Towards the end of the Nineties, user orientation became an important motto in web development and web design (although not necessarily in the practice of companies). User orientation is often proclaimed as the most crucial guideline in content strategy. But if an organization is communicating only to meet user needs, its business value may become unrecognizable and the brand generic. The course “Brand Values & Message Architecture” focuses on the role and the requirements of brands and on ways to solve brand-related challenges through content strategy. This lecture describes the procedure for implementing such a strategy at an introductory level.
The lecturer Margot Bloomstein is a passionate content strategist with more than 20 years of experience in the field. Brand-driven content strategy is the lens through which she looks at our discipline. “It is not the only one, but it is one right way,” Bloomstein explains.
Margot Bloomstein provides different approaches to introducing the topic to class students. ‘Hands-on’ and ‘speak up’ is the overriding principle in each of her lectures.
Margot Bloomstein conceives developing a brand-driven content strategy as a 5 step process. The three first steps are:
- the elaboration of a message architecture
- a brand-oriented content audit
- the definition of the most appropriate content types
Message architecture: The translation of your values into actionable communication goals
The message architecture is the organizing principle of a brand-oriented content strategy. By precisely carving out a message architecture, an organization can define actionable communication objectives based on what is most important to it. A message architecture does not consist of the brand's values themselves. It is a guide for external communication. It sets the direction of how an organization should communicate with its audience to get its message across. Since all businesses and organizations are dealing with constraints such as limited time or budget, the message architecture represents the most important communication goals in a prioritized order. “A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals; as a hierarchy, they're attributes that appear in order of priority, typically in an outline.” (Bloomstein 2012, p.20)
As an example, Margot Bloomstein showed the message architecture of a medical laboratory:
- Passionate about strategic discovery
- creative, spirited, inspired
- Visionary, innovative thought leader, and industry leader
- Tactical and hands-on
- In the trenches, in touch
- Detail-oriented and methodical
- Groundbreaking, trend-setting
- Modern and savvy
- People-focused and market-driven
- Trusted by medical professionals, researchers, and media
- Industry news source
A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals; as a hierarchy, they're attributes that appear in order of priority, typically in an outline.
– Margot Bloomstein: Content Strategy at Work
Message architecture in practice
Margot Bloomstein showcased many real-life cases of how message architecture works in practice. One striking example: She sparked up a discussion by asking which of these drinks contain the most caffeine:
None of the students in the class would have guessed the correct answer: Starbucks coffee. Why? Bloomstein explains that the messaging shapes the character of a brand and how it is being perceived. While Starbucks speaks more to professionals in suits, Red Bull focuses on the athlete type of consumer. The latter makes you believe that the drink gives you more energy, although that is in fact not true.
How to define a message architecture: card sorting as a method
Margot Bloomstein's preferred tool for developing a message architecture is a sorting exercise with a stack of brand cards. The stack consists of cards with around 100 possible brand attributes. Each attribute is printed on one card. The participants assign the cards to 3 different columns:
- Who we are not
- Who we are
- Who we’d like to be
The participants are free to add brand attributes that they miss. When all cards have been assigned to one of the columns, the pile of cards in the who-we-are-not-column gets tossed away. In a second round, the participants try to discover the three most important attributes of their organization together with some accompanying or specifying secondary characteristics. They have to decide what values (attributes) they want to leave behind – in most cases, a difficult decision. But it is crucial to arrive at a small number of specific messages – otherwise, it is impossible to use the messages for deciding what to communicate and what not. The identity of the organization would not be sufficiently defined. All attributes that the participants want to keep going into the pile of who we’d like to be. In the last step, the participants have to group similar attributes in word clouds and prioritize the attributes within each cloud. The result is a hierarchy of attributes representing an organization's communication goals.
Remark: Card sorting is also used in information architecture, e.g., to define navigation menus for a website.
The physical interaction with the cards makes the meaning of the selected terms perceptible to the senses. The shared space encourages a conversation around topics and concepts. During the whole process, the content strategist sticks to the role of a consultant and facilitator. She/he steps back to show the group members that it is their task and responsibility to decide on the messages. In the end, the deliverables can be entirely attributed to the client.
Margot Bloomstein's company Appropriate, Inc. distributes the BrandSort card set that Margot Bloomstein uses in her own work.
Does your content fit to your message architecture? Qualitative content audits
The message architecture is also the foundation for a qualitative content audit. What content do we already have, and is it any good? Does it align with the message architecture and the communication goals?
You can rarely start a content strategy from scratch. That is why content strategists must very carefully capture what is already there when they will lead a company on the rocky road of developing a strategy – before even writing the first word of copy or producing and curating illustrations.
A brand-driven qualitative content audit has proven its worth here. To determine what should be continued, superfluous, and missing, the content strategist surveys the current status of an organization's content and evaluates its consistency with the message architecture. Margot Bloomstein underlines that there are different ways to audit the content. But in each of them, a specific motivation should guide the content strategist. A goal, a particular question, the message architecture – many things can be a reason to evaluate the content, but it does not make sense to perform an audit 'just because.'
Remark: You will find more information about content audits in the posts related to the COS course on content audits.
How to conduct a qualitative content audit
Initially, it is necessary to determine the scope of content to which the audit refers. For example: For a website content audit, a list of all the URLs can be put in a large spreadsheet (there are tools to do that). Next, the share of the different content formats should be evaluated. Are there a lot of PDFs on the web page? Are there many images (which is good)? Videos? Where are links set, or is there duplicate content? Are there dead links?
After this rough overview, the quality of the content can be determined. There are several ways to do this. The spreadsheet that has been created for the quantitative overview can be used as a base for evaluating the content piece by piece. An alternative procedure consists of following a customer journey through the existing website and checking if the customers' needs are met, or their questions are answered.
Doing the content audit also means dealing with constraints. In most cases, the restricted resources will only allow examining some of the available content. If it is only possible to analyze a strategically important website sample, it is crucial to define the criteria for its choice correctly.
A content audit is one of the key deliveries to the client. It is essential for defining the key elements of a content strategy. Without a qualitative audit, all subsequent recommendations for content will dangle in the air.
Appropriate content types: Finding the appropriate channels for your messages
Based on the content audit it is possible to recommend appropriate content types.
What is a content type?
In his online glossary for web content management (Barker n.d.) Deane Barker defines a content type as follows: “The specification of a logical type of content–for example, a News Article or a Blog Post.” A content type can be seen as a generic description of the properties of a group of content items that define requirements and possibilities. Content types belong to channels: A blog post can belong to the channel website or LinkedIn, a how-to video can be part of a company's YouTube channel. Many business owners, CEOs, or even marketers are tempted to think it is sufficient to specify appropriate content, e.g., video. But only for a video of a specific type in a particular channel can you say whether it will suit the message and achieve its purpose. It is crucial to select content types that support the message architecture.
How to recommend appropriate content types
After conducting the audit, the content strategist should recommend content types and channels that fit the client's needs.
The selected content types represent the communication goals of the
business, organization, or company.
Examples show how closely connected channels, content types, and communication goals are: If the communication goal is to be perceived as engaged and fun, is an annual report the right channel? Or are a blog, games, and videos more appropriate? In other words, the chosen content types and channels will manifest the communication goals that have been defined in the message architecture.
Finding content types: A practical exercise
In class, each of the 29 students has to recommend one or two content types based on the audit they conducted before. The challenge is that none of the suggested content types should be repeated. The first question to arise is: Are there enough content types for everyone?
Here is an excerpt from the ideas that the students presented (with a special thanks to Tamara Schiffer, COS20 student, for collecting the content types throughout the session):
- Social Media Wall
- Wizard for Covid19 Help
- Webinar with Q&A
- Case Study
- FAQ and Guide for customer support
- Travel blog post
- Pricing-range for the shops listed
Before the exercise, we fear a kind of Hunger Games: Will there be enough different content types and channels for everyone in the group? One first thinks of media types like video, images, and long copy when speaking of content types. But content types can be found in every corner. CoSchedule, a marketing organization software, published 113 content-type ideas (Ellering n.d.). Formats like quotes or references are often not perceived as content types, but they have specific formal characteristics on which their efficiency depends. (The credibility of a content collection may rely on the correctness and the sources of quotes.) Furthermore, this list shows clearly that suitable content types can also be found for smaller budgets. The necessary resources have to be considered by the content strategist when recommending content types to the client. In aligning the content types with the message architecture, internal resources like budget or personnel can get shifted and reallocated.
Where to go from here
In her first book, Content Strategy at Work (2012), Margot Bloomstein described how she practices brand-oriented content strategy based on many examples. She has also presented her concept in many presentations (e.g., Brand-driven Content Strategy: Developing a Message Architecture 2016) and videos (e.g., Promoting Your Brand 2014). Since then, she has further developed her concept and published the book Trustworthy: how the most innovative brands beat cynicism and bridge the trust gap (2021).
COS students have written about Margot's teaching in blogposts and portfolios. One of them: Brand-driven Content Strategy (Knall 2021).
Our instructor Doris Eichmeier explores the relationships between brand communication and content strategy in the German-language content strategy community. In the book Die Content-Revolution in Unternehmen (Eck & Eichmeier 2014), she presents a method for brand-focused content audits which she has developed.
Some examples of brand-oriented content strategies development can be found by browsing through the COS-Master's Theses.
The COS program includes a separate course on content audits, which also discusses in detail other perspectives on audits and how they are handled technically. Content types are a subject of the introduction of the course to content management and content models.
Barker, D. (n.d.). (2021, January 27). The Web Content Management Glossary [Book Companion]. Web Content Management; Blend Interactive. https://flyingsquirrelbook.com/glossary/
Bloomstein, M. (2012). Content strategy at work: Real-world stories to strengthen every interactive project. Morgan Kaufmann.
Bloomstein, M. (2016, September 19). Brand-driven Content Strategy: Developing a Message Architecture [Slideshow]. http://de.slideshare.net/mbloomstein/branddriven-content-strategy-developing-a-message-architecture-workshop-at-confab-intensive-2016
Bloomstein, M. (2021). Trustworthy: How the smartest brands beat cynicism and bridge the trust gap. Page Two Books.
Eck, K., & Eichmeier, D. (2014). Die Content-Revolution im Unternehmen: Neue Perspektiven durch Content-Marketing und -Strategie (1. Auflage). Haufe-Lexware GmbH & Co. KG.
Ellering, N. (n.d.). (2021, December 22). 113 Types of Content Marketing You Can Add to Your Calendar Now. CoSchedule. https://coschedule.com/content-marketing/types-of-content
Knall, A. (2021, January 15). Brand-driven Content Strategy. Antonia Knall. https://antonia.cc/brand-driven-content-strategy/
Margot Bloomstein | Promoting Your Brand / Day 2. (2014, October 9). https://vimeo.com/108578843