Content strategy: sensible stuff

Having just taken part in a two day Neilsen Norman group training on content strategy, I think that developing and applying content strategy is about using common sense: developing a good plan and sticking to it.

But how many people can really say they’ve either a. had time to develop a plan or b. stuck to it, especially when trying to meet competing demands: say a story on International Anteater day due in an hour?

That’s the thing about content strategy: given the daily demands, it’s harder than it looks.

So, what is it? There are lots of definitions flying around in cyberspace but essentially it’s about planning, creating, delivering and governing online content that achieves business objectives and meets user needs. And it’s about measuring up digital content against those objectives from the latest blog, to the email, to your homepage down to the smallest tweet.

“Content marketing is all the marketing that’s left” according to the marketer Seth Godin, and content strategy is crucial to creating that great digital content.

“We are pioneers,” said our trainer Catherine Toole from Sticky Content a number of times. She defined the content strategists’ role in two ways.

1. Content strategist = publisher

Toole likened the role of a content strategist to that of a publisher on a newspaper. That’s because many content strategists are editors, commissioning and shaping copy, they are sub-editors, tweaking headlines and doing final production on a page, and are also marketing that content. Editorial, production and marketing are all roles a newspaper publisher oversees.

Of course with papers across Britain and North America facing major declines in advertising revenue, it remains to be seen how long that print publisher model will last.

Content managers and strategists are juggling a lot of hats and roles and so need to be good at lots of different jobs simultaneously.

2. Content strategist = digital curator

Content strategists will increasingly be digital curators, or working with them in the future. Toole quoted Erin Scime who approaches content strategy in this way. Scime pointed this trend out in 2009, looking at the rise of ‘mega-aggregators’ like the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast. She likens the content creation process to museum curation:

“Once the site goals are understood from a business and user point of view, the content strategist-as-curator works to reframe the collection by creating an overarching strategy that defines how content be should be organized, positioned, and made relevant (think: exhibition rooms in a museum or gallery).” Read the full article.

This is an approach I’ve adopted as part of the new IIED website redesign, with thematic pages acting as thematic content aggregators on the website.

Here are some key lessons I took away from the training on how to create and apply a content strategy.

1. Create. Deliver. Repeat. Not.

How many of us can say that we get off the treadmill to plan and govern content as much as we create and deliver? As strategists we need to redress the balance.

2. Who is it for? What do you want them to do, think or feel?

Those are the questions you need to ask your client before developing content. They’re obvious. But how many of us can honestly say that we can confidently answer these questions about all of our digital content?

(Nope? Neither can I – you’re not alone:))

3. Strict editorial formats are your friend

Formats help us to be more efficient and reduce work. Increasingly staff with no professional writing training are writing content for websites. Giving staff a format to write to will help ensure consistency and leave them less overwhelmed. The format is developed based on the editorial content needed.

4. Tone of voice guidelines are also your friend

We all need them, and the more specific they are, the better.

5. Content strategy looks effortless, but it’s actually hard work.

It’s like the beautifully coiffed lady you meet on the way to work, whose hair flicks effortlessly over her shoulder and onto her glowing face that looks free of make up. Don’t be deceived. There was planning behind that beauty. Think sea weed face wraps, and manicures to create that look…

So there you have it. It’s all quite sensible advice. While the creative purple eye-shadowed wearing creative type inside of me shrinks when it sees a format table, my flat-shoed practical side can see how the tools and planning are crucial.

What have I missed? Let me know.

Find out more – join the Linked in Content strategy group.

Listen to the Content Matters podcast: How many content strategists can you fit into a room?

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