Content strategy: the five pillars approach
Our guest blogger this month is Rahel Bailie. She writes about her approach to developing content strategy and shares a framework for you to use in your own work.
Rahel is a highly experienced content strategist and was formerly Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll.
Content strategy methodology
When a client calls you in as a content strategist, it’s because they have a content problem that they want solved, and they are counting on you to solve it. They want to know that you have a process, and that the process will result in a productive outcome. In this article, I’m going to outline a standardised approach that I’ve developed over the years that is centred around five pillars of inquiry.
The approach is rooted in the basic management consulting process. It works because it’s familiar to both mid-level management and upper-level executives, and they know what to expect as an outcome. I’ve been fond of saying that most management consultants do financial turnarounds, whereas content strategists do content turnarounds.
Adapting management consulting methodology means keeping the process, but changing the substance within the steps. Let’s look at both the process and then at the substance.
First comes the discovery. Basically, you want to determine why the organisation has brought you in. Are they trying to solve a business problem or reach an elusive business goal that involves content? You need to figure out what they think their problem is, and where they want to end up.
What’s important is not to take their report of their problem at face value. When clients lack the knowledge or vocabulary to express the actual problem, they’ll describe symptoms and solutions that might be way off base. (Heads up: as the metaphor queen, it’s my prerogative to use as many metaphors as I need to make my points. You’ve been warned.)
If you ask a person how they’ll get from the UK to Ireland, and they’ve never heard of air travel, they’ll probably describe a boat. It might be any type of boat, from a rowboat to an ocean liner and every type of boat in between, but it will be a boat. As a content strategist, you’ll have heard of the content equivalent of air travel, and it’s up to you to listen between the lines and realise that their problem is actually about efficiency of travel, not what size or colour of boat.
In other words, the goal is to listen to the organisation’s descriptions of their business problems or goals, and then extrapolate the salient information. The outcome is information that frames the questions for the gap analysis.
The second stage is the gap analysis. This is where you determine what the organisation is doing now – the current state – and what business value the organisation wants their content to deliver – the future state – and what the gap is between these states. That will tell you what’s missing, and what they need to succeed.
Questions for discovery and gap analysis
The questions you ask in discovery and gap analysis can range wildly. It depends on which department your interviewees are in, who is being interviewed from which team in that department, and what they happen to be working on. After all, whatever problems are top of mind at a given moment is what gets discussed. It’s easy to conduct a range of interviews and then realise that you’ve missed a critical aspect of the potential problem because the topic arose only in the last interviews.
This is where the five pillars approach comes in. This framework gives you a way to structure your interviews, and to synthesise the results in a way that addresses the five umbrella areas of any organisation.
By the time you’ve developed the strategy, you’ll want to have asked questions about each of the five areas. This will help you understand:
- the business problem
- the current and future states, so that you can calculate the gap
- conditions that might affect how you put together the roadmap, such as budget, governance, or infrastructure constraints
The five pillars
The goal is to gather enough information about how the organisation currently works and their aspirations for a future state, and be able to reframe that information in a way that can be fed back to the client for validation, and suitable recommendations in each of the areas. The outcome is generally a presentation or report that organises the information into logical buckets, the five pillars, so that management gets a clear picture of what’s happening in their organisation, with a series of recommendations.
Pillar 1: organisational needs
The organisation was concerned enough about how content is affecting business that they have sought out your expertise. The executives are going to want to know that you are hearing their concerns and are motivated to help rectify the situation.
Pillar 2: user needs
Ideally, user needs and organisational needs are two sides to the same coin. One of the things that the organisation wants is generally for users to succeed, and these questions get to the heart of what users need to be successful.
Pillar 3: content needs
The content itself is an actor in this process. There may be a need for particular types of content, or particular metadata or structures, or outputs. All of the content needs should be gathered so that you have a strong sense of how they are delivering content and what they need to do in order to get to their future state.
Pillar 4: operational needs
Content operations covers the various aspects of the system to produce content. Operations starts with the people doing the authoring, and whether they can do their jobs efficiently, and radiates out to the reviewers and workflow processes, and other such operational pain points.
Pillar five: technology needs
Questions about technology are left to last because you need to understand how they need to perform before you can determine whether the existing technical infrastructure is adequate or needs an upgrade. These questions are meant to match tools to the functions to ensure that what you will recommend in the roadmap is fit for purpose.
Building a roadmap
The roadmap is the synthesis of the work you’ve done in the previous stages, where you have listened to the patient’s symptoms, made a diagnosis, and are now writing a treatment plan. The roadmap is highly situational. There are no cookie-cutter businesses, and no cookie-cutter roadmaps. Even when the situation may feel like you’re writing the same prescription for the same flu, there will be subtle differences in the details.
The client is counting on your expertise to help them understand their ailment, and to provide the context that gives them a richer comprehension of both the problem and the steps needed to rectify the problem.
The roadmap should refer back to the five pillars approach. In fact, I try to do the final presentation in a way that repeats the five areas, first in the needs, and then in the recommendations, before I bring them together into a sequence of dependencies.
The goal is to give the organisation a high-level plan that they can use, either with or without your help, to move forward. They should be able to see how the plan addresses each of the recommendations from the gap analysis, and what they need to do, and in which order.
It’s highly unlikely to be able to give the organisation a project plan with assigned dates, as there are too many variables within the organisation around processes and approvals. However, you can sequence the events on the roadmap to demonstrate which activities must be done, and decisions taken, in relation to other activities and decisions.
Use the five pillars framework
The five pillars approach is an overview, a framework for the part of the discovery phase and gap analysis to do with questions during interviews. Within the activities applicable to each pillar, you will most certainly employ the familiar techniques of doing a content inventory and audit, qualitative analysis, look at personas, analyse metadata, and so on.
I have built this approach based on my experience providing consulting services for nearly 20 years. It will help you ensure that the questions you ask of an organisation are balanced across the five areas and the four stages. The questions that have been included are generic, and meant as a starting point for deeper investigation. Your questions will certainly be deeper and more focused in each of the areas. We are providing this resource as a toolkit, which is free to use and to adapt to your needs:
Download the five pillars approach toolkit
Download the five pillars approach toolkit [PDF] to amend and use for your project.