Developing a content strategy involves planning our communication to achieve an established goal and maximize the odds of a favorable outcome. Complications develop when content authors have limited knowledge of the pillars of strategic content. Each of these pillars ensures a defined purpose, audience-directed message, believable and factual content, strong argument, interaction, audience, and peer reviews and audience buy-in.
These pillars directly relate to the planning and cognitive aspect of content development, instead of the technical component. When we grasp the thought and discipline of creating quality content, we are approaching success. We must take time to organize and plan content, determine the best content to present, and identify the most optimal way to present it.
By relying on the pillars of content strategy, we can create content that will achieve our objectives and produce positive outcomes.
Infographic Source: pillars of the content strategy
#1. Clear Purpose
Whenever we produce strategic content, we have a purpose: to inform, to persuade or to collaborate with the audience. The nature of our purpose prescribes the content strategy to take to collect, organize and present information. As a part of our content strategy, we should define the general purpose, what we seek to accomplish and how we want the audience to respond. For example, should our general purpose be to bring the audience up to date on a matter, or do we want the audience to respond in an immediate and predictable way? Content developers should strive for precision when stating the purpose by defining who, what, where, when, why and so what.
Once we define a clear purpose, we need to go back and make sure that what we plan to accomplish is realistic, that is, compatible with our budget, time and other allotted resources. For a purpose to be realistic, it should make an impact. If nothing changes once the message is transmitted, then the effort spent creating it is wasted. A realistic purpose should also be timed appropriately with other events. Giving a presentation to an audience distracted by outside events might be as ineffective as increasing prices during a deep recession or promoting a community fundraiser on the opening weekend of the state fair. Finally, our purpose must be compatible with the goals of our organization, the laws that apply to our business and the cultural expectations of our audience.
#2. Audience Orientation
Before trying to communicate with an audience, learn about their needs, wants and desires. Aside from considering our audience’s needs, we should think about other aspects of the audience that might shape our message. What information does the audience expect to receive from the information we provide? What information does the audience already have? What role does the audience play—decision-maker, collector of information, user?
Here are some audience characteristics that are important to consider.
Addressing an audience of 100,000 people requires a different content strategy from addressing an audience of 100 people, or a group of 20. We should choose a place and method appropriate for the group we will face.
Is the audience homogeneous or diverse? Audiences may differ by social criteria, including age, gender, race, culture, health, education, and income. A largely ethnic audience may require a professional certified legal translation of the content or a simultaneous interpreter.
The subject matter and the presentation of information may influence a favorable, neutral or unfavorable reaction. Audiences may be skeptical, unmotivated, hostile or supportive. Based on how an audience is likely to react, we can shape or limit the information we provide, add additional details, adjust our appeals or tweak our message to maximize the potential for a positive reaction.
If the audience shares our knowledge about the topic, they probably won’t require much support material or education to understand our message. However, if the material contains new or unfamiliar concepts, then we may need to provide illustrations and spend time explaining concepts to ensure audience understanding. Additionally, different audiences will expect different levels of detail. Senior management will likely be more interested in key bullets, summary statements or immediate implications.
The level of expertise that the audience has about the topic should dictate how much time we should spend providing background information and details about the subject. We need to determine whether people in the audience have different levels of familiarity, expertise and decision-making authority before we develop a strategy. We may decide to exercise caution in using specialized jargon and complex concepts that only industry insiders know.
#3. Credible Content
Strategic content is credible content. Audiences expect us to substantiate our claims with solid data from reputable sources. To avoid damaging our reputation and reliability, we must take the time to identify quality sources. We must also exercise caution when citing sources from social media, personal blogs, and websites that lack adequate editorial and fact checkers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any information found on the Internet is objective, correct and current.
Here are a few questions to filter the credibility of sources.
Is the source an established provider of credible and reliable information? How long has the source been considered a reputable provider of accurate and unbiased information? Is it a relevant and recognized expert in the field? If it is unknown, new or obscure, then we should probably seek a source or expert who can better validate the claims we make.
• Could the source be biased or perceived as biased by members of the audience?
To judge the value of information, we need to identify whether the author or publisher may have ulterior motives. For example, research findings of the dangers of tobacco can be presented quite differently by a cigarette manufacturer, a public health organization that warns about tobacco’s links to cancer, and a group of parents and educators trying to teach children about the dangers of addiction.
Information published by a source with an opinion may not be bad, but recognizing that bias and realizing that ulterior motives may influence the conclusions reached is important when determining the usefulness of the information.
• What was the intention of the publisher?
Was the content meant to be used as marketing collateral, promotion of a political campaign or request for public support and funding? Try to distinguish between marketing, political advocacy, and non-biased reporting. Try to search deep and not submit to misleading organizational names that may be fronts for marketing firms.
• Does the information come from an authoritative source?
We should evaluate whether the content we will use comes from a knowledgeable source with the educational background and accomplishments needed to speak intelligently about the subject and offer an opinion that will be accepted by others.
• How reliable is the research?
Try to determine if the data was collected using a reliable method that minimized error. Did the authors use scientific methods to collect information, ensure reliability and eliminate error? Did a qualified analyst interpret the data and draw conclusions? Are the results repeatable and can they be validated?
• Is the research current?
Because conditions, circumstances, technology, and preferences are always in a state of flux, new findings may render older research findings useless. In some instances, research findings that are only a few months old may not be useful. For strategic content to be credible, we must critically assess all data to prevent problems that will damage our message and credibility.
#4. Strategic Argument
When using strategic content, we try to persuade the audience to think differently or act in a certain way. The key to developing a strong argument is understanding the audience. Unless our message is very insignificant and inconsequential, we should start by profiling the audience to identify what they regard as important, what information they require to think differently or act, and which arguments they will accept as credible. Try to identify what keeps the audience up at night, their biggest concerns and what they most often think about.
When we understand the needs and concerns of the audience, we can more easily develop compelling messages. If we analyze the audience before developing the message, we will be in a better position to know how to ask for what we want. When preparing content, consider the audience’s priorities, pressures, fears, and frustrations, and try to determine the factors that drive their decisions. Further, knowing the audience in depth allows us to anticipate the information they need and their objections so that we can develop highly effective, persuasive arguments and responses.
Seldom can content capture an audience’s full attention? While strategic content producers slowly build powerful, methodical, compelling conclusions to inspire audiences to spring into action, often the audience lacks the attention span, interest or time to engage. Other factors, such as one’s personal credibility, the curiosity of audience members, lucidity of the content and value of supplemental resources can also improve the success of our message.
Here are some factors that distract audiences and prevent you from receiving their full attention.
• Social Differences
Differences in beliefs, communication and decision-making styles, interaction patterns, and expectations between a communicator and the audience can present additional challenges. Cultural, demographic, psychographic, and generational differences can also produce unique challenges that interfere with communication.
To be an effective message, the audience must clearly understand the intended strategic content. Whenever possible and appropriate, avoid using slang, jargon, special terminology and phrases and concepts that are unfamiliar to the audience. We should never make the audience guess what we mean. Ambiguity forces the audience either to imagine, probably wrongly, what they don’t understand or to completely ignore it. Strategic content should consist of clear context and meaningful visuals that connect the points in the message.
One characteristic of strategic content is that the opening instantly hooks readers or listeners. The most effective method is to connect directly to the interests and concerns of the audience within the scope of our purpose. One of the most common approaches to hook an audience is to state up front our own findings, conclusion or recommended strategy. Try to determine what will engage the audience by determining what’s in it for them. Sometimes this takes brainstorming to come up with good ideas. Essentially, we want to present an idea that answers the question, why should the audience care? The answering statement shouldn’t just be worthy and convincing, it should be captivating.
Here are a few more strategic content ideas to capture and retain the audience’s attention.
Stories are one of the best ways to capture audience attention. The best stories strengthen the purpose or values expressed in the message. Usually, developing the best story and telling it right takes creativity and input from others.
Provide examples of real-world uses and results that were attained by following the recommendations we make. Offer trustworthy case studies with testimonials. Share simple instructions and videos detailing when it was done, where it was done, how it was done and the benefits that resulted.
Numerous studies confirm that visuals are highly effective at attracting and maintaining the attention of audiences. We must create or find attractive visuals, including charts, graphs, pictures, illustrations and videos that clearly support our purpose and communicate our message. When our content includes written material, we should strategically use headlines, sub-headlines, bullet points, font variations, white space, call-outs and sidebars to draw attention to the points we want to emphasize.
Recognize that our audience wants to see what the future offers to those who follow our advice. Provide a big-picture perspective of how the future will be better. Keep the outlook realistic to avoid losing audience credibility. Providing an outlook adds to the usefulness of the message and makes it more memorable.
We should also solicit prospective audience members to critique and evaluate our content. However, even when people take the time to critique content, they often do so ineffectively. They make the mistake of rushing through the process, overlooking sections and critical aspects.
This is particularly true when people have their spoken presentations evaluated by others. Hurrying through a presentation, with little regard to posture, eye contact, vocal quality, graphics, charts, headings, and subheads, can completely miss or obscure the benefits of critiquing. Without effective feedback, we can easily miss opportunities to catch problems that can become catastrophes and opportunities that can bring success.
Success is measured in the way an audience responds to our content.