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With Content Strategy, There’s No One Right Way

by Meghan Casey on December 1st, 2011

As content strategists, we help our clients and organizations make thoughtful decisions about solving content problems. And the specific content problems our clients face vary. That’s why we’ll never be able to standardize THE approach to content strategy.

You know that saying, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? We don’t want to go there. So we need to build upon what has worked for similar situations, while allowing lots of room for adaptation and innovation.

I mean, if Peter Brady can adapt to change so well, we content strategists certainly can, too.

Peter Brady

Peter knows: When it's time to change, you've got to rearrange.

Image by TV Time Warp. All rights reserved.

A content strategy approach

When we give Content Strategy 101 workshops, we outline a general framework for approaching content strategy work. At a high level, there are four steps:

Step 1: Analyze and align

This is when we dig into our clients’ content ecosystem to determine what content they have, where it comes from, who’s involved in creating, publishing, and maintaining it, what challenges they encounter, etc. Some of the activities during this phase include stakeholder interviews, quantitative audits, competitor reviews, and user research. The output is a document or presentation that helps our clients get their stakeholders aligned on what problems the content strategy needs to solve.

Step 2: Define the strategic intent

This phase is when we home in on the central ideas for how the content strategy will help our clients meet their business goals. The output typically addresses implications for the four components of content strategy: substance, structure, workflow, and governance. The output at this phase can take many forms, depending on the goals, objectives, and client needs. And the goal at the end of the phase is, again, stakeholder alignment.

(For a refresher on the four components of content strategy, check out Brain Traffic’s content strategy quad.)

Step 3: Specify the substance, structure, workflow, and governance

During this phase, we detail how the content strategy comes to life. Again, the outputs depend on several factors, but can include things like content evaluation criteria, topics maps, site maps, wireframes and templates, workflow diagrams, a governance model … you get the idea.

Step 4: Implement the strategy

We don’t always help clients with this phase, but when we do it starts with a plan for getting things done and the tools necessary to do so. Depending on our role, outputs might include page tables or outlines, web copy, metadata and taxonomy schemas, and migration spreadsheets.

No holds barred

When I start a project, I try not to let past work and experiences limit how I think about the best approach to solving the client’s problems. So, how do I decide if I should skip a step, adapt an activity, or try something I’ve never tried before?

Well, it depends.

I find the answer depends on how confident I am that I can make the best recommendations possible with the information and experience I have.

Questions I consider include:

  • Is this a problem I’ve solved successfully before?
    • If yes, I’ll probably borrow from what’s worked, but look for ways to make it work even better.
    • If no, it’s an opportunity to develop something brand new that my colleagues and I can continue to build upon.
  • How familiar am I with the client and their content?
    • If I’m not very familiar, I probably want to talk to a lot of people and spend a pretty big chunk of time auditing their content.
    • If I’ve worked with the client a lot, I might already have some assumptions in mind that I can verify with the client.

The moral of the story

Having a framework to guide our content strategy endeavors is good. It helps us describe what we do and gives us a place to start.

But, it can’t be too rigid, or it will be nearly impossible to change when it no longer works. How many times have you heard a client or colleague say, “We can’t do [AWESOME IDEA THAT IS WAY BETTER THAN WHAT WE’RE DOING NOW] because we’ve always done it this way and it’s too hard to get people to change.”

Remember, just as content strategy is constantly evolving, so your processes should, too.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great statement to make. I manage projects of varying levels of complexity and scope so being adaptable is crucial.

  • Elle Yoffee

    All true. I also find that having worked with a variety of companies and clients, I still have to go back to the basics and investigate INTENTION. Most clients don’t know that internally, they don’t agree on the objectives they’re trying to achieve. If you can make it past this, you’re halfway there. The rest is a potpourri of tactics that roll up under the framework you’ve outlined here.

  • http://mariareyesmcdavis.com Maria Reyes-McDavis

    Someone had to say this.  While there is a process, mimicking a competitor’s strategy and not digging deeper is suicide.

  • Ian

    I just worked on my first ever eCommerce project, and this was certainly true for me. Some of the time I was using example deliverables that people had done before me (but always looking to improve them), other times I was inventing new ones from scratch. 

    Have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about being adaptable.

    And it’s important to remember when working as a CS – you might not have all the answers or experience but you still know a lot more about content then anyone else in the room, and you care about it more as well.

  • Diebrie 21

    nice blog…


  • http://bizmarketingbuilder.com/ marketing strategy

    A person was required to declare this specific. Even though you will find there’s course of action, mimicking a new competitor’s tactic but not rooting more deeply can be committing suicide.

  • http://blog.avangelistdesign.com Andy Parker

    I am never sure of how to manage vast sites that are long standing and especially those that cover both article based content like a news feed along with static content and then potentially some form of product section. 

    It feels impossible to provide a general format that is consistent when the needs for each area are often driven differently from a business goals perspective.

    This does go a long way to help defining a working format, but the tasks themselves .. well like you said, no right or wrong way but where do you go to see a better way?

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