2015 Conference Content Creation Marketing

Bare Bones Content Strategy: Simple Ideas for Sustainable Change on the Web

Thdwm8-b6EPRbHhTvEY69vWENsq23Dy6tslODqGEzh4Presenter: Rick Allen (@epublishmedia)
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Rick Allen presented #mcs4 on Monday, and gave the room a simple, easy way to approach content strategy.

Content strategy on any college campus should start with a cup of coffee and a question: “What should people learn when they come to your website? Let’s help them do that.”

Content Strategy teaches us something very important: we should plan for simple. Unfortunately, content is not simple. There’s a mob of things to consider: audience, stakeholders, priorities, media, networks… it can be overwhelming for someone who does content professionally; just imagine how much more it is for a faculty member or administrative assistant whose interaction with the website is just one piece of an already chaotic workday.

Expecting departmental content managers to reign in all the mediums and networks and tasks — more on that later — is complicated and a low priority for many of them, which leads to things like broken links, pages with no clear purpose or audience, and a dark corner of your website to which applicants never return.

Complexity is the problem

Content is complicated. We assume that content strategy should also be complicated, which is where we run into trouble. By focusing on the process of strategy and governing our stakeholders instead of focusing on results, we create an overwhelming set of tasks and trivia for our stakeholders and ourselves.

Tasks are what bog us down the most. People who take a 45-minute training class on your website during new employee orientation and update their page twice a year don’t know what the hell in-line metadata is for content forms when they login. And chances are you have to reset a workflow or solve a publishing issue at least once a week.

Common workflows like this are the biggest culprit of task-oriented strategy:

  • Plan Content
  • Create Content
  • Revise Content
  • Send back and repeat
  • Approve Content
  • Test Content
  • Publish Content

This is a lot of steps for someone trying to update a webpage. And you know, what? Complexity is hard to sustain! Just think about a kid (yours, your brother’s, or… just make one up for this) trying build a Lego tower. They’re no architect, and the more complex and higher it gets, the faster it comes crashing down.

And we’re the toddler architects in the workplace daily. We tend to take on more than we can handle. We get excited about something and try to put it out there with little time and resources we can dedicate, which isn’t much.

We’re solving for the wrong problem. Strategy and enforcement aren’t the problem: complexity is the problem.

Simplicity is the answer

So, plan for simple. This is the charge for content strategy, and we need it, because simple is really, really hard.

But content is complex, right? What makes it simple? Simple is anything easily understood or done. If we do it right, we’ve taken complex content and made it clear and, even more importantly, we’ve made it functional for the end user. Unnecessary tasks are not bogging us down.

To design a simple strategy, we have to understand the complexity we’re trying to solve and find the realities for our campuses. CMS workflows don’t consider how people really work on your campus, and they don’t consider the reality of how content works for your campus.

Realities are anything that actually goes on with your website apart from your plans. For example, you’d love to keep your faculty profiles updated with new research interests, headshots, office hours, and the link. But if 75% of your faculty don’t have headshots, that’s a reality that contrasts with your strategy. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use headshots, but you should address the reality by designing the profile to work with or without a headshot.

One of the most clear realities for any campus is that people want things, but don’t want to be responsible for keeping them updated. How often have you heard “our website needs to be fixed” without hearing a solution offered?


The best place to start any conversation on strategy is to talk goals. What is the point of this page? Who do you want to visit it? What should they do before leaving? These goals should manageable, sustainable, and focused; the more focused the goal, the more clear and measurable it will be.

Some examples of good goals for your site:

  • provide new student orientation information
  • introduce resources for new students and encourage engagement
  • inform students about policy changes and course scheduling
  • describe your unique program and how it helps them achieve their professional goals

Solutions in Practice

With a basis for what purpose the content will serve, let’s see a few examples of simplicity in action.

Your stakeholders are your front line for the website. Without them, you’d have to update every one of the 40,000 pages on your site, and you would be the most stressed and least esteemed staffer on your campus. So help them see the value in participating in the web.

Conducting group stakeholder interviews is a great start. Here, you’ll listen (important) and guide the conversation as they discover the goals for the content. Help them decide what to ask in the planning process. These interviews can be individual or group interviews, depending on the number of managers on your campus. These sessions will allow you to identify broad goals in departments or sections of the website, as well as identify themes and shared goals for the institution. This is the beginning of simplification.

Conversations with stakeholders should also help them focus their goals. Ask questions like:

  • What is the primary function of your role/department?
  • What services you provide?
  • Who are your audiences?
  • What are you communicating?

Once you have clear goals, establish a process for content strategy. What will that process look like? What would each step look like? And, most importantly, what are the different ways the website supports your stakeholder’s work? This is where we begin to clarify value, a key to success in content governance.

Help your stakeholders get to the realization of these goals with messaging guidelines — building blocks for content, paragraph structure, order of information, tone and voice, topics to cover, branding, and high-level site-wide messaging — and content templates that allow them to treat the page more like a form than an open-ended daunting task in front of them. Making the process as simple and easy as possible takes some work on your end, but will do wonders for buy-in from your stakeholders.

Content Governance

Chances are, this process on your campus will be a departure from the norm. Don’t be afraid: content strategy and change management go hand in hand. The key to successful change in any environment is to make the people affected believe in the need for the change. How do we do this? Together.

A successful content strategy requires collaboration throughout the org structure; we know that one person can’t do it all. You’ll need buy-in and support from administrators, interns, secretaries, and faculty (anyone who touches the site) to be successful, which is where your role as a social manager comes into play. At its core, content governance is relationship management.

How to spread the gospel of strategy

The best way to relate the need for change to your stakeholders is to talk results and value, not content. We get REALLY, really excited about things like SEO, scheduling, keywords, tags, and strategy, but stakeholders view all of those words as extra work. They don’t care about the process, so don’t lead with that.

Lead instead with the realization of the goals they’ve created. Use plain language, which means communicating value, not process. Help them understand how they win in this situation. If the process works, it makes the ordeal of web management easier for everyone involved. This work on their web site should yield results for them in the form of more engagement, more applications, more majors, etc. If not, the strategy isn’t working.

Rick closed with a quote that perfectly sums up the talk and content strategy:

“I make sure the content on our site is useful for the people who need it.” – Amanda Costello, Lead Content Strategist, CEHD at the University of Minnesota.


Photo Credit: mliu92 via Compfight cc

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