Mapping the Map: What does a Content Strategist do anyway?

There are three main parts to a Content Strategist’s job: Content Strategy, Content Design, and Content Governance. I created this document to outline some (not all) of the processes within each of those three categories. I will continue to add to and edit this list as I learn new processes and tools.

Below, you will find one very big list of content-related activities I use and adapt for various projects. *The success of these activities depend on tangible, measurable stakeholder goals for new products, websites, and marketing.

Caveat: Processes change with different circumstances. I adapt some methods to work in different ways for each individual project. Every project contains new learning opportunities. In some cases, I both adapt and combine processes to suit the needs of the strategy.

Credits: Adaptive Path/Capital One, GatherContent, Kristina Halverson, Meghan Casey, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher.

Content Strategy:

A lot of checklists, maps, and spreadsheets.

Card-sorting: Card-sorting helps hone in on the information architecture’s overarching language principles in the brand or specific product’s ecosystem. It is a moderated workshop with stakeholders or a remote session with users and/or stakeholders. (I prefer in-person facilitation for overarching content strategies and remote card-sorting with users for defining navigation structures).

Basically, participants sort words from card decks into at least three categories. In workshops, the moderator shuffles the cards and deals them at random to each stakeholder. The participant then places each card from his or her deck into a category (step 1). Then, stakeholders engage in a moderated open dialogue to align on those categorizations (step 2). As a team, they must choose at least five guiding principles from the three or more categories. Finally, the strategist writes up and provides a document which outlines those five or more principles (aka a messaging hierarchy). The resulting document is a contract of sorts. The principles of the hierarchy must be visible in all content decisions.

Language Synthesis Boards (A process defined by Adaptive Path/Capital One): This is just one example of a few different user research output exercises that impact content. It allows you to identify and potentially use the exact language that target audiences use or search for so that you can build that language into your content later.

You can create Language Synthesis Boards to identify your team’s language biases. That’s a fancy way of saying industry lingo that users don’t understand. (See what I just did there?) You want your brand singing in the same key as the users. Of course, this works in tandem with quantitative data.

In order to create a Language Synthesis Board or something similar, you can conduct another version of a card or label-sorting exercise with remote users, or you can conduct interviews. If there is already a process for User Research in place, a Content Strategist can craft content-related questions and be in the room alongside the User Researcher.

Content Audits and Inventories: While tedious, the audit phase of the project is one of my favorites. Audits and inventories combine qualitative and quantitative research into one large pot of data to examine altogether. Basically, you observe, take note, and compare those notes with analytics from Google Analytics (for website redesigns), from either an existing similar product in your brand’s family or from purchased data sources. For me and most other Content Designers / Strategists, the output is a giant spreadsheet. We distill that into a more stakeholder-digestible Audit Results format. I have a process for building content inventories into the content audit process, but traditionally speaking, an inventory is just a list of all content types on any page of an existing product, website, or marketing channel.

Competitive Content Audit and Inventories: This is a leaner audit, in most cases. It’s important to review competition in order to identify key differentiators between your brand and their brands.

Content Strategy Gap Analysis: To perform a content gap analysis, you compare the messaging hierarchy principles from the card-sorting workshop with the audit results. Then you identify gaps. What doesn’t align?

You can also perform a content gap analysis to find gaps between user language expectations and your product or between existing competitor content and your product.

Content Strategy Priorities Recommendations: This takes the audit results, the gap analysis results, any user research that involves content, and prioritizes that into an actionable plan on a spectrum of “What can we fix now with ease that will have the most impact?” and “What is going to take more research, development, and potentially a third party solution or new hire to fix.” The goal is to identify the minimum viable product from a content and UX standpoint and start there.

The Overarching Content Strategy: This is the output of all of the above, which distils the findings and recommendations into a document that outlines the strategy in terms of the *goals and benchmarks.

Content Design:

Most of these activities require collaboration between UX, UI, development and other in-house staff. This means they work well within a sprint setting.

User Persona Stories: I think working collaboratively is important when it comes to building stories for user personas. The richer the persona, the more in-tune he or she will be with qualitative and quantitative data. You can write a story to further delve into a specific gap. If the “why” behind the gap isn’t clear, stories helps with exploration. Persona Stories also allow your team to better understand usability and accessibility challenges facing so-called “niche” audiences and those with disabilities.

Content Layout Documentation. AKA Matrices or Page Tables: This method lays out the different sections/types of necessary content and demonstrates what information belongs in each of those sections. More formally, this is referred to as a content matrix, which can get as granular as defining metadata within each module on a screen/page. I have also used an output called the Page Table. Page Tables are meant to compliment and assist design wireframes. But this tactic of documenting and defining the different types of the content can be as simple as one big list.

Proto-Content: Who get’s easily confused by Lorem Ipsum? Most stakeholders, that’s who.

Proto-Content is a method for writing and testing content within prototypes that I picked up by paying a lot of attention to the GatherContent blog and their webinars. GatherContent is a really amazing content organization tool that I love. Proto-content is actual content used as a placeholder in the prototype, versus Lorem Ipsum.

In my experience, teams neglect content until it is too late to test it pre-launch. Content is arguably just as important to test as the actual user journey. Proto-Content eases this pain point by acting as a first draft.

User Journeys for Content, AKA Content Mapping: This process works best when a UX designer can collaborate to map proposed interactions within the journey. First, we lay out the user journey. We identify ‘pins’ on the journey map where content gaps exist for each User Persona. If you already have proto-content, you can attach actual copy to the pin on the map and test it. At the very least, you will have proposed content types from the Content Layout Document to assign to pins on the map.

User Lifecycle Content Mapping: This is often outside of the product experience, but I’ll mention it here. A lifecycle should include a user’s first time interfacing with the brand (usually in marketing), their time using the product, through to their account expiration or deactivation. Because your brand doesn’t disappear from a user’s brain when they deactivate their account, that “end-of-life” point in the journey is still important to map out.

This exercise is similar to journey mapping in that you place ‘pins’ on the map and attach a content type to each pin. Sometimes, this helps you actually identify new types of content to create.

Content Testing: This works in the context of user testing product prototypes. Every process that can be used to test an interaction can also be used to test the content attached to that interaction. Because you (hopefully!) have proto-content you’re able to test in any fidelity of a prototype. This is a good way to make sure content is complimenting UX and vice versa.

Content Models: In the design process, a lot of the content deliverables serve the purpose of assisting interaction designers and developers. Like a content matrix or a page table, a content model is the output of activities that take place in strategy. A model is a great way to disseminate the language data compiled during an inventory and adapt that data into something digestible. This artifact draws out relationships and hierarchies of information.

Post-Launch and Ongoing Lean Content Audits: Once some new content launches, you can perform a full audit once and scheduled leaner content audits on a rolling basis. In ongoing or rolling audits, you look at metrics data tied to the new content to “check your work,” so to speak. I sometimes call this content verification or validation.

Anyone who knows how long an audit can take is probably thinking, “Is she kidding? Who has the time or patience for that!” Leaner incremental audits are actually a great task for an intern or someone new to content strategy if a senior strategist or designer doesn’t have time to do it. It teaches people how to conduct an audit with lower stakes. I challenge anyone to find a single website online that doesn’t contain at least one piece of mistakenly placed or outdated content. We can even bet real money.

Content Governance:

tl;dr: This is just a set of guidelines and content management practices. When possible, this group of processes is handled collaboratively with marketing staff, producers, and project managers.

You can wait to start governing content when a strategy for it exists, but you can also incrementally roll out governance guidelines if you already have marketing activities in place.

Channel Strategy: This should be a part of the Overarching Content Strategy, but I’m mentioning it here because this is where it comes into play. Work closely with your producers or project managers.

Resource Inventory: This is answering the following questions: “What and who do we have at our disposal to work on content creation and manage content? What technical resources (tools, designers, and devs) do we have at our disposal for content creation? How many hours a week can each of these people resources devote to content and do we need to budget for outside resources?” It is good to work with your producers or project managers on this one as well.

Content Role Assignments / Content Governance Model: Defines roles and democratizes content creation, editing, approvals, loading, and distribution on channels. Remember: Work with your producers or project managers.

Content Usage and Creation Guidelines: This document provides all parties with the strategy and how to implement it. Work closely with your producers or project managers.

Content Orientation: In larger organizations, not everyone is involved with content strategy, but everyone should be on-boarded. The Orientation is a series of exercises and workshop processes to orient full teams to an organization’s content strategy. I believe in including everyone, but at the very least all parties identified for content roles should be included in the workshop and the larger team should be provided with governance guidelines.

Did I mention that you should be working closely with producers or project managers while partaking in these fun governance activities?

Here is something you can do with your marketing managers:

Content Lifecycle Mapping: This map defines how content lives inside the product or the marketing ecosystem.

A product example: If you launch content with a product that will evolve over time, you need to keep those users informed. You can map this lifecycle by establishing key dates and attaching reminders to a content calendar to add/remove/modify upon those dates.

A marketing example involving the same product that launches but will eventually change: You may publish launch-focused marketing content on various channels or a blog section of your website that will become obsolete or require a “part 2” once the product evolves significantly. So, it is important to map key dates in that marketing content’s lifecycle on a calendar as well.

Speaking of which…

Content Calendar Creation and Management: This is really just a very effective to-do list for content. You take insights from lifecycle mapping exercises and create a calendar and content assignment system (talk to your producers and project managers). Content calendars need to be created in terms of priority from the Content Strategy.

Once launches occur, the items on the calendar get marked complete, dated, and archived. I personally try not to delete items from a calendar once they are complete. I find it useful to examine old items for later projects or to determine what is and isn’t working when you conduct rolling audits. You can also add another layer to this system and add a metrics measurement component to the calendar.

Content Feedback Collection: I always try to collect ongoing user feedback on the content itself and team feedback on content workflow.

This list is by no means complete. There are dozens of new processes to learn and some I am working to develop on my own.

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