"Content Strategy for Mobile": A book review

Content Strategy for Mobile cover art.

In A Book Apart’s Content Strategy for Mobile (2012), Karen McGrane discusses why and how to get your content ready for different devices, platforms, screen sizes, and resolutions. She argues for making our content adaptive to mobile, and for content parity across different devices and experiences, because we can’t know what a user wants by screen size alone. This book is a great read if you need clarity on why you should make your content mobile-friendly, or if you need tips about how to do it. For those that like dissembling things to see how they work, you’ll need more than this book alone.

It’s official. Mobile devices are here to stay, and we use them for more than specific tasks. To pull out a few stats from Karen’s book:

  • By 2015, according to a prediction by International Data Corporation, more Americans will access the internet through mobile devices than through desktop computers,
  • Readability users are more engaged in reading on their mobile devices than on desktops and iPads, and
  • Fifteen percent of searches for finance and insurance content come from mobile devices.

This is why I’m interested in how we prepare content for multi-channel publishing — because we don’t have a choice anymore. The notion that content is tied to a specific page location is going, going, gone. I’m not totally sure what’s taking its place, but Karen’s book provides some answers.

Audience and goals

A Book Apart’s tagline is, “Brief books for people who make websites.” Content Strategy for Mobile definitely fits the bill. There’s plenty of motivational stats and assertions for people to use on recalcitrant bosses, like “Delivering content on mobile isn’t an after-thought. It’s a necessity.” The book would also be good for stakeholders who don’t have hands-on roles with their sites, but who need to work with people that do. It’s an easy and engaging read and only limited content strategy or technical knowledge is required. In fact, technical people will need to look elsewhere for information about how to make content mobile-friendly because it’s not covered in the book.

So, the book’s about content strategy for mobile, right? Not exactly. Karen begins her introduction: “There’s no such thing as content strategy for mobile.” She goes on to explain:

There is such a thing as a content strategy for how you’ll publish your content across all these new and emerging platforms… But ‘holistic enterprise content strategy’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, right?

Nope. However, this slightly paradoxical beginning points to the true theme of the book: multichannel publishing. ‘Mobile users’ is used throughout the book to to suggest anyone who isn’t using a desktop. This could be slightly confusing, but shouldn’t be.


In chapter 1, Your Content, Now Mobile, Karen argues that instead of getting bogged down in discussions about design and development challenges, we should first work out how we’re going to get our content to render appropriately on mobile devices. She suggests we begin with the fundamental question about whether or not we even need to go mobile with our content. Karen looks at different use-case scenarios — advertisers, retailers, publishers, universities, restaurants — and argues ‘yes’. She asserts that “Mobile is not the ‘lite’ version”, marshaling statistics and case studies about immobile mobile users, mobile-mostly users, mobile-only users, and so on, to argue for content parity between desktop and mobile experiences. This chapter leaves us with the notion that although context is the future, we’re not there yet.

Karen uses this chapter to evangelise the point of making your content mobile-ready. It’s a persuasive mix of stats, case studies, and knuckle-rubs. Fellow A Book Apart author, Luke Wroblewski (Mobile First), is challenged for suggesting that Southwest Airlines is right to focus only on travel-booking tasks. In her own experience, looking United Club membership information while on the move, she had to call United for assistance because their mobile website only served travel-booking tasks and content. Karen asserts: “Mobile experts and airline app designers don’t get to decide what ‘actually matters’”. It’s a fair enough statement in theory. I imagine it’s terrifying if you have a huge website.

There’s a short paragraph about designing for context and why making your content mobile-ready is necessary for it to work, but I would have liked to have known more on this. When will we have enough data to anticipate what the user wants? Won’t we still make mistakes?

In chapter 2, Content Before Platform, Karen argues for thinking about content before getting bogged down in discussions about mobile website versus native app, responsive design versus a separate mobile website, and so on. As she says, “There’s no point in debating the merits of the container if you don’t know what you want to put in it. Or if you don’t have a funnel.” She also takes issue with the idea of a separate mobile website, mainly because this would lead to content being forked because few CMSs are sophisticated enough to support multi-channel publishing. Karen cites one hypothetical and real case studies to back up her point, including one about Conde Nast’s expensive and time-consuming attempt to produce iPad editions of its most popular titles. She ends by introducing her solution to forked content — adaptive content.

The objective of this chapter is to bridge the motivational remit of chapter 1 with the practical considerations about going mobile discussed in chapter 3. It’s a good rebuttal of the ‘let’s just create a separate mobile website’ argument, although with the newer breed of API-driven CMSs that are starting to appear on the market it’s becoming dated. It’s a small point, but I don’t quite agree with Karen’s negative characterisation of websites without a CMS as dark age relics: I work with quite a few start ups who use static site generators Jekyll or Middleman and have very fast responsive websites with plentiful metadata.

Chapter 3 is about Adaptive Content, which Karen says is “getting your content into a format so you can share and distribute it to any platform that you want”. Karen uses NPR’s COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) model to show how one organisation is offering content packages rather than simply content pages. She then looks at how you can do the same, concentrating on these five areas: reusable content, structured content, presentation-independent content, meaningful metadata, and a usable CMS.

Chapter 3 covers a lot of ground and includes a number of real-world examples. For example, in the ‘structured content’ section Karen introduces the concept of ‘chunks, not blobs’ and then shows how this applies to the different input mechanisms of WordPress and Tumblr, as well as how radio call-in-show Tech Guy Labs made the transition from blobs to chunks. Karen concludes this chapter by saying that adaptive content is a way to invest in the future of your content, as well as the means to achieve content parity.

This is probably the most useful chapter in the book. I already knew the NPR example, but there were plenty of useful tips about creating content that can travel. Karen’s emphasis on packages not pages was particularly helpful; the short paragraphs on making your pictures, data visualizations, audio and video mobile-friendly slightly less so. How, is what I want to know. How‽ We were also back to those pesky CMSs (see, this is why I like Jekyll). Content modeling is important if we are to make chunks of blogs (pp. 60-63) but then “CMS is the enterprise software that UX forgot” (pp. 76-77). This leads to the obvious problem: we need better content modeling to be better content strategists, but as content people we’re probably more likely to lobby for change than to customise CMSs or implement schema.org metadata ourselves.

Strategy and Planning is the subject of chapter 4. The chapter is short, and begins with the possibility you might be freaking out at this point. Karen’s remedy is: “Baby steps in the right direction,” including gathering pertinent analytical data, conducting user research and a competitive review, then convincing your CEO with your findings. Karen says taking a small step in the wrong direction (forking your content) can also be okay, provided it’s temporary. She concludes this chapter with a summary of the ‘desired state’, just in case you were getting too comfy with that throwaway sort-of-solution.

The ‘desired state’ section of this chapter feels like a beautiful dream, coming at the end of a chapter that acknowledges the many difficulties faced by readers in getting their content mobile-ready. However, this chapter also acts as an introduction to the rest of the book, in which Karen offers practical solutions to these problems.

In chapter 5, Writing and Editing, Karen says “mobile gives us the opportunity to review our content with some tight constraints.” The premise is not that we write differently for mobile, but that, as Karen goes on to say, “There’s only good writing. Period.” She leads us to those trusty content strategy stalwarts, content inventories and audits, and suggests adding extra columns for mobile variations. Karen also outlines some best practices for messaging and revisions under the Editing section.

The chapter’s message is that we don’t write differently for mobile, rather we write well — clean and concise. It’s an important message as far as mobile contexts go, and the tip about extra columns in the content grid are useful. Ginny Redish’s book, Letting Go of the Words, would compliment this chapter nicely.

Information Architecture is the subject of chapter 6, and Karen kicks it off by setting the record straight on a couple of points; that the desktop web isn’t a dynamic doc, as many seem to treat it, and that we need to think in terms of “packages”, not pages. She also says ‘wayfinding’ is more important than ever when thinking about mobile contexts. To this end Karen advocates the use of short (non-truncated) teasers, ‘super combos’ of (non-truncated) headlines, and a few summaries. Unnecessary pagination is frowned upon, while anchor links and show/hide functionality are advocated. Tables, images and infographics are briefly tackled. Throughout the chapter, Karen chooses relevant real-world examples to substantiate her suggestions.

Although I was expecting to be told that there’s no such thing as information architecture for mobile, Karen doesn’t go there. There are some good tips in this chapter for creating content packages that will work for multi-channel use. Karen’s dislike of truncated headlines and teasers is understandable. The sections on tables, infographics, and images were more descriptive than technical, but the advice was sound. The tip about creating a system of image crops for various contexts of use is a good example. Information Architecture is a complex and specialised field, however. If you’re new to it, this chapter won’t help you much, but if you’re so inclined, Morville and Rosenfeld’s book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (the polar bear one), is a good place to start.

The book’s seventh and last chapter is on People and Processes. Here Karen offers some suggestions about leadership, organisational structure, and roles and responsibilities that encompass areas like content package creation, taxonomy and metadata, media production, and editor. Karen also addresses important considerations like defining how you’re going to measure and optimise performance, figuring out what data to track, and making sure you have the right process to “evaluate the data and use it to make decisions”. SEO is explored to a modest degree. Various (contentious) options are looked at like do nothing, optimise for local searches, and do a bit of keyword research to see if people on mobile devices use language differently. The chapter wraps up with a quick look at approval processes, which Karen says should “balance security with usability”.

This is a tricky chapter because multichannel publishing shouldn’t be about setting up a ‘mobile silo’ within your organisation. What happens if you do? Karen advises that you “give your team incentives to think holistically about the experience”. This sounds more hopeful than realistic, though she talks about this more in her presentation, Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content.

Karen says “mobile can be a catalyst to make your entire publishing process more efficient”. Her suggestions deal with mobile, but are mainly about making your people and processes work better overall — a big task. As a result, the chapter seems a little strained. There’s mention of leadership, avoiding silos, handling different featured content, and short sections on analytics, (controversial?) SEO, and approval processes. No doubt some intriguing material though. For example, I’d not really thought about how the legal review process will need to move upstream to the CMS in the face of adaptive content.

Did the book deliver the goods?

I found this book to be as relevant today as it certainly was two years ago when published. Spend time on websites between your laptop and phone, and you’ll see it’s true. The book might be obsolete in another three years, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The web is full of websites that have a long way to go before they catch-up to what Karen’s laying down.

The key takeaway is that tremendous challenges and opportunities await organisations that adapt their content for mobile. Karen takes an evangelical stance, saying mobile’s the future, and our content needs to be to. End of story. She lobbies for the mobile cause, providing plenty of ammunition for those taking up the challenge in their own organisations. Her case for content parity across devices is equally convincing, particularly considering the inadequacy of most CMSs. Karen positions her argument neatly within the bigger mobile conversation, showing how content planning must precede platform decisions. She sets you on the path to future-friendly content — adaptive content — chunked and packaged up for easy delivery anywhere. If this is the future for content, then I’m in.

The book has one drawback. Despite all of Karen’s talk about future-friendly CMSs, and how CMSs today fail badly in comparison, we never get the technical gist of how these magical systems look and function. You’ll have to look somewhere else if that’s an itch you need to scratch.

I suspect that sooner or later you’ll face the paradox that Karen describes. You may even insist for many good reasons that there’s no such thing as mobile content strategy. Yet you’ll end up planning specifically for mobile and employing people to work on mobile all the same. Truth is, multi-channel publishing requires a future-friendly company structure in which ‘holistic’ is more than a buzzword. You might not be there yet, but no matter. This books is as much a call to arms as it is a blueprint for how to tackle the problems.