The Situation Analysis: How to Put Your Research to Work

Once you’ve completed discovery work for a content strategy project, the next best step is to create a situation analysis. Here’s how to craft one effectively.

The Situation Analysis: How to Put Your Research to Work

situation analysis summarizes what you’ve learned during discovery on your content strategy project with the people on your project team. It also sets the stage for what comes next.

It’s more than just a research summary; it includes your expert analysis about what all of this stuff means with respect to content strategy. Done well, it answers “So what?” before folks have a chance to ask.

Building a situation analysis into your project plan ensures that you’ll slow down and think a bit in between doing your research and making recommendations. Even when I feel like I’ve learned a lot during my discovery work, I learn even more from summarizing it.

Organizing a situation analysis is effectively me having a conversation with myself about what I’ve learned so far. I then tidy up that conversation, share it with other people, and see if I’m making any sense.

A document … and a story

For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about a situation analysis as a physical document. It could be a report. Or a memo. Or a slide deck. Or a three-act play—which would be weird, but you do you.

Whatever the format, a situation analysis serves in part as an agenda for a conversation about your discovery work. For most of my projects, the analysis is usually a simple deck that I share during a 90-minute conversation with the core project team. Whether you’re recapping a day of onsite consulting or a months-long process with multiple forms of research, the approach is more or less the same.

However you structure your combination of document and presentation, the situation analysis ultimately says: “Here’s what I’ve learned so far and what I think we should do about it next.” It tells a story about the content strategy project so far.

Highlights, not play-by-play

You’re going to learn all kinds of interesting stuff during your discovery work, and have tens if not hundreds of examples to illustrate the various points you need to make. You want to keep this stuff handy, for sure, but your job at this point is to give your team the highlights. The things that matter, right now, to help figure out what’s next.

To get you started, here’s an outline of what I tend to include in my situation analysis deck:

  • Project overview: This tends to be more for posterity than anything, in case the analysis document gets socialized beyond the presentation.
  • Where we’re at: Summarize the work so far. What you’ve looked at, who you’ve talked to, major activities completed.
  • Current trends: This is my wild card section. I’ll pick three or five or seven themes that emerged during discovery, give them a memorable name, and add some color like user quotes or website screenshots.
  • Content strategy SWOT: Sort of a “value add” on the discovery work. A content-strategy-focused SWOT analysis becomes a good reference for the client to plan future content strategy projects beyond the current engagement.
  • Preliminary strategy indications: This is where you test the waters on what’s next. Depending on where we are in the project work so far, it might include things like a preliminary content strategy statement or a draft of prioritized website audiences based on a workshop activity.
  • Next steps: Compare where you need to go next with where you thought you’d need to go at the start of the project. Whether you’re still right on track or need to change things up, you’ll want to use what you’ve learned in discovery to explain why that’s the case.

Choose the right audience

As a content strategy consultant, I usually start by sharing the situation analysis with my core team. That’s anyone working on the project from my side along with the one to three people I’ve been working with from the client’s team.

Depending on the organizational culture, you may also want to share the situation analysis with a larger audience of content stakeholders. If you did stakeholder interviews, this can be a little tricky depending on what you have to say about what those content stakeholders have told you. One option is to do a more complete situation analysis with the core team, and then break out a component like a content strategy SWOT or content maturity model to socialize with the larger group.

A situation analysis might be less formal if you’re working on an in-house project. Then again, if you’re low in the hierarchy, it may be even more important to do a persuasive, eye-opening presentation about the current state of content strategy in your organization in order to get a better chance of selling your eventual recommendations and guidelines.

Test the waters for your strategy recommendations

I often use the situation analysis presentation to test the waters on potential strategy and governance recommendations that might be controversial or take time to warm up to. It introduces big ideas without directly proposing them.

However good and smart and research-informed my strategy recommendations might be, they aren’t going to be warmly received if I just show up and say “Ta-da!” At best you get a flat, lukewarm, “I’m not really sure what I’m looking at” kind of reaction. At worst? Full. Scale. Riot. OK, maybe not a riot, but to folks not immersed in content strategy conversations all day, the logical gap between perceived problem and proposed solutions can seem HUGE. A situation analysis helps bridge that gap.

Find your blind spots

“What have I missed?” That’s one of the most important questions to ask your collaborators and stakeholders after sharing your situation analysis. A situation analysis should be developed and presented with an openness to learning what you may have overlooked.

Someone almost always finds one more thing for me to look into before moving forward that I wasn’t able to uncover until this point. Hopefully it’s minor, but either way, you’ll be glad to know about it now rather than after you’ve put in hours of work on your recommendations.

Be flexible

Like a lot of content strategy deliverables, I tend to tweak the format a little bit each time I make a situation analysis. It can and should be heavily informed by the specific discovery activities you engage in and what you learn along the way. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your own!

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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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