Develop a Strategy for Your Content
Content drives business goals, which means content drives your site. For content that needs to be changed, content that does not yet exist, and even content that will stay the same, we need a strategic plan that provides both high-level direction and a more detailed review of messaging and function.
Does This Apply?
Creating a strategy for your site’s content is at the heart of your entire web project. If not for the content, why is anyone going to show up? Knowing what your visitors are looking for and how to provide it to them is the linchpin that holds the entire project together. Without content, you have nothing but an empty shell.
In the beginning, there was content.
Well, that’s dramatic. Let’s start over.
In the beginning of the Internet, there was content. There was information, and maybe a few jokes, and definitely a bunch of people arguing about whatever people argued about on the early days of the World Wide Web. But it was all content.
Fast forward to today. We’ve done a lot to facilitate and promote our content. We’ve pulled in the practices of graphic design and machine learning. We’ve moved beyond published words into live video (and, often, social posturing).
Sure, we focus a lot on how things look, and we focus a lot on how things run – the clever points of a website, the brand standards, and the smooth transitions. But, except in very rare cases, that’s not what people are here to see.
They’re here to see content. Just like in the beginning.
Corey and Deane talk a little about that time Kristina Halvorson (founder of Brain Traffic, co-author of Content Strategy for the Web, and executive producer of Confab and Button) visited Sioux Falls. Then, Kristina chats with us about content strategy — defining content strategy vs. content design, what tasks are often overlooked, and some basics on spinning up an internal web content team — including a bit of conference talk about the upcoming Button Conference.
Content Strategy: Creating Usable, Useful Content
When we talk about content, we’re not just talking about words, sentences, and paragraphs. We’re talking about communication; the transfer of your organization’s messaging and purpose to a visiting website user. Whether it is a comedy video, a long-form blog post, or a bunch of off-market shirts with Hamilton lyrics, it is content.
Which means whenever we talk about content, we need to understand why it’s even necessary.1 Why is someone coming here? What can we provide for them? If this sounds familiar, it’s because we talked about it in Know the Scope of the Project – websites are tools, designed to communicate in one or more of the following ways:
Design and technology are still really important! But it’s always worth remembering that even if it’s not content, it’s built to serve content. All site widgets and advanced technical functionality are designed to provide better access to content. All design serves to frame and provide access to content.
Thus, we can understand the business value of content; on a website, your content is your product. Even if your site is dedicated to selling physical items or consulting services, these real-world products are represented by content, and therefore require the same level of maintenance and careful strategy that you would put toward developing the products themselves.
What is Good Content?
In the study of musicology, there’s a tool called SHMRF. Developed by musicologist Jan LaRue in his book Guidelines for Style Analysis, SHMRF is an acronym that outlines the different elements of music: Sound, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Form2. The tool is useful in that it reminds us that music is much more than just a bunch of notes that we can hum along with: it’s a complex, interconnected art form.
Much like music, content is a multi-faceted, complex being, yet we often focus only on one small portion of its larger composition: usually, just the words. This is never more evident than when budget – time, resources, attention – are divvied out for a web project: often, it’s content that’s given the short end of the resource stick.
In reality, when we talk about content, we’re actually talking about:
- Message/Messaging: What is the overall messaging of your content, and how does each individual piece of content reflect that messaging strategy?
- Format: How does the content present its message? Is it text, video, audio, or some kind of external social media channel?
- Model and Structure: How is the content built and how does it connect to other content across the site?
- Organization and Layout: How is your content organized for findability, and how do the individual elements of a page provide guidance to importance and navigation?
- Voice and Tone: Is the content written in a way that helps guide your unique users toward action, and does it match the overall brand and messaging of your organization?
- Meta Information: What details are attached to a piece of content to help machines understand its context, such as accessibility markers and categorization?
And, yes – on top of all of these different layers are the words themselves. Just like we need to look beyond the simple humming of a melody to understand a song’s full identity, we need to look beyond a site’s words to understand the usefulness and operability of your site’s content. To improve your site’s content. To make it good.
But what does good mean? How can we be sure that our strategy is the right one for our audiences and their expectations?
We can’t provide you an answer for that on a case-by-case basis, but we can point you to a set of principles developed by Erin Kissane in her book The Elements of Content Strategy, principles that outline the basics of what good content means to your audiences:
- Good content is appropriate
- Good content is useful
- Good content is user-centered
- Good content is clear
- Good content is consistent
- Good content is concise
- Good content is supported
We like these principles because they are honest in their goals, and they help us determine methods and tactics that drive us toward creating content that means something. With every decision you make regarding your site’s content from here on out, make sure these principles apply. What’s more, you could replace “content” with “websites” and it would serve the same goals.
The rest of this chapter will focus on strategy-driven planning in three parts: purpose, channels, and messaging.
Your Content's Purpose
The high-level view of your site’s content – and, by extension, your site’s purpose – is tied to what Meghan Casey calls a “content compass,” which she defines as “the role that content plays in meeting your organization’s objectives – and even more specifically, the content’s purpose for your project.”54 If the goal of this phase is to help you create and maintain better content, the content compass serves as a yardstick by which all content is ultimately measured as on-point or off-point.
The compass can provide direction in three ways:
- Function: How does content serve a specific function within our organization? For example: “Our strategy for retaining clients …”
- Property: How does content serve a specific property within your organization? For example: “Our strategy for www.amazingwebsite.com …”
- Subset: How does content serve a specific subset of content within our organization? For example: “Our strategy for project case studies …”
Your Core Strategy Statement
A compass is good at one thing: telling you which direction you are pointing. But a compass on its own is useless unless you know the direction in which you want to travel.
Enter the core strategy statement, which is “a concise statement that typically summarizes choices about why a company (or team) produces content, for whom, and how it manifests.” It takes everything you’ve gathered so far and drops it into a single-sentence manifesto. It’s you and your team planting a flag and saying “this is what every piece of content on our site has to live up to.3”
While the statement may take many forms, four things should always be included within the core strategy statement:
- The business goal
- The audience
- The audience’s needs
- The content you’ll create
For example, when it comes to Blend Interactive’s website, we crafted the following core strategy:
Gain the trust of potential clients by providing examples of our competency in problem-solving and advocacy on complex content projects.
- The business goal: “gain the trust”
- The audience: “potential clients”
- The audience’s needs: “our competency in problem-solving and advocacy on complex content projects”
- The content you’ll create: “examples of our competency"
Content Strategy and Content Marketing
Let’s talk quickly about the concept of content strategy and how it relates to content marketing.
Content strategy – literally the process of making strategic choices about your content – is a high-level process. It’s an important look at multiple angles: what do users want, what do they expect, how can we help, and how can we influence them to choose our service or organization.
Content marketing is one possible tactic within this process, and it is exactly what it sounds like: using content to market your services. Content marketing is focused on providing longer and larger-form content, specifically marketed as the product itself, usually with an added benefit of increased lead generation.
Your Content's Channels
Content doesn’t just live in a simple HTML page on your website. It travels around the world in what sometimes feels like an out-of-control disaster. It’s flowing through what we call channels, and while we often think of channels as parallel pipes of information, like radio stations or television channels, when it comes to web content, channels are more like different forms of transportation: some push content faster, some require a ticket, and some are better suited for large cargo.
For your web content, a standard page might be one channel. It’s text communicated in that specific place. Beyond that, the page might be pulled into a news feed on your site, or displayed on the home page in a special promo area. These are new applications of the same content.
And then, it moves beyond the site. It’s added to LinkedIn. It’s posted on Twitter. It’s promoted through a digital advertising campaign and included in the company newsletter.
All of this matters because your content is on the web, which means it’s going to live beyond your initial use. Your content can travel through dozens of channels. You need to know where it’s going and what you have to manage … and you need to know the best way to push it in the right directions.
Acting on Your Research
The biggest rule in channel determination is to put content where people will find it. Knowing where people are looking for your content – the research into context, archetypical user stories, and even demographic information – is exactly what you need to help figure out where you need to be. In Ahava Leibtag’s book The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web, she sums this up in one simple question:
How will this content float along the web and facilitate conversations?
This is the promise of multichannel publishing: creating a system in which our overall messaging can travel, allowing us to distribute content in a way that’s both findable and usable. And it’s not just digital: your channels might already include broadcast and print. Even sales representatives, who you depend on for closing sales, can be a channel all on their own.
This spread of messaging across the web is called a content ecosystem.
The term, coined by Scott Kubie, author of Writing for Designers, brings to mind the more natural definition of an ecosystem – that “a forest is more than its trees, and your content ecosystem is more than posts and pages on a single website4.” The idea is that while we often get hyper-focused on creating content for our site, we have to also understand that our content comes into contact with our intended (and hidden) audiences in more ways than one.
Documenting this content ecosystem helps us better understand not just the content that we have and the channels we’re writing for, but it also helps us understand how the things we publish move beyond their original vessel, whether that’s through social sharing, or search engine results, or even just word of mouth.
Without this illustration, you’re just guessing. And if you’re just guessing, it’s difficult to justify the channels you ultimately choose.
Choosing and Developing Channels
The reason we focus on choosing channels before we focus on messaging is because messaging means nothing if it’s not encountered by our audiences. We know it’s often hard to believe, but people aren’t scrambling to read our corporate blog or Twitter updates. We need to hit the right notes in the right ways, both in where our content lives and what we use to distribute that content:
- Where content lives: In the grand scheme of web content, social media is fleeting. It’s a shifting fault line upon which your content sits: you do not control it, and you rarely own it. This means any content that is meant for ongoing consumption should live on its own in an area you can control. This is most often your website. Your blog posts, your event listings, and even your Instagram images should live somewhere on their own in order to ensure they’re always around.
- How content is distributed: On the opposite side of the spectrum is how to make that content move beyond the site. Your website is not always a destination, which means you’ll need to understand the ways in which a user might encounter your content in the wild, whether that’s by aggregating your posts to a social media channel, encountering content via digital marketing or advertising, or editorially curating your way into their lives.
Often, your content’s channels are going to depend on where your users are communicating. You wouldn’t broadcast your advertisement for Müeslix on a youth-centered channel like MTV (rather than, say, the Game Show Network), just as you wouldn’t post your blog post about corporate restructuring on Snapchat (when it clearly belongs on a corporate/work-based channel such as LinkedIn.)
Of course, defining your channels can be slippery. In his post, “The Slippery Definition of a Digital Channel,” Deane sketches out a digital audit of Blend Interactive’s channels, finding no fewer than twelve channels down which Blend Interactive’s content originated or flowed. Without fail, your content ecosystem is going to expand and contract; a living, breathing mess of potential touchpoints. Every one of these channels includes both a level of effort and a level of positive returns. It’s up to you and your team to determine which of those touchpoints are valuable.
It’s as easy as answering two questions:
- Does this channel provide any meaningful contact to the people who need things from our organization?
- Does maintenance of this channel outweigh the benefits we will receive from it?
Your Content's Messaging
Finally, now that we’ve talked about the purpose of your content, and talked about the channels your audiences are most likely to encounter, we can touch on the concept of messaging.
Messaging, at its core, is the high-level personification of your communication goals. Messaging within this book, for example, is focused on providing an overview of the entire web process, one slice at a time. We hope that as you read through this, you come away with several key findings: that the web process is complicated, but not unknowable; that you don’t need to be an expert in everything, but knowing a little bit of each phase is wildly helpful; that the authors are both wonderful writers and very humble.
Messaging is also more than what we want to say. It’s also how it’s written. It is an extension of your organization’s brand. Knowing how to word something, or what to include, or what to leave out, is all a part of messaging, and while the concepts of voice and tone are often thrown into the generic pool of “web writing topics,” they also help shape the intent of your messaging5.
Message Hierarchy and Architecture
While we often want to try to serve every audience (and organizational silo) with our messaging, the simple fact is that we can’t. Oh, that way lies madness6. Instead, we need to make some tough choices. We have to choose favorites.
There are two ways this can be handled, spanning the spectrum of project messaging: a message hierarchy and a message architecture.
With the message hierarchy, you’re focusing on the what of your messaging. As outlined in Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web7, a message hierarchy identifies message priority by assigning a primary message from which all other messages flow. For example, if we are creating a message hierarchy for The Web Project Guide, it might look like this:
- Primary Message:
- The Web Project Guide is a relaxed, accessible, high-level view of how to build a website from ideation to launch – and beyond.
- Secondary Messages:
- We provide an outline by which you can understand the entire web project process.
- We are a multi-disciplinary pair of writers who provide both contrasting views and levity to each chapter.
- We serve as an aggregation of deeper resources.
- We provide single-chapter access to any of a web project’s many phases.
Below this is a web of copy points and other details that help fill in the blanks. For example, “We wrote a chapter about content inventories” isn’t a message. It is, however, a notable detail that helps prove the message of “We provide single-chapter access to any of a web project’s many phases.”
All content should flow from these primary and secondary messages, all interpreted and adapted for their specific audience. Each audience may see the message in the same way, or they may encounter them in unique ways.
Meanwhile, message architecture focuses on the how of your messaging. As coined by Margot Bloomstein during her talk “Communicating Content and/by/through Design” back in 2010, message architecture is a “hierarchy of communication goals.” While this feels eerily similar to the aforementioned message hierarchy, in reality a message architecture is focused on the attributes of a message. For example, we hope the message architecture of this book looks something like this:
- Confident: With a level of experience and knowledge; researched without being academic
- Approachable: Accessible to those without a deep knowledge of the web industry
- Understanding: Written without judgment; aware of complicated concepts and trivialities
Of course, message architecture – the very basis of your future style, voice, and tone guides – may also dictate your message hierarchy. It’s silly to think that if we highlight this book as “relaxed,” that we would have a stuffy and rigid primary message of, “We provide academic rigor and no-nonsense education.”
Once you have done the work in determining what your website wants to say you can start:
- Creating a list of topics that ties messaging to your audiences.
- Determine whether or not certain channels are single message, multi-message, or omni-message.
- Go back through your content inventory and tie each piece of content to a message.
- Confirm that every page in your future site map has a purpose tied to an organizational message.
The Big Decision: Refresh vs. New … or Just Keep the Old
So, now that you know what you want to do, are you going to scrap what you’ve got and start fresh? Or are you going to carefully refresh each page?
For some business goals – especially those that require a new or revamped focus on your site – you have no choice. You’re going to have to write new content. For content that you’ve already written, the decision isn’t so cut and dried.
In fact, it often doesn’t depend on your content needs at all: it depends on your time and resources. The strategic decision to move forward with older (but still serviceable) content is perfectly okay, as long as that content still represents the goals you’re trying to achieve for both site visitors and your organization. Writing takes time, and you’ll need all the help you can get.
When it comes down to it, you really don’t have a choice at all. Your decision is based on your time constraints, need for a refreshed brand, or creation of a new content focus. And here you thought you had control over your own content.
Inputs and Outputs
Before you can determine the purpose and application of site content, you need to know your users. Your discovery process leads directly into this: taking the expectations of your audiences and turning them into actual, usable communication. This is helped by knowing what content you already have and, more specifically, how much and to what extent your existing content is matching user expectations.
From this phase, you’ll have made major decisions in what kinds of content you need, what channels you’ll want to populate, and a framework for your overall web presence and messaging. What form this takes is largely up to you and your team: it can be pieced into several illustrative deliverables, such as a message architecture plan or a content ecosystem diagram, or it can simply be contained in a high-level strategic plan document.
The Big Picture
With this phase, we begin forming the schematics and determining functionality for the entire project. Content strategy, information architecture, visual design, and content creation all provide the substance of your project. Things have been theoretical; now they’re becoming practical.
To be clear: creating a strategy around your content and actually writing your content may fall on the shoulders of the same person – or it may be completely separate. As we will discuss throughout the next few chapters, the overlap in skill sets between content strategy, information architecture, content modeling, and content authoring is as wide or narrow as your industry and organization needs.
Most often than not, the bulk of strategic planning is going to fall on someone who has an understanding of both how your customers interact with content and how it will be used into the future. This may be a content strategy consultant, or it may be a full-time team member who will eventually see their job transform into more acute strategic planning and content maintenance. They should be able to see the big picture across multiple departments, and they should be able to translate the needs of site users into effective content and marketing ideas.
- Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach
- The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane
- Content Strategy at Work by Margot Bloomstein
- The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web by Ahava Leibtag
- The Language of Content Strategy by Scott Abel and Rahel Anne Bailie
- The Content Strategy Toolkit by Meghan Casey
- Content Strategy by Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina
- “Create a Content Compass” by Meghan Casey
- "Core Strategy vs. Strategic Priorities: Which Is Right for You?" by Kristina Halvorson
- “Content Mad Libs” by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
- “An Introduction to Content Ecosystem Maps” by Scott Kubie
- “The Slippery Definition of a Digital Channel” by Deane Barker
- BrandSort cards (for performing message architecture exercises
- “Putting Content Strategy to Work” by Margot Bloomstein