How to make a formal content strategy dovetail
by Diana Railton
Originally published: 10 December 2014
Throughout 2014 focus has turned more and more to the value of having a formal content strategy.
Most organisations now accept that content is the essence of all their communication and publishing activities. But few go to the trouble of working out an integrated strategy.
In the broad field of content marketing, surveys earlier in the year by CMI, Altimeter Group, McKinsey and others found that only a small percentage of organisations had a strategy. Later on, CMI’s 2015 annual research showed most organisations had a verbal strategy, but not a formal documented one. Those who had documented their content marketing strategies turned out to be more effective.
What is the best way to produce a single, unified content strategy that benefits the organisation as a whole, and makes practical sense to everyone involved? The cue is in ‘dovetailing’.
What is dovetailing?
To dovetail: to join or fit together neatly and harmoniously
A dovetailed strategy is a specially integrated strategy. But in many large organisations the process is neither neat nor harmonious. Lacking centralised direction and unity, specialist teams tend to steer their boats independently. Often their so-called strategies are just vague lists, without clear or coordinated goals.
In his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt points out that good strategy is rare, largely ‘because there are strong forces resisting the concentration of action and resources’.
Roger Martin, co-author of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, writes: ‘Strategy is a singular thing; there is one strategy for a given business – not a set of strategies. It is one integrated set of choices.’
As a plan for creating, delivering, governing and measuring content, a content strategy should be relevant to most people in an organisation. This can only happen if it dovetails with broader strategic planning.
While a content strategy must support top business, marketing, communications and divisional strategies, these are sometimes very complex. Ironically, the most pressing issue in communication management until 2017, identified by The European Communication Monitor 2014, is the challenge of linking communications and business strategies.
For content strategy, the linking challenge is wider. Consultation involves not just marketing, communications and channel specialists but product and subject-matter experts throughout divisions. Insights come from many other functions, especially user experience, customer experience, design, technology, accessibility, search, metadata and taxonomy, analytics, and more.
A formal content strategy ideally needs a champion at Board level. In some organisations the door is wide open. In others there is resistance, with senior managers behind the digital times. In New content thinking, old-world organisations, Kate Kenyon recalls other problems.
Organisations should try to bring together ideas and resources across teams in an open-minded way. While digital boards, steering groups and centres of excellence are now common, there’s still scope for innovation. We can learn from Grant Thornton, for example, who recently used crowd-sourcing to encourage employees across the world to contribute their suggestions and experience to the global corporate strategy.
To help coordinate strategies, large companies can benefit from a small team of ‘top strategists’ to share the business vision and strategy properly, explain top goals and agree supporting ones. It means being fully aware of politics, rifts and turf wars, and finding firm solutions. Ultimately they are integrating several different strategies into one.
The role also requires a cutting-edge understanding of what’s possible. As Ron Bronson astutely wrote: ‘No longer can we envision strategists as merely the people who make the battle plans, but instead as tactical experts who have been in the trenches long enough to understand what works and what doesn’t work.’
From vision to goals
The first step in working out a formal dovetailed content strategy, after extensive research and analysis, is to define a practical vision that everyone can relate to. It should clearly complement the top business vision. This is your chance to ‘dream a realistic dream’ for the content strategy, and inspire everyone in the process.
Some people prefer the term ‘content strategy statement’, purpose or mission. Whichever you choose, make the wording short, clear and memorable.
You then need to shortlist a handful of top goals which collectively help make your vision for the content strategy become a reality. Each goal should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound.
How far ahead are you planning in your strategy? Five years, one year, six months? Rahel Bailie and Noz Urbina wisely advise against ‘boiling the ocean’ and trying to do everything at once, by separating long-term and short-term goals.
Every content strategy will be different, according to the needs and make up of the organisation. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Typical top goals often headline planning in areas such as:
- content marketing
- content governance
- globalisation and localisation
- content monitoring and auditing
- new and re-launched channels
- create once, publish everywhere intelligent content
- and many more
A dovetailed content strategy adapts to tie in with other strategies, and the teamwork involved. Take audience research and analysis, for example. Maybe the organisation has already covered everything necessary, or a marketing and communications strategy has identified what is lacking. But most likely this area will need developing further within the content strategy.
Layers of strategy, tactics and activities
Your third step is to provide each top goal with a strategy to meet it. This means working out several tactics and activities, to which different teams will most likely contribute.
If your organisation has a template for setting out a strategy, it’s much easier to present the strategy and to compare it with other ones in the making. This helps identify further areas for dovetailing.
Otherwise the mnemonic PASTA BEAR can help you single out the main parts of a strategy. It includes the critical success factors and key performance indicators you should build in to measure outcomes and return on investment.
You have probably often heard, or been involved in, heated discussions over what’s tactical and what’s strategic. In an integrated strategy, strategy and tactics spiral. What’s considered a tactic at a higher level in the organisation often becomes a strategy at a lower level.
For example, take a sales goal of signing up 50,000 people a year for a training course. The marketing strategy includes making more people aware of the value of the course. This requires a range of supportive tactics varying from messaging to improving website content for search ranking.
The teams carrying out the different tactics should make them more precise in order to fulfil them. Ideally they should translate them into their own SMART goals.
A tactic for improving website content for search ranking, converted into a SMART goal, might be: to ensure that specified URLs feature on page 1 of Google within three months. The team then needs to work out a strategy and further tactics to show how they will make this happen.
While it may not be practical or even worthwhile to document so many layers, team meetings can be used to at least discuss and record activities. What’s most important is checking everyone shares the direction set out in the strategy. Lack of clear purpose can be detrimental in many organisations.
Sealed with a kiss
The final step is to draft the content strategy as a formal document for comments and final approval. Writing it will help you organise it clearly and to present it as a guide that’s easy to follow.
People often ask how long the document should be. Aim to kiss it (keep it short and simple), perhaps using visual diagrams as well as words. Try to outline the essentials within 5-10 pages. You can link to other strategies it dovetails with, and include appendices to show cascading tactics and activities.
While tactics and activities can flex, the vision and top goals should stay the same until you decide to formally change and re-document the strategy.
Working out a formal dovetailed content strategy takes a large amount of thought, collaboration, knowledge and practical expertise. But its clear direction provides crucial strength and unity. As research continues to tell us, your organisation will depend increasingly upon one.
Culture of Content (Altimeter Group)
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