In 2011 I talked about Content Strategy on a Shoestring Budget at the IA Summit, when content strategy was first gaining traction.
It was only two years after Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web was published. I was working for a small web development company and had made content strategy part of our process. Many people wanted to fit content strategy into their projects but were constantly bumping up against budget and time constraints. The idea of doing content strategy on a small (or non-existent) budget seemed to be what people needed to get themselves started. My overall message was “here are the pieces of content strategy, pick one and do it.”
Now we are near the end of 2015 and there are far too many people still saying that they can’t get content strategy accepted in their organization or as part of their agency’s development process. Clients won’t buy it. Leadership doesn’t get it. To which I say: “Yes you can! Just do it!”
You do not need permission to do content strategy. You don’t need to have to sell a hefty report called “Acme Corp’s Content Strategy.” There is room for content strategy in every budget and every timeline. In fact, I would posit that you cannot afford to not do content strategy if you develop websites, digital products, or work in communications or marketing.
Pieces of content strategy
Doing content strategy should not to be confused with having a content strategy. Very few organizations have a content strategy. Creating a content strategy is a massive undertaking and more than likely needs to be combined with organizational culture change. This article is not about doing that. If you are on your way to having a content strategy, good for you!
But if you are trying to fit content strategy into your already packed workload, a budget you think is too small for anything else, or think that you simply cannot do it, read on. You’ll find some valuable tips for incorporating at least one piece of content strategy into your everyday work. And from there, who knows where you’ll end up!
Let’s start with an understanding of the essential pieces of content strategy. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you are working on a website.
Content inventory – The inventory is a spreadsheet that accounts for all the content you have on your website. It is a living document.
Content audit – The audit is a careful review of the content with recommendations for what to keep, update, or remove.
Editorial guides – The style guide defines rules for writing clear and consistent content. Voice and tone guides define how the organization presents itself to others through its content.
Content spec sheets – Sometimes called something else, spec sheets are guides for authors to create structured content to match the CMS.
Editorial calendar – The calendar helps coordinate what content needs to be published where and when.
Content transformation – Getting the content and CMS ready for entry or migration.
There are plenty of other things you may or may not want or are able to do, but these are the heart and soul of content strategy. They are the building blocks for doing things a little or a lot better, depending on how many you can do, how deep you can go, or who else catches on and wants more.
Scaling Content Strategy
To reiterate, this is not a guide for selling content strategy to your team or organization, though in the end, you may do just that. Here are some ways to go small, medium, or all out. Pick one big thing, pick three small things. This is a choose-your-own-adventure story. Order does not matter as much as getting things done.
The content inventory is perhaps the most important tool in a content strategist’s kit. It is a living document that constantly gets updated and referenced. Everyone who is responsible for content should have access to it. Sharing will increase the responsibility others feel for the content they own.
Small – Pick a section of your site and catalog the pages, their URLs, and number of visits in the past 6 months.
Medium – Catalog your entire site. Try a tool that will crawl and index your site. Already have an inventory? Add columns for owner, last review date, next review date, or other governance data. Tip: Have content owners or authors help you get all of this information.
All out – Take a complete inventory and break pages up into discrete content pieces (even if they are trapped in the body field). Create a direct connection to your analytics program so you can keep track of visits for ongoing review. Add additional data that will help you govern the creation, production, maintenance, and archiving of your content.
When you perform an audit, you are making judgements about the content. An audit can reveal gaps as well as an overabundance of content. If you have business goals to measure against, all the better. Just doing the detailed exam will leave you better off. Don’t forget to share what you’ve learned!
Small – Pick a section of your site and analyze it. Do a ROT assessment: what is redundant, outdated, or trivial? Check for things that are missing. Make a list of what needs to be done to make that content better and prioritize. Work with willing individuals to improve a section through better organization or rewriting the copy.
Medium – Do a large sample of the entire site. What are the top and bottom pages by visits over the last year? Does that seem right? Compare against competitors to see what you are doing better or worse. Work with content producers to improve their content for one or more aspects: plain language, call to action, style guide consistency, or anything else that is a problem.
All out – Expand the inventory to include the entire site or sites and match against business goals. Look at the market for opportunities your organization can fill. Work with senior leadership to show what’s working and what’s not and discuss how things could be improved.
With the decentralization and democratization of online content publishing, you need to have a standard to follow for everyone who publishes online. It doesn’t need to be a full website shared with the world like the MailChimp or GDS style guides, but it needs to exist. Having – and enforcing – a style guide will increase consistency of voice and tone, word choice, and format. Your editorial style guide should be reviewed regularly and updated as needed.
Small – Create an online style guide that clarifies the basics, such as acceptable shortenings of the organization’s name, whether to use an Oxford comma, how to format phone numbers, which dictionary to fall back on, whether website is one or two words, and other seemingly arbitrary things that need to be agreed upon and documented. This is likely a shared document – and maybe printed – for all authors (including guest contributors).
Medium – Add a voice and tone guide, tips for web writing, and other ways to make content better, not just consistent. Make it an easily accessible document. Provide in-person introduction to the style guide for all who create or edit content.
All out – Survey content editors to see what they are correcting over and over. Seek out and incorporate feedback regularly. Create a website that is shared throughout the organization and beyond. Have periodic education sessions to teach people how to use the style guide in their work.
Content spec sheets
These have different names – page tables, templates – but the idea is the same: Start working on the content offline. I call them “spec sheets” because they are specifying (“spec”) what content needs to be created. They provide direction for creating good content. It tells the author everything she needs to know about the content for that specific page, including objective, audience, source material, and character count guidelines. It breaks down content into fields.
I’ve also created a spec sheet template for your own use.
Small – Use Word to create spec sheets for the top 5-10 pages or when you are creating new content. Use these to do all the editing before even thinking about entering a word into a CMS.
Medium – Do spec sheets for more pages. Use Google Docs or some other collaborative format to coordinate workflow among multiple authors and editors. Use them for major edits as well as initial creation.
All out – Use an online content production tool like GatherContent to manage multiple editors and authors across the organization. Likely you won’t be able to do the editorial workflow directly in the CMS, but consider adding help text directly in the CMS for ongoing governance.
Even if you don’t have an overarching strategy for content publication, you can plan at a lower level. An editorial calendar will lay out what content to create, who’s responsible for it, and where and when it will be published. This will get people working together for a singular purpose and prevent last minute surprises.
Small – Create a calendar for something under your control. It will serve as a planning device to get you thinking strategically and will also provide you with reminders to keep things moving. Share your tool or concept with others who are interested.
Medium – Work with content owners and marketing to create a calendar for a single campaign. Define goals, channels, and responsibilities for that campaign. The goal is to agree on who is doing what and when it will be done. Share success and lessons learned widely.
All out – Use an automated content marketing tool to coordinate all aspects of content production and publication. Adjust methodology and application when priorities and tactics shift.
Content migration sounds easy. It isn’t. No matter what you do, getting content from one system to another is rarely a one-to-one relationship. At some point a human needs to touch the content to make it fit in the new CMS. This is content transformation. Maybe new tags need to be applied or you’re going from body blobs to structured content chunks. Whatever the case, there needs to be a plan for how that content is getting from point A to point B.
Small – Work with your developer to understand the content types so you can plan for the work that needs to be done. Creating a migration plan will prevent last-minute crises because the content isn’t ready. If the amount of content is small enough, it will be faster and cheaper to move it manually. Temps can do this for a low rate, but be sure to provide instructions and check on work early to make sure it’s correct.
Medium – Get involved before development. Use the inventory to decide what can be ported with scripts and what needs human intervention. Work with the developer to find the easiest way to get content into the new system. Use technology wherever you can to make things more efficient.
All out – Define the content types that will be built. As the content strategist, you know best what the content should look like based on use cases. You need to understand your CMS. Sit side-by-side with the developers during the build planning and make decisions together given constraints of the CMS, project, design, authors, and other factors.
Where to Start
By far the most asked question I get is “Where should I start?” Being a crack content strategist, my answer is always the same: “It depends.” (Did you expect something else?) Until recently, my answer was most often “content inventory” or “audit.” Without knowing where you are, how do you know how to get where you are going? But more recently, I find myself saying “editorial calendar.” Maybe it’s because of the rise of content marketing and the need to approach that more strategically.
The answer will be different for everyone. Do not let perfect be the enemy of good. Don’t wait until all conditions are right or you have been given permission or have orders to go forth and strategize. Take a look at where you are today. What are your strengths? Where do you have the most leeway or freedom to deviate from “what’s always been done”? If you’re in stealth mode, what can you get done under the radar? What will get you the easiest success? Start wherever it makes the most sense for you. The important thing is that you start.