10 content strategy lessons I have learned

Posted by on Apr 24, 2013 in content strategy | 12 comments

In my work with associations, corporations, intranets, and nonprofit organizations, I have come to realize several things that seemed worth sharing. Content strategy challenges and opportunities are similar for organizations in many industries, locations, and sizes — and as a content strategist, your work is similar too. I hope these lessons help other content strategists help other organizations.

  1. Content audits uncover surprises – plan extra time for them.Sometimes those surprises are technical, such as the one I recently encountered on a project, where the site’s complex technology setup prevented the ability to automatically generate a list of the content, let alone any metadata (what I expected to take four days turned out to take four weeks). Other potential surprises are deep pockets of legacy content, content that’s really challenging to assign a type to, or swaths of content that really MUST be rewritten, reformatted, or deleted.
  2. Make sure you have a deep and true understanding of the business problem that your content strategy is trying to solve, or the opportunity it is trying to realize.
    Share that understanding early and often. The problems might be process problems, or silos, or internal communication, or ownership, or trust, but they are usually problems that prevent the organization from reaching its goals. And they are usually not “Web publishing problems,” although they’re perceived to be. And the opportunities might be more customers, more engagement, lower customer service costs – again, content strategy can provide the solution.
  3. Define your terms.
    What does “future-proof” mean to everyone involved, for example? Other terms that benefit from definition: template, matrix, mobile, audit, and even content.
  4. Involve the right people at the right time in the definition, the solution, and the execution.
    This is the best – and probably the only – way to stop politics from delaying or derailing the effort. One good tactic is to make extra effort to involve the “naysayers” in conversations. And communicate, communicate, communicate (see #9 below).
  5. Be a facilitator as much as a problem-solver.
    Solutions have a much greater chance of “sticking” if the people closest to the content are involved in crafting it. As the content strategists, your primary job is to ask questions, reflect back what you see, and present options and recommendations based on your experience. It’s the people who will live with those recommendations who need to make the final decisions. You may be involved with documenting the decisions, disseminating the information, and providing education and training for the people who will be using the guidelines, calendars, and other tools.
  6. Show, don’t tell.
    Use examples, both good and bad. When creating the business case for your recommendations, or the final guidelines, illustrate dos and don’ts with real examples from the site you’re working with and others in that industry. You can sprinkle in examples from high-profile sites like Amazon.com or CNN, but don’t use those as the only benchmarks unless the property you’re working on is equally high-profile.
  7. Be brave.
    People usually know what’s wrong with their content, so don’t be afraid to share that in your findings.
  8. A large part of content strategy is really change management in disguise.
    It’s a good idea to learn about the long-established practices and processes of change management. John Kotter’s work is a great place to start. Dr. Kotter identified 8 steps for making change:

    1. Establish a sense of urgency
    2. Create the guiding coalition
    3. Develop a change vision
    4. Communicate the vision for buy-in
    5. Empower broad-based action
    6. Generate short-term wins
    7. Never let up
    8. Incorporate changes into the culture
  9. Have a content strategy for your content strategy.
    Adjust your messages about the value, the process, the findings, and the remedies to the audience, and communicate your progress honestly. Management wants to hear about ROI, customer service wants to hear about reduction in calls, marketing wants to hear about SEO or lead generation, communications wants to hear about improved user experience or customer engagement, IT wants to hear about server load and content structure — so highlight those improvements when presenting information to each audience.
  10. Draw from the content strategists who have come before you.
    There’s so much great content strategy thinking out there, and we are certainly an articulate bunch! You may have heard of
    Kristina Halvorson,
    Margot Bloomstein,
    Karen McGrane,
    Melissa Rach, and
    Erin Kissane, but there are so many more people who have made great contributions to the profession. Here’s a partial list:
    Kevin Nichols,
    Colleen Jones,
    Rahel Bailie,
    Sara Wachter-Boettcher,
    Jonathon Colman,
    Laura Creekmore,
    Meghan Casey,
    Sally Bagshaw,
    Shelly Bowen,
    Ahava Leibtag.

    Who am I missing?

I can think of many more lessons, but I’ll save them for a future post. What lessons have you learned?

12 Responses to “10 content strategy lessons I have learned”

  1. “How tolerant are your content creators of laborious processes?” Lovinger asks. Try to avoid asking editors to break unstructured content into lots of separate data fields unless it serves a functional purpose. The key is metadata. If you will need to reuse an element in a different context, it should be its own field, otherwise probably not.

  2. Great insights, Hilary. Remembering how CS overlaps into some many areas and can solve problems not usually thought of as CS is a great tactic. Also: find those “naysayers” for real: those on the client side and within your own team. They can kill a great Content Strategy.

  3. Thanks, Noreen!

  4. Troy Underwood says:

    Hilary, very helpful lessons. I have found legacy content a killer and time consuming process when trying to integrate new content strategies and publishing methodologies.

  5. Excellent list, thanks for sharing this and being part of promoting Content Strategy!

    I’ve built an undergraduate course around the content audit but everything else centers on politics, obstacles and people, people, people. We’ve found some organizations where the staff has simply given up on the website. Many places decided the website was too political and expensive (and a warzone) that they concentrate on social media, where it’s easier, faster and more gratifying to post. My students make proposals but without people to implement the strategy, it’s not likely the client will follow through.

    I’ve seen content strategy act as change management but what do you do for organizations that cannot (resource-wise) or will not change?

    Old Syllabus – http://www.meaningandmeasure.com/content-strategy-syllabus/

    • Misty, I am so glad to hear that there are starting to be formal content strategy courses! Thank you for being a pioneer in this area.

      In my experience, you need to find a way to get a quick, cheap win. Try a content improvement with a willing group (or your own content0, and then use that as a springboard. it doesn’t always take longer to create good content than bad.

  6. Good points all, but I think number 2 is particularly key. So many organizational issues are wrongly identified as problems with ‘web publishing’ or ‘web content’, simply because that’s where they become manifest. Content strategy allows for better diagnosis. Number 3 is also critical, particularly when you work in a multicultural environment. Finally, I’m not sure about 7: some content owners are blithely ignorant of what’s wrong with their content. I find it helpful to put findings on content issues within some context of best practices.

  7. Great points, Hilary! I would add that you have to manage expectations as well, both in terms of what Content Strategy can accomplish immediately and how that strategy will play out over time. Many of my clients think that once the strategy has been defined that’s it. They don’t realize that there is a lot of work that has to go into implementing it, and part of that work is the ongoing measurement of success, adoption of governance and the ability to remain agile enough to change the course if required.


Copyright 2012 Hilary Marsh