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How Nonprofits Can Profit From Content Strategy

by Tenessa Gemelke on February 9th, 2012

Before coming to Brain Traffic, I was managing a publishing department at a nonprofit called Search Institute, an organization that conducts research about children and teenagers. In fact, that’s where I was working when someone in our office building named Kristina Halvorson asked if she could use our Wi-Fi temporarily. In exchange, she’d offer us a workshop about something called “content strategy.”

You can probably see where this is headed.

As we listened to the introductory speech about tying user-centered content to the business model, I saw several of my colleagues nodding in agreement. I returned to my desk thinking, “Eureka! We’ve found it!”

Content strategy money bag

And then? Reality set in:

  • “We don’t have the resources for that.”
  • “Everyone is too busy to take on anything new.”
  • “It sounds like a great idea, but we need to focus on our funded projects.”

Most of these comments are pretty typical when people initially feel overwhelmed by content strategy. But I continued having conversations until I came to some unique conclusions: In our nonprofit setting, the business model was a moving target. Funding came and went. Sometimes there were multiyear, multimillion-dollar grants, and other times we survived from small project to small project. With all of this uncertainty, it was difficult to land on a single strategy—much less to deploy the people and hours needed to implement it.

You’ve gotta start somewhere

I’d love to tell you that an anonymous donor gave us a big bag of unrestricted content strategy money, but that didn’t happen. Our dreams of best practices gave way to best efforts. Although we couldn’t afford to restructure and rewrite all of our content, we soon discovered that a little bit of alignment and analysis can go a long way.

If you’re in the content trenches at a nonprofit organization, here are a few places to focus your limited resources:

  • Document what you have and what’s working. If at all possible, conduct a content inventory or a more in-depth qualitative audit, exploring whether you’re getting results. How popular are your PDFs? Are people following social media posts back to your blog? And where is all of this content coming from? It’s important to know who’s creating what and if all of that hard work is paying off. You might be surprised to discover that a funny e-card got more traction than a free white paper.
  • Spend time on workflow. Nonprofit organizations attract people who (a) believe passionately in what they do and (b) want to help. Unfortunately, this puts your content creators at risk of getting spread too thin or duplicating each other’s efforts. At Search Institute, a brief study of our newsletters revealed that four individuals were creating four different newsletters for only two audiences. Consolidating resources and introducing a unified editorial calendar resulted in less work and higher quality.
  • Know your audiences. You might have a mentoring program that serves underprivileged kids in rural communities, but those kids probably aren’t checking out your website. So, who is? Are corporate funders investigating your credibility? Are volunteers looking for logistical information? You need to understand who is using your content, and for what purpose. Even if you can’t afford a full-scale user research study, a few phone calls, an in-house brainstorming session, or an online survey can help you start to collect this information.
  • Pay attention to your business model. Some nonprofits get so caught up in providing free information and services that they neglect the audiences who are footing the bill for their good work. Are you dependent on individual donations? If so, make it easy to donate (and receive receipts!) online. Do corporate sponsors distribute internal copies of your annual report? Offer a printer-friendly version. Do other organizations purchase your materials or services with grant money? Give them links and tools that make it easier to obtain that funding.

    You don’t have to beat people over the head with donation requests. Simply remember that meeting users’ needs for information is ideal, but meeting users’ needs when they are TRYING TO GIVE YOU MONEY is essential.

  • Use your money wisely. At Search Institute, we had big dreams of overhauling our website, but we simply never had enough general operating expenses to get it done. Funders had their own agendas, and promoting the nonprofit itself was not a high priority for them. But we did obtain money to create a new website for parents. That provided an opportunity to invest in branding and user testing—two big-ticket items that really mattered to funding partners who cared about having their logo on a reputable site. This work provided a lot of the messaging and nomenclature that informed the larger strategy for the parenting site.

Keep hope alive

It’s discouraging to list all of the things you can’t accomplish, so … don’t! Get started in whatever small way you can. Celebrate every victory. Document the value content strategy has provided—both internally and to your supporters. And, who knows? Maybe that magical anonymous donor will show up with the cartoonish money bag someday.

Have you used content strategy in a nonprofit setting? What tips can you share with the rest of us?

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Posted in Content Strategy

Conquering Complex Projects

by Beth Johnson on February 2nd, 2012

Complexity. As a project manager at Brain Traffic, I hear clients use that word a lot. And, for good reason. When you think of everything involved in content strategy, it can get pretty overwhelming. In fact, Dictionary.com defines complex as:

  • Composed of many interconnected parts; compound; composite: a complex highway system.
  • Characterized by a very complicated or involved arrangement of parts, units, etc.: complex machinery.
  • So complicated or intricate as to be hard to understand or deal with: a complex problem.

Content projects regularly fit each (and sometimes all three!) of these definitions. So, how do you tackle complex projects? Where do you start?

Step 1: Diagnose the problem

The first—and most critical—step is to take time to identify why exactly your project is unique, different, hard, or complex. It’s not as hard as you think. You’ve got help. Project managers have been thinking about what makes projects complex for decades.

In his paper, “Project Complexity: A Brief Exposure to Difficult Situations,” project management expert Dr. Lewis Ireland identifies two categories of project complexity factors:


Technical complexity factors

Management complexity factors

  • Number of technologies involved
  • Familiarity of team with technologies
  • Brand new or  well-established technologies
  • Number of technical interfaces
  • Project staffing and management
  • Number of parties involved
  • Change-related issues
  • Stability and complexity of requirements
  • Political issues
  • Time/cost issues


Conveniently, Dr. Ireland’s categories line up with the two halves of “the quad” (a graphic we use at Brain Traffic to help our clients understand the interrelated areas of content strategy). The halves are:

  • Content components—what the content is and how it gets prioritized and organized.
  • People components—how content moves through the organization and how decisions are made.

Brain Traffic Content Strategy Diagram


When you compare Dr. Ireland’s categories, the quad, and your project particulars, it’s usually pretty easy to identify the factors. Some common complexity factors are:


Content complexity factors

People complexity factors

  • New technology
  • Complicated or unfamiliar subject matter
  • Multiple and varying audiences
  • Large amounts of content
  • Multiple platforms, properties, and content types
  • Stakeholders (large numbers, diverse roles)
  • Multiple teams with different expectations
  • Project participants who don't know each other well
  • Different vendors with different priorities
  • Recent reorganization, creating new or undefined roles


On your project, you may have one factor that makes the project out of the ordinary. Or, you may have a dozen. As we start adding more and more factors, our projects become more and more complicated.

Step 2: Break things down

Once you diagnose the factors that are entirely specific to your project, you can break things down and address each specific element.

For example:

  • Multiple content properties: Choose one property as the parent or priority. Work on recommendations for that property, and then branch out. (Even if this means you might have to update your recommendations later.)
  • Lots of diverse stakeholders: If you have several stakeholder groups, you might want to make a stakeholder matrix to create clarity and define roles. Distribute and share the matrix with the project team and stakeholders. If there has been a recent reorganization, highlight how things have changed.
  • New technology: Budget time and resources for training and research. Bring in experts to help you understand the implications of the new system, if necessary.

Complex problems seem a lot less scary when you look at them in small chunks.

Step 3: Roll with it

And here’s one final bit of advice: Roll with it! Every project has its quirks, and that’s what makes our work challenging and fun.

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Posted in Project Management

Don’t Use That Language With Me

by Angie Halama on January 26th, 2012

Perhaps I’m distracted, maybe I’m tired. I’ve read this copy three times and I still don’t know what it’s talking about. I must not be focusing. Maybe I need more coffee …

Or maybe, the problem is the copy itself. Ah, yes. I see it now: jargon. Obscure, technical terms I think I should know, because the copy keeps using them, but I don’t (what’s a “drive-by download”?). Words that sound impressive, but may be uncommon, and therefore vague, to a general audience (think “erudite” instead of “well-read”). Buzzwords that have been used so much—and so badly—that their meaning is diluted (like “innovate”).

Nothing kills content like jargon. Here are three ways you can make sure it doesn’t end up in your content.

  1. Speak your audience’s language

    Before you start writing, stop and deliberately consider what words your audience does and doesn’t use in their daily language. If your audience is IT professionals, it makes sense to use IT terms with them. But if you’re talking to small business owners who need IT services, using IT terms is confusing, meaningless, and inconsiderate.

    When in doubt, remember: Simple, common words cover a lot of ground with any audience, because everyone immediately knows what they mean. And they’re especially important to low-literacy readers, who are more common than you may think. Learn more about them in Angela Colter’s article, “The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had.”

  2. Get specific

    It can be easy to fall into using buzzwords or words with vague meanings. Let’s take an article about writing training, for example. I could start by saying, “Optimize your writing skills and leverage your business.” But what does that mean? Could a reader even guess at what I’m saying?

    It would be better if I was more specific, like “Learn to write concise copy that customers read and respond to.” Language that’s precise gives readers a clear idea about what they’re going to read next. This is especially important when you’re writing high-level information that leads to more detail.

  3. Know what you’re talking about

    The jargon problem can be about more than just word choice. To write clear and useful copy for readers, you need to be an expert on the audience, and on what you’re selling. Or at least have expert-level information.

    Vague language can be the result of vague ideas, so before you start writing, make sure your expert information includes:

    • Who the customer is
    • Their hopes and desires
    • The problems they want to solve (goals)
    • How this product/service/idea meets their needs

    If I’m struggling to write clear and convincing copy, I sometimes find I don’t know enough. Sure, I may have product specs and a customer profile, but if I stop and listen, I hear questions nagging at the back of my mind. What’s so special about this product? Aren’t there a dozen others like it? What’s driving my audience to seek this information? What questions do they have in their minds?

Show your readers you know who they are

Stick your feet in the reader’s shoes. It really is the real purpose of your copy: to show the audience you took their shoes (OK, borrowed), you’ve got them on, and you did a 5K in them. Because if you understand their needs, and exactly how your product/service/idea meets those needs, then that’s all you need to tell them—in concise, simple terms. And that is far more compelling to your readers than a thousand fancy words.

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Posted in Web Writing

Content Strategy and Responsive Design

by Sean Tubridy on January 19th, 2012

Maybe you’ve heard the term “responsive design.” Maybe you haven’t. Many people think it solely refers to the technical aspects of design, but that’s not exactly the case.

Responsive design can have a major impact on your content. I’ll tell you how it works, how it can affect your content, and why you should—and need to—care.

What is responsive design?

Responsive design is the practice of having one website that adapts to the device it is being viewed upon. Or, more simply: one website for all screens.

So, why is it important? If you’ve ever been involved in the process of creating separate sites for desktop, mobile, tablet, iPhone, iPad, etc., you know why. It can be a nightmare to develop and keep up multiple websites that are essentially delivering the same content. If you only have to design and code for one site, things suddenly become a lot simpler.

Below is the Confab 2012 site I designed and developed as seen on a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone. Notice that while the design and layout look different on each device, the URL and the content are the same.

Responsive Confab 2012 site on multiple devices

How could it impact your content?

Right now, designers and developers are driving the conversations about responsive design. And those conversations are primarily about technical and esthetic matters. But, not surprisingly, it pertains to content, too. That’s the part I’d like to talk about.

The point of using a responsive approach is to allow the same content to work across multiple devices. This can make your job easier, because you don’t have to update content in multiple places.

So, what can happen to a site’s content as we go from a large desktop to a small device? Three things typically occur:

  1. It shifts: This the most obvious change in content when we look at a responsive layout. As the screen gets smaller, columns become narrower, allowing text to become larger and more readable. Sidebars and other secondary content blocks move from the side to below the main column(s). Rows of six images become three, and then two, and then one, etc. All of this is done so you don’t have to pinch, expand, and move around a site on a smaller device. When it’s done properly, it can make the viewing experience much more enjoyable and efficient.
  2. It gets hidden: Content that would otherwise take too long to skim by scrolling or just doesn’t fit well in the layout might get hidden. It's then revealed when a user performs an action like clicking a button or toggling a drop-down.
  3. It gets removed: Uh oh! Did an alarm just go off in your head? It should have, because this is the part of responsive design that no one likes to talk about. Even though the general consensus is that removing content is generally a no-no, it’s totally possible and oh-so-tempting in the name of esthetics, reduced scrolling, lowered page load time, etc.

Why should a content strategist care?

As I was developing the Confab 2012 site and creating different layouts for different screen sizes, I found that I needed to make a lot of decisions about what should happen to the content across different screen sizes. Should this piece of content shift? Become hidden? Disappear altogether? What’s more important—this piece or that piece? Should this go above or below that? It became clear very quickly that I shouldn’t be the only one making these decisions.

Don’t leave these decisions solely up to designers and developers. Chances are, we’re too concerned about things like browser compatibility and page-load time to give much thought to them. I happen to be a designer who believes that people visit websites for the content, not the design—but that doesn’t mean I want to be making decisions about content priority myself.

Responsive design. Mobile first. Progressive enhancement. These, and any other technical approaches where your content can take different forms across channels and platforms, present a challenge to content strategists. The content you create needs to be flexible.

To achieve this, you may need to enhance and adapt some of your traditional deliverables, or set them aside in favor of conversations and collaborations, which is always a good thing.

The Web will continue to evolve, and the more content strategists and designers can work together to adapt to these changes, the better off our content—and users—will be.

p.s. Yes, we know our site isn’t responsive. But we’re working on it. Just you wait!

Responsive design is a term and a technique coined by Ethan Marcotte in his groundbreaking article in A List Apart, “Responsive Web Design.” If you are interested in learning the technology behind it, there are many more articles to explore.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Brown Paper Packages

by Lee Thomas on January 12th, 2012

A comprehensive content strategy must address a wide range of factors: business goals, audience needs, the competitive landscape, available resources, various platforms and channels, timelines, structural configurations, keywords, migration plans—the list goes on. It can feel like all the unanswered questions might swirl into a funnel cloud and engulf the project. When that happens, what can we hold on to?

Sometimes, a metaphor helps. One I find useful is the brown paper package.

Let’s go shopping

Imagine a retail store. Inside, the shelves are lined with unlabeled packages. What’s inside each? Fireworks? Creamed corn? Live mice? All of the above? (Let’s hope not.) Customers don’t buy unlabeled packages; they need to know what they’re going to get. (For starters, is it eight live mice? Or a full dozen?)

What’s in the box?

If you put your website (or organization’s) content in a box, what would the label say? For many organizations, this is the central question of their content strategy: What are we going to put in here that our audience will want and find useful?

Knowing what goes in the box—and why—is the core of your content strategy. The concrete image of the package can aid thinking and facilitate decisions about content: What is the primary value of this content package? What will be worth the audience’s time, attention, or money? What accessories should we include? How will we make this? Imagining the content in this way has various advantages:

  • It demands clarity around substance. Although content takes physical form eventually, it often feels more abstract than, say, creamed corn. That’s one reason why defining the content’s substance—what it’s about—is a big part of content strategy. This seems easy enough on the surface. In fact, sometimes, project teams blow past this step because they assume the answer is obvious, already set in stone, or otherwise predetermined. But writing out the package’s label forces a useful specificity and can reveal previously unspoken differences of opinion. (“That’s not what I thought it was about,” etc.)
  • It’s a reminder to focus on the audience. Organizations spend a lot of time and energy publishing things they want the audience to notice or use. Are those packages users will pay attention to and open? Or will they be ignored like socks on Christmas morning? If the package isn’t full of content that users really want or need, it’s probably time to revisit what’s going inside the box up at the assembly line.
  • It’s an opportunity to differentiate. Put your package of content on the table, next to the packages the competitors offer. Make note of the packaging itself (it matters), but really pay attention to who’s got the goods inside the box. Who’s offering breadth? Depth? Authority? Who’s got an unusual angle? Now, what changes would make the content you’re offering a more attractive, unique, or specialized option?
  • It’s the essence of the content strategy. Actual box manufacturers aside, organizations don’t create an infrastructure and staff-up so they can send empty packages out the door. Likewise, structure, workflow, and taxonomy don’t mean very much if the box is empty, or filled with random bits and pieces the audience doesn’t want or need.

A few hypothetical examples:

  • A health foods maker might label their content box this way: Daily recipes, shopping lists, coupons, and resources to help people eat healthier every day.
  • Because of the complex and customized nature of its products, a health information technology company might downplay its 500 product sheets and instead highlight: Technology-based success stories about health and modern medicine.
  • An employee intranet might avoid becoming a dumping ground for old documents by defining its content package as: An essential guide to help our people manage their employment and work-life.

Cue the asterisk

The metaphor has limitations. It’s easier to think of some kinds of content as product in a box than other kinds. Some organizations create multiple “packages” to serve different audiences or purposes. And technology keeps changing the way audiences “shop” for content. A metaphor like this won’t answer every question about a content strategy, but I do find this technique to be useful in certain situations. It can help explain content strategy work to clients and stakeholders, too.

Tied up with string

Knowing what goes in the box and writing out a label for it can help stimulate and refine the thinking that goes into developing a viable content strategy. Of course, many decisions still need to be made and work needs to be done before that box gets into the hands of an audience. Having a concrete image of the content can facilitate those decisions and keep the work on track.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Tell Us What You Want (What You Really, Really Want)

by Melissa Rach on January 5th, 2012

Happy New Year! We hope you have the best year ever in 2012. Especially because the whole world is going to end on December 21, according to the ancient Mayans. Or not. Nobody knows for sure.*

Deathstar blowing up Earth

Hey, it could happen.

There are three things, however, that we DO know for sure:

  1. We have AT LEAST eleven more months to rock the Brain Traffic blog.
  2. Blogs, like all content, are only successful if it provides value to the user.
  3. We’d like you—yes, YOU—to tell us what topics you’d like to see discussed on this blog.

That’s right, there are 22 Brain Traffic employees standing by. We eat, sleep, and breathe content. What would you like to learn more about? How can we help you?

Make your suggestions in the comments section below or on Twitter (@BrainTraffic). We’ll address as many as we can. And treat this year’s editorial calendar as if it were our last!

Thanks in advance for your suggestions. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

* Does anyone else see this whole Mayan calendar debacle as a content workflow problem? It’s more proof that content that hasn’t been updated regularly can cause all sorts of problems (i.e., conspiracy theories, mediocre movies, etc.). No? OK. Erm. Nevermind us.

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Posted in Content Strategy

And That’s a Wrap: 2011 By the Numbers

by Julie Vollenweider on December 22nd, 2011

Looking back on 2011, it’s been quite an exciting ride. Here’s a look at what happened this year …

Brain Traffic:

Starting tomorrow, Brain Traffic is taking some time off to celebrate an incredible year with family and friends. Our office closes for the holidays on December 23, and will reopen on Tuesday, January 3. Here’s to a very happy, healthy, and hilarious 2012!

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Posted in Brain Traffic

Why You Need to Believe

by Christine Benson on December 15th, 2011

Behind every successful project I’ve ever worked on, I’ve found there’s a single, universal truth. You ready for it? I believed in what I was recommending.

As a content strategist, there are multiple levels to my work—two of which are strategic consulting and executional planning. Executional planning refers to the what, where, when, and how of your content. The process produces tangible deliverables. It is the road map for how to execute the strategy. Without it, any strategy is likely to sit in a drawer somewhere.

Strategic consulting means working with clients to figure out why they’re doing something. It’s as much of a process as a deliverable. The work involves a series of conversations and research activities to discover what the organization wants, and why they want it. It then gets transformed into what they can, and should, do.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

Virginia believes, and you should, too.

Photo by @jbtaylor

Setting the stage for success

To test any strategic recommendations, I ask myself questions about how I’m going to communicate (and possibly defend) the approach. For example:

  • What problem will it solve for the organization?
  • How is it better than what is happening now?
  • What will the organization need to stop doing for this to succeed?
  • What about it will get people excited?
  • What will make people uncomfortable?
  • What will help them overcome the discomfort?
  • Can others learn to communicate it effectively?
  • Will it be able to grow and change over time?

When I believe in what I’m recommending, I see the value in the project. I can clearly articulate how it’s a good thing for both the client and their users. Because of this work, I can guide collaborative conversations with the client to refine the overall approach. Clear goals and objectives have been defined, which makes the executional planning go faster. Decisions have been made, people understand those decisions, and work gets done.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say, “Well, it’s not like we think anyone’s actually going to do/use/want this.” Huge red flag. To me, this says they never did any real strategy work. Someone just came up with a quick solution to make the client happy, slapped the word “strategy” on it, and called it a day. Without taking the time to discover what the best approach is for the client, it’s pretty hard to believe in what you’re doing.

Be realistic, but don’t settle for sub-par

I’m not saying you’re going to love every single project—there will always be unforeseen challenges and setbacks. But, if there isn’t at least something you think will be useful or valuable to both the business and the user, then you probably need to keep working. Remember, belief is a powerful thing, especially this time of year.

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Posted in Content Strategy

What Not to Wear: A Tale of Content Strategy

by Tenessa Gemelke on December 8th, 2011

Working at Brain Traffic is excessively wonderful. This place is teeming with entertaining geniuses. The cake flows freely. We work really hard, but sometimes we stop to watch old-school commercials or an amazing hand dance. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a workplace.

I am a Brain Traffic content strategist through and through, but I have just one problem: For a bunch of nerds, my colleagues are unreasonably fashionable. I am in the company of Fluevogs and well-groomed eyebrows.

Tenessa, before her makeover

Tenessa "before." And yes, that is a Hypercolor T-shirt.

I tried to up my game when I started working here in January. I wore necklaces! I wore unstained shirts! I didn’t wear novelty socks every day! And I somehow managed to stifle my penchant for 70s polyester and bedazzled sweaters. My wardrobe was drab, but I thought I was flying under the radar.

I wasn’t. My friend Alison contacted the authorities. She nominated me for What Not to Wear.

The role I was born to play

For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it’s a reality show starring Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, two hilarious fashion experts who intervene to stop society’s worst violators. Before the show’s producers select people, they need to know how seriously the candidate needs help. Brain Traffic’s own Julie Vollenweider conspired with Alison, my husband, and a few of my coworkers to get me to the Mall of America for a "client meeting," where a nice young gentleman casually asked me to participate in this interview:


Obviously, the situation was dire.

Some people who end up on the show feel hurt or offended, but I had zero qualms. I had always selected clothes that made me laugh, so I was perfectly comfortable with the idea that my attire might make someone else laugh. It just hadn’t occurred to me that “someone else” might one day include, erm, EVERYONE WHO WATCHES A VERY POPULAR TELEVISION SHOW. (Fortunately, my stage fright didn’t set in until well after taping the show.)

Soon, I would be on my way to New York to receive professional help with my style problems.

Now, when you find yourself suddenly making an hour-long television appearance, it’s easy to lose your grip. I spent several days simply feeling stunned. But as the trip drew nearer, I realized I had to snap out of it. So I asked myself, “What would a content strategist do in this situation?”

She’d develop a strategy. THAT’S WHAT.

Content strategy to the rescue

Meghan Casey had already written a lovely blog post about using content strategy to evaluate clothing, but this was different. I wasn’t just auditing and analyzing the contents of my wardrobe. This was a full-on makeover. What I needed was a core strategy.

Before I flew across the country and placed my fashion fate in the hands of experts, I wanted to be sure I had identified a long-term direction for my wardrobe. I considered my personal priorities (“business goals,” if you will) and how others would feel about my appearance (i.e., user needs). These were some of the issues I wanted to address:

  • Looking like a respectable member of the Brain Traffic team
  • Showing my personality
  • Not running to the dry cleaner every week
  • Staying warm in the Minnesota winters

I tried to articulate these concerns in a way that my project sponsors (Stacy and Clinton) might appreciate. When I stepped off the plane at La Guardia, I was armed with my core strategy:

Tenessa has a practical, cross-seasonal wardrobe that communicates confidence and professionalism with a spirit of fun.

Did the strategy work? Does my new style match my personality? And most importantly, what happened to the full-length, purple party dress from my Twitter avatar? You’ll just have to watch the show* and find out!

*The episode is scheduled to air Tuesday night, December 13, at 9:00 EST/8:00 CST on TLC.

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Posted in Around the Office

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.

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Posted in Content Strategy