What is content strategy, anyway?

Content strategy is, at its simplest, all the decisions you make about the content on your website.

Now, be honest: When you were planning and building your organization’s website, how many of those decisions did you make intentionally? How many decisions just seemed to make themselves?

Sorry for putting you on the spot. Believe me, I’ve never put in the kind of care that I probably should have in building websites, so you’re in great Noob company with me. The important thing is that we’re going to do better, starting now. Right? Right.

So let’s make a fresh start: Where does content strategy begin?
Content strategy begins in the moment you realize, “Hey, I need a website.” Hopefully, you (or your well-meaning friends) are going to follow up with these questions:

  1. Why? Why do I need a website?
  2. For whom?
  3. What do they need from me?
  4. How am I going to provide it?
  5. How will I know it’s working?

Content strategy is paying attention to the content of your website, from beginning to end, all the time, in one way or another. For sanity’s sake, we can distinguish aspects of running a website that don’t have primarily and directly to do with your content (e.g., user research, platform, programming, navigation, organization, specific functionality, look and feel, etc.), but even these must be decided in close relationship with the content decisions.

Not too long ago, we were so dazzled by web technology that our attention was drawn almost exclusively to the technical and sensory aspects of design, like shiny toys. As the web has evolved, however, we’ve seen plenty of unfortunate web efforts in which all the glitzy design and moving pictures belied an abysmal dearth of substance.  And the converse has also been true: Some of the richest, most effective web resources may not be pretty or slick, but they contain deep, helpful content to which we have returned again and again. Sure, you want both, but given the choice, which way would you rather go?

When we hate a website, we may not even be aware that it’s the content that lacks. We say, “It’s uninviting.” Or, “I can’t find anything…” Maybe there’s nothing to find. Usability is vital, but sometimes it’s not so much the finding or the using: The content just isn’t worth the effort. It’s strangely dissatisfying in some way, like an unspoken, unfulfilled promise.

(BTW, if you’re really into this idea, check out Dave Robins and Jason Holmes at Kent State University’s IAKM program. Their eyetracking study suggests that people are influenced in the first few seconds, but I wonder whether there’s any lingering effect, once the user gets into the content… “Aesthetics and credibility in web site design”:  doi:10.1016/j.ipm.2007.02.003)

Once you’ve seized the initial truth that content is the foundation of your web effort, the implications and extensions of the strategy run deep and broad:

What does your site do? Does it sell? Does it inform? Does it support? Does it bring people together? Does it serve as a reference?

How does it serve these purposes? Does it offer text, video, audio, references, or images? Does it call out loud or whisper? Does it invite or challenge? What’s its personality? What is its voice?

Where does all that stuff come from? Who creates it? Who produces it? Who publishes or delivers it? Who monitors it? How does it get refreshed or retired? How do your site’s users participate in the site? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for you?

If you already have a site, then it’s never too late to take a fresh look. Your Content Strategy (with a capital “C” and a capital “S”) addresses these aspects. Remember, though, every website has a content strategy undergirding it; you may just be unaware of it. Start asking the above questions about your site, and the strategy will become clear. Then you’ll be able to decide whether it’s working or not.

As always, tell me what you think. I need all the help I can get!

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.