A Beginner's Guide to Content Strategy for the Web: 10 Things You Need to Know
Content strategy is a relatively new niche discipline in the digital space. It shares common ground with user experience (UX), interface design, web development, SEO, content marketing, public relations and traditional “offline” marketing.
This article highlights some of the leading concepts of content strategy for the web, how it fits in with its neighbouring disciplines, and shares some practical guidelines that anyone in the digital space – especially those new to content strategy – should consider before embarking on their own content strategy.
These findings were inspired by industry experts who presented at the Content Strategy Forum 2012 in Cape Town.
Below are 10 things you need to know to meet a content strategy’s ultimate goal of (1) fulfilling users’ expectations and (2) meeting business objectives.
1. Content strategy requires teamwork
We’ve all heard the maxim “content is king” over and over. But content alone cannot bring a digital project to life. Content has to work closely with its peer-disciplines.
According to Kristina Halvorson, CEO of BrainTraffic and founder of ConFab, teamwork is essential when it comes to content strategy. The peer-disciplines that should crucially be consulted during the content strategy phase are:
- User Experience
- Information Architecture
- Search Engine Optimization
- Public Relations and Brand Building
- Business stakeholders
As with most things in life, this egalitarian approach can lead to the “too many cooks” problem.
Rachel Lovinger from Razorfish described how their digital agency addresses this problem: “For digital projects, we first assemble a ‘CRUX team.’ We assign one, or more, senior person from Creative and one, or more, senior person from UX. They work with the Strategy group to lay the foundation for the overall digital concept, including the content strategy. Once that’s defined, we broaden our focus and bring on specialists from various peer-disciplines.”
Whether you’re a large or small team, it is essential that a holistic view of content creation and implementation is taken.
Bottom line: Good content strategy requires team effort from all peer-disciplines.
2. Consider content AND the people that create your content
As mentioned, the main objective of an effective content strategy is to meet users’ expectations and fulfil business goals.
Halvorson, co-author of Content Strategy for the Web and one of the web’s first content strategists, developed a framework that not only focuses on the actual content, but also the people that create the content.
Her belief is that by keeping the workflow and governance factors in mind when developing a content strategy, we can deliver more useful and more usable content to online audiences, whilst meeting business objectives.
Halvorson’s content strategy framework “The Quad” includes Content Components and People Components.
- Substance – topics, tone, style, what message we need to communicate
- Structure – how we prioritize and break up the content into building blocks
- Workflow – the process, tools and resources we need to create and maintain content
- Governance – consistency, integrity and quality of the content
Bottom line: Considering content AND the people that create the content will help in meeting users’ expectations and achieving business objectives.
3. Match your writing to your audience’s literacy level
Angela Colter from Electronic Ink did a series of user tests with people of varying literacy levels. The results of her research shows that users with low literacy levels struggle to complete basic tasks on websites that have content written for people with high literacy levels.
When using websites that require a low literacy level, lower literacy users completed their tasks faster and with less frustration. That seems fairly obvious, right?
One incidental discovery from this research, however, was that users with high literacy levels also scored much better when the language on the website was of a lower level.
Bottom line: Keep your language simple and clear. Your low and high literacy users will thank you for it.
4. The Five W’s (and H) of content marketing strategy
Anyone schooled in journalism will be familiar with the Five W’s and H of journalism: Who, What, Why, When, Where and How.
Purists argue that a story isn’t complete unless all six questions are answered. It’s certainly valid in a journalism sense, since omission of any of these questions will leave a hole in your story.
So how does this relate to content strategy for the web? Rick Yagodich of Think Info has reshuffled the sequence of the Five W’s (and H) to provide a checklist that online content strategists can use to ensure their content strategy is watertight:
- Why – Know the business case and objectives. Why are you embarking on this project?
- What – What is the message?
- Who – Who is the audience?
- Where – Where will the message be read (location, device, context)?
- How – How should we present/structure the content?
- When – Timing of the process to create and publish the content.
Bottom line: The Five W’s (and H) provide a checklist to ensure your content strategy covers all bases.
5. Voice and tone matter
Voice and tone are extremely powerful “front line” tools in the content strategist’s toolkit.
A brand’s voice reflects its personality and identity. It should be consistent across all content. Tone on the other hand, can, and should, adapt according to the context of the content.
According to Kate Kiefer Lee, content curator at MailChimp, a brand’s tone should vary depending on the emotional state of readers. For example, humour on a welcome page can build likability and loyalty. But in a warning message, it can result in exactly the opposite.
MailChimp is so passionate about voice and tone that they have created a website called www.voiceandtone.com. The website shows their writers how to use the MailChimp voice for the brand’s various content types (blog posts, tweets, “compliance alert messages” and even their mascot’s jokes). It’s a great resource for their team and very useful for anyone who wants to create a voice and tone guide for their own brand.
1000 points to you, MailChimp. Oook oook.
MailChimp’s voice is consistent, while its tone varies according to the user’s emotions in different contexts.
Bottom line: Creating a style guide that defines your brand’s voice and tone will enhance your users’ experience and strengthen your brand image.
6. SEO is not dead
With recent Google algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin, people from various digital genres have been claiming that SEO is dead. The general consensus is that it’s getting harder and harder to game your way to the top of page 1.
This is mostly true. Google has managed to mitigate, penalize and in some cases even blacklist websites that implement “Black Hat” SEO tactics. Techniques like “hidden text” (white text on white background), “cloaking” (showing different content to Googlebot vs. real users) and “link spam” (buying hundreds of links from low-quality websites) all used to work, to some extent. Not so much anymore.
So does this all mean that SEO is dead? “Unfortunately, I can't say that Black Hat SEO is dead or even dying.” says Jonathon Colman, in-house SEO for REI, an online retailer of outdoor clothing and gear. “Perhaps a better way of putting it is that White Hat SEO and inbound marketing – genuinely earning attention and positive recognition by helping users to meet their goals (both online and off) – is rewarded more than ever by search engines nowadays.”
He goes on to say that “SEO is, or should be, a core part of every content strategy. Content strategists are well-positioned not only to govern content so that it follows webmaster guidelines from the search engines, but also to plan and create content that builds brands instead of just using keywords.”
It is more important than ever to follow Google’s quality guidelines for success in the search results, and to avoid any known SEO tricks. Google even provides a checklist of SEO tactics to avoid.
Bottom line: Every content strategy needs to incorporate SEO best practice to be effective; every SEO needs to embrace SEO content marketing in order to remain on Google's good list.
7. Break your content into chunks
When it comes to implementing content into a content management system (CMS), it is vital to break large pieces of content into smaller “chunks.”
For any given piece of content, if your CMS only has a single massive WYSIWYG field to enter content into, it would be very difficult to separate that content out into smaller pieces later on, should the need arise.
The right approach, according to Lovinger, is to get your web developers (or whoever is responsible for setting up the CMS) to have separate fields for the chunks that make up your content piece.
By breaking your content into chunks, it can flow into different presentations and be used in flexible ways.
- The desktop version of a web page might show all “chunks” – e.g. the headline, summary, 4 x images, a video, 800 words of copy, 3 quotations, a few reviews, a list of recommended further reading and a “book now” button.
- Whereas the mobile version of that same web page might only have room on the tiny screen for the most important (or mobile-relevant) “chunks” – e.g. the headline, summary, 1 x image, 200 words of copy and a “book now” button.
Many mobile sites only display a portion of the content that their desktop counterparts display.
Bottom line: Structure content into its smallest building blocks in your CMS so that content can be re-assembled flexibly for use in different contexts and on different devices.
8. Get your developers to wrap your content in metadata
Metadata, in a web development context, is a set of programming guidelines that web developers can use to help search engines (and other applications) better understand content on a webpage.
For example, if you were to write on your blog that you refuse to buy apples, you could use metadata to tell search engines whether you’re talking about <fruit>apples</fruit> or <computer>apples</computer>.
(Please note that neither <fruit> nor <computer> are valid metadata formats. I’ve just used them to illustrate the point.)
Here is a valid metadata example however:
The difference in HTML markup for the movie “Ice Age 2”, without and with metadata using the microdata format.
So in the above example, Google (or any application that is able to read metadata), can identify that “Ice Age 2” refers to a movie (not the actual second ice age). So, if someone searches for “Ice Age 2” in a search engine, the search engine could display additional information about the movie in the search results (e.g. the movie poster, the trailer, reviews, actors, etc), as seen in Google Knowledge Graph results. Google and Yahoo! have been doing this for a while already and we can be sure that they’ll be expanding this technology into all spheres of life, for all sorts of search terms.
Metadata enables search engines like Google and Yahoo! to fetch rich content relating to a search query.
Bruce Lawson is a web standards evangelist for Opera Software and a major pusher for the adoption of metadata. He points out that, although there are quite a few different metadata standards that have emerged over the years, he recommends microdata as the standard to choose, primarily because it has the backing of all the big search engine adoption (Google, Yahoo!, Bing and Yandex).
So why should online content strategists be concerned with metadata, when it sounds like something developers get excited about?
- Metadata can help your content stand out from the crowd in the search results.
- Metadata can give more meaning to your content if viewed in unexpected contexts (e.g. TripAdvisor reviews that appear on other websites).
- Metadata can give more meaning to your content if viewed on different devices (e.g. mobile, tablet, TV, etc).
Bottom line: Get your developers to wrap your content with metadata to achieve a greater visibility in search results and a richer user experience when browsing.
9. Get your developers to embrace web standards (and HTML5)
Web standards are a set of standardized best practices that developers can, and should, use when building websites. The standards have been written by a group consisting of all major browser manufacturers and the big search engines.
To help non-developers understand web standards, we can think about newspapers: the front page of a newspaper is typically reserved for breaking news, the back page is typically reserved for sports news. There is no law or governing body that says it has to be this way. Rather, it is a commonly accepted convention amongst newspaper publishers, and something that newspaper readers have become accustomed to.
The main reasons for getting your developers to build websites with web standards are so that the content on our websites:
- Displays consistently across all browsers (old and new, desktop and mobile)
- Can be thoroughly crawled and indexed by search engines (resulting in better rankings)
- Can take advantage of the new features that are being introduced into the web’s most comprehensive web standard, HTLM5
HTML5 is effectively a superset of web standards. It incorporates many new features like <video>, <audio> and <canvas> elements, as well as the integration of scalable vector graphics (SVG) content (images that can scale beautifully no matter what the browsing device’s screen size is).
There are dozens of HTML5 features which will enrich users’ experience in the years to come. If your developers aren’t talking about HTML5 already, it’s time to buy them a t-shirt.
Bruce Lawson, author of the book Introducing HTML5, is ridiculously serious about HTML5.
Bottom line: Web standards and HTML5 are important for better visibility in search engines, a consistent message across all browsers and a richer experience for users.
10. Build platforms that allow users to tell their stories
Perhaps the most important, and humbling, aspect of any content strategy is the realization that the content you create is not the most important content on your website.
The most important content on your website should be your users’ content.
Luke Wroblewski is the author of three popular web design books. He has held senior product positions at Silicon Valley giants eBay and Yahoo! and is one of the most respected evangelists for what he refers to as the “read/write web.”
He points out that the most visited websites nowadays exist purely because of their read/write nature. Websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube allow users to add their own content, as well as view and engage with other users’ content. Blogging and CMS platforms like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, ExpressionEngine, Tumblr, Weebly and Yola empower millions of people every day to create and share their content with relative ease.
The web’s most popular sites empower users to tell their stories.
Wroblewski asserts that “to have a truly meaningful content strategy, we need to embrace the read/write concept”. At a bare minimum, we need to engage on existing platforms. At best, we need to start creating our own platforms where our audiences can create, publish, engage and share their own content.
“There is a wide range of considerations and strategic decisions relating to content that emerges from taking on the ‘write’ aspect of the web. Most folks are focused only on publishing content out, which is important, but perhaps not as effective on the web as also taking content in.”
Bottom line: Our users’ stories are more important than our own. We must build platforms that allow our users to tell their stories.
In order to achieve the ultimate goals of a web content strategy, the finer details need to be considered. Voice and tone strengthen brand image, while our processes build solid brand identity. Keep language clear and concise and you’ll find that users and search engines reward you for it. Wear a White Hat. Structure content correctly and wrap it in metadata and you’ll pave the way for a richer user experience. Find a way for your users to share their stories with you, and you’ve successfully reinforced a solid online content strategy foundation.
Andre Van Kets is passionate about travel, technology, SEO, content creation, user experience and all kinds of problem solving. He is co-founder of Discover Africa Group and constantly strives to apply best practices of these digital disciplines into the company’s flagship car rental website drivesouthafrica.co.za. Contact @andrevankets on Twitter or +Andre Van Kets on Google+.