Content Strategy

An account by Conrad Taylor of the July 2019 meeting of the Network for Information and Knowledge Exchange. Speakers — Rahel Baillie and Kate Kenyon.

Kate Kenyon and Rahel Baillie, our speakers

Our speakers delivered a highly blended joint presentation.
Kate Kenyon (left) and Rahel Baillie (right).

Our two speakers were Kate Kenyon, an independent context strategist and currently Content Lead for Tesco, and Rahel Baillie who currently works for Babylon Health, but also consults, writes and teaches. Rather than deliver two separate presentations, our speakers presented a highly blended one, passing the subject back and forth.

Kate promised they would explain what Content Strategy is, what it isn’t, and how it relates to the work of Knowledge Management professionals. Rahel noted that she and Kate come at this work from different backgrounds – in Rahel’s case, more from the end that deals with technical systems. Kate trained as a journalist and worked at the BBC.

What is ‘content strategy’?

Rahel started with a definition of content. Content generally is whatever is contained in a receptacle — tea in a cup, for example. In the context of content strategy, the ‘receptacle’ could be pairs of tags, as understood in XML, HTML and other mark-up systems — <mark> like this</mark> — and the content is the stuff between the tags. But this content is more than just inert ‘stuff’: it is also potential information — ‘human-usable contextualised data’.

And what is context? Rahel asked, ‘Is twelve good or bad?’ The question is absurd because, it lacks context. But if she says, ‘An overcoat, cost twelve dollars. Good or bad?’ — it sounds like a good deal. A paperclip costing twelve dollars? Not so good.

Managing content is different from managing data. Content has grammar, and it means something to people; in comparison, a number in a field in a database is less complex to manage. This is important to keep in mind, because businesses consistently make the mistake of trying to manage content as if it were data.

As for strategy, the dictionary definition implies alternatives, one of which is chosen to make a desired future happen: to achieve a goal. A strategy is a plan, plus the connotation that you considered alternative options before you created the plan.

So, a content strategy is a plan for the design of content systems. A content system can be an organic, human thing; it isn’t a piece of software, although it’s frequently facilitated by software.

To put together a content strategy, you have to understand all the potential content you have at hand. Imagine an airline putting together a strategy for social media. The strategy will be insufficient, if it deals only with what’s in the blogs and tweets and customer-facing Web pages. There’s also a knowledge-base about airline terms and conditions, size of permitted carry-on luggage, cancellations policies and so on, to which that social media will from time to time refer. That too must be considered in the strategising.

You want to create a system that gives repeatable and reliable results: the system deals with who creates content, who checks it, who signs it off, where it is going to be delivered. It requires governance, some kind of control and authority – just as a company would set out how to claim your expenses.

But whereas businesses are quite precise in how they manage money matters, their handling of content is often chaotic. OK, we all learned how to write in primary school and maybe we also learned how to ride a bicycle, but the latter isn’t a sufficient qualification for winning the Tour de France. Similarly there are casual writers and there are professional writers, and professional skilled content creators should be in charge.

The content lifecycle

We want a system that governs the management of content, throughout its entire lifecycle. Our speakers showed a circle diagram with four quadrants (pictured below): the quadrants were labelled Analyse – Collect – Manage – Deliver.

Kate Kenyon and Rahel Baillie, our speakers

The content management lifecycle diagram

  • Analysis — Rahel suggested some questions we should start with. What do we need? What user research should we do? How will we govern this? What is the budget? If we have to triage, what do we leave behind?
  • Collection — Where are we gathering content from? Do we have to write it all, or can we source some from elsewhere? What about the editing cycle? What about versioning, localising? What’s the metadata that goes with items of content?
  • Managing — Content modelling helps us maintain standards and ensure that parts of the process can be reliably automated. How do we configure the components? How do we structure content? Structuring refers both to the editorial conventions we use, and the repertoire of tags that impose structure [in a machine-parseable way]. What standards should we use? And how shall we store the content? There is nothing more frustrating than to be told, ‘We didn’t design the database that way, so you can’t do that.’
  • Delivery — These days, content presentation typically means transferring it to a CMS (Content Management System) that does the actual delivery, through a process of transformation and loading. And you’ll want to measure how well your content is doing – are people using it? If not, why, and what should we be doing instead?

The content a user sees may have been aggregated from multiple sources – think of an Amazon page, where the image, product name, description, the price, all come from different systems and are put together as one display. Or, your content may be syndicated onwards to other systems.

When the content is delivered, is that it? Generally not. When information gets stale, you need a policy for when and how to retire it, and what implications that has for links in and links out. Or, your policy might call for the information to be revised: do we do so to improve accuracy, to improve performance, or what?

Content is rarely a once-through supply chain. It’s not like printing and delivering a newspaper, and that’s it. (Actually, even newspaper content now lives on electronically.) In a business, content may be about products – for example, sales brochures, user documentation – and as the product comes out in new versions, the content about it must be re-versioned too.

Figuring out the framework of the content lifecycle is what strategy is for. The strategy is in the first quadrant, the rest is implementation, but in creating the strategy, you must plan for the whole cycle. You can think of it like getting an architect to design you a house. You don’t ask the architect to put in the drywall or plumbing; there are others who specialise in these bits of implementation.

Now, there may be writers who call themselves ‘content strategists’, and that might be true, but then they are doing two roles distinguishable from each other. In her life as a consultant, Rahel would be brought in to help, but not to write copy – they could hire a writer for a third of the day-rate Rahel charges. But Kate added that if you are the first person in your company to be asked to look at content strategy, you might well find yourself working across all four quadrants until your colleagues get the hang of things.

Core methodology

Kate Kenyon now took centre stage. The methodology she and Rahel practice starts with assessing business needs. Don’t expect the business to have done this themselves! You may hear people say ‘It’s too slow – sign-off takes too long’ (indeed, Kate once had a client where it took three weeks to sign off a tweet!) You may hear ‘Our content is out of date’ – in one case experienced by Kate, stuff was eight years out of date. Maybe they can’t find anything. Or, you’ll hear, ‘Our content doesn’t go far enough.’ People will say they want to create once and publish everywhere, or syndicate what they have.

Without doubt, it’s important to listen to the difficulties that people express, but if you want to go beyond just fixing localised pain points, you have to be able to map these pains more widely. You might respond, ‘These issues are impacting your revenue streams’, or ‘These issues are limiting the scope of your operations’. Either way, they are impacting business profitability.

Making the business case. The trouble is, a lot of business leaders see internal return on revenue as a ‘sunk cost’. There is a tendency to undervalue people’s time, so time wasted re-doing things four and five times over doesn’t get the attention it should from those that spend the money. It’s worth saying that sloppy content management practices impact operational efficiencies and therefore profitability – then you’ve got these people’s attention.

Rahel gave the example of a company with a hundred people working on content. It took them almost a hundred steps to get an image assigned to a product; they didn’t see anything odd about that. But, they also had an ambition to scale up to handling three quarters of a million products within the space of a year. They couldn’t afford to add 200 more content workers, so how could they work smarter?

In a nutshell, the first part of content strategy consulting is to assess business need, express it in terms of profitability, and write the business case. This had come as a surprise to Kate when she started working on content strategy – surely it wasn’t her job to write a business case? But after repeatedly failing to get decent budgets for content management, she learned that engaging with business need is part of the job.

These things also apply in the operation of a charity. Cancer Research, for example, needs to raise funds and spend wisely, and part of their work is to make the general public aware of facts about cancer and its symptoms. ‘Profitability’ may not always be measured in the same way, but if you can map content back to business outcomes – the reason the business exists – you’ll get a lot more traction for your ideas.

Rahel described a business’s content as ‘the payload’. Increasingly, this content is what customers interact with – what a potential customer finds on your Web site, for example. They don’t usually interact with the product per se, and when executives realise this, it’s often an ‘Aha!’ moment.

So, you have got an idea of what the business wants to achieve; the next question is, Where are we now? What should we look at?

Analysing current processes

As for content that currently exists, you should audit that. Examples would include a library, documents, printed documents, Web content, metadata, audio-visual resources such as images, audio files, video, chatbot scripts.

‘I think they think that stuff is put there by fairies!’ remarked Kate. It’s done by people. Part of the audit is therefore to find out about the people who make and maintain this stuff. What skills do they have? How do they work? How are they incentivised?

For many content producers, churning out content is their narrow focus, their raison d’être. Indeed they may get a bonus based on their ability to meet a quantitative target. People stuck in this mind-set are often the hardest to change. (‘Two thousand white papers,’ reminisced Rahel, ‘and only four had ever been downloaded!’)

You should assess the rôles of everyone in that content lifecycle – not just writers and editors, but anyone who commissions content, creates it, manages it (if there is some form of governance structure), and those who upload it, archive it. You should look at the processes which join those people together – the email chains, the spreadsheets that the processes are tracked through, and the toolkits used in the process, both hard and soft.

Rahel increasingly meets a obsession with Agile – it’s the current business fad. A business will say, ‘Let’s get in an Agile Team! Two Agile teams!’ – er, no, Rahel will say, you need to get in some writers… Agile teams are seen as young, hip developers, performing some kind of magic with code, and content will come out of the other end somehow. Whereas if you tell them ‘you need some writers,’ it seems to conjure up cranky middle-aged ladies sitting in the corner knitting content and drinking tea. Rahel has started calling these attitudes out – it’s cognitive bias, and businesses are blind to it.

When you are doing such an audit, you won’t have time to do a complete one – nor should you. You are not there to count things; that would be an inventory, though that also can have its purposes (an example of inventory would be, ‘You have 20,000 images and only 30% have metadata associated with them’).

When you are auditing content systems you are benchmarking against standards, assessing whether aspects of the current system are ‘good enough’. Therefore a starting point to the audit is to determine, within the context of that business and its particular needs, what ‘good enough’ means. You could assess content through a myriad different lenses and focuses, and waste a lot of time doing so, hence the importance of defining the scope of the audit and its benchmarks before you start.

Rahel said, she often does a basic quantitative audit initially, an inventory, and then asks, ‘Of this content, what is the 10% that performs the best? What’s at the bottom, performance-wise? And what does the first have that the second doesn’t?’ Then she’ll do a qualitative assessment of the top 10%. That helps cut the job down to size.

If you can pin down clearly-defined outcomes, said Kate, such that you know what ‘good’ looks like, and if you can quantify metrics around what is ‘good’ or ‘good enough’, then you can start a proper analysis. She showed a spreadsheet relating to current project for a small part of Tesco – it lists about 135 documents which are there to help Tesco suppliers to understand how to work with Tesco. Her ‘lenses’ for this project are to do with findability in search, therefore search-related metadata, plus accessibility. These assessments can be given a quantitative score, which gives her an idea of the characteristics of high-functioning, medium, and low-functioning documents. In addition, she tracked the number of views each document has had in the last 12 months.

This spreadsheet is a working tool – ‘It is not a business deliverable; I cannot stress this enough.’ It may be the fruit of a full week ploughing through 120-page documents, but nobody wants to see this.

Rahel added that in the Content Strategy Master’s programme she teaches in Austria, something she covers in the introductory course is, sets of deliverables by stage as you go through the job. She colour-codes them to indicate which ones are just for you, and nobody needs to see them. Other ones are for the User Experience people to see; and those ones are for the taxonomists. And these three are the ones that you will show management. The more detail you show management, the more complex the issues seem; the more they will think you are inflating your work, and the more likely they are to back away.

You can develop a Gap Analysis, an understanding of what the company wants to achieve plus a realistic view of how far they are from that goal. You can perceive what is working well for them, and what isn’t.

When you talk to people about these matters, be kind. People don’t intentionally come to work to do bad work. Kate describes things in terms of ‘good, better, best’. You can address the situation in terms of, ‘If we are going to make changes for the better, where would be a good place to start? What should be the first thing to start on?’

Rahel gets companies to create a requirements matrix with the so-called ‘MoSCoW’ prioritisation formula – Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have (this time). (Alternatively for the last letter, ‘Would like to have’.) This is politically useful because if someone later asks, ‘Why aren’t you working on [Blah],’ you can pull out the document and say, ‘This was signed off by the Steering Committee!’ Also, prioritisation helps to manage the project within the budget allocated.

Kate said, the next step to take is to estimate potential return on the proposed investment. ‘You know, when they start to ask you How much? and How long? – you know you’ve got them!’ But to get to those questions, you need to estimate the return.

The road map for change

Even if you are not quite sure, it’s good to suggest, ‘This is where I think we should start – what we should do first.’ To make those suggestions, you adapt your message to the format preferred by that organisation. One client likes 20-page White Papers. Another likes lots of pictures. Some like colourful slide decks. Focus on solutions, not problems – people don’t like to hear about their problems. And it’s really helpful to have a sponsor – someone senior who will stand up and say, ‘This looks like a good idea.’

Kate walked us through a few examples of these recommendation documents. Those aimed at high levels of management had less implementation-oriented detail than those designed to inform line managers. Often one ends up creating layered sets of documentation, to function at multiple layers of the organisation.



Our speakers were asked if their arrival on site was ever seen with some dread, through fear of job losses. Rahel said she has never experienced that. There is always too much work to do, and by taking a better strategic approach to content management, and a bit of automation, what gets reduced is the boring and wasteful bits of the work, leaving people with more time to tackle things they’ve wanted to get on with, but were hitherto under too much day-to-day pressure to undertake.

That said, for some people, change is that scary gap between letting go of one trapeze bar and seizing the next. Some people whose jobs require being tough (journalists and market-traders come to mind) often have strong tendencies to resist change. But you are not there to make people’s lives hard and impoverished. Often the practices they are ploughing on with are untenable, so people will have to change what they do, sometimes in quite fundamental ways. It’s important to ensure people will have support in making needed changes, and the whole business should be prepared to contribute change management support.

KM and CM

Rob Rossett wondered if content management equates to knowledge management. KM however seems like a vaguer and more theoretical field than managing content as Rahel and Kate had described it. Rahel said that ‘content’ as she and Kate were using the term is actually pretty concrete, and the management thereof was in the focused context of Content Management Systems. Knowledge Management is probably the larger picture. But the content we seek to manage better can be assembled to convey knowledge, and content management is about making that assembly-work easier to do.

Kate commented that 16 years ago when she started at the BBC, she arrived proud of her journalism skills, ironically on the day when they sacked all the sub-editors and threw copies of ‘HTML for Dummies’ at the journalists! From there she progressed to editing, editorial management, and now content management and content strategy. But along that road the one thing that had been the biggest challenge, the thing that had taken her furthest out of her comfort zone, was this matter of analysing content strategy from the viewpoint of business benefit.

Cost estimation and selling the project

Someone referred back to the slide about how, post audit, you get down to saying, ‘It will cost this much and it will take this long.’ But what if you really don’t have a clue? Kate said, ‘Creativity with numbers!’ Kate is a creative words person – it took her a while to realise that in the world of business, people are often just as creative with numbers! It’s usually OK to offer ballpark figures. You can hedge it with High-Low-Medium costs. You can suggest a pilot project to give some better numbers to work with.

Kate used to work for Expedia, the travel booking website. They had faulty, badly structured content – information about hotels, for example. She talked to the Customer Services Department, often a good source of information. They showed he phone logs which showed that about 10% of the calls they were fielding were caused by shoddy or misleading content. She asked, ‘how much does each call cost to handle?’ This information was available too, for each country where Expedia had a call centre. Doing the sums gave Kate the confidence to project the potential savings to the business, if improved content could reduce incoming phone calls by 10%.

Kate said, she has learned a lot from sales people about estimating numbers, and how to go after numbers that mean something to somebody. Rahel offered an anecdote about an American client who made and sold dental chairs. Managing content was way down their list of priorities until they planned to take their chairs to an expo in Belgium, to make inroads into the European market. It was drawn to their attention that the EU counts a dental chair as a ‘medical device’ which must be adequately documented in all the European languages. When they realised potentially three million dollars’ worth of sales were about to evaporate in front of their eyes, the $30,000 budget she’d been asking for then materialised. Actually, she bumped it to $50,000!

— Conrad Taylor, October 2019