For this week’s post, I’m going to choose a smattering of thoughts from the mass that churns through my brain on a daily (hourly) basis. Today’s topic has to do with me reading RFPs and emails seeking contractors/consulting help and being struck by the fact that people these days seem to want product, not strategy.
Okay, I get it: I’m not the world’s slowest person on the uptake, and I get why content reigns supreme. It’s a busy, noisy world out there, and organizations seeking to make an impact are not going to make an impact if they say nothing and do nothing and create nothing to share with others.
But judging from the help wanted emails I’ve read lately, everyone’s focused on the “content” piece and not at all on the “strategy” piece. Which I find, frankly, baffling. If you hire me as a consultant and your expectation is that I will create six infographics, five policy briefs, two-op-eds, and write 10 tweets for you on a daily basis….okay, I can do that, for sure. But if you can’t tell me who you’re hoping to reach (or, if you tell me that you want to reach everyone, like, “the general public”), what type of engagement you’re seeking from those audiences, and also, whether you’re willing to invest the time and energy (mine, or someone else’s) in promoting the content, not just creating it….well, then, that’s what I find utterly baffling. I also find it weird when you and your colleagues, who will ALL want to review and sign off on the content I’m creating for you, don’t have a clear sense of your values and your brand identity. That pretty much guarantees that you are asking me to referee upcoming conflicts on tone and voice, because you will all have a different opinion on how the organization is publicly presenting itself through its content.
Don’t get me wrong. I can churn out masses and masses of content with the best of them! In fact, I achieved a miniscule level of dubiously positive recognition at organizations where I’ve worked for being able to, as someone put it, “make shit up.” One time, I had to write a funding proposal for a project that was completely unfamiliar to me, on topics that were also completely unfamiliar to me. I did some background research, and then was able to intuit the nuances of the subject matter from the context. Someone said to me afterwards, “where did you find those amazingly clear definitions of terms in the field to help us explain the project’s goals and purposes?” I looked at that Someone and replied, “I made them up. Because otherwise, the document would have made no sense to anyone who wasn’t already an expert in the field.”
However: given my druthers, I’d rather be on the same strategy page with the content commissioners from an early stage onwards. I’d rather have everyone on the same page, or get on the same page, when it comes to goals, audiences, and promotion. I’d like at least a little bit of upfront work on the strategy piece not because it would make my job as a consultant easier—although that’s a side benefit I wouldn’t turn down—but because having everyone aligned on strategy from the get-go tends to prevent what I would describe as the endless milling about that happens when content is produced and it isn’t quite what everyone wanted or expected, so they start to kill it to death with a thousand tiny edits and comments. And then if you manage to eke out a product after everyone’s had at it with their differing visions and expectations, you then face the disturbing possibility of having no one ever look at it, be moved by it, or even slightly interested in it.
Let me remind you of the cautionary tale from the World Bank about unread PDFs. That story struck fear into the hearts of all content strategists and writers and editors. While most of us can live with getting paid for stuff that goes nowhere, the really good people care a great deal about having our content get somewhere. That caring is what fuels the creativity and passion behind really good content to begin with.
So for all of you seeking consulting help with the phrase “content strategy” hovering on your lips at all times, my advice for you: lay out your strategy in the RFP or RFP-equivalent thingamabob you’re using to hire consultants (plus factor: the proposals you get will be less vague and deadly-boring to read!). Or, be prepared to articulate it cogently, from the get-go. Or, if you realize that you don’t have a strategy, hire the consultant to help you with that piece, too. Chances are, they’d be delighted to help.
For a well-written and much more thorough breakdown of content strategy and doing it better, read this piece from a digital strategist, Hilary Marsh.
(I do not know Hilary; I just stumbled across this piece on LinkedIn. And now we’re Linked, which is nice.)