Plan a Content Strategy and Go Places

TJ Ward, Former Viget

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

Now that the web world has largely bought into information architecture and interaction design, we're starting to realize what we've always known: content is king. Coming up with a good information architecture is critical for any site, but you can't design a great information architecture without having a solid handle on the information you're architecting.

It seems pretty obvious, right? Unfortunately not everyone gets it – yet. It's not like these people don't think content is important. They know it is; they just haven't been convinced that there's any reason to put structure around the process of defining it. So, how do you convince someone that content strategy is important?


I've started likening developing a content strategy to planning a trip. Whether you're going on a honeymoon or creating a site about bicycle maintenance, you're planning to be somewhere you're not right now.

When planning a trip there are three high-level questions that need to be answered:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How will we get there?
  3. What will we do once we're there?

Let's give the analogy a little workout.

Where are we going?

We can't very well plan a trip if we don't know where we're going, so the first thing we have to do is choose a destination. This is usually easy because we're traveling for business or to visit friends, but let's assume that we want to take a vacation and we haven't decided where yet. To arrive at a decision we'll ask ourselves some questions like why are we traveling? What destinations have what we're looking for? What can we afford? How long can we be out of the office before things blow up?

We're essentially deciding on a destination for our content when we define who we're speaking to and what message we want them to walk away with. Deciding on our content "destination" involves asking questions analogous to the ones posed above:

  1. What are the company's goals, or, why are we building the site?
  2. What are our customers looking for, or, what do they want to get out of the site?
  3. What communication and brand strategies do we need to consider as we plan the content?

Answering these questions will help us come up with a clear, concise explanation of what our organization and our users want to get from the content on our site. This can be the easiest or hardest part of the process. In either case it's probably the most important. Who you're speaking to and what you're trying to get across to them is at the core of overall web strategy. You're going to have to answer those questions at some point, and the sooner the better.

The more specific we can get, the better we'll be able to focus our resources to achieve our goal. Armed with clarity we can get down to logistics.

How will we get there?

Once we have a destination we need to figure out how we're going to get there. In the case of short trips, say to our neighborhood bar, we can (and probably should) take off on foot, but if we're looking a little farther from home (beautiful Durham, NC) to San Francisco, we'll have to give it a little more thought. Will we fly, drive, take the Greyhound, or ride Amtrak? Are there other places we want to stop on our way? How much time do we have? How much can we afford to spend? Who's going to buy the tickets?

In terms of content strategy, deciding how we're going to get there involves asking:

  1. What types of content will we use to get the message across? We will use text, images, video, audio, and/or interactive games?
  2. Where will the content come from? Will we produce it in-house or will we aggregate content from elsewhere? If we're aggregating content, will a person curate the content or will we write brilliant bots to aggregate for us?
  3. How long will each piece of content be?
  4. How much content will there be?
  5. Who's going to be responsible for creation/curation?

Now we can start to act. First, give someone responsibility for the content across the whole site and share your "destination" with them. If you're writing original content, write some sample items. If you're aggregating content, collect a list of sources and specific articles/videos/image/etc. from those sources. Make some guesses about how many "units" of content you're going to have. Will you have 0-10 pieces of content or more like 100-1000? At this point you've already done more to ensure the success of your content than most.

Now let's make the most out of the work we've done by figuring out how we're going to spend our time and money.

What will we do once we're there?

We've decided where we're going, and we've gone to the trouble of figuring out how we're going to get there. Let's make the most of our efforts and figure out what we're going to do once we're there. Where will we stay? How are we going to get around? When is the SFMOMA open? Which of the hundreds of burrito places in the Mission should we go to? We could play these decisions by ear, but we may very well end up sleeping in a rat trap, walking into the MOMA 20 minutes before closing, or eating at the burrito joint the hipsters make fun of.

To avoid similar tragedies with our content, we need to ask questions about what happens to our content once it's on the site. It might seem like we've already answered the important questions, but to be clear about how our content is going to stay current and relevant we need to answer a few more:

  1. When does content get updated?
  2. How frequently will we add new content?
  3. When does content get retired?
  4. Will we collect feedback from users about it?

Based on our resources and goals, we should be in a pretty good position to decide what we'll do when we get the site up and running. Once we've answered these questions we can document our decisions by writing a policy that says when live content will be reviewed and updated or removed.

What has all of this gotten us?

The answers to these three big questions have a direct impact on how our pages will get laid out, how users will browse, and how they'll be able to interact with us through our site. We've made sure that we're giving our users what they're looking for and that it jives with the company's goals. We know our vision is realistic because we have a really good idea of where we're going to get this content and who's responsible for it. And, we've established how our organization is going to maintain our content and keep it up to date.

Not only does our content strategy make sure that our energies are going to be useful to us and our users, it will make our lives easier as we move into UX, visual design, and development. It also helps us identify the real cost of maintaining the site and lays out an explicit plan for how we're going to keep our site current and accurate.

What I've described here probably sounds like a fairly heavy process, but it doesn't have to be. Depending on the project and the organization, we might dedicate months to building a content strategy, but for other projects we can probably answer all of these questions in a two-hour meeting with some of the key stakeholders. What's more, we can also answer these questions in phases. It doesn't necessarily make sense to work out the entire content strategy before we've started thinking about what the site is going to look like. It may be more efficient to answer the "where" question before or during sitemap work and figure out "how we're going to get there" and "what we're going to do" concurrently with wireframing and/or visual design. The important thing is that we ask these questions and figure out which answers are critical to the project.

Now, all we have to do is pack - or create our content.

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