Content Is an Approach — Content Strategy Is the Outcome

I often get emails from technical writers (and sometimes from product design practitioners) on how they can get started with content strategy. This post is a quick reference to get started with content strategy, if that interests you.

Here is an example email.

I have shared my experiences in the past in technical writers’ first brush with content strategy, and content strategy in technical communication. Since this is a reference post, I have introduced different concepts, terms, and skills associated with content strategy. It may sound a bit overwhelming to begin with, and you can pick specific areas for your strengths to explore where you can contribute your best.

Our Constraints

As technical writers, you plan, develop, publish, and distribute technical content. At the same time, the organization publishes lot of other content where you are not involved, such as for marketing, branding, or sales.

Today when people use Google for their buying decisions, it is surprising to see that a majority of technical documents are not planned to influence buying decisions of their audience (with exceptions of course such as in API documents, or SOPs or a healthcare organization).

“As long as organizations think that technical documents do not help them win customers or relationships or positioning, they will continue to use these documents to save cost rather than investing in documents to help them in their revenue stream.”

If you are new to content strategy, let’s see how you can get started.

Plan Content Goals, for Content ROI

The goals of content are to enable a user action, to influence a user behavior, or to influence the way user talks about your brand in their community.

For instance in a non-profit content, right content may win you more donations not only from the user who visits the page, but from their friends and peers because the message is so strong and accurately crafted. So, you can see the impact, and measure it.

If not more conversions (if there are not many donations by reference), it won more eyeballs, or more volunteers. or a new sponsor for their next event where the nonprofit is trying to raise funds. A win in any context.

A content strategist ensures that every unit of content, for any content type, for use by any team for any purpose, in any language, and in any format, has a goal tied to it. A measurable goal. (See this post by Michael Andrews on aligning business goals with user goals.)

Take an example where an organization needs following types of content (not content types per se).

  • The home page
  • Two product pages
  • Webinars’ information
  • Support Center (Technical content)
  • FAQs
  • Blog
  • About
  • Contact

Note that the Support Center content (developed by technical writers) is merely one of the content types in the list.

Basic Questions

  • Why we need this content? How it helps business?
  • How it helps customers?
  • How users may use it? On what devices? In what context? For what desired outcome?

These questions apply to any content, including the technical content. Once you identify the content types, you need to tie these with content ROI goals.

More Questions

  • Do you want that the technical content should contribute to the readers’ buying decisions?
  • Has the organization planned one or more webinars to announce new features? Is there a consistency in terminology for how webinars’ details talk about the product?
  • Can customers raise a support ticket from the help articles? Are the support articles integrated with helpdesk?
  • Are some customers asking questions via twitter? If yes, is there a social media governance policy?
  • Who plans the user onboarding content?

The Content ROI

The content goals can be more transactions, more relationships, or better positioning. As a content strategist, you need to define the ROI goals of all content. A few useful readings on content ROI are:

Maximizing Your Return on Content [Webinar], by Hilary Marsh

Mastering Content ROI, by Colleen Jones

Michael Andrews shares a masterpiece where he says “The Ultimate Goal is to Plan Content That Supports Higher Margins, because content influences profitability or organization goals”.

“Thinking of all content in terms of ROI goals is the first notable step from being a technical writer to being a content strategist.”

You are Empowered to Trigger Change

Content strategists feel empowered to bring a change in the organization. As a content strategist, you are a bridger, as Sara Wachter-Boettcher said in her great article, “New Forms, Old Places,” — “Bridgers are the ones who build connections between the internal workings of an organization and the big, often scary, innovations on the outside. You might empower the marketing team to write for low-literacy users and follow accessibility guidelines. Or educate a newsroom of deadline-driven journalists on using metadata to connect related stories, rather than filing endless disconnected updates. Or even simply get two departments with shared interests but disjointed content talking to one another. Whatever it is, when you can bridge, you make change at a micro level, one degree at a time.

To change means to raise questions.

For example, what do you want the audience to do when they read a blog post? Is the goal of blog to generate leads, or to set up the brand as a thought leader, or to serve as a community reference, or what else?

Getting Started with Content Strategy

Understanding basic concepts such as content audit and analysis, content types, metadata, taxonomy, content models, and content standards is a good way to start. There is no better place to get an introduction to all these than at The Language of Content Strategy. To know where content strategy sits in a product’s big picture goals, see:

Content strategy is one of the disciplines of UX (slide 15), by Nick Finck

Content Strategy for Everything (revised), by Kristina Halvorson

Know Your Strengths

Not all content strategists are able to do everything such as content audit and analysis, content modeling, plan voice and tone, or to define content ROI goals. You should identify the areas where you can contribute to the product team effectively. Here is a list of some useful sources to help you get started in specific areas.

Content for Everything

Mega icon Joe Gollner talks about content for its big picture role in an organization, in this Content 4.0 post. Joe talks about the evolution of content for how web and information needs have evolved across ages. (I absolutely loved talking to Joe in my series of content conversations; see it in this Medium post.)

By now you may have an idea of what excites you in the whole content ecosystem in your organization. For example, you may be strong in:

  • Competitors analysis, user research (content audit and analysis)
  • Structured content models (content types, metadata, taxonomy)
  • Writing, voice and tone, empathy (voice and tone)
  • Data science, ROI (content metrics and goals)
  • CMS setup, customization (technology)
  • Content management, business rules (content governance)

Get started with your strengths.

Content Strategy: Few More Flavors

Content Engineering

Cruce Saunders, Joe Gollner, and few more industry pioneers talk about content engineering, as a different dimension of content strategy.

Cruce (of [A]) says “Content engineers organize the shape, structure and application of content. They enable content personalization, targeting, reuse, and multichannel distribution.”

Read the complete post. Cruce strongly believes that content models are the backbone of any cross-functional, multi-channel publishing initiative, as he shared his thoughts in this Medium post.

Scott Abel’s post on content engineering is gold and it triggered such a healthy discussion (in the comments) around content disciplines.

Mark Baker (of Every Page is Page One) uncovers different layers of content engineering when he says I am a content engineer.

Kevin Howarth talks about content engineering in this CMI post (in 2013).

Intelligent Content

Ann Rockley explains that “Intelligent content is content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.”

Marcia R Johnston decodes this definition in this ICC blog post. Here are two posts for more details on intelligent content:

How to get started with Intelligent Content (see comments too)

Intelligent content and content strategy

Product Content Strategy

I have noticed that of late, organizations as big as Facebook and Shopify are sharing their content strategy stories. Their practices may be little different from what we see in conventional (enterprise) content strategy teams because they work in relatively fast-paced culture (as if a startup has accelerated towards very mature processes). A few notable references are:

Getting Started in Content Strategy, at Facebook, by Natalie Shaw

Content Strategy at Shopify, by Biz Sanford

Interface Content, at Shopify, by Amy Thibodeau

Information 4.0

Information 4.0 is now Information 4.0 Consortium. Information 4.0 is an international initiative to define the information component of Industry 4.0.

See The birth of Information 4.0

Joe Gollner’s presentation: Information 4.0 for Industry 4.0 (TCWorld 2016)

What Works And What Doesn’t

This is NOT a post with a list of people to follow, a list of conferences to attend, or a list of books to read. I have shared references with useful and actionable advice to answer the most basic questions that you may have, to start thinking like a content strategist.

One of the fastest ways to learn a new discipline is to get involved with the community. Many content strategists share their experience worldwide (as I shared a few in this post) — you can read what they write, listen to what they say, and drop your comments and questions for them.

Grab volunteering opportunities, ask specific questions, offer to invite them at relevant events or podcasts if you host. Connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, or elsewhere (not for stats but for real value-exchange intent). It worked for me and it really helped me when I invited some of the world’s leading content strategists in a series of content conversations.

Over to You

Content is an approach to work. Content strategy is the outcome of that approach. It is about relevance, curiosity, and context for why many assets — people, interactions, screens, and decisions co-exist.

Get ready to feel excited by what you do not know about your organization. Find answers. People will question back — why would anyone listen to you? I have shared many sources in this post to get you started.

You cannot be more ready to take the first step.

PS: I did not talk about content marketing strategy on purpose because I firmly believe that all content marketers should have a minimum understanding of back-end content strategy. If you fancy yourself doing well on the customer-facing side of content — customer journey, publishing, and campaigns, Ann Rockley makes it more clear in Why You Need Two Types of Content Strategist.


Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash