The Content Corner: Building a Content Strategy

Mar 23, 2015

I recently read a disheartening statistic which stated that only 32% of B2B organizations and 27% of B2C organizations had a documented content strategy. When you combine these results with the general assumption that the federal government lags behind in areas such as this (especially since content strategies have a marketing basis), then the number of federal agencies (large or small) that have a documented content strategy must be even smaller. But if you’ve read any of my previous columns then you know how important a content strategy can be in deciding what content to generate, when to publish it, and on which channels.

Basketball strategy concept.

Gajus / iStock / Thinkstock

“Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

— Kristina Halvorson, A List Apart

Why Am I Creating This Content?

One of the most critical reasons to develop a documented content strategy is to consistently ask the question: why? We generate content all the time; we are surrounded by content, and content oozes from the pores of almost everything we interact with today. But how much of it has a real purpose or (to use Kristina Halvorson’s quote) meets the “useful, useable” criteria?

The crux of this question goes to one of the most defining challenges of this age: separating signal from noise.

One of our most sacred roles as content professionals is to do everything in our power to not add to the noise. Having a content strategy in place goes a long way to helping us maintain our focus on generating useful and usable content.

The simplest answer to the big question of how to define whether content has a purpose is how well it helps a user solve a problem. A content strategy helps you focus first on the problem and then build your content around a solution. By taking a specific user problem, you can then look at all the various ways that content can help solve the problem, such as:

  • What form of content might work best? (video, audio, series of blog posts)
  • Are there contextual issues that might be important in deciding when or where the content exists?
  • What channels would be most effective at reaching the target audience?

Even if you ask these questions from time to time during the content creation process, you are probably not asking them all the time, and therefore you are not creating the most efficient content. By having a content strategy in place, you ask these questions every time, and they’re part of the routine process of content generation.

When Would This Content Be Most Relevant or Useful?

We touched on this question in a small way above by considering when in the user’s path or experience it would potentially be helpful to provide content. For example, contextual help or simple tips in an appropriate portion of a process. But this question is also about the “upper-case When” and is about providing the right content at the right time of year for your user, when applicable.

Previously, I touched on the importance of editorial calendars and planning when you want to drive exposure to your content or increase your reputation among the community you serve. Editorial calendars are a critical part of any content strategy, and along with defining a clear set of overarching goals, they should form the nucleus of your content strategy.

One of the best examples for this time of year is providing content with a clear focus on the current year’s tax season. If you are the IRS or an HR office or a mortgage lender and don’t have a tax season content pillar providing information for your users on multiple channels, then you might want to think about a strategy or at least a calendar.

Where is it Supposed to Go?

Another critical definition of useful or usable content is whether your users actually find it. A content strategy helps institutionalize the question of what channel (or channels) would best reach your target audience. It is a common practice to take one piece of new content and then spread it across all your content channels. Most of us do it, and it’s a necessary way of getting our content in front of as many eyeballs as possible; but, it has to go farther than that, and a content strategy makes that possible.

By following a strategy, we plan content that is channel (and many times audience) oriented by realizing that we reach different demographics better using different mechanisms. Excessive use of animated gifs on your standard agency site might not really be the best way to communicate with the general public. But on your Tumblr or even Twitter channel you stand a better chance of speaking the correct language for your users. Again, by planning for these various channels with a strategy for how to best communicate a singular message to various audiences, you are creating the most useful and usable content possible.

In the course of some of the wonderful dialogue I had with my government peers discussing this topic, I heard broad viewpoints on what “content strategy” meant to them and their organizations. The reality runs the full range, from agencies having actual content strategists on staff to not having any strategy in place. For those without one, I suggest becoming a stronger advocate: explain how it will help improve your service to the citizen and make your work easier in the end. Make Kristina’s quote your mantra, post it in your workspace, and even if it’s just you in the beginning, keep on making useful and usable content.

You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.