Five Steps for a Performance-Driven Approach to Content

To be honest, there are more than five steps needed for a performance-driven approach to content. A lot more.

Information Development World 2015 LogoAt the beginning of Information Development World in San Jose on Sept. 30, about 20 content professionals spent a day exploring performance-driven content in a workshop conducted by content strategists Paula L. Land and Kevin P. Nichols. During that day, the team touched on the numerous steps involved in developing a content approach that includes setting goals, measuring progress, and optimizing content based on how well it performs.

At the risk of slighting the complexity of the topic, I focus on five highlights. Even if you’re not implementing a complete performance-driven content plan (and almost no one has), these are steps that can probably boost your content efforts.

Start with good content.
Definition of performance-driven contentPerformance-driven content has its roots in data-driven marketing. In both, we measure how content performs to figure out what to do next. As Nichols explained, we focus on “measurements and evaluation of content in order to make decisions on future content priorities.” And of course starting with effective content sets us up for success.

Work with your content team on business requirements.
Business requirements are core inputs that go into developing a performance strategy. To gather these requirements, create or identify a content team – for example, the content strategist, copy writer, and product manager. They can act as a de facto governance team throughout the project. Get additional input from stakeholders, and distill the requirements into a project brief.

The Content Strategy Alliance published a project brief template you can use. This is one of the more than 40 tools included in The Content Strategy Alliance Tools and Templates: A Best Practices Handbook.

Pay attention to the user.
Nichols emphasized that a user journey map is the most important user input when developing a performance strategy. “The user journey defines the end-to-end steps the customer takes when interacting with your brand,” he stated.

Armed with a user journey, we can create a publishing model that focuses on user needs and content types, as opposed to business silos.

Nichols identified eight steps for developing a user journey map.

  1. Select the persona you’re charting the journey for.
  2. Document the user’s tasks.
  3. Chart the steps the user takes to complete a task (this can be done with varying levels of detail, depending on business and user needs.)
  4. Determine which users complete which tasks. This will provide valuable information about user states, and this data can help when developing personalized content.
  5. Identify triggers – the motivation that started the user on her journey.
  6. Map channel (web, mobile, app, packaging content, etc.) to each task.
  7. Define the content needed for each step and identify what is missing.
  8. Test the customer journey with user testing and other validation efforts.

Assess your content.
As Paula Land explained, in a performance-driven content approach, “constantly monitoring and optimizing content is the goal.” To do this, we need to figure out how much content we have (content inventory) and how good it is (content audit). The Content Strategy Alliance Handbook includes a content audit template with a list of factors to consider when evaluating content.

Land stressed that a content audit is not a job for the content strategist alone. The work of auditing should be spread around so that more people in an enterprise can learn the value of content and how improving it is everyone’s business.

Govern your content.
Once an audit is completed, the team can then plan content improvements and figure out how to make them. This is where governance comes in. Making change, especially with content, often requires organizational change.

Benefts of Governing Content
When talking about governance, Paula Land stated, emphasize benefits, not burdens.

If organizations didn’t include any people, that would be easy. “Numbers are easy,” Land said. “People are hard.”

Land outlined some processes and tools that can help an organization prepare for and make changes.

  • Develop a team model to support governance. The more team members, the better. Just make sure to define roles and responsibilities.
  • Train the team.
  • Provide enough documentation so that everyone knows what to do and why.
  • Communicate with the organization regularly.
  • Use governance tools such as editorial calendars, style guides, and dashboards to report tracking data.

Throughout the course of the workshop, Land and Nichols examined numerous other details that go into performance-driven content: hard and soft metrics, omnichannel content delivery, and personalization. They’re all great candidates for future blog posts. But for now, I imagine most content strategists have their hands full with these five issues. How are you putting these steps to work?

Stories and Strategy: Highlights from the Los Angeles Content Strategy Innovation Summit

Content Strategy Innovation SummitOn Thursday, Sept. 10, about 100 content strategists and content marketers gathered in downtown Los Angeles for the Content Strategy Innovation Summit. Here are select highlights from the day’s sessions.


Google Apps – Engaging with Your Audience
By Veronique Lafargue
Global Head of Content, Google

Lafargue has been involved in Google Apps for business projects, and she argues that the key to effective content in these products is authenticity. How to achieve it?

  1. Define your core; know your brand and what it stands for.
  2. Decide who is NOT your audience. This can help focus product and content efforts.
  3. See the heroes in your customers — the people who want “to make work better, more fair, more fun.”
  4. Bring a piece of yourself to the content you create.

HLS Online Strategy 2: Web Platform Migration and Content Strategy
By Keith McCluskey
Senior Director, Online Strategy, Harvard Law School

McCluskey delivered an update about his experience in a multi-year project to upgrade the design and content platform for Harvard Law School. Among his tactics:

  • Keith McClusky Presents about Harvard Law School
    Keith McClusky delivers an update on Harvard Law School’s online strategy.

    Listening: Seek out and share best practices and other information with industry peers.

  • Starting small: After being denied the full budget for a redesign effort, begin with a pilot project that is less expensive and will show the value of stronger content design and strategy.
  • Getting buy-in: Develop an online strategy committee that unifies deans and other stakeholders, especially the ones who might throw up roadblocks.
  • Scrum: Tap into the Agile methodology to create a list of tasks that can then be prioritized.

When Words Are The Product
By Anna Bloom
Content Strategist, Facebook

Based in London, Bloom is working primarily on advertising products for Facebook. In approaching the interface content she creates, she strives for the most honest, effective terms. “When words are the product, we need to be professional truth seekers.” Her steps to crafting such content:

  • Gather the facts.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Be honest about what works, and be open to surprises.

Strategy, Storytelling and Stakeholders
By Dave Howard
Manager, Content Strategy, Herbalife

Howard works on marketing, brand, and website content for the health and nutrition company. He spoke about the emotional connection and business use of stories. He cited the The Heath and Heath attributes of a successful story, and, yes, the attributes are an acrostic that spells “success.”

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Creating Trust and Belonging Through Content
By Joscelin Cooper and John Campbell
Content Strategists, Airbnb

In their work, Cooper and Campbell focus on how content can incite emotion, change behavior, and shape experiences. They drew on literary examples to show how thoughtful writing can be integrated into a user experience to help users feel that they belong to a unique, safe community.

Why focus on examples from fiction and drama? Because literature offers valuable content lessons about

  1. Story
  2. Clarity and concision
  3. Character and persona
  4. Authorial intent and “getting back to real life”

Literature also offers inspiration for whittling content down until it is as simple and precise as possible. In the words of writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Questions and Lists for Managing Content Strategy

Book Review:
Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide

By Kevin P. Nichols

XML Press, The Content Wrangler Content Strategy Series, 138 pages

Full disclosure: I’ve been meaning to review this book for some time, but I’ve been too busy with my own enterprise content strategy projects. My efforts would have gone smoother if I had read this book first.

Enterprise Content Strategy Book CoverWith Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide, Kevin P. Nichols turns his years of leading content strategy teams and projects into practical, detailed advice. Nichols is the author (with Donald Chestnut) of UX Strategy for Dummies, and for more than five years he served as director and global practice lead for content strategy at SapientNitro. At numerous events and conferences, Nichols has shared his experience and interest in topics such as omnichannel and performance-driven content strategy.

Nichols has been practicing and perfecting his craft for years, and he crams a great amount of content expertise into this deceptively small book. The page count is small, but the content strategy ideas are plentiful. Nichols likes lists, and he packs his book with sequences of questions and considerations that content strategists need to ask and be aware of, whether they work in a large enterprise or a small agency.

Early in the book, Nichols defines enterprise content strategy and how it “envelops all proprietary and intellectual property across an organization’s operational infrastructure.” A thorough enterprise content strategy includes every delivery method, every content interaction, and every integration point.

A content strategist in an enterprise needs to be aware of three factors, and the many processes and tools involved in each:

  • Content experience
  • Content delivery
  • Content governance

Perhaps the most powerful of these factors is governance. In the following pages, Nichols presents his content strategy project lifecycle, the nine steps that should be part of most content projects. The content project lifecycle is similar to some presentations of a product lifecycle, but at its core sits governance, the organizing, supportive force that helps keep the other steps – and the people taking those steps – moving forward.

The remainder of the project guide is organized into quick chapters that track the steps of the content strategy project lifecycle:

  • Plan
  • Assess
  • Define
  • Design
  • Build
  • Publish
  • Measure
  • Optimize
  • Govern

Throughout these chapters, Nichols offers how-to insights from someone who has clearly been in the trenches. He knows the questions to ask. He knows who you might need to collaborate with. He knows the many details that need to be considered for a thoughtful, effective strategy.

For example, in the Define Phase chapter, Nichols discusses how to create a content strategy framework after doing a thorough audit. In a sample framework, he asks many of the questions content strategists need to ask during this phase. It seems as if just answering those questions will result in a worthwhile framework.

As if. Despite the advice and encouragement, Nichols never shies away from the reality that doing content strategy in an enterprise is challenging work. It might have been nice to see more specific examples of this throughout the book, but perhaps Nichols’ agency work keeps him from sharing those too revealing case studies.

It would also be helpful to see even deeper explorations of certain topics, such as omnichannel content delivery. On that note, Nichols simply states, “I plan to continue to evolve the theme of omnichannel content strategy.” Perhaps some of that thinking can be included in a future edition of this book.

Admittedly, this book is a project guide, and Nichols acknowledges that he doesn’t intend to discuss exhaustively all the topics he raises. In many cases, he mentions other books that focus on certain topics in greater detail, such as Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper’s Managing Enterprise Content and Rahel Bailie and Noz Urbina’s Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits.

Nichols’ book deserves a place among such work. With its sharp focus on using content to achieve positive business results, this little guide is packed with enterprise-tested ideas that most content strategists can learn from and start applying now.