Here are my notes from Margot Bloomstein‘s talk at Confab, 2011.
First we need to step back and look at the strategy part of Content Strategy. Content Strategy is a broad practice. That said, it’s important to understand what a message architecture is, the value it offers, how to sell it, and how to create one.
First things first. You must ask yourself:
- What do we need to communicate?
- Why are we doing this?
These are critical questions to ask. If we don’t know why, or what we need to communicate, how will you know if you have succeeded?
Before the content audit, before you establish the CEO’s new blog, you need to establish your message architecture. Message architecture is the bacon in the project.
What’s a message architecture?
A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals that reflect a common vocabulary. It’s the qualities you want to convey, not the points that you need to make. It’s made up of concrete, shared terminology, not abstract concepts. Words are valuable, but meaningless without context and priority.
How to create a message architecture
Start with a card sorting exercise. Card sorting:
- Engages people in a tangible, hands-on way
- Encourages debate and conversation
- Identifies points of disagreement
- Prevents seagulling (swoopin’ and poopin’)
- Forces prioritization
- Encourages ownership and investment
The ideal number of participants is four-seven stakeholders.
- Who we are
- Who we’d like to be
- Who we’re not
Set up each category as a column heading, by laying them on the table.
Divvy up cards among participants so that everyone gets to play. Each card has one adjective. Examples are: formal, fun, broad, simple, premium, professional, serious, traditional, cheeky, etc. As you ask participants to use their cards to describe “who we are,” watch for hesitation. Ask participants to tell you more about how they made decisions.
Now that we have who we are, we need to look at who we’d like to be. Have participants move cards to the “who we’d like to be” column. Remove the remaining cards form the table.
Now it’s time to prioritize each element under the “who’d we like to be column.” We’re prioritizing these ideals as goals to help to tell the story of our aspirations.
What group is most important to communicate? What’s second-most important? These are the terms that describe our brand. Content Strategy is partly psychology, in that you often need to ask, “tell me more about that, what do you mean,” etc. Through this process, we help the client to own their own brand and help them to commit to it. The client needs to be invested in the transition to the new website. This process helps them to embrace it. We do it this way because words are cheaper than comps. Mood boards, etc. are expensive.
How can you justify this activity? The money that your design team will save in early rounds of creative revisions helps the message architecture process to pay for itself.
An example: Moo.org’s message architecture:
- Witty and fun
- Young without being childish
Customer oriented and responsive
- Approachable, friendly
- Championing and empowering
Moo.org’s use of language, typography, and design all reflect their message architecture. You can also see it in their Twitter stream. Use those 140 characters to maintain your brand, too. Their message architecture also comes through in the language they use in customer email.
These terms are different from brand values and vision statements. In brand values, there are no priorities. Vision statements can be inspiring, but they aren’t useful for creating a message architecture.
So where to from here? Head straight to the content audit. Measure content quality against the aspirational attributes in the message architecture.
When people say, “We need our CEO to blog!” “We need the Twitters,” you can go back to the message architecture to analyze how new tactics measure up against it. As the design process is continuing, and someone decides that the site has got to be aqua, if aqua doesn’t match the message architecture, then aqua has no place on your site.
Prioritize your features against these high-level communication goals. Apply the message architecture to editorial style guidelines to determine diction, sentence structure, formality, etc.