Core Strategy vs. Strategic Priorities: Which Is Right for You?

Sometimes, a compact, one-sentence content strategy statement simply isn’t enough to cover all your bases. You need to set strategic priorities to stay focused.

A core content strategy statement is a concise statement (we usually try to keep it to fewer than 30 words) that typically summarizes choices about why a company (or team) produces content, for whom, and how it manifests (the “what”).

Example: Create concise, on-brand content that empowers our priority users to efficiently complete tasks and manage risk of financial loss.
Example: Curate an online reference guide that helps stressed-out law students become successful practicing attorneys.

The power of the core content strategy statement is not to be underestimated. This is a tool we’ve used countless times to help clients focus their content efforts in the best way possible.

Sometimes, though, a compact, one-sentence strategy statement simply isn’t enough. This is especially true when wrangling complex content ecosystems that have multiple audiences, content contributors, or digital properties (like a large website—or six).

In these instances, it makes perfect sense to create more of a vision statement that is supported by multiple strategic pillars.

A core strategy statement that’s actually a vision

Let’s say you're a university dealing with a bunch of irrelevant content, an outdated CMS, a distributed authoring system that’s resulting in inconsistent content, and important content trapped in hundreds of PDFs. You could come up with a statement that looks like this:

Create user-centered content to support our school’s mission and operations that’s available on any device, anywhere.

On the surface, this reads like a strategy statement in that it addresses the who (users), the why (support our school’s mission), and the how (making it available on any device).

However, when you step back and consider whether or not this statement will provide constraints for content-related activities, it quickly becomes clear that just about anything would fit under the “strategy umbrella.”

New CMS? A structured content model and taxonomy? Responsive website redesign? User research and testing? Multiple social media accounts? Important news releases dating back to 1997? Seriously, pick any of these and it’s very possible they’ll fit. However, it’s unlikely that your school has the resources to support all of these initiatives—which makes the strategy statement a very nice idea, rather than a realistic framework of activities that can be implemented in a specified timeline.

Strategic pillars hold up the vision

Instead, after doing a solid situation analysis, you’d likely find that there are some foundational changes that need to be made prior to being able to achieve what ultimately is a future vision for your content. When your work is complex, strategic priorities provide concrete guidance and constraints for medium-term content activities.

Let’s figure out how to ground our vision statement with a few strategic pillars:

  1. User-centered content
  2. Content that supports our school’s mission and operations
  3. Content that’s available on any device, anywhere

Now, let’s identify potential obstacles associated with each pillar:

  1. User-centered content: We’ve been operating under many assumptions about our users—we don’t have any recent research. Also, we haven’t prioritized them—we’re trying to be everything to everyone.
  2. Content that supports our school’s mission and operations: We are trying to create and deliver content that covers off on everything we’re doing as a school. We’re creating support content that addresses every possible scenario for every user. We’re prioritizing content that we care about, versus what our users care about. We have multiple social media accounts that are trying to communicate important information to multiple audiences, but we’re just guessing about where they might want that information.
  3. Content that’s available on any device, anywhere: We don’t have a structured content model. Our website isn’t responsive. We don’t know where or how users are searching for our content. Our CMS doesn’t support personalization. We don’t have resources to do testing across multiple devices or platforms. We have hundreds of PDFs that limit a user’s ability to access and share important content.     

OK. That’s too much to deal with in a single year, or maybe even two. Take a look at your resources. Talk to your stakeholders. What can you realistically tackle that will provide the necessary foundation to build upon with future efforts? Prioritizing those necessary changes—and articulating realistic, measurable goals—makes it far more likely that your strategy (or strategies) will be implemented.

Use your pillars to prioritize

Now we can create a set of interconnected choices that will move us toward our desired end state: These are your strategic priorities.

For example: Before we can create user-centered content, we need to prioritize and understand our users. That will allow us to create and appropriately organize a body of meaningful content. So we need to invest in research and testing. Once we know what our users want, we can start prioritizing content that serves both their needs and our school’s goals.

Strategy statement #1: We will understand our users’ priority information needs and tasks.

Another example: Before we can make content available on any device, anywhere, we need to have a CMS that supports responsive design and structured content.

Strategy statement #2: We will identify a CMS to meet current and future digital content requirements, both for our school and for our users.

Final example: Before we can make content available on any device, anywhere, we need to “free the content” from the constraints of PDF documents.

Strategy statement #3: We will transform our PDF content to make it findable and accessible online.

Wait, where are my tactics?

The tactics come when we’re breaking each strategy down into a set of multiple objectives (in this case, projects to be completed). Tactics are the set of activities we undertake to get the work done.

Once these strategic priorities are fulfilled, we’ll be ready to move on to future initiatives like a responsive website redesign, new-and-improved editorial plan, and revised governance and workflow. In the meantime, those initiatives need to be placed on hold—we’ll need to make do with what we have.

Strategy means saying “no,” which is actually awesome

It’s always hard to say “no” to important changes in your content ecosystem. It’s even harder when you’ve identified myriad opportunities for improvement. But you can’t go from zero to sixty with this stuff. Imagine your vision. Identify obstacles. Prioritize strategic initiatives. Use those statements to frame up projects and activities that will move you forward. Repeat.

And remember: As long as you’re providing concrete guidance and constraints for work, there’s no one right way to articulate strategy. But what’s always most important is that you make the hard choices—say “no” to the things you’re not ready for, or that you can’t actually accomplish with your current resources.

Sometimes that’s a real bummer. More often than not, it’s a relief.

Kristina Halvorson is CEO of Brain Traffic, founder of Confab Events, and coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web

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