Why content strategies fail (and what to do about it)

3 minute read

I’ve written a few content strategies in my time, and I strongly suspect that most of them are gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. Or maybe propping up a wobbly desk.That’s not to say that content strategy isn’t worthwhile: it’s just the point of content strategy isn’t to create a document.The point is to transform how your organisation does content.

And that sort of transformation isn’t a ‘big bang’ event. Like my colleague Ben Holliday says, it’s the cumulative effect of a series of small but significant actions.

The hedgehog and the fox

There’s a fragment of ancient Greek poetry which translates as “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.It became the basis of an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the gist being that there are two ways of looking at anything. The hedgehog reacts to any sort of threat the same way: by rolling up into a ball. Like the hedgehog, you can respond to the world by trying to impose a single system on it.Or, like the fox, you can pursue many smaller, sometimes contradictory “truths”.

As content strategists we need to respond to content problems less like the hedgehog and more like the fox.

Content strategy for foxes

In a sense successful organisations are all alike. They put user needs first, and everything else comes second.But every underperforming organisation is broken in a slightly different way: all they have in common is a set of conditions which tend to promote poor publishing decisions.As content strategists, our job is to change those conditions. But there’s no single solution which always works. To change an organisation, you need to understand it first.

Getting to know your organisation’s publishing problems

Every time I’ve helped an organisation create a content strategy, I’ve ended up wishing that we’d spent less time on high level principles and more time looking at the problems that are unique to that organisation.

Creating publishing standards data is a good way to do that.

Don’t worry about minor errors. You’re looking for big, site-breaking problems. For example, if your site surfaces content in different places depending on what format it’s in, you need to make sure that publishers are using the right formats.

Here’s a publishing standards data template you can adapt for your own organisation.And as well showing up patterns of problems, publishing standards data can:

  • Give you objective evidence to convince other people in the organisation that you do, in fact, have problems that need fixing
  • Help you decide which problems to fix first
  • Let you benchmark progress in fixing problems

Starting to fix your organisation’s publishing problems

The patterns in your publishing data might tell you that your organisation has issues with recruitment, skills and training. Or with governance. Or with the publishing tools and technology you’re using. Or - most likely - with all three.Ultimately, you’ll need to fix all that. But often you don’t have the authority or trust to do it from day one.

One way of generating that trust is by starting small. Use your publishing standards data to identify a solvable problem. Make sure the people involved are open to change.Then work with them to draft some principles governing what content gets published in that area. I call these ‘microstrategies’ (that’s a terrible name - if you’ve got a better one, I’d love to hear it).

A sample microstrategy

This is the microstrategy we use to decide what tax information to publish on GOV.UK.

When and how we’ll provide tax information on GOV.UK

1.Guidance on using a service or completing a form

Knowing how to complete a form or use a service is a distinct user need that should be met by a single, canonical source of guidance.Because it’s only useful in the context of using the service, this guidance should be served inside the service (ideally as inline help). But we’ll need to iterate towards that position over time.

2. Guidance on tax-related issues outside the context for a service or form

Sometimes there’s a genuine user need to understand tax-related issues outside the context of completing a form or using a service.We’ll cover these issues with GOV.UK flat content if:

  • There’s something specific that users have to do (e.g. explaining in what circumstances they must register for Income Tax Self Assessment)
  • It’s information about tax treatment that’s a significant factor in decision making outside the context of completing a tax return (e.g. a business will need a certain amount of information about capital allowances because it’s likely to take them into account when deciding whether to buy new machinery).
  • It’s about a record keeping requirement that goes against standard practice (i.e the requirement to keep detailed records of income and outgoings).
  • It’s something that affects a significant number of people (obviously the tax code is complicated, and trying to address all potential edge cases would break GOV.UK).

Final thought

Writing things down can be really useful as a tactic, but in itself it’s not a strategy. If you want to transform your organisation rather than just produce a document, really get to know your organisation’s publishing problems. Then start small.


Content Strategy Roadmap

A free step-by-step path, template, and checklist towards creating a content strategy.

About the author

Stephen Gill

Stephen Gill works on the content team at the UK Government Digital Service. He tweets @s_t_gill.

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