Content Strategy: Optimizing Your Efforts For Success

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Content strategy is a beast with many heads, names and trajectories. To approach it is to be sucked in full force. Even so, as crucial as content strategy is, conveying its gravity to a big audience, or to key administrators, is often hard. Being so inherently complex, it’s often easiest to tackle by example.

My first job as a Web content writer involved creating a campaign that promoted holiday spending and travel. I came up with clever tag lines that incorporated lyrics from Bing Crosby Christmas jingles. I thought I was doing great work, and when I got an email from my boss to discuss the campaign, I assumed I would get a pat on the back.

Approaches to Content Strategy1
Approaches to Content Strategy2 by Richard Ingram.

When I got to my boss’s office, she pulled up a page I had recently written and asked me what action I thought the content was encouraging. At first I was offended. But as I sat there, I began sweating and couldn’t come up with a clear answer (beyond that I was promoting holiday cheer).

My boss then said something that has stuck with me and guided much of my work as a content specialist. She said that while my creativity may be admirable, it wasn’t strategic.

Indeed, as I had not yet learned, when a consumer is on the Web, they are in a different mode than someone who is scanning a magazine or leafing through the mail. If there’s one boiled-down, oversimplified thing you need to grasp about content strategy, it is this: know your audience. Know who they are, where they are, what they know, what they want to know, and how they look for what they want to know. Most of the time   —   although there are exceptions to every rule, of course   —   your audience will appreciate fresh copy that gets to the point and features guidable keywords.

Of course, content strategy includes a lot: everything from content analysis to content channel management (“presence”) to SEO optimization. But if I had to break it down for a newcomer, here is the advice I would offer.

Know The Purpose Of Your Content

First off, you have to meet with your colleagues and draft a statement of intent for your content. Seriously, write it down, stick it above your computer, and come back to it often.

What are you trying to create? How will this content promote your business goals and help satisfy your customers’ needs? Pushing out content won’t do you any good if you’re not sure of its purpose. For some examples of Web platforms in the retail industry with clear, purposeful content, I direct you to King Arthur Flour73, Newman’s Own4 and Tom’s of Maine5. The sites do not look beautiful, but they serve their purpose.

King Arthur Flour6
King Arthur Flour73 is a nice example of websites in the retail industry with clear, purposeful content.

Know Your Key Messages

Once you have a purpose, you need key messages that convey that purpose to a broad audience. Pin down those key messages by collaborating with your staff. And again: write them down, stick them above your computer, and come back to them often. Incorporate them into your content creatively and as often as possible.

My first Web content job was writing for a city’s tourism bureau, and I kept the city’s top 10 tourism draws taped to my computer screen (in front of my eyes) at all times. At first, it seemed like my writing was repetitive, but I began to realize that those key messages were helping me nail the company’s mission right on the nose, every time I typed.

Believe me, if you do it with style, you won’t sound like a broken record. Rather, you will be clarifying why the business is important and demonstrating to your audience why you matter.

Know What Your Audience Wants Next

This is perhaps one of the hardest but also one of the most important aspects of content strategy. After you’re done with the nuts and bolts of the content   —   be it for the Web or email or whatever else   —   you need to anticipate what kind of content your audience will want more of.

What questions will someone have after seeing your work? What new developments will affect your business or change your offerings and messages? Answering these questions requires keeping on top of news and Web trends and maintaining an active, responsive relationship with your audience. Set up a feedback section of your website, if you don’t have one. Keep up with fans on Facebook and Twitter and through a blog, because one of the easiest ways to anticipate your users’ needs is by asking them what they want.

Some examples of companies with good cross-platform content and audience interaction are Southwest, Zappos and American Express. Best advice? Study what they do, and then do it better.

Know That Everything Needs A Plan

You need an editorial plan, an SEO plan, a content management plan, a content channel plan and a content distribution plan, among other plans. These plans should all be in conversation with each other. Create Excel sheets that highlight your plans. Have meetings to discuss the plans. Assemble teams for the different plans, and appoint people to lead those teams. And so on.

Every member of your organization should know that these plans exist. And if they don’t know them intimately, they should at least have easy access to them. One of the easiest ways for something to go wrong, content-wise, be it poor SEO or poor spelling, is to write content willy-nilly, without a clear, plotted trajectory. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is great content.

Know That You Need A Great Writer

Because I’m a writer by trade, I want to emphasize the importance of hiring really amazing Web writers. The people who succeed at Web writing are so much more than creators of snappy headlines and bullet points. Beyond being able to write artful sentences, good content writers are champions of analysis and synthesis.

Additionally, a lot of technological know-how goes into the job. Writers need to understand user experience, Web design and information architecture, and they often need to keep track of a staggering amount of content catalogues.

If you think you can hire any old Joe to crank out amazing, engaging content, think again. In hiring a Web team, finding a great content writer will most likely be your hardest task.

One Last Thing

To succeed in Web content strategy, you also need to know what not to do. Perhaps the most common mistake is overly long content. You want readers to always be engaged   —   and not to click away from your website   —   so get to your point, and get to it fast.

By the same token, the content shouldn’t be too short either. To maximize your SEO, visibility and more, and to ensure the audience is engaged and entertained, you have to give ’em some meat. Make them admire your concision, but also give them enough to chew on.

Another faux pas that is big but easy to fix is neglecting to update the content every now and again. As they say, keep it fresh!

This is only the tip of the iceberg. If you’re interested in learning more about content strategy, I recommend the Scatter/Gather8 blog by Razorfish, a great resource for anyone new to or interested in the field, as well as the recent article “Make Your Content Make a Difference9,” by Web content wizard Colleen Jones.

Thanks, and good luck contenting!

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.richardingram.co.uk/downloads/content_strategy_app_2038.png
  2. 2 http://www.richardingram.co.uk/downloads/content_strategy_app_2038.png
  3. 3 http://www.kingarthurflour.com/
  4. 4 http://www.newmansown.com/
  5. 5 http://www.tomsofmaine.com/
  6. 6 http://www.kingarthurflour.com/
  7. 7 http://www.kingarthurflour.com/
  8. 8 http://scattergather.razorfish.com/
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/04/12/make-your-content-make-a-difference/

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Allie Gray Freeland is the PR Director at iAcquire, a global leader in digital brand strategy and marketing services engagement for SEO, reputation management, content marketing, digital public relations, and social media marketing.

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  1. 1

    This is a great and timely article. I’ve been seeing more and more of this idea that “fluff” content is dead. The content that is pushed to your website (and your client’s websites) should be strategic and serve a specific purpose. Long gone are the days that one can just fill up a site with all kinds of half-baked content, for the purposes of SEO or simple fluff. Nice points, Good to see someone writing on Smashing Magazine from Minnesota ;)

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    • 2

      I couldn’t agree more. It is SO frustrating trying to teach someone how to write for the web. Especially those that feel the need to think that writing thick, wordy content is what is going to help you rank. There is a strategy to it. I try to explain it as playing a game of chess. You move your pieces to the right places in order to capture the King.

      1
  2. 3

    Great article, Allie! As a web developer, it’s hard for me to convey the importance of content to my clients who think that they just need a site designed and put on the web to look pretty. I think in the near future, content will certainly become much more of a main focus as every business will already have some kind of web presence and quickly learn it takes more than a domain name to stand out from their competition.

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  3. 4

    Thanks! I was currently looking for these tips. Glad I had found this on twitter. :D
    I will keep these points in my mind. :)

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  4. 5

    Patricia Redsicker

    June 3, 2011 6:19 am

    Allie,

    All I can say is, there is absolutely no way I could have said this better. I’m a content writer as well (and sometimes I think I know all about content writing ;). But I think you just schooled me. I’ll be checking out your 3 case studies – Tom’s of Maine, King Arthur and Newman’s Own. These tips will certainly help me to be a better writer. Will be following you on Twitter.

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  5. 6

    Great article. Wish more of my clients would read this.

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  6. 7

    Excellent, excellent, excellent! As someone who can do all sides of the Web equation (Web development/strategy, content development, SEO, etc.), I always cringe when companies don’t want to do what’s needed, content-wise, for their sites.

    Sure, a pretty site is good and all, but if the content isn’t there (and isn’t strategized), it will not succeed.

    It’s funny .. I wrote a blog post literally this morning about Website relaunches, design and what’s really important about Websites. It ties in very well with your article. If you’re interested, its at http://cruxbridge.com/2011/06/website-redesign-relaunch-marketing/ . (Feel free to delete the link or the whole paragraph if you want; I won’t take it personally. I’m not writing it as spam/an advertisement … I do think it dovetails very well into your discussion, especially because I just wrote it this morning.)

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  7. 8

    Mickey Markoff

    June 3, 2011 9:21 am

    I feel your pain, Allie–I was once told to stop writing for humans! Turns out that compound sentences can’t be spun into dozens or new ones to create hundreds of articles from the ones that I had written. So, I had to write over a hundred articles without using the word “and”, which is a pretty hard excercise for those of us past the first grade.

    In my case, it was a programmer’s machine logic vs. common readability in the wonderful world of SEO marketing.

    Thanks for a great piece!

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  8. 9

    I agree with the message of focusing on the strategic value of content as well as on its quality and effectiveness. However, I wish instead of saying things like “you need a plan and a team and a boss” you might’ve also addressed the problem for smaller, independently run businesses looking to improve their content strategy. Not everyone has a team for this and that and the other. That being said, I think you identified the kind of value often missing from content, and so your article was definitely helpful.

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  9. 10

    Content is King. Content Strategy is King’s Advisor.

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  10. 11

    Bruno Belluomini

    June 3, 2011 10:29 am

    That’s why I love SM! Great article!

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  11. 12

    This article is great and it coincides perfectly with the content discussions we’re having at my place of work. I’ll be sharing this along with my colleagues. Thank you.

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  12. 13

    revelations to my head :D

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  13. 14

    Demian Farnworth

    June 3, 2011 7:05 pm

    Listen: Coming from a guy who’s been in the business for over ten years, I love what you’ve done here.

    You’ve got the clear, the concise and the compelling down pat. I think I’ll print this out and tape it above my laptop. ;-)

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  14. 15

    I know you point out you’re a writer by trade but it really shows; I wasn’t just dotting down titles and taking in snippets. Great article, thanks!

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  15. 16

    Jeffry Pilcher | The Financial Brand

    June 4, 2011 9:02 am

    I agree with everything in the article *except* the blanket advice that posts/articles always be short. While this recommendation may make sense for most publishers, it isn’t fair to say that all stories need to be short, nor to say that all readers are only interested in short stories.

    I publish a B2B website for bank and credit union marketing executives. One of the signature aspects of the site is that stories average between 800 – 1,200 words. Readers of TheFinancialBrand.com are business professionals willing to invest more time in topics that help them in their jobs. They count on The Financial Brand to deliver more than cursory or superficial examinations of subjects.

    It’s worth pointing out that Smashing Magazine almost *never* publishes a short post, and it is arguably one of the best sites around.

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    • 17

      Now if we could just convince clients of the value of content, so many times its the last thing on shopping list.

      -1
  16. 18

    John Mindiola III

    June 5, 2011 5:18 pm

    This is top. The structure and style of this article seemed to mimic the advice. Solid.

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  17. 19

    Another great article on SM, I think the conclusion you have written is the most important part… it’s a fine line between making the article too long and visitors losing interest and not writing enough to engage the visitor.

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  18. 20

    This is great. And much of it aligns very closely to the Content Strategy practice at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online. We’ve been doing Content Strategy formally here for approaching 10 years, number close to 10 on the team, and are still growing. In fact, we’re aggressively recruiting for a couple of open positions as I write. If you’re interested, please drop me a line at max.greenhut @ disney.com.

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  19. 21

    Forecasting should also keep in mind that what are the searches which may be used in near future.So good quality content is always liked by Google and the users as well.And relevant keywords must be used there.

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  20. 22

    Marketing Sutra

    July 4, 2011 6:01 am

    Many thanks for the great summary, Allie. Looking forward to implementing your suggestions!

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  21. 23

    >and they often need to keep track of a staggering amount of content catalogues.

    What catalogues do you mean?

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