Brown Paper Packages

Lee Thomas

A comprehensive content strategy must address a wide range of factors: business goals, audience needs, the competitive landscape, available resources, various platforms and channels, timelines, structural configurations, keywords, migration plans—the list goes on. It can feel like all the unanswered questions might swirl into a funnel cloud and engulf the project. When that happens, what can we hold on to?

Sometimes, a metaphor helps. One I find useful is the brown paper package.

Let's Go Shopping

Imagine a retail store. Inside, the shelves are lined with unlabeled packages. What’s inside each? Fireworks? Creamed corn? Live mice? All of the above? (Let’s hope not.) Customers don’t buy unlabeled packages; they need to know what they’re going to get. (For starters, is it eight live mice? Or a full dozen?)

What's in the Box?

If you put your website (or organization’s) content in a box, what would the label say? For many organizations, this is the central question of their content strategy: What are we going to put in here that our audience will want and find useful?

Knowing what goes in the box—and why—is the core of your content strategy. The concrete image of the package can aid thinking and facilitate decisions about content: What is the primary value of this content package? What will be worth the audience’s time, attention, or money? What accessories should we include? How will we make this? Imagining the content in this way has various advantages:

  • It demands clarity around substance. Although content takes physical form eventually, it often feels more abstract than, say, creamed corn. That’s one reason why defining the content’s substance—what it’s about—is a big part of content strategy. This seems easy enough on the surface. In fact, sometimes, project teams blow past this step because they assume the answer is obvious, already set in stone, or otherwise predetermined. But writing out the package’s label forces a useful specificity and can reveal previously unspoken differences of opinion. (“That’s not what I thought it was about,” etc.)
  • It’s a reminder to focus on the audience. Organizations spend a lot of time and energy publishing things they want the audience to notice or use. Are those packages users will pay attention to and open? Or will they be ignored like socks on Christmas morning? If the package isn’t full of content that users really want or need, it’s probably time to revisit what’s going inside the box up at the assembly line.
  • It’s an opportunity to differentiate. Put your package of content on the table, next to the packages the competitors offer. Make note of the packaging itself (it matters), but really pay attention to who’s got the goods inside the box. Who’s offering breadth? Depth? Authority? Who’s got an unusual angle? Now, what changes would make the content you’re offering a more attractive, unique, or specialized option?
  • It’s the essence of the content strategy. Actual box manufacturers aside, organizations don’t create an infrastructure and staff-up so they can send empty packages out the door. Likewise, structure, workflow, and taxonomy don’t mean very much if the box is empty, or filled with random bits and pieces the audience doesn’t want or need.

A Few Hypothetical Examples:

  • A health foods maker might label their content box this way: Daily recipes, shopping lists, coupons, and resources to help people eat healthier every day.
  • Because of the complex and customized nature of its products, a health information technology company might downplay its 500 product sheets and instead highlight: Technology-based success stories about health and modern medicine.
  • An employee intranet might avoid becoming a dumping ground for old documents by defining its content package as: An essential guide to help our people manage their employment and work-life.

Cue the Asterisk

The metaphor has limitations. It’s easier to think of some kinds of content as product in a box than other kinds. Some organizations create multiple “packages” to serve different audiences or purposes. And technology keeps changing the way audiences “shop” for content. A metaphor like this won’t answer every question about a content strategy, but I do find this technique to be useful in certain situations. It can help explain content strategy work to clients and stakeholders, too.

Tied up with String

Knowing what goes in the box and writing out a label for it can help stimulate and refine the thinking that goes into developing a viable content strategy. Of course, many decisions still need to be made and work needs to be done before that box gets into the hands of an audience. Having a concrete image of the content can facilitate those decisions and keep the work on track.