By Meghan Casey published August 28, 2015

Why You Need Content Strategy Before Editorial Planning

content-strategy-before-editorial-plan-cover

“I got this content strategy thing,” you may think. You know your voice and tone, you know what formats and channels you’re going to create content for, and you know how often you’re going to publish or share content.

Great! Except that’s not a content strategy. It’s an editorial plan.

Don’t get me wrong. Content marketers need an editorial plan, especially if they’re regularly creating new content. At the same time, you need to figure out lots of other things before you plot your content ideas on a calendar.

Enter — you guessed it — content strategy.

What is content strategy, then?

Here’s how I define content strategy:

Content strategy helps organizations provide the right content, to the right people, at the right times, for the right reasons.

When any one of those strategic components is missing, your editorial plan likely won’t get you the results you need. Examples:

  • Not the right content. If your content isn’t right (isn’t useful or relevant) for the people you hope to reach, those people won’t read it — let alone act on it.
  • Not the right people. If you haven’t defined and prioritized your audiences, you can’t get your content to the right people because you don’t know who they are or where to find them. (Hint: The general public is no one’s audience.)
  • Not the right times. If you don’t understand your audiences’ questions or tasks, you don’t know when they need your content.
  • Not the right reasons. If you can’t articulate measurable business goals as reasons for producing or sharing content, you’re probably wasting your business’ money. (“Engagement” alone is no reason to produce content; it’s rarely defined well enough to tie to meaningful business goals.)

At Brain Traffic, when we create content strategy, we consider these four aspects, as shown in Figure 1:

  • Substance: what the content is about
  • Structure: how the content is organized and displayed
  • Workflow: what people and processes are needed to support content creation and management
  • Governance: who will decide what, over time, to keep content on-strategy

braintraffice-content-strategy-image 1

Figure 1.
The Brain Traffic Content Strategy Framework

All four aspects of this framework are anchored in a core content strategy statement, a statement that helps your content team determine where to focus its efforts. A core content strategy statement answers the following questions:

  • What is the organization’s mission?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What are the business goals?
  • What are the content objectives?

You don’t need a core content strategy statement to come up with good content ideas, but it sure helps. (Are you wishing for an example of a core content strategy statement right about now? Patience. I have my reasons for holding back. We’ll get there.)

‘Black cat’ SEO: A story

To convey the value of a core content strategy statement, I have a story for you. A year ago, I interviewed a client stakeholder during the discovery phase of a project. His team was responsible for SEO, including creating content to drive search traffic to the company’s website. The client was a large retailer that sells, among other things, pet food. I asked a question about SEO. The following (paraphrased) conversation ensued.

Client: “Our SEO consultant recommends that we publish content in October to try to rank for the term ‘black cat’ because it’s something people Google a lot before Halloween.”

Me: “When those people get to your page, what’s your call to action?”

Client: “Buy our cat food.”

Me: “You can put some spin on black cat folklore that would motivate those people to buy cat food?”

Client: “No.”

Me: “So…”

Client: “We just want them to buy our cat food.”

Me: “People who search for ‘black cat’ at Halloween probably don’t care about cat food.”

Client: “I guess not.”

Henry Ford once said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” Sadly, that SEO consultant wasn’t thinking. He or she probably wasted thousands of my client’s dollars. That “black cat” SEO strategy might have temporarily boosted my client’s search rankings, but it probably didn’t boost cat-food sales or cause black-cat searchers to buy my client’s cat food in the future.

If only a core content strategy statement had guided the SEO effort (an example statement is coming, never fear!), my client could have created meaningful content that could have boosted its search rankings and helped achieve business goals.

Put strategy before tactics

One of the primary functions of content strategy in general, and of a core content strategy statement in particular, is to help organizations say no to content ideas that fail to serve the audience or the business – ideas that put tactics before strategy, like optimizing for “black cat” at Halloween in a misguided effort to sell cat food.

Let’s walk through an example that puts strategy before tactics. In the sections below, I generate and refine some content ideas for a meal service I use called Origin Meals, which sells fresh-cooked meals based on the paleo diet. In this walk-through, we’ll consider all the questions that a core content strategy statement answers (see the list above), but instead of having a statement to guide us, we’ll bump along without one, taking one question at a time.

Here’s what we’re about to do:

  1. Generate content ideas based on the Origin Meals mission
  2. Narrow the list based on the target audience
  3. Further narrow the list based on the business goals
  4. Refine the list based on the content objectives

I think that you’ll find this walk-through a helpful – if protracted – way to appreciate the value of a core content strategy statement (and to appreciate the statement example when I finally get to it).

1. Generate content ideas based on the organization’s mission

Here is the Origin Meals mission:

We believe a healthy diet should be full of real food, packed with nutrients, and free of potentially irritating ingredients that don’t serve the functions of your body (in short, a paleo diet).

Knowing only what they sell and their mission, I brainstormed a bunch of content ideas that could drive awareness and promote their products. Figure 2 shows the resulting list.

originmeals-mission-content-ideas-image 2

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Figure 2.
List of content ideas after considering only the Origin Meals mission

Nice little list of cool stuff we could do. Which ideas should we choose to develop? It’s a safe bet that not all of these ideas will appeal to the target audience, so next we need to consider that audience.

2. Narrow the list based on the target audience

Let’s say we’ve just learned that people in the target audience have these characteristics:

  • They are single.
  • They are busy.
  • They believe in the paleo philosophy.
  • They eat paleo when they have time to cook and prep meals.
  • They work out regularly at a Crossfit gym or another small, locally owned gym.

What does that information do to our list of ideas? It eliminates the items that will have little appeal for this audience. These folks aren’t looking for tips on going paleo, information on feeding a family paleo-style, benefits of eating paleo, or other information for people new to eating paleo. (Figure 3 shows these ideas crossed off the list.) We can’t expect these readers to care about the crossed-off topics any more than we can expect people Googling “black cat” at Halloween to care about cat food.

originmeals-narrowed-list-content-ideas-image 3

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Figure 3.
Narrowed list of content ideas after considering the target audience

Now that we’ve homed in on the content ideas with the most potential appeal for the target audience, we’re ready to consider business objectives.

3. Further narrow the list based on the business goals

Next, let’s imagine some business goals on which Origin Meals might focus:

  • Increase first-time orders from partner gym members
  • Increase recurring orders from partner gym members

Our original list continues to dwindle, as shown in Figure 4, leaving us with only those content ideas that support these two business goals.

originmeals-further-narrowed-list-content-ideas-image 4

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Figure 4.
Further narrowed list of content ideas after considering business goals

Now that we’ve sifted out the content ideas that have the most potential appeal for the main audience and that support business goals, we’re ready to layer on content objectives.

4. Refine the list based on the content objectives

A content objective is the thing you want a piece of content to accomplish. For our scenario, here are a couple of possible content objectives:

  • Demonstrate how Origin Meals helps athletes eat to perform.
  • Help athletes choose the meal options that fit their lives best.

These content objectives enable us to refine our three remaining topic ideas, as shown in Figure 5.

originmeals-refined-list-content-ideas-image 5

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Figure 5.
Refined narrowed list of content ideas after considering content objectives

Bummer, you might think. All that effort, and we have only three ideas to show for it. In fact, three strategically sound ideas beat a slew of ideas that fail to connect with your target audience, your business goals, and your content objectives. Still, it did take a lot of effort to arrive at these three ideas.

Enter, at last, the core content strategy statement.

The core content strategy statement: A shortcut

What if we had had a core content strategy statement from the start? Might our initial list have looked more like what we ended up with? Probably.

As noted earlier, a core content strategy statement answers these questions:

  • What is the organization’s mission?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What are the business goals?
  • What are the content objectives?

For our Origin Meals example, the answers might look like this:

  • Mission: to promote the paleo lifestyle
  • Target audience: busy, single paleo-minded athletes
  • Business goals: to increase new and recurring orders
  • Content objectives: to motivate people to eat paleo and show them how this way of eating fits into their lifestyles

So for Origin Meals, what would a core content strategy statement look like? Here, finally, is the example you’ve been waiting for:

Core content strategy statement: At Origin Meals, we help increase new and recurring orders by creating, distributing, and managing motivating content that shows busy, single, paleo-minded athletes how Origin Meals fits into their lifestyles.

Try it for yourself. Brainstorm some content ideas based on this core content strategy statement.

If you started with a core content strategy statement like this, the ideas you would generate would be more likely to accomplish the following:

  • Make strategic sense for the company
  • Make better use of the company’s time and money
  • Provide information the target audience can use
  • Positively influence client acquisition and retention (make more money)
  • Give content producers better direction when they’re creating content

Yay!

Of course, as we saw earlier in our process-of-elimination brainstorming exercise, you don’t need a core strategy statement to come up with good content ideas that support an organization’s mission statement, business goals, target audience, and content objectives. I find, though, that distilling those fundamental bits of information into a memorable statement helps in a couple of ways. First, it helps get stakeholders on the same page. Second, it gives content creators an easy way to remember what kind of content they want to create and why.

Summary

Next time you’re brainstorming content ideas, walk through the four-step process outlined here to arrive at focused ideas quickly. Or take a stab at creating a core strategy statement to guide your brainstorm. Either way, put strategy before tactics. You’ll get better results for your business or client – and for your audience. In an upcoming article, I plan to give you some more tools to help you develop a core strategy statement and use it to make content decisions.

I’d love to hear how you brainstorm your content ideas. Please share in the comments.

Learn more

For more on making smart content decisions with strategy, check out these articles and presentations:

Sign up for the Intelligent Content weekly email newsletter. When you do, every Saturday we’ll send you an email about content strategy and an exclusive letter from Robert Rose, Chief Strategy Officer for the Content Marketing Institute.

Cover image by SplitShire_The_King

Author: Meghan Casey

Meghan Casey is the lead content strategist at Brain Traffic , the world’s leading agency devoted exclusively to content. She helps a variety of clients — start-ups, nonprofits, colleges and universities, Fortune 50 companies, and everything in between — solve the messy content problems most organizations encounter every day. She has also helped The Nerdery, a software-development shop, build content strategy into their user experience practice.

Meghan is a trainer and speaker on content strategy topics. She once inspired workshop participants to spontaneously do the wave. Yep, that really happened. She has been working with content and communications since 1996. Her book The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right was published by Peachpit in June. You can follow her random musings, some of which are about content strategy, on Twitter @meghscase.

Other posts by Meghan Casey

  • Erim Foster

    Great stuff, thanks. It’s amazing how it keeps coming back to defining your target and message. So simple, yet so easy to be distracted from.

  • http://webrunnermedia.com/ Ben Levesque

    Meghan,

    This is an awesome exercise and really a breath of fresh air. Already ran through it to generate my own content ideas and will do so for clients moving forward.

    It’s time to leave the ‘black cat’ aside :)
    Thanks!

  • meghscase

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! We’ll be walking through this process at my Content Strategy 101 workshop at Content Marketing World next week. I’m really excited to see what attendees come up with!

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  • SelfHigh5

    Really good article – well presented, simple to understand but most importantly…..useful! Thanks Meghan and good luck with the workshop

    • meghscase

      Thank you. I’m glad it’s useful!

  • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

    This is fantastic, it should be required reading for content marketers!

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    This is really good! Well said Meghan, This is informative sure this will help me and other newbies.

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  • Tragester

    Great article and tips for not only creating a content strategy for a brand, but developing relevant ideas for both the consumer and the business! Too often I see SEO recommendations that have little to no relevance to the actual mission of the brand or to information that would be seen as relevant or persuasive for converting consumers to buying the product.

    Lisa Trager

  • http://www.tempocreative.com/ charmon stiles

    Great questions to ask to create a content strategy statement before creating content! I can see how they will keep you on point and not fall off the deep end – which can happen!

  • meghscase

    I’ve been out of the office for two weeks and just got back here to look at comments. Thanks for your comments and insights!

  • Raul Cabrera

    Hi Meghan

    Really loved this one, and since I ´m passionate about systematizing everything I¨ll add this one to my marketing foundation templates

  • David Butler

    Outstanding article Meghan. We invented a Strategy Sheet to help make this process of capturing, organizing, and sharing content strategy simple and easy. It’s hard enough to create the strategy, it should be painless to capture and share it. There are too many related topics, links, files, etc that support a strategy. We made it easy so content marketers could make strategy before editorial a standard process. If curious check us out at http://www.positioning.com

  • Angie Flynn-McIver

    Thank you! This was really helpful for me in getting my brain around how to get started with a strategy.

  • SW Pervez

    Nice read, helped me clear out a lot of fundamentals, Can you please tell me where can I find a good read on How different type of content can help in achieving business goals? Thanks