Content strategy for technical communicators: what happens to my doc plan?

by: Larry Kunz

The buzz about content strategy has never been louder. During the past few weeks we’ve been treated to a whole gamut of views about content strategy.

There was Tom Johnson’s characteristically thoughtful analysis of what content strategy is and is not. Rahel Bailie showed that content strategy isn’t just about web content. The staff at Johnny Holland gave us a week-long series on common issues surrounding content strategy. We even had a great conversation that started with an editorial error.

There’s no doubt that, as Tom said, content strategy is gaining momentum.

While there’s still discussion about how best to define content strategy, I think that most everyone agrees on a couple of key points:

  • A content strategy is, well, a strategy. A strategy, by definition, provides an overarching framework within which specific actions can be planned and executed. A strategy gives purpose to every action, but a strategy is more than just the sum of the actions. It’s not tactical: for example, it doesn’t dictate things like how a style sheet should be coded (although it might contain broad guidelines for how the styles should look).
  • A content strategy should be broad enough to encompass all kinds of content: content from all over the organization, as well as (increasingly) from the user community; and content that can be distributed in a variety of formats.

Kristina Halvorson defines a content strategy as “recommendations about how to create, deliver, and govern web content.” Rahel Bailie extends the idea beyond the web to encompass an almost limitless number of output formats.

If the content strategy is strategic (it provides a big picture) and if it’s broad (it covers a lot of territory), it might seem like the content strategist has to be some kind of Renaissance man (or woman). The role of the content strategist is broad, but it needs to have boundaries lest the job become so all-encompassing that no one can do it.

Part of the answer is that the content strategist needs to focus on strategy and leave the day-to-day tactical decisions to others — like information architects and documentation project managers.

The technical communicator’s view

I’ve spent most of my career in technical communication, planning and managing documentation projects. In my world, the doc plan occupies a pedestal. It’s fundamental for navigating a documentation project. It specifies who does the work, when the work gets done, and how much everything costs. By carefully describing assumptions, dependencies, and contingencies, it functions as a contract between the technical writing team and the other stakeholders.

Simply put, the doc plan sets forth the rules for creating, delivering, and governing (or managing) content. That sounds a lot like Kristina Halvorson’s definition for content strategy, doesn’t it?

When I first heard the term content strategy and read Kristina’s Content Strategy for the Web, I was excited and wanted to jump right in. I loved hearing that content is a valuable asset that can play a major role in building the corporate brand. A coordinated and disciplined approach to content sounded like an idea whose time had come.

Then one day, I was caught up short. Wait a minute, I suddenly realized. If I have a shiny new content strategy, what happens to my doc plan? In a world where content comes from an ever increasing number of sources, where content can (and must) change in response to changing requirements, is the doc plan — rigid and narrow in scope — no longer up to the job?

In my mind, the doc plan was knocked off its pedestal. I even wrote an article suggesting that the doc plan was no longer relevant at all.

So what does happen to the doc plan?

I know now that I overreacted. The doc plan is still relevant. It still guides the documentation project.

But the doc plan no longer stands alone. It has to be informed by, and ultimately be subordinate to, the content strategy.

If the content strategy answers questions like:

  • Who has final approval authority for publishing content?
  • What’s the relationship of user-generated content to content from within the enterprise?
  • What key marketing messages should the content support?
  • Who are the various audiences (market segment) for the content that’s published?

…Then the doc plan should answer the question of how all of these decisions are carried out.

Kathy Hanbury recently enumerated six simple (not easy) steps to creating and executing a content strategy. On a documentation project, the doc plan generally corresponds to Kathy’s last step: set guidelines and processes to support your strategy.

I already said that the content strategy is a strategy. In contrast, the doc plan is tactical. A good content strategy provides an overall framework for creating and handling all customer-facing content in the organization. But it doesn’t necessarily spell out the tactical details for carrying out the strategy. That task falls to the doc plan, which still describes how the work will be done and spells out what’s expected of all of the stakeholders.

What do you say? If your organization has adopted a content strategy, have you found that the role of your doc plan — or the doc plan itself — has changed?

About the author: Larry Kunz is a project manager and information architect with Systems Documentation, Inc. (SDI) in Durham, NC. He is a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and blogs here. You can also find Larry’s insights into technical communication on Twitter.

Photo credit: linxbot from stock.xchng

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  • Tristan Bishop

    Really enjoyed this post, Larry.

    I love how you strip out the complexity and make it crystal clear: If the Content Strategy document defines the “why”, the Doc Plan details a key piece of the “how”.

    DMN guys, thanks for continually bringing so much goodness via your blog!

  • Kristina Halvorson

    Larry, this is easily the most balanced, well-informed post I’ve read from a technical communicator on the topic of content strategy. I was seriously grinning and nodding my head the entire time.

    I planned to write a post this week on the unnecessary “land-grab” arguments over who should own content strategy; I’m delighted to have your post to refer to as one that actually *contributes* to the semantics conversation, rather than derails it.

    Congratulations. DMN, put this guy to work.

  • Chris Moritz

    Larry, you’re my new personal hero. I’ve never bought into the “content strategy is the same as content planning” argument either. At the agency I work at, we have pretty much the exact workflow you outline: Content strategy and strategic planning develop the overarching framework that creative interprets and brings to life, information architecture refines and outlines, and project management operationalizes.

    We (the content strategists) sometimes create our version of “doc plans” but we’re well aware that we’re putting another hat on.


  • Karen Mulholland

    Great post, Larry – thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    The message I’m getting out of this is “The doc plan is to the project as the content strategy is to the organization.” It’s a tactical expression of the strategy.

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