Content Best Practices Are Not a Content Strategy Take Inspiration for Strategy from Jazz
"What are the best practices?" is a question I'm asked often by folks interested in getting more strategic with content. Whether we're talking about making content work for mobile, reusing content across multiple channels, advising customers or guiding users, accommodating emerging international markets, or something else, the question comes up. It's a good question. But, it's not the first question to ask when planning your content strategy.
Why? Because best practices, or proven principles, don't equal a strategy.
Principles vs Strategy
Best practices and principles are generic. Strategy is custom. Principles are timeless. Strategy is timely. When you develop a content strategy, you plan a course of action for your precise situation. No one else has the exact goals, problems, brand, users, competitive landscape, architecture, and content ecosystem that you do. Your content situation is like your fingerprint—unique. That's why I devoted a third of Clout to principles and a third to planning for your situation. Principles, or best practices, alone won't get you very far. You have to understand your situation enough to know which principles to apply...and which ones not to apply, or even go against.
Think of the difference this way. Content principles are like the classical rules of music. Content strategy is like jazz, choosing which rules to apply and which ones to break to create something new. Jazz stresses being unique. The immense talent Herbie Hancock said he grew up liking jazz because "it emphasized doing things differently from what other people were doing." Does your organization want to do what everyone else is doing or what's exactly right to achieve your goals?
Now, some people think of jazz as improvisational and emotional and in-the-moment and following no principles whatsoever. In reality, jazz is quite different. When the modern jazz great Wynton Marsalis was asked to describe jazz, he explained that
Jazz is not just 'Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.' It's a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.
In the same way, developing your content strategy requires a disciplined approach to content analysis—which means plenty of thought and study. I sometimes joke that consulting in content strategy is signing up for a lifetime of homework. Now, let's look at a quick example.
A Brief Example
GeorgiaGov applied a content principle, or best practice, that doesn't apply to everyone. Most of their content instructs people about popular topics as well as topics that the State of Georgia finds important. That education focus is appropriate for a government portal. Creative Director Peter Lee has noted that their users want the authoritative word on these topics and to get on and off the site quickly. At the same time, the State of Georgia wants to help Georgia citizens in a cost-effective way. So, all the best practices to make instructions easy to understand and act on fit this situation.
That's only one example. Peter and his team thought through an entire strategy and applied only principles that made sense for their unique situation. (For details, see my interview with Peter.)
For large, complex companies and other organizations, the content situation is different and, at times, more complicated than the State of Georgia's situation. So, if folks insist to you that applying a best practice or two will magically solve your content problems, think twice. I don't care how loudly they rant. Then, ask "What is our content situation, exactly?" and get busy finding out with content analysis. While others listen to the noise, you'll be on your way to a strategy that swings.
A Happy Announcement
My publisher, New Riders, has issued a reprint of Clout: The Art + Science of Influential Web Content. I'm humbled and thrilled the book has given useful guidance to thousands of people and now can advise even more.