Inspiration often comes from strange places.
In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, author Scott McCloud examines how we receive different types of information and that process relates directly to design, information architecture, copywriting and content strategy.
"Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to 'get the message.' The message is instantaneous.
Writing is perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language." (page 49)
Anyone who's ever sat through a client review will understand this. It's not that images or art are less important; in fact, it's the art that usually solicits "ohhs" and "ahhs" from the clients, right?
McCloud is speaking more about our intrinsic speed of understanding. We get a feeling from a picture right away.
But we need to process words - to piece together abstract ideas. With words, it's incumbent that we create the images ourselves, in our own consciousness; we ponder meaning, ideas and symbols. Anyone who has read Roland Barthes' Mythologies knows that this process ain't easy.
What's This Got To Do With Agency Life?
Comics and literary theory? Why should marketers care?
In the same way that images are understood before words in the human brain, so too has the planning and creative process developed in marketing agencies. The halcyon days of 1997 were critical for information architecture. IAs became a staple of the creative agency, a bridge between the client's objectives and the designer's creative vision.
The same thing didn't happen for words. It was easy to understand why you'd want to plot out images. But it took another decade for us to plot out what was written on the page and why. (True, maybe astute IAs and copywriters filled this role until content strategy bloomed in recent years.)
So what's changed? Well, SEO (based on keyWORDS) has blossomed into the main way we find content online. Search engines are ever more refining the way they surface the most relevant content. Our tastes have matured: the internet is no longer the shiny new object - it helps us complete tasks in everyday life. We now use many, many channels to access information and communicate with brands. Findable, useful, contextual, and consistent across channels...online content is more important to our lives than ever before!
It then makes sense that content strategy - a plan for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable, relevant content - would guide many important choices we make as digital marketers.
What Good Is Content Strategy If People Don't Read?
I can already hear the Nielsen-ites protesting that readers don't actually read online. So why should anyone care about content strategy?
This assumes that all content is created equal which we know just isn't the case. Personally, I skim news articles, sure. But if I'm making a purchase, you can be damned sure I'm going to read everything, including the fine print. The quality and importance of the content is in direct relation to how much time we spend absorbing it.
As more and more transactions occur online, it makes sense that content becomes more and more important. After all, we're not marketing random blog posts; we're marketing watches and cars and insurance - things people want to read about.
And even Nielsen admits that more content is needed if you're trying to solve a user's problem.
"If you want people who really need a solution, focus on comprehensive coverage...But the very best content strategy is one that mirrors the users' mixed diet. [his emphasis]"
Your potential customers will engage with you, if you provide something useful and usable. It's a shame that is still so rare.
What Took So Long?
Words aren't easy. It takes a long time to create them and often even longer to process their meaning. Content is both a science and an art.
But it's not going away. Your customers want information...they're dying for it. But not marketing messages you want to push on them.
Consider your audience. Serve up the content they need. Help them complete a task. Your customers will entrust their time to you if you provide quality content to help them do what they want.
Remind me again why it took so long for content strategy to mature?