Two things can change a person’s attitude about your organization: what she sees for herself and what she’s told. She’s going to hear messages from many people, and it’s the job of your communications squad to shape those messages.
Messages don’t stand alone—they are only unsubstantial ideas. So, unless you and your target audience are good at sending ESP signals to each other, your messages need to latch onto something that has form and can be detected by the senses.
Billboards come to mind, as well as direct mail and television commercials. But if you’re like most communications professionals in the developed world, most of your target audience is online. To send messages effectively online you need a content strategy.
WHAT IS A CONTENT STRATEGY?
In the business world, “content” is anything created and/or presented, with the intent to convey a message or meaning. Digital content can be as simple as a webpage that lists the hours of operation of your gallery or as complex as a musician’s blog post about his recent trip to New Orleans replete with external links, photos, videos, even a questionnaire.
Online, content is confined to anything that can be digitally rendered: words, images, videos, or sound. Content takes on many different forms and styles, and is conveyed through many vehicles and media: websites, newsletters, e-blasts, social media platforms, blog posts, articles, white papers, FAQs, webinars, videos, ads, RSS feeds, news articles, reviews, comments—the list is endless.
A content strategy is perfect for arts organizations because they are rife with sensual content—profound words, striking images, luscious sounds, provocative videos—that can be used to convey your messages. However, you should be careful not to confuse the content of your product/service (the art) with the content of your communications.
Often, communications content piggybacks on the content of your collection or programming.
For example, a Georgia O’Keefe painting itself conveys a message to the spectator, perhaps “there is beauty in death” or “the simplicity of nature recapitulates the complexity of human desire.” However, if you use a Georgia O’Keefe painting on your webpage advertising a southwestern art opening, the message conveyed is that you are a high-end gallery.
WHAT WILL A CONTENT STRATEGY DO FOR ME?
The purpose of a content strategy is to persuade people to take the desired action: to buy, sign up, attend, vote, donate, etc.
Content strategy involves creating, collecting (some say “curating”), organizing, and presenting content that’s compelling, relevant to your organization, and effective in accomplishing goals.
It’s fun to let loose the imagination and dream about the different types of content you might want to use to proliferate your messages. But just like a clay sculpture, the content you create or curate must be molded around a rigid internal structure so that it takes the desired shape and doesn’t fall apart. The audience for your content demands accuracy, clarity, and consistency. Your communications team deserves a manageable workload.
This structure will help you more easily choose what content to share with whom, when, where, and how. It will help you determine who in your organization is responsible for what content and in what capacity. What’s more, this structure will give your employees and volunteers confidence in your organization and will give them language with which to talk about it.
HOW DO I CREATE A CONTENT STRATEGY?
I just finished a content strategy course at Columbia University taught by seasoned strategist Margot Bloomstein of Appropriate Inc. She has crafted a program to help brands develop and maintain smart and sustainable content strategies. It’s easily translated to non-profits.
STEP ONE: MESSAGE ARCHITECTURE
Margot’s program (more deftly explained in her book, Content Strategy at Work) begins by gathering stakeholders in one room and using a card-sorting exercise to help them come up with a Message Architecture. This is a hierarchy of attributes that you want your organization to be known for. It helps you answer the following questions:
- What content types should I keep or develop because they best serve my brand?
- What topics might be seemingly interesting but actually irrelevant to my brand?
- How should my style evolve to underscore my key messages?
- What’s the best frequency of and channel for interaction?
Of course, before you start to build a message architecture, you need a sound understanding of three things:
- Your organization: its core competency, its products and services, its reputation.
- Past, present, and future patrons: their perceptions of your organization, their needs and desires.
- The market landscape: trends, challenges, opportunities.
From your knowledge of these things (and maybe hours of hashing it out with fellow stakeholders) you will know how to present your organization through your messaging.
STEP TWO: CONTENT AUDIT
The next step is a Content Audit, using the message architecture as a yardstick. This will put all your digital communications under a microscope. It will evaluate not only every page on your website, every newsletter and email you send, and every social media platform you use, but it will also evaluate every header, button, link, photo, video, menu bar, and text block.
The Content Audit will serve three purposes:
- To create an inventory of content so you know what you have, and can see the gaps.
- To determine the value of current content in the context of the message architecture.
- To judge how much work this is going to be and prioritize tasks.
STEP THREE: EDITORIAL CALENDAR
Without an Editorial Calendar, your team can get overwhelmed and each element of the strategy, as it rolls out, can seem like a floating rib, unconnected to the main body of your communications efforts. Calculated timing of communications will give them momentum and direction and allow them to build on each other, reaching your potential patrons progressively as they stroll along the path from potential to actual.
STEP FOUR: STYLE GUIDE
Lastly come Editorial Style Guidelines. Unless you step back and compare each element of each piece of the communications matrix, you can easily miss inconsistencies of style that make the viewer think the brand is sloppy and unprofessional. The message architecture and content audit, along with input from a design director, will dictate style guidelines.
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My summary doesn’t do justice to the depth of Margot’s program. You should read her book to learn more and to read about case examples. Some other fantastic books that Margot assigned our class were:
- Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson (advisor to Facebook) and Melissa Rach
- Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman, which gives an extensive taxonomy of different types of content and their applications