5 Intersects of Content Strategy and Project Management (Part 3)

Validating a work plan, even a high-level strategic one, is key to success in the fields of both content strategy and project management. Obviously, if you have no constraints and an unlimited budget, then you have no need to challenge such a wonderland existence. But, alas, most of us live in the real world, ruled at least by the triple constraints – schedule, cost, and scope/quality. And some would argue that our constraints number even more.

Note: This blog is the third in a five-part series that examines how the elements of the content strategist role both parallel and intersect those of the project manager’s roleSee part 2, published in May 2019.

So validating the efficacy of a strategic plan becomes more of a requirement than a luxury. For content strategy, the simplest validations are the most obvious ones:

  1. What are the priorities for your organization? For your audiences?
  2. What does the data tell you?
  3. What deadlines must you meet?
  4. How can you pull this off with the resources you have?

It’s probably best to tackle the questions in order.

  1. The first question speaks to your core content strategy as well as to expressed project and messaging goals. Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach in their book Content Strategy for the Web reminds us that a “core strategy sets the long-term direction for all of your content-related initiatives” and thus helps you keep moving forward.
    –>On the tactical, project level, you should star, highlight or otherwise begin to distinguish the must-have content work from the nice-to-have.
  2. The second question speaks to metrics, a topic that I plan to give more depth in a later blog. That said, for planning new content, you will find value in examining page visits to and downloads of similar content over the past six months. Include user journeys and search term rankings if possible. And if your team or the larger organization does audience surveys, carefully examine those results.
    –>Look for trends over time. Did you miss something in your gap analysis? If so, add it to the work plan and give it an appropriate priority.
  3. The third question and fourth questions help you winnow the wheat from the chaff. If your original plan calls for 14 videos, and you have only one video expert and six weeks to complete all video work, your plan likely needs adjustment. Besides planning (e.g., creating a shot list) and filming, videos can require scripting, editing, and post-production processing – all of which are time-consuming.
    –> If you can’t add resources, you’ll likely have cut the number of videos for the project.
  4. On the topic of resources, remember that not all content has to be home-grown (i.e., “original content”). Consider where you can aggregate existing content from outside sources and curate it for effective presentation to your users. In the book Medill on Media, Owen Youngman explains that curating content “combines intentionality, audience knowledge, filtering, and quality control.” It is a type of cherry-picking for relevance.
    –>However, content curation still requires someone to do the initial work and maintain the resulting output for its life cycle.

…begin to distinguish the must-have content from the nice-to-have.

Speaking of a content life cycle, remember as you winnow your work plan that content not only requires a development cycle – a set of iterations involving reviews and revisions – but also some kind of governance of its life after it is published. How much maintenance will the content require in the future? How long a life will the content have?

Some balancing of these considerations should be part of your planning. For instance, your team might want to consider curating short-lived content and putting some sort of trigger in place to remove it after a certain timeframe.

The outcome of this winnowing effort should be a refined, specific work plan and a content calendar, also referred to as a content-planning calendar.

The American Society of Association Executives recently reported that among professional associations, the content-planning calendar was the most commonly used of 17 content strategy tactics uncovered by an ASAE survey. (To see the list of tactics, refer to “How Are Associations Thinking About Content Strategy?”)

At this point, with your content-planning calendar in hand and your work plan refined, you will have to get buy-in from strategic stakeholders before you proceed with implementation. For that, you will have to rely on your negotiation skills and organizational processes. Good luck!

The next blog in this series will address – as previously promised – leveraging proofs of concept, incremental reviews, and other techniques for monitoring and managing your content strategy’s implementation.

5 Intersects of Content Strategy and Project Management (Part 2)

Developing the work focus and/or the work plan during development also proves to be common ground for both the project manager and the content strategist.

  • The project manager analyzes the requirements and the available resources and delivers a work breakdown structure or work package. That deliverable can be a set of stories for a two-week sprint or a full-blown Gantt chart.
  • The content strategist performs a similar analysis. But she must also consider how existing content and communication channels match with user wants and needs, as revealed by the audience and task analysis that she performed in the early stages of the project. The deliverables from this effort might also vary in form and format.

Note: This blog is the second in a five-part series that examines how the elements of the content strategist role both parallel and intersect those of the project manager’s role. See part 1 published in March 2019.

To help focus the work and the work plan, both roles consider the future state and perform a gap analysis, particularly if the customer deliverable is a new version of an existing product.

The primary tools that a content strategist will use to perform this gap analysis are a content inventory and a content audit. Both serve to help scope the work by answering the question “what is missing?” and both serve as a reference during development.

What is the difference?

Content Audit vs Content Inventory

Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper in their seminal book Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy distinguish a content inventory from a content audit by telling us that a content audit is the “process of actually looking at the content and assessing its value and opportunities for reuse.” In other words, a content audit is qualitative in nature.

On the other hand, the content inventory is, according to Kristina Halverson and Melissa Rauch, more quantitative in that it provides “just the facts,” focusing more on listing content and its use and or location. (Their book Content Strategy for the Web is one of my favorites.)

Choosing one over the other might be driven by time and/or resources. CMS, LMS, and database tools can help in assembling a content inventory, and often the resulting list can be pulled into a spreadsheet.

Then fact-based decisions can be made about what to keep and what to add to meet the parameters of the project and the audience needs. If customer deliverable and audience(s) are similar enough to a previous deliverable, perhaps the inventory and some straight-forward gap-filling are all that is needed.

I’ve leveraged such spreadsheets myself to accomplish such goals as planning web navigation and deciding where a new, small set of task topics best fit in the overall scheme of content deliverables.

Benefits of a Content Audit

A more qualitative approach to content analysis would have to be more specifically focused, but might yield more useful results. All of the experts I’ve encountered suggest taking a representative sample and then applying a course of assessments to what you’ve gathered: alignment with best practices, strategic fit, and/or reusability. Then apply the findings to the greater content set.

(Content reuse is a big topic, and I bow to other experts in the field, such as the folks at CIDM, for their guidance in a later evolution of this blog.)

Note that assessing content for its alignment to best practices should include an agreed-upon rubric. How does your team describe quality content?

You might want to start with Ahava Liebtag’s Step-by-Step Checklist, and adapt as needed – especially if your deliverables include more than text-based content. Another good resource is Sarah O’Keefe’s “hierarchy of content needs,” which she has described in a recent TechComm article (see the article Understanding Content Strategy as a Specialized Form of Management Consulting). Remember to consider the customer experience with the content, too.

Whichever path you take in a qualitative audit, I promise you the effort will be worthwhile – even quantifiably so! According to strategist Carrie Hane Dennison, as quoted by Halverson and Rauch,

…for every 5 hours spent performing a content audit near the beginning of a project, 20 hours can be saved during later stages, preventing costly project delays.

Carrie Hane Dennison

Content audits can also lead to creative problem-solving. I’ve recently leveraged the results of a set of rolling content audits I performed to propose a new approach to a specific content type, setting our content (and my team) up to grow in a strategic direction while meeting the needs of a new audience.

Application to Work Planning

The gap analysis – defined in terms of opportunities to meet new or evolving audience/user needs – helps the both project manager and the content strategist decide to do next. Fill the gaps, of course.

In the world of content development, especially when it engages sophisticated tools like a CMS and DITA, a content strategist and development team have lots to consider:

  1. What type of content is best to meet the audience’s needs? (DITA gives us the archetypes of task, concept, and reference).
  2. What level of detail is needed?
  3. How best can the content be conveyed to the audience (table, illustration, video, help file, FAQ, chatbot, etc.)?
  4. How should differences among audiences be accommodated?
  5. How should the content be categorized? And how should metadata applied?
  6. How does the content leverage or expand existing infrastructure? For example, an existing information model? An existing reuse strategy?

Not all of this has to be decided up front. Content development is as much discovery as development. But what should be decided up front is how the development team – content developers and product developers – work together.  

How a content strategist applies the outcome of a content inventory or content audit will vary by project. Often, the breadth of the project and the level of engagement with product development – and with learning deliverables development – will influence that initial project planning piece.

My team, in the midst of tackling content to support a major release and a new audience, has chosen, for example, to leverage a modified Kanban approach. We use an Agile-friendly tool that allows content strategy inputs and analysis to be recorded in “spike” stories within a larger “epic” that contains multiple work “stories” or issues.

Note that prioritization of content development can be part of this planning, too, but often evolves through later stages of development.

The next blog in this series will address validating the work plan and refining a content-planning calendar.

7 Definitions of Content Strategy (in 16 Years)

If you don’t know what content strategy is…well, you have good company in the majority of my friends. Below are some definitions of content strategy that I have collected or borrowed from the collections of others. Hopefully, they will help you and my supportive but confused friends understand better what I do for a living.

“[Content strategy is] A repeatable method of identifying all content requirements up front, creating consistently structured content for reuse, managing that content in a definitive source, and assembling content on demand to meet your customers’ needs.” – Ann Rockley in Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy (New Riders, 2003).

“Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content” – The 2009 Content Strategy Consortium.

“’Content is story. And content strategy is storytelling’…In this model, the content strategist figures out how best to tell the story: what assets are present, what do they need to prescribe, how should they be arranged, and how should they be updated or maintained?” – Margot Bloomstein in Content Strategy at Work (Elsevier, 2012).

“Content strategy is a system that consists of a repeatable process that governs the management of the content throughout the entire content lifecycle.” – Rahel Anne Bailie in “A Methodology for Content Strategy,” Intercom (Society for Technical Communication), May 2013.

“But content strategy is more than that. It’s about envisioning the future of content – its development, management, and delivery – and creating a plan that helps us leverage content to achieve its goals. It’s about creating a flexible, responsive roadmap that can be quickly adapted to the challenges that will undoubtedly interfere with our well-intentioned plans for success.” – Scot Abel in “The Importance of Vision in Content Strategy,” Intercom (Society for Technical Communication), May 2013.

“A content strategy establishes how an organization will leverage its content assets to achieve its overall business goals. A content strategy also provides a roadmap describing how these goals will be realized.” – Joe Gollner in “The Technology Side of a Content Strategy,” Intercom (Society for Technical Communication), May 2013.

“…I would add: content strategy is what guides content teams to best processes for each stage of the content cycle.” – Monica Bussolati in “10 Definitions of Content Strategy” (blog, Sept. 2017)

I have placed these in chronological order to better appreciate the evolution of the discipline of content strategy since Rockley (with Pamela Kostur and Steve Manning) wrote her seminal book. I see goal-driven planning, roadmap creation, repeatable process, and governance as common concepts across these definitions and across the years. What do you see? How do these definitions align with your experiences?