Do content strategy problems keep CEOs up at night? Web teams may not think so. The CEO may not either. But in reality, they do. That’s because many serious business problems, at their core, are actually content problems. A sound content strategy helps address those problems; it also helps organizations meet users’ needs, operate more effectively, and make better use of products, programs, and people, all by creating information that is used and usable.
The process of selling content strategy to management begins when the content strategist has a conversation with a key decision maker. In this conversation, the content strategist must discuss the following:
- Challenges the organization is experiencing now, without a content strategy.
- The vision for the organization’s content strategy, best described in a content strategy playbook.
- Content-related pilot projects that reveal the strong foundation that already exists for executing on content strategy; ideally, these projects will address measurable goals and reveal positive results.
Many elements of content strategy involve substantial change management and require new processes, collaboration, and accountability. For this reason, executive buy-in is absolutely critical – it’s how content strategists gain support for the changes they’re trying to make and ensure those changes stick.
From 2005 to 2011, I directed realtor.org, the member-focused website for the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR). When I joined the organization, multiple departments created content about the same topic and published it on the website, using lots of industry jargon. There was no awareness of or accountability for content’s usage. Once published, content often stayed on the site indefinitely. And the organization did not have a common understanding of its audience.
As a result, members faced significant challenges trying to learn about a topic, understand NAR’s point of view on it, and figure out how the information might affect their business. Many of the association’s efforts went unseen and underused, and members questioned the value that the association brought them. In other words, NAR’s content problem was also one of its biggest business problems.
While my team and I made enormous strides in improving NAR’s content strategy, we could not have done so without buy-in from many levels of management. Executives need to see the value content strategy brings. They also need to understand that the foundation for content strategy is already there – that content teams have already planted firm roots intended to support a larger, all-encompassing strategic vision.
1. Connecting business challenges to content
To support a content strategy initiative, executives need to see how lack of a content strategy is causing problems for the organization.
What resonates most with executives is tying content problems to business goals. For a corporation, business goals might include increasing revenue, profits, subscribers, etc., and/or decreasing costs. At a nonprofit, showing missed opportunities to meet strategic goals might prove more effective. For an intranet, the goals might be employee satisfaction or retention rates, engagement, or awareness of how their work fits into the organization’s overall mission.
At NAR, we wanted to increase traffic to our website from links in our member publications. Over the course of a year, we analyzed the click-throughs of every item in a particular newsletter. The 10 most-clicked items were all information that directly affected our members’ lives and their businesses; these represented 71 percent of all clicks. The 10 least-clicked items were largely about the association itself: event deadlines, new CEO, etc.
While those items seemed important to us, they were clearly not important to members. The numbers affirmed our preferred approach, and we were able to make and defend decisions about promoting member-focused information in the organization’s e-newsletters as well as on the site’s homepage and social media streams.
Sarah Richards, who led the creation of gov.uk, used statistics to show management the effects of badly created content on cognitive load and goal achievement. She also showed product owners videos of people who were unable to use content to complete tasks that the organization needed them to complete. She found that the videos enabled her to make the business case for fixing the content, whereas her advice by itself had encountered complete resistance. This was just one of the tactics that prompted the UK’s Government Digital Service (its online consumer portal) to consolidate 185 organizational-focused websites into a single, consumer-focused site.
2. Articulating a vision for the content strategy
In her book, Content Strategy at Work, Margot Bloomstein shares the experience of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which adopted an editorial calendar for much more than just its publications. She writes:
Content strategy, as the plan for the creation, aggregation, governance, and expiration of content, is the backbone of the Fed’s content management, helping it stand tall and move forward in a functional, feasible way.
A content strategist must show executives that they, too, can use content to move forward in a functional, feasible way. In so doing, it’s necessary to deliver a clear, compelling vision for what content strategy can bring to the organization. To achieve this, content strategists should create a playbook that shows how the organization’s content should work, including, for example, the organization’s voice and tone, appropriate content types and formats, and an effective governance model. The playbook also needs to include details for the roles and staffing needed to support the strategy. It must address the following questions:
- Who in the organization should create the content?
- Who are the right audiences to target, and in what priority?
- What is the optimal tone that the organization’s content should use? While the tone should always be cohesive and strong, it should also be flexible enough to accommodate different types of content.
- What content types, formats, and channels make sense and why?
- What process needs to be in place to ensure all content that remains online is consistent, current, and relevant?
- What are the best measures of success for content?
Although an executive may not want all the details, he or she will at least want to know that someone else has considered them. More importantly, executives will need assurance that while the content strategy vision is solid, it is also flexible enough to accommodate unpredictable circumstances and will evolve over time to keep up with new audience expectations, technologies, and business shifts.
In creating the playbook, content strategists should pay particular attention to the governance model, which establishes rules, processes, and priorities for all content-related decisions. Executive buy-in for governance is absolutely essential to the success of a content strategy effort. Without that buy-in, it can be difficult – or even impossible – to solve pressing business problems.
Case in point: One of my clients, a large insurance company, developed a set of content governance policies for its intranet several years ago. However, the company did not get buy-in from management for enforcing those policies. As a result, the web team never followed the prescribed process and the policies were never enabled in the content management system.
Now that the web team is leading the effort to redesign the intranet and move to a new CMS, they are taking the opportunity to revisit and refresh their governance guidelines. They’re also working to get that crucial buy-in, which will ensure the governance policies are followed and that content on the intranet is relevant, accurate, and up to date.
3. Pursuing pilot projects to build a strong case
Pilot projects are an ideal way to “kick the tires” on guidelines for content practices and take baby steps toward new ways of working. More importantly, they are essential for building the business case for content strategy because they serve as evidence that creating and managing content strategically actually works.
When NAR faced a major lawsuit by a government agency, I gathered all the content creators together. We created a plan to have a single collection of content on the website, all in one place, that would update members about what NAR was doing to correct the misunderstandings behind the suit. To my surprise, it was the first time the association created content in a collaborative way! We also created some new internal communication tools and processes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was pursuing the first pilot project that I would ultimately use to build the business case for content strategy to management.
In most organizations, there is at least one small group of content owners who are savvy about using new approaches for better ends. Those are the ideal candidates for taking on pilot projects. Some suggestions for content strategy pilot projects:
- Create stories that depict how the organization makes a difference by using qualitative and quantitative information from multiple departments. This will require collaboration among two or more groups.
- Test various types of headlines – try publishing some content with simple, declarative headlines and others that present information from more of a marketing angle.
- Add dates to content.
- Create an infographic.
- Write content from a user’s perspective instead of the corporate perspective.
- Promote content at different times of day and through different channels.
- Archive or delete content that is about programs or events that have been replaced by current editions.
Another pilot project my team and I pursued at NAR was the creation of empathy-based personas. We tapped staff members in each department to identify the groups of members that were most important for the organization to serve online, and together we articulated these members’ challenges, hopes, and needs. Through this effort, we created a stronger, shared sense of who our audiences really were, so we could serve their needs in multi-faceted ways.
We also redesigned the homepage, surfacing content in multiple ways and stripping away some departmental labels in favor of more user-friendly ones. We learned what labels and design elements resonated with our audiences, that tabbed sections did not perform well, and that users did not scroll as much as we expected. Besides being excellent fodder for a content strategist seeking executive buy-in, these learnings helped inform our larger redesign.
Want buy-in? Start building the foundation.
Content strategists should start building a portfolio of pilot projects today so they have a body of evidence to deliver to management when it’s time to ask for support. Successful pilot projects will also help content strategists figure out what to include in their content strategy playbook and identify the content-related underpinnings of critical business problems.
At NAR, we also held quarterly meetings for all content creators and regularly shared success stories. This collaboration enabled reticent content owners to see the value of working in new ways. Sharing those same successes with VPs and directors of each department helped the efforts become more of a “new normal” for how our departments collaborated. Having those middle managers’ support is key as they are the ones who will orchestrate and carry out the new ways of working.
Of course, we also shared the website’s successes with top management each month.
Content strategy is a journey, especially for large, complex organizations. Tackling one challenge at a time will help executives see the process and timeframe required to solve their most pressing business – that is, content – problems, not to mention the rationale for change.
Ready to get real about your website's content? In this article, we'll take a look at Content Strategy; that amalgamation of strategic thinking, digital publishing, information architecture and editorial process. Readers will learn where and when to apply strategy, and how to start asking a lot of important questions.