Ten mistakes for content strategists to avoid

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion4 Comments

As content strategy spreads far and wide, we are making old mistakes in new ways. Here are ten mistakes that content strategists need to avoid.

1. Overly technical

Some content strategists are more comfortable with technology than with strategy. (I’m looking at you, technical communication people.) So instead of discussing how better content can help the business, they focus on how the awesomeness of DITA specialization will enable better semantics.

Which brings me to the Scriptorium’s first law of content strategy:

Every time you use a word the funding executive doesn’t understand, your project budget is reduced.

2. Bad pitches

When you ask for resources, funding, approval to proceed, or anything else, your pitch needs to be tailored to the person you are talking to. A technology-heavy pitch won’t work for the CFO. A budget-focused pitch won’t work for your technical experts. A pitch focused on efficiency and ROI will not appeal to writers. And so on.

Know your audience and deliver the message at an appropriate level.

(Yes, you’ll need more than one presentation.)

3. Ignoring office politics

Office politics are a reality everywhere. Ignore them at your peril. Content strategy is a cross-organizational function, which means you need allies. It’s unlikely that everyone you need reports to you. Let your charisma and your brilliant ideas dazzle them. Or, you know, get executive support and therefore grudging cooperation from their direct reports. Whatever works for you.

Master leadership without authority.

4. Ignoring the big picture

Some content strategists prefer to focus on copywriting, voice and tone, and other writing facets. But what is more important? Fixing typos or delivering relevant content? Criticizing someone else’s word choice or identifying effective communication channels? Style guides are important, but they are not content strategy. If you are mostly focused on word choice, you are a copy editor.

Forest, not trees.

5. Involving the wrong people

Content strategy projects are often high-profile. As a result, some people may want to participate to get face time with executives. (Others will avoid the project for the same reason.) Motivated self-interest is acceptable, but make sure that your team members also have the right skills. Beware of people who join the team because they want to sandbag the project.

Build the project team based on people’s skills and project needs. Include key stakeholders.

Don't kick Darth Vader

flickr: pasukaru76

6. Acting on bad assumptions

Bad assumptions can kill your projects, and they come in lots of flavors:

  • Long-held biases
  • Learned behavior
  • Holdover from previous job/project
  • Extrapolating from not enough evidence

Before you assume that an executive has certain strategic priorities, have a conversation with her. Often, you get different information at every level—content creators, managers, directors, and executives see their world differently. For example, I asked about localization requirements in one company and was told by content creators, managers, and directors that there were none. But the CEO said differently—he knew about a pending (large) sale that would result in a need for localization.

Validate your assumptions.

7. Not enough planning

Your strategy needs to amalgamate industry best practices with your organization’s unique aspects. Is your organization agile? Do you make products that are regulated? How quickly does your organization move and how are large projects normally handled? The answers will help you create a plan that makes sense for you.

Plan or Fail.

8. Too much planning

“No plan survives contact with reality.” (paraphrasing von Moltke)

As you build your plan, recognize that it will change. You’ll need to be flexible. The initial plan needs to be just good enough to get approval to get started. You cannot build the perfect plan, so don’t try.

Analysis paralysis kills projects.

9. Leading with technology

Choosing a particular content management system is not “content strategy.” Opening discussions about an organization’s content strategy with “And we’ve already decided to use XYZ CMS” is not very helpful. What if your strategy dictates an approach for which XYZ is not a good choice?

Unfortunately, this is a common problem. Sometimes, the technology constraints are imposed from the outside, such as the IT department that insists that SharePoint is Awesome for Everything. Content strategists should be technology agnostic.

Don’t lead with technology.

10. Ignoring internal talent

Most of the companies that hire us have plenty of talent on their staff. In those cases, our job is to amplify what the insiders are saying and ensure that it is communicated and understood within the organization.  Don’t ignore the smart people that are already on your team.

Even people who don’t commute on airplanes are smart.

What other mistakes are content strategists making? What’s your “favorite” mistake?

Alan Pringle and Bill Swallow contributed to this post.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

Twitter

Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

4 Comments on “Ten mistakes for content strategists to avoid”

  1. #5 hits home. Where I work it seems the same people are on the different project teams. Even when they have no background in the subject. It’s very frustrating when you have information that can help, but no way to provide input.

  2. #4 is more at the business-end.
    Even if we as content strategists focus on forests, the stakeholders continue watering and manuring individual trees! In my experience, this is particularly true for non-profits; sadly though!

  3. Sarah, I am always impressed about your grasp of business and the way you talk/write about it. A great summary, thanks!

  4. Nice post. Is there a place where you talk in more detail? For example, you talk about involving the right people, but you don’t offer much information about what to look for when gathering people together. Knowing more about what to look for could help identify the smart people.

    I look for people who: get content; understand our products; and know our audience.

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