What is Content Strategy?

Imagine you’re the first hire to the customer service team in a VC-backed startup. Every week you gain customers, and some of those customers need support. Your job is to manage these requests. Hiring a team would allow you to triage the increasing number of issues. It would also mean managing extra headcount. And as your user-base grows, so would your support costs.

What about creating a list of answers to frequently asked questions? Then, your users could solve many common issues without intervention. You wouldn’t need to hire as many customer service employees, and the team you do have would get to address only the most significant problems that users report. An ROI analysis reveals that while the initial investment is substantial, the cost-per-user for support will be much less over three to five years. You choose to start with the self-serve content model, look for tools to catalog the content, and find the topics that would benefit from written answers.

In this scenario, you started by identifying a business need. Then you evaluated content as a way to fulfill that need. And ultimately, you planned to create that content. These patterns are the essence of content strategy.

Content strategy definition

Content strategy is the discipline responsible for satisfying business requirements through content creation and distribution.

Of course, there are a lot of people out there writing, designing, creating content. Content strategy implies that someone is stepping back and asking, “What should we create, and why?”

What do content strategists do?

The content strategist identifies those business interests that will be satisfied through content and designs a plan for creating and distributing such content. The specifics of the role will depend on the business interests and the proposed strategy.

Some activities are frequent enough that they bear mentioning. Depending on the business goals you’re supporting, you may or may not need each of these pieces.

Business intelligence

Without the business perspective, there is no content strategy. Content strategists must be able to understand business requirements. Ideally, a content strategist would be able to help define or refine problems that would benefit from a content solution.

Process, governance, auditing

You need to know whether your content strategy is solving the business problems you’re hoping to solve. That could mean managing a team or understanding the data that indicate success for your program. It could also mean maintaining an inventory of content so that the organization understands its content assets.

Audience research

The point of content is that other people will see it. Without the audience, what business problem could you possibly be solving? Understanding the audience might involve persona research, for instance. You might interview or survey as well.

Strategic vision

It might be a summarizing statement or OKR-style outcomes. By creating a strategic vision, a content strategist gives collaborators an easy way to focus their efforts.

Tone-of-voice or brand identity

For content to satisfy both business needs and the target audience, it may be necessary to define a consistency of tone across pieces of content. That is especially important in branding or marketing. Deviations from an established norm might be more acceptable in technical writing, by way of contrast.

Ideation

Ideation is the process whereby you generate creative solutions to whatever problem you want to solve. Approaches include brainstorming and design thinking.

Channel strategy

Once content exists, it has to somehow get in front of the user. That might be through social channels, email outreach, organic search, or any number of other channels. Understanding how to plan for and execute in relevant channels is a core competency in the field.

Execution plan

At some point, your content has to go from concept to reality. Exactly how you’ll accomplish that will vary from project to project. Activities might include creating a content calendar, designing wireframes, and writing content briefs. 

How to design a content strategy

For a complete write-up on content strategy as it pertains to marketing, see our comprehensive Content Marketing Guide.

Content strategy is going to be different for every company. These steps will take you, intentionally, from a business objective to publishing content:

  1. Understand your business objective. Content strategy starts from an objective. If there is no objective, we’re not doing content strategy.
  2. Understand your audience. Talk to them or observe them. Find out what the audience needs or wants.
  3. Define goals and metrics. If you can, identify the one thing you need to accomplish to consider the project a success. For many projects, three to five metrics are sufficient.
  4. Ideate. You know what you need to accomplish. Now you need to envision what kind of content will achieve that goal.
  5. Prototype. Put your content in front of the audience. At first, that might even be your team members. What do they do with it? Do early signs point to the content supporting your goal?
  6. Iterate. When your audience interacts with your content, observe. You might even perform this execution-iteration sequence several times before launching a full-scale initiative.
  7. Publish. You’ve learned what works. Now, commit to creating the full scope of content needed. Ideally, learning and iterating upon your product will continue even after publication.

Models of content strategy

While the same activities and processes are common to many different content strategy environments, there is room for flexibility in delivering content strategy.

The Brain Traffic model

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach describe a model for covering the essential elements of a content strategy in their book Content Strategy for the Web. This model breaks content strategy into five components:

  • Core. How do we intend to use content?
  • Substance. What content is needed?
  • Structure. How is content organized?
  • Workflow. How is content created?
  • Governance. How do we decide what to do?

Elements of Content Strategy model

Erica Kissane’s (free to read) book Elements of Content Strategy describes another model. It outlines the qualities of good content. The implication is that your content strategy should support the creation of content that meets these criteria.

Such content will be:

  • Appropriate. It matches the needs of the audience and the business.
  • Useful. It has a defined purpose, and it fulfills that purpose.
  • User-centered. The audience is the primary consumer of the content, and its substance should reflect this.
  • Clear. It meets the audience where they are.
  • Consistent. It reflects the style or tone of the business.
  • Concise.
  • Supported. There should be processes in place to prevent content from withering on the vine.

Further reading

This post was originally posted in 2015 and was last updated in August 2019.

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About the author
Benjamin Estes

Benjamin Estes

Ben is a Principal Consultant who joined Distilled in 2010. He designs consulting frameworks, training curricula, and sales practices for Distilled, allowing our team to bring the highest-quality, bespoke marketing consulting to our clients around...   read more