Developing a content strategy
Everyone’s heard the maxim ‘content is king’ but it’s amazing how much website content is unplanned, uncontrolled and ineffective. It shouldn’t be that way.
- by Peter Labrow
Most medium-to-large organisations use content management systems to update their own websites. Content management is a powerful enabling technology – there’s no need to send updates to a website designer, you just enter them yourself and make them live.
For many types of website content, this is as it should be – updates can be made more quickly, more cheaply and are within the clients’ control. Indeed, for some website content, using a content management system is essential – we have clients with some fairly large product catalogues that would be simply prohibitive to manage in any other way.
Despite this content management control, many organisations are missing something very fundamental, and its absence creates some very significant problems. I’m talking about a content strategy.
In the worst-case scenario, a website is managed by multiple people with few controls in place to provide direction. And, when you think about it, the most important part of the website is the content: “content is king“, you hear people chant, like sheep, without really understanding just how true that is.
So what is a content strategy?
A content strategy is a documented framework for creating and managing your website’s content. Many organisations have a corporate identity manual – where the use of fonts, logos, images and so on is specified. A content strategy does the same job, but it’s focused around everything that goes into your website.
If you consider that a website is probably the most important marketing tool a company has, and that the content is the most important part of the website, it’s clear that a content strategy needs to be more than just a few superficial rules.
A content strategy should encompass at least:
- Your organisation’s core messages
- Meeting the needs of your audience
- Setting goals for your website
- The role played by your content
- The gaps (intended or otherwise) in your content
- Style guides for consistent communications
- Search engine optimisation
Let’s take a quick look at each of these.
Crafting your message
You are what you say you are: if your website copywriting goes off-topic, then that will be how website visitors perceive you. So, ask yourself:
- What do you do as a business?
- What do customers buy from you?
- Where do your products and services fit into the market?
- What (genuinely) makes you different?
Keep taking things back to basics. If you sell spades, make sure you tell people you sell spades, not that you are a provider of soil-churning solutions. Documenting a business in this way can be insightful and grounding – but it primarily makes sure that your message will be clear, and people who are creating copy for your website remain on track, singing the company song, and not making up their own.
You are communicating to an audience
If there’s one mistake I see organisations make again and again, it’s forgetting that they need to communicate in the language of their audience. It’s oh-so-easy to create inflated marketing prose that allows you to posture magnificently, but it’s really not what your visitors are looking for and nor will they be impressed by it. They want information: provide it, in a language they understand. So, research your audience:
- Do they use different terminology to you, or even understand your terminology?
- What’s the demographic? How do they think and speak?
- What are they looking for from you?
- Where else might they find it?
Every page should have a role
Before posting content, ask yourself: how does this contribute to the picture my visitors build up of my organisation? In short, what’s its role? How does it contribute to your proposition? How does it contribute to your website? Is it pulling its weight/really needed?
Every page should have a goal
Just as every ad should have a call to action, every page should have a goal – which might be a call to action, or it might not. When people interact with your page, what’s the response you want? No – it’s not always ‘to buy’. It might be to comment (on a blog) or ask a question (on a forum).
Understanding, allowing and filling the gaps
I remember being taught how to draw, and was told that knowing what to leave out of a drawing is as important as the marks you actually made on the paper. So it is with content. There’s often a tendency to throw everything including the kitchen sink at a particular topic – but seldom is there a need. For instance, your company might be focused on a particular niche – so there’s no need to communicate on topics wider than that niche (indeed, it can be counter-productive). But, just as some gaps might be intentional, some may come about by chance – so it’s worth looking at how your competitors and peers communicate to see if you’re missing a trick.
Defining your voice, setting your style
When a website is edited by many people, it’s very easy for inconsistencies to creep in. I often see different spellings of the same word on websites – sometimes on the same page. But it’s not all about spelling – writers have a ‘voice’ and so should companies. Pages should be consistently written in tone, as far as possible, so that the reader doesn’t experience a jarring when moving from page to page. A highly strategic piece from the managing director may not fit well within a website that has a ‘hey dude’ feel to the text.
The checks and balances
Amazingly, few organisations employ checks and balances when adding website content. Often, content could be added by someone who is fairly junior and is posted to the site unchecked. Proofreading is performed in house, or not at all. Proofreading is not optional. Copy editing is not optional. Every page needs a review cycle – someone to challenge whether it meets the content strategy, and revise it, or suggest revisions. Proofreading is best performed externally. Yes, it is a cost, but usually it’s a modest one. Proofreading and editing should not be undertaken by the writer of the piece.
Search engine optimisation
Just as Web pages need to communicate with your audience, they also need to work well within search engines. A website needs a defined keyword strategy, and part of the writing and review process is to ensure that the nominated keywords appear within each piece with appropriate frequency. Keywords need to be based around how your customers think, speak and search – not based around your internal language or industry terminology. Keywords also need to be placed in the appropriate places on the page.
So what are the consequences of not having a defined content strategy? Surely it’s just ‘another strategy’ to bog us down and stop us getting the job done?
I couldn’t disagree more. Without a content strategy, a website is a free-for-all, directionless leaf blowing on the wind that doesn’t support the needs of the business. How could it be anything else?
Without a content strategy, it’s very easy to:
- speak in a language that customers don’t connect with.
- communicate things that they are simply not interested in.
- not provide the information that they are actually looking for.
- lose valuable content in a sea of irrelevant waffle.
- mix styles of voice and language in a way that undermines your brand.
- introduce errors and inconsistencies that make your company look unprofessional.
- not engage with visitors or engender a response from them.
- get very poor search engine results.
In short, instead of engineering and crafting your message, it comes into being without purpose or control. It’s a meandering walker in a race for success. Worse, it can miscommunicate to the point where the tail wags the dog, and your organisation becomes ‘something else’ because that’s what you are telling the world you are.
If the business doesn’t drive the website, the website will drive the business.