Like so many disciplines, practice areas, industries, and the like, content strategy is evolving. From a thing most people had never heard 10 years ago to something on many organizations’ list of must-haves. There is much debate among practitioners over what content strategy is and what content strategists do. But what the field can agree on is that it is super valuable to businesses that make it part of their core operating principles.
What is content strategy?
"Content strategy isn’t just something you have it’s something you do."
Content strategy has gone from a thing you have to an ongoing practice. We used to talk about having a content strategy. As a content strategist in a digital agency from 2009 - 2012, I created many a content strategy. These long documents outlined
- What types of content a client should have
- What their voice and tone should be
- A message architecture
- What various audiences want
- Editorial workflow
- Channel strategies
- Keywords for search engine optimization
Since this was almost always part of a website redesign, we’d follow the guidelines in the document while we were building the new website. But I’m guessing they just gathered dust in the client’s hard drive once the site was done. Like many a strategy document, they documented what an organization should do but not a plan for changing how it would operate for the plan to become a reality.
I have not created a content strategy document in 6 years. Not just because I have not worked at an agency in that time, but because I have shifted to practicing content strategy.
Ultimately, content strategy is focused on the planning, creation, delivery, and governance of content. It is getting the right information to the right people at the right time. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Have you tried to define these things?
- Who are the right people?
- What is the right information for them?
- How and where do they want that information?
If you have, you know that doing this first step of content strategy is quite difficult. These things are foundational. And not just for content strategy, but for your market strategy, product strategy, user experience strategy, design strategy. Basically, everything your organization does.
Content strategy is a roadmap
With the answers to those question, you can make a plan based on where your organization is, where it wants to go, and how to get there. Kind of like planning a trip.
Essentially, content strategy is a roadmap. By knowing where you are now, you set benchmarks and gain insights into how the organization is meeting its goals – or not. Sometimes you discover that all you know is how many visitors you have to your website and which pages or sections they are most likely to visit. If you also know what people are doing with the information they find on your website, you’ve got a head start. Whether you have user satisfaction scores, conversion rates, or just stats, you can start to see patterns. Are those patterns helping you meet your business goals?
“Business goals?” you ask. Yes. Knowing the business goals helps you determine where you want to go. Not website traffic, not social media engagement, not search engine ranking. Content supports business goals. Maybe your goals are to
Increase donations by $3 million this year
Increase the usage of tools and products by the target audience
Decrease the amount of calls to the call center
Content can help you do all of those if you have a plan and measure the results. That plan is your content strategy.
On that journey from here to there, there are many things you have no control over. These external influences include.
- Technical disruptions
- New information becoming available
- Policy changes
- Audience shifts
- Changing expectations
"Content strategy helps you plan for the unexpected. Kind of like an insurance policy or an emergency action plan."
Remember what happened when mobile became something you could no longer avoid? If you focused first on what content you provided your audience rather than how you delivered it to them, you were able to jump on that train with ease. Many organizations missed the train.
No matter how much you try to explain that you don’t have Amazon’s budget for creating a massive recommendation engine and 1-click checkout, your audience still expects you to offer those things. With content strategy, you can do that on whatever scale makes sense for you.
When a new regulation changes how your audience practices their profession, you can fit that into the flexible, extensible structure you’ve created. Content strategy lets you extend your content inventory effortlessly.
There are also internal considerations. What does your team want to do better? Do they want to more easily manage content? Whether they are decentralized or all part of a single department responsible for creating and publishing your content, they need a single playbook. You may think that an editorial style guide would be the answer. Maybe a class or two about writing for the web will solve the problem of inconsistency or meeting the needs of multiple audiences. And those would help, for sure. But they are tactics in the execution of a content strategy.
The real solution to many internal challenges is defining your content strategy in parts.
- To have more conventions, you need governance.
- To make content more precise and concise, you need to divide content into different types and structure it appropriately.
- To meet different audience needs, you need to personalize the content.
- To convey information more effectively, you need to know the user journey so you can provide them the information they need, where they want it.
Content strategy is a plan to achieve your goals
Content strategy is all the things you think it is.
- Writing for the web
- Unified voice and tone
- Messaging architecture
- SEO guidelines
- Editorial guidance
- Style guides
Also, it is so much more.
- Modeling content for reuse and personalization
- Guiding CMS structure
- Defining workflow
- Translating between the executive team, stakeholders, design team, development team, and all the other teams
- Providing metadata guidance
The outcomes of having a plan and practicing content strategy are enormous.
- Improved efficiency of content management
- Improved effectiveness of the website
- Increased engagement with target audience
- Decreased time spent on creating and maintaining content
- Consistent messages
- Improved findability (from external sources and on the site itself)
- Reduced number of massive, costly, disruptive website redesigns
Content strategy also puts in place measurements so you know what is working and what is not. No more guessing. No more thinking website traffic or Instagram likes is the sign of success. Wouldn’t it be better if you have 100 visits to a web page and 90 of them made a donation than if 100,000 people visited and only 30 donated? Or if you knew that traffic from Instagram led to more high profit-margin purchases than any other referral source?
Find opportunities with content strategy
By practicing content strategy, you uncover many opportunities to increase revenue and reduce costs. But you have to start from the beginning. Do research to identify and define where you are now, who you are trying to reach, and where you want to go. Don’t do this in the name of content strategy. Do this in the name of meeting your organization’s mission. You content strategy to accomplish your goals.
Discovery activities uncover data and assumptions that propel you forward if you do something with them.
- Domain and content modeling combined with user research and a content audit might uncover a gap in the market that you can fill.
- Creating a content strategy statement aligns the organization around what type of content meets a specific audience’s needs and business goals.
- Reviewing call center data may uncover simple fixes to the website that reduces the number of calls and increases the number of conversions.
- Analyzing web stats may delineate the journeys of different audiences so that you can specifically target their needs.
Like any road trip, you may end up taking some detours. That is perfectly fine. It might take you three years to go from where you are to where you want to go. Better to be realistic, take baby steps, and succeed than to hurry, take giant leaps, and fail. The point is to keep moving, have a plan that allows flexibility, and to celebrate successes along the way.
Content strategy is so much more than words on a screen. What can content strategy do for you?