Are all these things necessary? No, they are not necessary to build a site.
But they are necessary to build a successful site.
Without these elements, the site has no defined role in the business strategy. There is nothing material to measure that would demonstrate the success of the site. The task of collecting content for the site will always be an exhausting and demoralizing scramble.
The first step in planning for a web content strategy (or any web strategy), is to invest in the development of these elements in sequence:
- Business goals with respect to the target audience,
- Target audience definitions (personas),
- Content goals that support the business goals, and
- The content categories that will create a connection between the voice of the web site and the person who represents the target audience for the site.
These elements are also the first step in assessing a site’s ROI, both for investment in content development and all other investments in the site.
The most crippling gap in this sequence of planning elements is this: Specific business objectives.
If the site’s sponsors have not identified specific enough business objectives, it will not be possible to determine how they relate to the target audience – and that connection must be clear before anyone can create clear and specific content goals for the site. As a result, the site will fail.
Some Specific Examples
Chances are good that your subject matter experts already have a good idea of the audience persona (keep in mind that their assumptions ought to be tested with some validating research.
For instance, a starting point might be:
Real Estate Product Persona
Real estate owners and property managers who control a medium to small portfolio of non-habitational real estate. Their primary concerns are maximizing revenue, minimizing expenses and providing services to tenants. They make the buying decision or have significant input.
- We assume that this person really knows the business.
- This person is over-extended, always responding to emergencies.
- They are managing staff in several locations and may frequently face the loss of a key employee, like a building manager.
- They choose the timing of maintenance and renovation investments.
- They may not have the daily structure to schedule maintenance and inspections as systematically as they would like.
- They are concerned about interest rates, the quality of their tenants, their contracts and changes in laws that affect them.
- If they report to investors, they spend time developing these reports.
(And now you have something you can really work with as you think about how to build and populate the site)
Once the persona is defined, you must develop one or more specific business goals with respect to this target audience. “They will buy our product again” is not specific enough to drive a content strategy. “They will buy again out of loyalty” is an example of a specific enough business goal (though it's pretty minimal) – to support this business goal we can develop a content goal like:
“The Real Estate Tycoon will strongly identify with the voice of the site and will see and come to trust that the site’s voice is always sympathetic to his primary worries and that the site’s content will provide an immediate, usable action plan against his primary worries so that he can sleep better that night.”
Loyalty is an emotional quality, so the responsive content goal is likewise oriented to an emotional response.
A content goal that clearly states the nature of the connection between the specific business goal and the audience’s actual reality will permit the creation of a site content strategy and content development plan that is likely to succeed.
For instance, in the example above, the resulting content plan might call for the creation of an industry team persona (a sort of real estate Betty Crocker) who speaks to the site visitor as a person talking to another person. This is not hard to do, and if it is likely to create a sense of personal loyalty at the time of renewal, then it’s an idea worth testing. The content plan will include many such ideas:
- The tone of the article headlines and intros is sympathetic rather than matter-of-fact.
- Loss Control content for this site must include immediately usable action plans and must not include long-term maintenance advice.
- Content must be focused on the top of the mind worries of this person, and must not include content that he would consider trivial (even if our Loss Control experts disagree).
- Since we’re assuming he’s plagued with worries, we don’t want to publish the “gotcha!” Lessons Learned on this site – these are the stories of tiny errors creating large losses.
The selection or commissioning of content itself should be easy with an adequate content plan.
A more business-like example of a persona-specific business goal that can feed a useful content goal is: “They will renew because they know that the loss-control tools that this vendors has supplied have saved them money in the past year and they expect the savings to continue.” This goal is not emotional – the responsive content goals will feature cost savings in the lead position.
What I refer to as content goals here are closely related to High Value Scenarios (HVS) in the world of interaction design.
For a site to be successful, its developers must see at least one specific business goal with respect to the target audience that can be accomplished, supported, or influenced by the intelligent use of web content or a web-based application. Further investment in content for a site for which we cannot articulate this connection does not make any sense.
Oh, and without the objective or goal, how in the world will anyone even know if it's been successful?