Content strategy

How to write better content: Tips from Shopify

Preface: You’ll see a lot of blogs about my takeaways from ConFab Central 2017. What can I say? It was truly insightful and there’s much to share. One of my favorite sessions was led by Biz Sanford, lead content strategist at Shopify. Truly enthusiastic about content strategy, she opened the presentation with this idea:

As writers and content strategists, we know it’s impossible to write and review every single word that goes into our user interface. But even small instances of content, like error messages and button text, can deeply affect how our customers feel when using our products.

Though Biz is talking about the content built into an actual product (like Shopify’s eCommerce platform), her tips can be applied to creating better content in general. You need excellent content to truly help your customers. Biz recommends these tips to get you there:

1. Develop and enforce guidelines

Biz suggests that when you set and enforce guidelines, you encourage consistency across your content. Writers can’t deny the importance of consistency. Guidelines can include: style guides, vocabulary lists, voice and tone guides, and process workflows.

Having these resources on hand can help you “alleviate the mundane content questions” your team asks on a daily basis. Maybe you already have a style guide, but how many people on your team still consistently refer to it? By enforcing the guidelines, you encourage best practice. Style guides also comes in handy when you onboard new hires.

To add to Biz’s insights, style guides can improve your content governance. Think about a typical content lifecycle. There are a lot of steps to creating content. If everyone on your team did just one of those steps incorrectly, you’d end up with a mess. You’re likely to see more consistency across your content team if everyone follows the same guidelines.

2. Onboard new hires (train existing teams)

Though Biz’s onboarding tips aim to serve new hires, the process can also apply to your existing team. Having a system in place to formally train new writers helps you ensure consistency from the get go. For onboarding purposes, Biz recommends documenting these things:

  • What the content team does
  • The voice and tone of the content
  • How to write for the brand
  • Where to get content help and resources

3. Hold fresh eyes sessions

According to Biz, Shopify is a fan of having weekly sessions to critique each other’s work. As a writer I also see the value in peer reviews. “The basic premise is to get people in a room and provide a space for them to share their work. Even if it’s just a few thoughts on a page, everyone is expected to show something,” says Biz.

Pro tip from Biz: “Before I voice my thoughts during a fresh eyes session, I always ask what type of feedback a person’s looking for. If they aren’t ready for nitty gritty copywriting edits, I might give feedback on information architecture, ask them if they’ve thought about terminology, or point them to our style guide.”

4. Run workshops

“Spend time building people’s skills,” Biz suggests. “Hold a variety of workshops with the goal of educating and empowering people to write better content.” At Shopify, they run workshops that cover things like:

  • How to write error messages
  • Top 10 ways to write better product content
  • How to prioritize content across screen sizes

Make time to practice writing real content. And keep an arsenal of real examples people can leverage whenever they need them.

5. Pair write

“Paired programming is something the engineering world has been doing for decades. It’s a technique that’s proven so successful, entire companies spend all their time writing code in pairs. But it’s not just for developers,” according to Biz.

Sit down with a peer—writer, UX designer, or strategist—and write the content together. “You’ll learn how to understand problems in new ways, and they’ll absorb a bit of your skill every time you interact,” says Biz.

When I’m writing an article, I enjoy working with a graphic designer to conceptualize the look and feel of the content. Though I craft the content and they design the graphics, when we work together, we bring completely new ideas to fruition. It’s also more efficient working together, rather than always relying on emails and notes to communicate our ideas.

6. Do things, tell people

Shopify empowers their team by being vocal about what’s going on. Their motto is: Do things, tell people. “If something important is happening, and it relates to what I’m doing, I make myself a part of it,” says Biz. She recommends these ideas for sharing your work:

  • Do a 5-minute presentation at a UX meeting.
  • Have a lunch and learn to talk about a specific topic as a team.
  • Discuss and draft content openly on an internal forum.

“These things help people across teams understand how to write, as well as the process the content team goes through when writing,” according to Biz.

And that’s that

At the end of the day, no two content teams are the same. What works for Shopify, might not work for your content team. But to have a true impact, you have to be willing to try things. As cliche as it sounds, you never know until you try. And when you find something that works stick with it and bring it to scale.

Repetition is our friend in the fight for better content,” says Biz.


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