Margot Bloomstein explains vividly what content strategists do in practice. She does not present an abstract theory, but starts from use cases and generalises only cautiously. Because her views are always embedded in concrete case histories, one recognises the multi-dimensionality of the work of content strategy on the one hand and its dependence on concrete contexts on the other. The book is not a textbook from which one can derive a few recipes, but it does an excellent job of conveying the knowledge of an experienced strategist. Therefore, it is an invaluable help for people who want to learn content strategy.
In “Content Strategy at Work” (2012) Margot Bloomstein describes vividly how content strategists proceed in practice and how content strategy tasks are solved with a message architecture-oriented approach. The book is a comprehensive presentation of content strategy as a practice, always focused on the conditions under which this practice is exercised.
Margot Bloomstein is one of the most widely read and quoted authors in the content strategy community. Her name is often associated with the term message architecture, which plays a major role in her approach to brand-oriented content strategy. However, she understands, practices and teaches content strategy holistically. The parts and pieces of this discipline cannot be isolated from each other and must always be adapted to the concrete circumstances of a project. In recent years, she has been working intensively on the credibility of brands, also for political reasons, and has published the book Trustworthy (Bloomstein 2021).
Margot Bloomstein has been advising different companies and organisations as a content strategist for over 20 years. She is a regular and very successful speaker at content strategy conferences.
Why content strategy is needed
At the beginning of this guided tour through content strategy Margot Bloomstein explains the role of content strategists. In the digital world brands have become publishers who interact continuously via content with their customers. But whose job is it to care about the things that make content good: continuity, consistency, pertinence, readability, accessibility? This is the content strategy’s moment to shine.
The book deals with various fields of practice of organisations that publish digitally. All of them are centered around content:
- Information architecture
- Content production
- Setting up content management systems
- Search engine optimisation
- Social media strategy and implementation
Efficiency and consistency via prioritisation
Consistent communication requires prioritisation. How content strategists determine priorities and intervene in processes according to these priorities wherever content is relevant is the continuous theme of this book. Prioritisation is understanding that not everything is equally important, especially when there is no infinite time and resources. It means that the person responsible for the content creation, measurement and maintenance has a clear picture of what the bigger plan is, a sense of “why this, why now?”.
The book contains a series of examples for prioritisation. The tea company Adagio.com is one of the most instructive ones. It offers many opportunities to their customers to consume content, engage with the brand and create a community around it. What makes this example interesting is their ability to see clearly through a vast variety of choices and pick the most suitable ones, without overwhelming the user.
Margot Bloomstein teaching a workshop at FH Joannum. (c)FH JOANNEUM/Miriam Weiß
Content is more than text: Using message architecture to create cohesive user experiences
Margot Bloomstein's approach is oriented towards the user experience and the role of content in user experience. The messages involved are crucial to textual content, but they are also conveyed by all other media and by the design of the interactions. In many organizations, new projects are motivated by design. This
motivation often hides the danger of delivering something that does not mirror that the client imagined. A content strategist is responsible for the engagement of the stakeholders in the establishment of a project’s
communication goals, in order for the content and design to work together and maintain a consistent brand voice and cohesive message architecture.
“A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals; as a hierarchy, they are attributes that appear in order of priority, typically in an outline.”
The logic is simple: “a single message architecture drives all tactical components of communication: visual, verbal, and interactive. One set of brand guidelines applies to the entire company.” A message architecture, however, differs from brand values. The latter responds more to a company's credo, whereas the first one signifies how it should communicate with its target audience. It is a strategy that offers actionable and specific communication, while reflecting a mission or vision statement.
The establishment of a message architecture can be achieved through various activities, such as Card Sorting or Venn Diagrams. Content strategy adds value to design, by minimizing uncertainty around the foundational elements that inform visual design, content strategy, editorial strategy, nomenclature, and architecture.
How to make content manageable? Setting up and steering content strategy projects
Prioritisation is also required to define projects through which to implement a content strategy, given the diversity of content and channels in an organisation. Content audits have a key role in this. A quantitative audit gives an overview of what content exists. A qualitative audit shows whether the content meets the goals it is supposed to achieve.
We need to know what our content needs to do, we need to be able to know if it’s successful, all while being able to maintain this success long in the future. By assessing and prioritizing the communication goals and documenting them in a message architecture while keeping the balance between the client and audience needs, content strategy helps in time and budget estimation with greater certainty and precision.
A content strategist knows how to engage several processes to reach this goal. Content audits are one such process. There is a range of approaches to choose from, depending on the needs of the project, and your phase in the project, including quantitative, qualitative, “core sample,” and special-interest audits. Regardless of the choice, including a scoring system is highly recommended in determining the content that best supports said communication goals. Is the content current, relevant, and appropriate? Is it redundant, outdated, or trivial? If content does not meet the standard for all these attributes, it most likely requires editing, translation, updating, or replacement.
As mentioned above, prioritization is key in communicating a brand’s goals and content strategy can offer a realistic scope, timeline and budget, as well as a tactical plan and consistency, through concrete plannable and manageable tasks.
A relaunch of the website of the U.S. Department of Energy is a good example. Beginning with a one-way, one-channel, one-audience focused strategy, they realised that in order to provide information on their services, they had to become personal and relevant. So they created a dedicated digital communication team and fostered the habit of strategic thinking. After a long transformative process, thy managed to create a multi-channel communication system that offered not only useful knowledge, but also personal engagement to each customer, from a live-chat to rich media series with personal stories.
Implementing content strategy through copywriting, creation, and curation
Once the project has been defined, many tactics can be used to implement the defined project. The content model – the plan of the different types of content that an organisation regularly uses to fill its channels – forms the center of these tactics. Not only self-created but also curated content is published in these channels. It is always important, on the one hand, to create the content that best meets the expectations of the users and, on the other hand, to implement processes that ensure that this content can always be regenerated and maintained.
Now it is time for the creative part. The development of a message architecture and the gaps revealed by a content audit are forming the basis for creating new content. The aim is to find content types that best support the company's goals as well as they fit the target audience needs. You have to know what you need your content to do for you! However, no matter which channels or types you choose, it's important to be able to maintain that content.
This chapter is about the tactics that can be used to implement the defined project. At the centre of these tactics is the content model, the plan of the different types of content that an organisation regularly uses in its channels. Not only self-created but also curated content is published in these channels. It is always important, on the one hand, to create the content that best meets the expectations of the users and, on the other hand, to implement processes that ensure that this content can always be regenerated and maintained.
Margot Bloomstein discusses a whole range of different artefacts that make the work of content strategists concrete and help teams to publish good content on a regular basis. These include taxonomies, a content matrix and editorial calendars.
Depending on the volume of content that is needed, it can be helpful to split different tasks into editorial strategy activities and content strategy activities. The common goal should be to create a prescriptive content matrix that tells content owners exactly WHAT kind of content they need to create, find or aggregate. This can indicate character counts as well as keywords or dates, which are important to the target audience.
Just as important is the question of HOW your content should look like: Editorial style guidelines address the style and tone of the content in a way that will uphold the brand. This ensures consistent high quality, even if there are changes in the team.
Using message architecture to guide Search Engine Optimization
Good content attracts people like flowers attract bees. As a content strategist you can take advantage of that: A range of versatile content types offer opportunities for important SEO-measures. Integrate keywords, link to products, and reinforce the brand in tone and topic - All of that will successfully reflect in the results of search engines. Therefore the SEO expertise has to be brought into the content planning itself. But you have to proceed very carefully: Current website analytics can only give a picture of the past. That's exactly where you can incorporate your message architecture. Identifying future plans and goals can help to choose keywords or phrases that not only appeal to current audiences, but also fit with the brand's communication goals. So keep in mind:
“It’s possible to create content and tell stories that are optimized for people first but still incorporate the kinds of keywords they would search”.
The chapter on search engine optimisation is about using search and search engines as a means to communicate a brand's key messages. To do this, the keywords that are optimised for must match the message architecture. To do this, you have to look at possible gaps between message architecture and terms that are actually searched for. This can then be used to strategically control the production of content that is found via keywords that match the message architecture. Editorial planning around topics is a good way to do this. Examples are Marketo and TopRank.
How to support content strategy by the customisation of content management systems
Typically, discussions about content management systems focus on features, cost savings and installation. But before you decide whether to switch to another CMS or not, it is better to look at your own content first. Developing a content model will help to reveal some of the challenges and functionality the (new) CMS might need to support. It defines content types and describes the relationship between them and among their most important attributes. Knowing what is needed can also help to make decisions that will support the brand message in the long term.
This approach will also make it easier for internal users, who will produce, publish and manage the content later on. Therefore, it is also advisable to draft editorial style guidelines. Content strategists must also make sure that the people who produce the content are able to use the CMS well – e.g. via regular training – and that at least one accessible person can master all important aspects of it and solve problems.
Grounding social Media in content strategy
In recent years, social media presence has become increasingly important for brands. For this reason, the channels and communication goals should be chosen carefully. It is therefore advisable to start with the message architecture and develop content that supports your communication goals. The social channels must fit this content and it must be relevant and interesting for the target group as well.
But how do you do that when you only have a limited budget? The trick is to reduce yourself to the most important social media channels and only use those that can be regularly filled with fresh content, maintained and updated.
After the main channels have been selected, editorial style guidelines can help to ensure that your brand evolves consistently across those channels. And because scheduling is often a problem as well, an editorial calendar can help to prioritize social media efforts.
Explaining and selling content strategy
As content strategy is still a relatively new discipline, it is important to educate clients and customers about what can be achieved with this strategic approach. This can be quite difficult at times, especially if the budget or time resources are tight. The last chapter of the book is therefore dedicated to the question of how to make the benefits of a content strategy visible to clients and convince them to invest in long-term success.
Content strategy lays the groundwork for longer-term planning and execution. For many organizations content is THE differentiator, especially when their competitors fail to create, maintain, curate or organize their content well. An appropriate content strategy also helps organizations to inform and empower their target audience but positions their site as the pre-eminent thought leader in the industry as well.
It is always important to convey the holistic approach. Even if the budget does not allow a complete audit, for example, it is important to point out that even an exemplary audit can provide essential information for further work. It’s our job as content strategists to help organisations to embrace content as an important asset that has a significant impact on the brand.
“The Content strategist doesn’t just get involved at the beginning or jump in for a phase and the leave – they are in for the long haul with tasks throughout the project.”
Bloomstein’s work is filled with well-drawn content-oriented case studies and should be considered required reading for anyone whose work overlaps with content, and any content strategist who is looking for meaty in-the-trenches examples of how content strategy is grappled with and applied to projects big and small.
– Elizabeth Bennett
Content Strategy at Work is one of the most cited books in the discipline. It is mentioned on reading lists on content strategy, such as those by Irene Michl (2017) and Kristina Halvorson (2018). Elizabeth Bennett characterises and summarises the book very well in her review (Bennett 2016, originally 2012). She writes: "Bloomstein’s work is filled with well-drawn content-oriented case studies and should be considered required reading for anyone whose work overlaps with content, and any content strategist who is looking for meaty in-the-trenches examples of how content strategy is grappled with and applied to projects big and small."
Bennett, E. (2016, August 17). Book Review: Content Strategy at Work. Scatter / Gather. https://medium.com/scatter-gather/book-review-content-strategy-at-work-c49a8322d8f4
Bloomstein, M. (2012). Content strategy at work: Real-world stories to strengthen every interactive project. Morgan Kaufmann.
Bloomstein, M. (2021). Trustworthy: How the smartest brands beat cynicism and bridge the trust gap. Page Two Books.
Halvorson, K. (2018, June 21). The Content Strategist’s Reading List—Brain Traffic. Brain Traffic. https://www.braintraffic.com/insights/the-content-strategists-reading-list
Michl, I. (2017, March 28). Buchempfehlungen Content Strategie. Irene Michl. https://www.irenemichl.at/content-strategie-buchempfehlungen/