The 4 Stages to Developing a Winning Content Strategy

August 11, 2016

As I crossed the invisible border between the way-too-hot Florida summer to crisp, air conditioned bliss at Tampa International Airport last week, a message from my wife appeared on my phone:

“Your flight has been delayed!”

She is not a fan of delayed flights, especially when there are transfers down the chain. I walked over to the screen listing departures and arrivals.

“No, the flight was listed as on schedule,” I responded.

“Google says it’s delayed!” she wrote back.

Looking more closely at my phone, I noticed an alert from Google Now. “Flight delayed by 45 minutes.” I switched over to the airline app. The flight was listed as on-schedule.

It would take the app and the screens at the airport almost 30 minutes to tell me what Google Now already knew: The flight was indeed delayed. And, as the departure time got closer, and the delay got extended again and again, Google Now was consistently updated well ahead of even the ground staff at the gate.

This is an opportunity to improve a content strategy, and this is why delivering strategic content matters.

Strategies for Content

Whether you are building software for flight information display systems, airline apps or a company website, your content strategy can mean the difference between public praise, indifference or poorly contained resentment. Making sure the right content gets to the right person at the right time and in the right context while keeping it accurate, up-to-date and appropriate is paramount to achieve success, and this is the core purpose of content strategy.

For a traveler, the only thing that matters is when their flight leaves and if a delay will impact their connection. A well-crafted content strategy anticipates this, and delivers that information before it is requested. And getting there means first understanding the needs of the audience.

The Four Stages of Content Strategy

The art and craft of content strategy is as varied as the people and projects who use them. Many systems have been created, and over time, I’ve developed a hybrid of my own, borrowing the best parts of each and putting them together in a way I find moves the process forward and makes sense to those involved.

It breaks down into four major parts:

  1. Users, motivations and goals

  2. Analysis and structure

  3. Guides, templates and workflows

  4. Creation and management

Whether your goal is to get people up up-and-away or sell 10,000 units of unicorn socks, these four steps will help your organization succeed.

1. Users, motivations and goals

The primary goal for pretty much any communication is to successfully convey a message to a target audience. For an airline, that communication will change depending on the context the audience is in: When a traveller is at the airport, keeping them appraised of the status of their flights and informing them of any changes before they get concerned or start asking questions is paramount. When they are booking their flight, travelers must know about the airline, trust it to provide great service and be willing to buy a ticket.

To serve travelers in these different contexts, we need to map out the goals of the airline are and how they measure success, who our target audiences are, their goals and how they measure success; along with what motivates them to buy a ticket and get others to do the same.

To find this information, some careful introspection must take place at all levels of the organization: What are our goals, and how do they relate to our target audience? Are we meeting expectations? Are we speaking to them in terms they can relate to? And are we addressing their needs in their current context?

Next, reach out to real people who represent that target audience and do interviews and exercises to understand who they are, what their goals are and what motivates them. In this process, it’s useful to identify their context and what influences them.

With all this data gathered, establish archetypal “personas” representing the target audience, and align the strategy to meet their goals while aligning them with those of the organization.

2. Analysis and structure

The next stage of the content strategy process focusses on what content exists, what content should be created and how it is structured for easy access. What content already exists? What needs to be updated, edited, rewritten or scrapped? And how do we structure this content so people can find what they are looking for?

This stage typically starts with two rounds of content audits, first quantitative (tallying up and categorizing every piece of content in an inventory spreadsheet), then qualitative (going over every piece of content with a fine toothed comb to find out if it passes muster, needs some work or belongs in the trash bin). If this is a new project and you are starting from scratch, create an inventory document of the content you think will be required, and update it as the project progresses.

With a full inventory in hand, the team can make quick work of structuring and categorizing the content while assigning ownership and responsibilities for each item.

Structuring the content means identifying content models (is this a product page or a legal page, a policy document or a keynote speech?) and establishing an information architecture for the project to map the content along the typical user’s journey. Knowing how the audience context changes their goals and needs is vital in this process: The best place and time for any piece of content is when and where the audience needs or expects it.

A solid information architecture that takes into account various key contexts makes this possible.

3. Guides, templates and workflows

For an organization to build a following, it needs to speak with one consistent voice, and in a tone that resonates with its target audience. Whether you’re selling tickets to a traveler making a cross-continent journey, or telling a crowd of tired red-eye passengers their flight is being delayed another 30 minutes, every piece of content needs to speak with a consistent voice and tone.

There is a reason staff from a particular airline all dress the same, and why everything from website copy to in-flight security announcements are carefully scripted: Every word spoken, and every sentence published, reflects the vision and values of the company, and travelers feel they are interacting with one entity, not a collection of disparate minds.

Guides for voice, tone and style help ensure everything produced is consistent and “on message”. By establishing style guides, examples and templates, all team members can produce and present content and information that fits with the overall brand, and the audience will feel like they are presented with a single, cohesive message.

To move this process along, establishing workflows can be of great value. Workflows ensure the audience encounters images and messaging that is on-brand, and content formatted for ease of access. And at the end of every workflow, a content manager gives final approval before release.

4. Creation and management

Before a single passengers buys a ticket or enters a plane, a thousand decisions need to be made. Establishing clear leadership structures and hierarchies within the team means everyone knows who is responsible for what, and where the buck stops.

At this stage in the process, marketers, content writers, app developers and system engineers can put into practice the structures set out by the content strategy to create consistent and relevant materials that meet the goals of both the company and its target audience. Tickets are checked, flight statuses are pushed to apps, luggage is marked and organized to reach the same destination as their owners, all at the same time. Once visitors start buying tickets on the website and checking their apps for flight status, tools can measure their interactions, tracking online and social media engagement, sales stats, media coverage and public opinion.

And when a passenger Tweets about his confusion at Google having more accurate data on a flight than the airline itself, use that data to update the content strategy to keep it current and relevant as the organization moves forward.

Communication through content strategy

Whether you are a large airline moving people all over the world, or a small business selling giraffe-inspired socks, you have a message you want the public to hear. Starting out with a well crafted content strategy ensures you communicate this message in a way that takes into account the audience and its goals as well as your own.

For any organization to be successful, a communication of ideas must take place. This requires an in-depth understanding of your audience, their needs and their communication style. Without this, the content, and the organization it supports, will fail.

The role of the content strategist is to be an advocate, both for the content and its audience. To do this, they align communication channels to ensure the content is prioritized, and budgets, planning and company strategy. When looked at this way, it's really just planning for an ongoing and meaningful conversation with a given audience.

Content strategy, at its heart, is the art of clear communication.

Ready to get started on your own Content Strategy? Check out my new course Foundations of UX: Content Strategy at