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A content strategy primer

30 Mar 2023

Content created without a strategy tends to yield disparate content with no clear theme or purpose. This sort of content confuses your audience, customers or stakeholders and undermines your credibility. It's often also bland, generic content which simply isn't good enough these days — generic content doesn't rank well in search engines; it doesn't get shared; it simply doesn't engage people so never delivers against business objectives. The answer: content strategy.

Content strategy guides the creation, delivery and governance of content that’s useful to and usable by your audience. It’s a vision that guides content development to deliver against specific business objects. As a practice, content strategy helps to define, prioritise, integrate, systematise and measure content.

In contrast to how much of the content we see online is created — especially the constant stream of low-quality marketing content; many marketing & comms teams think having an editorial calendar means they’re being strategic — content strategy turns it around and defines the process first, secures resources for it and then puts in place a workflow that produces content that’s mapped to your audiences’/customers’/stakeholders’ needs. In short, it takes content production from an ad-hoc wild west to a planned, strategic activity.

The strategic bit

The key part of content strategy — making content that delivers on business objectives — requires an understanding of what your content needs to actually do. Simply generating content for its own sake isn’t valuable.

As with most of our work we start with research. We need to uncover your organisation’s core values, positioning and strengths. Why do you exist? A content audit is also useful in the research phase; is your existing content delivering against your objectives? Is it even correct and relevant any more (often the answer is: no)?

You also need to understand your customers/stakeholders/beneficiaries. What do they want and need? How, when, where and why do they consume content? This directly impacts on the topics about which you create content and on the way you deliver that content to its intended audience.

Finally, look into competitors, both organisational competitors (others who want attention, time, money or donations from the same people as you) and content competitors (what other content is competing for your audience’s attention).

The output of this research needs to be your positioning, the ‘gap’ you are going to occupy that aligns with your organisational goals and user needs. Standard strategic practice applies here: what do your audience want, is anyone else giving that to them already, what is your offering and how is it differentiated, better and complimentary, and does doing this deliver our top-level objectives.

The high-level bit

Brain Traffic provide a useful framework for thinking about your content strategy activities:

  • Content design — knowing and combining what your audience wants and your business goals helps identify content design requirements that lead to useful, usable content for users:
    • Editorial (target audience, point of view, voice & tone, standards & style)
    • Experience (users’ needs, content ecosystem, customer journeys, formats, channels)
  • System design — helps create repeatable systems to ensure content integrity over time that’s consistent with our strategy:
    • Structure (organisation, tagging & categorisation, future-proofing, technical requirements)
    • Process (content lifecycle & workflow, tools, who’s responsible, who needs consulting in content creation, governance (how are decisions about content made, how are changes initiated and communicated, who gets to say ‘no’))

The tactical bit

Content strategy sits on top of a number of related activities. When we start working with organisations on content strategy we’ll first talk about four areas and then develop a content strategy that connects the gaps between them:

  1. User experience design: Who are your end users? What are their content needs and preferences? How can you make content useful and usable to them, wherever and however they need it?
  2. Editorial strategy: What is your content’s point of view? What are the topics you need to address? Where and when will you deliver the content?
  3. Content engineering: How does your content need to be structured in order for users to find it? What models need to be in place for the CMS to deliver the content, wherever and however users and the business need it?
  4. Content workflow and governance: How does content move throughout your organization? What are the policies, standards, and guidelines that monitor its quality and performance?

(This list is lifted directly from writing by the clever folks at Brain Traffic)

Developing a content strategy is much like strategy in all fields: the most fundamental issue is dedicating resource (i.e. time) to it. Without sufficient resources you’ll struggle to develop your content strategy and put in place the education, culture and practices to make it effective in your organisation.

Note that we talk about education and culture. For some reason, people in organisations we work with don’t see content as something strategic that they shouldn’t go off and create in isolation. The same people wouldn’t dream of making product decisions or hiring decisions without understanding the organisation-wide policies that apply to those things; we need to educate them that an organisation’s content is also a strategic asset that has an associated cost/benefit.

The hard bit

Most people we work with over-focus on the strategic or workflow parts of content strategy because they’re tangible and, in many ways, the easy part. Mapping out a content workflow diagram, doing a round of customer research or building a new CMS can all be ‘completed’. Content governance — the structure, guidelines and policies in which content production happens, and the long-term management of content — is more ephemeral and it can be hard to maintain momentum.

This is where long-term provisioning of HR capacity is vital. Without it, content governance simply doesn’t happen. The organisation’s content goes stale and everyone moves back to the bad old days. It’s analogous to the principle of entropy: you’ll have to continuously expend energy to keep the organisation functioning in whatever ‘shape’ your content strategy needs it to be. Left alone, things gradually decline into disorder. Warning: doing content governance well is going to mean allocating resources to it which is likely going to involve some level of change management — sorry!

Side note: don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it will be as easy to secure peoples’ capacity after a new website goes live or a marketing campaign is over as it was when everyone was motivated by a tangible deadline. Content governance is an ongoing activity, not a project-based thing. Content work mustn’t be seen as an "extra" job for subject matter experts. You’ll need part of their time to be dedicated to content so you’ll need to think creatively about how to sell content strategy internally.

So, what is content governance? At its core it’s the system and set of guidelines that determine how an organisation’s content is created, published, looked after, updated and eventually retired. It also has a strategic angle: how are key decisions about content and content strategy made; how are changes initiated and communicated; who gets to say no?

Governance and workflow shouldn’t be separated. For good governance to take hold it needs to be embedded in the day to day processes. We use similar principles when we design and implement applications: embedding best practice into the workflow is always more effective than writing best practice in a document somewhere. Good tools also help. A well-thought out style guide, a CMS that supports your workflow and a set of page tables or content templates that clarify the purpose of core pieces content go a long way to bridging the gap between long-term vision and day-to-day reality. These tools also help democratise content creation by removing subjectivity so that everyone in the organisation can be trusted to create, approve and own their own content (with some light-touch central oversight).

In practice, it’s useful to do some activities on a regular schedule. For example, you might want to gather together your comms team and the subject matter experts every six months for a workshop in which you review analytics and other quantative and qualitative (e.g. anecdotal evidence from front-line support) data to identify: content gaps that need filling; shifts in your organisation’s underlying strategy that may have rendered previously useful content obsolete; and content that’s still relevant but needs updating or merging. Again, good tools help here — a CMS could highlight content that’s not been reviewed for 12 months.

If you’re just getting started, approach ongoing content governance activities as a minimum viable version. Focus on governance around public marketing content (landing pages, product pages, social media and email marketing) and leave lower level content alone for now. Better to nail the governance of the most important 20% of your content than to spread yourself too thinly. This is only so that your core content or comms team isn’t over-stretched; your work around defining and disseminating the strategic work (the editorial parts of the quad) and changing the culture should aim much more broadly since that’s focussed on organisation-wide behaviour change, not centralised activities.

Some things we often include when designing content governance:

  • Assign ownership and roles. Have one or very few content owners whose job is to work with creators, editors, and SMEs to ensure the final output is up to scratch.
  • Educate content creators. Anyone creating content should be able to answer one question: why am I making this?
  • Define success. The content owner and creator should start with a shared definition of success for a piece of content. That might be to inform, to entertain, or to provide an opportunity; but you’ve got to do that intentionally.
  • Pre-publish checks: accuracy, brand voice, strategic alignment, etc.
  • Measurements. How will you define whether your content is achieving its goal? How can you measure that? On what cadence will you review this data and adjust accordingly?
  • Design and document content worfklows.
  • Produce and document guidelines, standards, policies, procedures and tools to operationalise content governance.
  • Deliver appropriate training to educate and align staff on content governance.

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