Eight years ago when we started a content strategy consulting firm, the term “content strategy” wasn’t a buzzword, or even a well-known term outside of a very small audience. Today, you’ve probably seen it on lists of services offered by advertising agencies, publishers, media companies, and marketing firms. Freelance writers now refer to themselves as “ content strategists,” “content consultants,” and “content experts.”
Don’t get me wrong: We love that content is getting more attention. Because we believe that content matters. But we also believe that content strategy is more than just freelance writing, blogging, marketing, and SEO. In fact, it encompasses all of these things and lots more.
Defining Content Strategy
We’re fans of Kristina Halvorson’s definition, from her seminal article in A List Apart:
Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.
Here’s the key: Content strategy is not simply the act of publishing content, but deciding why and where and how that content needs to be published in order to achieve a goal.
Why You Need a Content Strategy
A good content strategy will help you achieve a business goal—and most critically, meet a need for your audience. Every organization creates tons of content—website copy, social media posts, emails, press releases, white papers—the list goes on. A good strategy will make that content work harder for you. So, here’s what you need to decide:
- What are you trying to accomplish?
- What audience must you reach to make it happen? What do they need?
- What channels best reach that audience?
Once you answer those questions, you can create a strategy that will help you achieve your goals.
The Work of Content Strategy
When we’re working on a project, our efforts are tailored to the particular needs of that client. We’ve been asked many times if we can share previous work for prospective clients to evaluate, and we decline for two reasons:
- We’re not going to share the work we do for you with anyone else, either.
- The work we do is designed to meet your specific needs, and those are different than everyone else’s.
Instead, we like to talk about our approach and the kinds of tools we might use to handle the challenges you’re facing.
We’re always going to focus first on understanding your business goals and your audience’s needs.
There’s lots more to say about that, but for now, let’s say that’s job 1. Once we know those two things, then we’ll move on to the specific tools of content strategy. We don’t use every tool every time. It all depends on your project. But we should also say: Using a tool doesn’t make it content strategy. These tools and techniques are employed as part of your strategy, to achieve the organizational and audience goals you’ve defined. We use these tools and others in the context of achieving goals.
- Content audits and inventories. You might hear the words “audit” and “inventory” used interchangeably, but we believe they are distinct weapons in the content strategist’s arsenal:
- Content audit: A review and categorization of the types of content. This should include analysis of numbers of each type of content, tone, opportunities, relevant metadata. An audit is qualitative and does not list every content item. We use this higher level analysis to make decisions about whether you have the right kind of content for your business and audience goals, or to look at costs, or to plan for a new project.
- Content inventory: A page-by-page (or object-by-object) list of each content item. It includes details relevant to your project, things like the URL/unique identifier, title, topic, tone, what to delete/archive, what to update, relevant metadata, analytics, other notes. An inventory is primarily quantitative, but it can include lots of item-level analysis. We use this kind of detailed analysis to help migrate a site to a new system, or review whether your messaging is clearly communicated in your content, or to analyze whether your specific content is meeting your goals.
- Editorial calendars and style guides. These tools are essential for any effort to create content. You need a schedule and you need to agree on the parameters for your content. Your audience may not always be able to tell what’s off when you don’t have a style guide, but you can’t make your content professional and buttoned up on message without one.
- Content models, types, and templates. These tools show the internal structure of content and its relationships to other content (content types and models) and then show you how to create with that structure in mind (templates). They’re critical to develop if you want to make your content “intelligent” — reusable and extensible. If those terms are new to you but you’re managing a complex body of information, we should talk.
Rarely do we use these tools in a one-and-done fashion. Remember how we said the tools don’t make sense outside of a strategy? Since your strategy is an ever-changing and growing process, you continue to use and update your tools throughout the strategic process. Some of them you’ll use every day (perhaps when you’re creating and managing content); some happen weekly or monthly for many of us (conducting analysis); and some only require occasional review or revision (when you’re reviewing goals, audience, and resources, for example). But it’s going to vary according to your goals and process.
The Content Lifecycle
Another way to think about your content considers its lifecycle. Here are the stages of a content lifecycle for many applications:
Strategy. First we focus on audiences and goals, just as we mentioned above. Here’s where we list the outcomes we’d like to achieve, and the tools we’ll use to get there. We’ll also take the first steps toward creating a governance model—deciding who gets to make decisions about what.
Plan. Once strategy is set, we get specific about our tactics. This is where an inventory, audit, and analysis come into play. Depending on the project, we may do a significant amount of information architecture work here, as well, or design and build a content management system.
Create. More than just producing content, the creation phase should include asset production, quality assurance, and search engine optimization (if applicable). The creation phase should be planned around your business goals, so you can make sure you are putting your effort into the right content with the right messaging for the right audience.
Analyze. Back at the beginning of this process, we identified outcomes to achieve. Once content is published, we analyze its effectiveness against those outcomes. You might use web analytics, or other measurement tactics, depending on your channels and expected outcomes. We analyze the results, and the cycle begins again with the new insights we’ve gained from the analysis.
At the center of this lifecycle:
Governance. When we talk about content governance, we mean having a specific operational and evaluative process to manage your work. Organizations need to proactively decide who will “own” content—who is responsible for decisions about content. A content governance model often identifies a decision-making body that handles several mission-critical areas related to the content strategy:
- Determination of business goal
- Determination of audience need
- Identification of technology, staff, and resources to create, approve, and manage content
- System of decision-making for content
- System for analyzing the accuracy and effectiveness of content
What You Can Do With Content Strategy
- Product development. Most websites and apps are chocked full of content. When you’re working on a digital product, you need content strategists on the team from day 1. Bringing this perspective to the table ensures you’ll be able to do what you design—and that it will help your customers.
- Content marketing. The Content Marketing Institute defines this marketing technique as, “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” Content marketing definitely requires strategy, but it’s not an interchangeable term with content strategy. Smart marketers are using content strategy as they execute on their content marketing efforts.
- Experience design. While you frequently hear about content strategy in relation to web design or apps, this work can be much broader. Many Creek Content clients continue to print a lot, and your customer’s experience with your brand takes place online, through media channels, and in real life in person. You need a unified, omnichannel content strategy that ensures your audience gets the right message, wherever you meet them.
- Knowledge management. The business world sometimes talks about knowledge management as if it were simply a problem of getting people to share what they know, and then helping others find the info. While those are both elements of knowledge management, the best knowledge environments are planned with a content strategy from the beginning, designed to facilitate a rich experience that achieves the internal goals of your audience, and to support their work reaching your customers.
Where To Go From Here
Here, we’ve shared a basic overview of content strategy, and how it might be useful to you and your organization. To implement and sustain a good strategy, you’ll need a team of professionals who can help pinpoint your business goals and develop a strategy to achieve them. You might have a great editorial team on your staff who just need strategy and support to get going, or you might need consultants to create strategy and then manage the whole process for you. Either way, we’d like to help. Contact us to find out more.