Let’s put some strategy into our content strategy!
It’s kind of ironic that there’s often very little strategy in what many people refer to as “content strategy”. The work being done is either tactical or applied best practice. Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those things — they’re both quite necessary at times. But a strategy needs to identify problems and solutions, provide a guiding vision, and outline how an organization will achieve that vision. A content strategy simply does the same thing but uses content and content practices to achieve the vision.
Let’s get clear on what we mean by “strategy”. Like anything else, there are a ton of definitions out there. My current favourite is Richard Rumelt’s. In his bestselling book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy, he defines strategy as “a coherent set of analysis, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions that respond to a high-stakes challenge”.
In short, he states that a good strategy needs to include:
1. A diagnosis (we sometimes call this “findings & foundation”)
2. A guiding focus
3. A coherent action plan
Using this definition, doing a content audit or writing a content strategy statement is not “doing content strategy”, though they may very well be critical components of carrying out a strategic action plan.
In my experience, both content strategy consultants and in-house content leaders tend to be pretty good at some of these steps, but not so good at others. Let’s look at this more closely:
1. Diagnose the key problems.
This is a step that, in general, people don’t seem to be good at. In-house content leaders tend to think they know the business situation and either don’t do enough content and audience research and analysis, or they don’t do the right kind. Content consultants tend to think they know the content situation and don’t do enough business and audience research and analysis.
But to ensure that a content strategy is targeted to your specific high-stakes challenge, you need to really understand all aspects of it. To do that, you need to ask, answer, and analyse the results of a bunch of questions. Such as:
- What is the high-stakes challenge that you’re responding to?
- Why is it so important to the business?
- What are the obstacles and opportunities within the working environment?
- What are the audience-related goals, perceptions, and needs?
- Why are they so important to your audience?
- What are the obstacles and opportunities within the audience needs?
- What content do you have to work with to execute the strategy?
- How much work needs to be done to the content to execute the strategy?
- What resources do you have in terms of skill-sets, time, and budget?
In-house content leaders should also ask:
- How can I make sure to work within my authority level, skill-set, and time available when developing and executing a content strategy?
- Am I missing content insights that I don’t know I don’t know? How can I find out?
As content strategy consultants, we need to pay special attention to:
- What is unique about this situation and working environment?
- Where will best practice not be the best solution for this client, and why?
As difficult as it is to gather the right information, analysing it is sometimes harder. The point of analysis is to look at all of the findings from your research, and identify patterns that point to key problems, opportunities, and paths forward.
Rumelt says that “the most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness. Or… strength applied to the most promising opportunity.” As content strategists and in-house content leaders, we need to accurately identify the most likely way to use content or content practices to respond to our high-stakes challenge given the unique set of obstacles and opportunities at hand.
The output of our analysis becomes a content (or content governance) findings and foundation.
I’ve seen way too many “content strategies” that could be applied to any team within any organization in any industry and for any audience. These are simply best practices, which will usually take most organizations quite far, but it’s not a strategy. A strategy needs to be customized to the specific environment and problem at hand. If there’s nothing specific about it, then you’re not digging deep enough or you’re operating at a tactical, rather than strategic, level.
If, through your analysis, you’re only finding obstacles and no opportunities, then I’d suggest you hone your strategic skill set. A good strategist can sniff out opportunities and find pathways forward regardless of the challenges involved. Even if the opportunity is in a completely unexpected direction.
2. Craft a guiding focus.
A guiding focus combines three of the items that Rumelt considers important in good strategy: concepts, policies, and arguments. What do they look like when applied to content strategy?
Demonstrate the concept (or, what the future looks like)
Concepts provide a high-level view of what the best possible solution will look like given the obstacles and strengths you’re working with. It’s not very strategic to create a vision where 10,000 pages of legacy content are rewritten if there’s no way to get that work done. Or, showing a strategy that relies heavily on video content for a team that has no video experience and limited access to training or new resources. A strategic vision is not a blue-sky vision. Rather, it shows what the executed content strategy will look like, and what it will accomplish, given your specific circumstances.
A content strategy statement and content strategy vision presentation are often part of this high-level concepting, but concepts can be communicated by anything that clearly shows the planned future state.
Define policies or guiding principles (or, rules that help you stay focused)
Depending on the type of content strategy work you’re doing, and for which teams, you may choose to develop strict policies or aspirational guiding principles. Either way, these should provide guidance to the execution team, and a decision-making framework for people to follow that leads them towards delivering on the content strategy.
Policies and guiding principles are still high-level, but they begin to answer the question of “how” to execute the content strategy as opposed to the concept’s “what”.
Provide rationale (or, why it’s important to do it this way)
You want to avoid situations where decisions are made based on who has the strongest opinion or the most authority. For your strategy to hold weight, it needs to be justified. If you’re recommending an approach that does not align to best practice, highlight the research findings that explain why your recommendation is a better approach. If you are recommending best practice, explain why that’s the best approach for this particular situation.
It’s impossible to provide strong rationale if you haven’t done sufficient discovery work to accurately diagnose the situation. Lean heavily on your research, and very lightly on your expertise.
3. Create a coherent action plan.
A strategy without a realistic plan for achieving it is a hope, not a strategy. A content strategy action plan needs to answer the questions of who, what, when, and how the work will get done. We usually do this within a detailed roadmap, but anything that clearly communicates these details, including estimated cost of resources, will work.
Challenges of keeping strategy in content strategy
One of the biggest challenges we have in being truly strategic in our content strategy work, is that there are so many levels and layers to what we do, and what we can impact. It’s like a set of nesting dolls, where each doll has its own opportunity for strategic thinking. But do we actually practice “content strategy” in each of those layers? Or are we strategically executing a content tactic? And is there a meaningful difference? Something to think about.
To help you put more strategy into your content strategy, we’ve created Strategic Content Strategy Canvas with instructions on how to use it. We also have a post outlining 3 ways you can use the canvas. You’ll be able to use this to frame up a working session with your teams.
If you’re not sure where to start, let us know and we’re happy to facilitate a session with you.