Putting a flag in the sand: Defining a direction for your content strategy

A 4 minute read written by Tracey March 20, 2015

An illustration of a flag in the sand.

Content strategy. As a discipline, it's still a new and nebulous beast.

Maybe because of this, I often find that organizations aren’t aware of all of the possible outcomes of a content strategy project, or its potential to add value and reduce redundancies.

A content strategy may take you in any number of directions. When you get started, you’ll want to decide which of these outcomes are priorities and plant a flag in the sand – define a direction for your project that will guide your decision-making process while you create a long-term plan for content creation and delivery.

Where the flag ends up will depend on what you want to accomplish as an organization, but it might include a combination of the following priorities:

Make content usable for your audience, regardless of platform

Trust me: users are increasingly coming to your site on a mobile device.

According to the 2014 CIRA Factbook, the number of Canadian mobile subscribers has been increasing steadily in recent years, growing to over 22 million in 2013. Of these smartphone owners, 84 per cent say they use it to surf the Internet.

If your mobile experience amounts to pinching and scrolling around a site intended for desktop and jabbing at a series of impossibly small text links, you’re missing opportunities to engage with your audience.

Your content strategy work should be based on a responsive web design process: start by planning your content for a small screen first, and build out from there. Planning your content with the smallest possible device in mind means that key user tasks are considered and priority content is always readily available, regardless of device.

Write and structure your content for maximum reuse

This one goes hand-in-hand with making your content usable across platforms.

Beyond traveling to different devices, your content can be pulled and shared and squashed into myriad containers these days: link-sharing on Twitter and Facebook, or content-shifting sites like Pocket are the obvious ones, but there are many others out there (and more to come).

Planning for this means following the “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” (COPE) strategy. In a nutshell, this means creating a system of structured, reusable text elements rather than giant blobs of body text. The more structure your content has, the more easily it can be pulled apart and reassembled to adapt to different contexts.

This helps reduce redundancies in your authoring, too. Rather than manually duplicating content for different locations, authors can focus on creating one set of text elements that can be adapted and reassembled as necessary.

Provide better content, period

Every organization aspires to provide quality content, but let’s face it: most web content kind of sucks.

Aiming for structured, intelligent content that can be adapted to different devices is crucial, but it has to be built on the foundation of clear, well-written content. Mostly, this means cutting out the fluff. As Karen McGrane is fond of pointing out, “There’s no such thing as writing for mobile: there’s just good writing.”

Somewhere along that dotted line to your content strategy flag, plot a point to really learn about how people read in digital contexts (hint: they don’t), and how to create content that your audience will actually use.

Establish a voice and message architecture

Content strategy also means defining your organization’s voice and message.

This means figuring out a communication hierarchy to prioritize your organization’s communication goals: what key messages should your organization’s content have?

After you’ve got this nailed down, consider establishing voice and tone guidelines to keep your content consistent, regardless of who the author is (think of MailChimp’s excellent voiceandtone.com).

Getting these down as goes a long way in creating a consistent, on-brand experience for users, and increases your professionalism and trustworthiness as an organization.

Make your content management system author-friendly

We’ve said it before: most CMS platforms are a nightmare. It’s not just that they have bad user experience: they can make it downright difficult for content creators to do their job.

Designing a content author environment that’s easy to understand and use can increase efficiency and help you get to multi-channel publishing. Your content strategy might include tweaking your CMS to improve user experience for authors, or building in targeted support where required, which can help everyone understand how to create that structured content we talked about earlier.

Establish governance and workflow processes to keep everything on track

Let’s talk long-term strategic stuff.

Publishing on the web isn’t like publishing a newspaper: you can’t just write, ship, and forget it. If you haven’t shed this publish-and-forget approach to content creation, pretty soon you’re going to end up with the same old embarrassing issues: stuff that’s outdated, duplicate content, and that smattering of PDFs announcing events that are “coming soon” – but actually happened two years ago.

How can you can you keep content relevant and usable? Develop governance processes that establish clear ownership of content, flag content that’s up for renewal, and get a workflow in place for keeping things maintained and fresh.

Measure the effectiveness of your content

OK, one more.

If you want your content to be really good (and stay that way), your strategy should include a research plan to measure and assess how your audience is using your content – both on desktop and mobile. This might include monitoring your analytics, analyzing search queries, or even talking to actual users.

The information you gather can tell you a lot: What are users looking for? Where are they dropping off your site? Are they getting where you want them to be? What you find here can help you prioritize where content should be updated or improved.

So there you have it! Based on your content needs, consider including some of these goals when you put your flag in the sand and plot a content strategy course.

And if any of this sounds daunting, you know where to find us.