Last year, Colleen Jones, the founder and CEO of Content Science, wrote about using the imagery of Russian nesting dolls as an effective way to convey a concept of multiple-yet-aligned content strategies. I read this shortly after implementing the first comprehensive content strategy for the University of South Carolina and realized I had followed a similar plan. The dolls were a perfect metaphor for this layered approach that uses simple listing to help content managers create and prioritize on-brand messaging.

As the university’s first content strategist, I had to build a strong foundation that was applicable to everyone who touched content across the organization, including traditional news and magazine writers, public relations, creative services, videography, web writers, social media, presidential communications and more. The goal was to build a consistent and cohesive brand voice across all channels at the university. Higher education is often a decentralized and siloed environment where making widespread change is difficult. Priorities between audiences such at prospective students, faculty, and alumni vary dramatically and can be in contrast to one another. While it can be challenging, it is a wonderful place for a content strategist who loves the messy content problem.

First and foremost, this content problem was about figuring out how to rally a team around a new content mindset. Our content creators wanted their work to be shared better and to have more impact, but they didn’t know how. Few of us have all the resources we want or need, and our content creators were constantly maxed out, which left little time for them to think about the higher purpose or strategy of what they were creating. That was my job.

Rallying the team

Starting with basic principles is a key step to letting your team know what to expect with coming changes. For our team we started from here:

  • Content strategy is a process: it requires feedback and evaluation. It is not set in stone and it can change and adapt as needed to serve the content team and the goals.
  • Content strategy is about the people: Content on our websites was created by a person. People have emotions and needs and we cannot dismiss that. We must keep a human element in our nesting content strategy.
  • Content is not a tool that is valuable in and of itself: Content is valuable when it furthers a goal; content creation is not just a task we check off the box.

Using the Nesting Doll

The outer doll: What we are. This is the doll or category that all the content has to fit into, tied directly to your organization’s priorities and key values based on strategic plan or leadership’s priorities. These likely already exist in your organization. It may be referred to as pillars, cornerstones, core values, etc. For example, two of our four pillars were Academic and Research Excellence and Superior Student Experience. The categories should be broad enough that every piece of content should be able to map to at least one.

The middle ring: How we tell our stories. For U of SC, this was our content tiers. This is how to prioritize content and identify how valuable the content is. It gives content creators a clear way to triage the requests and ideas that fly across their desks and inboxes. When resources are scarce and strapped, this is an essential support step for your team. We broke down telling stories at the University of South Carolina in three ways:

  • Collaborative Impacts: the most valuable way to share our brand voice includes university members working together in interdisciplinary ways or across audiences (i.e., faculty working with undergraduates).
  • Exceptional Carolina Family: great single-voice stories that exemplify our pillars.
  • National Prominence: content about programs that support rankings and proof points.

The inner ring: How we reinforce our messages. We developed quarterly editorial themes that provided a focus for content and reinforced important topics within the university. Our topics were very broad so that every department and discipline could participate. We looked at interesting angles of learning as well as service from all levels from local to global. While we chose an editorial calendar to reinforce our messages, this does not mean it will be right for your organization. Think about your outer ring and organization’s resources and opportunities and what is the best way to reinforce messages for you.

Pro tip: Keep in mind that this is meant to me remembered and not locked in an 80-page document in a three-ring binder. How many items would you be able to remember at the grocery store if you forgot your list? My rule is three to four. Keep the main layers to no more than four, and same for each list under those layers. Not overwhelming your team will be a key step to buy-in and implementation.


The content mindset really started to shift. By first aligning at a large scale with university priorities, content creators were able to focus first on audience instead of the distribution channel. This provided for better reuse, repurpose, and repackaging of content across channels.

Reintroduced long-form news content also made a big splash. Four of our six top performing stories were long-form. These stories started publishing in September, so they only had four months to catch up with those from the other eight months of the year. It was a clear victory for quality before quantity and showed us what was valuable to our audiences.

Finally, by having a clear way to prioritize content, we were able to start breaking down barriers between teams to build quality content and amplify it. We found better ways for teams with different production methods (deadline vs. project based) to work together in more harmonious ways. Teams started thinking about how content created today could be used for future projects. Instead of filling “content holes,” we were fixing content problems together.

Try it:

Step 1: With your team or stakeholders, start with the outer ring and set a timer for two minutes. Have the team think aloud and quickly come to consensus on three to four main concepts that all content should map to.

Step 2: Reset the timer for three minutes. Ask the same team to now consider how content creators will prioritize or tell the stories that map to the outer ring concepts. Again, ask for no more than three or four final agreed upon areas. This is usually the area where you will have to help the discussion along.

Step 3: Reset the timer for three minutes. Finally, ask the team to consider how to reinforce the main messages.

Step 4: Share the rough outline. Don’t expect sign-off after less than 10 minutes, but be sure to have a follow-up meeting soon afterward to reflect and refine.

Share your results on Twitter with hashtag #NestingDollStrategy.

The Author

Amy Grace is a content strategist and user experience researcher with more than decade of experience in higher ed, publishing, and nonprofit. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in user experience design from Kent State University.
Her experiences include work at University of South Carolina, where she served as the first content strategist, and Texas A&M AgriLife, where she directed content strategy, information architecture, and social media for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and five state agencies. She served as an expert reviewer for “Content Strategy for WordPress,” published in 2015. Bragging rights include holding a sensei rank in karate and singing happy birthday to Muhammad Ali.
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1 Comment on "Nesting Content Strategy Revisited"

Ryan E
1 year 1 month ago

Great process. I find that asking staff for content ideas we get a lot of blank stares. We tried the process described above and had instant inspiration. The team was engaged and voluntarily took on topics that spoke to them. Thanks for the blueprint.


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