The Case for Content Strategy—Motown Style
Issue № 290

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.

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What you want, baby I got it#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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.

About the Author

Margot Bloomstein

Margot Bloomstein practices content strategy and other dark arts of rhetoric and design with clients of ISITE Design. Find Margot at ISITE, on Twitter @mbloomstein, or at dog parks in the greater Boston area.

22 Reader Comments

  1. As much as I dislike the extreme division of labour that’s so prevalent in our industry, with everyone being a ‘specialist’ or ‘expert’ of some kind, which I personally find a bit ridiculous, this article outlined some good, common sense thinking with regards to planning.

    Nice work.

  2. A similar approach is widely practiced (from a designer & copywriter point of view) in the advertising industry where an art director works in partnership with a creative copywriter to generate concepts and ideas.

    In my experience it allows a much greater breadth of creative idea generation and much more balanced, strategic and considered output. It also creates a much more appealing role for copywriters, working strategically, rather than simply on keyword density analysis.

    Good stuff!

  3. Hi – great article, as ever.

    RE: the title. My inner pedant couldn’t resist pointing out that Aretha recorded ‘Respect’ for Atlantic in 1967 and was never signed with Motown.

  4. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat…

    juuuuuuuust kidding!

    excellent article emphasising integration of content and messaging as part of the whole brand experience design, not as an afterthought.

  5. A great article with lots of good points to take note of. Its something that my clients always ask for help with and one that sometimes can be a challenge.

  6. My company is in the midst of a platform migration. It struck me (the IA) just recently that we’ve been focused on the when, how, and how much of getting all of our pages moved over without focusing on the why, so I’ve been advocating for a content audit to make sure that what we migrate is the right stuff. Trying to explain the value of audits, which sound time-consuming and expensive, isn’t always easy, but you’ve made a great case for them here, in addition to just generally advancing the case for content strategy. Kudos, and thanks!

  7. My development firm has recently jumped on the content strategy bandwagon and I am the content strategist. The downside is that I have more work than time since we are integrating content strategy into our projects. This article is great at describing how content strategy (and content strategists) fit into all parts of a project. I’ll be sharing this with my team, who all thankfully have readily accepted working with content early on.

  8. @Duncan: It’s my hope that the “good, common sense thinking” can balance out the “extreme division of labor” you describe. In short, I believe every experience that includes words (at the very least) demands content strategy. The degree to which that deserves the focus of a specialist correlates with the overall size of the team, its talents, and the budget.

    @sonarc: BINGO! The same way “you cannot not communicate,” content will take form whether that’s by design or not. Then again, nature tends toward entropy, and far too many overgrown websites are proof!

    @redmolly & @carriehd: Sounds like you two should join forces. 🙂

  9. Was starting the IA work for a new project today and was hunting through my RSS for any recent related articles. I should have started with ‘a list apart’.

    I was half expecting to see a list of content strategists and their mobile numbers at the bottom of the article but I forgot to look for it about half way through when I stopped and started wrapping my head around the concept and how it can make my life easier.

    Thank you for an excellent thought provoking article.

  10. I agree with the general approach. However, when it comes to SEO it seems (at least from what I’ve noticed) that content is not the most important part of it. For example, flash sites that rank well even when the Search engines don’t see their actual content, or commercial sites that don’t have content at all (other than products to sell..) and rank well.

    In any case, thanks for a well writen article!

  11. Margot,

    Hi.

    To realize success, esp. when success is defined as an increase in return on investment, ROI, it’s mandatory to be able to differentiate between the segment of the populace you’ve referred to as “click-through tourists” and those who will participate in a “success event”. To continue with the gym example, a “success event” is, of course, a gym membership. Depending on offerings, a “success event” could also include registration for packages of classes (volume discount incentives), an individual class, or an event; an ability to book court time, steam room time, whirl pool time, a trainer; or subscribe to a news letter, etc.

    To make such a differentiation, the long tail (search term) used by the sub-segment of the populace who both participates in a success event and reached the site after clicking through from a search engine results page, SERP, or have participated in the site’s internal search (assuming the site has one) must be harvested. In this sense, implementing web analytics tags on each click though event is the single most important task to building a strategy of engagement for a successful search engine optimization, SEO, campaign. It is with these long tail phrases that one begins SEO keyword research and with which one peppers the page content, including placement of those long tails in some 200 attributes, elements, and tags (as appropriate) to which Google pays attention.

    Thanks for the thoroughness which which you’ve presented a “Case for Content Strategy”.

    Rob

  12. I especially like the second tip at the end. It’s true that sometimes one reads too much in what the client says and that causes the work to become less unique and more routine.

  13. Coming from the design side of the fence, this article sums up nearly every discussion I’ve had with other designers, developers and clients in recent weeks. Everyone has an opinion—and all agree on the principle of “content strategy”—but few follow through.

    Why is that?

    For one, Websites these days are often populated with content derived from multiple sources. When a dozen/hundred/thousand people in an organization are all responsible for writing articles, blog posts and other content, it’s difficult to harness their collective voice into a singular, coherent message. It requires a deep understanding of how one writes for the Web, and how your piece relates to the larger pie.

    Some still think of a Website as a container to fill. But a Website should be an immersive experience—from aethetics to the actual content (and everything in between). To neglect the substance is both a disappointment and a disservice to the User.

  14. I have not been following the whole IA as an actual practice in recent years, that kind of thing seemed to always just happen. But later on down the road, something feels wrong with the site, they can often feel disassociated… and I believe IA just puts a name to that problem. We have a general idea for a site, and it’s content, but never take the time to sit down and plan how it’ll all come together.

    It seems that combining proper IA with SEO practices is a good fit. In my opinion, SEO and IA can conflict – at least in that when site owner focuses too much on SEO, IA sort of naturally degrades. Interesting article.. thanks!

  15. I have this problem a lot with my web design projects (don’t most web designers/architects/search engine marketers I hear you cry!).

    I’ve picked up some really valuable points here, which have have been jotted down for a meeting next week.

    Many thanks again for this post 🙂

    Karl

  16. I was just working on a new article today discussing the difference between simple content and targeted/optimized content – I’ve found that, as you point out, it can take a bit of work convincing a client of the sort of work that’s required to build effective content. I’ve found that many clients are very skeptical until after you start working with them and “prove” that content management is important and effective.

    Excellent post, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

  17. I’ve told Margot this personally, but I just wanted to go on the record to say that this article will be shared with organizational teams for years to come. It’s an accessible and articulate approach to breaking down the benefits content strategy offers to projects and other disciplines alike. I love it, it’s awesome, and it makes me proud to call myself a content strategist.

    I couldn’t be more thrilled that this article has the pass-along power that we’ve seen since its publication. Keep spreading the news, folks… content strategy’s time has come.

  18. Your descriptions had me nodding along.

    Recently I took for granted the qualities of a solid content strategist. Never again.

  19. It seems like more and more of the projects I’m working on are in need of short term and long term messaging and content strategy. In the past, most of our clients have had a pretty strong vision of what their brand owned and how they were going to proceed with those assets. Not these days. It’s like everyone is waking up to the potential of their site and realizing that brochures don’t work so well.

    I really liked the SEO implications section, something that is also on everyone’s minds, but they don’t know how to incorporate it into their greater strategy.

  20. I myself am a little struggling in my organization to get content strategy acknowledged in the design and planning process,I continue to go to ALA to get some inspiration for arguments to arm myself with in selling myself to projects.
    And my company is one of the largest web-service houses in Denmark mind you, and we are still far behind.
    Thanks for the Motown connection…I’m an avid soul collector and appreciate it.

  21. I dunno…seems like window dressing to me…fancy title, big salary, same stuff.

    No one with any creative experience ever developed a concept without fleshing out the big ideas first…

    I’m not getting what’s new here…except the title ‘concept strategist’ trendy…

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