Avoiding Missteps: Accounting For Testing and Refinement in Content Strategy

Sometimes, first dates can leave us with mixed feelings. We take special care to make sure no hair is out of place, that we smell nice and do our best to make sure everything goes according to plan. First dates can be an expensive, exhausting and – depending on your skills – either be a very rewarding or entirely dissapointing experience.


Practicing content strategy for the first time is very much like a first date. It requires careful planning, a lot of get-to-know-you-type conversations and, ultimately, will probably cost you a little more money than you expected it to. If all goes well, that strategy will pay off and bring many years of happy returns, but like any new relationship, content strategy takes time, examination and refinement.

It’s here that many strategies, and relationships for that matter, fall down. If we don’t account for reflection and refinement, we can’t determine how successful we could really be.

Good content strategists start with an audit and inventory of all the content you currently have. This process can be done specific to your online properties, if you’re looking only at the Web/Mobile/Location mediums or acrosss your entire organization at the enterprise level. From that initial audit and inventory, gaps should have been identified and opportunities to refine existing content to fit existing or new audiences (personas) would have been properly communicated to the you, the client.

Executing the production of new content according to our strategy would be the next step. If they’ve done their job, your content strategist will have synched up with your analytics team and determined some success metrics for our content. And with metrics, content that’s on strategy and a usable site in place, everything should go swimmingly right? In theory, absolutely. Here’s how you go about testing to find out if that’s really the case.

So, here’s how you start setting up for the review of those success metrics to determine how to further test and refine your process and existing content.

1. Test to find out if your content is easily consumed

You spend time testing your Web site’s usability, shouldn’t your content get equal treatment? Some kind of test needs to be put into place to test the viability of your content. It’s not as simple as increasing clickthroughs or user time spent on your site, though that will provide an initial baseline as if it’s even being found.

Start with basic questions. Is the content readable? Is it too long (this applies to video or text) Do your users understand it? Could re-wording things be the key to creating influence? Is your message solving your user needs or potential problems? These are all questions we can start to answer with A/B Testing, or simple focus groups. You can be as scientific (think A/B testing, Eye Tracking or utilizing fMRI) or as basic as you want (Usability Testing, User Interviews) to be when it comes to testing for whether or not your content can be easily consumed. The name of the game here is not to launch and leave it, assuming that our strategy is the right one.

2. Take Personal and Situational Behaviors Into Consideration While Testing

Are your personas working hard enough for your content strategy? Did the content strategist account for personal behaviors when developing a content plan? What situations were generated as potential scenarios that require content? If context were acconted for in the up front planning, we’d have already accounted for factors beyond basic socio-economic and media consumption habits and looked at our content as a task or fuciton that helps address a need to a specific user situation. If we haven’t, that should be accounted for in testing for refinement as context will always make our content more useful, meaningful and relevant to users.

Test, refine and test again
This process is never over. You have to keep at it. As content strategists, we owe users increased levels of context and usability. Our job is to not only get them to our Web sites, but to make their lives easier, answer their questions before they have them and leave them feeling satisfied with the overall experiences on our sites. Content is the vehicle to that satisfaction, so we need to keep testing it. Just like that relationship… we’ve gotta keep on keepin’ at it.

Photo used under creative commons license. Photographer: Stuart Bell

Things We Owe Clients: CONTEXT!

Aside from providing a point of view and plan for creation, governance, and delivery of content, the most important thing a content strategist should be able to provide its client is context for what it produces. Our job as a content strategist is not to sell a huge content creation approach. We owe our clients the effort of providing better context for the content they provide consumers.


This post (or maybe rant is a better word) comes on the heels of reviewing some very good presentations and explanations of what content strategy is and others that physically make my stomach turn over (Read As: If I see one more giant content marketing presentation disguised as content strategy I’m gonna go crazy!).

There are too many content marketers out there disguising themselves as content strategists. There, I said it. I think a lot of these small shops are out there selling content marketing as the end all, be all to a brand’s problems and saying that they back it up with content strategy, and it’s just not true.

Good content strategists must help to define the context for content that is created and published before suggesting a huge increase in volume and promising brands that relentless publishing will help them to become a “thought leader.” To be perfectly frank, without context, content marketing and content period, is lost on readers.

I like how Tristan Harris frames up context:

Context is information that informs your understanding of the world, literally allowing you to derive more meaning from an experience.

I liken context to being what a detailed recipe is to someone who has never baked a cake before. Without the context provided by the recipe, all we have is whatever is in our refrigerator and (possibly) our personal experiences with tasting a piece of cake. As strategists, we must define ingredients that relate to content production before it begins and provide the relational elements and materials to make sense of the different pieces of content. This provides contextual relevance to the people consuming the content, thus providing them greater understanding and deriving more meaning from their experience with what we’ve provided.

These elements might include stuff we already think about:

• Categories
• Hashtags
• Source
• Taxonomic Data

Or some stuff we might not, but should be considering:

Geo Location data
• Voice of the related content
• Structure & Design of contextual support

Context guides the content and frames it, but it also needs a true voice. ENTER THE CONTENT STRATEGIST!

So much of contextual info is provided as related links, footnotes or through other experiences that fall short of painting a complete picture. As such, it lacks personality and ends up being easily ignored by people just might need it most. This is where the content strategy discipline really needs to work its magic.

We need to start building context into our messaging strategies, our governance plans and into our analysis of content. It should be examined, amended and revised as often as possible.

We put so much time into layering in the SEO, the product information and the message into content, that we forget that often times people need context for the topics we’re covering and that’s why content marketing programs can often fall flat on their face.

Help provide me content that is relevant to where I am right now. Does the delivery, message or voice of your content need to vary based on the time of day I’m reading it? These are all things we need to begin to consider as good content strategists. To eschew context is plain lazy and it’s a disservice to the people we’re trying to help (and in that statement I mean end users and our clients).

So, if you’re one of the content marketers or so called content strategists I’ve mentioned above, start thinking about context before you start recommending a massive play for content creation. We might better solve our client’s problems, by auditing and inventorying their current content and really analyzing how we can give it more contextual relevance to their users.

Ok. I’m going to step off my soapbox now.

Searching For Brand Salvation? Be Strategic, Skeptical

I’ve grown incredibly tired of hearing about the next big thing in marketing. Almost everyone seems to have their own version of snake oil that will magically increase ROI, increase customer engagement, grow consideration levels overnight, or improve the overall image of a brand in just three short weeks. Bad news friends — there is no magic bullet, no tonic or single tool that will fix a brand.

Social media won’t do it, digital won’t do it. Neither will print, mobile, TV, emerging media, gaming or whatever comes next. All those things are tactics. And while brands will toss millions on one or a combination of several of the above, most of them fall short on the most important part of their execution … the strategy.

Instead of simply patching the holes with tactics, wouldn’t it be better to eschew the promises of salvation made by individual practitioners and start thinking more skeptically in regards to your marketing/advertising campaigns? As a content strategist, my favorite question to ask any person in a meeting that brings up a creative concept or suggests the use of some sort of tactic is, “What does that mean to the consumer?”

It seems so simple, but 9 times out of every 10, no one thinks of how creative will ultimately be interpreted by the consumer. Perhaps our biggest challenge as strategists is attempting to persuade a client that we need to talk about our audiences and messages – and ultimately whether we have product or service that satisfies those audiences – before we get anywhere near a tactical discussion.

My recommendation to brands and the content strategists and content planners working for those companies, is to place the greatest amount of initial emphasis on finding out who the customer is.

What do they do? Why do they need your service or product? How do they consume media? What do their activities in social media look like? Develop personas for consumers you’re likely to encounter given the economic and product landscape and then figure out what kinds of messages need to be created to satisfy those minds.

Once we know who they are and we know what we need to say to them, we hopefully have something in our wheelhouse that they give a damn about. Then we can take those learnings to decide what we can do to creatively satisfy them, but whatever we come up with better execute against the strategic thinking we spent all that initial time on.

Social media and emerging media may be all shiny and new, and I’m sure brands have every ‘media expert’ that’s blogging in his or her basement telling them that they need a “Twitter-Strategy” or a “Facebook-Strategy.” That’s a farse.

All the “strategy” in the world won’t mean a thing if your customers aren’t looking for you to be there. Be skeptical, be like Socrates or like your 4-year-old. Ask these so-called experts “Why?” Ultimately, both strategists and brands should be asking the same question, “What are you trying to accomplish?”

“Why do I need to build a Facebook app that lets you change the color of my product and then gives me a badge to annoy their friends? What does this tactic accomplish and how does it support my strategy?”

“Why do I need to ‘tweet’ about my guys who drain septic fields? What does tweeting about that accomplish?”

“Why should I make a mobile game for my family sedan? What does that tactic accomplish?”

Brands get to where they are for a reason. They either have a service or product that satisfies a need or they don’t. All the tactics in the world won’t help boost profitability if they don’t have skeptics to make sure that the tactic is being executed to a strategic umbrella that ultimately influences brand consideration.

It’s time to stop being creative for creativity’s sake and time to start communicating with consumers in the ways they choose.

In short, brands shouldn’t steer away from delivering messaging in print because it’s percieved as a dying art, or put all of their eggs into digital and social baskets because many people access their information in that fashion. It’s about being accessible to all, being strategic with your messaging platforms and spending less and less time focusing on your campaign creative or tactics that may not even be appropriate. What are your thoughts?

Photo: Billie Hara