Content strategy Q&A

May. 18th, 2010

Content strategy has come of age. While consumers continue to embrace social media and emerging Web channels and turn away from traditional media, large corporations are being pushed into a more direct relationship with their customers. Along with LinkedIn and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, corporate websites are becoming the main channel for this new relationship marketing, and marketers are challenged to deliver relevance and value to earn the loyalty of their customers. But most large corporate websites are a mess—difficult to navigate, stuffed with outdated and/or incorrect information, and geared for promotion and transaction rather than offering value to their audience.

Enter content strategy.

Tendo has been delivering content strategy services long before the term could be found on Wikipedia. We asked one of our most experienced content strategists, Vice President of Content Services Chris Zender, to answer some common questions about this "old but new again" discipline.

Q: How do you define content strategy? What is it? When you conduct a content strategy, what's the deliverable?

A: Content strategy is the road map for planning, developing, creating, and executing content that will achieve your website's goals. There are a couple of key phrases in there. First: Planning. It's the linchpin to success—I'd rather spend three weeks in planning and one week in creation than vice versa. Second: Achieving your website's goals. Content should support the goals of a website.

When people hear "content strategy," they sometimes think it's a dense, complicated document that's going to give them a lot of theory and not a lot of practice. The truth is that the best content strategies tell you the best route to your destination and how to get there—not one or the other.

Q: How has the discipline of content strategy evolved or changed over time?

A: Most companies weren't thinking about "content" as a strategic asset five or more years ago. There was, and still is, a tendency for companies to take what I call the Billion Dollar Bucket approach to building websites. They spend an inordinate amount of time and resources building a gorgeous shell—the bucket—then they fill it with any old crap: old and outdated content, broken links, images and videos that don't reflect current brand standards, etc.

It's only been in the last three to five years that people have started to appreciate that what you say or view is as important as how you get to that material.

I think there are a few reasons for this shift: The rise of social media and the increasing importance of SEO. Think about it: Before social media, people received information and opinion from "sanctioned" sources—traditional media outlets like magazines, newspapers, TV, or radio, or from sources they trusted like friends and family. But social media gives (almost) anyone, anywhere the ability to broadcast their content. As these voices multiplied and grew louder, they created a need to figure out how to balance this information. And as the volume of content grew, the need to find a way to search for a specific topic also grew.

Q: When Tendo delivers a content strategy, are the website goals already defined, or do they change with the content strategy?

A: We've created content strategies for both scenarios. We don't create any kind of strategy—marketing, messaging, content, etc.—without knowing two things: the goals of the website and the target audience the client wants to attract. So if the goals and the audience haven't been defined, then that's the first step in our process. You've got to know who you're talking to and assess what their information needs are, then you marry that with what you want them to do and/or what you want them to know. That marriage is the essence of a content strategy.

Once you know the site goals and the intended outcome or action of the audience/user, then you can create content that meets both objectives. There are certain things that go into every content strategy—site goals, audience profile, content organization, frequency of updates/refreshes, and how to staff or organize or assign roles and responsibilities for content creation and development.

Q: What are the primary benefits of conducting a content strategy? Why is it needed? How does having one, or not having one, affect a company's bottom line?

A: Content strategies provide several tangible benefits:

They focus all stakeholders around the company's and the website's goals. In larger organizations different divisions often have different priorities, which results in the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. A content strategy that supports the overall website goals can provide a unifying foundation around which all divisions can stay focused on their priorities without undermining the total site experience.

They ensure cost-effective content creation. By standardizing the types, topics, and frequency of content you put a series of checks and balances in place that help create content strategically. The content has to adhere to the plan or it doesn't get funded. We've been called in to edit content that was off message or just plain incorrect because the division that commissioned it wasn't operating strategically—it can be a drag on resources.

"Write once, use many" is our Web content mantra. Create content once and leverage it in different ways to amortize the cost—site material, newsletters, syndicated content, etc.

They position content as a measurable asset. Deciding on and building in consistent metrics for content—something that's not done nearly as often as you might think—enables you to determine the value of a piece of content.

Q: How does content strategy intersect with user experience and information architecture?

A: Content strategy informs user experience and information architecture; if you don't consider the type of content, the frequency with which it will be refreshed, or even who and how it will be updated, how can you construct a cohesive information architecture or user experience?

Content strategy, user experience, and information architecture are three equal components that need to work together to deliver the highest value experience. Just as a driver might navigate a city by a roadmap, street signs, and visual landmarks, the absence of any one of these compromises the ability to effectively get to your destination.

Q: Does content strategy also include SEO strategy? What about social media strategy?

A: It should include both—and more. A content strategy, depending on what the content is for, should include a social media strategy, a syndication strategy, an SEO strategy, content analytics and metrics, etc. SEO and metrics in particular are always bolted on at the last minute in a kind of "Oh, shoot! We forgot about that" way.

The challenge is that in many organizations, these functions are handled by different people who aren't working together or aren't working toward the same goals. If you treat each of these very important strategies as pieces of a greater whole, you'll increase the effectiveness of all of them.

Q: Isn't every client's website goal to generate leads, gain customers, and sell more product?

A: Not necessarily—and not in that order. Toyota has launched content recently in which the primary goal is to manage their reputation, influence public perception, and generate awareness. The secondary goal for this content is to sell cars. Almost every company website in some way builds or supports the brand. But sometimes a site is intended to offer customers service or support, to offer unique insight not directly related to a specific transatcion or sale. The goal of your website and the unique promise of your brand inform how you approach content.

Q: What are the top three challenges you encounter in creating content strategies?

A: First, the people and processes part of the strategy. In many cases, defining roles and processes for content creation creates an organizational shift that is uncomfortable for many companies. Second, once companies realize the importance of content, they often have unrealistic expectations about what content can achieve for them. Many expect content to propel them to a permanent place at the top of search pages or increase their sales by 500 percent. Third, and it's more of a surprise than a challenge, clients are always taken aback by what's on their website. We get a lot of "THAT's on the site? Why?"

Usually it's because there was no strategy in place.

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