Complete Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy

Ready to get real about your website's content? In this article, we'll take a look at Content Strategy; that odd amalgamation of web savvy, Information Architecture and editorial process that adds up to something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

You or someone you know wants to create content. Awesome! But to what end? Content strategy helps us plan for valuable, viable content.

We begin with publishing. To manage the digital workflow required to maintain an ever-increasing amount of content, publishers employ what’s (aptly) known as a content management system (CMS). It’s what we use behind the scenes at UX Booth.

Now, what if you or someone you know is getting ready to unleash content on the world. What might guide their creation efforts?

At this point, visual design—design of the actual website itself—is irrelevant. Nobody should really discuss what the system will look like (expect, maybe, the visual thinkers in the room), but instead, the heart of the matter: what’s this all about? What content will this website deliver? Moreover, when will the website deliver that content?

In this article, we’ll take a brief look at Content Strategy—that odd amalgamation of digital publishing, information architecture and editorial process that adds up to something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. You’ll learn when and where to apply strategy to your content endeavors and when you should simply raise your hand and start asking (a lot of important) questions.

What is Content Strategy?

“Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content,” says Kristina Halvorson, author of the book Content Strategy for the Web.

“It plots an achievable roadmap for individuals and organizations to create and maintain content that audiences will actually care about. It provides specific, well-informed recommendations about how we’re going to get from where we are today (no content, or bad content, or too much content) to where we want to be (useful, usable content people will actually care about).”

Taking a step back, Lou Rosenfeld adds:

“If [Information Architecture] is the spatial side of information, I see content strategy as the temporal side of the same coin.”

This abstraction is important: If Information Architecture helps us say “where” content lives, Content Strategy tells us decide “when” it lives. The combination, in due course, helps us as well as our clients understand “why” it’s there in the first place. And in case the connection isn’t clear: Lou is the guy behind the UX publishing house Rosenfeld Media. His company makes real, honest-to-goodness books. You can hold them in your hand.

So if I had to guess, Lou knows quite a bit about Content Strategy—even though he might not identify someone well-versed in it—because Content Strategy is part and parcel to the publishing world.

Digital Publishing

The distance between print and the web, when it comes to a prudent publication process, isn’t all that vast. In fact, if you think about all of the stuff required to publish books—authors, reviewers, technical editors, copy editors, publishers, graphic designers, distributors, etc.—you begin to see that their analogous roles on the web are just, by default, not designed into the process …at least, not when everyone and their mom can publish content.

Content Strategy is the way forward. It helps both clients and project teams understand what content is being produced, how it’s being produced, by whom, when, and why.

Back to topHow is Content Strategy Done

Kristina Halvorson, in her article The Discipline of Content Strategy, says that “at its best, a content strategy defines:

  • key themes and messages
  • recommended topics
  • content purpose (i.e., how content will bridge the space between audience needs and business requirements)
  • content gap analysis
  • metadata frameworks and related content attributes
  • search engine optimization (SEO), and
  • implications of strategic recommendations on content creation, publication, and governance.”

That means that, at their best, strategists will provide a document explaining how their teams will accomplish these goals.

Relly Annett-Baker, in her article Why you need a Content Strategist, points to a rough methodology:

When we first meet, I ask a lot of questions about how your business works, what messages you want to get across and what your business’/products’ best features are. I look at (and sometimes create) the wireframes and the proposed information architecture of your website, consider interaction instructions, and [determine] whether a message is best explained with a screencast or a series of step-by-step by pictures.

The Content Lifecycle

Content, just like the websites they inhabit, are living, changing things. When strategists seek to assess and improve the quality of a website’s content, they typically follow a four-part process. The following diagram (used with permission) was created by Rahel Bailie while the descriptions of the phases were borrowed from Jonathan Kahn’s articles Content Strategy for the Web Professional:

  1. Analyze

    In this phase, strategists figure out what what kind of content they’re dealing with. Jonathan suggests: Ask questions about content, right from the start. Utilize user research or personas to decide what content is needed. Answer the question, “who cares?” Carry out a content audit, and/or a gap analysis.

  2. Collect

    Here we figure out (or plan for) the commonalities across our website’s content. Jonathan recommends: Establish key themes and messages. Write a plan for creating and commissioning content. Insist that the client plans for content production over time (an editorial calendar).

  3. Publish

    In this phase, we’ll see our content through to publication: where does it live on the website and how does it get there? Jonathan recommends: Annotate wireframes and sitemaps to explain how both interaction and content will work. Specify CMS features like content models, metadata, and workflow based on the content strategy. Write and aggregate your killer content.

  4. Manage

    After we’ve published content, it’s time to look back, see what worked, and plan for the future. Jonathan says: Write comprehensive copy decks, based on common templates. Write a style guide for tone of voice, SEO, linking policy, and community policy.

Back to topContent Strategy Luminaries

Rahel Anne Bailie

Rahel is the principal of Intentional Design, a Content Strategy consultancy. There, she and a select group of professional partners help organizations create and better manage their communication products. Her blog posts spark great discussions on the nature of content strategy.

Learn more about Rahel

Margot Bloomstein

Margot Bloomstein is an independent brand and content strategy consultant based in Boston. She focuses on crafting brand-appropriate user experiences to help organizations effectively engage their target audiences and project key messages with consistency and clarity. She’s presently on the road.

Checkout Margot’s company website

Kristina Halvorson

Kristina is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading web content strategists. She is the founder and president of Brain Traffic, a web content agency, and the author of Content Strategy for the Web.

Checkout Kristina’s Consultancy

Colleen Jones

Colleen Jones is a Content Strategist based in Atlanta, GA. For more than 13 years, Colleen has created successful interactive experiences for a variety of industries and brands. She’s presently working on a book about Content Strategy (CLOUT: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content) due this December.

Learn more about Colleen

Jonathan Kahn

Jonathan is a self–described web developer, user experience designer, and basmati rice maestro. He lives in London. At his blog, lucid plot, he writes about working on the web, covering subjects such as web standards, user experience design, and content strategy.

Read Jonathan’s Blog

Erin Kissane

Erin Kissane is a writer and editorial strategist who focuses on clear and precise business communication as a prerequisite for strong relationships with employees and customers. Erin serves as an editor of the quaint little publication, A List Apart.

Read Erin’s Blog

Rachel Lovinger

Rachel is a Senior Content Strategist at Razorfish. She’s on a never-ending quest to understand how people make sense of information, and how to make it easier for them. She recently finished NIMBLE, a report on publishing in the digital age.

Read Rachel’s Blog

Jeffrey MacIntyre

Jeffrey is a New York-based freelance journalist and interactive media consultant. He’s worked in various editorial positions over the years, spanning print, web and television production. Currently, he manages the content strategy agency Predicate, LLC.

Check out Jeffrey’s Company

Karen Mcgrane

Karen McGrane is a user experience professional, content strategist, information architect, and interaction designer. She runs a company is called Bond Art + Science. In addition, she’s a professor of the MFA program in Interaction Design at SVA. Phew.

Read Karen’s Blog

On Twitter

@rahelab

@mbloomstein

@halvorson

@lucidplot

@kissane

@leenjones

@rlovinger

@jeffmacintyre

@karenmcgrane

Back to topTools of the trade

Content strategists are always discussing better ways to get valuable content from their clients to their audience. So, while the list below is indicative of the tools that a strategist might use, they’re by no means prescriptive.

WordPress

WordPress is a state-of-the-art publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability. It’s far and away the most popular blogging platform, and its vibrant community is committed to helping authors spend less time reading documentation and more time writing their content. Creating a publishing process with WordPress is a (relative) snap. (And hey, it runs this blog, so how bad could it be?)

Learn more about WordPress.

Expression Engine

Expressions Engine is a full–featured CMS. That is to say, if your organization wants to publish more than just blog entries, they should give this a look. Expression Engine is nice because it allows for for segmentation: particular people can edit particular parts of your website. Although newer, shinier CMSes are born everyday, EE is still a formidable workhorse.

Learn more about Expression Engine.

Facebook

Facebook has helped define a social revolution. Regardless of whether you think that’s good or bad, it’s far and away one of the best channels to meet with and engage your website’s audience.

Learn more about Facebook Marketing.

Twitter

Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows an individual or organization to send timely updates out into the world. Like Facebook, it’s helped define what it means for someone to be social in the digital space.

Learn more about Twitter for businesses.

Microformats, Metadata, Tagging

Microformats, Metadata, and Tagging mechanisms help content authors (and publishers alike) append information about the content that they’re publishing. In turn, this provides anyone looking for that content and easy way to find it.

Learn more about Microformats.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the self–described enterprise-class web analytics solution. What does this mean to you? Google Analytics gives you insight into your website’s effectiveness through a variety of metrics; including bounce rate, keyword frequency, etc. Married with web analytics and measurement, this enables content strategists to gauge contents efficacy.

Back to topRelated Resources

Writing Content Templates

One of Erin’s older posts, this describes how to create and utilize content templates in your production process. From the article:

A content template is a simple document that serves two purposes: it’s a paragraph-level companion to your website’s wireframes … and it’s a simple, effective means of getting useful information from your experts to your writers … you might think of content templates as a kind of wizard for content development.

Example Content Strategies

In this post, Colleen Jones provides a couple of short examples of what might be found in a content strategy. Consider these as good “jumping off” points as you author your own.

Back to topContent Strategy Books

Back to topFurther Reading

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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24 Comments

  • Joshua Lay Reply

    Great write up Andrew. As an introduction its got me wanting to learn more.

    I’m creating persona’s for my company. To create an understanding of content’s purpose across different teams. Know who and why this content is being published.

    After your article I want to (should) work on a content strategy as well!

    • Lidia Reply

      I thohugt I\’d have to read a book for a discovery like this!

  • Alex Reply

    Great Article. I recently started writing, is exactly what I needed. Thanks for posting.

  • John Hyde Reply

    A good strategy gets decisions out in the open – instead of doing things because you did them in the past. Or even worse – leaving important decisions to junior staff late in the project.

    An example: deciding to have “latest news” – or not. Sooo many websites have “latest news” that dates back to the time the site was updated in 2006. And then the “news story” is “look at our new website”. This is a symptom of an assumed decision caused by not having a strategy.

  • Rahel Anne Bailie Reply

    Love the primer; you’ve hit all the highlights. I would add to the conversation that the CMS way more complex on the component content side. We need to acknowledge the difference between a Web CMS and a Compoonent CMS, and understand how this affects the ability to leverage content. (But that may be another complete post in itself.)

    • Andrew Maier Reply

      Hey Rahel, would you care to elaborate that difference for our readers? :)

  • Richard Sheffield Reply

    Super job, thanks for putting all that together in one place. I’ll pass the link around.

    I’d like to add a little bit about the role of the content strategist. Ideally, the CS should have a seat at the table early in the design and evaluation process and be involved in inserting reality into project plans, statements of work, and contracts. Ideally, the content strategist would have the same role and authority for content that a creative director has for design and the technical lead has for implementation.

  • Manali Reply

    Great Article. I recently started writing, is exactly what I needed. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rehaan Reply

    Wow i came here first time via webdesignledger.com. You have great resources.

  • Vikas Agarwal Reply

    Good stuff. This was an article full of resources, a very complete article for complete beginners really.

  • Mary Reply

    as an ux professional, I can’t stress enough how important knowing the strategy is. You can’t have site strategy w/o content and I’m utterly surprise at the number of battles i need to fight on this

  • ZhouEric Reply

    very nice article and resources shared. thank you!

    just need this for my team!

  • Blair Keen Reply

    I agree with Richard – it’s vital that the content strategist be included at the earliest possible stages of any new project, and afforded the similar authority to that of the creative director.

    In my recent experience, I’m starting to see business owners value content strategy in the same category as SEO which is a shift in the right direction.

    Maybe it won’t be long and we’ll have clients realising that the colour of their logo isn’t actually as important as they think?

  • Chris Houston Reply

    An interesting article, thanks for posting. We are a web development company who have been going for just over a year now and we specialise in building complex websites based on an Open Source .NET CMS called Umbraco.

    What we have found is sometimes difficult is educating clients who want a new content managed site that this is a big difference between using a tool like WordPress or Blogger which allow WYSIWYG style editing and a CMS like Umbraco that defines different page types and the content that is on each page

    The big advantage if a true CMS is the separation of the content from the layout, which enables us as developers to re-build a client website when they decide they want a change in the design and still use all of the same content.

    We are currently going through our own site design phase and content for us is key, it will be interesting to see how it works out as it is always each to preach the right way to do something, but not always so easy to practice what you preach :)

    • Franz Reply

      i believe you CAN separate content from design in wordpress.
      You just have to install a new theme. The content is stored in a mysql database.
      Bye

    • MarkSheppard Reply

      @Chris Houston

      That ability has been around for years (2006). See CCK (http://drupal.org/project/cck)in Drupal. It can run on Windows as well.

      “Priceless CMS at the cost of virtually nothing.” — Umbraco’s main page. You’re not factoring in the cost of the Windows licenses?

      PS/ developing anything on .NET, as an open source CMS or not, guarantees I won’t use it. I value my freedom more than what MS dictates I can do w/ my systems.

      @Franz:
      Try again.

  • Tony Cosentino Reply

    Great information Andrew,
    written in a very easy to digest way with enough personality to draw me in right from the start.

    You highlighted a very interesting point for me as the number of people involved in the process for print media content.

    Online content gets so much less scrutiny before that publish button gets pushed. It makes a lot of sense to build a content strategy to make sure the message is crystal clear between the website owners and the consumers.

    Great commercial advice, thanks again.

    kind regards
    Tony

  • Adam Hermsdorfer Reply

    Nice article Andrew, I like the life cycle. Content strategies scare so many people. By just having a systematic approach, and following the basics, you are going to increase your online presence.

  • Jase Reply

    We’ve been creating content online for our business for a number of years and because we had no fixed strategy, the site content is now confused. This is great info I wish we knew when we started. Now we have to audit and review our content structure and purpose on each of our sites and blogs – back to basics really.

  • nikos lianeris Reply

    great article with great guidelines!It helped me to better understand content strategy and draw better content stragedies with my clients! :)

  • Beverley Ireland-Symonds Reply

    I saw a tweet about this blog and I’m very glad that I came to have a look. It’s very accessible and has given me a great deal to think about. Thanks

  • KC Painter Reply

    Thank you for this article. I am new to the concept of a content management system, and this article helped me understand it more.
    I like especially like the section THE CONTENT LIFECYCLE where you broke everything down into smaller parts and analyzed them in detail.

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