Content Strategy Is Boring (and That’s OK)

Creativity might help your content, but not so much your content strategy. Strategies are a place to be clear, concise, and ... boring.

Content strategy is full of questions like:

  • What’s the big idea?
  • What’s our voice?
  • Why does our website exist?
  • Who are we trying to reach?
  • What are our priorities?
  • How will we measure success?

And each one of those questions contains dozens more, all of which need answers, in varying levels of detail, collected in one place, to even begin to have a thing we can call a content strategy. Tall order!

In my experience, the right answers to our burning content strategy questions tend to be completely boring. That’s great! It’s OK to be boring. Boring beats baffling. Obvious beats obtuse. Articulated beats assumed. (I can do these all day.) Time and again, smart people get stymied in their content strategy work because they’re afraid to write down something that seems too simple, too obvious, too boring. Boo!

Strategy documents are not the place to be clever. They are a place to be clear. And yes, if necessary, boring. The critical difference between yesterday and today is that now you’re writing these answers down. There will be time later for punching it up, for making your vision more compelling, for finding ways to pitch and package and socialize your strategy. But you’ve got to document these answers first.

With all this in mind, I’d like to offer three tips on being boring that lead to better strategy:

1) Write down the things that “everybody knows.”

If everybody knows it, this should be easy, right?

Except, if it’s not documented, no one actually knows it. They assume it. And they all assume it in slightly different ways. Or even radically different ways! So, write it down.

Content strategy is often about creating a paper trail to reinforce decision-making. You want as many “obvious” things documented and agreed upon as possible—including functional strategy and goals, and priority user needs and preferences—and how your content strategy supports them both.

In fact, I often have to roll content strategy conversations all the way back to: What does your organization actually make and/or do, and where does your money come from? Or as I’ve put it previously:

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing that?
  • Who gives a hoot?

2) Provide definitions.

Look up “boring” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of the dictionary. (Don’t look too long though or it might open a recursive black hole.) Boring, yes, but clear definitions are critical to alignment, and alignment is critical to strategy. So the second boring thing you’ll want to do in your content strategy documentation is define as many concepts as possible. This is especially important when it comes to things like voice and audiences. For example, without clear definitions, a voice attribute like “conversational” will be interpreted a dozen ways by as many writers. Without clear definitions, an audience like “prospective customers” will be addressed five different ways in as many campaigns.

Don’t worry about insulting anyone’s intelligence. Smart people look in dictionaries more often, not less. Define away!

3) Draw pictures of holes.

The third boring thing you’ll want to do with your content strategy is to write down what you don’t know. I’m always telling clients to draw pictures of holes. Which is to say, document your “known unknowns.” This is as critical to alignment and progress as documenting your known knowns. It is progress to identify important questions, even if you don’t yet have good answers.

Unsure what your messaging framework should be for a product? Put a heading in your strategy documents for “Messaging Frameworks,” and mark it as in development. Not clear what metrics are important yet? Drop in a table of the three key metrics you’ll pay attention to and highlight that they are yet to be determined. This is progress! And a great way to advocate for more resources. You can show the holes to higher-ups and make a case for how much more efficient the content work would be if you had clear answers to all of those questions.

Leave the creativity for your content.

In most organizations I’ve worked with, the problem was not that they didn’t have an interesting or unique or exciting content strategy. The problem was that whatever strategy they did have wasn’t documented. Because it wasn’t documented, it would drift, be forgotten, be half-remembered and re-debated, and constantly get set aside to deal with whatever the hottest topic was on the business side of things.

Documenting strategy is the time to think like a legislator. Be abundantly clear about things obvious and not-so-obvious, and focus on creating a system with a reasonable chance of being understood the same way by multiple parties. Being the “boring” one in a room full of writers and designers and other creative types requires a bit of bravery. So go forth, my content strategy friends, and be bravely boring!

Scott Kubie is the lead content strategist here at Brain Traffic and the author of Writing for Designers from A Book Apart. Scott has focused on the content side of digital experiences since 2009, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram Research. He grew up in rural Nebraska, and studied electronic media and journalism at Drake University.

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