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Author’s Note: “Context and Content Strategy: Defining Context” was the forward to a four part series I wrote in early 2011 on the importance of understanding context in the practice of content strategy. Unfortunately, the original posts were lost when my database (that was unfortunately not backed up) was deleted by mistake. I have reposted them here for nostalgia and resource sake.

Context and Content Strategy: Defining Context

So what do we mean exactly when we talk about context in regards to content strategy?

Context has already been the focus of a great deal of research. From philosophy to linguistics and computer science to neuroscience, it seems everyone has a take. That said, I believe it “fair to say that context is most often used as a reference structure that tries to put all worlds and views, including that of the observer and observed, into a consistent framework. (Mike Bergman – 2008)”

And when that framework fits and makes sense to us and, more importantly, our users? Coherence! Understanding! Happy Users!

So if we agree that context will make our content meaningful and coherent for our users, how do we begin to make a contextual framework for content strategy?

We can begin answering that question by first examining the eventual goals of content strategy and the deliverables an experienced content strategist will provide.

The Content Strategy State of The Union

No matter what (or who’s) definition you may subscribe to, it seems widely accepted that content strategy helps provide either traditional “editorial guidance,” pillars for communication or contributes to information management, “findability” and the practice of information architecture.

Taking that into account, it follows that content strategy should provide the buyer with improved SEO, usable, useful content and a plan for maintaining that material over time. What the status quo isn’t promising is that all this will make sense to the user (though any content strategist or agency claiming to practice it worth their salt will start to refine content based on performance).

I agree and wholeheartedly believe the aforementioned are all results that should stem from sound content strategy. That said, so much of what we (and IA/UX pros for that matter) seem to be focused on is making Web sites easier to “get to,” while adhering to an “editorial strategy” that’s tied to user personas that were really developed to construct said site. While all this is fine and good (and incredibly important), they tragically leave out contextual frameworks for the content. It might be great, usable and fantastic for SEO, but if we’re missing the understanding and comprehension element, we’re missing engagement, and that’s not good for the strategist, the client or our user.

Why Content Strategy Can’t Live Without Context

Web sites need both context and content strategy because there is a world of difference between “attention” and “engagement.” Getting people to the site and getting attention is step one of the process. Engagement is what creates meaning for users and is ultimately what leads to metrics that matter: ROI, return visits, brand trust, potential word of mouth, etc.

Why is context crucial to achieving engagement? That’s a simple question to answer.

Humans and search engines don’t consume content in the same way. Search engines consume content via code, Meta data, tags, etc. Conversely, our brains are affected by the temperature in the room to the amount of sleep we got the night before. It also varies based on the device we access the content on (that’s a whole other web series I’ll be getting to here very, very soon). Bottom line, content is something we connect to emotionally, converse about or learn from … but content (and content strategy for that matter) without context is useless. It’s here that I form my belief that content strategy and information architecture are intrinsically linked. content strategy should help put the coherence factor (Context) back into web design.

When I say context, I don’t mean messaging strategy (those too often focus on marketing strategies or what we want users to hear or read). I don’t mean a user persona riddled with demographic data and I certainly don’t mean generalizations. Context for content strategy at minimum should account for:

  1. Personal Behaviors
  2. Potential User Situations that relate to your business or product
  3. Ambient Data (geolocation, time of day, region, content access device, etc.)

All of these factors help to define Personal-Situational Context for our users and through some of what I’ll discuss in the next three posts, I’ll help start to define how we can account for these factors while still being great content strategists. Is it a lot more work? Absolutely. Do we owe it to our clients and users of our Web sites? Definitely. Are there deliverables that prove this point out? I think so, and I’ll discuss it via my fictional company that we’ll be creating a contextually relevant content strategy to.

Framing It All Up

Drake Motors LTD. is a fictional automotive manufacturer (created specifically for this web series to address context strategy) with a reasonably diverse portfolio of vehicles ranging from cars, to SUVs and crossovers. This particular automaker has recently updated a great deal of its product line and is producing quality, competitive vehicles. Despite this fact, eroded brand loyalty has seen them outsold in showrooms and outdone by its competitors on the web. Drake is looking for a way to get more out of their Web site and wants desperately to better engage its customers through the Web to get butts in dealerships.

With next week’s post, we’ll start talking about some of Drake’s web users and get into the nitty gritty of how we start accounting for those users’ personal behaviors via web content. I’ll also provide you with a high-level content audit and snapshot of what the company is working with. We’ll review what’s already been asked for and provided to help get us started, so that I can dive into the content strategy process.

Definitions and forwards are complete (I PROMISE!!). Next week, we’re onto the fun stuff! Have a question or comment or just plain disagree with me? Leave comments. Thanks for reading context and content strategy: defining context.

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