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Content Strategy, UX Writing And The (Confusing) Relation Between The Two

If content is king, strategy is queen — and not just any queen but a very special one. And UX writing done well is like honey. Eh, what? Read on and you’ll find out as we attempt to clear up the confusion of who is doing what in the content beehive.

There is so much overlap between content strategy and UX writing that the terms “content strategist” and “UX writer” are sometimes used interchangeably. As a result, many people are not sure what job they should apply for, and many employers don’t know who to hire.

Let’s try to make sense of it all, and look at a few tips for those who want to find a job or hire somebody in the field.

Close-up of honeycomb
Who’s who in the content beehive? Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

Content strategy: The beehive

So what exactly is content strategy?

There are plenty of good definitions around. One of the most well-known is the one Kristina Halvorson came up with in her book Content Strategy for the web:

“Planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content”.

The output of content strategy is a plan for content production that serves the business goals and appeals to the target audience.

This plan usually aims to:

  • Answer questions like what kind of content to produce (blog articles, videos, social media posts, newsletters, online ads, marketing campaigns, etc.)
  • Confirm which platforms to use (for example a company website or blog, a newsletter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook)
  • Indicate when to share the content on these platforms
  • Explain how to create the content through a style guide, tone of voice, user personas and/or competitor research
  • Confirm KPIs to measure the success of the content efforts.

We can think of content strategy as a beehive, or the container where everything you need to make the best honey is kept.

A honey bee
A content strategist is not just any bee. Free photo from visualhunt.com

The content strategist: The queen bee

But how do content strategists actually spend their days? The short answer is “it depends”. Even if the purpose of content strategy is clear, the work of a content strategist will vary from company to company and from project to project.

This is not so strange after all — every company and project has different business goals and resources, so their content production needs will be different too.

Here are a few examples of tasks a content strategist may be involved in:

  • If there are no business goals or KPIs in place, the content strategist will probably start by defining those goals
  • Establish what kind of content will best serve the business goals
  • Review current content and decide what to keep, what to get rid of and what to create from scratch
  • Check web analytics and statistics to find out which content has given the best results so far
  • Decide which platforms will be most relevant for sharing the content
  • Carry out or manage user research (surveys, interviews, personas, conversation mining)
  • Review or create a style guide and tone of voice
  • Manage the content production process
  • Create content that matches the defined goals
  • Arrange and evaluate user testing (A/B tests, surveys, user interviews) to find the best content solution for a given situation

You could say that content strategy has the same purpose everywhere, but the actions needed to get there depend on the situation. In some projects, the content strategist will produce content. In others, strategy and production are two separate roles.

Another confusing thing is that jobs that include the tasks described above are not always called content strategist. No no, no!

The industry has been very creative and has come up with titles like content marketing strategist, content marketing manager, content manager, content delivery manager, marketing specialist, content project manager and so on ad infinitum.

In any case, as the person who is responsible for the framework of content production, the content strategist is the queen bee. Without her, there will be no …

…UX writing: The honey

Whereas content strategy has been an established field for at least 10 years, UX writing has only entered the public consciousness in the last few years.

As such, it is still in the process of being defined and we are all involved in shaping its future, which is pretty exciting.

UX writing is closely connected to microcopy in digital products: Text snippets like error messages, CTAs, and screen instructions.

The purpose is to guide the user through a flow without friction. These bits of texts may seem insignificant, but there are plenty of examples of how muddy microcopy has a disastrous effect on user experience, which in turn will affect conversion rates.

My favorite example comes from Joshua Porter, who happens to be the guy who coined the term microcopy. Check out the first 4 minutes of his presentation on YouTube to see how one extra line of copy increased conversions overnight (and then watch the remaining 26 minutes of the video).

After testing the check-out flow for a product, Joshua realized that many users got stuck on the screen where they entered their credit card details.

Testing revealed that many people entered the shipping address instead of the billing address, which created an error and the users gave up. To solve this issue, he simply added one line of copy that clarified that the user should enter “the billing information associated with their account” — and boom! Problem solved, conversions increased.

Another famous example is how Google managed to boost conversions by changing two words on their booking page. They suspected that “Book now” scared people off as the button appeared in a flow where many users hadn’t made up their mind yet — they were still shopping around and looking for options. So they tested the copy and found an increase of 17% when changing the call to action to “Check availability”.

Have a look at this talk on YouTube to hear Google staff explain this and many other examples of UX writing.

Jar of honey
Just like UX writing. Free photo from visualhunt.com

Even if higher conversions may be the ultimate goal for every business owner, UX writing is generally different from marketing copy in that it doesn’t try to sell products.

Microcopy serves the users by ensuring that they don’t get stuck when trying to complete a task online. The most important thing in UX writing is not to be cool and clever but rather clear, concise and useful.

Content strategy first

Traditionally, microcopy has been created either by developers or designers — i.e. people who are trained to create code and make visuals rather than to communicate in writing. The creation of microcopy was often neglected or left to the last minute.

Current best practice suggests that we should include UX writing as early as possible in the content production cycle. This has led to the idea of the “content-first approach”.

Instead of designing a product, app or website, fill it with Lorem ipsum and then hire a writer to “fill in the gaps”, UX writing insists that text is a part of the design process and should be part of the project from the start.

Although I would rather call it “content-strategy-first approach” and then bring in writers and designers at the same time, so that they can really collaborate.

UX writers: The worker bees

The UX writers, then, are the worker bees. They are usually hired to create or improve the microcopy in a product, for example a mobile app or e-commerce site, with the purpose to make sure that the copy is clear, concise and useful. Easy, right? Not really. How can UX writers be sure that the copy they create is going to be effective?

To write professionally, you need sharp writing skills, of course. But just having good writing skills doesn’t automatically make you a UX writer.

To craft messages that resonate with the intended users and meet KPIs, you also need insights into … you guessed it, content strategy.

Without knowledge of the target audience, tone and voice, and business goals, the UX writer has a slim chance to write effectively. In other words, if we want to create top notch honey instead of nasty, factory-produced corn syrup, we need to follow the queen bee.

Macro photography of a bee
A UX writer at work. Photo by Anton Atanasov from Pexels

Sometimes, the role of the UX writer includes creating or revising the content strategy. In other cases, the UX writer will rather collaborate with content strategists. In either case, as a UX writer you will need the insights gathered from content strategy, whether you or someone else has created those insights.

Want to know more about what a UX writer gets up to? Read all about it in our article “What does a UX writer actoully do”.

Still confused?

If a content strategist is the queen bee and the UX writers are the worker bees, why do many of us still tend to see them as the same thing? This is what I think: When we say that UX writing is content strategy, we mean that what a UX writer does is to put content strategy into action.

But at the same time, it’s good to remember that content strategy has been around a lot longer than UX writing, and so the term is used for all sorts of content.

UX writing on the other hand usually refers specifically to microcopy. This is why you can be a content strategist and never have anything to do with UX writing. But it’s highly unlikely that a UX writer would never have anything to do with content strategy.

Tips if you are looking for a job

The overlap between content strategy and UX writing can make it tricky to know which job is right for you. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are looking around for opportunities:

  • Pay attention to the job advert or job description rather than the job title for details.
  • If the job advert or description is not clear, be sure to ask the hiring company what their needs are.
  • If you don’t find many job adverts for UX writing, try widening your search to include content strategist, content marketing manager, content manager, etc.
  • Depending on your background, you may want to complement your skillset. For example, those with a background in product design may want to improve their content strategy or writing skills. Those with a background in copywriting or marketing may want to look into UX, design, or content strategy.
  • Last but not least, as UX writing is a fairly new thing, we can all contribute to developing it as a field. Therefore it can be worth applying for UX writing jobs even if you don’t have much experience (most people haven’t)!

Tips if you are looking to hire

  • Be specific about your needs rather than the title. Do you have a content strategy in place, and need a UX writer to put it into practice? Or do you need a UX writer who can help you create a content strategy? In any case, be sure to be clear about your expectations in the job advert.
  • Whatever you do, don’t hire a UX writer and expect them to perform well without content strategy, whether they will be part of creating that strategy or not.
  • Hire early and not as an afterthought. If you are going to produce content to boost your business, be sure to figure out a content strategy before you start pumping out content. Whether your project includes UX writing or not, the earlier a content strategist is part of the process, the better.

Recap

Hopefully this article has shown that even though there is a lot of overlap between content strategy and UX writing, they are not exactly the same thing.

A content strategist is not necessarily a UX writer. A UX writer is not always a content strategist, but needs the insights from content strategy to produce effective microcopy.

Content strategist vs UX writer table

Who would have guessed that strategy would become the queen of content?

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