Content strategy refers to the process of strategic planning used to get the biggest bang out of your website content. It is a large topic, with countless blog posts, books and a whole cottage industry sprouting up around this emerging discipline for online professionals.
It doesn't have to be that complicated.
Below, I'll walk through the key questions you need to answer to develop a smart content strategy for your website using the time-tested formula of "who, what, where, why and how."
I'm going to start with a distinction between two general types of content: "static" (or "evergreen") content that rarely changes and "dynamic" (or "time-sensitive") content that moves to a lower level of importance as it gets older. Static content examples include the text on your About Us page that changes maybe once a year. Dynamic content examples include blog posts and issue updates. A single page might contain both static and dynamic content, like an issue page that contains both a static description of the issue and blog posts related to that issue pulled into the page.
The who of content strategy is an operational question based as much on staffing as on strategy. Website writing, like all writing, needs a voice to impact the reader. Your website's writing should have clear voice(s) based on who is writing, and authenticity matters. In general the "voice" of your static content (nearly always posted without an author) needs to be the voice of your organization. But the voice of your more dynamic content, especially when an author's name and bio is attached, should be their individual voice.
Does your online presence deliver issue expertise to your audience? Then your issue experts should speak in their own voice, even if it can veer into wonkiness. If your website also appeals to a more general audience, make sure that you are either editing these posts to make sure they can appeal to a broad audience (aka, tone down the wonk) or including dynamic content from different authors and geared towards a more general audience.
In addition to your content’s voice, your strategy needs to make clear who is responsible for writing and adding -- and updating -- static and dynamic content.
The what of content strategy is about how you write your content, both static and dynamic. While every group's content will be different, there are some fundamental rules to writing good content.
Tips for writing your content, borrowed liberally from the excellent book The Elements of Content Strategy.
- Your content must be useful. There must be a specific reason for your content to exist.
- Your content should be appropriate to the context of your users and your website in its style, delivery and timeliness.
- Your content should fit within the existing frames of your users. You may want to challenge readers, but first you need to get them to read your content. Meet your visitors where they are with analogies, style and design.
- Your content should be clear, consistent and concise: the inverted pyramid is a useful design. Don't bury the lede.
- Your content should tell a story: as humans, we think and teach and connect by creating stories. Show, don't tell your story -- show results, case studies, infographics, images and video.
- And last, your content should be supported with a plan to keep it fresh. Your dynamic content needs to be actually dynamic -- if it is timely and due to be replaced, it gets replaced with new content quickly. If it is static content, there is a calendar when it will be revisited and refreshed.
Oh, and one more thing, with a tip of the hat to Strunk and White: omit needless content. Don't add superfluous content to your site, it only makes it harder for your visitors (and google) to find content that is actually useful.
The where of content strategy is about what kind of content -- dynamic, static -- goes where on the website.
The most important rule of placing appropriate content on your site is to meet the needs of your users. Every group has a unique userbase and audience, and to get the most out of your website content you should test different approaches.
In general, your homepage should showcase the most dynamic content to inspire "return customers" -- visitors that come to your site to get additional information. Remember, the more an individual returns to the site, the more they build an affinity with your group and brand, and the more chances you have to pitch them on engagement actions like signing up for the newsletter or making a donation. Content that is relevant and timely goes a long way towards building a favorable impression with your visitors, and indicates to them you'll be serving up this same good content next week.
Your homepage is probably the top "landing page" for visitors, but isn't the only one. It is a good idea to look at your website analytics to determine what are the other top entry pages for visitors to your site, and what sources they come from (a Google search? A link on another website?). Then ask yourself if this page is delivering content that meets the needs of these visitors. Top landing pages might improve with dynamic content like teasers of the latest blog posts.
How often should you post or update content? This is both a question of meeting the needs of your visitors and the capacity of your organization. In general, static content should be updated only if things change: having out-of-date financial information or staff bios gets in the way of building a visitor's confidence in your organization. In general, a quarterly or bi-yearly sweep of your website's static content is a good idea.
Dynamic content should be updated as much as possible based on capacity and quality. Adding more *relevant* content to your site boosts your ability to get found on search engines and helps generate return visitors. But content that is poorly written or doesn't meet the needs of your users will be a net negative. Your website analytics can tell you how often people are currently returning to the homepage, and you can experiment with how often you update your dynamic content to find out how your audience will respond.
In general, I assume that a small group needs a new dynamic content (blog post or similar) once every two weeks at minimum, once a week is better. More than once a week probably helps, but is of decreasing utility.
Of course any group that has a goal of making their website a "start page" for users (like news sites) will need new content daily or even hourly.
Operationally, the most important step you can take to nail the "when" of content strategy is to develop a calendar of content with assignments: who is doing what, and when.
One more "when" question: when should you start thinking about content strategy? Answer: as soon as you know you need a website. If you are building a new site from scratch, the content strategy of your site is just as important as your design or website technology platform and needs to be a part of the discussion from the outset. After all, a website is more often than not just a content distribution channel. What's inside is what counts. If you are redesigning your website or taking a look at how your website is performing vis-a-vis your goals, you must include your current content strategy as part of the evaluation. As you move forward in making changes to your site (adding new sections or redesigning your site) your content strategy is an integral part of the process.
The why of content strategy is the answer to the question "how can we meet the needs of our visitors?" The good news: you have a primary audience, one group of people that are far and away more important than everyone else who comes to your site. This group of people are the primary reason you are building a website. They might be potential activists or donors, they might be your own staff (in the case of an intranet) or they might be the media. You can, and must, define the most important audience for your website and bust your butt meeting their needs.
The bad news: you have more than one audience. You'll want to use your website to meet the needs of additional groups of visitors. But the critical thing about these people are that they are less important than your primary audience.
Making this determination can be a hard call, but is critical to any effective content strategy. But you also need to make this decision to create an appropriate design and information architecture for your site, so bite the bullet: pick three key audiences to focus on. Now you can prioritize meeting the needs of your primary audience, and then meet the needs of your two secondary audiences.
Meeting the needs of your audience doesn't mean putting all of the available content on your site within one click on every page. For example, the needs of news media are likely very different than a potential donor, which is very different from a job candidate. For highly specialized audiences you can meet their needs by giving them a specific place on your website to find the information they are looking for -- without cluttering up the majority of the site. A good example is a "For the Media" section that would have news releases, reports, media contacts, and the like.
The how of content strategy is the operational systems you'll use to execute your plan and what actions you'll take to execute your strategy. As above in "when," the most important technology for deploying your content is a calendar.
Beyond the calendar, you can make creating and deploying content less arduous by setting up defaults in your website's content management system. For example, instead of allowing free-form content in a blog post, define specific styles to be used for headings and how images will be used within the blog post. By locking down how content can look, you can open up the ability of adding content to more people.
One trap I often find non-profits falling into is using social media pages as a substitute for good website content. Don't do this! Others have written more extensively about this (link to "keep your fans to yourself") but the philosophy to adopt goes like this: you want people to spend time on your website more than spend time on your Facebook page because the "ads" on your website are to donate to your organization, whereas the ads on Facebook are to buy stuff. You also build more affinity and engagement with your visitors on your website than on a social media platform where you are just a click away from other bright and shiny objects.
And by putting a feed of your Facebook content on your website, you are encouraging people to jump ship from your website over to Facebook, where you are at the mercy of their distracted attention.
Also: anything that is good enough to post on Facebook is probably good enough to write a short blog post about! You get a much bigger bang for your buck by putting that content on your website than on your Facebook page.
Twitter is a little different. Putting your Twitter feed on your site can be just as dangerous: clicking on a link will take your visitor off your site. But sometimes it is a necessary evil if you need to keep a page dynamic and don't have the capacity to keep it updated with website content.
A key tool to use is a content template -- an online or offline template that helps your team create content without reinventing the wheel each time. You can build a content template as follows:
- For every different page (or type of page) make a list of what chunks of content must be on the page, and then what chunks of content are optional.
- Add the why behind each chunk of content: what is the purpose of each chunk of content? E.g. a blog post teaser might be intended to (a) show that you have an updated blog and (b) get visitors to read the full blog post.
- Add the details that create a "formula" -- word counts, styles for headings, if images are required or recommended and note which audience this is intended for.
- Make an example for each chunk of content.
Content strategy plays a critical role in meeting your website goals -- arguably more so than your design or technology selection. By thinking through the "who, what, where, when,why and how" of your content you will be investing in a process that will make your website stronger and more likely to meet your goals.
Sources for further reading: