Someone asked me recently: ‘What is a content strategy?’ Since one of the services I offer is to help business owners develop their content strategy, it seemed a good subject to discuss in a blog post.
When I use the term ‘Content Strategy’ I’m talking about how you use written content to support your business aims – particularly on your website. This presupposes you know what your business aims are, and it inevitably leads to a conversation about the purpose of the business, its customers, its products and services, its long term goals and the image it wants to project. Because content doesn’t exist in isolation: it should serve the needs of the business, not the other way around.
Back in the days before the internet, business owners didn’t have to worry about such mysteries as keywords and SEO (Search Engine Optimization). You needed to know what category your business fell into for a range of purposes, including advertising in the yellow pages or the classified section of a magazine. You also needed to know what themes and phrases were important to the business, to give consistency to your business messages, but you didn’t have to worry whether an advert, brochure or article matched some mysterious algorithm, guarded closely by a huge, faceless organisation.
Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately for people like myself – SEO has become a dark art which many entrepreneurs and small business owners would like to understand and practice well, but lack the time (or money) to do so. Time and again you can see website gobbledegook, where the desire for SEO has won out over common sense. Fortunately, Google has changed its rules. This change, or set of changes, is known as the Google Panda: a great name, but doubtless an acronym. Websites need to talk human, at last!
Nevertheless, websites also have to talk a bit of google, or at least use google-friendly logic, and this is where keywords come in.
Keywords are pretty much as their name suggests – words and phrases that are key for your business. For example, if you run a company that is all about weasel wrestling, weasel wrestling is going to be a key phrase for your business. You want to attract visitors with an interest in weasel wrestling, so you need to spend some time thinking about the sorts of things such folks are interested in. In the dog training market it might be types of dogs, or dog training in a specific location. It could be a type of training such as stop barking training, or be nice to the postman training.
But here’s the thing.
If you haven’t spent time thinking carefully about what your business is about, then you may find it difficult to come up with good keywords that are relevant for your site. And you can waste ridiculous amounts of time trying to seek out the keywords of your choice, when what is really needed is a bit of good business thinking. If you’ve ever gone to a website where it somehow feels wrong, where the language is all corporate-speak when what they are doing is selling wool to knitting circles, or you can’t get a feel for the people behind the site, the chances are they haven’t done that fundamental piece of business thinking. Or they have done the thinking, then ignored it when the time came to create a web site.
A lot of coaches and consultants are guilty of this. Visit their site and you will see the imperious ‘we’ in every other sentence, despite the fact that ‘we’ seems to be one woman and dog. Alongside this, they use extremely formal language, which only serves to distance you from the person or people offering the services. Some of them may repeat the same word or phrase over and over at different points in the text in the mistaken belief that this is sufficent to give them google-points.
Even if you have related your keywords to your business purpose, keywords of themselves are not the whole SEO story. You also have to think about who you link to and, more importantly, who links back to you. Where do you place your carefully crafted words of wisdom, so that they build your credibility, both in a real-world and a google sense? You also have to think about the purpose of your website. What do you want it to do for you?
And this is just the website aspect of your content. There is still the off-line content to consider.
Here again, it needs to be tied into the business strategy and the business values. It’s a strange fact that many businesses feel an overwhelming need to write formally, irrespective of whether their customers are other businesses or private individuals. I’m not suggesting they need to come over all folksy, or start calling everyone ‘dude’, but too many businesses assume that they will only be taken seriously if they write in tortuous sentences, and that four syllables carry infinitely more gravitas than a mere two. Funnily enough, gravitas doesn’t come with syllable length. It comes with authenticity, expertise and real knowledge. If you don’t believe me, take a look at a book such as Authentic Leadership by Bill George.
I rather like this Wikipedia definition of a content strategist (ie someone who creates the content strategy): someone who “approaches a business’s content as a medium that needs to be strategically selected and placed to engage the audience, convey a message, and inspire action.” Does your content do that for you?
Fun exercise: pay attention to the various bits of business writing that come through your post box, or arrive on your desk. Which ones make you want to read them, and are easy to read and understand? Which ones use convoluted, unnecessary sentences – perhaps with a dash of legalese thrown in for good measure? Which ones give you a sense of the business behind the communication? And do you really want to do business with that company, given the tone and culture their words seem to express?