If phrases like content audit, content inventory, and stakeholder interview make you giddy with excitement and possibility, chances are that you need to seek help immediately. Either that, or you just have a sincere appreciation for the benefits of the content strategy discovery process. And that’s not crazy at all! In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the discovery phase is THE most important part of creating a successful content strategy.
Unfortunately, discovery is also one of the most overlooked aspects of a content strategy process and usually the first to get pared down when you have a limited budget. This is probably due to the false perception that it doesn’t produce any real business value. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is that without content discovery you’re just driving blind. The real value of performing targeted, comprehensive discovery upfront can be felt throughout the duration of a project, including:
- Gaining efficiency from being able to understand and address organizational challenges
- Visibility into what useful, usable assets you have to work with
- Defining clear business and user objectives
- Securing alignment and ownership from stakeholders
So how do you get the most out of your discovery process? Well, that involves understanding the tools that are available to you and how to use them to unearth as much actionable data and insights as possible.
Here are a few tools that you can use to set the foundation for the rest of your project.
Content strategy projects traditionally start with stakeholder interviews and for good reason. Interviews give you the chance to get face time with people in the organization who have a stake in the organization’s content. Although sitting down in a room and speaking with someone may seem like an antiquated research method, it really is the best way to uncover hidden gems of insight that never seem to make it into the creative brief or the requirements.
Here are few tips for planning and conducting stakeholder interviews:
Talk to the people on the front lines
Sitting down with the Chief Marketing Officer can help clarify the organization’s strategic direction and priorities, but that will only portray half the picture. You have to understand the pain points and constraints of front line content creators and managers in order to get a complete picture of the organization’s content ecosystem. While access to key stakeholders is never guaranteed, always press for a balanced roster of stakeholders.
Frame the conversation positively
It can be understandably intimidating to have a total stranger come to your workplace and interview you about your job. Make stakeholders comfortable by framing the conversation as an exercise in making their job/life easier. You’ll get more honest, insightful responses to your questions.
As a content strategist, you’ve probably encountered the same challenges and annoyances that your stakeholders are dealing with. Whether it’s a clunky CMS, writers that don’t meet deadlines or developers who seem to speak a different language. By empathizing with your stakeholder’s frustrations and putting yourself in their shoes, you can help solve their immediate problems while also intuiting solutions to problems they’re not even aware of.
Ask the right questions
This may seem like a no-brainer, but with the limited time you have with each person, you have to make your questions count. Since the objectives of each project are going to be different, there isn’t a hard-and-fast set of questions that you should ask each person. Depending on the project (and interviewee), you might ask questions like:
- What are your high-level marketing objectives?
- Who are your customers and what do you know about them?
- What are the KPIs by which you measure the performance of your content?
- Who are your competitors?
- What is your unique selling proposition?
- What are your major frustrations when it comes to dealing with content?
- What are the key messages that you want
If all goes well, the stakeholder interview process can give you a better understanding of who the organization is and what their specific needs and objectives are.
The stakeholder review may provide some insights into your target audience, but unless your organization has done exhaustive user research you’re going to want to dig a little deeper on your own to get an accurate picture of who their target users are and what content would best serve their needs at different points within the sales funnel.
There are a lot of different tactics that you can employ during the user research phases. Here are a few:
- User interviews/testing: If you can get access to real users, by all means do. This can be in an interview format or in a user testing environment where you observe the user trying to complete a task and take notes on where they’re having problems.
- Site Analytics: You can tell a lot about an organization’s users and their interactions with the website just by looking at the analytics data that your organization has. Assuming you use some sort of tracking software (Google Analytics, Omniture, etc.), you can determine where users are located, what keywords they’re using to get to the site, how long they’re staying, what pages they’re landing on and how they’re interacting with the site.
- Market Research Tools: There are a lot of great resources (some paid, some free) for market and user data, including SurveyMonkey, Experian, Marketing Charts, and the Neilson Company (and actually as I wrote this post Facebook just updated their Page Insights tool).
The insights that you gain during the user-research process will be invaluable when it comes time to start developing your user personas.
After spending time understanding the organization and its target audience, the next logical step is to broaden your understanding of the larger market environment. This means looking at the organization’s main competitors.
A competitive analysis isn’t done so you can just copy everything competitors are doing verbatim. But it is an opportunity to look for trends and similarities between them, as well as potential areas where your client can differentiate themselves.
Leadership will usually be able to provide you with a list of their primary competitors – if you don’t already know who they are — but it’s always good to judge for yourself since a lot of times the companies that organizations think they are competing with are aspirational competitors – not actual ones.
A competitive content analysis provides you with a framework for understanding how other sites are dealing with content in the industry or niche you’re working in. If you’re having trouble deciding which main elements you should have, take a look at how competitors approach taxonomy and how they put content into different buckets.
Some other questions to answer when looking at competitors:
- How much content do they have?
- Where is most of their content located?
- What types of content do they have?
- What is the tone and voice of their content?
- How often do they publish content?
- What are their strengths and weaknesses?
In the end, a comprehensive competitive analysis will give you a better picture of the content landscape and where your organization stands in relation to sites that are trying to attract a similar audience or sell a similar product.
Once you’ve chosen your competitive set (we usually review at least 4 primary competitors as well as at least 2 secondary competitors), you can then start reviewing them based on a set of criteria that you’ve defined. This is a mixture of a qualitative and quantitative review. Some are fixed, objective elements (like URL and Content Types), while others are subjective (Content Quality and Tone of Voice). Since every industry is different, these criteria may change slightly.
Here is a competitive analysis example:
Content Audit/Content Inventory
While they’re often discussed as two separate deliverables, the Content Audit and the Content Inventory are really just two sides of the same coin. They’re both used to help you understand the current state of your content. The only difference is that one lets you look at the quantitative features of your content (amount, type, location, assets, etc.) while the other focuses on giving you a qualitative view of your content (quality, adherence to brand messaging, completeness of information, readability, etc.)
It breaks down like this:
Content Inventory = Quantitative
Content Audit = Qualitative
Websites accumulate new pages over time as new sections are added and new content is published – sometimes by people in different departments with little or no coordination. Since the cost of keeping a single page on a site is virtually nothing, they rarely get around to removing pages. This can lead to a bloated, confusing website that’s hard to manage and maintain, let alone keep track of what’s on the site and where it’s located. It can also lead to pages that are out of date, contain duplicate information, don’t conform to the messaging strategy or are irrelevant and/or trivial.
From a user perspective, coming across neglected pages (or whole sections) can cause confusion and result in a poor experience, especially if they’re coming to your site from a search engine. And with Google’s Panda update designed to penalize sites with large amounts of low-quality pages, content hoarding can negatively affect SEO as well.
A content inventory (sometimes called a content matrix) allows you to get an accurate picture of the current state of your website, including the amount of pages you have, where they’re located, what topics they cover, and any downloadable files or meta data that might be associated with them. This is a crucial first step in any redesign, migration or content evaluation process. The types of data that you’ll want to capture here are things like:
- Page title
- Meta description
- Content type
While a content inventory may seem like a job best left to a computer program (and some of it can), you can’t automate everything. Although we can use a script to crawl a website and return a list of every URL it finds, we still need to go in and review each page by hand in order to fill in all of the fields that are necessary to get a complete picture of the current state of the content.
Here is a content inventory example:
Unless a team of experienced web writers, content strategists and editorial planners have been working on the website from day one, chances are that the content suffers from any number of quality issues, from poor grammar and readability to outdated information and conflicting messaging. A website with content quality issues can project an unfavorable image to customers, users and even internal staff. Here are just a few of the issues that you might be facing:
- Content that doesn’t conform to web writing best practices
- Duplicate content across multiple pages
- Inappropriate tone of voice
- Unnecessary information that distracts users
- Inconsistent terminology
- Broken links
li>Inaccurate, out-of-date content
Where the content inventory provided a quantitative look at the content on your site (focusing on measurable, objective data elements), the content audit takes a qualitative approach to evaluating your content (with a subjective analysis of the quality). Instead of tracking concrete elements like the URL and page title, the audit is used to evaluate the content for things like:
- Usefulness and relevance
- Clarity and accuracy
- Voice, tone and style
- Usability and findability
Here is a content audit example:
- The Content Owner field gives us a chance to identify who is responsible for maintaining and updating each page on the site.
- The Primary Audience column allows us to identify which of our target audiences each pages is designed to address.
- Notes gives us a place to mark down any problems we find, such as grammar errors or inconsistent messaging
- And the Content Quality section is where we get to review and grade each page’s content based on our primary criteria (on a 1-5 scale).
These scores can then be used to generate graphics like the ones below.
Being able to present this type of data to your client in graphical form can be very useful when you’re trying to convey the current state of their content.
If you’ve never been a part of a comprehensive discovery process, this can all seem pretty daunting. But trust me, it’s worth it. Because at the end of the day, the more you understand about the organization you’re working for and what they’re trying to accomplish, the easier it’ll be to help them tell their story in a way that is authentic while also giving the people in the organization the voice and tools to maintain their content going forward.
And it’s through the discovery process that we’re able to uncover those little nuggets of insight that can help us create useful, usable content that has actual business value when it comes to supporting better experiences and increasing conversions.
All it takes is a little digging.