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Sara Wachter-Boettcher Interview: Content Strategy Beyond the Web Page

Sara Wachter-Boettcher Interview: Content Strategy Beyond the Web Page

UserTesting  |  April 23, 2013

Sara is an independent content strategist and author of the groundbreaking book, Content Everywhere. Sara is an independent content strategist and author of the groundbreaking book, Content Everywhere. She has worked as a journalist, copywriter, and web writer, developing innovative content strategy methods and practices. As editor in chief of an A List Apart magazine and a leading blogger, Sara has been on the leading-edge of cross-platform content strategy. We wanted to get to know her better before her webinar, “Content Strategy: The Core of Responsive Design” so we asked her a few questions.

(Good news! The webinar is now available on demand so you can watch it right now!)

How do you encourage content people to see their work as more than just planning for pages and documents?

I think one of the easiest things to do is to show them web content on weird devices. What’s a “page” mean on a smartphone? What’s it mean on Google Glass? A web-enabled car? A watch? Do some of those things even have pages? If not, what do we call content when it’s there? Once you start asking these questions, it’s a lot easier to get people to think about content not just as a page that lives on a website, but a thing with inherent meaning, structure, and purpose.

What’s a “page” mean on a smartphone? What’s it mean on Google Glass? A web-enabled car? A watch? Do some of those things even have pages?

When did you first realize that mobile was going to completely change how a content strategist works?

It was probably not until 2011, which honestly is a little late to realize the importance of mobile. But there I was, humming along, doing my content strategy thing, when Ethan Marcotte’s book came out. And the concept seemed so incredibly important that it stopped me in my tracks and made me reevaluate my work, for two reasons.

The first is that what Ethan was describing—having sites that shift and reflow for different screen sizes—fundamentally relied on content. It relied on having information organized into modules and chunks that could be reflowed and reorganized and still make sense. And that didn’t mesh at all with the page-is-a-page-is-a-page model of thinking about content.

The second reason is less obvious, but perhaps even more important. Prior to Ethan’s book, I’d been thinking about mobile as a nice-to-have, a thing you’d support with an app or whatever, eventually. I was still thinking things like, “who’d want to do that on their phone.”

Ethan frames responsive design as a matter of accessibility. It’s inclusive. It’s none of my business what you want to do on your phone, even if it’s something I’d never do on mine. And any content strategist worth their salt cares about accessibility of their content. At this point I felt suddenly obsessed with the idea of sharing this knowledge, this need, with my peers. I guess I still am.

Responsive design is a matter of accessibility. It’s inclusive. It’s none of my business what you want to do on your phone, even if it’s something I’d never do on mine.

Responsive design is a matter of accessibility. It’s inclusive. It’s none of my business what you want to do on your phone, even if it’s something I’d never do on mine.

What is the most common thing content people overlook when building cross platform content?

I think people get caught up in the idea of cross-platform content as being a campaign. Like, they’ll create some sort of “multichannel experience,” but it’s all a marketing push, it’s all seen as a temporary way to attract an audience.

Your content cannot just be a campaign you push out. It has to be a foundation upon which everything else follows. So having a mobile strategy is not the same as having a mobile marketing strategy.

You published Content Everywhere in 2012, and it’s been a huge success. When someone reads your book, what is the number one thing you want them to take away from it?

You published Content Everywhere in 2012, and it’s been a huge success. When someone reads your book, what is the number one thing you want them to take away from it?

You know, I could say it’s something about changing how they create or manage content, but really, I don’t think that’s the biggest thing. I think the number-one thing I want a reader to take away is the idea that this work requires changing their workplace: getting people to look at their jobs differently, work together better, and develop stronger shared values.

And changing people? That’s hard work. That’s not a matter of a content audit and a CMS update. It takes time and commitment and a real sense of purpose —otherwise you’ll get worn down by the sluggishness of organizations, by the endless compromises and conversations. And so, I hope my book gives them that sense of purpose, so that they’re ready to do the people work and the technical/editorial work, and feel excited and energized even if they can’t change everything all at once.

Before you did web content, you did a lot of writing for magazines and newspapers. What parts of that experience prepared you for content strategy for the web?

Well, I was only ever a sort-of journalist. I did some feature writing, and I worked at a couple small newspapers in college, but more than anything, I was always interested in the idea of narrative structure, of telling stories that people could follow along.

Really, before I was ever a writer, I was a math nerd. I tend to think about my writing in terms of systems and logical components. And so I think it was that combination that made content strategy a natural fit. Because it satisfied all my editorial wonkishness, while also allowing me to think deeply about structures, systems, relationships. To consider how all the stories we tell fit together, and what they mean when they do.

As a Content strategist, you work a lot with UX and IA people. How do you all stay on the same page?

I believe we should take some delight in the ways in which our roles are intertwined and often not completely clear, because it allows us to look at problems through multiple lenses and viewpoints.

I do a lot of work with structuring, organizing, and labeling information—and I’m obviously highly concerned with users—so my work naturally bleeds right into IA and UX. This means there can be a lot of gray area between my role and the roles of others. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; in fact, I believe we should take some delight in the ways in which our roles are intertwined and often not completely clear, because it allows us to look at problems through multiple lenses and viewpoints, and also to shoulder the responsibility for these truly complex tasks.

So I guess in my experience, when I’m working with a team that includes other UX-ish folks, it’s less a matter of staying on the same page and more a matter of deciding who’s going to own what, and how the other can be involved in the process.

You say that content people need to be doing more than planning for pages and documents. How does someone in charge of content at an agency convince a skeptical boss of this?

You say that content people need to be doing more than planning for pages and documents. How does someone in charge of content at an agency convince a skeptical boss of this?

You end up strategizing the content for the launch, but not for the long term.

So I actually think a huge part of the problem is that agency models are often still tied very much to the advertising world, where projects are treated like campaigns, little packages you can wrap up with a bow and deliver to a client. We print out pictures of websites and spray-glue them to foamcore boards for grand unveilings.

In a world where agencies sell work this way, and where clients expect work this way, it’s very hard to effectively plan for content. You end up strategizing the content for the launch, but not for the long term. And so it follows that you continue to think about content in this very fixed way, as if it’s an immutable thing that doesn’t change. The web doesn’t work that way.

So to me, the bigger battle—the battle that will make any future conversation about content flexibility a lot easier in an agency—is getting that agency to operate differently, to look at clients as partners who also have a role in the work. That’s where the convincing needs to begin.

If you liked Sara’s interview, you’re in for a treat. Watch her webinar, “Content Strategy: The Core of Responsive Design” on demand!

If you liked Sara’s interview, you’re in for a treat. Watch her webinar, “Content Strategy: The Core of Responsive Design” on demand!

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