Any digital initiative — be it a website redesign, a social media campaign, or an enewsletter — should follow a content-first approach. But, as content strategist Corey Vilhauer reminds us, “There is no universal content strategy methodology.” Thanks to the insights shared from our peers across higher education and the broader world of content strategy, we have a lot of models to learn from and adapt for our needs.
Yet, as we know, things rarely go as planned. We don’t always have the luxury of implementing that carefully crafted methodology. Maybe we just got brought in to that admissions newsletter project, or looped in late to the medical school’s redesign. The deadlines are fixed, the pressure is high — and the attention to content has, to date, been lacking.
When confronted with this reality, all of the right questions may barrel through your mind:
- Who is this for?
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- What content is needed to succeed?
- What is the state of preexisting content (if any)? Has it been audited? Is it being revised?
- Where is new content (if any) coming from?
- Who will manage this content going forward?
- What is the process for evaluating the effectiveness of this effort?
You may not, however, get the answers you seek. Or any answers at all.
So, now what? Our methodology may no longer be applicable, but at least we have a seat at the table — and better late than never. And we have a sense of obligation to see that this project is as successful as it can be, even if the process is imperfect.
How do we salvage this situation? It’s time for a content strategy Hail Mary. Our game plan may be foiled, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still win. In the closing minutes of a tight game, the winning quarterback must showcase three traits: decisiveness, leadership, and improvisation.
A Different Game Plan
One of the hardest parts about coming in to a project late is gauging the reality of where you’re at in the process.
- Has content been considered at all, or perhaps in part?
- Is the timeline realistic?
- Are the available resources adequate?
- Is everyone involved working with a shared understanding of the project’s strengths and liabilities, or are there any misconceptions?
The best tool to bring into these scenarios is a good question — preferably, a stack of them. Don’t make or accept assumptions — keep asking and probing until the truth reveals itself. It may not be pretty. But it’s essential to reveal and accept that truth in order to know what the next steps should be.
That said, no matter how ugly the reality of this project and the state of its content is, now is not the time to point fingers. Casting blame never does anything except distract attention from the real problems that need solving. What’s done is done. Focus forward and stay positive.
Now that we’ve assessed and accepted the reality of the project, it’s time to bring content to the forefront. This makes the assumption that you are coming into the project with some degree of influence. Any measure of influence is valuable and can be magnified by how you wield it and by demonstrating the value of your involvement.
The first step is to see how much you can re-engineer the project plan.
- When is the deadline or launch date? Is that date fixed?
- How many resources and how much dedicated time can you bring to bear within that window?
- What needs to be done at launch in order to satisfy the top stakeholders and satisfy the top echelon of user needs?
- With those tasks identified, how do you prioritize them within the time given?
- What can be completed in a preliminary fashion now and fleshed out later?
- For all remaining content tasks, how do you prioritize them for any extra time pre-launch and for the time immediately following launch? What can be retrofitted later?
With that planning done, it’s time to get cranking.
We Can Be Heroes
At this phase, we’re really just improvising, which is a nice way of saying “making things up as we go along.” This isn’t ideal, but it’s not a bad thing either. We’re applying past experience and best practices within a given context to try to achieve a desired result. We’re being adaptive, taking risks, and favoring progress over perfection. It’s actually a great way to get things done, eleventh hour or otherwise.
Improvisation is a critical skill in this context. Some additional considerations:
- Find a champion. Who will support you as you advocate for content to be a primary consideration? This may be your boss, or your boss’ boss, but as content strategist Elizabeth McGuane reminds us, maybe it’s someone who falls below you in the hierarchy, or someone in an entirely different group on campus. It doesn’t matter. The key is to have someone willing to back you up and support you as much as they can.
- Be decisive. The clock may be working against you. The pressure may be on. By speaking up and trying to guide the project down a more productive path, all eyes are on you. It’s important to keep things moving forward, and that means making decisions and setting priorities. Take input and seek knowledge wherever possible to inform those decisions, but don’t get caught in stasis. Choose progress over perfection.
- Delegate. You often can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything. Delegating tasks will help the project move forward, while also giving people investment in the process and perhaps even exposure to new ways of thinking about content.
- Be resourceful. Can you find new resources — people, applications, processes — to help the project move along? Be creative. This is where tapping some of the relationships you’ve been cultivating across campus may come in handy. Sometimes, the most help can come from an unexpected place.
- Schedule a post-mortem. You may have been able to come in mid-project and bring a much-needed content-centric perspective, but it shouldn’t have gone down like that. Content should have been a focus from the start. Before memories fade, it’s important for the team to sit down and discuss what worked and what didn’t, so that future projects stand a better chance of success. Don’t just talk about it — schedule it. Book a room. Order lunch. Make it happen.
- Remember: There’s always day two. Launch is never the end of a project — it’s more like a beginning. You can always continue to iterate and improve post-launch, so don’t feel like you need to solve every problem right now.
The Secret to Content Strategy, Revealed!
For a moment, forget about methodologies. Forget about audits and measurement and style and workflows and the rest of it. Here’s the overarching truth:
The secret to content strategy is leadership.
“The only way out [of a bad situation] is to stop waiting for permission, and to start leading,” says Jonathan Kahn of Together London. “This isn’t technically complex, but it takes courage: the willingness to leave our comfort zones, face our own fear of confronting the status quo, and overcome our resistance to shipping.”
We can’t wait around for someone else to speak up for the value of content. Remember, we need to be selling content strategy at every turn. No one’s going to do that for us. Sometimes, we need to be the leader we’re waiting for.
“Underneath it all, a master content strategist must be an advocate and a diplomat,” Rachel Lovinger, content strategy director at Razorfish NYC, wrote in A List Apart. “We must advocate on behalf of the end users, the business users, the stakeholders, and the content vision itself. And we must use diplomacy to influence a wide range of people over whom we don’t have any actual authority.”
Even if it’s imperfect or incomplete, it’s never too late to do something right. So, if given the opportunity to help correct a project gone wrong, even at a late stage, let’s find a way to make something of it — not just in the name of quality content and best practices, but because it’s the right thing to do for our institution.