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When Content Strategy Is a Waste

02-01-12 Drew Clemens

Content strategy is just another buzz word headed for the round file. That is, if you can’t get it done. Drew Clemens shares some tips.

While content strategy has been discussed for years now, the majority of that discussion seems to revolve around definition and advocacy. I’ve discovered some other good articles, but there seems to be less of an ongoing conversation concerning practical application and practice. I’m not really surprised, and I don’t blame the content strategy juggernauts we’re all reading. I believe content strategy is a far more context-dependent discipline than many of the other web hot topics, and it is pretty difficult to have real conversations in the hypothetical.

However, day-to-day implementation is just as important as the strategy itself. Without governance and execution, a beautifully constructed content strategy is worthless – a lonely stack of papers buried under the headstone of “another initiative” that ended up being a “failed effort” with no “ROI.”

Kristina Halvorson states that “content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

The operative word here is plans.

Content strategy is only a plan to do these things. It cannot do these things on its own. The computers have not yet taken this job from us. We, those with opposable thumbs, must create and publish the content. Perhaps even more critical, the creators and publishers must be governed by those whose thumbs are carrying business cards entitled “Communications Director” or “Public Relations Manager” or even “Content Strategist.”

Getting Wasted

You will read how important it is for a content strategy to get buy-in from high-level leadership and organizational grunts alike. This is true; however, buy-in wears off quickly. New things are only shiny for so long. Managers and employees may be momentarily excited about a new strategy, but this does not mean they possess the discipline, conviction, and memory to “own it” no matter how much upfront cheerleading and coaching you do. There is a reason that the copier toner never gets changed in your office. No one has it in their job description, does it often enough to make it a habit, or has enough passion to really learn how to do it on their own.

The creation of a content strategy is a terrible waste of time in an organization where there exists no long-term owner, advocate, and enforcer. End of story.

That’s a tough reality to face. In a previous professional role, I once had visions of my finely tuned communication machine humming along to the tune of my strategy opus on which I’d labored for so long. Set it and forget it. Everyone knew their roles, and my reminders went out weekly. I planned to kick back, pursue other projects, and let the content roll in.

And then you add people, and the machine doesn’t always hum. 

Sometimes it grinds to a halt.

The hardest thing about the governance of content is that it rarely depends on just the governor. Content is usually created by many other people within (and without) your organization, each source with different job titles and competencies. To some extent, you depend on these people for the success of your work. Yikes.

So if the implementation of your content strategy is more important than the strategy itself and that relies on other people delivering on their content responsibilities, what’s a content curator to do? How do you actually get it done in the real world?

Be a People Person

I probably won’t be writing books on content strategy in the near future; there are a few mountains of knowledge I have yet to conquer. However, I do know people. My training in content strategy stems primarily from the trenches of implementation. Allow me to share some of the things I’ve learned. I hope that somewhere in the following you’ll find ways to possibly save your strategy document from the organizational dust bin.

Make It Easy

If you are gathering a lot of content from across an organization, many of your contributors will have written little in the way of stories or articles since college. Make it easy for them. Work with them to set deadlines that fit their schedules. If possible, let them use tools with which they are already familiar (like MS Word or even email). Worry about formatting later.

Like Clockwork

People are a lot more accepting of the expected. Even if they aren’t wild about what you’re asking them to do, you’ll find that they are more willing to contribute when they know what requests are coming. Stick to schedules, keep your meetings, be predictable. Save your spontaneity for your casual Friday outfit.


Balance an accommodating demeanor with a real spirit of accountability. Remember that even the most agreeable co-worker can get busy, forget, or lose interest. Remind them that their deliverable is important, useful, and ultimately something to which they agreed. Granted, they may have been volunteered or required by a superior to play ball with you. In which case, do everything you can to gain their willing cooperation on your own – don’t go to their boss. No one invites the tattletale out for coffee.

Know Thy Politics

The written word is powerful. The content that people contribute can have great and lasting impact on your organization. This can be short-term or long-lasting, and it can be positive or very, very negative. To the best of your ability, understand the context and political climate around each piece you’ve collected. Don’t be the office gossip, but do keep a pulse on industry trends and your organization’s core objectives. In light of those things, help content creators see unintended consequences or missed opportunities.

Care About Their Contribution

You may or may not care about the content you are receiving, editing, and pushing out. You may not even understand it. But everyone likes a little appreciation. Show an interest in the content, ask questions, thank the contributor, and tell them they did a good job. You’ll probably enjoy it more and learn something in the process.

Offer Constructive Advice

This is related to the previous point. If done well, a friendly, constructive critique shows those you are working with that you not only pay attention to their work, you care about helping them create better work. Most folks appreciate that. (However, it helps to “know they politics” first. See above.)

Be Inclusive

With attitude and the language you use, be sure to communicate with everyone mostly in terms of “we” and “ours” when referring to your organization’s content and strategy. You want to cultivate as many advocates as possible, even if you always remain the owner.

Share Success

Remember that the circles in which you run, Mr. or Ms. Content Junkie, are different than those of many folks in your organization. It’s not unusual for everyone else to be oblivious to the successes of the content strategy in which they’ve played a part. Be sure to circle back and share with your team the good things that have come from their hard work. This goes a long way in maintaining the interest of people down the road. And, honestly, it’s just nice.

The Golden Rule

Lastly, by all means, be friendly. Get to know the people you’re working with. Remember, you’re asking folks for things that may not be central to their actual job. You need to keep them on board. No one is going to cooperate with you if you’re a jerk. You catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.

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