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Understanding Content Strategy: A Product Worth Paying For

By:   Date posted: July 10, 2012

content-strategy-paying-forA seasoned account manager once told me that he never scoped content strategy on a project because he “wouldn’t pay someone just to organize titles in a navigation.” Aside from exhibiting an apparent misunderstanding of what content strategists actually do, my colleague’s comment is indicative of the fact that many people at digital agencies don’t understand the value of content strategy, resulting in untold missed opportunities to capitalize on its capabilities. Let’s face it — if account managers don’t fully understand the importance of content strategy, you can bet that clients won’t invest in it either.

Although there are many reasons why content strategy is often misunderstood — the complexity of its deliverables, the long-term nature of its solutions, the mind-numbing nature of 1,000-row Excel documents — its core purpose is relatively simple. In short, the best content strategy interprets content (anything that communicates a message, such as text, images, videos, audio and social comments) as a product. And this product should be conceived, researched, tested, created, paid for, maintained and eventually retired like any other product, from a bottle of ketchup to a fighter jet.

Like condiments and defense contracts, the most important aspect of content (and this is what truly makes it a product) is that it’s worth something. People pay for ketchup because a) it makes food taste better and b) they realize that effort goes into making it. Content is worth paying for because it not only serves as an extension of a client’s brand, but also primes online interaction to operate at its greatest potential. In turn, this leads to positive outcomes like trust, loyalty, repeated user visits and, of course, conversion. Essentially, content strategy enables companies to achieve specific business goals.

For example, an online news website might rely on content strategy to make sure users from a specific demographic can easily find the news they’re looking for, or to show them related news coverage they might be interested in based on their preferences, history of content consumption and online reading behaviors. In the long term, this same content can be tracked and optimized based on quantifiable metrics. So, it’s not only the quality of content that matters, but the strategy of how it’s produced, organized, tracked and surfaced that keeps users coming back for days, weeks, months and more. And content strategy doesn’t have to be limited to long-form text. It could involve helping a hotel brand feature images and videos on its website to inspire bookings, while surfacing (and hiding) the correct content at strategic moments, as the user moves from exploration and discovery to action.

So, if content is a valuable product, why is content strategy not afforded the importance it should be? Aside from the discipline being misunderstood as a whole, many agencies still use the three-step development process of wireframe-design-code that was in practice long before content could be treated as the product that it truly is today. Now, content can be parceled out, pushed to multiple channels, optimized and tracked for performance. The digital landscape has come a long way since static HTML pages but, unfortunately, some digital processes have not made the same transformation. As a result, content strategy is often added piecemeal to projects, either to fill intermittent gaps, like adding support to interaction ideation, or to perform the heavy lifting of content production. While these tasks certainly fit within the realm of content strategy, to only activate one of them is doing a disservice to the overall integrity of a project. In turn, we are left with clients who don’t appreciate the value of content strategy, agencies that misunderstand and misuse its capabilities and, ultimately, inferior digital experiences.

To truly make content foundational, content strategy must be integrated into a project from the beginning. Rather than being based on assumptions, projects with strong content strategy are built on content borne from comprehensive research, clear user content goals, vetted taxonomic and metadata structures and long-term editorial and production plans. This process allows for the level of optimization that leads to important business outcomes like brand loyalty, repeat visits and conversion. And you can’t do all that with just organized titles in a navigation.

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Patrick Strange is a Senior Content Strategist at Huge, where he works collaboratively with clients to analyze, plan for and create optimized content solutions that meet user needs, achieve business objectives and maximize the brand's presence in the digital space. Since joining Huge, Patrick has worked with clients including the Four Seasons and the U.S. Department of Energy. He previously served as the Managing Editor of Filter Magazine while continuing to co-publish and edit the arts and literature journal Constance. Patrick's work has appeared on national television and online ad campaigns, as well as in the Los Angeles Zagat dining guide. Patrick holds a M.A. in Literature from the University of Maryland, a B.A. in English Literature and a B.S. in Microbiology.

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