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To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.
— Leonard Bernstein

Whether you’re working on a single web article, considering launching a presence on a new social media platform, or rethinking your company’s entire brand, I recommend you start with a content strategy.

Like lots of good ideas whose time has come, content strategy is at once powerful and profoundly simple. It’s the basic notion that our messages need a plan. That brilliance alone is not enough, that more isn’t necessarily better, that even the most compelling content isn’t the sole ingredient for success if you want to get paid, win an election, change their mind, stand out, or just generally be a boss.

Sure, there are countless ways to do all these things. But content strategy says pick one (OK, maybe sometimes two or three, but you’d better think that through first).

Content strategy is a disciplined plan for what content you will create, for whom, when, and where. It’s based on clear goals. (You have those, right? If not, you will.)

It’s based on the belief that content is powerful, and all powerful things need to be harnessed and channeled, the same way a budget harnesses and channels your money (see dollar bills: also very powerful). Ever hear there’s no such thing as expendable income? There should be no such thing as expendable content. Make it work for you.

Ugh. Content strategy’s so hot right now.

Right? Seems like everyone’s talking about it. THIS IS A REALLY GOOD THING, though it’s probably because of a good bit of pain many of us have endured since the internet grew up and changed everything. To those of us working in media and publishing, it’s a radical (and again, shockingly common-sense) breath of fresh air. A beautiful reprieve from what Kristina Halvorson (content strategy pioneer) calls the wild wild west of publishing—an arena where we, among other things, tell stories just to tell stories.

A place where we post web content just to post web content. We send out press releases and post to our Twitter accounts just in case!  As in, just in case they care, just in case they come, just in case they need to know, just in case they ask. Unfortunately, lagging sales or low conversions usually tell us they don’t, they aren’t, not that many do, and they won’t. They need to be led there. Told why to care. What they can do.

But you don’t have to be in media to know this. Business owners, campaigners, nonprofits, your mom, your neighbor’s 12-year-old, basically anyone who’s ever been on the internet or read a magazine or a newspaper or cereal box knows this landscape, too.  As information consumers, we’re all pressed for time. We’re all inundated with choices for what to read, how to feel, what to do with the 17 minutes we spend on our phones in the morning, encountering the literature in the doctor’s office waiting room, watching the nightly news and—knowingly or not—deciding to act on a story we see there.

In the end, we spend time on what compels us, what’s easy to digest, what’s synced with our geography/interests/time available/mood/whatever-else-goes-into-the-magical-relevance-formula-for-consumer-behavior. And then we do something about it. We donate, we sign up, we subscribe, we buy a box, we take a trip. Sometimes we just file it away under “that makes sense to me,” and a year later we decide to join a gym. Content strategy drives gym memberships. Or it changes the world.  Or both. Because content strategy asks us to decide what we, as communicators, want our audiences to DO. And then it helps us pick the right messages and deliver them on the right channels, to the right people, at the right time so they can do that.

You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyonce.

I love this quote. And it sums up my approach to content strategy: when it comes to messaging, we’re all dealing with a zero sum game. [For a super fun 5-minute presentation I did on this very idea, watch the first talk after the the host's introduction here.] If you decide to tell one story, it necessarily means you don’t tell another. Which story will you choose? Which medium (or media) will you choose to tell it? To whom will you tell it? Most organizations don’t face a lack of good content or good opportunities—There are endless great stories to tell. There is usually no shortage of voices to tell them, either, or stakeholders with an opinion.

What strategy does is cut through the internal clutter so you can simplify things for your external audience. It helps us make a few good choices to maximize impact at the end of the day (or at the end of that blog, email, ad, or magazine blurb). And it’s as much about what you choose to DO as what you choose NOT to do. 

Content strategy brings a laser-like focus and powerful intention to your communications. It usually leads to doing fewer things better. This is almost always a good thing. And it spells the end of lazy content on your website, press releases that don’t get picked up, and the inevitable exhaustion that arises from continually “pushing out” your story without really knowing why, how it’s working, or any well-founded conviction to do more (you sort of guess you should keep going?).

Content strategy elevates your work, your brand, your cause from good enough/sure-I-think-we’re-doing-OK to hell yes thank God THIS IS WORKIIIIINGGGGG.

It’s really that simple. And that big. Embrace content strategy. Live by it religiously. Call me if you want help getting there. I promise it will change your life.