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The Case for Content Strategy—Motown Style

The Case for Content Strategy—Motown Style

Over the past year, the content strategy chatter has been building. Jeffrey MacIntyre gave us its raison d’etre. Kristina Halvorson wrote the call to arms. Panels at SXSW, presentations at An Event Apart, and regional meetups continue to build the drum roll. But how do you start humming the content strategy tune to your own team and to your prospective clients? Listen up and heed Aretha Franklin. No, really.

What you want, baby I got it

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What’s your role? Are you a designer who needs “real copy” for your comps? Maybe you’re an information architect trying to organize an experience, or a search engine marketer eager to influence your client with keywords they’ll actually use. Whatever your role, a content strategist can help you be more successful. Whether you partner with a web writer who translates communication goals into tactics, or someone whose business card actually says “content strategist,” that coworker who helps you nail and deliver the message might just have something.

But what if there’s no one you can work with on the inside? If you’ve got budget, consider partnering with an external content strategist, even if only for your own self-interest. Your work will look good and your client will be happy—and so will their target audience.

If content strategy isn’t in the current budget, though, how do you convince your client to add money for it? Your client might already realize content strategy can help create measurable ROI. If they don’t, help them understand. After all, relevant and informative content is what their audience wants; content strategy assesses the content they have and creates a plan for what they need and how they’ll get it.

At a more thematic level, first working through the “big issues” of content strategy, like communication goals and messaging, can help you hit the mark in your respective deliverables. That means your client can save money by letting you first address strategy via less expensive forms of documentation (such as content strategy), rather than in expensive design iterations.

Need to spell it out for them? Just start with a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Approaches for information architects

If you work in information architecture, you know that before you start to structure a website, you need to know what you’ve got to work with. Enter the content audit. Document all the existing content—every article, biography, image, video, press release, etc.—in a quantitative content inventory. Consider it a head count. Everyone here? Any attributes missing? No? Good.

But how do you know if the content you have is good, or just present? Make the case for something more—educate your client. Their target audience is coming to learn about them. They need current and relevant material to engage their visitors. They’re funding your work to accomplish something, and that’s where content strategy can help. A content strategist can review your client’s brand goals and conduct a qualitative content inventory to evaluate every piece of content against a few characteristics:

  • Will it be current and accurate upon launch?
  • Will it be on brand for the client’s message hierarchy and evolving look and feel?
  • Is the content useful and relevant for the context and audience goals at each point in the experience?

After a quantitative headcount and qualitative review, the content strategist can help you and your client better understand what you have, and what they’ll need to revise or create. Voilà: You’ve got raw material for your sitemap and wireframes! Moreover, a qualitative content audit can help reveal what new content types you should aggregate—think video, blog posts, and testimonials. A content strategist can help you figure out what makes sense with that shiny new design. To steal a page from Eat Media’s Ian Alexander, “it just makes sense to design from the content out.”

Approaches for search engine marketers

Whether you’re in an agency or out on your own, if you’re an SEO specialist, you’ve probably encountered the disconnect between detailed spreadsheets, actionable analytics, and the copy that’s supposed to fill the gaps the numbers reveal. When users and Google tell you one thing, but your client’s marketing team says something different—in entirely different terminology—what do you do? Partner with a content strategist, either “on the side” or within your team, to show your client the ROI.

Case in point: About a year ago, I was on a team tasked with redesigning a website for a luxury fitness brand. Abandoning the typical sweaty images for a more spa-like experience, we reworked the content to include testimonials about reaching lifestyle goals, and to feature the gym’s breadth of yoga classes, rather than just their range of free weights.

At first glance, the paid ad copy and keyword-rich meta content fit the common search terms: “gym,” “workouts,” and “private trainers.” However, our client didn’t want the typical “gym rat” audience. That’s where a partnership between content strategy and search engine marketing paid off. We revised the site content and search terms to fit the brand of a premium fitness experience. As a result, our client attracted more traffic from an audience eager for their style of gym. The leads were good, but the conversions were even better.

A content strategist can help you create ad copy that reflects the desired brand, ensuring your audience finds landing pages that match the tone they see in ads, not just the keywords. The real selling point? Your client can achieve higher conversions, not just click-through tourists who pop in and then leave. If your client already sees reason to invest in your services, show them how a complementary investment in content strategy can make your work—and their investment—even more worthwhile.

Approaches for designers

Designers, you’ve been there before: A few weeks after the project kickoff, you regrouped with your client. You heard their needs and interests, and armed with the wireframes, you went to work on a few conceptual directions. But when you presented your work, questions started to undermine your ideas: Why did you choose red? What’s that a picture of? Our target audience is male, intense, and focused, but race cars?! Why’d you choose race cars?!

Step back and breathe. Reimagine that scenario—this time with a partner at your side throughout the creative process. A content strategist can help you extrapolate creative direction and prioritize key messages and big-picture concepts to achieve your client’s communication goals.

Let’s say your target audience is male and your product promises fast data transfer. Your content strategist can write headlines that convey speed, power, and intensity. Beyond the headlines, they can create real copy and calls to action that use muscular verbs and aggressive sentence structure. Suddenly, your race car imagery doesn’t stand alone. Your client sees a unified concept where all your tactical decisions—color, image, style, and tone—tie back to a single strategy. Partnership with a content strategist can make your comps that much more air-tight.

But how do you pitch content strategy to a client who’s focused only on the design? Sell them on predictability. No one likes surprises in their invoice or to-do list. Properly scoped copywriting helps avoid surprises. Your content strategist can help you plan ahead by prescribing content across the site, piece by piece. That means you can lay out an optimal experience, without having to worry about getting content that’s far shorter or longer than what you expected. You can also design for specific content types, such as pull quotes, informative lists, and compelling facts that are more concrete than “lorem ipsum” or “copy goes here.” Your content strategist can create templates to help writers plan their effort so content isn’t just a big question mark in the budget (and on your comps).

Approaches for project managers

Look at your team, project managers: on a typical project, you might have an information architect, a creative director, designers, writers, a technical lead, and some developers. Perhaps you’re managing in-house staff, marketing associates from your client’s team, and QA folks from both sides. Delivering on time and on budget is challenging—you hope the orchestra reaches the end of the song at the same time, while achieving harmony at periodic milestones along the way. As any conductor can tell you, good communication is key, both from the conductor to every performer, and within and between sections.

What typically interrupts the “beautiful music” of a web initiative? Content, of course. It’s not easy to write good, brand-appropriate content that aligns with the overall user experience. Good content doesn’t come quickly. When you do it right, you must first raise many questions: What do you have? Is it enough? Is it usable and appropriate? Who owns it? What’s the editorial process to ensure the right people write it, edit it, and review it? What are the appropriate deadlines? You’ve probably raised many of these questions yourself, and content strategy can help you answer them.

So how can you ensure your client confronts these questions and allocates budget to help you resolve them? If content is a part of the final product, explain that it’s important to plan to create, reuse, assign, and retire it, if only to prevent budget and scope surprises along the way.

Your client may respond that they have writers on staff. That’s great, but is it relevant? They might have a staff photographer as well, but just as photography is only one aspect of design, writing is only one part of content strategy. Without a content strategist, who will objectively assess the efficacy of current content against brand strategy and communication goals? Who will audit existing content for quality, currency, and relevance? Who will create key messages and develop content to support user decisions along the way? We haven’t even gotten to writing yet! But when you do get to that point, consider this: It’s often far more effective to have someone outside your client’s organization observe and write about them. After all, users come from an outside perspective.

Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me

So now what?

  • Listen hard to what your clients are asking for.
  • Listen too, to what they’re not saying.
  • Cross sell complementary and necessary services such as design and content strategy.
  • Talk with your account manager about an addendum or change request to fund content strategy.
  • Consult a content strategist on the side—do what it takes to get the people and skill sets that complement your own.

Content strategy can help you create better user experiences by assisting design, brand development, information architecture, search engine marketing, writing, and so much more, such as CMS integration. Remember—sorry Aretha, we’re switching gears in the Motown machine—the respect you create may be your own. But, on behalf of all the folks who wear the content strategy hat, thank you for respecting us—not to mention your clients and their end users as well.

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