7 Steps to Content Strategy That Serves Human Beings

The never-ending pursuit of human-centered content

We’re drowning in content. Last year, more than 90 percent of companies engaged in content marketing. Since 2011, brands have increased the number of blog posts they produce by 800 percent, and yet the social shares of those posts have decreased by 89 percent over the same period (source). The internet is overflowing with mediocre (and sometimes downright bad) content, and no one wants it.

Something, clearly, is broken. And it might be our content strategy.

The rise of analytics and tools and SEO and user personas have made us feel like we can take control of the content chaos. Numbers make us feel decisive, sure, powerful. We can finally wrangle the sea monster of mediocre content because we have data!

But what if all of these data points and all of these tools are taking us farther and farther out to sea? What if we’re losing sight of the problem from the horizon line? We’re all suffering from a bad case of “metric fixation”: We’re so obsessed with performance data that we’re killing actual performance.

I love scrutinizing site analytics as much as the next content nerd, but when we start to turn our readers and visitors into pie charts and abstracted, absurd user personas, we begin to lose the purpose of great content on the web. Content exists to serve human beings, flesh-and-blood men and women with pulses and anxieties and eyeballs who are poring over our websites. We’re not writing exclusively for the robots (not yet).

At Journey Group, we’d like to call for a return to human-centered content strategy. This is the only way our websites and apps can serve the real people on the other end, meet their needs and send them where they want to go.

The unsexy work

Content sounds dull and simple. The word evokes fodder, filler, bland stuffing. But content is the thing; the web is brimming over with content. It’s why we have an internet in the first place. Because we have so much content.

If content sounds dull and simple, content strategy sounds like nonsense to most people. When people ask me what I do, and I say I’m a content strategist, the majority of them reply, “And what does that mean?” — with the kind of suspicious tone you’d use if someone told you she was a customer experience enhancement consultant.

As people who strive every day to make great websites, we know that content strategy is both real and meaningful. Conveying that meaning to clients, however, is often the central challenge of our content work.

Content strategy navigates the seas of content, paddling through gold and garbage alike, to create and sustain useful, usable information for people online. It’s unsexy work, for sure. Clients’ eyes don’t light up when you say you’ve created new content models. Content strategy doesn’t produce the same paroxysms of joy that the Warby-Parkered designer does when he presents a new homepage comp.

Content strategy may never be cool, but it’s vital if you want a website that meets human needs. Here are the seven steps toward a content strategy that ages well and grows with an audience — and here’s how to take your client or your company there.

1. Love and trust your people.

Surprise! Human-centered content strategy starts with humans.

Here’s the thing: Content problems are people problems. You’ve heard it said before, but it’s worth repeating.

Without great humans, you’re not going to have great content. We’ve all felt the hot breath of AI on the napes of our necks, the robots threatening to take all our jobs and make us slaves, but we’re not there. We’re still a long way from outstanding bot-generated content that populates everything on the web.

We still need people to make our content, and it’s people who are consuming it. To start, focus on the people creating your content. What motivates them? What frustrates them? What do they need to succeed? How can you give it to them?

Why do we tend to forget the humans at the heart of our work? Because it’s easier to focus on Twitter metrics than it is to acknowledge that Anita might need help managing her workflow or that Kyle writes weak subject lines for the email newsletter. People are tricky. People are complicated. But if we can’t focus on our people, we can’t produce great content for our organizations and our websites.

Successful content owners and creators need to be collaborative and empathetic people, and you need to give them freedom and ownership.

Content people should be collaborative, because they will have to work in a generous, open-handed way across an organization, with all kinds of people. And content people need to be rooted in empathy. If you can’t empathize with frazzled stakeholders and confused site visitors at the same time, you can’t create great content.

Then, once you find that collaborative, empathetic person, give her freedom and ownership. Here’s why those two things go together. Freedom communicates trust. Content people need to be trusted to work independently, and this granted autonomy goes hand-in-hand with a new sense of ownership. Give content people total responsibility. This draws out a virtuous cycle of stewardship: As people are emboldened to own their content, they go to battle for it; they fight for the best possible website day in and day out.

2. Speak the same language.

Once you’ve found your content people, get on the same page with them. Establish a common language and a common purpose for your content. Do you mean the same thing André does when he says “content model”? Does your client know what you mean by a “site plan”? Or “content audit”?

The answer is probably “no” unless you consistently kick off projects with a glossary. Define your terms and use them faithfully, both internally and externally. (And then lightheartedly shame people who use alternate terms.)

Then, make a robust style guide for your site or app. Include the higher-level content strategy terms, but dive into the weeds as well. What’s the appropriate way to address your company on second mention in the same paragraph? Do you use the Oxford comma? What’s our ruling on using ampersands in page titles? Make your style guide as a living, breathing Google doc; update it religiously and then share it far and wide.

3. Clean your room.

Our websites desperately need the life-changing magic of tidying up. So much of the content online is downright disrespectful to site visitors. We should be embarrassed at the mildewy, stale content that junks up many of our websites and apps.

I was raised by several generations of Southern women, for whom the art and practice of hospitality was an expression of one’s holiness and human worth. To put out a candle whose wick had not been lit or a tea towel that was stained was to bring shame upon one’s family name.

We would all do well to keep a disapproving Southern grandmother in mind when we think about the content on our websites. We have to clean up our rooms first, before we do anything else. Slapping a brand-new content management system on top of your content garbage heap is the same thing as sweeping dust under your braided rug. It simply will not do.

How do you clean up a website? Undertake an audit. Take it all into account, like a Dickensian miser: your site navigation, your content types, your taxonomies, your metadata, your page titles, your paragraphs. Then make a plan for clean up. Destroy the junk. Focus on making your strongest and most-visited pages awesome. And then make an air-tight workflow for sustainability going forward (more on that in point 5).

Once you’re done, keep cleaning your room. You don’t get to clean your room once and then never again. Many among us approach audits this way. (“Oh, we audited our content in 2016. We have to do it again?”) Bless your heart, yes. You need to clean your room, or audit, every quarter or at least every year. Don’t embarrass my Southern grandmother with your lackadaisical attitude toward your content.

4. Honor your guests.

Content is a living, breathing thing; it’s always changing. Like the way that you maintain your home, the way that you maintain your content says a lot about how you respect your guests.

Put your site visitors’ needs above your own. Where do they want to go? What are they trying to find? Don’t frustrate their visit by putting the CEO’s fusty organizational priorities on the homepage. Don’t force them to jump through hoops. Don’t waste words. They’re looking for something.

Site visitors are more like needy overnight guests than friends who want to come over for a long chat. They need something from you (a free place to crash before their college roommate’s wedding); they don’t want to talk to you for two hours about your recent breakup. They’re not here to read your latest blog post about how great your company is. Nobody has time for that. Give them what they need, serve them graciously and efficiently, and then send them on their way.

Hospitality and content strategy go hand in hand. Don’t roll out the air mattress patched with duct tape. Give your visitors your best: a clean site with usable content.

5. Nail down your chore chart.

Now that you’ve cleaned your room and considered your guests’ needs, you need a precise process for generating and maintaining your site content. You need a chore chart.

Successful content strategy is rooted in a solid workflow. Just like a harmonious domestic arrangement, content strategy defines responsibilities and roles. Every content owner and creator connected to your site should know exactly what he or she oversees.

Everyone is busy. No one wants to make time for content creation or governance. But here are some things that make content chores less odious.

  • Identify who is doing what and when. Whose job is it to finish the content audit? Who would be best at writing those new pages? Who should review and approve them? Who publishes them? Who checks up on those pages in six months to see how they’re performing and if they need updates? Find your people and then write all of this down.
  • Make a style guide. Don’t you dare write a single paragraph until you have a style guide (see point 2). For the love of all that is good on the world wide web, save yourself from the eternal nightmare of content inconsistencies!
  • Use a content management system. You may already have a great CMS. If not, think about getting one. Make sure everyone on your team can use it comfortably.
  • Use content templates or models. Establish standards and expectations for how your pages look and perform. What kind of content is needed for particular content types? Map it out. (This classic article on content modeling is a great place to start.) Use the style guide you’ve created to draw from a common lingo.

Straightforward, simple procedures help tremendously in avoiding content meltdowns.

6. Stop doing so much.

Small websites are better websites. The bigger your website gets, the harder it becomes to create and sustain excellent content.

Just like your yellow labrador, it’s incredibly easy for your website to get obese. You look up one day and your website has the waistline of a bourbon barrel.

When it comes to content, we need to stop doing so much. Instead, focus on what we can do well.

Where does your brand thrive online? What kind of story can you tell that no one else can? What can you give people that they can’t find anywhere else online? Focus on that.

Are you writing for the Office of International Student Affairs? Don’t write a blog post giving students tips on traveling to Italy. They have Lonely Planet for that. You’re not going to compete with Lonely Planet. They’re not coming to you for that. They want to know how to apply for that study abroad scholarship. Make it easy for them to do that. Don’t have time to maintain a Facebook page for your nonprofit? Don’t create one. Focus on what you can do well. Maybe a monthly email is a far better way to communicate with your audience than haphazard posts on an outmoded social network.

Attention is scarce. Don’t spin your wheels pursuing a slapdash social media presence. Don’t waste your one chance to engage with a reader by delivering low-quality content.

7. Listen and recalibrate.

The beautiful and frustrating nature of content is that it’s never done. You’ll never arrive at Perfect Content for All Time. We’re not carving dictums in granite; we’re always reshaping and refining content to meet the ever-changing needs of our visitors.

Listen to your visitors. Look at your analytics regularly, of course, but don’t take them as gospel. Talk to real people. Ask your cousin what he thinks of your website. Make a de facto focus group. Take notes. Make changes.

Ponder where you fall in terms of your content maturity. Where are you succeeding? Where do you still have room to grow?

In sum, don’t be too precious about your content. Don’t keep it in a glass case with the china for “special occasions.” Be willing to break things. Start over. Keep listening to the humans who create your content and the humans who read it. Take them seriously. And never stop taking them seriously. In this way, we might be able to create websites that serve real people and bring them joy in the process.

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