In content, context is king

Jo-ann Fortune

Head of Content

Context is king

Forget what those PowerPoint quotes told you — content is not king.

Not, that is, without context:

  • Context of the structures of meaning that influence audiences

  • The role it plays in the context of your brand strategy

  • And the contextual elements of the systems that build it

Context is king. As only by deconstructing these contextual structures can we build the elements of successful content programmes.

Purpose in patterns

Agency content folk spend their days asking questions, because possibilities are inherent in creation. It’s our job to shape these into patterns that serve a purpose.

A mission all the more important in digital content — where we communicate with humans and machines, which both learn by identifying patterns. And at scale — dealing with multiple platforms, markets and subjective stakeholder opinions.

Identifying interrelated elements in content problems helps bring objectivity to what can be paralysingly contentious. Then simplifies solutions to meet brand goals, through structural elements in user, production and publishing experience.

This is structural content strategy; taking from structuralism a concern with the analysis of an idea down to its most basic elements, which must be understood through their relationship to broader systems. And like all the best approaches to tackling tricky problems, it helps achieve step-change one simple step at a time.

Solutions in structure

To illustrate, let’s take five common client questions, that require us to define interrelated elements — often through contrast to others in a system — to find solutions.

‘What functionality and information should this page include?’

This is a micro question packed full of macro ones.

To effectively structure a page, we need to understand the intersecting elements in brand strategy and audience need it’s designed to serve. So, here we go…

What do we want users to do within our digital brand ecosystem? How does this action influence other actions in a system to meet brand goals?

Then, what can patterns of digital behaviour tell us about audience need? What messaging systems influence them and at what stage of their journey are we engaging?

Using a structure to categorise intent by journey stage, such as Google’s ‘messy middle’ framework, helps identify commonalities in successful competitor content to serve this.

‘Which existing page should we optimise for these keywords?’

Key to answering this question is asking ‘what pages should we not?’ If there are other closely linked or duplicate pieces in the ecosystem, we’d also look to connect and consolidate these.

‘How much will it cost to proofread xx existing pages and write xx new product descriptions?’

Here we can create efficiencies in batch production by identifying the unique elements across the suite and the number of and commonalities in categories.

‘Could we change this post? I’m not sure it’s quite right’

Which elements of the post — the concept, headline, assets, copy? Which elements in the language — specific semantics or general tone? And contextually, is it not right for the here and now, for this audience or for the brand more broadly?

‘How can we make our tone less academic and more personable?’

What elements in the language makes the tone academic — the vocab, voice, tense?

Our job as content strategists is not just to pose these questions, but to define answers that help clients understand what they’re asking, as well as their own value judgements. Then record these for future reference.

Content & systems design toolkits

Once we have the cultural context of audience, brand and digital interrelations in content challenges, we can start to set out a route to success.

But that plan is not content strategy done. As content is live, content solutions must be too.

Successful content programmes require constant work through actionable and evolving toolkits, which Brain Traffic neatly categorise as either concerned with content or systems design:

Content design dealing with the surface elements of editorial and experience:

“The process of using data and evidence to give the audience the content they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect” as coined by Sarah Richards of Content Design London).

This could include tools such as:

  • Brand voice guidelines — tone, structure and vocab for different scenarios, complete with actionable examples, ‘to avoid’ lists and word banks.

  • Messaging matrixes — messaging hierarchies for different audiences

  • Platform playbooks — content focus and formats for specific platforms

These are designed to make it easier to create great work, but they don’t do that creative work. The messages in those matrixes aren’t the ones consumers will see; just as a single-minded proposition in a creative brief isn’t the advertising creative itself.

Grounding editorial is systems design — the foundations of structure and process:

“Creating repeatable systems — both for machines and for people — to ensure content integrity over time and allow us to create, deliver, and manage content according to consistent standards and meaningful outcomes.”

For example:

  • CMS and information architecture — How to store and structure content for findability and reuse. (Headless CMS systems are a dream come true for structural content strategists.)

  • Content governance processes — who decides, and how, what gets produced and how live content is nurtured. This could also include processes for streamlining the feedback loop — bringing refreshing clarity and objectivity to one of the most painful parts of any creative/client relationship.

  • Measurement frameworks — how to track content success? So much simpler when you’ve already done the work categorising content from conception.

Creative caveats

If all this sounds too academic or absolute, remember that creatives don’t need to understand all the ins and outs of the strategy. Just how to use their tools.

And while there can be clear-cut dualities, there will always be grey areas, elements that fall into multiple categories, and new considerations to keep up with.

Structural content strategy empowers creatives to react to these and produce with purpose, supporting shared goals.

Because content is only worthy of grand titles when it works within context. Now that, I can bow down to.

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