Content Strategy: What it is and why you need one

Plan, by Flickr user Tintern

Last year when we embarked on our redesign (still in progress!), we tried to prioritize. We asked, “If we could redo only one component of the site, which would it be?”

We didn’t pick graphic design, or information architecture, or even our aging publishing platform. We thought the best way to improve key metrics was to re-think the site’s content. To us, that meant not only the text of the articles, but the use of images, videos, micro-copy, interactive graphics and features — all the material on the site that helps convey ideas.

That led us off in search of a different kind of redesign. Along the way, we learned a new phrase, “content strategy,” and met a few “content strategists.” This approach has become a powerful tool for us, so I thought I’d share how we got here.

Tired of the same old problems?

The reason we picked content as our top priority is that my team has built a lot of sites for EDF, and we’ve redesigned the main site a few times, too. As much as we’ve learned, these problems persisted. We were determined to find a better way!

  • Wait, how do we update that content? This could be the photo spot sized weirdly so only the designer’s sample photo looks good in it, the news slot that requires a photo that you don’t have, or the text block that’s always too long (or short) for what you have to say.

  • What do I do with this content? Sometimes, perfectly good pieces of content don’t really fit anywhere. Over the years, we’ve tacked on material where it sort of fits, and our information architecture has sprawled. With the new site, we wanted to better accommodate and organize new material.

  • We can’t put that content there!! This is about the technical report that only three people in the world need to see, but that still has to go on the home page, or any number of other well-intentioned but illogical requests. EDF staff have learned well what we can do where, but the new design could stir up new confusion. So we wanted to explain up front what areas would be used for what purposes.

  • We need this content! Who can make it? One of the times this can happen is when news breaks — typically, we don’t assign someone to write specifically for the web site. We can draw from a press release, email announcement or the like, but then the content isn’t tailored to meet the site’s goals.

In the context of site redesigns, Jeff MacIntyre describes all these as the “Day Two Problem.” You just launched a shiny new web site. It looks lovely, but all the designers and coders are gone and you can’t use Latin text anymore. Now what?

So what’s in a content strategy?

We didn’t know exactly what content strategy was, and but it sure sounded like it would help. Or, as Kristina Halvorson wrote, “A content strategist sounds like just the sort of person to save the day, even if no one’s clear about what exactly that person will do.” She wrote the book on content strategy, and her post on A List Apart gives a good conceptual overview of content strategy.

As you might expect for an emerging field, there are many definitions of content strategy. After months of wrestling with this, I’m thinking of content strategy in three chunks:

  1. Plan what content you need to meet your goals. This seems obvious, but it’s harder than you would think! First, this requires you to articulate your goals and metrics really clearly. Then, you have to know your audiences well enough to figure out how to lead them to your goals.

  2. Figure out how to get the content you need. Again, this sounds straightforward, but many teams aren’t staffed to create content specifically to meet the site’s goals. How can you line up your needs and resources better?

  3. Be ruthless about keeping content aligned with your goals. For most, this means a deep re-evaluation of how content is updated, added and measured. For example, we’re developing a comprehensive site testing plan and a new metrics dashboard. This also means having a way to say “no” to good content ideas that don’t fit the goals.

That sounds pretty plain, but none of it’s actually easy. That’s why we’ve never quite gotten rid of all the same old problems I listed above. But now that we have a strategy outlined, I’m optimistic that at the very least, we’ll have a new set of content-related challenges to work on! We’re already feeling relief at the sense of focus, and the sheer number of unimportant pages we’ll be able to jettison when we build the new site.

We ended up doing a lot of this content work in-house, so in my next post I’ll share some of the resources we found helpful.