The Content Strategists’ Toolkit - EFFECTIVE CONTENT STRATEGY: PEOPLE, PROCESS, AND TECHNOLOGY - The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web (2014)

The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web (2014)


Chapter 8. The Content Strategists’ Toolkit


Content strategists use data, research, tools, and guidelines to develop a process by which to create, manage, and publish content. It is vital that your team approaches this part of the process knowing that they are building future content by seeing what has already been done and where the company wants to go with content. Sometimes the work can feel tedious and monumental, but in the end, it is worth all the time and effort.


content strategy; personas; framework; analytics; guidelines; tools; quantitative research; qualitative research; engagement metrics; site search analytics; key performance indicators; channel mapping; CMS; goal matrix

We are going to continue to explore the details of how to set up a publishing system for content in your organization. As we have learned, there are two major challenges around content. One is getting the right information to the right people to create the right kinds of content. The second challenge involves publishing the content itself and keeping it fresh and consistent. We can solve both challenges by implementing a content strategy.

Thinking Like a Publisher

If you are in business today and you own digital property, such as a website, blog, or social media channel, you are a publisher. Even if you don’t publish anything on actual paper that’s distributed to people, you’re a publisher. You are responsible for keeping that digital property up to date with relevant information about your business.

Being a publisher requires thinking differently about information. Publishers know they need to inform, surprise, inspire, and educate people so they return to their publications. You may feel that you don’t even know where to start with thinking about your organization as a publishing entity.

Content strategy solves that challenge. To understand how to think, communicate, and produce content like a publisher, you need to understand content strategy. It is the how, when, what, and who of the content equation. A strategy is a set of tactics you use to achieve a goal, or as Diana Railton, a content strategist, says, “A carefully worked plan of action to meet one or more goals” (Railton, personal communication). Your goal is to manage your content so that it speaks to your audiences and helps you reach your achievement threshold.

Content strategy is a system designed to help your organization manage its content assets. How do you create, update, and manage all of it—the product descriptions, forms, bios, whitepapers, videos, podcasts, position descriptions, and so on?

A content strategy lifecycle provides guidance about how to publish content according to a system. We move through each step to manage the lifecycle of our content, similar to following the steps of a recipe. Content strategy provides guidelines for actual management of content within an organization—how information becomes content and is distributed to your target audiences.

Many creative people balk at systems and are even offended by the suggestion that they need them. They feel they have more freedom without the structure of a system or strategy. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Systems allow for freedom, they don’t stifle it. By building in workflows and reviews, you create a structure of consistency around your conversations with your audience. This structure benefits both your internal process and your business objectives. It also lessens the tensions inherent in any development process. When everyone agrees to a process, knows their stage, their role, and the roles of others within it, they are less nervous about their own work and they appreciate the teamwork. Content is a big job regardless of the size of your organization.

Create a structure of consistency around your conversations. You and your audience will benefit.

Now that you know to whom you’re talking, as we learned in Chapter 6, and who you are, as we learned in Chapter 7, we’re going to focus on aligning your internal teams so they publish content using a repeatable lifecycle (always keeping in mind Rule #3: Keep it Iterative). You’re already walking into the planning phase armed with three major tools you need for content strategy: customer identity profiles, identity pillars, and messaging architecture.

Ready to Execute

At every step in the content strategy process we need to look at those personas we tacked on to our conference room wall and remember that we are creating content to reach them. Here is a good way to keep that in mind: using the content strategy graphic (Figure 8.1) as a guide, use this chart that lists one or two critical questions to answer at each stage.




What does my audience need to know?
What goals are we trying to meet?


What are the best content formats to get those messages across to them?


What technology platforms make the most sense?
What online publishing tools do we use?


Which social media tools do we use?


How did we do? Can we do better?

Govern (Central to the entire process)

How are we caring for our brand across the web and within the ecosystem of content in our organizations?
Are we consistent?
Are we up to date?


FIGURE 8.1 The lifecycle of content strategy. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

All of those questions focus on your audiences, their needs, and their responses to your information expressed as content.

Focus on the Tools in the Box

For this chapter, I’ve chosen to focus on the tools a content strategist uses within each phase of the lifecycle. The reason for this is twofold:

1. Trust the process: Content strategy is a never-ending, constantly evolving practice. But just as a surgeon has some basic techniques he uses every day in the operating room and a dancer learns the basic steps and then adds variety to spice up routines, so, too, content professionals must trust the basic process of content strategy. Trusting the process means learning what the tools are, what they do, and how to use them effectively on a daily basis. Great content professionals also know how to adapt these tools for each project.

2. Focus on the tools, not the deliverables: So much of today’s business world is focused on deliverables (work you can hand off to a client or use internally as a guide), particularly if you’re a consultant. Content strategy is indeed a consultative practice, and the tools we’re going to talk about in this chapter can double as deliverables. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’ve finished the deliverable, the work is done. The process of content strategy is designed as a cycle that you keep improving. So rather than thinking of them as end deliverables, think of them as tools in your toolkit.

So let’s talk tools. You’ll use tools in each of the stages: Plan, Create, Publish, Distribute, and Analyze. Then, in Rule #5, we’ll talk in depth about why governance is the center of any content strategy lifecycle. In that rule, we’ll also talk about the tools you can use to keep your brand consistent, regardless of the channel on which your audience finds your content.

Framework: People, Process, Technology

Content strategy helps you manage the intersection of people, process, and technology when it comes to publishing content within your organization (Figure 8.2). All of the tools we’ll discuss exist within this overlapping framework. Managing these tools efficiently means processing all of the information you have about your own company’s talent, business cycles, and what types of technologies will help you create, publish, manage, and update content.


FIGURE 8.2 Content is at the intersection of people, process, and technology.

Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list—there are entire books that focus on content strategy. Rather, this is a list of the basic tools every organization must master to keep on top of their content. Here is how Shelley Bowen, a content strategist, shows the potential deliverables and tools for a content strategy (Bowen) (Figure 8.3).


FIGURE 8.3 “Potential Content Strategy Deliverables” by Shelley Bowen, 2012 ©Pybob, LLC.

Content Strategy: Tools You Can Use

Take a look—here is a brief overview of the types of tools you need to use at each phase of the process.




Personas, messaging architectures, identity pillars, content audits, centralized style guides, content usability testing, competitive analysis


Editorial guidelines, goal matrix, style guides


Editorial calendars, workflows, publishing guidelines, CMS documentation, archiving guidelines


Channel mapping, social media guidelines, recommended character guidelines, best practices for content types posted on different social media channels


Analytics reports, engagement metrics, site search analytics (SSA)

Now let’s dig deeper.


When you plan your content, the magic begins. This is exciting, because it’s the starting point of a step-by-step process that moves you forward so that you can achieve your goals.

There are four tools we’re going to explore in the plan phase:

• Content Audits

• Centralized Style Guides

• Content Usability Testing

• Competitive Analysis

Content Audits

Marcy Jacobs, a UX professional in Washington, DC, says it best: “Imagine if you had every piece of clothing you’ve ever worn in your entire life in one closet, the size of a small room. Every shoe, every accessory, even clothes you’ve borrowed from others. How would you organize all those pieces of clothing? By size? By age? By event? This isn’t a museum of the clothing you’ve worn your entire life. So can you get rid of some of this clothing? You’re probably not wearing size 3T anymore” (Jacobs, personal communication).

Jacobs is talking about information architecture (IA)—the way we structure the back-end file system of our websites so that we organize our content in an intuitive way for our audiences (Figure 8.4). But her point is that before we do anything on our digital properties, we need to know what we already have. You may not want to keep your first pair of shoes, but you may find a nice tie from 2006 you completely forgot you had that is still in style.


FIGURE 8.4 An example of an information architecture, a visual depiction of the back end file organization of a website.

Here is another way of putting it—Lou Rosenfeld is a recognized authority on information architecture and defines it as:

1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.

2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.

3. The art and science of structuring and classifying websites and intranets to help people find and manage information (Morville, 2012).

So, before you organize all the shared content assets of your organization, you need to inventory them.

Why Do a Content Audit?

I’m not going to sugar-coat this. Content audits can be mind-numbingly boring and time consuming. They require an incredible amount of patience and curiosity. Someone has to look at the content with a fresh eye and suspend judgment because any findings from the auditing stage will be the foundation of all conversations regarding the future of the content.

However, content audits are essential—not just important or nice to do. I can’t emphasize this enough. You just cannot know what you have unless you go through it piece by piece, format by format. You may be able to automate some of this process (there are tools out there), but at the end you need to know:

• How much content you have

• Where the content lives

• If the content is relevant

Chris Detzi, an information architect, describes four reasons to perform a content audit (Detzi, 2012):

1. Reveal the true scale of the website’s content

2. Clarify and refine the project scope

3. Facilitate strategic discussions about design objectives and direction

4. Establish a common language for the team to use throughout the project

What Type of Audit Should You Do?

If you are truly auditing all the content assets of an organization, you need to look at all of their digital properties—not just their website. There are five types of audits:

1. Quantitative audit: This results in a basic list of the content on your site, including URLs, page titles, and downloadable documents. This is really an inventory of the content on your digital properties.

2. Qualitative audit: A more in-depth accounting of the content, including an analysis of the writing, multimedia, accuracy of the content, value for the organization, etc.

3. Mapping audit: Mapping allows you to see the content you have, visually, in the form of a site tree. It looks very much like an information architecture, but allows you to see the relationship that different pieces of content have to each other. It also gives you a sense of how deep the site is and therefore how layered the content is (Leibtag, 2010).

4. Rolling audit: These audits never end—meaning you’re always auditing some digital property to know what you have and what is being added. The best way to perform rolling audits is to pick a part of the site and then audit it until you have finished. Then move on to another digital property or part of the site. When you get back to the beginning, you start again. (Have you noticed yet the inherent circular theme within content strategy?) “The benefit of a rolling audit is that more content gets looked at, in a more careful manner, more often” (Halvorson & Rach, 2012).

5. Thin slice audit: Matthew Grocki, a content strategist, recommends doing this type of audit to break a large site down by sections. By auditing some of the pages, you get a “thin slice” view of the content in that section.

With a quantitative audit, you can see how much content there is on the organization’s digital properties. When you do a qualitative audit, you can get a sense of the quality of the content. With a map, you can see the relationship the different pages have to each other. The content mapping audit process works well when you need to make a case for creating new content or for changing certain parts of the IA.

Picking the right type of audit to perform is not something you should agonize over. There’s no time for paralysis through analysis. Time and budget often dictate which one you should perform, but you must know as much as you can about the content so that you can know how to change it or make it better.

Another Way: Multidimensional Content Audits

You may want to think about combining types of audits to reveal information that, combined, gives your stakeholders a true taste of the current state of your content.

Multidimensional content audits help to tell a story about how content is living in the outside world.

Instead of spreadsheets that list your content, this type of audit is a multidimensional group of documents that help tell a story—not just about what you have, but its performance in the outside world. Consider the following types of multidimensional content audits:

Combine your analytics and content audits in a spreadsheet so you can sort according to information architecture (IA) order or by page views.

Pull interesting notes from your analytics and display those in graphical format: peak user times, top pages by entrance and exit, whole sections that are ignored.

Have your developers count the number of design templates or databases you are using.

Request information from the call center about the top 10 issues or concerns they deal with on a daily basis and look at the analytics for that content.

Compare your mobile analytics with your desktop analytics to see if there are major differences in the way people consume your content using different platforms.

Count the top types of content that are used. For example, does video score high? Audio? Downloadable PDFs?

The goal of collecting this data is to inform your decisions. Having multidimensional content audits will help you move forward in your content strategy efforts. Why? Because you need to be able to tell a story.

Showing clients, or your C-suite, a content inventory spreadsheet is never enough—they need a visual representation to better understand how much content they have and how the content is performing. You can see an example of an audit I performed for an international information technology supplier in Figure 8.5. I wanted to graphically represent how each page performed by merging Google Analytics information into the audit. Building a story for the client of how content performed was important for explaining why they needed different types of content formats (more videos, fewer whitepapers).


FIGURE 8.5 Multidimensional content audit representing how each page performed. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

Do I Really Need to Audit the Entire Site?

If you need to save time, or you are running a content strategy pilot project, you can use the 80/20 rule when it comes to content; that is, 80% of your traffic comes from 20% of your pages. Examining those top pages will reveal some important facts:

• What are your hardest working pages and how can you improve them?

• Are there any noticeable traffic patterns that reveal weaker pages?

• Are the owners of these pages keeping the content up-to-date and relevant?

You can also use a representative sample of your content to get a better understanding of it without auditing everything. What size sample is appropriate? There are some suggested sample sizes depending on how large your site is and how many pages or chunks of content you have, but I would recommend considering the following before deciding how much of the content to audit:

• How much time you have

• Your budget

• If you can automate any of the process and still get the information you need

• The level of detail you want

• How much you think your client already knows about the audience

Use the Content Audit Wisely

The content audit is the basis of your roadmap. It tells you what you have, not what you should do. But, once you’ve spent the human and other resources creating it, it pays to think carefully about how you use it. Detzi describes how content audits can help facilitate discussions about the plans for content:

• “Is all of this content still relevant? What business, customer, or employee need does it support?

• What new content must be created in the coming months? What’s driving those needs?

• What drove decisions about file types and/or variations in format that exist? Do these decisions still hold?” (Detzi)

Your content audit will be used to focus on priorities. This will shape the conversations about how to create and manage content in the best way to develop solid, lasting relationships with your target audiences.

Go into the audit process knowing why you are doing it and what you hope to get out of it. This will help shape the way you ultimately deliver the information to your team. When presenting the results of audits, it helps to make the reports as visual as possible, accompanied by text.

More important, though, are the conversations you have with the others on your team, with the stakeholders, or with the C-suite, about the findings. Sometimes, stakeholders really have no idea what content exists or what may not be performing well. A content audit is the perfect time to pull the veil away and expose the reality of the current situation: The content may be messy, out of date, inconsistent, or the worst—just plain confusing.

Centralized Style Guide

Many content strategists would argue that a centralized style guide—a guide that encompasses your personas, messaging, editorial guidelines, and styles for both design and content is a tool that we should talk about when discussing governance. I would argue that because governance is central to the content strategy process, a style guide needs to also be a part of the planning process, because it sets the stage for what you’re really trying to say, who you are trying to say it to, how to listen, and how to respond.

We will learn how to build a great style guide in Rule #5, but do include it in your planning process. Your content will be stronger for it.

Content Testing

Would you ever launch a product without detailed product testing? And yet every day, millions of pieces of content are published online without ever being tested by audiences. Why do we do this?

Well, one reason is that it is so easy to publish content now. The second reason is that for a decade, the web world was so focused on design, that content was often ignored. Now that we’ve realized content is king, we need to get back to testing our content.

I’ve tested content many times and I’m always astounded by what I learn. You will be too. Content testing should include:

Goals: What are we trying to uncover by testing the content?

Participants: Find members who represent your target audiences.

Scripts: Distribute the scripts throughout your team, and ask for feedback, so you know you are asking the right questions.

Usability software: There are many versions you can purchase. Now with web cams in almost every computer, you can easily film your participants using and interacting with the content.

Reporting mechanism: Your findings should be distributed within your group. Most importantly, use the findings to shape your planning process with content.

Content Testing Case Study

Working with an international powerhouse medical institution like Johns Hopkins Medicine can be daunting: Trying to get the medical minds to agree on the content of the medical system’s website is incredibly challenging.

When tasked with testing whether the website was effective, our team (Aaron Watkins, Director of E-Strategy at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Ahava Leibtag) decided to focus on testing the content, instead of testing the site itself. Testing actual content would enable us to convince the stakeholders that less content might actually be more—a tough sell for academic medical professionals whose careers depend on publish, publish, publish.

So while a usability test may have focused on completing tasks while interacting with the interface, for content testing we wanted answers to the following:

• Can users find the content they need?

• Can they read the content? (Was the font size large enough?)

• Can they understand the content?

• Will they act on the content?

• Will they share the content?

These questions seem simple, but required a sophisticated framework for testing individual users. How do we answer the above questions in a reliable and methodical way? How do we avoid asking customers if they like content but instead focus on the following questions:

1. How relevant do you find the content?

2. Will you act on the information from the content?

3. Did you find this content useful to you?

Our team tested at several locations and watched in person or via webcam as people went through the website and attempted to answer a set of questions. Some of our findings were incredibly revealing, including that people who did not watch an online video got the answers right more often than those who did watch it.

Some lessons learned from the experience include:

Use an iterative approach: Test, fix, and test again until you are sure your content satisfies the majority of your audience(s)

Pick the right content to test: Pick areas of the site to test that are business critical and user experience critical

Know who you are testing: Clearly define your customer groups

Use moderated usability testing: Have a person directing the test instead of using automated software to test content

Test the content, not the person: Make it clear you are testing the content, not the customer

Use the testing opportunity wisely: Find out everything you can about how your customers understand and integrate the content into their thinking (Leibtag and Watkins, 2011)

Competitive Analysis

A competitive analysis is important when you are planning your content because it will help you discover what types of content your competitors produce, as well as their levels of engagement with their audiences. On a high-level, it gives you the lay of the land as well as the market context.

Some questions you may want to ask about the competitors’ sites:

• How up-to-date is their content?

• Do they interact on social media channels?

• Do they have a mobile website or any mobile apps?

• Are they doing things we should be doing?

Jason Withrow, a user experience expert, recommends breaking up the competitive analysis by content and functionality: “Broadly speaking, content refers to informational pages while functionality is what users can do while they are at the website” (Withrow, 2006). In other words, Withrow is defining content as information, while functionality refers to interactive forms that customers use to complete or further a task, such as making an airline reservation or buying a product.

Use a high-level inventory to demonstrate what information and functionality your competitors have. This will help open up new conversations surrounding your competitors’ offerings, as well as what you can and want to offer in the way of content and functionality.

Beware, however, of the “Ooh, they’re doing it, we have to do it too!” syndrome. I’ve been on projects where we were moving in one direction and because a competitor launched something new we suddenly changed course.

This is not a good idea—ever. Here’s why:

Once you have done the heavy lifting we’ve described in the past two chapters, you should not change course just because of a competitor. Who says they’re doing it right? You do not have access to their data—therefore, you cannot make decisions based on their content moves. Their strategy is based on a problem they are trying to solve for—let’s say it’s X. Your strategy is based on trying to solve for Y. Knowing what content and functionality your competitors offer does help keep you on top of any content innovations within your industry. If it makes sense to create something similar because it helps you solve for Y, then by all means, approach it strategically. But, remember, you are not a butterfly. You don’t have to change the color of your wings to mimic the competition. To keep up to date in your industry, perform at least one competitive analysis each year (Figure 8.6).


FIGURE 8.6 An example of a competitive landscape analysis. In this case, there was a comparison of content, as well as other issues important to competition.


Creating content is fun—often it’s the part of the process that teams enjoy the most. However, creating content requires patience and the ability to break down the silos that hold the information you need to create great content.

The following tools will help you:

• Goal Matrix

• Editorial Guidelines and Style Guide

Goal Matrix

Often the best place to start when creating content is with the format of the content: written, visual, multimedia, interactive, or some other type. (For a reminder of different content formats, revisit Chapter 3.) Once you know what content formats you need to create, you can select the right person or groups of people on your team who are experts in creating those.

If you are producing different content formats, have a short but sweet list to let everyone involved in production know the goals of this piece of content and what part it plays in the big content picture.


Using a simple form like this for every content format will help the entire team refine clear goals for each piece of content. It will also train them to start thinking about creating content for people, rather than to just create and publish.

Editorial Guidelines and Style Guide

Your editorial guidelines should be a part of your style guide. Depending on how distributed your content workforce is (meaning do they sit outside central web, marketing, and digital communications functions?) it is going to be hard to align everyone with a huge style guide that encompasses branding, design, voice, and tone.

You may have hundreds of writers, or even assembly line content posters (the people who change phone numbers, publish parking information, and change bios) throughout your global organization. So make sure you select the elements that really matter and create checkpoints to ensure your content workforce is following those. I cannot emphasize how important training is to your governance endeavors: Training those and other CMS authors will keep your content consistent.


Publishing content means getting it out into the world. There are many tools you can use during the publish phase:

• Editorial Calendars

• Workflows or Publishing Guidelines

• CMS Documentation

• Archiving Guidelines

Editorial Calendars

Editorial calendars are incredibly important for the planning process. However, they really belong here, in the publish phase, because they dictate when you will publish content.

You can use many different types of editorial calendars; there are some great software programs out there. Or you can just use a shared Google doc. However you decide to update your editorial calendar, make sure only certain people can edit it, but that many people can view it. This will encourage a cultural mindset to work from an editorial calendar. You editorial calendar should include:

• Post date

• Author, Editor, and Publisher

• Tentative title

• Keywords

• Categories or Type of Content

• Tags

• Call to action

• Status (Linn, 2010)

Workflows or Publishing Guidelines

Workflow includes how content is planned, created, published, and distributed. That means you need the right talent in the right roles. The best way to handle workflow is to sketch out how the workflow currently operates. For example, try filling in the following chart:





The person that requests that this piece of content be created


The sources of the factual information behind the building of the content


The creators of the content. Can be authors, videographers, graphic designers, etc.


The people who make sure that the content is factually correct and follows brand and editorial guidelines


The people who approve the content—could be legal or subject matter experts


The people responsible for publishing the content

Audience Engagement (Social Media) Managers

The people who manage the distribution of content on different channels and engage with the audience regarding the content


The people who review data regarding the content to inform the team at a later date. Remember to pick metrics that measure the right data so you can use that to make better decisions about your entire content process

Once you know what the current workflow looks like, you need to ask:

• Do we have the right talent within the organization or do we need to hire new talent?

• Are the content professionals on staff equipped with the right skills or do they need further training?

• Would outside consultants, writers, editors, or videographers make sense for specific projects?

Examining these issues is critical to understanding how to establish a successful content strategy.

You may already have the right staff, but the wrong talent in the wrong roles. For example, a writer may have been pushed into a project manager position because she showed an aptitude for keeping people on schedule. However, she really wants to write, so she pays too much attention to the creation phase of the content, instead of focusing on the management of the project. There are hundreds of other examples of these types of workflow issues. We will discuss workflow more in Rule #6.

Workflow takes a long time to examine, analyze, switch, and get right. That’s okay. Finding the right people for each role is critical: It will take patience and effort. But once you have a well-functioning, well-oiled machine, you’ll see how it really makes execution seem effortless.

CMS Documentation

We talked about CMS authoring in Chapter 4. Giving instructions to your CMS authors and the people responsible for posting the content is a little bit like paint by the numbers. You may not feel like this is your most “creative” activity, but then again it isn’t supposed to be. Remember, our goal is a unified brand personality regardless of which channel our audience finds us on. By giving clear and explicit instructions about display, editorial guidelines, and SEO within the CMS, you will accomplish that goal. Again, this is a place where training is vital so people can master the necessary skills.

Archiving Guidelines

When you publish a piece of content, program your CMS to take it down or move it into archives at a certain date. Or, create once a year reviews for content owners so they know that by a certain date they need to review the content and make changes or it will be archived. When they are faced with the possibility of their content disappearing, most content creators pay attention.


We talked a lot about distribution in Chapter 5. There are important distribution tools you can use, including:

• Channel Mapping

• Policies and Guidelines

Channel Mapping

“When you take a close look at all of the channel connections and user relationships, you are able to better focus future content efforts—avoiding duplication and improving the overall user experience” (Halvorson & Rach, 2012). Meaning, don’t say the same thing on every channel. Instead, understand who is hanging out around that particular watering hole and tailor the content for them.

Your message should never CHANGE for a channel. Rather, it should adapt for it, and you should let your personas serve as a guide. If you’ve determined that your personas spend more time on Facebook than Twitter, then you should modify your messages for Facebook. Take advantage of the potential that each channel gives you.

Policies and Guidelines for Distribution (Social Media)

You only have to read a couple of horror stories about social media and audience engagement gone wrong to be convinced that you must have social media policies and guidelines for both your internal teams and your audience. Let’s call them audience engagement policies and guidelines from here on in.

If your teams aren’t trained in how to create these very important documents, and if you don’t have attorneys reviewing your plans and perhaps even involved when it is happening, you are going to look terrible—in a very public space. So ensure there are clear audience engagement policies and guidelines in place and that they are posted. Ensure it is clear how you will handle negative or potentially problematic conversations.


You need to understand how your content is performing now before you can make decisions about how to proceed in the next iteration. During the analyze phase, you and your teams will examine how audiences search for, react to, and share your content.

So … love your data because you are going to be spending lots and lots of time with it. But that’s a good thing. You will finally be able to see the true fruits of your labor as well as where you may need to make some changes to improve even further. Some of the tools you can use during the analyze phase include:

• Analytics Data

• Engagement Metrics

• Site Search Analytics (SSA)

Analytics Data

Ah, Mrs. Stone, my math teacher from high school. I once told her that I would never need to understand the math she was teaching that day because I was going to be a writer. Luckily, I caught up with her later in life and apologized.

Do not underestimate the power of data—numbers tell a story. So don’t zone out on your data—trust me, there’s a Mrs. Stone somewhere in your life, too. Examining your analytics will let you see how people are engaging with your content. Analytics should tell you the devices people use to engage with your content, what they spend time looking at, and whether, sales-cycle wise, they buy your products or download content.

Analytics should inform and refine your teams’ thought processes around digital content (Leibtag, 2011). To get there, here are five steps to implement. If you follow these, you should really begin to see a difference in the quality of the questions your team asks about how your content is performing:

Set appropriate KPIs (Key Performance Indicators): KPIs are quantifiable measurements, which the organization agrees are the right things to measure, and that reflect levels of success (or failure). Choosing those KPIs might also be an iterative process. For example, you may start by thinking that page views are an important metric. But in three months, you may realize that page views have no bearing on content engagement. So change the KPIs that matter.

Train your team to understand the different parts of analytics: Make sure everyone on the team understands the KPIs and how to measure them using the different reporting structures in your organization.

Create reporting structures that tell a story: Structure your reports so they tell a story that everyone on the team understands. Find a way to pull the highlights from your different types of analytics so they narrate your digital content’s life in cyberspace.

Test your reports: Distribute your reports on a weekly basis and iterate on them, then refine the reports based on feedback. As your team begins to grasp the full implications of the analytics they will start asking different questions. They will begin to refine the types of information they need.

Set aside time to analyze your analytics: Discuss them once a week for at least 30 minutes and once a quarter for about two to three hours. Consider an offsite meeting or retreat to talk about analytics. And make sure your executives understand the analytics—you may need to pick certain KPIs to concentrate on for them to see how the content is behaving.

Some Advice on Key Performance Indicators

Neil Bhapkar, a digital marketing professional, offers a list of KPIs that your content measurement should include:

Reach: Unique visits, geography, mobile readership

Engagement: Bounce rates, time spent, heat maps and click patterns, page views

Sentiment: Comments, social sharing (Bhapkar, 2013)

Engagement Metrics

Engagement metrics measure and gauge how well your audience is interacting with specific content. This will help you determine how people are interacting with you on social media channels. Look at how many followers retweet Tweets, how many people like and interact with posts, and how many “repins” you might get. The important engagement metrics are the ones that tell a story about how your target audiences are using your content to further their own goals or convert to customers.

Site Search Analytics

Looking at your own site’s search analytics is a valuable tool for understanding “users’ expressions of what information they want from your site in their own words” (Rosenfeld, 2011). A search log analysis is looking at which search terms your audience uses when they’re querying your own website’s search engines. By performing a search log analysis you can:

• Improve the search results your own search engine returns

• Make the site easier to navigate

• Make your content more effective

Why? Because by analyzing your search engine’s returns of relevancy (how the search term aligns with what the audience intended) as well as precision (how many items were returned that matched what the audience really wanted), you can determine how to improve your content, as well as the overall customer experience.


Governance across the web is so vital because we want our customers to have a consistent experience throughout our digital properties. We’ll learn more about governance in Rule #5.


Think of yourself as a publisher—you create, monitor, and update information constantly. To make this process effective and meaningful, you implement content strategy tactics, which include performing content audits, creating the content, publishing it, distributing it, analyzing its performance, and governing the entire process. There are many tools to use so that everyone on the team is on the same page and understands how the content is created. Above all, make sure you have the right people in the best roles for their talents.

Ready to talk about content governance? Keeping the customer experience consistent across channels is key to building trust and engagement. Let’s see how in Rule #5.


1. Bhapkar, N. (2013). 8 KPIs your content marketing measurement should include. Retrieved from

2. Bowen, S. (2012). Presenting “The Magic Layer” at Confab 2012. Retrieved from

3. Detzi, C. (2012). From content audit to design insight: How a content audit facilitates decision-making and influences design strategy. Retrieved from

4. Halvorson K, Rach M. Content strategy for the web. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders; 2012.

5. Jacobs, M. Personal communication.

6. Leibtag, A. (2010). Content mapping: A different way to audit. Retrieved from

7. Leibtag, A. (2011). Getting started with analytics: How to get buy-in from your team. Retrieved from

8. Leibtag, A., & Watkins, A. (2011). Johns Hopkins and the healthcare content conundrum: Aligning business strategy with user goals. Retrieved from

9. Linn, M. (2010). How to put together an editorial calendar for content marketing. Retrieved from

10. Morville, P. (2012). The definition of information architecture. Retrieved from

11. Railton, D. Comment made to the author.

12. Rosenfeld L. Search analytics for your site conversations with your customers. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media; 2011.

13. Withrow, J. (2006). Competitive analysis: Understanding the market context. Retrieved from


Make Governance Central


Governance is vital to overall content strategy. It is the day-to-day detailed management of content delivery and style as well as the long-term execution of content strategy tactics. Having a strong system of governance will ensure a consistent consumer experience and at the same time set excellent internal controls so that everyone on the team knows what they are doing, when, and why. This allows for creativity because it frees the team members from uncertainty about their roles in the process. Good governance requires the use of certain essential tools as well as effective leadership by a “head cheerleader.” Along the way, it is vital to iterate to find the stumbling blocks in the process and to train each member of the team in exactly how the process works.


content workflows; editorial guidelines; style guides; taxonomies; web content committees; archiving standards

Why Do We Need Systems?

Think about some of the systems you have in place in your own life—you probably don’t think of most of them as “systems.” For example, dental care. You brush your teeth twice a day, floss once a day, and visit the dentist twice a year. Why? Because dentists have done an excellent job of educating people about oral hygiene.

Now think about family dinners. How do you plan dinner? Do you plan each meal you will have that week, make a list, and go to the grocery store and buy all the items? Or do you get home at 7 p.m. exhausted and just eat a frozen dinner and a pint of ice cream?

Now think about how you manage your finances. How about your bills? Do you have a system in place to pay them on time? Do you use automatic bill pay? How do you keep track of your spending?

Whether you realize it, your life is full of systems that keep you organized and allow you to get through your day with, hopefully, minimal chaos.

Systems Create Freedom … and Security

Almost every organization has a process in place for finance, accounting, procurement, human resources, and so on. On a person’s first day of work, she meets with a human resources manager, receives an information packet, goes through an orientation, and learns about her new position.

In matters of public safety, the government and other governing bodies have created systems to ensure the safety and security of people. Planes don’t fly unless engineers have examined them thoroughly and given them the go ahead. There are checklists and systems in place to ensure that disaster does not occur. When there is a major accident we often find out that part of a system was not thoroughly examined or reviewed. These are, thankfully, few and far between. Why? Because all industries understand the importance of creating checks and balances as a form of control within systems so mistakes do not happen.

If serious things require systems and controls to ensure they are consistent, should our content be any different?

Governance Will Improve Your Content and Therefore Your Conversations

We have touched on content governance several times in previous chapters and rules. Now we are going to examine why governance is vital to an overall content strategy.

Is your content:

• Unorganized?

• Lacking a clear voice?

• Consistently confusing to customers?

Then you should be interested in content governance. (Note: We are specifically speaking of content governance in this rule and not web governance, which mandates consistency across content and technology and design.)

What Is Content Governance?

Content governance is the day-to-day detailed management of content delivery and style, as well as the long-term execution of content strategy tactics. Think of content governance as an overall structure that:

• Determines priorities

• Provides detailed guidelines and standards on how content should look, behave, and interact with your customers

• Assigns ownership to people within the organization so they can make strategic decisions about content

Why Content Governance?

Some think of governance as a phase of content strategy, similar to Plan or Create. However, I firmly believe that governance belongs at the center of any content strategy (Figure R5.1). This is because governance:

• Creates a consistent customer experience across channels

• Avoids content bloat

• Sets internal organizational controls


FIGURE R5.1 The lifecycle of content strategy. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

Create a Consistent Customer Experience Across Channels

If content is a conversation, then we absolutely must know to whom we are talking, which is why we use Personas and other tools (Chapter 6). We must know who we are, which is why we use Identity Pillars, Messaging Architectures, and voice and tone guidelines (Chapter 7). These must-have tools have a dual purpose—they help us create outstanding content, but they also form a consistent structure for the team. This allows for strong governance because everyone who touches content uses the same tools. It also provides a certain sense of regulation, without which you’d end up with content bloat.

Content Bloat

Content bloat is when your content meets in dark corners and expands overnight without knowing how “that happened.” This department had to create a page that talks about the same exact product or service on another page, but from their point of view.

But it’s not the department’s view that we care about, is it? We only care about the customers’ points of view. The department head probably went screaming to the VP of Communications and got his content posted, thoroughly confusing your customers. Now your customers have no idea which content provides reliable information about that particular product. How is this a good situation?

Set Internal Organizational Controls

Governance standards help you set a consistent customer experience across all channels. By following them, you avoid replicating content, muddying your main messages and confusing your audiences.

Governance is also critical in setting internal organizational controls. Most conflict in offices stems from not knowing who is in charge. (Most conflict in life stems from the same reason.) By setting up a clear governance model for content within an organization you can set clear internal organizational controls. This avoids the “I’m the one in charge,” arguments that often happen around content and leads you to a home page seven scrolls long.

So, governance is helpful in institutional politics as well in establishing clear guidance on content ownership and process.

Lock Up the Home Page

I once worked as a freelance writer at a hospital where the Web Standards Committee made the decision that no one department would be featured on the home page. Instead, they would revolve through a 12-month calendar process based on campaigns.

I cannot tell you how many arguments I had with different stakeholders over this rule. “But we bring in the most revenue for this hospital,” “Patients tell us they can never find us,” and my favorite, “If you’re not on the home page, you’re not important.” However, the rule proved to be steadfast and upheld by the entire web department. No one ever was able to scream loud enough or stomp their feet in a way that changed the policy. There was just no getting around it.

Is that an effective governance standard? Well it’s only effective if the rule is supporting an overall business initiative. It was successful in the fact that it was a rule that no one ever was able to find a way around.

Governance Tools

The tools involved in content governance may include, among others, content workflows, editorial guidelines, style guides, taxonomies, web content committees, and archiving standards.

Let’s examine a few of these. We talked about many of them in Chapter 8; however, now we are going to examine them in the context of their usefulness as governance tools.

Content Workflows

Knowing who will touch the content at each point in its production process is critical to keeping content consistent. That means you must map content production from beginning to end. Mapping and publicizing content workflow should avoid people running around in a panic asking why so-and-so made a change at some point in the process. If everyone follows the workflow, certain people will have input at certain points. By knowing who is doing what when, you achieve the golden triad of a productive web content team: Less stress and uncertainty, more generosity of spirit, better teamwork. (More about that in Chapter 10.)

Editorial Guidelines

Editorial guidelines are to words what brand guidelines are to design—they set a standard for the words and tones we use when talking to our customers. That is why messaging and voice and tone fall under this category. The guidelines should be detailed, provide clear examples, and offer important information for how to write and create content.

Style Guides

As we mentioned in Chapter 8, style guides are important, living documents that contain critical information related to all types of content and design standards. Editorial style guides direct written communications and brand guidelines direct design: logos, typefaces, photographic positions, and so on. However, if you want to be effective in using style guides or brand guidelines, you should combine them into one document—this will give your team just one referral guide to use. The sidebar will tell you about other elements you should include in your style guides.


Taxonomies are vocabularies that organizations use to organize their content. It’s what librarians call subject headings—a common language that helps us organize and find information. For each book that a librarian catalogs there are several subject headings. If you are looking for a book on cooking in Italy, you can find it under “cooking” and “Italian food.” Likewise, in the case of massive documentation systems, content is assigned a few different labels so that people looking for it in only one place will be able to find it.

If you have ever tagged content, then you understand how taxonomies are used—they provide a common and shared vocabulary about content identity. They also relate dynamic content. For example, let’s say you run a parenting website and you want related articles about a particular topic to appear so that customers stay on the site. You would tag that article with terms from your taxonomy: sibling rivalry, discipline, blended families, and stepparents. This way if someone is reading an article about sibling rivalry, other articles that relate to that topic will also appear.

Archiving Standards

Stale is a big turnoff to your audience. Remember to keep your content fresh and people will want to come back to see what is new. Therefore, you need to have standards in place for when content is published, so you know to check it monthly, quarterly, or annually. You can program your content management system to do this or you can set up documentation that gives content owners the responsibility to do this. Rolling audits, as we described in Chapter 8, are another way to manage archiving standards.


By far, one of the most important governance tools you can use is checklists. After reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, MD, I was inspired to create my own content checklist. In the book, Gawande describes how many industries use checklists: Airlines, construction, and medicine to name a few. The idea of a checklist appealed to a consistency standard that I knew was missing from my own work.

I found that writing the same types of content again and again made it all too easy for me to miss certain small details. Once I established a checklist that worked for me—one that focused on certain areas—and didn’t have too many steps, the consistency of my content improved tremendously (Figure R5.2).

The Ten Essential Elements of Successful Style Guides

1. Centralized and Distributed: Distribute your style guide to the writing and publishing workforce within your organization. If they are not professionally trained writers, then spend time explaining how to use the style guide, why it is important, and how to access it (shared drives, Google docs, printed once a year, etc.).

2. Grammar Rules: Most corporate style guides direct writers to other style guides for grammar rules. Why? Because there are very basic grammar rules that people ALWAYS get wrong—even trained professional writers, so why not include three to four pages on some basics? These might include the differences between the commonly misused words affect/effect, who/whom, bad/badly, complementary/complimentary, and so on.

3. Punctuation Section: Punctuation can be a matter of style. For example, different organizations use the labeling of dates in various fashions, especially internationally. Make sure to explain the style your company has decided to use, and if you need to, prepare a cheat sheet of the most common issues (commas, quotes, dashes). I know this sounds archaic, but have them print it out and post it near their desks, so that they can easily refer to it. If it’s easy to do, they’ll do it.

4. Branding Guidelines: While you may think that branding guidelines (design, use of logo, etc.) belong in a separate document (and you may be right), I would argue both written and design style elements should be bundled. As we move toward an increasingly versatile workforce, where digital practitioners will be required to know how to write and code, branding guidelines within a traditional written style guide will gain importance.

5. Voice and Tone: So important. So overlooked. Knowing how to write a redirect page vs. a sign-in page is critical when voice and tone may vary depending on the situation. Style guides can help with this, most critically by saying, “This is how we say it” and “This is NOT how we say it.”

6. Channel Distribution Guidance: How do you personify your brand’s voice and tone in 140 characters? Well, it had better be in your style guide. How many social media properties are you managing currently? Five? Six? Eleven? However many there are, make sure your style guide gives distinct instructions for each one. For example, your brand may allow you to say something like “Will we C U there?” Your brand may not. Note it in the style guide.

7. Mobile Section: Have a section in your style guide that addresses your mobile properties and their distinct styles—now content is divorced from design and style on mobile may be different.

8. Titles, Naming Conventions, Degrees: These are all important elements of a style guide most often ignored. Because I write so much in the healthcare space, I cannot tell you how many times within the SAME bio I have encountered MD and B.A.

9. Last Published: Update and distribute the style guide once a year. Make sure the last published date is ON THE COVER and every other page, too. That tells people they are working with the most current version.

10. Customer Personas: Make sure your customer personas are included in your centralized style guide (that means you should place them where everyone who touches content can view them). Knowing with whom you are conversing makes for better dialogue, no?


FIGURE R5.2 Creating valuable content: A step-by-step checklist. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

Setting Up a Content Governance Program

Governance, at its core, requires behavioral change within your organization. For change to occur at the broader enterprise level, individuals within the organization also need to change.

In order to publish content that sustains the brand identity, all content professionals within the organization must understand the importance of governance and associated tools. In order to run a successful content governance effort, we must move through four phases:

1. Convincing others in the organization that governance matters

2. Setting up governance bodies

3. Choosing and creating the right tools for your organization

4. Training

Let’s examine each of these in depth.

Convincing Others in the Organization to Follow Governance Standards

How on earth are you supposed to figure out your business objectives, figure out your CMS, decide on identity pillars and voice and tone, set up a content strategy, and now convince everyone in the organization to stand in one straight line and kick at the same time?

Wait! Before you throw the book across the room, like my daughter with her pencil during math homework time, remember that behavioral change only happens when people truly believe they will benefit. Therefore, you need to demonstrate the benefit of content governance for the people within your organization.

Behavioral change only happens when people truly believe they will benefit. Therefore, you need to demonstrate the benefit of content governance for the people within your organization.

Sell It to Them

Remember when you were determining your audience? You did research to develop a persona (or a number of them) to represent your target audiences.

Well, now it is time to create a persona of the people within your organization—the ones who have influence. Why would they care about messy, boring, incorrect content? Are they attorneys and therefore worried about legal issues? Are they grammar freaks and embarrassed that their brand does not know the difference between who and whom? Do they want content to appear in the right places at the right times in order to sell more of their products?

Discerning what will matter to different content professionals within your organization is a critical piece of selling governance to them. Here are a few different ways to approach this.

Find a Head Cheerleader

Jonathan Kahn recommends this approach, “Get a sponsor: someone senior in the organization that cares about this problem and wants to fix it. Let’s find that person, and get them to teach us how change happens: who should we speak to, when, and how should we present our case?” (Kahn, 2011). Usually cheerleaders will advocate for content governance, but will not necessarily direct the process. They are usually people within the organization that are well-connected and have clout.

Show the Mistakes

Nothing gets people’s attention like showing them the mistakes. Show examples of where content was tagged poorly so it didn’t show up where it belonged. Give your colleagues pages where words are misspelled or voice and tone are completely off the mark.

It is tough to do this exercise because people get defensive and want to blame someone, or worse, point fingers at their colleagues. You need to deflect that by introducing this as an organization-wide problem, not something where a particular person or team is at fault.

It might help to give examples of other companies (competitors!) whose websites have similar problems, to defuse any tension. In the end, you should present this as an opportunity to have an honest conversation with your digital team about how you are going to manage the problem of content that is unruly, wild, and growing without any controls.

Behavioral Change Comes in Steps

Another way to sell content governance is to follow a set of rules made famous by a popular weight loss system. I have found their approach works because they approach weight loss in the same way you should approach setting up content governance rules: Slowly, with persistence, and with your eye on small milestones, until you reach the final goal.

Here are the rules:

If you bite it, write it: Focuses on strict documentation, both inside and outside of the CMS.

You can choose not to count it, but it counts: Every piece of content matters, so you need to emphasize the importance of the entire content enterprise committing to governance.

Schedule it into your life: Schedule regular check-ins of governance efforts and governance guidelines—this helps keep the system on track.

Find strong support systems: Find the people in the organization who champion and support governance.

Claim it as a lifestyle: Everyone within the organization needs to understand their part in the workflow, how that role helps to support governance efforts, and live it.

Try a Pilot Project

Anytime you want to try anything—especially things that involve behavioral change—you should start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. So focus on something small, where you can prove that using governance standards will positively influence the way your audiences interact with your content.

You might also want to spend some time analyzing how content is managed currently, without strict governance rules. Take a recent content project and track how it progressed—make sure that everyone is in the room. This will show your team how chaotic the process is and let them speak about problems with the current system, or lack thereof. This conversation provides a starting point for making the case for governance standards. These standards will improve internal interactions within the organization and save valuable time avoiding arguments about whose content is more important.

People and Governance: Who Is in Charge?

After choosing the types of governance you will institute, you need to decide which people will contribute and run this effort. It should be a multidisciplinary team with many skill sets and functional areas represented.

Ideally, you should create two teams, one with strategic authority and the other with implementation authority.

Strategic authority refers to the more bird’s-eye-view decisions, such as site objectives, resources and budgeting, audience definition, and annual planning.

Implementation authority refers to decisions related to day-to-day operations, such as requests for home page real estate or new content, content maintenance, and editorial oversight (Casey, 2013).

There may be crossover between the two teams and they must meet together often to share ideas and findings. However, their authority falls into two very different realms based on differing access to executive level information within the organization.

Alternatively, Seth Earley, a taxonomy and governance expert, recommends three types of governing bodies (Earley, 2011):

Steering Committees: They have strategic authority and “typically make business decisions about priorities and allocation of resources. It is the entity that decides on priorities when there are conflicts among business requirements and business drivers. There is representation from various stakeholders throughout the business.”

Work Teams and Working Groups: These groups have day-to-day implementation authority and make sure the magic happens when it is supposed to. They report to the steering committee and should present to them often.

Task Forces: Groups that manage a unique project for a limited duration.

Which Professionals?

Seth Earley recommends the following areas and professionals:

• Marketing

• Product management

• Business intelligence

• Creative/editorial

• IS/library

• IT

• Site management

• Web content management


• Legal

• Training

Here are a few roles that may be represented:

• Executive sponsor

• Taxonomy manager

• Content creators/editors

• Content managers (someone who has oversight for the system or repository) (Earley, personal communication)

• Librarians

• Regional representatives

• Line of business/functional area representatives

• Search specialists

• System owners

Earley also points out, quite wisely, “Remember to limit yourself to people in roles that will be affected by or need to have a say in content matters. You can always add people later, but it is hard to cut people once they are included” (Earley).

I would also recommend assigning staggered appointments with term limits. This way, people can serve on different working groups, task forces, and committees but for a limited amount of time—say two years. Some appointment rotations should occur every year—that way you always have a mix of people who have done this for one year and people who are just starting in a given role. And perhaps there are some people who are always a part of these conversations and efforts: Captain Content comes to mind, as well as other members of the web team, like the content strategist or head copywriter.

Which Content Governance Tools Should You Use?

The right tools for your organization are rooted in your culture and attitude. If you work in a place where people are generally supportive of trying new things, then you’ll probably have a pretty smooth time introducing the concept of governance to your colleagues. If people don’t wash their dishes in the kitchenette, even though there are three signs in red, underlined, bold font telling them to; well, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Start with a style guide. That’s something most people can understand—say it like this, not like that. Focus on one part of the style guide—maybe voice and tone is what you pick for the first task. Demonstrate that following the directions makes life easier.

Training and Measurement

In order for governance to take hold in an organization, you need three things: Consistency, training, and measurement. Consistency is the name of the game here: If you don’t take the time, and train others to do the same, to make sure that message, voice, tone, style, and taxonomy are consistent; you will not win this race. In fact, it isn’t even a race—it’s just an ongoing process you and your team must believe in.

People need training, but more importantly, people need to understand why you are asking them to change the way they have always worked. Once they believe in the need for the change, they will be on board.

When it comes to skills training, make sure your team knows how to use style guides and why they are important. The CMS isn’t going to show them how to tag content and use the right taxonomies. Particularly if you have a distributed content force, invest in quarterly training and make at least one session a year mandatory. Otherwise, you will never be able to maintain any type of real consistency, as people move throughout the organization into new roles and responsibilities, handing their content-updating roles to others.

Measurement will make or break your governance efforts. If you cannot accurately represent that governance is making a difference, you won’t have convinced anyone that this is worth the effort. Remember our weight loss rules? If people don’t see an impact on the scale every week, they are bound to return to their negative habits around food once again. (Even if they do see a change, they may go back to their bad habits.) So make sure you constantly publicize the governance wins. Lead them back to the business objectives to show bottom-line impacts.


Introducing governance into your company’s corporate mindset might not be easy. After all, governance is “about building support and awareness among other people in the organization. It takes a long time to turn an oil tanker” (Kahn). What you need to do, as a content manager, is to understand the critical importance of governance, and then communicate it to everyone on your team and to the C-suite or whoever approves the budget.

Once you do that, and everyone has bought into at least a trial period, create the necessary style guides and other tools, and try it. You’ll soon see that life becomes less, not more, complicated, and that everyone relaxes, knowing where they stand in the process with a full understanding of the rules.

Once governance is part of your daily life, make sure to keep measuring how it is working, as you will probably have to keep making the case for it repeatedly. But all of this effort is worth it. Your team will be happier and more productive and your content will be the better for it.


1. Casey, M. (2013). Get your content strategy out of the drawer with governance. Retrieved from

2. Earley, S. (2011). Developing a content maintenance and governance strategy. Retrieved from

3. Email between Seth Earley and Ahava Leibtag, February 13, 2013—Clarification between content manager and content creator.

4. Kahn, J. (2011). Web governance: Becoming an agent of change. Retrieved from

Case Study: HipHopDX

I don’t think I’ll ever forget this moment: I was walking in a parking garage when a California number came up on my phone. Thinking it was my sister at her new job, I answered and an uneasy voice asked if I was Ahava Leibtag.

When I answered in the affirmative, he told me he’d found my name and contact information on a website for ConFab, the content strategy conference. Then he asked me if I knew any hip hop content strategists.

I had a hard time suppressing my laughter. I said, “We’re a pretty new field—you’re going to have a hard time finding someone who fits into such a narrow niche.”

We proceeded to have several conversations over the next couple of weeks. Sharath Cherian, CEO of Cheri Media, ran a site called He became intrigued by the idea of content strategy after reading Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web, and wanted to understand how to implement some of these ideas within his organization. is a popular website devoted to producing and disseminating content about the culture of Hip Hop, including music, personalities, and history. The site has been in operation for 10 years. Staff at the time included three editors, a social media manager, an art director, a developer, and a salesperson, as well as freelance and staff writers.

Begin with Discovery

As with all content strategy projects, I started with discovery. If your discovery lacks depth, you will fail; only by truly understanding the organizational challenges will you be able to develop a robust strategy.


Sharath had several challenges with his staff. First, there was some change coming (one of his long-time reporters was leaving) and the journalists were not aligned in the most productive way to manage the daily tasks of producing a hip hop news site. Most of them had come from working together at another music website and had migrated many of those practices to DX.

Furthermore, the staff didn’t buy in to the idea of content strategy, mostly because they didn’t understand it. I knew that part of my discovery had to include education. After talking them through some of their challenges and describing some of the tools we could use to help them, they warmed to the idea.

To understand the full picture, I interviewed every member of the editorial and social media staff—about seven people in all. As usual, disparate views on what needed to change to improve the journalistic standards at DX, as well as how to organize the staff into a well-oiled journalistic machine, emerged from these stakeholder interviews.


Process was lacking for several reasons:

Organizational structure challenges—the editorial team’s structure made it difficult to communicate clear direction.

Time management—every staff member complained of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Many also complained of having to manage production issues like posting pictures or audio mixes that they felt took away from their creative writing time.

Lack of expertise—team members found it difficult to execute on the overall editorial vision of the site, for a variety of reasons that had to do with training and journalism experience.


Luckily, Sharath had invested in a content management system that was easy for the staff to use. However, they lacked search engine optimization (SEO) training and were not entering in all the meta descriptions that were so critical to publishing findable content.

Discovery Findings

After discovery, I presented the following findings to Sharath and his executive team. DX had five pressing challenges tied directly to content, including:

1. Cohesive direction for the editorial staff: Communicating that production of content must be tied to revenue as well as what the customer wants

2. Clear identification of market: Educating the staff about who the real audience of the site is and how best to attract and retain that market

3. Identify bottlenecks and issues in the publication process: The right talent was not in the right roles; writers were uploading photos and wasting precious time everyday

4. Better utilization of staff: Structuring the editorial staff to produce the above goal, as well as their long and short-term activities, so that efforts were not replicated or wasted

5. Web writing: Educating staff about better web writing practices, including SEO, style guide, and headline use

Get Everyone on the Same Page

We proceeded with a State of the Union debrief and training at the company’s annual CheriCamp retreat.

First, I presented a State of the Union, using multidimensional content audits that detailed the following:

• Traffic patterns

• Top pages by section—showing where the bulk of the audience was spending their time

• Top content pages

• Heat maps that showed where on the pages users were reading and interacting with the content

• Top 100 pages by artist

• Top news content by artist

By analyzing the content and using multidimensional content audits, we were able to draw certain conclusions about the types of content that most interested DX’s audiences. We also built a solid business case for spending more time on creating content formats to which the staff had previously assigned a low priority.

Know Your Audience

With all the writers and editorial staff present, we created personas during a workshop by cutting out pictures from magazines. Each member of the editorial staff “presented” their different ideas of the personas for DX, and other members commented and critiqued their findings.

Solidifying the personas was critical, as there was some disagreement among the staff about who their target audience was. This exercise was invaluable for the team: It built consensus, creatively engaged them, and helped them come to a certain understanding about whom they were talking to on a daily basis.

The below table shows two of the personas we created—one male and one female—so the writers could truly envision who was consuming their content.


Branding: Who is DX?

Most important, Sharath gave an impassioned speech at the beginning of the day that really set out his expectations for the brand. By doing so, he set the stage necessary for knowing who DX was supposed to be.

Sharath also identified three specific goals for the brand—business objectives:

1. Produce quality content for the audience

2. Grow the site to increase revenue through increased page views

3. Influence the audience through the uniqueness and integrity of the brand

By knowing who they were talking to, as well as what the brand was supposed to represent, we were able to map the following inverted pyramid based on business goals.


HipHopDX Inverted Pyramid.

By training the content creators to think like journalists—put the most important information at the top—but also as business people—by embedding business goals into the content—we were able to ensure they executed each piece of content according to business objectives.

Understand the Business Model

The staff did not understand how their choices of articles and what to write about affected the business of the site. Sharath established a bonus program based on traffic and other engagement metrics. Tying employee’s performance to the business model was a critical part of what made this content strategy engagement a success.

Eleven months after DX instituted the content strategy, they saw their traffic rise by 24%, which contributed to a direct increase in revenue.

Here’s an example of a chart the social media manager, Mike Trampe, made so he could have an at-a-glance content strategy at his disposal:


HipHopDX Mike Trampe’s content strategy chart.

Now that we’ve learned about content strategy, we’re going to learn about the amazing power of content marketing. We’ll also talk about design and dream content teams, as well as how to hire the right consultants when you need help.