User research is a necessary component of content design. Content is subjective, so it is important to crawl into the minds of your readers to get profiles of who they are and what is important to them, which can be assessed by understanding how they behave via website analytics. The best user experience demonstrations I ever saw actually used drawings of the typical customers with images of what they think about and care about. This visualization can be very useful to the team working on the content.
User research tools include surveys, search and keyword analytics, and syndicated research to understand trends in your area. The end result can be a very interesting, very subjective profile of your audience as an individual, or several classes of individuals you need to reach. This subjectivity is exactly what makes business leaders itch. So often executives don't want to be put in too narrow of a box and don't like to see where they currently fit in the customer's eyes-but hoping to be all things to all people is death to web content. User experience professionals should go ahead and be fearless at this juncture.
Once your user analysis phase is complete, with laser-like accuracy you will be able to know which audience groups a piece of content is addressing. If you cannot, chances are the piece of content is addressing no one.
The Results of the Audit and the Core Strategy
At the end of this audit phase, a summary report ought to be issued. This is your moment to say, "Yikes, only 20% of our content is usable," or "70% is on brand but only 40% is accurate." Either way, issue a report together with a set of bar charts or graphs that illustrates where you are and where you need to be. This is the part that will end up in the CEO's PowerPoint presentation.
The core strategy is the strategic intent of the content-how it will be used, whom will it reach, and how will it reach them. To a certain extent it will be aspirational, including statements such as, "We'll be THE reference resource for ... [insert audience name]" or "We'll develop a state-of-the-art content infrastructure ... to adapt to new device formats quickly," explains Halvorson in her book.
Channels, Formats, and Platforms
Audiences have more control than ever over the way they consume information, and it's up to companies to meet them where they stand. Besides the content audit, channels and format will drive a lion's share of the budget for content. Channel selection is audience-driven. Identify channels where your audience works or hangs out. Weigh their time spent reading syndicated feeds or looking at social media or blogs, versus coming to your website. Often the audience is on mobile devices, looking at images, or watching videos, which brings in the issue of format.
Content format is a larger problem than often meets the eye. "There is no single answer from a technology perspective when it comes to content management," explains AP's Tripodi. "The attributes of content are so different; we have video and text, so the way you ingest it, encode it, all varies." In recent years the company has spent more than $36 million to become ready to support high-definition video in something internally called the "camera to customer initiative." He adds, "More and more technology is becoming involved in the conversation up front so we can describe the expense around the conversation and define the TCO (total cost of ownership), or ongoing expense to keep the product running."
Asked what he believes is the biggest pitfall he sees among his content strategy customers, strategist Sheffield says, "Until you have at least a shell of a content strategy, making any kind of project plan is just a wild guess. If you don't know how much new content needs to be written, how much existing content can be re-used, and who is going to approve/govern this process you don't have a handle on the amount of work [there is]."
Embarking on a content adventure without a strategy is like heading out on a road trip without a map. Not everything will go as planned, and at times you may need to be flexible. But without a strategy, your content efforts will get lost in the wilderness, costing you time, money, and possibly customers. Putting in the time to develop a strategy will pay off in untold ways.
The Associated Press
Bazaarvoice Study from July 2012
Content Strategy for the Web
European Journalism Observatory Study
SDL Tridion Content Management System