These strategies come from work we have done at companies like KFC, UPS, PepsiCo and many others. They work for health care, energy, industrial manufacturing…anyone trying to use the web to communicate (which should be everyone using the web since the web is a communication tool). I hate to tell you this, but your homepage does not matter as much as you think it does. Have you ever seen the homepage of Wikipedia? Many people have not. But almost everyone has visited a content page within Wikipedia. It was this page, the content page, the page with the information the user wants or needs that matters the most. The home page sets the tone, perhaps it delivers a quick brand message, but for the user, the most important page is the page with interesting, and relevant content. The page with the answer to their question. The page with the instructions they need to do their job, or the inspiration, or just the moments’ distraction they desire. Content is the reason websites exist. A website is nothing but a collection of content. So when we say content is important, that content is “king” – it is.
But what content should you write? This is the point where lots of people get stuck, especially if, like us, you do not sell common household brands or have a huge sales force. Base22 sells design, strategy and development services to large organizations. I like to say we build “Digital Cultures” that allow great sites to be born and grow. But no one ever sits down at their desk, opens Google and searches for “Digital Experience” or “Information Architecture Patterns for Corporate Intranets and Portals” (but if you do – I want to talk to you). I mean, they might….but its hard to imagine. Getting over that fear and uncertainty is the first step (so let’s make it #1 on the list below and talk about it).
Tips (or principles) for developing a content strategy
1. Be Brave – most good content and good ideas for content are never executed. The core thing to remember about the web and writing, in general, is no one will read ANYTHING they don’t WANT to. This should be a liberating thought. It means YOUR FREE! The people reading these words – right now – you dear reader – you want to read them. You keep going even though you can stop at any time. You can skip ahead. You can skim. You and your reader have the freedom to pause and reflect, follow a random link, or click the back button. Once you realize that your reader is reading because they want to, it means two things: they are inherently your target audience. They ARE interested in what you are writing about – so keep going.
2. Be Comprehensive – people assume that if something exists, there must be a complete and accurate description of it somewhere on the internet. That is the promise of the web. It’s not true, it FEELS TRUE. That means people expect there to be a page on your website about every product, every service, and every idea your company talks about. Believe it or not, but a lot of companies do not have a very good list of their own products. Not the kind of comprehensive page user expect. One strategy is to sit down and make a list of all the things your company has done in the last year. Is there a comprehensive page on your site about that thing? If not get this done immediately. This is your cornerstone content. This is the foundation that everything else is built around. Cornerstone content is pretty boring stuff. The title is not clever. The language is a neutral point of view and matter of fact. In cornerstone content, you cite your sources, your show and tell and try to be as complete and accurate as possible. Tips for writing Cornerstone content will be part two of this post.
3. Be Prolific – A story gets told in the retelling. This means it is unlikely a single piece of content will reach your entire audience. For example, one of our clients has a solution for chronic pain. Some people will search for ‘chronic pain” but others will search for “Back pain”, “Neck Pain’, “Shoulder pain”, etc… content targeting these specific terms is actually more likely to resonate with people with those specific problems. The main topic hub for “chronic pain” might get more views than anyone on of the more narrow page, but in aggregate, they will get more traffic and users will engage with that content longer. We call that the “long tail” because of how the graph of web traffic looks in the report. If the main page gets 1000 views, the others each get less than 100. But when you add up 40 pages with a hundred each, you end up with 3/4ths of the audience visiting a page in the long tail and not seeing the so-called “most popular” page at all. There may be hundreds or even thousands of items in the long tail and these will account for most of the traffic.
4. Find a pattern – The more content you have, the more important it becomes to have a repeatable pattern you can consistently apply. As you tell and retell your story from many different angles, there are certain key themes and calls to action that will reoccur each time. Again, thinking back to earlier points, if you are comprehensive, and contextual in your content, and if you assume the user will only read this one item, then that piece of content needs to have everything it needs to stand alone and accomplish your mission.
5. Think like a novice – Your readers are not idiots but they are ignorant of a lot of the industry-specific jargon and terms. In my industry, I always cringe when first talking to a new client and the technical people start using words like taxonomy, metadata, personalization rules, and authoring templates. Sometimes as a reminder in these first meetings, after the technical lead has said CMS for the 4th time, I’ll interrupt and ask the client – do you know what CMS means? To us, those three letters always mean “content management system” – but as I found out when we did a Health Insurance portal, for some people it means “Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services” and other times they just have no idea. It’s always a shock to both sides of the table that they have been talking about two different things for the last 10 minutes but this is an important lesson in communication. Do not assume your reader knows the answer. Do not assume they speak your language. Do not assume they know anything you do not tell them. Speaking of content management systems, that brings us to the next tip.
6. Use a content management system – when you have 100s of pages in your long tail of content, consistency, and maintenance start to become an issue. At Base22 even the smallest sites we make have 10,000 pages or more. But even if you are just starting out with a simple blog, a content management system is a must. But do not think the right tool will save you – it is still 100% how you use it. I’ve seen multi-million dollar systems, the Ferrari of content management systems used like were stone tools with no strategy and lots and lots of manual labor. It’s better to not have any tool than to use it incorrectly. You know it’s not used correctly if people are always complaining about it. If the pain goes on long enough, something even worse can happen – your content culture will collapse and people will resort to email for communication.
7. Plan to measure and refine – you are not psychic or omniscient. You can guess what people want, and you can ask what they want, but the only way to know the truth is to watch people’s natural behavior as they browse your site. Pages with high bounce rate looked interesting to the user but quickly proved to be not what they wanted. If someone took the time to click it, it is worth your time to figure out why they don’t stay. Install a tool like mouseflow which records user sessions and lets you play them back. Sometimes it is a simple technical fix. Other times you need to rewrite the content.
8. Mind the gaps – if your site has search, and you are lucky enough to have people try to use it then you can use some clever tracking to see what users really want from your site (and are not getting). By looking at the search and paying particularly close attention to the “no results found” you can sometimes identify content people expect to exist but can not find. This works best in well-established sites where expectations exceed reality. If you’re just getting started, you need to resort to your own detective work.
Let’s try applying the above principles to create our strategy – as an example, I’ll use a real company, Base22 for example.
Step 1: List the cornerstone content. Every business organization has these things. Once you list everything in these categories, you have a good idea of the mandatory, and evergreen content you need to create. These would also be the taxonomy categories you use to tag blog posts.
- Products and Services – These are the things we sell. Products like our Carbon Linked Data Platform, Base22 Portal Blueprint, Corporate Intranet Design System, etc. and services Enterprise Web Strategy, Portal Upgrades, Performance Tuning, etc.
- Systems and Applications – These are the technology platforms we work with such as Liferay, IBM Portal, Office 365, etc.
- Organizations, Departments, and Functions – This includes our clients as well as external groups we belong to such as the WC3 and internal groups and departments
- People – This would be a page for each team member.
- Programs and Initiatives – These are company or department specific.
- Policies and Procedures – These are company rules and guidelines.
- Locations, Facilities, and Equipment – The places where we live and work.
- Topics and Trends – This would be a collection of topic hubs that consolidate posts, thoughts, white papers, and various points of view about important concepts in the industry such as Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive services, Augmented Reality, Voice Interfaces, Chat Bots, Mobile Applications, Design Systems, etc.
Step 2: Prioritize. There are several ways to prioritize content. First is based perceived value to the customer. Obviously, if there are things you want to sell, then you need content about those things online. Another method is what I call Natural Order. This is writing content as it comes up in the natural flow of things. For example, this piece of content that you are reading was created while answering the question for ourselves…what exactly should we be writing about.
Step 3: Spin the tail. Once you have identified the related cornerstone content items that you want to work on, it is time to spin out a long tail of variations. So in our case we take things like “Corporate Intranet Design” and spin out variations such as “Intranet Best Practices”, “Best Software to manage an intranet”, etc… there are a million variations which create both a challenge and an opportunity for new businesses. Even if your competition has thousands and thousands of pieces of content in your space, you can still get attention and traffic from customers by offering an alternative point of view, and by using keywords that vary even slightly.
If you want to learn more, schedule a learning session with us.