Content Strategy – Here’s what you are going to learn:
- Why content is still king.
- What happens when you don’t have a content strategy?
- Content strategy for the web.
- Why is content strategy important?
- What are the essential elements of a content strategy?
- How to build an audience profile.
- What are personas, tasks and user journeys?
- Why segment users?
- How to structure content and develop the sitemap.
- How to govern content.
- Why you need usability testing.
Why content is STILL king.
Forgive me, but I must begin by airing that well-worn truism again:
Content is king.
But bear with me, because as the digital sphere evolves, never has it been more accurate. It may be obvious, but it can’t be reiterated enough:
Content is a critical asset for any business.
Brands are communicating across an increasing number of digital platforms – websites, blogs, social, video – words, images, video, anything your users sees, reads or interacts with – is content. And, more of it is being produced – at greater volumes and regularity – than ever before.
As the digital sphere matures, the demands are becoming ever more complex.
As the digital sphere matures, the demands are becoming ever more complex. Maintaining the quality, brand consistency and user engagement of your content is becoming increasingly difficult. Which is why the creation of a new website, or the relaunch of an existing site, can seem like an overwhelming task.
Make no mistake. It is.
Wipe the grin off your face. This is serious.
Everything hinges on getting this right. Everything hinges on your content strategy.
Shit Creek. Don’t go there.
What happens when you don’t have a content strategy?
Let’s assume you’ve been tasked with a new site launch or relaunch. You may feel proud. You may feel excited. You may even feel that this is your big chance to show your worth.
So how do you begin?
Like so many, you may cheerfully ignore wisdom, and, overwhelmed by some misplaced sense of ‘can do’ confidence, be tempted to scoff, “Content strategy? Hah! Strategy Schmategy! Let’s just do this!” before diving straight in to the uncharted depths of the digital ocean.
Blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking below…
Shit creek waits. Once there, no paddle in the world is going to save you...
But, wait. Before you dive in, you need to consider reality.
Unless this process is managed carefully with a disciplined, strategic approach, shit creek waits. And once there, no paddle in the world is going to save you.
As you scrabble around the slowly sinking deck on all fours, wading through the splashing excrement, desperately searching for the paddle, you’ll hear an enraged scream. And as you look up, shielding your eyes from the sun, the last thing you will ever see is your crazed superior brandishing that paddle down upon you with unrestrained ferocity, as he beats you, quite justifiably, to death.
You don’t want that.
So let’s try the question again: How do you begin?
Well you can begin by listening to the little voice in your head. That’s your self-doubt talking. That’s the reality principle kicking in. Don’t ignore it.
Its prime function is to help you survive. So you may just want to listen to what it has to say…
“What are our content needs? What is it for? Who is going to read it? Why are they going to read it? How are we going to plan it? How will we structure it? How are we going to keep our content under control? How will we maintain quality? What is the message? How do we keep every piece of content on brand? How will our content work in the bigger picture? How can we avoid destroying our brand? Our reputation? Why does it have to be this way? Why do I feel like crying?”
These are simply the questions you need to face. The questions you cannot hide from. These are the questions you need to answer.
You may want to run home to mummy. But breathe. You can do this.
There is a way. This is where content strategy comes in.
In simple terms, it’s the discipline of planning, creating, managing and publishing your content.
Now take that in.
Here it is again. This time in bold to emphasise its importance:
Content strategy is the discipline of planning, creating, managing and publishing your content.
Don’t read any further until you’ve internalised that.
Congratulations. Let’s move on.
Content strategy for the web.
Content strategy is an essential component of the web development process and sets the foundation for everything from copywriting and information architecture, through to design and development.
In this article, we examine how to create a content strategy for a new or existing website.
Fundamentally, it’s about understanding your audience. Clarifying your messages. Setting a consistent tone and approach. And planning and structuring your content to best serve your users, the longevity of your brand and the ongoing effectiveness of your site.
Fundamentally, it’s about understanding your audience.
Why is content strategy important?
Well, as we’ve already mentioned, it could be the deciding factor as to whether or not you end your days at the mercy of an outraged, paddle-wielding boss, as you float down stinky river.
Without a content strategy, your content can (and probably will) tailspin out of control, become disjointed and leave users confused and unsatisfied. That’s especially true if you have multiple contributors to a site.
When we say ‘site’ here, it’s because that’s where content strategy is most usually used.
However, there’s nothing to stop you applying it across all of your communications and pieces of functionality, such as apps, videos, ads, radio commercials – anything.
Content Strategy: a sat-nav for the lost.
Having a content strategy is like having a road between where you are and where you want to get to. It makes it easier than going across country. And a good content strategy is like having a satnav for when you don’t know where you’re going.
Because everything a user or customer or prospect sees is content, it needs a strategy to keep it under control.
To start to form a content strategy, all you need is a word processor and a spreadsheet
To start to form a content strategy, all you need is a word processor and a spreadsheet. You know the ones. Oh, and someone who’s going to be your content strategist.
In plain and simple terms, your content strategy will:
- Plan and structure your content requirements.
- For older sites, assess what you’ve already got, what you need to trash and what you need to create (with an audit).
- Work out what to do with your content (with a strategy).
- Be used in conjunction with your information architecture (IA) to establish structure.
- Give a brief assessment of your typical audience(s).
- Establish your brand, tone of voice and style (with examples).
- Show examples of your company’s services or product’s features, balanced with benefits.
- Link with your marketing plan.
- Outline your content governance process.
- Describe your search engine optimisation (SEO) approach.
- Talk about your content management system (CMS) if you’re using one.
What are the essential elements of a content strategy?
Of course, the needs of every project are different, but essentially the critical elements of your content strategy will be as follows:
- Audience Profile.
- Content audit.
- User journeys and content segmentation.
- Structuring the content and developing the sitemap.
- Content Governance.
- Marketing plan.
- Brand and editorial guidelines, tone of voice and message hierarchy
- Content production workflow and editorial calendar
- Search engine optimization (SEO policy)
- Content marketing system (CMS)
- Usability testing.
We’re going to go briefly through each of the bullet points above. The points aren’t exhaustive because every site and every brand’s aims is different.
Also (as you can see from the length of this article) content strategy is a complex discipline. So we’re going to assume you have a rudimental grasp on the subject of content, marketing and web development.
But don’t worry, if you haven’t, we’ve provided a range of resources to other in-depth articles, where you can fill in any knowledge gaps.
Okay. Let’s get started on your content strategy plan...
Building an audience profile.
Just who do you think you’re talking to?
Essentially, you need to establish who you’re talking to, so we can then look at how you will talk to them.
So the first crucial step is to build audience profiles, identifying who needs your product or service, and why they would want to buy it.
You may want to consider:
- Age group
Although one could hazard a guess based on the nature of your business, you will have a better idea of your demographic by drawing on existing customer research or by holding focus groups and workshops to explore your audience more deeply.
You need to understand their motivations, needs, aspirations, and crucially, how they feel about your service/products and brand.
For established brand, audience profiles should already be in place and the information will be ready for you to use. However, if it isn’t and you’re starting from scratch, here’s some great references to help you delve deeper:
How to Develop an Audience Profile
Personas, tasks and user journeys
Once you’ve established your audience profiles, we need to develop a crucial step, personas, needs, tasks and user journeys:
- Personas – the kind of people that we expect to visit and use your website.
- Needs – what users want and need from your websites.
- Tasks – what users want to achieve by visiting your websites.
- User journeys – examples of how they will complete these tasks on your site.
(It’s normal to establish personas and user journeys as back-to-back sub-projects.)
Most brands have more than one audience type, so content strategists and Information Architects (IAs) split them into ‘personas’ and then – weirdly – group them back together again according to their needs, interests, hopes, aspirations and desires.
Next, you will identify some of the most likely tasks that users will want to carry out on your sites.
You need to determine:
- What your users need to do, learn and find when they land on your site.
- What you need them do, learn and find in order for them to convert.
Once you have established what users may want to do, we can then investigate how they might achieve it.
The user tasks you identify at this stage of the content strategy will become the backbone of your content structure...
Right you’ve determined who your audiences are, what they need, and the tasks they need to perform on your site.
Next in your content strategy plan we need to take that information and use it as the basis for structuring the website content. The aim is to structure the site content around user tasks.
The purpose of this exercise is to start the user experience journey – segmenting audiences as required in the broader context of the site, to furnish each user type with the information they need on their particular journey through your site.
Why segment users?
Well, your various categories of users don’t need all of your content served up to them all at once – or all at the same time. Indeed, the information provided to new users could actually be quite irritating to an existing client.
Therefore, the user experience should be layered in such a way that different users get all the information they need, when they need it – and nothing they don’t need.
Let's take a very simplified example and say we have three tiers of audience:
- New users
- Existing users of one of your competitors
- Loyal existing users
Ultimately, the purpose of a website is to furnish users with the information they need to generate an inquiry and stop the user from shopping around.
So in this case, tiers 1 and 2 have similar requirements. As such, the journey for tiers 1 and 2 will present them the information they need to convince them that your brand is the best option for their requirements.
Tier 3, your existing clients, will already know this.
Taking tier 3 the same journey as tiers 1 and 2 will frustrate them. The information they require is different. So Tier 3 will need to be segmented earlier in the user experience and taken on a journey which serves their needs. For example quickly finding info on new relevant products, or contact and support information.
User journeys allow us to structure the content and messages around needs of each specific user type.
We can then structure the message hierarchy to deliver the required stage of each users journey, and plan for the segmentation of users to guide each user type toward the information they need.
This brings us on to the sitemap…
Structuring the content. Developing the Sitemap.
Next, you need to start structuring the content for your site. And for this part of the content strategy, you’re going to need an information architect (IA).
Information architecture is a discipline of its own, focused on site maps, content hierarchy, taxonomy and categorization, meta data and site navigation. Content strategy overlaps with elements of IA in order to prioritize content, create site maps, and ultimately structure content and information to enable users to find what they need as intuitively as possible.
Working with information architects/information scientists
Ideally, your content strategist and information architects/information scientists should be working together as a team to create your new or revitalised site. You should involve both disciplines as early as you possibly can in the project – at the briefing stage is good.
If it’s an existing site, the content strategist and IA should work together to restructure the sitemap based on the audit, adjust wireframes, work on signage and navigation and stick lots of big pieces of paper to the walls.
The sitemap allows you to organise the content of your site.
To develop your sitemap. You can begin by using a simple spreadsheet, outlining each and every page your users need on your website and how they relate to each user journey.
Next, describe the content in each cell that’s dedicated to the page.
Once you’ve done that we’re ready to start visualizing the sitemap detailing each page and how they relate to and link to one another.
Initially, a simple sketch is all you need at this stage, with each page represented by a box and joined by lines to indicate the corresponding links.
There are also some useful tools such as flowchart.com or writemaps.com that can help you create something more detailed and substantial.
Here’s how you start:
- Begin with a box entitled ‘home page’
- Link the home page to each major section of your site, creating an individual box for each section (e.g. services, products, about us, team, etc.)
- Under each section, box out the individual subpages (e.g. individual services, individual products, etc.)
- Continue to create boxes for every single page on your site
Now focus on audience segmentation. You are likely to segment your journeys early on in the site – i.e the homepage.
So over the sitemap mark out the point of segmentation for each user (i.e. the point at which they embark on their own journey) and colour code the user journey for each user type right through to the goal has been reached – ie. Contact, subscribing to a list, enquiry or sale.
Sitemaps - wider reading
What if you’re relaunching a site?
How to assess what you’ve already got (and what you haven’t). The dreaded audit.
If your website’s more than about a nanosecond old, it probably needs an audit if it hasn’t already had one. The best way to do this is to get a spreadsheet and import your sitemap accurately.
And we mean every page.
How many dimensions you need and how many worksheets will be necessary simply depends on the size (in breadth and depth) of your site.
Next, describe the content in each cell that’s dedicated to the page. You need to watch out for duplicate content (search engines hate dupes – and bear in mind that duplicate content on other sites may de-rank your principal content).
Conversely, there might be material missing. Working out what’s missing is what content strategists call a gap analysis.
Kill, cure or keep: Finding out what to do with your content.
Your content strategist will ask the question: kill, cure or keep. If it’s duplicate, irrelevant, out of date or otherwise undesirable, it’s killed. If a piece of content has some merit, a copywriter should be asked to cure it. If it’s thought to be strong and valuable and perfect, it should be kept just as it is.
If your site is of any age, once this exercise has been completed, you should have the gaps filled and a simplified site. And simple is good.
Once your sitemap is launch the user experience expert will begin to develop the wireframes. It’s nearly time to begin creating content.
But first, you’re going to need to get the governance in place…
How do you manage the entire process of content creation?
You need to develop content governance, defining this process and provide the related material required for content creation. Though every organisation’s content requirements are different, your approach to content governance will need to answer the following questions:
- What content do we need?
- Who are the key stakeholders involved with content?
- How do we create content? What is the workflow?
- What do we need to create content that is ‘on brand’?
- How do we publish content?
- When will we publish content?
- How will we maintain content?
So, to ensure effective content governance, you will need to cover each of these areas within your content strategy:
- The content plan: what we will be creating)
- Key stakeholders: the tasks and responsibilities of the people that manage, request, create, approve, design, publish and maintain content (e.g. content strategist, marketing managers, subject matter experts, copywriter, graphic designers, information Architect, UX team, etc.)
- The content production workflow: how we approach content creation and who does what at each phase)
- Brand and editorial style guides, and brand assets: what we need to create content that is ‘on brand’ – e..g tone of voice document, style guides, messaging, images, etc.
- Content manage system: how we publish content.
- Editorial calendar: when we will publish content.
For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on some of the specific elements related to content creation.
Content Strategy: An extension of your marketing plan
Your content strategy extends and complements your marketing plan. Put simplistically, your marketing plan will tell you what you’re going to do, how much you’re going to spend and what you expect the results to be; your content strategy will augment it to show you how you’re going to get those results via the content you produce.
That’s why you may need to focus less on what content is about and start thinking about what content is for. For example:
- What is the purpose of this piece of writing, movie, animation, photo?
- What do I want the user to do having experienced it?
- How does this piece of content help me achieve the aims in the marketing plan?
If you haven’t got a marketing plan, get a content strategy because whatever happens, you don’t want your communications turning into a mess.
In the digital age, one could argue that a content strategy with some dates and costs could actually replace a marketing plan.
You may also wish to include subcategories of your cotnetn strategy for focuses activities such your offline marketing and content marketing strategy.
“But isn’t content marketing strategy the same as your content strategy” I hear you cry.
No. No, it is not.
They are, of course, related. But quite different beasts.
Brand guidelines and tone of voice.
Establishing your tone of voice.
How you talk to your audiences, is an extremely important part of your brand. In fact, there are arguably only two things more important: your products and your people. Thing is, despite all the effort and money you put into getting your logo just right, most people won’t buy from you because they like your logo.
Most people – especially people who are about to part with either their own or their company’s money – need to be persuaded into doing it. That’s the job of the copywriter. One of the jobs of the content strategist is to give the copywriter a steer on what is required in terms of tone.
Most content strategists have come from a copywriting background so they know the score.
So they’ll use their copywriter’s sense, combine it with their strategic thinking and make some assumptions about how to talk to your audiences (based on the personas and user journeys that have hopefully, by this stage, already been established).
If you’re using a previously published style guide as a reference, the content strategy should let contributors know what it is and where they can get it.
Although it’ll have a certain style, your own organisation’s tone of voice should be as unique as possible to your company.
A bit like, well, the tone of your voice.
Or like a restaurant has a certain way of doing things: yep, they’re all called home-made Pizza wherever you go. But they all taste different.
Your tone of voice is the flavour of your content.
You also need to do the same for the visual elements of your brand – your visual brand guidelines, assets and images should also be collected together and managed in the same way.
The Message Hierarchy
It’s time to prioritise your messages. Create a message hierarchy, if you will. Devise a set of primary messages that you can pass on to your copywriters so they can design your content in a more meaningful way.
Start by working out your ultimate goals.
Think about the messages the user will read, what the business purpose for the message is and the business outcome you expect to get from it. Come up with a few potential messages that really speak to the tone and voice of the brand, and which will really resonate with customers.
Be harsh. Any ideas that don’t work together, discard. Once you’ve got five workable ideas you want to communicate to people, brief your copywriters.
Copy should appear on your website – and indeed anywhere else – in an intentional way.
Not just be words thrown across the page in the vague hope they’ll catch someone’s attention.
Prioritise your messages based on what you know about your end users – their personas, needs, tasks and user journeys.
You need to make sure that people remember the right aspects of your brand. Of what you’re trying to sell or communicate. And the message hierarchy is key for doing this. If you don’t let your copywriters know what you’re trying to achieve, they’re shooting in the dark. So turn the lights on and give them a fighting chance.
Features and benefits
Most people don’t know the difference between a feature and a benefit. So it’s a good idea, as part of your content strategy, to give some examples that are directly relevant to your company.
Once your content strategist has spoken to you and got some background on what you do/sell/promote/want/fundraise for, they’ll write a sequence of features balanced with benefits that specifically relate to you.
Including this in your content strategy document is especially valuable when you have contributors who are not copywriters by discipline.
Here’s a feature:
The car’s lights stay on for three minutes after you’ve parked and switched of the engine…
Here’s the corresponding benefit:
…so you don’t trip and fall flat on your face in the dark while you’re walking to the door of your home.
One more feature:
The bottle has a special non-drip spout…
And the benefit:
…so the ketchup doesn’t run down the sides and stick the bottle to the shelf every time you put it back.
Content production workflow & editorial calendar
Your content production workflow formalize the entire content production process. Essentially, it’s role is to help you organize content, define responsibilities, keep track progress, and ensure that approvals and delivery of content.
It helps to break down the tasks and responsibilities involved from the moment a piece of content is requested to the moment it is published. This way every person involved understands their role within the bigger picture and what they need to do to ensure content moves on to the next stage.
Another key tool in content strategy plan is the editorial calendar. Quite simply, the editorial clander helps you manage the entire lifecycle of your content, defining what, when and how you publish content. It also allows you to decide what you are going to do with a piece of content in the long term (for example, scheduling updates, refreshing the content, retiring the content, etc.)
Your editorial calendar can take the form of anything from a simple spreadsheet to more sophisticated project manage,ent systems such as Teamwork or Trello.
What ever it’s form, your editorial clanedar needs to define the following:
- Content format: i.e web page, blog article, info graphic
- Content assets: copy, images, meta data, etc.
- Publication channel: website, blog, social media, etc.
- Content location: url on the website, social post, etc.
- Content publication date: when we will publish the piece of content
- Content owner: who is responsible for the content
- Maintenance tasks: when to refresh, revisit rework or retire the content
How are the search engines going to find you?
Your content strategy should allude to your search policy. It’s not the purpose of the content strategy document to define the search policy but, if one exists, the content strategy should give guidance for writers.
If, for example, your search policy defines the ideal product listing page as about 250 words long with three mentions of the product name and that pictures should always have captions that are identical to alt-tags, then the content strategy document should probably say so.
Likewise , you need to define how you’re going to handle metadata (page title, description, keywords).
But that’s about the level of detail you need: just some specifics. The content strategy needn’t be going into the depths of your link-back plan.
If you have a search policy document you could run it as an appendix to the content strategy.
Building and using a content management system
Depending on the expected size of your site and the number of contributors, it might be prudent to invest in a content management system (CMS). In an appendix, the content strategy should inform contributors about how to add content, approval processes and restrictions.
If you are dealing with a global site with an enterprise level CMS, you are like to have detailed instructions from your web team detailing how to use the CMS to add and manage content.
Include these instructions in your content strategy. Everything in one place.
Alternatively, you may be using something a little more modest such a Wordpress or Squarespace. Again, each platform will incude its own CMS instructions for adding and managing content.
And finally: Usability testing...
...And Finally: Usability Testing
Although not directly relevant to content strategy, now’s a good time to ask about some user experience testing. A good content strategist/IA team will be pleading to get some users in for early-stage testing – as soon as they’ve Omnigraffled some wireframes together.
Once the wireframes are ready, it’s time to start doing some user testing. There is only one way of optimising the user experience and that is to test it.
It’s not necessary to build anything - everything can be done with wireframes on pieces of paper. If working prototypes can be arranged, then so much the better.
But paper testing should be adequate – and it is very definitely better than nothing.
An hour testing can save many, many hours of false development time. And if you change anything, test again. The earlier you do it– the more pain and cost you’ll save.
It’s not DIY dentistry, so do it. Please.