Two Things Every Content Strategy Needs

Are your “business goals” meaningless and your “user needs” useless? The more specific you get, the better your content strategy will be.

Content strategists (including myself) have long hammered on the fact that content strategy needs to be informed by business goals and user needs.

I’ve found that those terms can get squishy in practice. Which business goals? All user needs? And which users? (Content is hard.)

To rein in this conversation, I talk to teams about the following instead:

  1. Functional strategy and goals
  2. Priority user needs and preferences

Here’s a closer look.

Functional strategy and goals

First up: What is a functional strategy? I AM SO GLAD YOU ASKED.

Functional strategy is the strategy adopted by each functional business area (like marketing, HR, or customer service) in order to help achieve business or corporate goals.

It’s super important to use functional strategy (vs. overall business/corporate strategy) to inform your content strategy. If you try to work with overall business goals, you might get stuck with statements like, “Increase profit margin by x%” or “Reduce facilities expenses by x%.” How are you supposed to directly align content strategy with those goals? You can’t.

But if you use the goals driving your functional strategy, you can draft statements like:

  • Increase sales by x%
  • Build brand awareness among target audience by x%
  • Launch x new products or services in 12 months
  • Decrease content management costs by x%

Can these goals inform content strategy? Why, yes! They can. If you don’t have these handy, ask leadership for the magic deck they presented to their leadership for the current fiscal year (or quarter or whatever). Functional—or department, or business unit—goals should be in there. If they don’t have them, gently inform leadership that your content initiatives will be prioritized based on someone’s opinion and implemented without meaningful measures of success. Good luck!

Priority user needs and preferences

Let’s break this down a little. When you say ...

  • “Priority” ... you indicate that you’ve prioritized your users and their needs. In other words, you’re not trying to be everything to everyone (which typically results in being nothing to anyone).
  • “User” … you’re acknowledging that the people coming to your website or using your product (including a CMS, if your effort is focused there) want to do something with it, whether it’s to complete a task, make a decision, improve an outcome, or something else.
  • “Needs” … see above. Your content should be useful and usable for your users—and that means you have to know what they need from you in the first place.
  • “Preferences” … you’re saying that you understand not only what your users need from you, but also what they like and don’t like—anything from content format to topic focus to voice and tone.

Now, here’s something surprising and somewhat frustrating: Many organizations don’t have much of this figured out. Teams are operating on assumptions about their audiences, because either a) they can’t get resources for research, or b) it hasn’t occurred to them to talk to their audiences in the first place.

First: Prioritize your users. You have a giant list of people you want to influence or serve. That giant list is overwhelming and unhelpful. Get you core team in the room and decide who’s most important. This doesn’t mean you need to neglect other audiences; just that you’re creating smart constraints for yourself so you can make better choices.

Second: For the love of all that’s holy, talk to your users. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve recommended Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research to our clients, I’d buy a Tesla. It’s full of DIY, not-that-complicated ways to gather information about users so that you can make informed choices about your design and content decisions. You don’t need a giant wall-sized printout of personas. You don’t need detailed journey maps. You just need a baseline understanding of what people really care about and why. (Another fantastic approach to this is Gerry McGovern’s Top Tasks methodology—buy that book, too.)

Getting help with the tough stuff

Last year I did a lot less public speaking and a lot more working hands-on with companies to establish (or refocus) their content strategies. Here’s what I found:

  1. The clients who knew their functional business goals and priority user needs were able to move at lightning speed; we often were able to establish their strategic framework during a 1- or 2-day content strategy sprint.
  2. The clients who didn’t know needed a different kind of partnership with us. First, I worked as more of a strategy consultant over 3–4 weeks to help leadership get functional strategy better articulated (so it was meaningful for content and UX teams). Second, we worked with clients to complete short-term (4–6 weeks) research projects so they’d have real-world information about their users to inform their content strategy framework.

Meaningful content for better outcomes

We all want to know that our work is making a difference for someone, somehow. Content can’t make a difference until you know why you’re doing it in the first place. Without understanding functional business goals and user needs and preferences, content is just “nice to have”—or, worse, getting in people’s way. Make it meaningful!

Kristina Halvorson is CEO of Brain Traffic, founder of Confab Events, coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, and host of The Content Strategy Podcast.

Content Strategy Workshops

Kristina Halvorson is taking her popular Intro to Content Strategy workshop on the road! This one-day session delivers a thorough overview of what content strategy is, why it's important, and how to start doing it right away. Coming to three cities near you in 2019 and 2020.


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