Frame Your Content - 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 7. Frame Your Content


In this chapter you will learn that a content framework provides the structure within which you will create content to meet the business goals of your organization. A framework is based on your organization’s branding, which will move your product forward in the marketplace. Once the basic identity pillars are established, you will learn to develop messaging architecture and use the right voice and tone across all of your content and channels to make sure that your audience is consistently engaged.


brand; branding; content framing; framework; identity pillars; messaging architecture; tone; voice

At every Ritz Carlton in the world, management refers to their staff as “ladies and gentlemen.” In every morning meeting, every training session, every conversation, employees at all levels—from executives to managers to floor staff—treat each other genially and with respect.

Why do they go through all this formality every day? Because the Ritz Carlton stands for unique, consistent, luxurious service. By talking to staff with courtesy and respect, management communicates an expectation of how others should be treated—no matter what. In its daily interactions, the Ritz Carlton communicates brand values to their employees, and this kind of training pays off—the hotel chain received top honors in all categories in the 2011 Luxury Hotel Guest Satisfaction Survey carried out by JD Powers and Associates (Jakobson, 2011). It’s no wonder Steve Jobs turned to the Ritz Carlton for a model for how to build his Apple retail stores. The management at the Ritz Carlton knows how to frame experiences and conversations.

In this chapter, you’re going to learn how to frame your content, how to create tools to help build your content so your audience will return to it time and again. I use the term framing because I think the metaphor is apt for what we’re going to learn how to do in this chapter: decide what we are constructing, what it looks like, and how to keep it within building code.

Why Frame?

Framing is something that all contractors and builders do before they build a house because it gives the building structural integrity. First, builders use blueprints so that they have one guideline of how to build a house.

They already know for whom they are building it: a family of four with a dog and a need for a mudroom. Concealed within these blueprints are a million things that the family will take for granted, even though those things will greatly affect their comfort and serenity. Electrical wiring, plumbing, window placement, how the doors swing, and so on, are all captured and documented within these blueprints. These blueprints are exactly the same no matter which professional is working on the house: electrician, plumber, window installer. If the professionals were working from different blueprints, then you would have a house no one would want to live in.

What Is “Framing Your Content”?

Framing your content means defining and creating three major characteristics that will help define your brand so you can communicate effectively with your audiences:

• Identity pillars

• Messaging architecture

• Voice and tone

Like the builders, you already know who will live in your house because you followed Rule #1 and you just finished Chapter 6. You have the philosophy and the tools to apply a clear identity to your customers. Now that you know who you are talking to, you need to define who you are so you can create great conversations.

Framing your content means that you will decide what upholds your brand—the pillars that define who you are. Then you will decide on messaging and hierarchy of that messaging: what are you trying to say and in what order? Finally, we will learn about voice and tone—how we say it is as important as what we say.

Identity Pillars

As we learned in Chapter 1, if you don’t understand what your brand represents for your audience, your content efforts won’t be successful. Identity pillars aren’t just about what people think of when they think of you (brand attributes), it’s also about what you want your brand to represent to them.

Identity pillars are the core principles of your brand.

To create identity pillars that will help you shape your content efforts, we must first define brand attributes. Then we can tie those into the product or service you are trying to sell.

Brand Attributes

Brand attributes are what defines your brand. In other words, who is your brand? I use “who” because I believe that you should think of a brand as a personality. What are the characteristics people think of when they think of your brand? Are you fun, playful, affordable, dangerous, caring, technologically advanced, classy, elegant, chic, exciting, boring, reliable, controversial, or dull? Do people laugh or cry when they see your logo? Do they sometimes laugh and sometimes cry, depending on the type of business they do with you? (I’m thinking here of the government agency that regulates taxation—people laugh when they get a refund, and cry when they get any other kind of letter.)

Who is your brand? What does that brand mean to the world? What do you want the brand to mean to the world? You need to know it and define it. Because just like those blueprints, if you don’t have a way to marry your content to your identity, your content won’t hold together.

How Do We Define Our Brand?

As we said in Chapter 1, branding should really come from the highest executive leadership in the organization. However, you may not be working in a company where things work quite that way. For example, you may be the senior leadership, or you may be tasked with creating content, but may not be 100% sure of what your brand should be. Talk to people within your organization to define your brand. You may be able to do this on your own, or you may need to hire an excellent branding firm. In either case, you can’t move ahead with your content if your identity pillars are shaky.

You can’t move ahead with your content if your identity pillars are shaky.

If you must move ahead on your own, then go ahead and carry out the exercises below, have your senior management sign off, and then go forth and create your content. I have been on many content projects where clients used just this approach and it worked—very successfully, in fact.

As Margot Bloomstein, a content strategist, explains, the goal of this exercise is to “translate high-level business and brand guidelines into actionable messaging priorities” (Bloomstein, 2012). No matter what size organization you are responsible for—or whether you have branding specialists on speed-dial—the goals of creating identity pillars are still the same. You need to know what the business objectives are, what the brand is, and combine those two pieces of information into an executable communication strategy.

Brand Attributes Versus Identity Pillars

Brand attributes are the characteristics that describe your brand.

Identity pillars are a tool used to describe the core principles of your brand.

Remember, brand attributes are the characteristics that describe your brand. Brand attributes are what people think about the brand, and, possibly, what the brand thinks about itself. Identity pillars are a way to establish how you want to communicate with both your internal team and your external customers. Identity pillars:

• Provide the vehicle to move the perception of the brand forward

• Define communication goals (in the context of content) within the company

In other words, identity pillars give you a roadmap for how to improve the perception of your brand through content, and communicate internally within your organization about content priorities and objectives. They show you how to move forward from where you are to where you want to be (Figure 7.1).


FIGURE 7.1 Knowing where you want to go will help you move forward with content.

Creating Identity Pillars

As with everything in content, we need to understand where we are, where we want to be, and how we are going to get there. Establishing identity pillars requires a four-step process:

1. Analyze your current business objectives

2. Understand what your current brand attributes are

3. Express how you are trying to move the brand

4. Create identity pillars that articulate the promises of your brand

Let’s walk through two examples—one a service and one a product—so you can get more comfortable with this process.

Example #1: Hospital Cure

Let’s talk about “Hospital Cure,” a fictitious hospital that has a reputation for working with severely ill cancer patients, among other medical specialties. At Hospital Cure, we would create identity pillars by examining what brand perception currently is, and where hospital leadership would like to move it. People around the country may know Hospital Cure for its excellent doctors, as well as for curing challenging cases of cancer. They may also know it as that place people go when there’s no hope left.

The senior leadership of Hospital Cure, while analyzing healthcare trends, recognizes that, aside from treating cancer patients, they need to attract patients who have more common ailments, such as gallstones, kidney stones, tonsillitis, and appendicitis—general everyday conditions that are not usually life-threatening.

Let’s look at how we would map this out for Hospital Cure. First, let’s look at their business objectives:

• Grow overall patient volumes

• Specifically, bring more people into the hospital for routine medical procedures and treatments

• Increase people who use the primary care physician practice associated with Hospital Cure

• Increase the number of people who enroll for clinical trials, to increase government funding to study cancer diagnosis and treatment

Current Brand Attributes (What people think of us now)

What We Want Brand Attributes to Become (What we want people to think of us)

Identity Pillars (How we will communicate our brand promise—both internally and externally)

Advanced medicine

Advanced and “regular” care

Complex and routine medical care

Excellent physicians

Excellent physicians and nurses

Fantastic doctors and staff

The last resort

We treat everything

We are here for all your health needs

Big and confusing

Caring and compassionate, but with care like no other

Friendly experts

How can the senior leadership expect to increase the number of people who come for routine services and still increase clinical trial enrollment for hard-to-treat types of cancers? Does that seem incongruous to you?

No, because you can do both. Look carefully at the wording of the identity pillars. We know people already think of Hospital Cure as a large cancer research organization. We don’t want them to lose that brand attribute, but we still need to grow routine care patients. Therefore, we use terms that encompass an entire range of healing, so people will shift their understanding of the brand over time.

Example #2: American Faucet Maker

An American faucet maker—we’ll call them Fawcet—is struggling with increasing competition from European competitors who are designing sleeker, more modern faucets that are so in fashion now in American kitchens. Fawcet has followed Rule #1 and knows exactly what their customers think: They make a nice product; but Americans think European products look better in their kitchens. Their research also revealed that people don’t think their American-made faucets have the same quality as their European counterparts.

What are the business objectives here?

Show people that Fawcet’s faucets are just as beautiful as European designs

Remind people that Fawcet is a strong American brand and makes excellent products

Demonstrate that Fawcet will last a long time

Increase awareness of Fawcet in Europe to compete there

Current Brand Attributes (What people think of us now)

What We Want Brand Attributes to Become (What we want people to think of us)

Identity Pillars (How we will communicate our brand promise—both internally and externally)

Nice, but boring

A style to fit any taste (after all there are people who don’t like the modern look)

With so many choices, we’ll find the right Fawcet for you

Not as attractive as European competitors

Beautiful to look at

Look at how beautiful our Fawcets are

Will break

Well-made and lasts forever

Competes in terms of longevity with any other type of faucet

Now that we’ve gone through two examples of creating identity pillars, let’s talk about a messaging architecture.

Messaging Architecture

Margot Bloomstein defines it this way: “A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals; as a hierarchy they’re attributes that appear in order of priority, typically in an outline.” She explains you must, “start by engaging the client around their communication goals and priorities—you can’t have one without the other if you want to establish a clear value proposition for the brand. Why does prioritization matter? It’s rare for initiatives to have a single purpose or stakeholder; that’s why ‘this too!’ is the battle cry of so many departments jostling to have their content dominate the homepage, breaking templates with countless content modules” (Bloomstein, 2012).

Identity pillars are the beginning of messaging architectures—they give you your high-level statements so you know who you are as a brand—your personality. Messaging architectures go two steps further:

1. They give priority to your business objectives

2. They give you firm documentation for explaining why certain content—and messages—need to come first

Creating a Messaging Architecture

Margot describes an in-person process in her book, Content Strategy at Work, called a “card sort,” to define your messaging architecture. Using about 150 cards with adjectives printed on them, all the stakeholders in the room sort the cards according to the following:

• Who we are

• Who we’d like to be

• Who we’re not

This is very similar to what we described in the identity pillars exercise. By describing who we’re not, as well as adding in a step to filter adjectives and then prioritize and choose, an organization develops a very clear picture of their messaging and priorities.

I recommend using identity pillars first, because priorities of messaging should fall back to the business objectives of the organization. While defining the brand internally is very important, the real goal of content is to meet your audience’s needs and make money for your brand. Executives who write strong, solid business plans have this knowledge. That is who will be able to tell you what the business objectives of the organization are.

Use identity pillars first, because priorities of messaging should fall back to the business objectives of the organization.

I recommend using the card sort if you need to understand your brand’s values with all stakeholders present. This gives everyone an opportunity to chime in on what he or she thinks the brand represents. However, at the end of the day, what sets priority should be the business strategy. So let’s see how to put identity pillars together with the priority of a messaging architecture and the clear guidelines of what comes first.

Establishing Pillar Priority

To establish pillar priority you need to ask your executives to order their business objectives, including percentages of how important these business objectives are. This process is similar to the prioritization of personas that we discussed in Chapter 6—it’s all linked back to business objectives. This activity will also help strengthen your case when you talk about divvying up your content resources.

Let’s go back to Hospital Cure, our earlier fictional example. Their business objectives were:

Grow overall patient volumes

• Specifically, bring more people into the hospital for routine medical procedures and treatments

Increase the use of the primary care physician practice associated with Hospital Cure

Increase the number of people who enroll for clinical trials, to increase funding from the government to study cancer

Branding Review

Branding attributes are the way you define your brand—its personality.

Identity pillars are communication statements that express how you want to move your brand forward for both your internal communications team and external customers.

Messaging architecture is how you set the priority of those messages.

When the executives order those business objectives and give percentages of priority, you might receive this:


Now that you have the priorities of the identity pillars, you can begin to create your messaging architecture:

1. Complex and routine medical care

• Start with the best, no matter what your condition

• If we can handle the big stuff, we can handle other things too

• Our expertise means that you are getting the very best no matter what your level of care

2. Fantastic doctors and staff

• We have amazing primary care doctors who have daily communication with specialists, in case you should need one

• Our staff of nurse practitioners, nurses, and therapists will provide you with excellent care

• Employed by the best, we deliver the best

3. We are here for all your health needs

• Superior medical care across our institution

• One of the top five institutions in the region, as noted by a popular consumer ranking system for hospitals

4. Friendly experts

• Our specialists are experts, which means they deal with serious conditions on a daily basis, but they still will treat you with warmth and compassion

• As experts, we engage in research that benefits not only our patients, but the medical world at large

• We use our expertise to broaden our understanding of disease processes through research

Hospital Cure chose precise wording to articulate the messaging supported by the identity pillars. Messaging is so delicate and so important because it involves three unique exchanges at the same time:

• Who we are

• What we stand for

• How we articulate those two things

Let’s explore that a bit more.

The Interplay of Messaging and Branding

Messaging is how you communicate the particulars of your brand promise. Messaging is not taglines: Taglines are one method that we may use to communicate brand promises. They are not messaging in its entirety. As we saw from the exercise above, most of those messages could not be turned into taglines.

Take Nike. The company’s tagline is Just Do It. The tagline communicates an attitude towards exercise and physical activity that encompasses a “take no prisoners” attitude. “Just Do It” lets you know that people who choose to wear Nike are serious about physical fitness—it is a major priority for them. Just Do It captured the imagination of the world, the way awesome taglines often do.

Another simple tagline that encapsulates a brand is Apple’s Think Different. The brand promises that Apple envisions technology and communication differently to affect change. Think Different effectively focuses consumer attention on the unique attributes of an Apple product—no matter what the product might be—the iPhone, iPad, or MAC.

What about Coca-Cola? This company has changed its messaging and taglines countless times over many decades. In the 1970s, it was “Have a Coke and a smile.” In the 1980s, it was “Coke is it.” In the 1990s it was, “Always Coca-Cola.” In the 2000s, “All the world loves a Coke,” was targeted at a global audience. Close your eyes for a minute and imagine the iconic Coca-Cola script and red background. What comes to mind? Look back at all those taglines. What do they have in common?

They communicate that:

1. Coke makes you happy

2. Coke is better than any other soft drink out there

That’s messaging. Coke knows who they are as a brand, and they articulate that meaning through their taglines, which are a synthesis of their brand attributes and the expression of those attributes over time. Their voice—or their brand personality—comes through in every commercial, every piece of content, every encounter you have with their brand—we make you happy and we are happy doing it.

Coke understands their voice and they use it consistently. (Have you ever watched a Coke commercial and walked away thinking, “Wow, that was a bummer?”) As a brand, you also have a voice you use when you converse with your audience. Let’s talk more about voice and tone now—the third step in framing your content.

Voice and Tone

A voice is an expression of your brand’s personality. Tone is the reflection of the feelings we have when we communicate. Tone comes from the stresses we put on words—otherwise known as intonation. Consider the following sentence:

“Come here right now.”

Now imagine that sentence uttered by your parent, boss, friend, or lover. The stress on each particular word in the sentence, as well as the hardness or softness of that person’s voice will tell you how they are feeling when they say that sentence.

No one ever says, “Don’t use that voice with me, Missy,” but they do say, “Don’t use that tone.” Tone changes—voice should not. That is why emoticons are so popular: Because written digital text can be so flat and devoid of tone, we’ve resorted to using graphic smiley faces to communicate what we truly mean.

It is doubtful, however, that your brand can use emoticons, as it would probably be considered unprofessional in certain contexts. The articulation of your brand comes down to your voice and tone. How do you define and use your voice and tone within your organization?

Defining Your Voice

First, we want to pick a human voice. We’re not robots speaking to people with dictionaries. When you create content that speaks human to people, you ignite real conversations, not boring exchanges of information that go nowhere for either party. “The human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked” (Hay, 2013). People know when there is another person at the other end of the communication. They are not fooled by corporate speak and business lingo. They want transparency, reality, and solid interaction. As Steph Hay, a content strategist, points out, “being real builds trust” (Hay, 2013).

So decide now—your voice will be human. There are many types of human voices. So which one is yours?

Picking your voice comes from your identity pillars, from within your industry, as well as how you want to position yourself against your competitors. Kate Kiefer Lee, a voice and tone expert, provides four excellent questions to ask when trying to define your company’s voice (Kiefer Lee, 2012):

• What does your company do?

• Why do people visit your website? (Why do they interact with your content?)

• If your brand were a person, how would you describe him or her?

• How do you want people to feel when they visit your site?

Once you answer these questions, look back at the card sorting exercise you did, or the bullet points of adjectives you used to describe your brand. Be careful to also look at how you didn’t want your brand described. That will give you some ideas of how to define your brand’s voice:

• Educational but not preachy

• Expert but not cold

• Reliable but not boring

• Fashionable but not flaky

• Fun but not over the top

• Relatable but not inappropriate

• Serious but not stodgy

When you have those broad definitions, you can start to determine your brand’s voice—the expression of your brand’s personality. Once you know the brand voice, “Create voice guidelines that fit into your company’s culture. Keep in mind that just like a human’s voice, your brand’s voice will adapt and mature over time. Creating flexible voice guidelines makes it easy to revise and tweak them when the time is right” (Kiefer Lee, 2012).

Defining Your Tone

Tone is how you sound in different situations. Your brand can be fun, but if a customer is annoyed, a cheeky email that may come across as cute in one situation may be a major turnoff in another. Tone is so important for brands that you need to think through this part critically.

Your tone should be adjusted based on the conversation and where your customer is in the customer loop. That’s why you should plot tone to the customer loop, content formats, your different personas, distribution channels, and identity pillars.

This obviously takes a lot of time and thought, but like all our processes, it’s an iterative one. My one guiding rule is—when in doubt, leave it out. So even if your brand is fun, but you’re communicating about an order gone wrong, try to keep it approachable and empathetic. In other words, don’t say, “Hey, we’re sorry, but we like totally lost your order and are still looking through our shipping system for it.” Instead, you should say, “We apologize, but it seems we lost your order. We would like to give you two options: Place the order again and we’ll pay the shipping charge OR cancel the order now.” Meaning, if your tone doesn’t change to accommodate your audience’s need at the time they engage with your content, then you come across as unfeeling—something you NEVER want.

As an example, let’s consider, the online retailer. Zappos has developed a fun, lighthearted approach for its content. When you order a product, you receive an email congratulating you on your good taste. When you want to return something, their service is impeccable, which is one of their identity pillars—they stand for excellent customer service. Their return policy’s voice is still light, yet the tone is a tad more serious than the rest of the site:

Unlike many other web sites that have special rules and lots of fine print, offers free shipping on all domestic orders placed on our website, with no minimum order sizes or special exceptions.

Just because shipping is free doesn’t mean it should take a long time. understands that getting your items quickly is important to you, so we make every effort to process your order quickly. When you order from our website, you can expect to receive your order within 4-5 business days.

(, 2013)

While Zappos wants to be casual, they also understand that sometimes they need to be direct and formal. That’s a great example of adjusting tone—you shift how you sound based on the situation.

Gogo—Getting Voice and Tone Right

Gogo In-flight Internet is a company that has nailed voice and tone. Their voice is fun and conversational; after all, they sell Internet access on airplanes, so they know they are dealing with a certain persona. It doesn’t matter if the customer is a business traveler, someone looking to stream a movie, or someone who’s checking on an auction on Ebay—their customers want strong, reliable Internet access 10,000 feet up in the air.

See how they describe their service:

Is Gogo fast? Is the sky blue? The Gogo experience is best compared to mobile broadband service on the ground—except with a whole lot more altitude. All you need is a Wi-Fi enabled device, a Gogo account, and a burning desire to access exclusive in-air experiences available only on Gogo.

Phrases like “is the sky blue” and “a burning desire” inject typical prose with some brand personality. They’re telling their customer audience: We’re passionate about delivering a fantastic in-air Internet experience and we’re cool enough to be friends with you.

Look at how they express their brand’s history (Figure 7.2).


FIGURE 7.2 Gogo’s history page conveys its brand by its cool, fun, yet informative tone.

On Gogo’s Facebook page, they feature the following mix of content:

• Contests to win Bluetooth speakers

• The Gogo bear who asks you about your weekend flying plans

• Updates about weather that may affect flights

But, when they are answering a potential complaint, look at how they manage their tone:

Thanks for taking time to submit your feedback. We appreciate your help and look into each report we receive. While we cannot guarantee a response, we can assure you that the report will be read and investigated.

While they’re still kind and friendly, they know people may be angry when contacting them. They keep their tone even, letting customers know they may not receive a response right away (or ever). That is honesty—they are setting an expectation, so that customers who are not contacted cannot say they were not warned.

The Payoff of Framing

I know framing seems like an intense amount of work. However, nothing will help you build a reliable set of content assets more than framing your content. After all, the key to wearing the digital crown is engagement and all of the tools we described—identity pillars, messaging architecture, and voice and tone—will guide you in creating engaging, robust, personable content.

We will talk more about how to use your identity pillars, messaging architecture, and voice and tone guidelines to help frame design in Chapter 11.

For now, let’s focus on some final items about content framing.

How Do We Express These Guidelines?

We want to be very clear within our style guide and other training manuals about voice and tone. Here is a brief I once received about voice and tone:

“Overall, the tone needs to be confident, convincing and inspiring. Additionally, it should convey a tone of comfort and compassion (and discretion).”

How exactly was I, the writer, supposed to interpret that? There were no examples to go along with the direction. How is one inspiring and comforting and compassionate and discrete? What does overall mean? Does that mean that sometimes I can break from tone?

Again, it’s best to give examples of what you are and also provide your content creators with a list of adjectives that describe what you are not. No one in the organization is going to absorb this material by osmosis. Therefore, you must train your content creators, customer service reps, and others to follow voice and tone guidelines.

Where Should These Guidelines Live?

Most content professionals will advocate for a shared, centralized style guide where all of this information lives, accessible by anyone who touches content within your organization. We’ll talk more about shared style guides in Rule #5.

Who Owns the Content Framing?

Hopefully, you have Captain Content within your organization who owns the content framing. You may have a content strategist on staff, or it may even be the responsibility of the Director of Communications and/or Marketing. In either case, make sure someone owns it, because if no one does, it will quickly become out of date and unreliable.

How Often Should We Review Our Content Frames?

Reviewing framing should happen once a year or more frequently if business objectives shift. When your team uses these tools on an everyday basis, it will be easy to know when they need to be updated or changed.


Framing your content means defining and creating three major characteristics that will help define your brand so you can communicate effectively with your audiences: Identity Pillars, Messaging Architecture, and Voice and Tone. Without clear documentation about who you are, the priorities of your messaging and how you represent your brand to the outside world (a solid frame), your content will begin to crumble. Creating a framework provides structure that will meet your business goals, ensure consistency of messaging, and get the right voice and tone for each and every piece of content.

Now we’re going to talk about more tools you can use for your content, but these tools focus on how to establish a concrete content publishing process—a content strategy.


1. Bloomstein M. Content strategy at work real-world stories to strengthen every interactive project. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann; 2012; p. 25.

2. Hay, S. (2013). Being real builds trust

3. Jakobson, L. (2011). The Ritz-Carlton tops luxury hotel guest satisfaction survey

4. Kiefer Lee, K. (2012). Tone and voice: Showing your users that you care

5. (2013). Retrieved from Accessed 30.01.13.