One of the fundamental, disorienting shifts we have been feeling since the advent of a commercial Internet is that businesses and organizations that have no experience or inclination to be content producers…suddenly are. The Web is a content-hungry monster and we have fed it with varying degrees of success. Great content is relevant and timely and meets a need. That need can be as diverse as information, entertainment, community, or a host of other objectives. What separates the successful content from the unsuccessful is often a strategic approach to define and plan the content needs of that particular project, based on the site goals, audience, and ability to support that content.
A content strategist is not a glorified copy writer. That person is responsible for a comprehensive strategy that requires an intimate understanding of business requirements. Their work will greatly influence timelines and budgets. They will have to factor in implications and impacts as varied as IA/UX, SEO (define), project flow, audience feedback and participation, marketing goals, and messaging, plus keep up with the pace of change unique to each project.
Too often this critical component of a Web development or design project is overlooked or undervalued. If you surveyed agencies, Web development firms, and even clients you would find that the content piece is almost always the delaying factor in any engagement. For many, the definition of content is oversimplified to a project plan line item described as delivering the copy (and maybe the meta data) for key Web pages usually to be inserted just before launch. This is a mistake on at least four fronts.
Mistake No. 1 – Putting the Cart Before the Horse
The content strategy should inform the site-build itself, which means it has to come before the architecture is developed. The nomenclature used for navigational elements, the priority, emphasis, and order of included content, the rate of change built into site maintenance plans, and the source of new content should be built on audience research that is a key part of a content strategy.
Typical early stage content engagements include that audience research and translate the research into a message architecture that lays out brand attributes and language that is foundational to the later work and creates a beneficial consistency in the site. An audit of current content, an analysis of missed opportunities, a review of content types available, and resources both internal and external to maintain the program are all laid out against client and audience requirements. This upfront work allows for improved project flows and deadline adherence, greatly reduced iterations in wire framing and design, and a site that is tightly aligned with business goals.
Mistake No. 2 – Reducing Content Strategy to Copy Writing
Content is more than words. A broad definition is required to encompass audio, video, images – a million different formats on a zillion different platforms from primary or aggregated sources (brand or user-generated).
Mistake No. 3 – Neglecting to Factor in the Various Distribution Channels
It’s not just a website after all. It might also include one or several microsites or social media sites like Facebook. It might be a stream of tweets or a channel on YouTube. It might include portions of your content lifted from one or many sources. Is it still in context? Does it tell the story on its own? Does it have the right voice for this audience?
Mistake No. 4 – Considering Content Strategy a One-Time, Upfront Endeavor
Your business evolves, your audience evolves, the competition evolves, Web and technology opportunities evolve – if your content strategy does not you will be quickly out of sync, regardless of how smart and thorough you were at the onset.
Time is quirky and can play tricks with your carefully conceived narrative. Will users view it in order, all at once, and in the preferred format? No. You have no control over the users’ preferences and little ability to understand the context of their experience. Where they came from just before consuming your content matters as does a host of other factors you can’t control. Will it be filtered through an aggregator, truncated, and juxtaposed with other content that colors it? You can pretty much guarantee it. There is so much that you can’t control that you should do your best to control those things you can. Start by respecting your content – not the package you wrap it in – as what delivers true value to your audience.