Content strategy? It sounds like a good idea… but how many of us are on the same page about what it actually looks like in practice? The final piece in the content strategy puzzle for many organizations is progressing from talking about what it is, and why it is important, to putting it into meaningful action. A little less theory, a little more application.
Often, stakeholders grasp the importance of content strategy in theory, but then they ask,
We need to be able to respond to such requests with a clear, unifying method and process for getting content working for the organization’s business goals and user needs. A robust and cohesive process is crucial to all strategy work, and it’s particularly critical when devising a strategy for something as complex and holistic as content.
However, content strategy is the epitome of “easier said than done.” Translating the idea of content strategy into meaningful action and results is something many organizations struggle to work through. What’s required is a methodical process for devising, carrying out and measuring content strategy projects.
Read on to learn:
- Why the first step towards developing a content strategy is developing a holistic understanding of content itself.
- How to establish a structured process, aligned with strategy best practices, for devising and delivering content strategy projects. We’ll be leaning heavily on Richard Rumselt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy for our process.
The Chain Link System
Content strategy describes multiple disciplines, which when pulled together are greater than the sum of their parts. The fact is, content strategy borrows thinking, expertise, and approaches from:
- Marketing strategy
- Brand development and design
- Business strategy and planning
- Organization design and change management
- User experience research and design
- Editorial planning and strategy
- Information architecture
- Technical authoring
- Metadata and knowledge management
- Data modelling
- Web design
- CMS design
One of the most concise visual frameworks for demonstrating the holistic nature of content is Brain Traffic’s content strategy quad:
In this sense, an organization’s content output can be viewed as what Richard Rumelt describes as a “chain link system”: that in which the quality of components and subparts matter to the overall quality of the whole. For example, let’s say an organization creates excellent content, via a talented team of writers who’ve devised a great editorial plan. However, crucial shortcomings in the team’s information architecture and internal governance processes means that their content is still difficult to find and often inconsistent.
Of course, it’s neither realistic nor necessary to simultaneously take up full-scale projects in all four areas of the content strategy quad. Rather, the quad is a useful visual aide for understanding the holistic nature of content. But in order to navigate ourselves through such a holistic landscape with a clear purpose requires a firmly engrained process. Let’s take a look at what that process looks like, before learning how it can and should be applied to a project.
Bringing order to chaos
All good strategy, according to Richard Rumelt in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, adheres to the same three step process:
Step 1: Diagnosis
In order to know where we need to be, we need to first understand where we are. That’s why a diagnosis is the foundation of all strategy. A diagnosis stage explores the existing reality of a situation and defines the nature of the challenge being faced—including breaking down the complexity of the whole into specific aspects.
Step 2: Guiding policy
Once we’ve understood “what’s going on here,” it’s time to set an overall vision and approach for overcoming the critical obstacles and challenges identified via the diagnosis. A guiding policy communicates priorities—specifying the most critical areas that require action.
Step 3: Set of coherent actions
Step 3 is designed to carry out the aims of the guiding policy, otherwise known as “doing stuff.” This begins with articulating a plan of action in order to achieve the guiding policy. There should be thematic connection between the suggested actions, so that multiple actions can be achieved simultaneously, via team coordination and collaboration.
Richard Rumelt describes the above underlying framework as “the kernel of good strategy.” In Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, he suggests that once we apprehend this highly practical approach, it quickly becomes much easier to cut through complexity in order to create, describe, and evaluate a strategy.
And that most certainly applies to content strategy.
Good strategy/Bad strategy: content strategy
Applying the Rumelt’s principles to content strategy looks something like this:
Stage 1: Content Diagnosis
A content strategy diagnosis requires exploring and evaluating an organization’s existing content, to find key content strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Typical content diagnosis activities include:
- A content inventory and audit
- Internal stakeholder interviews and feedback
- User research
- Internal content skills and capability assessment
A thorough diagnosis can unearth crucial pain points and opportunities that might otherwise derail a project further down the line.
For example, a non-profit client I worked with began an ambitious website redesign project. It quickly became obvious that although key stakeholders agreed that the existing website needed to change, they lacked consensus on exactly why or how things needed to be different. The need for a thorough diagnosis couldn’t have been more apparent.
We carried out a qualitative audit, extensive stakeholder workshops, and user research. From this we saw that the real problem had less to do with failings in the website itself (though there were plenty), and more to do with a simple lack of defined content governance. In other words, creating a shiny new website wasn’t the immediate priority—getting their house in order via a basic content governance model, was the real challenge.
Based on this diagnosis, we were able to create more clearly defined internal roles, responsibilities, processes and standards, to ensure that the new website would be successful after launch.
Stage 2: Content Guiding Policy
The guiding policy in a content strategy process is how we articulate an overarching vision for addressing critical areas of need identified during the content diagnosis stage. Typical content guiding policy activities and outputs include:
- Content strategy discovery and recommendations report
- Content strategy mission statement and goals
- User personas and content experience maps
A guiding policy should be a statement of intent, a roadmap for change—and at its heart, an act of ruthless prioritization. It should unambiguously articulate what is most important to address.
When I worked with a large professional membership body on a website redesign and migration project, the discovery phase revealed many problems. Plenty of content on the existing, bloated site needed to go, some existing content types needed re-thinking, the IA needed a complete overhaul, and large swathes of copy needed rewriting to adhere to the organization’s voice.
Any of these could have become our main focus—but we couldn’t address everything in the available time. We spent time mapping out the crucial user journeys, to understand what changes would make the biggest impact. These points of focus formed the basis of a content strategy vision and goals to inform the redesign and migration work. Our vision was to become a resource hub, and so our supporting goals were to (1) improve the user experience of the website’s extensive resources section, (2) improving the user journey for membership enquiries, and (3) deliver content that would attract and engage students. Many other things were important, but they could wait. This was the focus, for here and now.
Stage 3: Coherent set of content actions
Next we take action: carrying out a set of coordinated actions to address the goals of the content guiding policy. Some specific actions that can form the basis of a content strategy project (depending on the project’s guiding policy) include:
- Website IA edits/redesign
- Additions and edits to, redesign, or removal of content types
- Significant new copy production, re-write, or removal work
- Production of editorial calendar/ editorial planning work
- Establishment of new content production streams, such as a content marketing activity or set up of a new resources library
- Production of or amendments to content style guidance, standards and policies
- Establishment of new internal content roles, responsibilities and processes
If the vision and goals within the content guiding policy are clear and concise, a set of coherent actions should logically flow from there.
Take the previous example of the membership body I worked with. One of our goals was to improve the user experience of the existing, comprehensive yet messy resources section. We accomplished it by reworking the section’s IA into far more logical sets of topics and common tasks, and re-writing key resources to make them more scannable and accessible for the mobile-first web. Similarly, we identified other specific actions to accomplish our other two goals.
The individual examples of activities and outputs are inevitably going to vary, depending on an organization’s specific needs. Especially the “coherent set of actions”—the actual content work carried out is going to depend on the greatest needs and the guiding policy.
A clear and actionable process can go a long way towards legitimising content strategy’s role and value and providing a roadmap that everyone can align around and get behind. Of course, this is merely one structure to form the basis of a content strategy process. It can be thought of as a core, shell process to be played around with and adapted to suit the needs of individual organizations or agencies.
Try using Rumelt’s diagnosis/guiding policy/set of actions framework as a broad template to outline a basic process for content strategy projects for your own team. Then get it in front of the right people: internal decision makers, content producers, designers, and any wider influencers of your content work. It can be as simple as a flow chart. Bring it up at meetings, seek out opportunities to present to groups—print it out and pin it up around the office. Whatever works to communicate a logical process and gain understanding of the role and outcomes of your content strategy work.
Do you have your own similar, or differing project methods for delivering content strategy work? Share your feedback, tips and suggestions in the comments section, below.