Developing a Content Strategy

This post is a redistribution of my recent article in Communicator Magazine on Developing a Content Strategy. It discusses how Content Strategy works best when approached with an open mind, following the wider scope of the content lifecycle, not trying to hammer into the shape of your departmental org-chart. It should address all incarnations of content, not any one output, channel or team.

This is somewhat slanted towards the Technical Communications audience that reads Communicator Magazine, but I’d only make minor adjustments or additions for a more marketing or ‘web-based’ audience when discussing Content Strategy.

I was very happy and honoured they chose it for the top spot on the cover articles list.
I’m eager for comments and thoughts here for via twitter.

The article:

Richard Truscott, one of Mekon’s Content Strategy Audit clients, recently produced an article regarding his content journey discusses a methodical approach to revising and updating his organisation’s content strategy. Along the way he encountered many familiar pitfalls and hurdles, like the cultural impact of content process change, the departmental boundaries that may need to be crossed and a large number of tools and technologies to review in a reasonable amount of time.

He also found, as many other organisations do, that there are assets and useful best practices available in the content industry that he could learn and apply in his work. Richard looked at and used several available options:

  • DITA content – paired with a component content management system (CCMS)
  • A metadata classification system (also known as taxonomy)
  • The Mekon Content Strategy Audit™ (CSA)
  • A cross-departmental, knowledge-oriented workflow utilising subject matter experts (SMEs).

This article aims to address what a Content Strategy is, and how you can start building one. I will be using some practical examples to illustrate, as well as referring specifically to Richard’s experience.

What is content strategy?

Content strategy is a term that touches upon every aspect of content. Organisations often have more content than they actually know what to do with. Nevertheless, they can still struggle to deliver the content that they would like or need. This is where strategy comes in.

At its simplest, a strategy is an idea that, if executed, will deliver you a specific gain. It will get you from point A to point B, assuming point B is the better one. Content strategy is therefore a collection of ideas – a content-related methodology – that will deliver gain. Like any strategy in an organisation, it should uphold overall corporate strategy and brand. Wikipedia still makes a strong link between content strategy and web development, but although web-based delivery circles are where the term gained initial popularity, the need for content strategy is not determined by the publishing channel, but the business model and business context. ‘Holistic Content Strategy’ is an approach that takes into account the entire content lifecycle and the various audiences and stakeholders that are touched by content along the way.

Content and knowledge

In practical terms, for an organisation that makes a product or delivers a service, content encapsulates knowledge, making it transferable and accessible. As in Richard Truscott’s case, content strategy and management initiatives often develop into knowledge management initiatives involving not just specialised technical communication resources, but also SMEs. SMEs are the source of raw content for repurposing/rewriting. These days, technology is enabling workflows where annotations, additions or corrections can be added easily after content goes live, extending the SME influence.

Typically, when you buy a product you will receive a manual on how to use that product, and possibly some training that implies its own associated materials. Someone else will receive a repair/service manual to support the product, some more training, and maybe a parts manual to identify spares. Marketing will describe the product online, and support may share descriptions and how-to information with technical communications and training. Development content flows through all of these points, and has impact throughout the content lifecycle. For example, the product feature list planned in development may go on to appear in various publications as seen in Figure 1.

Ideally, these departments are keeping shared information up-to-date and sharing content, metadata and organisational/navigational models where possible. If these are not shared, users are given disparate resources they need to make sense of themselves. Sometime this data is even contradictory when groups have not kept their updates synchronised . In Figure 2, we see an example of sharing a single resource.
If you are the developer of the product or service, the users may be internal staff like services and support. Poor information can affect profitability directly through inefficient staff costs and impact customers as various points of contact are hindered by a lack of good resources.

Each contact with the customer builds the brand and encourages long, fruitful relationships. Therefore, if an organisation wants to consistently deliver quality customer experience, then a holistic content strategy needs to be established. Content storage and delivery underpins the vendor’s ability to provide the knowledge and service that facilitates customers using the product or service.

Figure 1 (Click to Enlarge): Product feature list displaying four related departmental outputs. Each number represents a slight adjustment for the new context: (1) the original specification version, (2) the user guide and quick start guide are modified, but content is identical, (3) Marketing adapts the content using the same version on the website product page and brochure, but a modified website FAQ.

Figure 2 (Click to Enlarge): An optimised workflow where all departments update a shared resource. One resource can contain variant content for different tone or style, but all managed and updated in one place. At publish time, the variant content is processed and delivered to the appropriate audiences.

This is one of the reasons that knowledge management without content management rarely delivers the full functional and business benefits available. Without a methodology for delivering and refining captured knowledge into targeted content deliverables, you cannot spread the knowledge very far. A targeted deliverable is one that is fit for a specific audience, context and purpose.

Therefore, streamlining and inter-relating the content of the various knowledge sources within the organisation is a key strategic activity for the staff responsible for managing content to support overall corporate strategy.

Content/Knowledge sources that need to be taken into account in a content inventory include:

  • Product Managers
  • Engineers
  • Trainers
  • Technical Services / Support

Staff that are generally responsible for managing and delivering content include:

  • Technical Communications
  • Marketing
  • IT

The distinction between content managers and sources is that content managers are responsible for managing more information than they originally generated. Technical Communications and Marketing take content from the SME departments and extend, add value to, re-write, and re-structure it to optimise it for use by content consumers.

Key components for implementing a content strategy

In order to have a strategy you must first have:

  • A clear understanding of your current situation
  • A mission or goal defined for your future situation.

Reviewing the current situation

As we will see in the case studies later, it is only with a holistic understanding of the current situation that an organisation or team can build strategy appropriately and plan for its feasible execution.
It makes business sense to make an up-front investment of some of the time and budget allocated to a project to make sure the other, much larger, percentage are spent properly. By aligning with other departments’ goals, a Technical Communications-based initiative increases the overall mass of its business case, giving economies of scale.

We have found when customers do not take into account cross-departmental perspectives, vital details get missed that have a detrimental affect on the project. Many organisations’ content strategy fails because they think that they can keep to their departmental boundaries when thinking about content, yet still provide the best customer experience.

A customer is not interested in the source department of their answer. Numerous studies and our own project experience has shown that customers want the information that comes with their product to work and make sense together, and be presented such that they can actually find what they are looking for when executing a task. In an organisation, all departments are discussing the product(s) or service(s) the organisation sells. This means opportunities for reuse are frequent, but it is often only through analysis and departmental communication that these opportunities reveal themselves (see Figure 3).

Analysis of your current situation and strategy for change must take into account:

  • User profiles, workflows and requirements – both internal and external
  • Process – creation, management, translation, delivery and maintenance of information
  • People and skills – who do you have? Who do you need? How will you apply them?
  • Content and its models – both current and planned
  • Technology – the tools and/or products to make all the above feasible
  • Change itself – how will you manage the migration of all of the above?
  • Business case – your justification for change

Richard covered some of these in his ‘Information sources survey’. As in Richard’s case, a SWOT analysis is often a useful tool for understanding your current situation.

Analysing the content

The subject of content analysis is complex, but to help you get started, here are some quick, widely applicable questions you can ask yourselves and your documents. The answers will help feed your implementation task list:

  • Do a content audit or ‘inventory’, depending on what your preferred term is. What do you have to manage? Now proceed with the rest of the questions below.
  • Utilise user research and personas to decide what content is needed. Answer the question, ‘who cares’? If you cannot think of a user scenario where someone really needs to know this information, leave it out and see what happens. Leave in a link to a web page and see if anyone goes there. If you are documenting labelled items in the UI, leave them out. Is documenting a field always necessary? For example: ‘Database ID Form Field: Enter the Database ID in this field.’ Add value, not volume!
  • How mature is your current content process? Organisations can only move so far, so fast. Be aware of the cultural context of your organisation.
  • Do you have an inventory of information sources? Are the managers of all these sources participating in a shared content strategy? Are they in a single repository, or if not are the various repositories sharing metadata and search capabilities?
  • Have you reviewed the table of contents lists, structures, and terminology across all the information sources and performed a consistency analysis?
  • Does your content have to be delivered to multiple audiences with different needs? Are you just delivering one big deliverable because you do not have time to separate into tailored ones?
  • Do you frequently have to resort to cross-references because reuse is unfeasible? Would it be better for the users if they did not have to switch between documents or go to another website?
  • Do you have an easy feedback loop to facilitate updates of field knowledge into your documents from internal and external experts and users?
  • Does your content get published through modern web-based channels and formats? Does it need to be?
    • Wiki, Communities, Twitter and so on, can be either a great opportunity or time wasted.

Figure 3 (Click to Enlarge): A departmental content overlap model. Ideally, content will be reused by a systematic business or technology process. In many cases, however, overlap is either not noticed and new content is written to say the same thing, or is instead handled by duplication (copy, paste, tweak). At best duplication impedes usability, and at worse, contradictory information and user confusion and frustration arise.

Case studies

It was difficult to narrow down a list of case studies, but here are a few of my favourites.

Example – Richard Truscott

Richard Truscott quickly noted that he was in an organisation that had a long cultural history with notable lack of focussed professional attention on technical communications. This contributed to SMEs using their own sources and notes as primary sources as there was no central shared knowledge or content repository or administrator.

He used the CSA to validate and extend an initial analysis to ensure that vital points were covered. Leading onto knowledge management from content management was a natural progression for him and his revised content strategy using SMEs as content sources to feed into a formalisation workflow made good use of limited Technical Communications assets.

Example – Medical devices manufacturer unites the clans

This organisation had a long list of content issues impacting external customers directly and indirectly via hundreds of service, training and support staff. Similar to Richard’s experience, the organisation was suffering from too much content, without a corporate policy or system for governing or sharing it. Maintenance, training and support staff using documentation but were not given a unified, up-to-date source of data, and so collected their own local or departmental ‘cheat sheets’.

The content was on personal machines in a ‘laptop library’ or network folders, meaning that content went out of date quickly and any personal knowledge and notes stored were not easily transferred to other users.
Support and service staff were repurposing or re-writing content from manuals or official sources to avoid having to find it again for their own future use, or to send to a customer to answer recurring requests. This indicated a desire to be able to quickly retrieve smaller pieces of information that can be directly recalled when required (essentially the ability to store favourites and annotate content), as well as the option of taking sections of official content and repurposing it in a new context. It also implied that navigation of current content offerings was not optimised and searching should be consolidated.

The executive body unanimously approved our project proposal to set global content strategy standards and implement a central DITA-based content management system. A progressive implementation across international business groups is now in progress.

Example – Large defence manufacturer gets it right

This is an interesting example that illustrates the importance of meaningful information and the changing market. Rather than simply supplying a product, in this case an aircraft, the client chose to buy a full service level agreement. This committed the supplier to ensure a minimum number of aircraft would be operational 24/7/365. The quality, usability and accessibility of the maintenance documentation suddenly had a direct impact on the supplier’s bottom line costs.

The result of analysing their repairs and spare overhaul statistics and engineer usability feedback suggested a small enrichment to the procedure for Power Shaft inspection would help engineers make decisions. Using photographs to graphically present acceptable and unacceptable damage limits resulted in a reduced number of units being sent for repair.

Overhaul orders reduced by four per month resulted in annual savings of over £280,000.

Example – Consumer electronics manufacturer gets it wrong

One the most striking CSA stories I have was meeting with a Technical Documentation manager and talking to the maintenance department about content. It turned out that the maintenance teams repairing products sent back from the field were generating their own quarterly DVD of technical tips, reference charts and other technical documentation. Every three months someone in they would collate the updates and re-issue the DVD. The Technical Communications team was unaware of the DVD or the useful content it contained.
This same organisation suffered from costly NFF or ‘no fault found’ returns. NFFs are when the product was in perfect working order, but the customer returned it because they could not understand how to make it work.

Conclusion – the impact

Inconsistent information between departments is visible when content is published. If your information processes do not unite knowledge sources and how they flow into deliverables (web pages, help packages, training materials, manuals, and so on). When customers go to websites or read documentation there is inconsistency. Many Technical Communications teams tell us that they want more user and task orientation in their documents. Meanwhile, the user- and task-oriented content they wish they had the time to develop is being developed, sometimes even delivered publicly, but there is no internal collaboration to facilitate this or take advantage of the reuse and sharing opportunities. Remember:

  • Establish metrics: Using surveys and ROI case studies allows you to establish the problem and potential in numerical terms. Measure before change, compare later.
  • Think long term, scope for the short term: ‘Delivery’ is not a singular or static process, no matter what the medium – organisations deliver, gather new information from multiple sources, then update and re-deliver, endlessly. Content strategy improvements are also ongoing.
  • Content strategy is business strategy: Content strategy should be aligning user experience with both the goals of the organisation, and the expectations of users. When both buyer and seller are happy, you have a mutually beneficial recipe for repeat business and growth.


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