Does every digital experience your organization provides have an explicit product or content strategy? If so, read no further, you have reached peak content strategy and there is nothing I can teach you.

If you are like the rest of us, you’re familiar with trying to optimize digital experiences that lack strategy, and you’re familiar with the maddening operational inefficiencies that result. It’s hard to make things simple and easy for our users if we are confused ourselves.

There are many benefits of content strategy for digital experiences. One of my favorite benefits is how strategy facilitates decision-making because it spells out what’s right and wrong for a particular product, making things clearer for everyone. It contributes to operational efficiency – the time staff spend spinning on decisions is a hidden cost of having no strategy.

We recently experienced this during our digital transformation. Our organization had two digital experiences that never had strategies or lost them to the vagaries of time. We needed to figure out how to transform them, and it wasn’t going well. Conversations about content, platform, and user experience went nowhere and our development teams needed answers to move forward. We realized we’d never break through without some shared principles to guide us. In other words, we needed to develop a content strategy. Better late than never.

Except there weren’t clear owners for either content experience, so we didn’t know which stakeholders to engage. There also wasn’t a widely perceived need to develop a strategy, because if the content experience already existed, didn’t that mean it had a purpose? (Alas, content can have existential crises too!) We didn’t even agree on what to call the content; everyone used different terms.

A Zero-Sum Name

With the wind at our faces, we pressed forward. The most immediate and obvious obstacle was terminology, so we started there. Through the process of defining, we ended up with a strategy where there had been none and a framework for future experience enhancements. Not bad for a naming exercise.

It turns out, discussions around what to name something are actually discussions around content strategy. That may seem obvious, but its simplicity does not diminish its power. When there is shared understanding of terminology across the team, conversations around strategy can become easy and productive. Sometimes the key to moving forward stalled conversations around product or content strategy can be as simple as defining the differences between your content.

What sounds like alchemy is fortunately a simple and repeatable process. Try the steps below to see if defining your terms can help you get unstuck and deduce strategy where none currently exists.

1. “Hello, My Name Is…”

If your strategy-less digital experience, piece of content, or product wore a name tag, what would it say? Would everyone in your organization write the same name on it? What about your users? If not, seize the opportunity to clarify.

What we call things matters, especially in modern work where so much hinges on our ability to communicate clearly. Shared meaning matters more than ever when we no longer share office space, time zones, a common language, or context. For better and for worse, our mental models are shaped by the words we use to describe things, so it’s worth your attention. Being careless with terminology may feel tolerant and informal, but it can be the root of costly misunderstandings later.

In our case, we all had different terms for these content experiences, and interchanged them with yet other similar content. In order to hold a productive conversation, we needed to define each content experience, and distinguish them from each other. We chose the content we had the most influence over to focus on.

2. Inventory

Because we were defining a content experience, we assembled an inventory of all the content to display. It was a mess, but it primed us to start thinking about each piece of content as part of a greater, strategic whole.

I recommend getting to know your content a little better. List out every component of the content, product, or experience you are trying to define – think dictionary, not thesaurus. Your inventory should help you understand what kind of mess you’re working with and its extent. It should be as comprehensive as possible, so don’t start editing yet. All the intangible characteristics of something become real, and even manageable, when they are listed in a spreadsheet.

3. Classify. Apply. Iterate.

Now that we knew what content we were working with, we needed to be able to communicate that to the other teams. The inventory was too raw, so we had to organize our mess.

We started by tagging each piece of content to one of three categories. But the categories weren’t quite right, some things didn’t fit, so we did it again, and again. We sorted about four times, tweaking the categories each time as our thinking evolved until we found the right level of classification.

Indulge your taxonomic impulses. Look for patterns and categorize your inventory until your classification system is right. Don’t get too hung up on your categories, just use whatever words make sense to you and start. When you hit a block, send it to someone else for their take on it. We went back and forth among three people for this part of the process, refining our categories each time and checking the integrity of each other’s thinking. You will probably end up with some exceptions, things that still don’t fit into any category. Accept that this may mean that content doesn’t belong, not that your classification system is wrong.

4. Define the Categories

Once you feel pretty good about your categories, define them. You may need to go back and iterate and refine. That’s OK, the goal here is to articulate the meaning of each category label and distinguish it from the others. When we reached this step, we had to go back and iterate several times. Our efforts here paid dividends later when it was time to pick a name and share our recommendation.

After your categories are defined, what you have has a larger and more lasting impact: a definition of the types of content that belong in the experience. Now you have a framework to help you make decisions about the experience, like whether some new content belongs there, or if current content needs to be repositioned. When our team got to this point, it was obvious what content belonged in which experience, which integrations made sense, and what the purpose of these formerly disjointed components had been all along.

5. Pick a Name

Once you’ve done all this work, it almost doesn’t matter what name you choose since you already know what it is you’re talking about. But shared understanding is critical, so try to select something that feels like it follows from the content experience you’ve defined.

6. Socialize and Reach Agreement

Bring all your stakeholders back together and start with a vocabulary lesson. Put forth the name for your digital experience and explain why it’s called that. Share your category labels and definitions as well.

Ask if the terms resonate and capture the essence. If not, ask why – what is it about that word that doesn’t work? Keep whittling until you can break down the term into its most basic parts. Talking through connotations can bring hidden interpretations to light where they can be discussed and resolved. Not everyone’s connotations will be compatible, so you will still need to debate and make decisions, but that should be much easier to do with guiding principles and purpose. Keep referring to your categories.

What’s in a Name?

What we call things matters. Labels shape our perception and help us communicate. If we’re careful with our language and intentional with our terminology, we accelerate our path to shared understanding. That means less time spinning on decisions, higher operational efficiency, and more oars rowing in the same direction.

In this case, clarity in nomenclature solved our immediate issues of which team built what, and which content went where. But the messy act of inventorying, untangling patterns, and debating yielded a cohesive content strategy, and we are now able to be more strategic about our content in these digital experiences. Being clear ourselves about what we’re doing with this product increases the likelihood our users will be clear about it too. This has bottom-line impact, so it’s worth the effort to address.

If there’s a product or experience in your organization that is referred to in six different ways, or is limping along without a strategy, see if these steps can help. Adding clarity in these areas can be a low risk way to have a big impact for your organization, internally and externally.

The Author

Laura Jarrell is a content strategist focused on delivering user-centric digital experiences for global audiences. She currently works for CFA Institute.

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