Web Content Strategy Techniques

Posted: August 28, 2011 under Web Design

Web content strategy is an important tool for designers and developers to have in their kit, particularly if they work in an environment where there isn't someone on staff dedicated to it. If you own or manage a website, it's an essential discipline to understand. It can help inform critical design choices and business decisions that will impact how useful our websites are to users.

This post is the final in a series (part 1, part 2) that looks at The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane. Published by A Book Apart, web guru Jeffrey Zeldman's publishing house, it provides an excellent introduction to the basic principles and techniques of content strategy.

In this post we look at Kissane's basic methodology: evaluate, design and execute.

Project Definition

The first step in the evaluation process is getting clear on what the project goal is and why it is being done. If the project is small, this might be settled in a quick team meeting. If the project is rather large, however, this phase may take months of careful planning.

The first step Kissane recommends will be familiar to designers: preparing a creative brief or project summary. It's useful to follow this up with stakeholder interviews and a review of any existing research.

The key here is to clearly understand the business goals, tactics, requirements and project objectives. Kissane provides an excellent explanation of these key components. She writes:

  • Business goals are the overarching aims that an entire organization tries to achieve. To select a well-known example, one of Google's business goals is "Don't be evil."
  • Tactics are all detailed, specific requests you'll hear again and again in stakeholder interviews. "Clarify navigation" and "improve search" are two that come up a lot.
  • Requirements are the project's immovable objects: launch date, project budget, available staff members, and so on.
  • Project objectives live under business goals and above tactics, while respecting requirements. They are the things you can actually accomplish with content strategy, like "change our website to reflect our new organizational focus on education."

The bottom line in this phase is to understand what success looks like.

Research & Assessment

One important evaluation activity conducted during this phase is user research. This is often done by conducting interviews with actual site users, if at all possible. The results of these interviews can then be used to develop "user proxies" or personas. These personas can then act as stand-ins for the site's users as you're mapping process flows and actions.

Another key activity in this stage is the content inventory. The two questions that need to be answered are: 1) What content already exists?; and 2) What is the quality of that content?

Last but not least is competitor research. It's important to identify key competitors and see how they're solving some of the problems your project aims to address. When doing this exercise, it's important to notice the bad as well as the good. Understanding what not to do is as useful as making note of effective solutions.

Strategy & Design

The design phase builds on your evaluation work. It's where you plan for creating and maintaining the content that will not only meet project goals, but meet the needs of site users as well.

Kissane breaks this phase down into five deliverables: messages, big concepts, structural design, site-level recommendations and page-level content guidelines.

Messages
These are the messages the site is supposed to convey to the users, and there will often be more than one as sub-groups of users are addressed. Kissane gives two pieces of advice here: don't get bogged down on these messages as they are primarily for internal guidance and, secondly, make good use of any marketing or communications staff that are available to the project.

Big Concepts
These are the major shifts that the content strategy may want to recommend. Examples of major strategic shifts might be new content features (video, whitepapers, etc), changing the target audience, or shifting the tone of the content.

Structural Design
This is the information architecture portion of the process. The deliverables might include a sitemap, wireframes (perhaps accompanied by page descriptions) and user flows. It's at this point you can step back and say, 'This is what we're going to make.' 

Site-level Content Recommendations
Kissane describes this step as, "the last chance to talk about underlying strategies, because it's all tactical planning from here on out." Some of the recommendations may include, delivery channels (web, social, email), audiences and the integration of new content features.

Page-level Content Guidelines
These guidelines are delivered in three types of documents: a style guide, written recommendations and content templates. These guidelines help content contributors maintain a consistent tone and understand what the content is trying to accomplish and how it relates to the rest of the site's content.

Content Creation Plan

We're deep into the execution phase now and it's time to plan the creation of the content. This can include identifying in-house resources, determining if hiring freelancers will be required or if aggregating outside content is a part of your strategy.

This is where the rubber meets the road and one critical thing to keep in mind is to not underestimate the work involved in creating quality content. It's a common mistake to assign an already overworked staff member content creation responsibilities. This can easily lead to to all your prior work being undone by poor execution.

Content Management

Another critical aspect of the execution phase is planning for content management. Possible things to consider are editorial calendars and an ongoing communication strategy. In the best case scenario, an organization will have a dedicated web editor that can care for existing content and make sure new content serves site goals and user needs.

Wrapping It Up

If you're a designer or developer, not all of these techniques will directly affect you. However, understanding web content strategy can inform your work and make you a more effective member of a web team.

If you're a site owner or manager, the practice of web content strategy is critical. Having a clear understanding of how to ensure your content is useful and appropriate for your users is fundamental to your website's success.

If you haven't done so already, buy Erin Kissane's book. It's a relatively quick read and it's an excellent introduction to a field that is rapidly increasing in importance.

About the Author

John Hannah

I’m John Hannah. I like to travel as much as possible and enjoy hanging out with my wonderful family. I've got a new real estate business, believe it or not, so please feel free to connect with me there.