This blog shares some of my early experiences in the world of Content Strategy.
Four months ago I hadn’t heard the term Content Strategy. Then, when I did hear it, at first I dismissed it as faddish millennial digi-jargon.
Then I started hearing about it everywhere. I read blogs and tweets. It started infiltrating my waking and sleeping thoughts. I realised, slowly, I needed one myself, even in my one person start-up. If the term hadn’t existed I would’ve invented it, that was how needed.
Why? What is it? Why so life-infiltrating?
This blog starts off on a journey to find some answers, based on my narrow experience to date. But it is a journey, so this probably won’t be my last word on this strange new essential thing.
What Is It?
There are books. There is in fact an archetypal book, a stunningly well-written exposition and as close to an industry standard as you can get in an industry that’s evolving at great speed.
I am going to resist the temptation to quote or parrot Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s book. They won’t mind, I don’t think. They will probably be mightily relieved. I am making it up from my own experience to date: unsightly elements included.
Here’s what I think Content Strategy means:
Content Strategy: a clear, well organised, mindful approach and plan for generating and distributing online content, consistent with and reflective of my brand; which will nourish and grow my brand into something that my customers need and want; whether they know it yet or not.
There are a few elements in that sentence. We’ll look at some of them and see where we get to.
A Core Strategy Sentence
The word ‘brand’ appears twice in my definition. It follows that my Content Strategy needed to reflect and describe my brand in a meaningful way.
I attempted to capture this via a Core Strategy sentence. This sentence was supposed to be something like the 30-second Hollywood director elevator pitch, including something on the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’.
After a bit of thinking I ended up with more than a single sentence. I also added some extra words to explain each component of the sentence in a bit more detail. That was OK. It gave me a bit more in-depth understanding of what I was really trying to do. But the sentence needed to stand alone too, so I could remember and requote it to myself almost as a mantra.
Here is my Core Strategy Sentence for my small start-up:
To provide a full range of writing services
Always tailored to the client’s needs
Aiming for the highest possible standards of clear English
Specialising in financial services documents
Also servicing other professional academic and personal clients
And the extra words to explain in more detail:
What we do: copy drafting, editing, proofreading and proof editing
Our approach: bespoke, personal, fit for purpose, individually priced
Our watchwords: clarity, expertise, excellence, professionalism
Selling point: 30 years+ drafting editing and proofreading complex financial documents
Wider skills: we’ve extended our transferable finance and English language skills so we can also service other non-financial clients
What I Am Really Trying To Do
Now, writing the Core Strategy sentence and the extra words unlocked a stream of further thoughts on what my website should look like and be like. This extra stuff is probably not part of the typical Content Strategy template and may not be in Kristina and Melissa’s book. But to me it helped straighten out some underlying ideas.
At risk of over-exposing myself here is a sanitised version of those additional thoughts that were prompted by my Core Strategy sentence. This may not have been technically what was needed in the evolution of my Content Strategy but it felt right at the time, and thus I feel was OK.
To demonstrate, via clearly written content and great design and presentation, the quality of work that clients can expect if they come to Prism-Clarity. The message I aspire to is “Your work too can be and look this good.” The content should aim to be a live ongoing sales pitch.
This happens via a simple, intuitive website written in clear English and seamlessly integrated. The site is accurate, up-to-date to the smallest least important page. The content has a friendly face but is basically serious and professional: no jokes, puns, or hip cultural references. The main pages are light, simple, focused on their immediate message or function with few frills, only some neat graphics and colourful buttons. Blogs and samples provide more substance if a client needs to know more, but they will be disciplined (consistent style and wordcount) and professional, avoiding self-indulgence.
The main page content aims to have the same consistent appeal across channels (mainstream, mobile, social media) and potential client types (finance, other professional); regardless of entry route. i.e. whether a client visits after personal contact, seeing a flyer, search engine, directory, referral or some other route. So the content is uniform and democratic rather than differentiated. Any differentiation between finance and professional clients will be achieved by having separate main pages for each group.
And What I Should Really Have Been Worrying About
Looking back, maybe there were some useful seeds here in terms of a more conventional, useful and valuable Content Strategy. Maybe the ideas on channels, client differentiation, and the ‘look and feel’ of the website. But there were a lot of things it didn’t have, which were maybe more fundamental and what I should have been thinking about at that time.
Let’s talk about some of those things.
1. What kinds of content and channels do I actually need?
There were a lot of assumptions I made right upfront which I did not really test or challenge sufficiently or honestly. Do I need a website? Do I actually need to blog? Do I need Twitter? Do I need LinkedIn? Am I right to be dismissing Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Google Plus so decisively and early?
2. In each case why? Why not? Am I sure?
It never even occurred to me NOT to have a website. The point is I should have at least asked the question, gone back to basics and made sure I really did want one; and that I have the resource and commitment to keep it excellent and sustain the content. Even having answered that: do I really want or need to blog, and did I know what I was letting myself in for entering the bloggoverse?
For the sake of completeness I now know the answers to some of the questions. I think I was right on Twitter and LinkedIn but it’s not clear cut. It may just be self-fulfilling prophesy or post hoc rationalisation. For example I still haven’t sent any Inmails to so-called ‘warm leads’ on LinkedIn. I keep saying to myself I will once my initial network of contact approaches is exhausted. But who knows. I am not at all sure I got it right dismissing Facebook. This was mainly out of an urge to keep personal and professional by-and-large separate. I suppose time will tell. I am not a photographer so Instagram doesn’t feel right. And Pinterest does not really interest. But again, who knows, I could be wrong on both.
3. Who is the content supposed to be delivered to?
This seems to be key: who really am I aiming my product at? This is an early question in all the entrepreneurial start-up and social media marketing material I’ve ever seen. And unfortunately I can’t answer the question decisively, even now. Part of it I can, I have a very clear idea who my potential Financial Sector clients are, and have a reasonable long-term strategy to convert as many of them as I can manage, in my own time. And fortunately – at least on my own projections – these clients could account for up to 90% of my turnover, if things go to plan.
On the other hand, for the estimated 10% who are not Financial Sector clients, I haven’t yet got the first idea who they are, why they would want my services and whether it will come to fruition. Just a sense that they are out there somewhere and I just haven’t found them yet; that I can compete with other more experienced professional copywriters, editors and proofreaders in a meaningful way. I just have to be patient and somehow find the people who don’t yet know they need me.
4. How will I deliver it?
Well – via my website – which I hope they all will eventually see. Via a combination of word of mouth, networks, blogging, newsletter, SEO, printed flyers and the grace of God (which maybe I have not done enough to earn yet). Via Twitter, that messy funny online cocktail-party-cum-radio-station. And via testimonials and recommendations from my private network: the people who know what I can do and might tell others who don’t.
5. Why am I doing this?
It sounds obvious, but why? Why are you bothering? Why do people need to see your content; especially if they are in that private network, thus know you anyway and will recommend you on that basis?
There are two reasons in my case, though it’s still a good question.
First, given the need for confidentiality and data sensitivity at my Financial Sector clients, I won’t easily be able share round examples of my work – without absurdly heavy redaction. I need a way to convey what I know about and how I write. Blogging and other parts of my website will aim to fulfil that need. “Your work too can be and look this good”. If my work is and looks good, potential clients can go with that, even unconsciously.
Second, breaking into freelance editorial and proofreading work isn’t straightforward. I need to be able to show I understand what it is all about and that I can actually perform the work. I have created some samples which try to explain and demonstrate this in a simple and visual way. Without these, no-one needing those services would have the first idea that I can do what they need.
These five questions are the ones I am now asking myself, to underline my own Content Strategy in a more meaningful and practical way than I managed first time.
What I Now Think Content Strategy Means
Let’s get back on track. What Content Strategy means to me: a clear, well organised, mindful approach and plan for generating and distributing my online content consistent with and reflective of my brand; which will eventually nourish and grow my brand into something that my customers need and want; whether they know it yet or not.
Clarity is at the heart of my brand and approach, and the language and images I am using in blogs and tweets. If I can’t get that right I am in trouble. But I must constantly test myself against a ‘clear’ standard. Apart from writing clearly I have to think clearly about some basic questions. About different social media channels, for instance. And about who exactly are the mysterious clients I don’t yet have. I ask myself constantly now: am I writing and thinking clearly enough?
Don’t lose organization. Keep to the blogging schedule. Keep right on top of the news stories and sources so I don’t miss something for my newsletter or blogging plan that may be relevant. Develop muscle memory on checking sources, stories, potential leads. Do it in a disciplined way and it will yield.
An interesting word to choose, I suppose. Implying present, honest, self-critical; but also nimble, flexible, long term in the approach to clients and work. Not always slave to an immediate commercial imperative. Keep your head on, keep evolving, do not stand still, keep looking to the future.
Approach and Plan
The practical aspects of content creation and distribution, the control over datedness, accuracy of links, data, buttons, archives, language. Think ahead and keep it structured, whether it’s all or partly automated or completely manual.
Generating and distributing content reflective and consistent with my brand… nourish and grow my brand
This is the heart of it, and I will look at this again in a follow-up edition of this blog.
Something my customers need and want; whether they know it yet or not
The first part of this should be easy. If I am being smart and mindful I should know already what existing customers want and don’t want, like and don’t like. Listening helps. I tell people my own business model is simple: Listen and Write. It’s as simple as that. I try to bring some of my experience and specialist knowledge to bear, of course, along that road. But this piece should come naturally. The clients themselves know most of the answers to their own business conundrums already, even if they don’t always know they know. And can’t always articulate them. That is where I come in, hopefully: the articulation piece.
And what of the future clients, the ones I don’t yet have? Again this question deserves more dedicated investigation and we will come back to it. In truth I am guessing what they might want or need, and how best I can convey to them that I can fulfil their wants and needs. The question is how to convey it quietly, before I have met them, via smart in-bound marketing and great content generation and distribution.
That really is a tough problem.
I admit I don’t know how to do it yet. But I hope to learn more via my journey through the Content Strategy landscape.