How to publish less crap: a complete beginner’s guide to content strategy for the web
In the digital age, content determines business success.
Meaning: what’s published on our websites, blogs, apps, and beyond has the power to:
- solve problems
- support completion of useful tasks
- drive conversion on sales, donations, membership sign-ups, or whatever else the word ‘success’ means for your business or non-profit
Or… not. The internet is a loud place. For every piece of information gold, there’s a cacophony of white noise.
Every time we publish a piece of content, it’s either cutting through the white noise — or adding to it.
That’s where content strategy comes in. Content strategy supports organisations to publish more content that adds value, and cut out content that’s just taking up space (i.e. crap).
In this article, I’ll explain
- what content strategy is
- why in the digital age it’s a pretty damn important area of work that can transform your business or non-profit
- what an actual content strategy looks like
- how to get going doing content strategy
Ok, let’s get to it…
Garbage in, garbage out: why you need a content strategy
The moment you begin a blog, send an email, participate in social media, build a widget, even show up in search engine results… you are a publisher.
– Kristina Halvorson
Before the internet, content wasn’t something that most companies and non-profits needed to care about too much. It was the realm of ‘the professionals’: newspapers, publishing houses, media companies, and so on.
Then the internet came along and changed everything. The web has provided just about everyone and anyone with the capability to publish, curate and distribute content — text, images, audio, and video — on a scale that was previously unimaginable.
In other words, we’re all publishers now. Which has proven to be both a blessing and curse.
‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is a well-worn idiom in the development community, used to remind colleagues that the quality of a system’s output can only ever be as good as what’s put into it.
You see, a website is basically a digital printing press. But merely owning a printing press doesn’t instantly make any of us good publishers. No more than buying myself a pair of fancy racing skis makes me a world-class slalom racer overnight (but that would be cool).
No, to become a good publisher of relevant, useable, useful content, you’ve got to work hard at it. Because, if an organisation hasn’t armed itself up with the publishing mindset, resources, and skills required to populate their digital channels with the right content, at the right time, in the right format, to get the results they need them to achieve? Well then, content garbage in…
Which is really where most brands went wrong in the early years of the internet. Sadly, many still continue to plough on with this same mistake: too much emphasis on technical build of digital channels or their aesthetic look, and too little emphasis on their substance.
The result? Lots of crappy content.
Get the language right first… Tech isn’t going to fix your problem, communication is.
– Seth Godin
Content strategy has an essential role to play in helping teams to understand how to get the most out of their (still fairly new-fangled) online publishing platforms, so that they’re actually contributing the value to their target audiences and business goals that they need to.
You need a content strategy to:
- bring order to ‘create and fling’ content chaos and create joined-up publishing efforts
- understand who your content is for: what needs your content needs to address and the problems it needs to solve
- craft consistent, accurate and engaging content that gets results
- organise and design content so that it’s easy to find, use and understand
Bottom line: if you regularly publish content across any public-facing digital channels… you’re going to need a content strategy for that.
What is content strategy?
The elements that something is comprised of. On the web, content means: text, images, audio, and video.
A coherent framework of analyses and decisions over what to do (and what not to do) to best achieve a desired outcome.
Loads of broadly similar yet varied interpretations exist on what exactly content strategy is. This often leads to it seeming like a bit of a slippery, nebulous thing.
So, to avoid the risk of this article descending into a quasi-philosophical academic paper on the true meaning of content strategy, life, and everything in between, I’ll concentrate on my own straightforward interpretation and approach to content strategy.
That said, there is so much great thinking on content strategy that totally complement each other. I’d encourage you to read up as many perspectives as you possibly can.
So, here goes…
Content strategy: a short definition
Content strategy determines how an organisation’s content supports its business goals.
Content strategy: a longer definition
Content strategy is the framework of analyses, decisions, and tools an organisation uses to determine how content will support its business goals — including what content to create and for whom, what user needs it will support, where and how it will get published, and who internally manages and maintains it.
Question: what’s the difference between content strategy and content marketing?
Ok, so sometimes content strategy gets confused with content marketing. Or vice versa.
Most commonly, people sometimes use the label ‘content strategy’ to describe work which is really only limited to content marketing.
The difference between the two might at first seem subtle — but it’s actually pretty significant.
Here’s how I would define content marketing:
Content marketing describes brand publishing activity in support of an organisation’s marketing goals.
Versus, how we defined content strategy:
Content strategy determines how an organisation’s content supports its business goals.
Notice the pretty whopping difference in scope? Whilst content marketing (as the name suggests) is solely concerned with how a brand can use content to support marketing goals, content strategy on the other hand, is concerned with how content can support all business goals (which may include, but certainly isn’t limited to marketing).
Customer support, informational resources, recruitment, sales, donation or membership sign-ups, app user experience: content strategy is concerned with how content can support all aspects of the organisation’s cross-channel operations. The whole shebang.
So content marketing activity may form a part of a ‘big picture’ content strategy — but if marketing specific goals around messaging, lead generation, and product engagement, are the entire focus? Probably just content marketing.
Understanding the big picture: the content strategy quad
Think about a beautiful car. Its sum-total excellence is the culmination of multiple composite pieces of technology and design. The state of the art engineering and mechanics under the hood, the aesthetic beauty of the design in which it’s encased, the intuitive interior design. All of these things play a part in the vehicle’s ability to provide a satisfying experience to the end user.
The same is true of content.
Content strategy is a holistic beast. Which means: in practice, it involves a series of analyses, decisions and goal setting related to not only to the substance of your content, but to the people, processes and tools that handle it.
Content strategy agency Brain Traffic devised their nifty content strategy quad, to capture this reality.
The quad is split into two ‘lenses’ comprising the key elements of content strategy work. At the top, you’ve got content design, and beneath (providing the foundational support for that work) is systems design. Let’s take a closer look at each…
Content design, according to Sarah Richards of Content Design London, is “the process of using data and evidence to give the audience the content they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect”. In practice, content design breaks down into two intersecting areas of work:
Editorial strategy: defining target audiences, key messaging, tone and voice, and defining long-term content production priorities and publishing schedules.
Experience design: researching and documenting defining user needs, creating experience maps, and deciding on the best formats, design patterns and content types to use in order to meet those needs.
Great content needs to be supported by robust systems — comprised of both tools and people — that ensure effective publication, structuring and management of information. Systems design breaks down into two intersecting areas of work:
Structure (or content engineering): defining the ‘architecture’ for all content — how it will be organised, modularised, tagged and labelled in support of optimal user experience, but also for things like personalisation, dynamic content delivery and content reuse.
Process design: defining an overall governance model for content, including ownership and accountabilities, processes (or workflows) for dealing with content, production of supporting guidelines, standards and tools, and development of appropriate internal training.
The quad acts as a great starting point blueprint for making sense of your existing content, identifying gaps and pain points, and ultimately developing your content strategy project.
Content strategy niches and specialisms
Unsurprisingly (when you consider its holistic nature), content strategy involves the input of various, yet complementary, skills sets and expertise.
Niches are inevitable. You’re likely to come across content strategists that are more focused on a particular aspect of the content strategy quad than the others.
The most common of these niche types of content strategy are:
- Editorial content strategy
- Technical content strategy
- UX content strategy
- Content governance strategy
Let’s run through a summary of each…
Editorial content strategy
Homing in on the ‘editorial’ quadrant, editorial content strategy is primarily concerned with the ‘s’ element of the content strategy quad. Editorial content strategy focuses on:
- ensuring content clarity, accuracy and relevance to business goals and user needs
- developing style guidance and editorial standards
- upholding consistent brand messaging, tone and voice
- overseeing editorial planning tools and processes
Editorial content strategists typically offer expertise in:
- content management
- brand and marketing strategy
Technical content strategy
Focused on the ‘systems design’ elements of the content strategy quad. Technical content strategy focuses on:
- understanding key structural relationships between content
- developing content metadata and taxonomies
- collecting CMS template requirements
- modelling content and designing reusable content components
Technical content strategists typically offer expertise in:
- metadata and taxonomy management
- CMS design and development
- data and information architecture
UX content strategy
With the ‘experience design’ quadrant its main priority, UX content strategy focuses on:
- doing user research and compiling user needs
- translating user needs into personas and experience maps
- creating and testing user-centred wireframes and design concepts
- designing user journeys, content types, and information architecture
UX content strategists typically offer expertise in:
- user research
- UX design
- UX strategy
- information architecture
Content governance strategy
Content governance strategy sets its sights on that ‘process’ quadrant side of things. It’s all about setting the organisation up with the right people, resources and processes to support the effective management and maintenance of content (the people side of the quad).
Content governance strategy focuses on:
- establishing clearer content roles and responsibilities throughout the organisation
- designing content workflows (a fantastic piece of publishing jargon that means: processes) for getting content ‘moving’ through the organisation efficiently
- developing content standards, guidelines and policies to ensure consistent, up-to-standard, and on-brand content
- devising a content training and capability building plan to build internal skills and expertise
Content governance specialists typically offer expertise in:
- digital governance
- content management
- project management
- business analysis
Sometimes, an organisation has a specialist need within one of the above sub-set content strategy niches. A lot of times though, they’re going to require a pretty broad skills set.
And there are plenty of talented generalist content strategists out there who can consult across all of the above areas, to a pretty decent level — but whose natural ace card sits within one or two of the content strategy quadrants.
What exactly goes into a content strategy?
Typically, a content strategy — as in, the documented strategy commonly referred to as the ‘core content strategy’ — is comprised of things like:
- a content vision statement: sometimes referred to as your ‘content compass’, articulating the experience you want your content to create, for whom, where, and why
- content strategy principles: the set of behaviours and attitudes that underpin your organisation’s approach to content
- content goals: the specific, measurable, achievable and time-bound goals your content needs to achieve
- a content roadmap and projects plan: mapping out the specific content projects and pieces of work your your strategy requires you to undertake
- user personas and experience maps: documenting the defining user needs and content requirements you need to serve, mapped across end-to-end journeys with your services and products
- content style guide: your internal handbook for content producers, outlining available content types, giving usage rules on written style, grammar, and punctuation, and providing guidelines on brand messaging, tone and voice
- content governance model: establishing internal content roles and responsibilities, processes for how content should ‘move’ through your organisation, and how quality will be maintained — including visual governance and workflow diagrams, editorial planning meetings and tools, and content review and sign-off protocols
- content capability plan: a tailored plan for building existing content resources, tools, and capabilities, including writing for the web, content planning, UX, and CMS editing.
In reality however (as by now, we’ve very much established), the exact form and substance of each content strategy project is going to vary depending on the exact nature of the organisation’s content needs.
Methodology: how do you get content strategy done?
Good strategy is the product of a consistent process that uncovers the most critical needs that need to be served.
Without that robust process, we’re just talking about a back-of-an-envelope list of highfalutin thoughts that someone’s dreamed up and slapped the word ‘strategy’ on.
No, don’t do that. In Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt proposes that any strategy worth its salt follows the same basic three steps:
Step 1: Diagnosis
The foundation of any strategy. A diagnosis stage explores the organisation’s existing reality, uncovers critical issues and defines the nature and scope of the challenge being faced.
Step 2: Guiding policy
A guiding policy takes the critical challenges unearthed from the diagnosis phase, and translates them into a focused vision and roadmap for change.
Step 3: Set of coherent actions
The hardest part of any strategy? Making it a reality. If the guiding policy sets out a vision of where an organisation wants to be, a set of coherent actions specifies how they’re going to get there.
A content strategy project should also align with these stages. Here’s how…
Make sense of existing content landscape, identifying critical issues and aligning over key areas for attention.
- Content audit: taking stock of what content currently exists, and evaluating its quality (against business goals and user needs)
- User research: analysing content usage and collecting feedback to understand who your users are, the challenges they’re facing, and what they need from you
- Business analysis: understand business priorities and goals, document content and UX challenges, and benchmark existing content processes and capabilities
Vision (guiding policy)
Translate insights from the discovery phase into a clear and compelling content vision that will guide the organisation to produce the right content, for the right people, at the right time, and in the right places.
- Content vision statement
- Content goals
- Content principles
- User personas
- Content experience maps
Delivery (a set of coherent actions)
Translating the strategy into a coordinated set of actions.
- Creation of a content strategy roadmap and projects plan, specifying what actions to take, and when. Your roadmap may include phases of work activity such as:
- Copy rewrites and optimisation work
- Information Architecture redesign
- New content types and templates development
- Content marketing initiatives
- Content style guidance and governance plan
- Content measurement and performance reporting
Recommended content strategy reads
Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson
The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right, Meghan Casey
The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane
Content Strategy at Work: Real-world Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project, Margot Bloomstein
Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure For Future-Ready Content, Sara Wachter-Boettcher