 pm