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Top 10 Content Strategy Mistakes to Avoid

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Melissa Rach, coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, Second Edition, sees far too many organizations making similar mistakes in their outreach attempts. The "throw it together" approach that most people employ tends to create havoc, rather than useful information for potential customers and clients. She shares 10 of the most common (and dangerous) pitfalls that everyone should learn to avoid.

Web pages, mobile apps, print materials, social media—creating an endless stream of content can be a challenge for any organization. A content strategy can help ensure that all of your content efforts are beneficial to your business, and ultimately to your content users.

I lead a team of content strategists, and helping businesses tackle messy content problems is all we do. Although content strategy is complex, we see many organizations making a few of the same mistakes. Your company doesn't have to be one of them.

Here are the 10 most common content-strategy pitfalls we see:

  1. Getting stuck in reaction mode.
  2. Keeping content strategy initiatives a secret.
  3. Overlooking workflow issues.
  4. Expecting a quick, easy ROI miracle.
  5. Evaluating content with analytics alone.
  6. Skipping research and analysis.
  7. Ignoring existing content.
  8. Failing to prioritize target audiences.
  9. Focusing on quantity, not quality.
  10. Underestimating content timelines and budgets.

The following sections consider each mistake individually and discuss how you can avoid it.

Mistake 1: Getting Stuck in Reaction Mode

Managing content efforts can seem like a constant game of catch-up. You need to keep up with your organization's new products, changing brand campaigns, and executive pet projects—as well as responding to a never-ending stream of user requests, competitor actions, and trends. Whew. No wonder you're feeling overwhelmed!

To get out of constant reaction mode, you need to stop, drop everything, and strategize.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, taking time to create a flexible, long-term strategy will help you to focus and prioritize your content efforts. Even better, a good strategy will help you to plan proactively for the future and recognize progress over time. You'll still be busy, but not behind.

Mistake 2: Keeping Content Strategy Initiatives a Secret

Lots of people try to keep their content strategy efforts quiet. Whether they're playing politics or simply think it's easier to work alone, they wait until the strategy is complete before they share it with their colleagues. Unfortunately for them, "going it alone" is probably the single best way to ensure content strategy disaster.

Why? Because content processes touch just about every area of your organization—marketing, IT, legal, product development, and beyond. When you introduce a new content strategy, you're asking all of those people to change their habits, opinions, and accountabilities. Your strategy is only going to work if those people are on board.

Don't be afraid to involve key stakeholders early—ask for their input, understand their perspectives, and earn their trust. People are much more likely to accept a strategy if they helped to create it. And with all that collective brainpower, your strategy has an even better chance at success.

Mistake 3: Overlooking Workflow Issues

Because people throughout your organization are involved in content processes, you need to know about their daily work. From requests to creation to publication, there can be all kinds of cooks in the kitchen. But is everyone clear on who's really doing what? If not, you're going to end up with duplicate tasks, unclear authority, and a general lack of quality control.

Workflow—the art of defining how, when, and by whom the work will get done—is crucial to any content strategy. When you take a good look at your current workflow, you might realize that you need totally new processes, resources, or tools. Or you might just need to refine what's already in place.

With more clearly defined processes and roles, your team will be better prepared to create and care for content. A solid workflow provides the triple benefit of saving time, money, and workplace sanity.

Mistake 4: Expecting a Quick, Easy ROI Miracle

It's obvious that content is valuable to the user and to your organization. For most businesspeople, however, the most frustrating thing about content strategy is proving return on investment (ROI). They want a quick, easy, and indisputable way to ensure that an investment in content is worth the effort. Sadly, there is no silver bullet. Calculating content ROI is a complex, work-intensive exercise. You need to do all of the following:

  • Define a specific function for each type of content (what that content is intended to achieve).
  • Measure how well the content is doing its job.
  • Decide what that achievement is worth to the organization.
  • Factor in the costs of creating and maintaining the content.
  • Calculate the final tally.

Evaluating content is always somewhat subjective—even after you've done all of the math, you won't have an irrefutable number. But with time, effort, and a host of educated assumptions, you can generate a solid estimate that will win the confidence of decision-makers.

Mistake 5: Evaluating Content with Analytics Alone

Speaking of measurement: When you ask most businesses how they currently measure content effectiveness, they'll give you a Google Analytics login and a smile. Analytics are great, but no single measurement method captures the complete picture of content. Try to use a variety of measurement methods to get more well-rounded results. In addition to analytics, you might want to mix in some or all of the following:

  • User research and usability testing (focused specifically on content)
  • Reviews by external content experts or industry peers
  • Feedback from internal staff such as customer service reps and salespeople
  • Competitive comparisons

By the way, don't assume that analytics is the only measurement technique you can afford. All of these methods can be scaled to your budget and timeline. For example, if you don't have the budget for a formal usability lab study, recruit a few customers, colleagues, and friends to take a look at your content. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing.

Mistake 6: Skipping Research and Analysis

You're smart. You probably have ideas about what content should be on your website, how it should be organized, and so on. When you're faced with short deadlines and limited resources, it's tempting to skip content-focused research and jump right to solutions.

No matter how clever or time-crunched you are, skipping research and analysis is always a big risk. To create an informed content strategy, you must understand all the factors that influence your content—from internal factors such as business goals and workflow issues to external factors such as user behaviors and competitive activities.

When in doubt, just remember that every hour you spend in analysis will likely save dozens—if not hundreds—of hours during content creation, delivery, and upkeep.

Mistake 7: Ignoring Your Existing Content

It's all very exciting to create a strategy for new content, but most organizations have a significant amount of existing content that shouldn't be ignored. Before you start any content strategy project, be sure to review the content you already have. A thorough audit will help you to better understand how old and new content will interact and aid you in avoiding common pitfalls—such as creating duplicate content or publishing conflicting information. As an added bonus, you'll spot any out-of-date, inaccurate, and irrelevant content that needs to be fixed or nixed.

Mistake 8: Failing to Prioritize Target Audiences

Most organizations have no problem with creating a list of target users for their content. Particularly for website content, the list usually looks something like this: customers, partners, investors, the media, prospective employees, and the general public. Although it's possible to create content that appeals to all of these audiences, the "content is for everybody" approach probably won't serve any of the users particularly well.

Your content will be much more effective if you set some parameters and priorities about who your content is intended to reach. First, define your user groups in detail. Figure out exactly who they are and what kind of content they'll need. Then prioritize them. That's right—make a numbered list, with your first-priority user group as number 1, second priority as number 2, and so on.

Ranking audiences isn't always easy, but it can help you to avoid the headaches that come with trying to be all things to all people. You'll be able to prioritize your content efforts and set expectations for your colleagues. (This makes it easier to say things like, "Sorry, Human Resources, but the team has agreed that customer content is a higher priority than job listings.")

Mistake 9: Focusing on Quantity, Not Quality

In many organizations, more content is perceived as more selling opportunities, more user engagement, more everything. But more isn't necessarily better. More content costs more to create, is harder to maintain, and can give your users information overload. Don't be afraid to go small. Scale back your content efforts by ensuring that every piece of content follows these rules:

  • It supports a key business objective.
  • It fulfills a user need.
  • It has a person assigned to maintain it.

You'll be surprised how much content gets eliminated using these three commonsense requirements. And the content that survives will be much more valuable to your organization and your users.

Mistake 10: Underestimating Content Timelines and Budgets

Most people seriously misjudge how much time is needed to plan, create, and maintain content. It's not uncommon to see a website development schedule that allocates a week or two—at the very end of the project—for magically producing hundreds of pages of content. This mistake creates bottlenecks, delayed timelines, over-budget projects, and general heartache for everyone involved.

It's time to face the facts. Doing content well takes an extraordinary amount of time and resources. In fact, if the content creation and maintenance process doesn't seem overwhelming to you, you're missing a few (dozen) steps.

Start planning for your content the minute you start planning for a new website or other communications channel. Keep working on the content throughout the entire design and development process. And keep planning for it after your site launches. Forever.

Don't forget: The content is why the user is interacting with you—don't underestimate anything about it.

Melissa Rach is the vice president of content strategy at Brain Traffic and coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, Second Edition. A communications and content specialist for nearly 20 years, she has become a respected authority on how organizations incorporate online content into their overall communications plans. Her work and methodologies have been recognized regularly at several universities as well as in books throughout her career. In addition, Rach is a columnist for Contents Magazine and an active blogger at BrainTraffic.com.

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