Customer Experience: 12 Steps to Designing Content Strategy
Designing your own content strategy is one of the most enjoyable, useful and essential tasks of a content professional. It proves your added value, involves your manager in your activities and improves cooperation with your co-workers.

What is a Content Strategy?

There are multiple philosophies on content strategy, but if you take into account the original meaning of "strategy" -- and therefore we need to go back in time to the ancient Greeks -- I would like to suggest the following definition:

A content strategy is a plan that describes how the goals of an organization can be met by providing valuable information to its audience.

The ancient Greeks realized that the available resources are never optimal and circumstances are never ideal. Having a well defined strategy helps in gaining an advantage over the competition or to make the best use of circumstances. A strategy always considers an element of uncertainty in what the future will bring.

Never Take a Tool for Granted

It is awkward to speak of a "social media strategy" or an "intranet strategy," because these imply the use of a particular tool, when which tool you will need to achieve your goals has yet to be decided.

You are leaving too much to chance if you renew a website, launch an online campaign, select a Content Management System, social medium or implement any tool without having defined a content strategy beforehand.

Do you want to know why the new intranet is not taking root in your organization? Or why social media has not proven as successful for your company as planned? Possibly social media was not the best tool to meet your goals and reach your target audience, or possibly it should just be one of the many tools at your disposal.

Prove Your Added Value!

A content strategy is not the process of getting your content processes and content organization in place; that is better described as content governance. A content strategy is also not focused on planning, developing, managing, distributing, evaluating and maintaining content, which is the field of content management. A content strategy -- which you make in the planning phase -- helps to translate your organizational goals into a mechanism by which your goals can be achieved by using content.

A content strategy helps you to find out who needs what information, and at what moment, in order for you to achieve your goal. In addition it describes the best format and way to deliver this information. Connecting a content strategy to an organizational goal and measuring the results after implementation can prove your value as a content professional to your management.

The 12 Content Strategy Steps

Having given content strategy workshops across the globe for many years, I have designed a methodology for organizations to develop their own content strategy in 12 practical steps.

Try it during your own workshop!

Step 1: Determine your goals

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Each content strategy starts with an organizational goal. Whichever goal you choose, always make sure that it is aligned to the strategy of the management. They are working on achieving specific organizational goals, and if you can help them using a content strategy, you should explicitly state so.

This requires you to think like a decision maker. What does management want? The goal of managers in this case is not to implement a new CMS or a new website; nor do they desire better content or a decentralized editorial department. They hired you to think about this. Therefore you should not bother them with these kinds of operational and tactical issues. Don't talk about content!

Step 2: Feel the pain

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What is keeping an organization from achieving its goals? That is the pain a content strategy focuses on. By this I do not mean the "pain" you feel because you do not like the website or you want another CMS: I mean the pain the management of your organization feels.

You could try to imagine the struggles of your management, but it makes more sense to ask them directly. In this way you hear about issues firsthand and you can be the first one to say that you will be able to relieve that pain.

Step 3: Define the success factors

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What needs to improve in order to take away the pain? The answer to this question is your success factor. Success factors are about improving or reducing something that is in the way of reaching the organizational goal. They are your "pain killers."

Success factors will appear automatically if you systematically focus on the goals and pain of the organization. In a content strategy a success factor is often used as an assumption, because it links the goal to the pain.

Success factors often form the foundation of a business case. It is a typical resource for finding success factors. You should seek out the business case when you are working on a content strategy.

Step 4: Keep your audience in mind

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Communication is the exchange of information with someone else. The more you know about your audience and the more you make use of that knowledge, the better chance you have of successful communication.

Your audience consists of specific target groups. In your content strategy you should always focus on someone you can shake hands with, and not "the public" or "the customer." If you do not explore the social context of your audience, you risk making a content strategy that does not link you to the people you want to reach.

Fortunately, much research has been done on the communications behavior of people, both on the internet and in other settings. You should research your target groups: if a complete research project is too much for you, we would suggest the use of personas.

Step 5: Focus on your audience's motivations

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A content strategy should always answer your audience’s basic question: 'What's in it for me?” People tend not to do something for "the sender." But they are willing to help when they expect to gain something for themselves in one way or another.

If you want to reach a certain goal and you have not thought about the motivations of the other party, you run the risk that your beautiful strategy will not work. By understanding the motivations of your target group you improve your chances of actually achieving the goal.

In practice people often skip the phase of thinking about the target group’s motivations. People find it difficult to think about target groups in that way. It is therefore extremely important to think about your target group thoroughly during step 4 -- "Keep your audience in mind." The more you know about your target group's social context, the better you can imagine their personal motivations.

Step 6: Determine the information

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Now you know your audience and their personal motivations, you are ready to determine what specific information is needed to achieve your goal.

Information should be complete, current, reliable and relevant to your audience.

What does your target group need to achieve its personal goal? And what information do you need in order to achieve yours? Do not automatically start with the content you collected earlier. Your audience is King, not the content!

Step 7: Think of a tactic

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A tactic is essential in each strategy. Without a tactic your strategy will never work. A tactic helps you find the right tools. When determining the tactic you will take, you should primarily focus on the social context and the motivations of your target group. How are you going to make your audience help you achieving your goal?

It is tempting to think starting from your own offerings, such as the homepage of your website. But from your audience’s point of view it might be more realistic to start a question with Google.

What results will they get? When defining a tactic people often forget that each dialogue with an audience should lead to some kind of follow up (action). Make a plan for this.

Step 8: Choose the right tools

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Now is the time to determine what tools you are going to use to achieve your goal.

Thanks to your tactic you know whether a landing page might be suitable for your goal. If your target group prefers to communicate with you by smartphone, you will have to adjust your online channel for that.

Social media is a broad concept for several social networks. Which of those networks fit into your strategy, and which do not?

Step 9: Determine the performance indicators

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If you do not define your success criteria, you will not be able to prove your success. It is therefore important to include performance indicators in your strategy. You could consider quantitative criteria, but qualitative indicators can also be appropriate.

One way or another project teams often have difficulties determining performance indicators. They are afraid that they will be judged on the result if the final goal is not achieved. However, you should do the measurements in order to find out what content strategy is successful and what strategy is not. A content strategy that does not show results should be adapted.

Step 10: Determine the measuring tools

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At this point you determine how you are going to measure success, and which measurement instruments are needed. Performance indicators are useless without a method of measurement.

It is important that someone in the organization is responsible for the measurements and their analysis and reporting. This person should provide management with appropriate and useful analyses and concrete recommendations for improvement.

Step 11: Foster co-operation

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To make a content strategy work you usually need the help of people from inside and outside the organization. You cannot work on a content strategy on your own. Usually you will need to cooperate with colleagues, and sometimes also with external stakeholders.

If you want to successfully implement a content strategy you need to make people responsible for their contributions. You should involve them from the start of the development of the content strategy, and allow them to share their concerns and ideas with others. By sharing problems and dividing tasks and responsibilities, you guarantee that the content strategy will be implemented, measured, analyzed and improved.

Step 12: Develop a new content strategy

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Your content strategy is finished? Start a new one! Content management is a continuous process. Content changes, goals are changing, technology is changing, the organization is changing and finally your audience is changing. Because of this continuous shifting of circumstances, content strategies should be evaluated on a regular base and adjusted if necessary.

Organize a new workshop after a while and discuss which content strategies were successful and which need adjustment. Perhaps you will also find some new challenges you need to develop content strategies for.

Just start all over at the beginning!

Using my content strategy game I try to make the development of a content strategy less complicated and above all, much more enjoyable. I am convinced that your web project will be more successful when using a well defined content strategy, and your own role as a content professional will gain value.

Please share your experiences with content strategies with me. Do you have suggestions, best practices or maybe an anecdote you would like to share? I'm all ears!

Title image courtesy of Ivelin Radkov (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more by Erik in his Vulnerable Websites are Here to Stay