Content, content, content. It’s an obvious part of any interactive experience. In fact, you’ve probably heard content is king, or queen, or some sort of royalty. Yet, content is elusive. Often, you don’t realize your content isn’t cutting it until it’s too late. Does any of this sound familiar?
The Real Solution
No SEO trick and no technology product alone will solve the content problem for you. The real solution to the content problem is hard work that demands change in your (or your company’s) approach to planning, designing and developing interactive experiences. That’s what gets results. There’s no shortcut. And indeed, the path to content that counts is a hard road. But it cannot be the excuse for compromising the quality of experience we provide to our users.
Content strategy is planning for every aspect of content to get results. That goes far beyond writing the copy. When getting strategic about content, focus on three key areas: analysis, editorial and architecture. While explaining content strategy in detail literally requires a book (or two or three), I’d like to share with you a concise introduction to each area in this article.
Figure 1: Content strategy usually involves analysis, editorial and architecture.
Analysis is taking a magnifying glass to your content situation. The better you understand it, the better you can plan exactly what needs to change to reach the results you’d like to have. Two typical activities in the analysis phase are a content audit and a context analysis. Sometimes, these activities are lumped together into a content analysis. The exact term is not that important as long as you do the analysis thoroughly.
An audit is a close review of your existing content. If you have any content to start with, you need to know exactly what it is. The audit tells you what you’re working with. By the end of an audit, you’ll have answers to questions such as:
- What content types, formats and topics do you have?
- What is the quality of your content? (For help, consult this content quality checklist.)
- How is your content structured?
- Where do you have obvious content gaps and overlaps, or redundancies?
When you’re ready to try a complete content audit yourself, check out the guide Content Analysis: A Practical Approach.
A context analysis looks at the elements that surround and affect your content. At a minimum, consider and answer these questions about your goal, your users, and your processes.
- What is your business or organizational goal? Why?
- How will content help you achieve that goal?
Users / Audience
- Who are your users, or the people you want to attract and influence? Why?
- Where (in what channels) are your users looking for content — on websites, on mobile, on social networks?
- If you have an existing website or interactive experience, how is it performing?
Processes / Ecosystem
- How do you create, maintain and govern content now?
- How do you plan to do so when you launch the website or interactive experience?
- What are your competitors doing in the realm of content?
As a simple example, let’s look at American Express’ OPEN Forum, a site for small business owners. Why did American Express want to attract and influence these users? Because reaching these users was a step toward their business goal. Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, SVP of Partnerships & Business Development for American Express OPEN, notes, “…our biggest opportunity is with small business growth — if they grow, we grow.” And, American Express decided to help them grow through a unique approach to content. Rather than create more content about their credit cards, American Express decided to create content about small business owner concerns. (More about this approach in the next section, 2. Editorial.)
We could discuss analysis for days, but I’d like to introduce other aspects of content strategy to you as well. For a more detailed explanation of this analysis, I highly recommend the analysis chapter of Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson. Also, I shared my step-by-step experience in the presentation Content Analysis: Know Thy Content.
The real benefit of analysis is ideas and insights for planning content editorial and architecture. So, let’s take a closer look at those sides of content, using the OPEN Forum as an example along the way.
Editorial plans mostly for the people side of content, such as:
- What style or voice should your content have to attract and resonate with users?
- What topics and themes should your content cover and when?
- Who is responsible for what content?
- What are your standards or criteria for credible content?
Many businesses and organizations who are not media properties completely lack editorial oversight for their websites and other interactive experiences. That can result in problems ranging from errors to missing a competitive advantage. Let’s turn back to our OPEN Forum example. In the world of finance, much content is a combination of dull explanations or legal mumbo jumbo. OPEN Forum takes a different approach.
The design might not look dramatically different from other finance sites, but the content is much different. To help small businesses, OPEN Forum regularly offers credible content about topics that small business owners care about. American Express produces some content, invited expert columnists create some content, and small business users contribute some content. Even though different authors contribute content, the content is original to OPEN Forum. Can you notice how different it is from aggregating random content or simply optimizing pushy landing pages? Through its consistent voice and handy content on OPEN Forum, American Express has positioned itself as a trusted advisor to small businesses. Because the articles, videos, and podcasts are deeply useful to small business users, they’re far more valuable to American Express.
Of course, having so many content contributors poses some risk of creating content that feels disjointed. To reduce this risk, what’s going on behind the scenes? The right editorial staff and processes ensure the content from different authors is coordinated. For example, while most websites lack an editor, OPEN Forum has an editor-in-chief. And, for robust editorial review and production, American Express partners with Federated Media. As you plan your content processes, you will consider what roles to hire in-house and what roles to hire as freelancers.
Besides the right people and processes, editorial planning results in an important tool: the Editorial Style Guide. This guide documents important decisions about your content for everyone involved to reference. A style guide typically explains:
- Target audiences / users
- Key messages
- Voice and tone
- Criteria for topics
- Sample content
- Usage, punctuation, and grammar guidelines
- Trademark and legal considerations
For a helpful start, you might want to consider taking a look at The Yahoo! Style Guide.
So, all of this editorial work sounds interesting, but does it actually get any results? Yes, it does. Since 2007, OPEN Forum has built an audience comparable in size and engagement with other small business media properties. But that’s not the best result. In the lucrative small business market, American Express’s successful editorial approach is a differentiator. More than that, it’s a quiet coup. The results did not happen overnight. They took time. But, compared to its competitors, American Express now owns small business online.
I know what you’re thinking. “But American Express is a big company. Should a smaller one care about editorial?” Yes. A smaller company or an individual can do it on a smaller scale, with less content, fewer contributors, and probably fewer visitors. Editorial is about attracting the right visitors (or audience) and holding their interest through content. Size does not matter nearly as much as quality.
That’s a basic introduction to editorial. But, content concerns don’t stop here. Now, let’s turn to architecture.
Architecture plans mostly for the machine side of content — while keeping the people side in mind. Architecture addresses how your content is organized, structured and repurposed. Architecture gets your content to the right place. This planning might start with a site map but won’t end there. You likely will need to define content models and taxonomies using metadata. In essence, you need to tell your content management system and other platforms what content you have, where to display it and how to display it.
Let’s look at a simple example, again from American Express OPEN Forum. The site has clearly defined templates for its articles, videos and other content types. Those content types come together (or aggregate) as meaningful topic pages. Take a look at this one for innovation. That aggregation happens dynamically because of good architecture.
When you plan architecture well, you gain other benefits. Both search engines and people will find your content more easily. Your content becomes more accessible and flexible, not to mention easier and more efficient to keep consistent.
That’s some basic architecture. Now, let’s kick it up a notch. Is OPEN Forum part of AmericanExpress.com, the core American Express website? No, it’s not. Now, that might bother some user experience designers and information architects out there. Shouldn’t this be one cohesive experience? Yes, it should. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the content has to be in one website or in one place. AmericanExpress.com serves more visitors than small business owners. So, putting all that small business content on AmericanExpress.com could easily get in the way of other visitors. Instead, OPEN Forum and AmericanExpress.com link to each other at relevant points.
Okay, now let’s kick it up several notches. Content strategy pioneer Rachel Lovinger has articulated convincingly that advanced architecture also makes your content more nimble to use across different interactive experiences, from your website to your mobile application. She notes,
“Publishing content that’s marked up with smart structure and metadata allows it to be delivered on a wider range of channels, while still retaining the context and relationships that make it meaningful and useful to both your audience [visitors or users] and your brand. Think of it like providing publishing instructions with the content, where each different platform uses only the instructions that are relevant.”
For example, if your content is structured well, you can offer mobile versions of your content more efficiently, as American Express has. You also will have a much easier time creating widgets or an API to distribute your content, as NPR did. (See image below.) Does this kind of planning get results? Within 12 months after releasing this API, NPR doubled its users (audience). 
Figure 5: NPR structured its content well enough to offer a useful API.
You or your organization might think such multichannel architecture issues are mostly technology issues. Now hear this: They’re content issues, too. Consider how your content’s architecture will help you reach the right users in the right channels.