What I talk about when I talk about content strategy

This month we welcome Mike Brown of Word Forge in the UK as our most honoured guest blogger. Content mechanic Mike goes under the hood of content strategy as a term and finds it wanting. So is there a fix? How can you make clients care about their content more deeply than their need to ‘just sort the damn thing out’?

Mike BrownStrategically speaking, is ‘content strategy’ the right term?

A couple of weeks ago my car died on the way back from visiting a client. The words ‘critical system failure’ flashed momentarily on the dashboard before everything went dark.

As I was towed away I was in some measure of panic. ‘Critical system failure’ is the sort of message I expect to see flashing on the bulkhead of a nuclear submarine in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Happily, the garage mechanic assessed the job without drama, gave me the eye-watering price and said it would be fixed next day. It wasn’t very Hollywood but it was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Come the next day I drove away several hundred pounds lighter, but at least I did drive away.

Now, suppose the mechanic hadn’t done that. Suppose he hadn’t diagnosed the problem, told me the price and fixed it. Suppose instead he’d offered a strategic approach to car mechanics that, over time, would resolve all my car’s issues, allow me to diagnose my own critical system failures and fix them myself. Would I have thanked him? No, I’d have told him to stop mucking about and fix the damn thing.

Word association

As content strategists we’re keenly aware of the effect words have on readers. Yet the associations surrounding the word ‘strategy’ aren’t all good.

In its most positive sense a strategy is a route map to an improved position that drives sensible, effective actions. It’s this sense of positive momentum coupled with clarity of purpose that applies to content strategy.

But there’s another, less glowing, more inert association. It’s an association I sometimes see in the eyes of prospective clients when I say the word ‘strategy’. Instead of a driving force, they see strategy as something to hide behind, a word to disguise inaction. They see strategy as something you do instead of actually doing something.

For these people, offering to take a strategic approach to their content is like the garage mechanic who looks at your clapped out car, rubs his chin ruefully and says with a wince, “It’ll cost you.” You’re not sure you trust him, you’re not sure he can fix the problem but you know it’ll be expensive.

Making clients care

Even if they do appreciate the value of a well-honed strategy, clients still want things fixed. And fast. So there’s a balance to be struck between action now and long-term effectiveness. Sometimes that word ‘strategy’ doesn’t help – especially if we don’t give our clients sufficient reason to care about it, or trust it.

Here, then, are three practical steps I’ll be taking to encourage clients to care about their strategy:

  1. Make it real – that conversation about strategy will go a whole lot smoother with something tangible to tie it to. What is the process? What does it look like? What do I receive as a result of it? Putting the product in their hands takes it out of the abstract and makes it meaningful.
  2. Prove it works – nothing establishes the value of content strategy more than putting it to the test. Show them what an audit can reveal by applying it to a bitesize portion of their site. [Great idea! Check out Firehead Bitesize audits – ed.]
  3. Take it further – Revisit, review and revise. Build in regular reviews to show how a longer-term approach pays.

The in-betweeners

When I started out on this train of thought I decided I now considered myself to be a content mechanic – someone who gets things done; a fixer. Yet there’s a short-termism to that title that diminishes the role of the content strategist just as ‘strategist’ can sound rather passive and distant.

I am, and in truth we’re all, somewhere in between. We’re content mechanics who think strategically. Or maybe content strategists who get to grips with the mechanics.

And provided we can explain that in a valuable, meaningful way, our clients will care.

Mike Brown is a content mechanic who thinks strategically. Or maybe a content strategist who gets to grips with the mechanics. Whatever he is, he writes for Word Forge and, when he’s been very good, Firehead.

Wanted: Guest bloggers!

Do you have something to say to our readership of job candidates and clients? Would you like to write for us? If you’re an expert in an area of tech comms, web content or know interesting things about working in these areas, then please do get in touch.

We’ve had some of the world’s leading content and comms experts blogging here on the Firehead blog, giving the inside scoop on what their work involves, the skills that are needed, and some of the issues and trends specific to the jobs market. We’d love to keep that conversation going.

Contact cj@firehead.net for a guest blogger pack and a lot of encouragement. Or read more on our Firehead blog birthday post.

Other links you might like:

Content Strategy Guest Blogger