By Ken Schatzke| STC Senior Member
As technical communicators, we know the value we create for organizations, but how do we make others aware of that value? More importantly, how do we unlock that value for our and our employers’ benefit? Business strategy can provide answers.
Business strategy has a long history and rich tool set. A Google search for “business strategy” generates over 2 billion hits. These include blog posts, publications, courses, and academic literature. Most of this information pertains to starting new businesses and leading existing ones. As a result, it tends to focus on market positioning, competitor analysis, and building relationships with customers and business partners.
You might wonder if this information is relevant to you. Content strategists and other technical communicators don’t have competitors in the traditional sense of the term. Although we occasionally work with contractors and tool vendors, it’s not a mainstay of our jobs. So, what can we learn from business strategy?
In fact, we can learn quite a bit.
Content strategists and the broader technical communication community can draw extensively on business strategy. In some cases, we will need to make modifications to business strategy tools to meet our needs, but we can keep the core of those tools intact.
In this article, I’ll explore the following business strategy tools and show you how to modify them to work for content strategy:
- Porter’s Five Forces
- Strategic direction analysis
- Evaluation and prioritization of initiatives
I first learned about these tools from a LinkedIn Learning course on Strategic Planning Foundations by Mike Figliuolo.1 If you are a LinkedIn Learning user, I highly recommend this course. I’ll conclude the article by explaining next steps you can take with your technical communication team to implement these tools as part of an overall effort to introduce content strategy to your organization.
Analyzing Your Current Content Situation
An important prerequisite of strategic planning is analyzing an organization’s current situation. There are several tools available for doing this.
One tool is Porter’s Five Forces,2 which defines five forces that make up an organization’s competitive environment:
- Competitive rivalry
- Supplier power
- Buyer power
- Threat of substitution
- Threat of new entry
At first glance, Porter’s Five Forces don’t seem relevant to content strategists. We don’t compete in a market in a traditional sense. With some modifications, we can use Porter’s Five Forces to analyze our positions within our organizations and our relationships with our organizations’ customers.
Table 1 shows the five forces modified for content strategy and questions related to each force that you, as a content strategist, should ask yourself to determine your team’s current situation.
Using Porter’s Five Forces requires you to ask and answer tough questions. But once you’ve done so, you can find ways to transform threats into opportunities. For example, if a customer has created a popular blog or YouTube channel about your organization’s products, you could partner with the customer to share their content through your organization’s channels, share your content through their channels, or both.
Defining a Strategic Direction for Your Team and Its Content
In his LinkedIn Learning course on Strategic Planning Foundations, Figliuolo notes that a strategic direction consists of these elements:
- Guiding principles
More than likely, your organization has established a mission and vision in some form and maintains guiding principles and goals at a corporate level. Your technical communication team might base its short-term goals in part or in whole on the higher-level strategic direction established by your organization. The members of your team likely conduct themselves based on the guiding principles of the organization. However, has your team established its own mission and vision for the content it produces? Is there a benefit to doing so?
Defining a Mission
A mission statement defines why an organization exists. It should reflect the values, beliefs, and philosophy of the organization in a concise form.
Your team can create its own mission statement in line with your organization’s corporate mission statement while being specific to the team’s function in the organization.
Another way of thinking of a team-specific mission statement is as an elevator pitch (what you say about yourself and your team when communicating with others in the organization beyond “we write documentation”).
Defining a Vision
A vision articulates where an organization wants to be in the future. It should be worthwhile, ambitious, and realistic to encourage all members of the organization to strive to realize it.
In his LinkedIn Learning course, Figliuolo recommends a timeline of three to five years for a vision because anything less than three years is too tactical in nature to be visionary and anything beyond five years is too open to change to be planned for in a strategic manner.
A vision for your technical communication team could include the types of deliverables you want to create, how you create those deliverables, the customers you want to support, the countries and languages of those customers, and your team’s relationship with the rest of the organization. It can also reflect trends in the broader content strategy and technical communication disciplines.
Using the Mission and Vision as Foundations for Team Goals
Once you establish a team mission and vision, you can set annual goals (both as a team and as individuals) that are in line with the mission and ultimately help you realize the vision.
Figliuolo distinguishes between goals and initiatives. A goal for a technical communication team might be to increase views of documentation compared to calls to the help desk year-over-year by a certain percentage, while an initiative would be a set of specific activities to realize that goal (such as improving the documentation’s search engine optimization, redesigning specific sections of the documentation, and so on).
Defining a strategic direction for your technical communication team that aligns with the strategic direction of your organization will help you realize goals and set initiatives for your team and its content.
Evaluating and Prioritizing Initiatives
If you’re like most content strategists, you likely have more ideas for your content than time and resources to complete those ideas. With an analysis of your current situation and clearly defined mission, vision, and goals, you can determine which initiatives you should pursue for your content.
Figliuolo recommends screening initiatives through strategic filters based on the categories in Table 2.
Figliuolo recommends between six and twelve filters. Some will be hard filters (pass or fail). Some will be soft filters (high, medium, low). Possible filters for content strategy and technical communication include:
- Will the initiative increase content usage or reduce calls to the help desk?
- Can the team take on the initiative?
- Can the team take on the initiative using its existing authoring tool and technological platform?
Prioritizing Remaining Initiatives
After filtering out initiatives that aren’t strategically beneficial, you next need to prioritize the remaining ones. Prioritize initiatives based on goals. For example, if initiative A increases use of content by 50% and initiative B by only 25%, prioritize initiative A over initiative B. Once this is done, complete a “drawing the line” exercise based on a limiting factor, such as team capacity or budget.
The end result of this exercise is a portfolio of initiatives that let you meet as many team goals as possible.
Implementation and Continuous Improvement
Once you have a strategy in place and a portfolio of initiatives, you need to implement the initiatives.
Resources should not drive the initiatives you complete, but the other way around. Otherwise, you have created, in Figliuolo’s words, “strategy by default.” Don’t let current limitations in resources drive your content strategy or prevent you from doing new things.
A key element of any kind of strategy, including content strategy, is prioritizing initiatives. Identifying initiatives that will help you realize your objectives will help you implement a content strategy in your team and across your organization.
Rolling Out Business Strategy Tools
After you’ve identified the initiatives you want to pursue, you need to start projects for those initiatives. You might want to lead these projects yourself or find people in your organization with project management experience and partner with them to lead your projects.
Keep in mind that content strategy, like any other business strategy, is subject to continuous growth and change. You’ll need to review your strategy at least once per year and adapt it to changes in your organization, your industry, and the broader discipline of content strategy.
By using business strategy tools like the ones in this article, we can produce real results for us as practitioners and the organizations we work for.
- Figliuolo, Mike. 2020. “Strategic Planning Foundations.” LinkedIn Learning. Published 4 January 2020.
- Mind Tools Content Team. n.d. “Porter’s Five Forces.” https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_08.htm.
Ken Schatzke (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an STC senior member and certified professional technical communicator (CPTC). He is a content strategist and architect at SMART Technologies in Calgary, Canada. Ken is part of a team of technical communicators who create content for SMART’s suite of interactive touch displays and collaborative technology.