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Practical content strategy: Making the journey

by , Strategist, Designer and Speaker

I love the strategy part of content strategy. High-level planning makes projects more purposeful. It helps us figure out what we should be doing and informs how we do it. But a plan has to be carried out to be worth anything, otherwise it’s just a collection of ideas.

A couple of years ago, my brother and a few of his friends took a bicycle trip across the United States. It’s a journey of 3800 miles, so a lot of planning went into it. He researched the right equipment, planned a route, and talked with people who had done it before.

However, until he actually got on his bike and started his journey west from the East Coast, his planning meant very little. Once he and his friends dipped their front tires in the Pacific Ocean after weeks of riding, their plan was completely validated.

Content strategy is like that. You never want the contribution you make to your company or client to be limited to a stack of deliverables. It feels good to make a plan at the beginning of a project, but no matter how beautiful, detailed, or thought-out your deliverables are, if they don’t shape the website, app, or product you’re building, they’re worth very little. That’s why content strategy has to be practical.

Here’s a framework for practical content strategy. It starts with clarity, and as the project moves forward, communication, collaboration, and creation help you maintain that clarity.

PracticalStrategy

Clarity

Maybe your strategy doesn’t take hold because the people you’re working with aren’t on board. When this happens, it can often be because it’s still your strategy. If you want the strategy to work, your co-workers or clients need to feel like they own it. It needs to be their strategy.

Clarity helps everyone see the strategy in the same light. Show people how the strategy benefits them. Demonstrate their role in carrying out the plan. People won’t truly support something until they understand it, so make things as clear as possible.

Your clients/co-workers/employers/stakeholders/team need to feel like they’re shaping the strategy, even if you’re doing most of the work. Involve them, build consensus, then make sure that consensus is clear.

Communication

Communicating the strategy requires just as much thought and intention as the strategy itself. Remember, it’s not about what works for you, it’s about what works for your audience. Maybe you love having your strategy in a nicely formatted text document, but if you’re communicating with a busy executive, chances are that document will get ignored at best and misinterpreted at worst.

Watch what works, and adapt the way you communicate the strategy. If the people you’re working with respond well to snappy slideshows, put one together. If they enjoy a visual diagram or a business model canvas, make one.

I often use mindmaps to capture information during meetings and document their relationships:

ContentStrategyActivitiesCommunication goes both ways, so be sure listening is part of your process. Listening to your stakeholders won’t just help them trust you, it will strengthen your strategy. Their questions and concerns will help you clearly see the problems your strategy is meant to solve.

Collaboration

Even in-house content strategists suffer from seeing themselves as the experts who are there to do great work, then present that work to the stakeholders. For agency strategists, that kind of behavior is often built into the workflow.

However, this comes with a big risk. What if you spend hours creating models and templates, then the people you’re presenting to don’t like them? It’s frustrating, it feels like a big setback, and you’ll end up incorporating their feedback anyway. Why not flip the process around?

Invite your stakeholders to help you with strategy-defining documents and deliverables before that final presentation. When you need their approval down the road, they’ll feel like they’re approving their own work because they helped you create it.

Worksheets like this one help your stakeholders get involved while strengthening your strategic perspective:

Enterprise

Creation

When your strategy leads to real things that people can read, interact with, and buy, the best way to make sure everyone is following the plan is to help create those things.

I’m not saying you have to write every article or edit every page, but humans have trouble following even the clearest plans. When you help create the things you planned for, you’re perfectly positioned to make sure everyone is sticking to the strategy.

If your strategy includes a style guide or a content pattern library, time spent on creation is an invaluable way to strengthen that documentation. Your hands-on work will reveal holes and edge cases you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Whether you call yourself a strategist or not, strategy is a necessity. But creating a strategy isn’t enough. Putting it into practice has to be a big part of your skill set.

The projects we work on can be big, frustrating, and messy. But when your strategy helps people in real, practical ways, it’s all worth it.

So don’t just plan your content journey. Finish strong.

On May 4th, I’ll be teaching a workshop with Scott Kubie called Practical Content Strategy at the IA Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. We’d love to see you there!

About the Author

Strategist, Designer and Speaker

Michael is a strategist, designer, and speaker who lives and works on the Southwest side of Chicago. He helps organisations tell their stories through meaningful narrative and useful experiences. His past work ranges from managing content strategy for large websites to designing interfaces for web and mobile software. He has spoken at Confab, Midwest UX, MinneWebCon, and more.

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