By Alyssa Fox | STC Senior Member
Our world is exploding with content. Whether it’s a million cat websites, ads on highway billboards, spammy emails you don’t want, or flyers on your front door, we are constantly bombarded with information. And that goes for content from businesses and organizations, too. There are white papers, Web pages, marketing emails, user documentation, and a myriad of other content assets being produced daily.
But how much of that is valuable? How do we weed out the junk? More importantly for this article, as content creators, how do we write and publish content that’s not junk? If we don’t have intention and a strategy behind why we’re creating what we’re creating, are we really getting anywhere?
I was working as a technical communication director in a large software company when I started my content strategy journey. The more I delved into trying to improve customer experience, the more I realized that all of our content played a role in that (see Figure 1). Marketing content was no longer only pre-sales, and technical content was no longer only post-sales. They had to come together. And a lightbulb went off. This is my story.
Discovering Our Needs
We had just gone through a merger and now had a handful of technical communication groups dispersed across the company. The general manager of the engineering organization where the information development (tech comm) team reported asked me to gather information about each of the groups, determine the best way for them to work together going forward, and set some goals for the combined group for the upcoming year. Fortunately, most of the information development groups were fairly mature in their processes and approach to creating and delivering technical content, so I started looking for ways to expand their visibility and scope and have a bigger impact on the business.
One of the goals I set was to better align the technical content with the story we were telling with our marketing content. At the very least, I hoped to not negate the marketing story with our technical content, but I really envisioned a messaging structure that went from the highest-level company story down to portfolio and product messaging, then to technical content. The company messaging would be about who we are, the portfolio/product messaging would be about how we help customers solve problems, and the technical content would then highlight specific procedures that show how we solve those problems using our products.
With this idea firmly planted in my head, I decided to go talk to our marketing team to see what kind of content they had, where they stored it, and where we might find some alignment in putting together this messaging hierarchy. After a few minutes of conversation with the marketing leadership, it quickly became apparent that the content infrastructure in our marketing organization was in its infancy. There were no documented content processes, no content repository, very little insight into who was working on what, and no overarching strategy for why we were creating the content we were.
As an organization, our overall content challenges included:
- Accelerating demand for new content, but too few resources to keep up.
- Little to no alignment of marketing and technical content.
- No common content repository to enable content reuse.
- No content governance process, which resulted in outdated content, never-ending review cycles, and reduction in seller effectiveness.
- Duplication of effort within and among departments.
I distinctly remember looking at the vice president of marketing with whom I was talking and saying, “We need a global content strategy.” And a new path was born.
Building the Business Case
Once I finished discussing with the marketing VP what content strategy is and why it’s important, he quickly bought in. We started working on a business case for content strategy in our organization. Since I was pitching this new function—and possibly new headcount—for content strategy to the chief marketing officer (CMO) and general manager (GM) of the organization, I knew they’d want to look at the bottom line. So we created a business case that described:
- The goals for our content strategy.
- The positive impact to the business.
- Cost/benefit analyses for both best-case and worst-case scenarios.
- Next steps in the plan.
We focused on our business goals first, so we could align our content strategy goals with those. Ultimately, we decided on these goals for our content strategy:
- Generate leads.
- Build brand loyalty.
- Increase internal efficiency.
We then highlighted the benefits of a unified content strategy to the business, including items such as multiplying the effectiveness of our content, aligning around our new brand message, and setting up an infrastructure that made the most of our limited resources in a time of many mergers and acquisitions. Then we drilled down even further into specific measurable objectives that could help us realize the benefits we previously described.
Finally, we proposed creating an initial content strategy and running a six-month pilot project for a selected product portfolio to conduct a content inventory and high-level audit, determine content repository and tool needs, and design initial content creation and governance workflows.
The investment required for the development of the initial content strategy and pilot project was only time. We created a small content strategy committee, comprising marketing, information development, and sales enablement team members. This committee built the initial content strategy and defined, evangelized, and ran the pilot. The pilot project itself also required time from the various content creators across functional groups for the selected portfolio.
Running a Pilot Project
Once the CMO and GM approved the recommendation of a pilot project, the Content Strategy Committee selected a portfolio for the pilot. We wanted a product portfolio that had enough content for us to actually see what was going on, but not so much content that we couldn’t run the inventory and audit and get some ideas about process in a six-month timeframe. Therefore, we selected one of our “mid-size” portfolios, which had about 700-800 content assets across all content creation groups (Product Management, Marketing, Technical Communication, Professional Services, and Sales Enablement).
Content Inventories and Audits
The Content Strategy Committee started by requesting content inventories from each content creation group. These inventories reflected what was posted on our website, as well as all content that we had lurking anywhere—on individual hard drives, on shared drives within teams, in content management systems or digital asset management systems, and anywhere else we could dig up this content.
Once we had a full list of the content available for the portfolio, for time’s sake, we conducted a very high-level audit on each asset to determine whether we should:
- Keep the content as is.
- Keep the content and only rebrand it.
- Keep the content and update it.
- Retire the content.
This exercise gave us a sense of how old our content was and in what state.
The next activity in the pilot program was a full-day process workshop with representatives from each of the content creation teams. I gave each team a set of Post-it notes and asked them to write an individual step in their content process on each Post-it. I then wrote headings on the board to indicate the Plan, Create, Deliver, and Maintain stages of content. After the participants finished writing out their steps, they placed each Post-it in the stage they felt it most fit.
My goals for this exercise were to:
- Find the similarities and differences in our content processes, so we could use those to build a baseline content process for all of us to use.
- Determine in which stage or stages we were missing steps, if any, so we could ensure we followed the full content lifecycle in our new defined process.
As expected and shown in Figure 2, most of our content activity was in the Create and Deliver stages. We had a few steps from various participants in the Plan and Maintain stages, but those areas were lacking activity with our current processes.
The Content Strategy Committee used the information from the pilot group to update templates for our content inventory and high-level audit, as well as to create initial content workflows.
The pilot participants and Content Strategy Committee committed to delivering the following items to the CMO and GM at the conclusion of the pilot:
- Updated content strategy.
- Evaluation of current content creation workflows and content storage/access/search/reuse.
- Evaluation of portfolio fit to strategy.
- Recommendation for additional tools/processes.
- Evaluation of impact on marketing/Info Dev/other stakeholders.
After we delivered the final report from the pilot project, the CMO determined that we needed a full-time content strategy leader in the organization and moved me into that role.
Growing the Initiative
Once I moved into the content strategy role in our marketing organization, I had the daunting task of explaining and evangelizing content strategy and its benefits to the rest of the organization. At first, most people didn’t understand the benefits a content strategy would bring to them—the whole “what’s in it for me” question—so I had a lot of meetings tailored to specific teams, what they did every day, and how the content strategy could help.
A couple of months into my new role, I was lucky enough to get a senior manager on my team to help me with the effort. Fortunately, the concept and benefits of content strategy clicked for her right away, and she was a powerhouse in helping to drive our initiatives forward. In six months, the two of us were able to:
- Create a marketing content calendar, keep it updated, and influence the marketing, sales, sales enablement, and demand generation teams to use it.
- Start building personas.
- Define an end-to-end content workflow.
- Start a component content management system (CCMS) evaluation.
- Build the framework for a “writing for atomized content and SEO” workshop for content creators.
- Build a blog editorial calendar, working with the social media team.
- Set up metrics for tracking whether our content was findable and usable by prospects, customers, partners, and sales.
The funny thing about the whole effort was that we were looking to add strategic planning around our content to our organization, but we had many tactical things to set up before we could proceed with the strategy in many places. Regardless, we worked on both strategic and tactical initiatives simultaneously as we built out the function and team.
Shifting my focus from creating and managing technical content to building a global content strategy that encompassed both marketing and technical content was exhilarating, difficult, educational, frustrating, and incredibly fun. The traction we gained in only six months showed me just how much people had been crying out for some of this structure and planning, once they understood what we were doing and why. It opened the doors for building an even better infrastructure. And it connected siloed teams in a way that they hadn’t been in the past.
This article only covers the highlights of how we got our content strategy initiative off the ground; there are a million details that go into an effort like this. If you’re looking to implement something similar in your organization, my best advice would be to:
- Know your business goals, and align your content strategy to those.
- Plan the objectives and tactics from there.
- Be patient, because this takes time—it took me a year to get from the idea to a full-time content strategy role.
Remember, every step you move forward takes your content to a better place than it was before. And that takes your organization to a better place than it was before. Content strategy solves business problems, and that’s right where you—a content leader or practitioner—want to be.
ALYSSA FOX (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a content strategist and marketing leader who thrives on improving customer experience through brand consistency and relevant information. She’s a champion for cultures that position content to drive leads, revenue, and customer retention. Alyssa has vast management experience across global teams and has worked on numerous cross-functional initiatives to improve processes and communication across organizations.