Back to Basics: What is Content Strategy?

The focus question of this post is one I asked myself and others (and Google) a lot in my first month or so as a content strategist. There are times I still catch myself trying to define content strategy—usually when I’m trying to explain to someone else what I do for a living.

Content strategy sounds pretty straightforward, right? You have content (text, photos, videos, forms, links, PDF uploads, cat gifs, etc.) and, in the best case scenario, you’ll develop a strategy for how to use said content in the most effective way possible. That’s somewhat true, but that explanation sounds deceptively linear. More often than not, the strategizing process isn’t necessarily straightforward, and “straightforward” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.”

“Without content strategy, there’s no purpose for design. It’s the first step in our process because it’s the first thing that people see when it comes to visual communication. Content strategy is the blueprint for every project and that’s not limited to digital platforms. Without the initial strategy in a project, you won’t have a solid execution of the remaining factors—no matter how good your design is. Even if you think you’re not using content strategy, you are.”
 
— Javon Bell, UX Designer, Reusser Design

Personally, my definition of content strategy changes depending on who I’m talking to—which in and of itself is a form of content strategy. How? Because who I’m talking to (in other words, my target audience) is going to affect what I tell them about my job, how I explain what I do, and what I want them to take away from what I say. Like Javon said, no matter what kind of project you’re working on, you will always at some point implement a form of content strategy whether you recognize it as such or not.

In this post, we’re going to limit the wide scope of content strategy to our specialty at Reusser Design: web-based and digital platforms. Let’s start with some light reading.

Going By the Book

Meghan Casey’s working definition for content strategy in her praised publication, The Content Strategy Toolkit, is that content strategy “helps organizations provide the right content, to the right people, at the right times, for the right reasons.”

“There are numerous stages that must successfully take place to take a website from a creative idea to a fully realized launch. Sometimes these stages work hand in hand, and sometimes they operate independently. One thing is certain however, without proper content strategy, they all fall short. Content strategy drives the design,  drives the database architecture, drives the development, drives the user experience. A fully realized launch, without a doubt relies on a fully realized content strategy.”
 
— Jason Boothman, Lead Back-End Developer, Reusser Design

Brain Traffic’s content strategy “quad” (Figure 1) is also referenced in The Content Strategy Toolkit and for good reason—it takes the large and, at times, ambiguous animal that is content strategy and breaks it down into where the content components and the people-oriented components meet at a common purpose. In other words, it illustrates the “right content” meeting the “right people” and where the “right reasons” fall into that mix.

Figure 1: Content strategy "quad" diagram by Brain Traffic.

Can we break this down even more? Casey did. Let’s start with the content side of things.

  • Substance. This is basically the “what” and “why” of the content. Substance determines what traffic, result, or action the content should produce and why it’s being presented at all. Why is x, y, and z meaningful to the user? That’s the question that the content’s substance should answer.
  • Structure. If the substance of content is the “what” and “why,” structure is the “how.” How the content is displayed, how it’s organized, and how easy it is for a user to find what they need and/or want from the site.

Now for the people side—which is often the trickier, more subjective side as well. Since the pieces in this diagram hit harder on the way organizations run, this takes some of the changeability out of the equation, but both of these seemingly neat sections still have the ability to make projects just a little messier. Simultaneously, these aspects can also be what makes a project challenging and fun.

  • Workflow. A content collection program we use called GatherContent is structured using an aspect called Workflow, which separates paged batches of content for a site into stages of progress (i.e. if a page needs new content that hasn’t been created yet, if there’s existing content we can use that may need some editing, and so on).

    Workflow in the overall scheme of content strategy is the same—it illustrates how the content in question flows through an organization from drafting to publication to future revision and updates.
  • Governance. The governance aspect of content strategy boils down to how the organization providing the content makes decisions about that content to ensure that it fits in with the strategy in place.

According to this layout of what content strategy is, means, and does, these four aspects create a melting pot at the middle and that’s where the magic happens. Our experience of content strategy at Reusser Design isn’t so different—however, it’s not quite the same either.

Going By Experience

Content strategy is an integral part of our process—in fact, it’s our starting point with every project we take on. Before the design, user experience (UX), and development stages can begin, it’s important to know what we’re working with, how we can use it to its best potential, and where there’s room for improvement.

“Imagine you’re in charge of building a house. The illustrations of the finished home look beautiful, but upon looking at the blueprints, you notice something—in place of exact measurements for the walls, doors, etc., you see ambiguous notations like, Should be able to accommodate two or more cars in case the homeowner wants to add more later. Is it possible to meet these requirements? Yes, but having these crucial details finalized before you start building saves a considerable amount of time, effort, money, and potentially the lives of the clients. That is why content strategy is valuable to a developer.”
 
— Ben Reynolds, Front-End Developer, Reusser Design

As the content strategists of the team, Beth, Katie, and I often take that initial dive to seek out areas in need of renovation so we can start formulating a plan-of-action for a new site, bring the rest of the team’s attention to potential “red flags” or problems, and be a sort of “hub” for information about the project throughout the entire process.

When it comes to explaining content strategy, we found it helpful to narrow down how the process should be executed to five distinct characteristics. A strategy should be:

  1. Planned. Taking the time to understand the organization of the content and the goals it’s oriented toward while auditing existing content provides the fullest possible scope for the project you’re on.
  2. Purposeful. By clearly outlining goals that apply to all content involved in the project, we get into the “why,” which traces back to Casey’s description of content’s substance. Not only does this frame the rest of the project, it saves time, frustration, money, and other valuable resources in the long run.
  3. Personalized. Don’t forget the people-oriented portion of your “quad.” In the equation of your strategy, your (or your client’s) content will be for someone. Make sure that you’re saying what you want to say to that defined target audience and that you’re saying it in a way they can understand.
  4. Patterned. It’s true we’re not exactly quilting (although that’s arguably a good choice for a crafting metaphor), but creating consistency across all utilized content and mediums is important to form a concrete identity and look for yourself or your client.
  5. Proactive. Your strategy shouldn’t be a temporary fix. Ideally, it should outlast the project duration and build a long-term foundation for the content it serves. In developing a plan for maintaining the content’s purpose and tone into the future, you’re solidifying the identity you’ve formed and creating a mold that will continue to uphold and shape the purpose of the project as time goes on.

When the stars align with all of these goals for a project, that’s called a miracle. That being said, the strategizing portion has its own areas where things can get messy or need a serious helping of damage control. Luckily when that happens, having the loose ends tied up on your side keeps whatever trouble is brewing on the flip-side from blowing a hole in your project.

The TL;DR Version

“While it’s not as sexy and visual as design, content strategy’s an important part of making order out of chaos of a user’s experience. It’s the right combination of library science, writing, and design-thinking to organize and structure the content of a site together in a way that’s cohesive and makes sense. It should also lay the path for someone to easily create and organize content into the future, too.”
 
— Andy Welfle, Content Strategist, Adobe
(Formerly of Reusser Design and Facebook)

Let’s circle back to the question we started with: what is content strategy? Maybe it’s very a cut-and-dry way to organize things. Maybe it’s a means of planning communication in the most user-friendly, innovative way possible. Maybe it’s a metaphorical quilt-like structure that helps us convey our wants, meanings, and messages into the world in a way people outside our immediate circle can understand. Or maybe since both Javon and Ben separately referred to content strategy as a blueprint for almost every kind of project, that’s the best comparison.

The TL;DR is that it’s all of these things. And that just might be why it’s so important.

 


If you’re still in the crafting stage of your content management, check out our Content Crafter’s Checklist for some tips and suggestions on how to make the most of your text and media.