When I talk about web content strategy around the water cooler at work, everyone stares at me as if I’m speaking in tongues. While it has informally existed since the Web went public, content strategy is still considered an emerging practice. Few online businesses commit enough time and resources to content strategy, and that’s unfortunate because a content strategy can help a company grow by effectively communicating and engaging customers and prospects.
The goal of this post is to show you step-by-step how you can create and build a content strategy for your company or your clients. But first, let’s be clear about what content strategy is.
“Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, useable content.”
“…a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project, from very early tasks such as analyzing and classifying readers to the very last tasks, such as planning for the ongoing content maintenance after the project launches.”
Content strategy is a process that can make a significant difference for your web presence.
Pulling generously from the authors and books mentioned above, I have mapped out my own content strategy process from start to finish. I’m not advocating that my process is 100 percent perfect for every campaign, but it is a good launching point for you to use and adapt to your own clients and websites.
Phase I: Research Overview
Your first step should define the roles of your team members who will review, evaluate and determine the scope of the project. Introductory and preliminary phone calls are made to the client to get more insight into the problems your team is trying to solve. This is a phase of discovery and learning about what the client is currently doing, what content they have and how it is being produced. Further research is necessary beyond initial client Q & A.
There are a few things you need to research before you can start whipping up strategies and stellar content for a website. When it comes to informational, marketing or promotional content, the more content you have, the more difficult this job can potentially be. This leads me to the first step of Phase 1.
Track Existing Content:
You need to know what you have and where it comes from before you can make informed decisions about what content you need.
Project summary is a short spreadsheet that includes project name, contact, website URL, phone numbers, team players and roles. This should help with managing the campaign.
Content audit or inventory is a spreadsheet that keeps track of all content that is published on your website and out on the web that is branded with your company.
Missing source content report lists the content for which you cannot find the digital source. You or your client may need to re-create these files to move forward with the content in question. For smaller campaigns, this could be a short punch list.
The project agenda is used on larger projects to ensure everyone’s input is added to big decisions. This is optional if the project is small and doesn’t have multiple stakeholders with strong opinions.
The agenda will provide a list of short workshops in which the entire team and/or client get together and discuss and gain consensus on critical items. This includes:
- Brand voice
- Tone and messaging
- Content-specific requirements
- Preferred style guidelines.
Phase II: Analysis Overview
Once you have gathered your research, you need to think about what you are trying to achieve on the project. What do users want or need? How will you measure success? What can you do with your available time, talent and budget? Align your thoughts with the following:
- Business goals
- Requirements and restrictions
- Project objectives
- Identified risks
- Communication ecosystem
A content strategist will spend time creating and understanding proposed solutions and figuring out what content needs to be created for each solution. There will also be a list of deliverables for the client to provide analysis.
This is when you deliver your content analysis document, which is a collection of different documents.
The existing content analysis report summarizes the existing content in terms of readability, scanability, conciseness, objectivity, effectiveness of communicating the brand message and recommendations.
The competitive analysis report takes a deeper look at your website or the websites of your competitors. Look at the differences in how the competitor describes their products and services, how they write press releases and what their content silos consist of.
The editorial process calendar documents how you or your client currently publishes content on the web and includes recommendations on how you should conduct this process moving forward. This is a great time to recommend an editorial calendar revision and map out the remaining work on the project.
The readiness analysis is an optional spreadsheet for a smaller project, but it is a necessity for larger ones. This document evaluates the readiness of a content strategist, a team or a company for conducting the project successfully. This document should look at the three “R’s:” resource readiness, process readiness and technology readiness.
Phase III: Strategy and Design
At this point in the project, you have delivered quite a bit of analysis. To begin this phase, both ends of the table will have agreed to an approach moving forward. During Phase III, you will need to help everyone working on the project figure out how it will be built around the strategy. In short, this is where the strategy is finalized and applied to content creation.
As a content strategist, you will need to determine what existing content should still be used, what needs to be created, who is responsible for each piece of content and what the editorial processes and guidelines are.
While there are only two deliverables during this phase, they are extremely important documents.
The content matrix is the most important document in the entire project and is your guide and tracking tool as the project moves into Phase IV. Updating and completing your content matrix will make it easier for your team to create content. The content matrix is a spreadsheet that records all the attributes and milestones for every single piece of content needs for the project. This is a list of matrix columns you should create for your spreadsheet:
- Page or module
- Asset ID/File name and location
- Page/module description
- Content/page type
- Website area/category
- URL (pages only)
- Existing URL
- How this is affected by the project
- Information providers
- Source content reviewers
- Description of change
- Word count
- Stage of creation
- Submitted for review
- Reviewer comments
- Changes made/submitted again
- Legal approvals
- Creation date
- Testing date
- Publication date
The editorial style guide is used to guide the folks with content creation and editing responsibilities. This is a great starting point for the creation of an official editorial style guide to be used and maintained by the client or company. The editorial style guide should:
- Provide consistency with technology usage and terminology
- Sets standards for grammatical usage
- Specify formatting rules
- Clarify identification and usage of branded terms
- Act as a forum for the discussion, evaluation, and adaptation of a company’s changing conventions.
Companies and clients may have an existing editorial style guide, so ask about it at the very beginning of this phase. As for the content matrix, very few clients or companies will have even heard of this document, and even fewer will actually have an existing one. These deliverables, up until now, pack the biggest punch so it is worth the time, effort, and headache medication it takes to create these deliverables.
Phase IV: Content Creation and Testing
Now that you have researched, analyzed, and strategized, it’s time to create. If you are a writer at heart, it’s high time to lick your chops because this entire phase is a “deliverable.” By following your content matrix, you will create, edit, and approve content — all with the complete communication with the client – while maintaining constant updates, estimated budgets and timelines.
Once you have all your content created (see, wasn’t that easy?), it needs to be tested and approved on the development site. The content strategist is responsible for providing the “test team” (which could be the content strategist as well) with guidance on what content is new, repurposed and a list of specific changes to verify work has been completed.
If defects, errors or catastrophes are detected, the strategist will also have a plan for dealing with them. Once all content has been created, approved and tested, you are ready to go live.
Phase V: Maintenance
Many experts say that as soon as a website is launched it is outdated. A content strategist should have this mentality entering Phase V: Maintenance. Develop a plan moving forward from launch that maps out the creation of new content. This will be a new editorial calendar that spells out exactly what needs to be created, when it needs to be published and when old content should be removed and archived on an ongoing basis.
In most content strategy projects, there will be a few things that slip through the cracks — a hanging participle, a run-on adverb — so you will need to continue to maintain the content you created in order to provide the best possible outcome for your client.