Content Strategy: A Guide to Getting Started

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Article ImageIf you are in the business of digital content-and in this day and age, we all are-you have undoubtedly heard the phrase "content strategy" tossed around lately. You've heard how important strategy is to any content endeavor, but you may still be wondering what that means to you.

Content strategy defines how a company is going to use content to meet the needs of a business, guides decisions about content from creation to deletion, and sets benchmarks against which to measure success. Deciding to post a YouTube video is not content strategy, nor are the myriad and growing numbers of features that your CMS offers. A strategy sets a vision for the future. Although it can be revised, it is perennial, not seasonal.

Ultimately, the main reason that content strategy has become such a hot topic boils down to one very important reason: content is political. It is internally political-often fretted over at every level of management-and worse, of late, consumers perceive content as being tainted in some way by those warring factors inside your business, leading readers to move to other sources. Content, it seems, is heading into a bit of a crisis.

A recent European Journalism Observatory study found that although more than half of the adults in the U.S. prefer professional journals to blogs, there is "a relatively high amount of distrust in mainstream news media, with less than 37 percent [of respondents] expressing trust in mainstream outlets." As for marketing copy, customers are often not getting what they need there. Currently 86% of consumers in their mid-teens to mid-30s say that user-generated content has more influence on what they buy than product copy found on the website, according to a study by online commerce magazine Bazaarvoice.

Still, the ability to adapt and change content is hampered by a number of problems. First of all, content is siloed. Vincent Tripodi, VP of development at The Associated Press, says that "Given that the AP has been around for so long, we have, like any older media company, silos of content around the AP." He explains that when former CEO Tom Curley took over about a decade ago, one of his first initiatives was to get all of AP's content into one database to support a unified content strategy at the company. "A little over 8 years ago we introduced the concept of a single database of all our content and we began in earnest to get all those silos together," says Tripodi. Absent an overarching strategy, each product or media group within an organization tends to carve out a niche for itself in the organization, both in terms of brand, voice, and technology.

Another problem afflicting content is rooted in differing perspectives on the function of content within the organization. If the legal department has its way, nothing but practically useless, sanitized content would be published. Then again, if you give marketing the run of the store, the copy may be too sales-oriented. It could end up losing some of the grounding in reality that makes content interesting to consumers.

Content strategy produces a road map and creates a process inside your company to engage your people productively around putting out better content. Moreover, it represents the best way to stymie the tendency inside your company to react to the latest trend, or the last article read by a senior executive, and begins to put in place a proactive solution. Remember that the tips you encounter are only as useful as the filters you have in place to rate them.

Choosing Your Content Team

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach, who run a strategy firm named Brain Traffic, co-authored a primer called Content Strategy for the Web. It paces through an airtight approach that would work in almost any institution-whether the size of your shop is two or 200,000 employees.

The first step to being a "content hero" is to identify the team. Albeit a staple of most strategy efforts, this is not a pointless reminder here. When it comes to web efforts, putting together the right team is often shortchanged in favor of using technologically savvy people, or those who already understand how the existing content management system works. But great idea generators live throughout the organization-failing to get them in the loop early will lead to their becoming among the disenfranchised later on. Ian Truscott, VP of product marketing at SDL, PLC, says, "We have always thought in this industry that we were democratizing content creation. However, there is still a behavior of emailing a document to somebody in marketing and [letting them] deal with it."

The implied wisdom is that the person in charge of the content strategy should be a natural leader who is not afraid to work hard to get alignment from a disparate group of people. Michael Brenner, senior director of global marketing at SAP, emphasizes the importance of the role: "I define the content strategist as the change agent required to explain why content strategy is such a huge opportunity for companies to evolve the way they market and sell products, by putting the customer at the center of everything you do."

Most likely she should not be a very senior executive, because she will need to stay with the day-to-day details of this project. So empowering a mid-level or even a junior person is key. Others should see her as the one who has been appointed to take the helm and bring about a mutual sense of purpose for a greater content good. In many cases, companies are bringing on chief content officers to handle these tasks.

To find the rest of your content team, include employees from these disciplines:

  • Business, for strategy and budgets
  • Marketing, to cover key features and benefits
  • Advertising, to align campaign-driven creative with the content, as well as drive Web 2.0 tools
  • User experience, to be the voice of the profiled customer
  • Information technology, to offer production workflow and input CMS or development requirements

One key to putting together the team is to differentiate between the enthusiastic working group and the interested parties who need occasional input and assign them correctly. Both need to be included to make content strategy work: the latter to enhance communication and alignment throughout the company, and the former to get the actual work done.

Taking a Content Inventory

Having gotten together the core working group, the first task is to understand what content is on hand. Richard Sheffield writes in his blog of a curatorial model for content strategy that has come into vogue. As the managing editor for and author of The Web Content Strategist's Bible: The Complete Guide to a New and Lucrative Career for Writers of All Kinds, he believes "[t]here is a lot that we as content strategists can learn from folks who do ‘real curation.'" Sheffield explains that while the process of determining what content to use is quite different from that of being a museum curator, both efforts begin with the cataloguing of the collection and determining what is needed to pull off the show.

The result of the content audit is recorded using a good old-fashioned spreadsheet. It is not ideal and it's low-tech, but it has the advantage that it can be done in advance of selecting the CMS (if one is not already present). The audit requires a quantitative audit that catalogues the nature and file type of the content you have on hand, along with its name and location. The audit will uncover what is out-of-date, what format content is in, and where it can be found.
Concurrent to this phase, a group or an outside group should conduct competitor research. Bringing in best practices from other industries is a good idea at this point. Lateral thinking is a known stimulant to creativity. Meanwhile, determining the evaluation criteria for your competitors will help you with the evaluation of your own content.

Content will ultimately need to be rated according to its strategic fit. However, the best recommendation as to how to rate content prior to having a strategy is to rate it based on a competitive analysis as well as measuring the basic points all content should share. Look at how useful it is, and check what prior knowledge level is required to comprehend it. What is its audience orientation? Is it accurate and findable?

Another potentially important part of this process is flagging the content to determine what types of content might best be broken into component parts. Howard Schwartz, SVP of content technologies at SDL, sees the breaking up of content as a major achievement. "Content cannot be consumed in broad, monolithic documents," says Schwartz. "The content has to answer a specific question in the user's mind." Taking apart larger documents and thinking of them as answers to specific questions can be a good way to go if utility is a goal. This is less true if your mission is more academic and your audience looks for deeper knowledge. He goes on to illustrate his point, describing a project that is in development with content to be used for in-vehicle touchscreen manuals for automotive manufacturers.

After the strategy is complete and before the content finds its way into a CMS, revisit the content and measure its strategic value to the business. At this point, with your mission in hand, you are in a position to assess its brand or voice and the message it communicates.

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