Why Content Writers should drop everything and wake up to Content Design

Credit: Pexels

Credit: Pexels

If you are a Content Writer, this note is for you.

This isn't advice, but an insight. If you feel it makes sense, act upon it. If not, continue on your path.


Once upon a time

I used to be a Content Writer. Whichever team I was working with used to provide me with the brief, and I used to write accordingly. Requisitions were in terms of:

  • Word count

  • Subject matter

  • Specific points (if any) that needed to be covered

Raise your hand if this seems like your story. Yeah? Okay. Stay with me.

You too, probably, worked with web developers and graphic designers, directed by marketing teams. If you worked with teams that believed in 'content first', you are lucky! Most of us worked (or are still working) with daunting spreads of 'lorem ipsum', struggling to fit in the information in the space provided to us.

No wonder, we become experts at word-play, frequently visiting the buffet of adverbs and adjectives even when none are required, to "fill in the white space." Yeah, someone actually told me that. Or we compromise on the content because of space constraints. I did that. And I felt horrible.

The question that haunted me was: Is my work making a positive difference to anyone?

The answer, I'm afraid, was unclear. I was catering to businesses. My work was appreciated. Clients were happy. But I'm not sure if the customer at the end of the line agreed.


Content first: A welcome change, but still off the target

Over the years, organizations have recognized that content must be given priority. The mental math for understanding the content vs design interplay now usually follows these formulae:

Spectacular design + mediocre content = Low impact

Mediocre design + Spectacular content = High impact

Spectacular design + Spectacular content = Communication El-Dorado

However, a key integer is still missing: the user

I asked myself: what makes content spectacular? Is it a happy marketing team? Is it approval from your client? Is it the increase in their revenue? Is it the number of social shares? The answer, I later discovered, was all of these as long as one primary criterion is met. Rather, if the primary criterion is met, all these targets are achieved through the domino effect.

That primary criterion is meeting the user's needs.


Place the user first. Design thinking will follow next.

As content professionals, we aspire to assist and advise our clients in meeting their business goals. In the territory that we operate in today:

  • Almost everybody is producing content

  • Attention is the new currency

  • People trust their networks; not companies

  • People seek experiences; not products or services

In such context, it makes absolutely no sense to bombard your market with information that you think is valuable. Gerry McGovern, a digital customer experience specialist, correctly states:

"The whole ethos of marketing ‘conversion’ is about getting the customer to buy more, rather than helping the customer. Marketing becomes obsessed with gathering customer data so that it can torture customers with communication until they convert."

Gosh. That's harsh. But true.

Content first or design first - neither make sense. As a content professional (yup, I've intentionally moved away from addressing you as a 'content writer' to a 'content professional'), you must place the needs of the user, or the audience, or the customer front and center. As soon as you do that, voila! The best structure, format, channel, and the words present themselves. Trust me, even SEO is taken care of! Points to note:

  • Content is just that - content. Just another word for information. Information can be in text. But it can also be in the form of a diagram, infographic, graph, table, map, list, podcast, video, or a gif.
  • The format of content is decided by user needs. If your user requires detailed information about your product, hand them an article or a whitepaper. If they need to know ingredients for cinnamon roll, give them a list. If they want to learn how to waltz, show them a video. All of this, and more, is content.
  • Word count, subject matter, & points to be covered still matter. However, they should be treated as secondary to user need.

When seen this way, content and design cease to be separate disciplines. The user-oriented dynamic interplay of information and its presentation becomes one entity. What you say in a text box matters. The size of the text box matters. Its placement on the web page matters. When it pops up on the screen also matters.


An example

For instance, if you are working for a clothing line, your management might direct you to write a blog post titled: "How to check if the latest fashion trend is for you". You could straightaway write that keyword optimized 1,500 word post.

Or, the smart Alec that you are, you could empathize with your audience. You could understand their frustration about not knowing if they can carry off the latest craze. You could realize that this is one of the primary reasons for cart abandonment. The solution? You could convince the management to develop a web/mobile app where users could enter their physical dimensions and check if the style suits them. Later, you could work on the microcopy on the app. Hell. Even market it through the blog you wrote earlier.

Bingo. You solve the business problem by solving a customer problem.


Let's pause for a moment

Have you noted the direction this conversation has taken?

You are thinking about user-needs instead of word count. You are thinking of being useful instead of being impressive. You are thinking of communicating beyond the written word, to be easily accessible, entertaining, and empathetic.


Welcome to Content Design!


Why Content Design? Because of technology and the supremacy of customer experience

Communication can no longer be defined as just B2B or B2C. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), communication is more like B-AI-IoT-B, and similarly B-AI-IoT-C. Second, while we are dealing with a network of bots and servers, there are human beings at the end of the chain.

We must communicate in a manner in which technology aids us, while our audience identifies with us.

Content Design, by placing user experience front and center of the communication process, achieves this.

Sometimes, the biggest problems can be solved by a change in perspective.


If you are like me

I owe Sarah Richards, head of Content Design London and author of Content Design, for my epiphany.

Before chancing upon her work, I struggled to explain what I did. I felt undervalued and underpaid. I felt like an outsider who just didn't fit in.

Sarah's words worked like a balm. I knew I wasn't alone in my approach towards content/communication projects. Now I finally have the right words to describe what I have been doing all these years. I actually reworked my website after reading her book, dammit!


How to become, or become a better, Content Designer

  • Straightaway head to Sarah's blog. I binge-read the entire thing. Twice.

  • Buy Sarah's book: Content Design (It's on Kindle Unlimited as well!)

  • Read everything that there is on the GatherContent Blog. These guys are amazing. I hope to be their customer one day.

  • Read and research everything and everybody these two recommend.

  • Start thinking like a problem solver. Be a customer advocate.

  • Everybody recognizes Content Marketing; a few understand Content Strategy; hardly anybody understands Content Design. So, yes, you will encounter opposition. Persist nevertheless and hone your soft skills.

Once you have started your journey, you will discover that Content Design is closely tied to Content Strategy, User Experience, and Content Marketing. This post is just a 'wake-up' call. There is so much more to it! The good news is that there is plenty of knowledge out there for you to discover. So, if I've made you feel hungry, go ahead and hog the following resources: (This isn't a finite list. I am still learning and hope to share more resources in near future.)

  1. Twitter List: VoicesInContent

  2. UI Writing on Tumblr

  3. Get a grip on Google Analytics


It is not about the titles, but the approach

By advocating Content Design, I'm not undermining Content Writing. Truth is, Content Writers are probably one of the most undervalued professionals in the world. My focus is on the approach to content projects, and how we, as content professionals, can deliver what is expected from us, more effectively.

Have you found this post useful? I would love to know what you think and look forward to your comments below!