Understand Your Business Environment
I’m wrapping up a project with a client that has a very complex product architecture, especially compared with their competitors. Things that are features of competitors’ products are products unto themselves with separate subscriptions. It’s really confusing. And my colleague and I have asked a lot of questions to make sense of it all.
Some of the stakeholders don’t understand why the folks working on the content would care . . . we have to figure out how to organize and write about the products, right? Turns out, it matters quite a lot. Oftentimes, those of us who create content or build the experiences in which content is the central focus don’t get the opportunity to ask such questions. And that missed opportunity is part of the reason our websites, applications, and so on are in such rough shape.
To make strategic recommendations about content, you must understand the business. If you don’t, you’re more likely to recommend solutions that don’t help the company achieve its business goals.
I’m not saying you need to run out and get an MBA. I am saying you need to understand (among other things) how companies or clients make and spend money; what guides those decisions; who they are trying to reach with their product, services, or offerings; how their products, services, or offerings have evolved; what requirements or constraints influence their operations; how they are perceived in the marketplace; how they are different or better than their competitors; and what outside influences have an effect on their business decisions.
Let’s dig in to how you can gather, synthesize, and analyze all these things!
Define the Inquest
So yeah, it’s a little bit like an inquest or investigation. And that sounds complex and complicated and tedious. It can be. If you’re on the inside, however, you’re already well informed, but you need to validate and fill gaps in knowledge. If you’re a consultant coming in, your learning curve is probably steeper. Either way, what fun!
I separate what I want to learn about the business into two categories: internal factors and external factors. You don’t have to think of it that way, but that’s how these next sections are organized. Another useful model I’ve found is the Business Model Canvas from Strategyzer (formerly the Business Model Generation)—see the Content Strategy Tool 6.1 for more details.
Internal factors are what a business can realistically control. The business’s decisions and actions may be influenced by something outside its control, but it ultimately has a choice in how to respond to those outside influences.
I organize internal factors into five groups: direction, offerings, customers, revenue, and expenditures. You might think about these factors differently, and that’s OK. The point is to make sure you gather enough information about the business to feel confident in your content strategy recommendations.
The Direction category is all about what the company or organization is prioritizing currently. This category has a lot of overlap with the other categories. I’m including it in the second edition because I kept adding direction as a separate category while synthesizing all my insights on projects.
Why does the company or organization exist?
What are the company’s or organization’s short- and long-term goals?
What strategies have been defined to achieve them?
Is there clarity about the desired objectives or outcomes for those goals and strategies?
What projects and larger efforts are underway to help achieve short- and long-term goals?
Does the project you’re working on tie in with other projects and efforts?
Where is the company or organization investing in hiring and capabilities?
Does the company’s budget reflect the stated strategies, goals, and desired outcomes?
The Offerings category refers to the products, services, or other commodities (such as news for a media outlet) that the company or organization offers to its customers or clients. To clarify, customers or clients include people who receive offerings at no cost or a reduced cost from a nonprofit or government organization.
What products, services, or other commodities do you offer?
What’s the history behind each offering (for example, how long has it been available, and why did you choose to offer it)?
What is the offering life cycle like (for example, how long is an offering available, and what determines whether to continue it)?
What marketplace need do your offerings fill?
How would you describe the value proposition for each of your offerings?
How often do you create new offerings?
How do you decide what new offerings to provide?
What’s the typical time to market (for example, how long does it take for an idea to become a reality) for your offerings?
What goals have you set around your offerings for the next year?
The Customers category includes people who currently use the products, services, and other commodities you offer and people who you’d like to use your offerings. Customers fall under internal and external factors (more on this later). As an internal factor, this is about who the company or organization has chosen as its target customer.
How do you describe your target customer?
What segments (which are typically based on demographics or other data, such as income level, geography, gender, education, dollars spent, frequency of using your service, ethnicity, and so on) do your customers fall into?
How big are your current and prospective customer bases?
How would you prioritize your customer segments?
What customer problems do your offerings solve?
How do you interact with and provide information to your current and prospective customers?
What goals have you set for customer acquisition and retention for the next year?
For businesses and some nonprofit organizations, revenue comes from selling their offerings. Other nonprofits and organizations get revenue through donations, grants, association fees (which usually come with some offerings), and so on.
How do you sell your offerings (direct to consumer, business to business, and so on)?
Through what channels do you sell your offerings (point of purchase or service, online, telemarketing, and so on)?
In what markets do you sell your offerings, and how do you prioritize them?
If you sell through multiple channels, which are the most successful and which are your priority (for example, do you attract more visitors to your website versus a social media account, or is your target audience more likely to use your mobile app versus your .com site)?
How do you prepare sales staff, associates, and so on to talk about your products?
Do you get any post-sale revenue (royalties, service contracts, and so on)?
What is the sales cycle like for your offerings (for example, how long does it typically take, and what steps are involved from lead to sale)?
What do you know about why prospective customers choose (or don’t choose) your offerings?
What ratio of leads converts to a sale?
What are your revenue goals in each sales channel for the next year?
You must spend money to make money—or so the saying goes. That’s what I’m talking about here—what investments does a company make or what costs does it incur to support selling its offerings (or to support getting funding to offer them)?
What investments in technology, including your website, do you have planned?
How do you make decisions about technology investments or enhancements, such as switching platforms or content management systems?
Do you want the content strategy recommendations to fit within any technology restraints, or are you open to recommendations that might require a change in technology?
How are sales professionals compensated?
What are your expenditures for providing customer support (for example, do you use a call center vendor; do you maintain a knowledge center)?
On average, how much do you spend on each customer to get the sale and provide support?
Have you set any business goals related to expenditures for the next year?
External factors affect the business in ways that are, for the most part, out of its control. In some cases, businesses or organizations influence these factors, just as these factors influence the business. I put them in four categories: competitors; legal, compliance, and regulations; trends and current events; and customers.
A company or organization has competitors whether they think so or not. I’ve had some clients tell me they are the only ones who do what they do, so they have no competition. The truth is that even if your company is truly the only one in its class, you are still competing—with companies who do similar things or for a spot at the top of a customer’s go-to source of information on topic x.
Who do you see as your direct competitors for your products and services?
How are your direct competitors better or different than you?
Why do you think your prospective customers choose your competitors over you?
How do your competitors’ talk about their products, services, and other offerings?
What’s the state of their content?
Who is seen as an expert source of information about your industry and offerings?
Content Strategy Tool 6.2: Competitive Content Analysis Guidance and Template is a new tool in this edition that gives you guidance and a template for conducting an analysis of competitors’ content.
Legal, compliance, and regulations
Most companies must follow some rules about what they can and cannot say or about what they must provide to customers. Learn about these rules up-front to avoid serious problems down the line. And building a relationship with the internal legal and compliance folks early in your project is really helpful—you’ll need them later.
What are the high-level rules about what you can and cannot say in your content?
What accessibility, readability, or other online standards must you adhere to?
What government laws or regulations affect what you offer and how you talk about it?
What’s the process for making sure your content is compliant with any legal or regulatory requirements?
Are laws or policies being discussed currently by lawmakers or government agencies that could affect your current or future content?
What trademarks, service marks, copyrights, and so on do you have, and are there guidelines for referencing them in your content?
Trends and current events
Trends refer to external factors such as technological advancements, global markets, and new occurrences that affect what you offer and why people need it. A good example is that increases in digital hacking have led to the need for more secure data servers. Current events are, well, current events, such as natural disasters and elections, that affect customers’ attitudes and behaviors.
What’s going on in the industry that affects or might affect your business?
What changes in the business environment are you aware of that might affect what you offer or how you position what you offer?
In what ways have current events, such as natural disasters, elections, celebrity news, high-profile crimes, and so on, affected your business in the past?
What’s your process for updating positioning, content, and so on if a trend or current event necessitates it?
When you think about customers as an internal factor, you’re talking about what the company or organization knows or believes about its target customer. Sometimes, that’s all you’ll have to go on. But if you’re able, you can validate the information with user research about users’ actual attitudes and behaviors. Those are the external factors that affect your project. You’ll learn more about user research in Chapter 7.
How do your prospective customers shop for or make decisions about your products and services?
What or who influences your prospective customers’ decisions about the products and services you offer?
What do your prospective and current customers care most about in the products or services you offer?
How do your prospective and current customers want to interact with you?
What kind of content do your prospective and current customers expect from you?
What is a typical customer life cycle like?