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Making Your Content Strategy Stick

Content strategy is making decisions about all the aspects of how an organization’s content will work. Content operations is executing all of those decisions, every day, putting it all into action.

There are three parts to operationalizing and socializing content strategy work:

1.   Build from a strong foundation

It’s important to start with the work that’s already complete, the content strategy that’s figured out.

Content strategy makes order out of chaos

When you started doing the work, the content was probably in a state of chaos.

The organization may not have known what content they had – because you know as well as I do that if someone leaves, or if someone removes a link from a landing page, or if an initiative ends, that content is still sitting out there. They may not have established any rules or guidelines for how their content should work – what the content should sound like, what its goals are, or who decides what goes on the home page. The organization may have had multiple content management systems. Or abandoned social media channels or microsites. Or test versions of content. Or any number of things.

But fortunately, they had you.

Content strategy is figuring it out

I’m sure you laid a really strong foundation.

As we all know, content strategy has a lot of moving parts. These are probably most, or at least some, of your tasks as you figured out the content strategy for your organization – or a client’s.

  • content strategy statement
  • stakeholder interviews
  • editorial style guide
  • personas
  • customer journey maps
  • content audit
  • content governance policies
  • digital analytics
  • usability testing
  • audience surveys
  • job descriptions
  • content planning calendar
  • search engine optimization
  • content writing training
  • metadata strategy
  • taxonomy
  • content models
  • structured content

The plan you’ve laid out ensures that the content is neat and organized, from the front end to the back. It outlines how content proceeds from conception all the way through to expiration and archiving.

You wrote it all down. You created a wiki so it can evolve over time. You presented the work and new guidelines to subject-matter experts, as well as to people in marketing, communications, and IT.

Now, you can finally take a step back and enjoy the fruits of your labor…. right?

Writing it down is not enough

You might think that documents are enough to turn content chaos into a well-oiled machine. I know I certainly did, for a long time.

For a long time, my content strategy roadmap consisted of the following steps:

  1. Understand the organization and project business goals (stakeholder interviews, document review, audience survey)
  2. Understand the dynamics and goals of top-priority audiences (personas and audience journey mapping)
  3. Audit and assess existing website content
  4. Analyze content from comparative/competitive organizations
  5. Develop guidelines for content creation and publishing
  6. Identify roles, lifecycles, workflow, and governance models
  7. Facilitate the creation of a single, organization-wide taxonomy
  8. Plan for content transformation and migration
  9. Create a framework for content planning and marketing/promotions

However, several months later, I sometimes found that other priorities had taken over, or that the organization still hadn’t put the pieces in place.

Despite the client’s enthusiasm, the work was gathering dust. Honestly, that broke my heart. My work was wasted. Even more important, the client had invested plenty of time and money thinking things through, and they weren’t using that thinking.

Here’s what I realized:

  • Documents are aspirational. Just because you’ve written something down doesn’t mean that people know about them, remembers them, or uses them.
  • People are busy and have short memories
  • The status quo has tremendous magnetic pull.

Documents alone are not enough to put content strategy into action.

So last year, I added two more steps to my content strategy roadmap, with an eye toward making it sustainable.

  1. Determine staffing needs
  2. Plan for training and communications

While those sound relatively straightforward, they have lots of moving parts.

2.   Foster champions and allies

 To build enthusiasm, understanding, and advocacy for content strategy, don’t go it alone.

Content is the way our work is manifested in the world.

I’ve written and spoken a lot about managing the politics of content — here and here — and don’t need to rehash that here. But suffice it to say that by “content,” I don’t mean web pages, blog posts, videos, social media channels, or apps. Those are where we put the content, not what the content actually is.

The content is actually our offerings: Our programs, products, services, tools, courses, events, etc. – everything the organization does. The folks who create these offerings are product developers, support specialists, instructional designers, event planners, lobbyists, researchers, sales professionals, marketers, etc. The output of what they do is words, pictures, audio, and video – aka, content. But “content” is an inadequate word, because our colleagues don’t use it to describe what they create.

So it’s your challenge to help them see that when you’re talking about content strategy, you are talking about a strategy for getting their valuable work out there in the world in a way that will ensure that it resonates with the audience and, therefore, succeeds more.

Content strategy leads to internal changes

An organization’s content is its offerings, as well as everything involved in talking about and promoting those offerings.

Content effectiveness means getting the content out there in the world in a way that maximizes its chances for success — ensuring that the work helps the organization and each individual program or initiative reach its goals, and more important, helps the audience reach THEIR goals and meet THEIR needs.

Content effectiveness takes both expertise in the subject matter and expertise in presenting and sharing the content of and about that subject matter. That collaboration is often a big shift for organizations, and content strategists can’t just tell the organization to make that shift.

At its heart, content strategy is a business challenge – and more specifically, it’s a people challenge.

Digital has created an opportunity and a requirement, really, to do things differently. Where many organizations have operated in a siloed environment, there’s a new way of thinking: we are a single organization with a collection of offerings, which all translate into a set of content and that reaches multiple audiences.

In my opinion, this is digital transformation – and its centerpiece is content strategy.

Therefore, HOW you do the content strategy work matters. A lot.

It’s important to make sure you have a strong foundation for your content strategy

  • that you’ve grounded your guidelines in research
  • that you’ve mapped out the roles and processes
  • that you’ve identified what tools you’ll use

But at this point, because no one is using the content strategy, it’s still essentially a draft, a work in progress.

Get executive buy-in at the right time

I spelled out this process in Selling Content Strategy to Management, an article in UX Booth. It requires starting at the end and working backwards:

4. The way to cement content strategy work is for it to be a set of policies that your senior management knows about, understands, and gives you permission to execute.

3. To get that, you’ll need to get their buy-in

2. But before you can get their buy-in, you must not only have written down the guidelines, you need to have tested them to find out that they make a positive difference.

1. Which means that you need to start with a pilot project. Which content would make a great example? Content created by someone who already sees the value of content strategy. That’s a content strategy champion, or ally. In 2017, I co-led a major study of content strategy adoption and maturity in content-rich organizations with Carrie Hane and Dina Lewis. We found that many organizations start their content strategy work with a small group of people who see the positive difference that content strategy can make.

Find your allies, and experiment together

You probably know who your allies are. They are the ones who’ve been eagerly waiting to do things differently. The ones who don’t have patience with corporate bureaucracy. The ones who are most passionate about the organization and its work. The ones who came up after your content strategy sessions to ask questions

These are the folks to invite to try out some of the new content practices. They’d would probably love to help, and would be eager to use and even add to what you’ve created.

Confession: In my first few pilot projects, I started out feeling protective of my work, but ultimately I discovered two things:

  • Trying it out made the work better
  • Trying it out with someone went a long way toward building a better relationship and engendering trust – which is often a precious commodity

Learn by trying. This is the time to experiment, to refine and perfect your content strategy. Establish preliminary goals, measure results, and plan improvements.

After you’ve done a pilot or two in partnership with an SME champion, using the content strategy guidelines you put in place. After you’ve made your mistakes and gotten better, then you can go to an executive and sell the idea of doing content strategy on a larger scale.

You’ll need that buy-in for the changes that content strategy will require. Having the formal stamp of approval on your content strategy work means it has a much greater chance of being adopted. Then, it’s not just an option, or not just because YOU said so.

Executive approval, then roll-out

Once you have the buy-in, you can start rolling out the content strategy work in a bigger way.

It’s important that you have careful conversations with the subject-matter experts. I’ve found that it’s best to take a cooperative, collaborative approach. One quick way to do this is to start using the phrase “our content.” I’ve found that content strategists often adopt service-oriented language that doesn’t ultimately help us. If we call it “their content,” we’re putting them in a position of power. So part of the change has to start with you.

Ideally, you would have brought these folks into the content strategy process from the very beginning. But if you didn’t, it’s not too late to start now. Another phrase I’ve found helpful is, “This work is intended to help me be a better partner in helping the organization’s offerings shine.”

Be a good listener. Content strategists need a deep understanding of content creators’ goals, challenges, obstacles, and who they are accountable to. Those factors affect their ability to create more user-focused content about the offerings they manage.

When you show content creators what you found in your assessment of the content they create, notice and point out what’s good and what’s working, in addition to what needs to change. Share specific points about how they could make their content resonate more – and reach their goals.

3. Keep content practices alive, or, how to help good content practices go viral

As I said earlier, content strategy documents are not enough to make change happen.

Create the system for educating, training, and enforcing practices

To see an example of this at work, let’s think about driving.

Each U.S. state has a long, detailed book describing all the rules of the road. Illinois’ book is 112 pages long, with chapters including traffic violations, safe driving tips, sharing the road, roadway signs, and traffic signals. The book covers everything you would expect, plus topics that might not be top of mind. Yes, this book is like our content strategy documents—thorough and well thought out

However, there are many pieces aside from this book that go into educating, training, reinforcing, and enforcing those rules of the road. This is essentially the governance part of driving.

When cars were first invented, for example, there were no traffic signals or signage. It wasn’t needed. Horses didn’t crowd the roads, drivers could see each other, and they didn’t usually go that fast. The first electric traffic light was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914.

Over time, people created a whole system of signs to be used across the U.S. and, to some degree, around the world. They represent a visual language that’s easy to see in a car. Walk/don’t walk signs allow pedestrians, bicycles, and cars to share roads. And in the UK, for example, crosswalks have painted words that say “look right,” because they know visitors and tourists from other countries aren’t used to people driving on the left side of the road.

Further, we decided that there was a standard driving age, and a process for learning to drive, showing that you understand the rules. And finally, before someone can get a driver’s license, they have to show that they are competent behind the wheel of a car.

As you can see, the whole system of making sure people can drive successfully is a great model of everything your content governance documents should spell out and that your content operations will need to carry out..

My content governance documents cover nine topics:

  1. Content lifecycle
  2. Team structure and staffing
  3. Oversight
  4. Review processes
  5. Authority
  6. Success metrics
  7. Content access levels
  8. Taxonomy and Best Bets governance
  9. Implementation plan

Content operations has to account for what might go wrong and address what will happen if it does. For example, if we decide on criteria for what belongs on the home page and someone submits a request for something and we turn it down, can they escalate the request? Who decides? Who is accountable?

Content strategy is an HR issue.

First off, content work needs to be part of people’s job descriptions. No one has time to do work that they won’t be measured on or rewarded for, or work they are theoretically doing in their spare time. And if the organization wants people to work collaboratively, that needs to be in there too.

Communications and training are key:

  • Provide regular reminders and updates
  • Establish communities of practice (online and/or in person)
  • Include content training in employee on-boarding
  • Make content training part of employees’ professional development program

People have to get to know you and each other. They have to start seeing that what they have in common can help the audience. And the organization has to spell out what is expected of people from day 1.

And people forget. They need to be reminded about what the rules are, and why. HR knows how to do all of this – it’s their sweet spot.

Use technology to make it easier for people to do the right thing.

Create content request forms with required information about goals and expiration dates

Make the CMS reinforce guidelines – headline length, expiration dates, review process

Showcase and reward successes

Bragging helps motivate people to continue to do something, and to get others on board too. So provide the vehicles for that, whether it’s in person, on your intranet, or in another avenue.

Think of creative ways to recognize people for doing good work. Many don’t cost anything – the classic example being that the employee of the month gets the prime parking spot. Some examples:

  • Public recognition — on your intranet, in a staff meeting, etc.
  • Tokens of congratulation
  • Greater permission to publish with fewer reins
  • In an email to management, with the person copied

Motivate people with social incentives and progress monitoring

  • In real life, we see social incentives used in things like letters from our utility companies showing how our energy use compares to that of our neighbors. What kind of social incentives could you put into place?
  • We see real-time progress monitoring on speed signs. What kind of dashboard could you create that shows people how their content is doing?
  • Create an analytics dashboard that each content owner can access anytime
  • Work with content owners to create an A/B test with different approaches – format, headline style, readability level, timing, etc.

Artifacts bring content strategy to life

  • A pie chart with the results of your content audit might show that before you started your work, 60% of the content had fewer than 5 unique pageviews in the past year.
  • Create poster of the content strategy statement, just as your company might have its mission statement on a plaque in the lobby.
  • Introduce the personas to the staff using life-size cutouts, posters, or videos
  • Scavenger hunts to find content ROT
  • Jargon bingo
  • Have a contest to see who can turn a content strategy principle into a meme, and have the winning entry printed on pens, stickers, or mugs to offer as prizes for future contests

The artifacts help people be proud of their work and brag about their successes.

The ultimate goal here is that content strategy become part of the organization’s DNA. The new ways content works aren’t YOUR way, but OUR way. And you can be the catalyst for making that happen.

Please get in touch if I can help!

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This article is based on a talk I delivered at Confab 2020:

This Post Has One Comment
  1. Love the new roadmap steps! I refer to the big “However” in your “Writing it down is not enough” section as ‘riding the waves.’ We have to be nimble in a world that includes both proliferating wikis and proliferating viruses (of all varieties). “Learn by doing” is at the heart of this nimbleness. Thanks for underscoring that. I mention the combination of collaboration, proofs of concepts, and interim reviews as essential to this nimbleness in Part 4 of my blog series on the intersects of content strategy and project management. I’ll talk more about all that during my presentation at the Journeys conference in Sept. 2020. Thank you again! I am bookmarking for future reference!

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