Content Strategy for the Web

By

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach

Read in
January, 2021
My rating:
7
/10

Summary

A straightforward, easy to digest guide to building content strategies. Pitched more at the person in a business (and who is more likely to be writing) than it is the broader spectrum of 'content creators' that exist today. Most helpful for its descriptions about how to frame your strategy and translate it into content that will actually help.

Notes

'Generally speaking, content is more or less worthless unless it does one or both of the following: A) Supports a key business objective, B) Fulfils your users’ needs'

The Long and the Short Of It

The key messages of content strategy.

Less content > More Content

Having an unending fountain of content is not necessarily a good thing because it can be incredibly difficult to manage. Instead, prefer quality over quantity. Benefits of having less content:

  • Easier to manage
  • Easier to keep updated
  • Easier to keep relevant across all channels
  • Easier for users to find what they want
  • Easier for users to see what's important

'Too much content means information is harder to find, whether on the page or within your site. And that means it’s harder for a customer to make a decision in favor of your product or service.'

Know What You're Working With

Create an inventory of the content you already have. It might be that you already have much of what you need, or you may not be aware of the gaps that you have.

After you know what you have, it's just as important to assess it for quality. Is it support objectives and fulfilling user needs?

Listen to People

Ask the right questions of your colleagues and customers. More often than not, they have all the answers—you just need to get it out of them.

'When working with engineers, I tried to make things simple and empirical, often relying on spreadsheets and “if-then” statements. With designers, I went visual. And with executive stakeholders, I always made an effort to reference bigger-picture goals.'

Put Someone In Charge

Someone needs to own the content that your company has. Is that going to be you, or a handful of people across the team you work in? It doesn't matter, but you need to make sure that someone owns it somewhere.

Take Action

Ask your boss what drives them crazy about their content currently, ask your colleagues what they think is missing, educate people, get to know people, but ultimately find some good things you can crack on with and get them done however you can.

'Demonstrate value on your own terms. Be proactive, and identify tiny projects that will showcase the benefits of content strategy. Then get them done, with or without resources.'

Problems Need Solutions

The Problems

We treat content like it's a commodity. It's not—it's an asset, 'an asset that requires strategic consideration.'

More content often leads to more confusion. It ages quickly and users don't particularly want loads of.

We buy it on the cheap from content farms, or aggregate low quality material and just shove it out there onto the internet.

We publish as much as we possibly can. This can be super unhelpful, but boy it feels good to look busy doesn't it?

Content is political: legal wants this, marketing wants that, product needs the other.

'Delivering great content requires some kind of investment: user research, strategic planning, meaningful metadata, web writing skills, and editorial oversight.'

The Solution

Content strategy is three things:

  1. It defines how to use content to meet business and customer needs
  2. It guides decisions about content through the lifecycle from discovery to drafting to deletion
  3. Sets benchmarks for success to measure how well its doing

Content strategy != tactics like blogs, white papers and articles.

'Content is what the user came to read, learn, see, or experience. From a business perspective, the content is the critical information the website, application, intranet, or any other delivery vehicle was created to contain or communicate.'

In reality there is a Core Strategy at the centre, made up of Content (Substance + Structure) and People (Workflow + Governance):

  • Substance: topics, types, sources
  • Structure: prioritisation, organisation, formatting, display
  • Workflow: processes, tools, people
  • Governance: how decisions are made, who by and when

'In summary: Content strategy guides your plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of content.'

Who is the Content Strategist?

it's the person responsible for all the content! But this doesn't mean they write every paragraph. In general, though, they:

  • Are the advocate for the content throughout the team and organization
  • Provide the background research and analysis that stakeholders need to make smart decisions about content
  • Create recommendations for the content based on business and user needs
  • Work with the organization to implement the content online

The role can overlap with others, sometimes more often than not:

Messaging and branding - what's the story, how do we tell people and how do we differentiate that story across different audiences?

Web writing - useful context, basic UX design, managing content inventory, keeping good metadata

Information Architecture - determines content requirements for websites, understands and addresses structural issues, determines messaging hierarchy.

Search Engine Optimisation - leverages content for better visibility with search engines, on and offsite optimisation, metadata, site structure

'Ultimately, the important thing is simply that someone is paying close attention to the critical questions that will make or break your content: why, what, where, for whom, by whom, when, how much, and what’s next. It doesn’t matter what you call it or who does it ... as long as the work gets done!'

Discovery - Finding Out Where You Stand

Alignment

Alignment is not consensus, but a common understanding. People affect the content and vice versa. It's important first to identify your stakeholders, who will broadly fit into five camps:

  • Decision makers - those most impacted and deserving of your attention
  • Money people - funding your project or work, may also be the above
  • Champions - your biggest fans and advocates
  • Showstoppers - might cause an issue if not kept in the loop
  • Interested others - keep them warm

You'll want to engage your stakeholders with a good story arc:

  1. Problem/opportunity
  2. Urgency
  3. Request for help
  4. The Players
  5. The Pay Off
'Alignment is about providing your stakeholders with baseline information about the content, each other, and the strategy process. Then, for the rest of time, it means keeping people up to date, asking for input, and responding to questions. (Yes. Seriously. Forever.)'

Audit

It's important to know what you have, where you have it and whether or not it's any good. This is the case today AND tomorrow.

There are broadly two types of audit: Quantitative and Qualitative.

Quantitative audit: what have you got and where is it? An inventory of sorts.

Qualitative audit: is it good, well-written and benchmarked against industry standards? Is it in line with business goals? Does it follow your content strategy?

Quantitative Audit in Detail

A quant audit seeks to get the facts about all the content you currently have and all the relevant information about it that you might need:

  • Unique ID - e.g. A001, B097 etc
  • Title/topics - normally headings will do
  • URL - where applicable
  • Format - pdf, video, text
  • Source - internal, external
  • Metadata - keywords, tags
  • Traffic - who's and where from
  • Technical home - website? Social?
  • Last update - when, who by and why
  • Languages - if in more than one

You may not need all of these, and this can get more complex if you have content in more than one location, but a simple spreadsheet and most of the above as headers makes for a good start.

Qualitative Audit in Detail

This part of the audit is more to do with subjective analysis if the quality and effectiveness of the content as it stands.

Factors to consider and rank either on a scale, 1-5 or from pre-selected criteria:

  • Usability - H1, H2s, design
  • Knowledge level - Beginner? PhD?
  • Findability - Organic? Paid? Social?
  • Actionability - what do they do once they've finished reading it?
  • Audience - primary and secondary? Who's who?
  • Accuracy - is it on target?

For a more strategic audit, use the following questions:

  • Business Value - does it help us reach one of our business goals? (KPI list)
  • Message - does it carry a key primary and/or secondary message(s)?
  • Brand/Tone - is in line with the established style of the company?

If you have under 5000 pieces of content you should aim to look at all of it—this is doable, believe it or not.

Report your findings:

  • Overview
  • Goals
  • Audit factors and measurement criteria
  • Scope
  • Conclusions
  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Suggestions

Analysis

Your content won't exist in a vacuum. 'Business goals, resource constraints, user needs, and competitor activities are just a few things that influence your content in a big, big way.'

Internal impact factors: How does your organization impact your content?

External impact factors: What effects do users, competitors, and influencers have?

Internal Analysis

Internal analysis can be conducted by acting like a journalist, getting comfortable with silence and, on occasion, asking 'silly' questions. These are often the best things to get to the bottom of what the truth really is.

It's important to understand what people think across four key areas.

A - What Are Our Target Audiences?

Audiences can be any number of things:

  • Potential customers
  • Existing customers
  • Product users
  • Future investors
  • Current investors
  • Future employees
  • Current employees

Different stakeholders will value and prioritise different audiences at different times for different reasons.

B - What Is Our Messaging?

This is about how you get the information and the ideas of the business into the heads of your users, whoever they may be.

You can use messaging to:

  • Prioritize content needs
  • Keep content consistent (over media and time)
  • Align content owners on content requirements

What messages do we want to send to what stakeholders?

What messages exist right now?

What messages do we need to have out there in the future?

'Messaging is the art of deciding what information or ideas you want to give to—and get from—your users.'

C - What Channels Should We Use?

It rarely pays to be on every channel all the time talking to every audience member. There are many:

  • Website
  • Social
  • Mobile
  • Internal
  • Print
  • Email

Important to understand the user lifecycle—how do people interact with your content from first hearing about you, to making the decision to buy, and beyond as an active user?

Where have the sales come from so far?

What lifecycle are your customers moving through?

  • Know - they hear about you, perhaps in an article posted somewhere
  • Consider - they read your about page, white papers etc on your website
  • Trust - read through case studies, watch videos, given demonstrations
  • Buy -  use support information and manuals to set up
  • Use - carry on as active users needing support material/documentation

D - How Should Content Be Managed?

Many people involved with many roles in content strategy:

  • Requesters
  • Providers
  • Reviewers
  • Approvers
  • Publishers

These are all steps in the process and how they interact will depend on people's capacity, internal politics, the abilities that people have, the tools and templates that are available for everyone to use at each step.

External Analysis

Users

Knowing what your users think and want is important. While it can be helpful to gather endless amounts of date, data != information.

Competitors

What are your competitors doing? How can you get an advantage on them? Not just parity, but better.

How is their content covered?

  • Terminology
  • Audience
  • Taxonomies
  • Topics
  • Formats
  • Brand and messaging

Strategy - Charting a Way Forward

Core Strategy

'The core strategy sets the long-term direction for all of your content-related initiatives—ensuring all activities, big or small, are working together toward the same magnificent future. Tactics might need to change, but your core strategy stays consistent. It helps you withstand the changes and keep moving forward.'

The core strategy sits at the centre of all content activity. It must be:

  • Flexible
  • Aspirational
  • Memorable
  • Motivational
  • Inclusive

When we say 'aspirational', we mean that the core strategy needs to 'achieve', 'be' and 'do':

  • Achieve: What does your content strategy need to accomplish (for the organization, for your industry, for your product, etc.)?
  • Be: What “content product(s)” will we create? (In other words, what will we produce for our users/consumers? How will those content products be valuable to the users/consumers?)
  • Do: What will the organization need to do to support the content effort?

Then, once you've outlined all of these things, be able to put it into a single sentence which you can annotate to bring it to life. This is only for internal use, of course.

Content - Substance

Substance: what and why?

Structure: how to format, organise and display?

Audience

Get really specific about who your audience is and who you're talking to at any given moment. It may be helpful to put together 'personas' for these different audiences:

  • Customer
  • User
  • Investor

It's then vital to prioritise by channel—the website is for customers, email is for... etc.

Messaging

What do you want people to remember?

Primary: the main thing you want people to take away, found in everything you put out for all audiences. These might be interpreted differently, depending on the audience you are talking to. It will be different for investors, customers and end users, in all likelihood, but conveying the same message underneath that either way.

Secondary: multiple groups of key messages that support the primary message and give context. Advantages, differentiators etc. May not be applicable to every audience.

Details: proof points that support both types of above message.

Example 'Primary message: AwesomeCo is the best-kept secret in business software.

Secondary messages:

  • We don’t sell products. We sell systems tailored to your needs.
  • We use open source technology, so you’re never held hostage to proprietary code.
  • We work with 83 companies in the Fortune 100, new startups, and everyone in between.
  • We don’t do marketing; we’re too busy making software. Our business comes from word of mouth.'

Topics

The audience you are talking to, plus the messaging you will use with them, decides the topics you will be writing about.

Creating a topic map of all those possible things you might write about, and how they all interrelate is a really useful way of showing where the pinch points are.

  • Software
  • Hardware
  • Benefits
  • Case studies
  • Support
  • FAQ
  • Careers

Purpose

'Your analysis helped identify what your audience wants. Your messaging communicates what information you’d like them to understand. Now, you can select topics to focus on what will fulfill both of your needs.'

Every piece of content needs a job:

  • Persuade
  • Inform
  • Validate
  • Instruct
  • Entertain

Voice and Tone

You have the same voice you use day to day, but you change your tone depending on who you're speaking to. The same can be true of brands and businesses. It's important to always talk with one voice and a consistent tone, otherwise it can feel like you're interacting with an inconsistent business.

Your Defining Voice is how your content will feel, what values will underpin it and will manifest different types of media. Often best described using a handful of clear adjectives, e.g. 'aspirational, inclusive, authentic'.

Your Defining Tone is the emotion and the energy that sets the voice off. What are the native voices of your audiences—how might the tone shift for each of these different groups? Funny? Calm? Punchy? Bold?

Mailchimp have a really good Content Style Guide that is available under a CC license.

The MailChimp voice:

  • Fun but not childish
  • Clever but not silly
  • Powerful but not complicated
  • Smart but not stodgy
  • Cool but not alienating
  • Informal but not sloppy
  • Helpful but not overbearing
  • Expert but not bossy

Prioritising Content

It can be hard to know where to start when putting content together, but there are five criteria we can use to build a better sense of this:

  1. Requirements: legal, political, funding?
  2. Reach: which audiences and how big?
  3. Relevance: important, interesting?
  4. Richness: how valuable or unique can we make this content?

Content - Structure

How we structure our content is important. If we just write a bunch of content, we need also to make sure that it lands in the right places structured in such a way that will actively help it. We need to think about:

  • Channels
  • Platforms
  • Formats

How you move about and navigate a website is incredibly important and can have as much of an impact on whether or not we make a buying decision as anything else.

Navigation - is it intuitive? Does it support key messages?

Links - how are they driving customer task completion, information submission and actions? If you want your users to do a certain thing, do your links call them to do those things?

Microcopy - how are you using copy in your menus, form fields, captions and buttons? Can it be done in such a way as to carry across the tone, voice and messages of the company?

Sitemaps and Metadata - how has your site been structures? Does it work well with search engine crawlability? Is it plugged into Analytics, Search Console, Yoast, AHRefs?

People - Workflow and Governance

It's important to define ownerships and roles within the content strategy:

  • Web editor in chief - sets standards, builds plans, puts together business cases, manages people
  • Web manager or editor - creates style guides, editorial guides, develops content calendar, maintains content
  • Content creator - develops written (or any other format) content, edits and reformats, works by SEO standards
  • Sourcing/Curation - sets guidelines for selection, pulls together editorial calendar, adds content to what has been curated (if needed)
  • SEO Specialist - improves website performance, sets keywords/strategy, educates others on the ins and outs of SEO
  • Subject matter expert - reviews and approves content, helps plan and prioritise what goes out, is the source of ideas and some content where appropriate
  • Reviewers/Approve - gives the green light (or not)

Governance processes are also very important to make sure that things are managed well at a high level.

Tends to be an ongoing process of:

  • Create
  • Maintain
  • Evaluate
  • Create...etc.

An editorial calendar helps act as the drumbeat to this ongoing process. In creating this calendar, you'll want to define why it exists:

  • Who is it for?
  • Will it be shared with others?
  • What is it supposed to drive or measure?
  • Who will use it?

Perhaps it is used as a shared point of reference for who needs to do what, or perhaps it is more to measure the effectiveness of the messaging that's going out there.

Either way, governance processes need to be established and recorded to make sure that everyone sings to the same tune.

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