English extracts from the French interview with Belgian content strategist Muriel Vandermeulen

Muriel Vandermeulen is owner of the Belgian content strategy consultancy, We are the Words, was a speaker at CS Forum 2010 in Paris, and is author of the first French-language book on content strategy, Stratégie de contenu web : la revanche de l’éditorial. She spoke about her book, and content strategy in general, at a Content Strategy Paris meetup earlier this year. This is an English-language synopsis of a discussion I had with her in French afterwards.

Lisez-vous français ? Voir l’interview complète ; il couvre des sujets plus en détail.

Muriel’s book provides readers with a practical step-by-step approach to strategic content planning, production, and governance.

Muriel on the purpose of her book…

Muriel Vandermeulen's headshot, book cover, and publisher logo.
Muriel Vandermeulen and her book, Stratégie de contenu web : la revanche de l’éditorial.

I was asked to write a ‘writing for the web’ book, but felt it had already been done—and well done at that. In any case, we don’t write for the web; we write for audiences, and for an ecosystem of media. We need to plan and rationalize our editorial production, to think about content reuse as well as about human resources, which is often the weak spot in the production chain.

Most web writers are aware of these issues; it’s their bosses that aren’t. Unfortunately, they aren’t the ones coming to our trainings. They’re still asking for tools: we need a newsletter, a new intranet, etc. But they’re not asking why, how and by whom? These are still neglected questions.

On customers and content strategy…

Customers are reluctant to invest in content strategy, especially the upfront part of audits and inventories. ‘We’re changing it all anyways, so why bother?’ is still a common perception. Then, eight months later, I get a call: where do I put the old ‘About Us’ page in the new site?

In France, it’s still common for web writers to be paid by the ‘feuillet’ (a unit of about 1500 characters). But what ‘feuillet’? Does that include keywords? Metatags? A lot of the work that goes into web content is non-visible.

For content strategy, we need to rely on the web editor more; after all, ‘we are all publishers now’. We need to work on writing (to ensure the source is pertinent and accurate); editing (transforming that source for different audiences and formats); and publication (optimizing it online). If you neglect any of those three elements, your process is not profitable. Unfortunately, I’ve met few customers who worry about the profitability of their internal content production processes.

The only way to convince customers to invest in content strategy is with hard metrics. Conversion rates are the best option today. No one has ever asked me to test content; functionality, yes, but not content.

On communications and content strategy…

There is a very strong link between editorial strategy and content strategy. You can’t have a content strategy if you don’t start with a communication strategy. Every web page has an objective; users come to that page for a precise reason, so it’s up to us to ensure their needs are met. When I go to a supermarket, I can ask someone at the counter for information. There’s no one to help me on a web site, so our content has to communicate in order to fill that gap.

In short, you cannot effectively govern and manage digital content if that strategy is not fully integrated within the customer’s overall communications strategy. You cannot do one without the other. The customer needs to communicate, above all.

On the evolving landscape in Belgium and France: Today, we are starting to see customers who want us to do more than rewrite their pages. They want templates and rules; they want editorial calendars that enable them to remain in control of their processes. Customers also need to start better exploiting content opportunities they have. Some customers do have resources, but don’t always know how best to exploit all formats available to them. Finally, we need to address the Day 2 problem: too often, we still see customers who, once they’ve finished their web project, just leave it until they attack their next redesign.

I think that within a year’s time, content strategy will be a much vaster subject than what I’ve addressed in my book. This is just starting, but in fact, this is still pretty basic stuff. Writing for mobile, content marketing, content re-use, managing content overload: there are so many content-related issues on the horizon that my book only touches on. But those are other topics for another day.