Pre-flight checklist: Is the client ready for content strategy?

Clients are increasingly open to content strategy. So are agencies. But does being open equal being ready?

The success or failure of a content strategy project depends on a great many things that are totally out of our control. So before starting a project (or providing a quotation), I try to get a feel for the client’s state of readiness by using the following checklist.

1) Culture of communications

Is the company tight lipped or voluble? Introverted or extroverted? Content strategy is a hard sell in a company with a strong culture of secrecy. No duh, right? But think about it this way: if the content that you think would be the most meaningful to customers is the same information that the company doesn’t want competitors to see, then you’re going to have a tough time coming up with a content strategy built on anything significant.

2) Sources of content

I talked about this in a previous post. It’s very important to find out where content lives inside the company. Is the knowledge formal or informal? Is it inside someone’s head? How interesting is it? Is there a core set of pre-existing content or is it spread across hard drives and intranets? Make sure your content audit goes beyond the current website. Look at collateral and PR. Look under mattresses and in cupboards.

3) IT maturity

Get the IT people on board right away. Find out what their capabilities and expertise are. How open are they to change? What you’re going to propose will most likely upset their daily routine. There’s no point coming up with a content strategy that will require the installation of infrastructure or tools that the IT department can’t afford or won’t approve. Case in point. On a recent intranet project we couldn’t figure out why the visitor numbers were stagnating, until we discovered that the IT person in charge of uploading fresh content (we weren’t allowed to touch the CMS for security reasons) had gone on vacation (and hadn’t given the task to someone else). Doh.

4) Attitude to design

Opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one. Nowhere is this more true that when it comes to visual design and art direction. This excellent article by Kim Mullen at Adaptive Path has some great advice on how to talk to clients about design.

5) Level of support

This is a hard one to nail down. It’s a mixture of tangible clues, like how much staff, time and budget the client has allocated to the project, and intangible ones, like personal preconceptions, willingness to organize project kickoff meetings, access to business owners and the seniority/authority of the person driving the project.

Alas, there are still companies out there who don’t see their website as a part of their company. They consider it to be an outsourceable cost center. They want the website to be “fire and forget.” Be honest with yourself: you are a content strategist, not a miracle worker. Just because you have fire in your belly doesn’t mean they do. Adjust your ambitions accordingly.

6) Agendas and Plans

Hidden and otherwise. Sometimes the person at the impetus of a project isn’t the only one who wants to see improvements made to the website. Get permission to canvas wide. Try hard to get everyone into the loop. Align objectives. Attempts to restrict your access to other stakeholders can spell danger. Don’t let content strategy get caught in interdepartmental crossfire.

When it comes to plans, make sure you know where the company is headed. A sudden decision to launch a new product or enter a new market or region can throw a huge wrench in the works.

7) Localization

This is a barrel of monkeys with four prongs: languages, geographies (countries or regions), developmental maturity and market perception. There’s more to localization than translating or adapting content. Different geographies have specific content needs (even if headquarters won’t admit it). A company may be a household name in one country and an outsider in another. One country may “weigh” more at headquarters than another. For historical reasons, some products may be popular with one set of customers in one country and with another set in another country. Compromises will have to be made. Hackles will be raised. Fur will need to be rubbed.

These seven parameters are part of my current pre-project checklist. I’d love to hear about any other ones you might be using to ensure that your content strategy projects get off on the right foot.

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6 comments on “Pre-flight checklist: Is the client ready for content strategy?

  1. Julio Vazquez
    August 6, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    Great post! I like the fact that you covered the human factors that sometime get overlooked when attempting to roll out a content strategy. Overcoming some of the preconceptions and assumptions can take more time and effort on the strategist’s part than the actual roll out of tools and processes.

    Bravo!

    • Rich
      August 6, 2010 at 4:19 pm #

      Glad you liked it. Like you said, these factors are often overlooked. We’re often so eager to dive into the strategy stuff that we fail (refuse?) to recognize the role these factors play. This can lead to serious money and time strain down the road. Not to mention frustration all round.

  2. Peg Mulligan
    August 6, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    Hi Richard,

    Your observation that the success or failure of a project depends on a lot outside the content strategist’s control really resonates with me.

    An O’Reilley broadcast on social business, moderated by Joshua-Michele Ross, describes levers for becoming a social business, which include the requirement for companies to “reconsider the role of individuals in the company, with greater value of and incentives for extra market forces and nonfinancial drivers, including an individual’s sense of meaning and purpose.”

    I think these internal levers must be in place, and that a company’s transformation to a social business must at least be in progress, to fully implement or start implementing an effective content strategy.

    Your pre-flight checklist is such an excellent tool and reminder to help gauge a company’s readiness to implement content strategy, which is sometimes a different thing, as you point out, from its openness.

    Thanks for these excellent tips.

    Peg

  3. Nicole Jones
    August 6, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    Richard,

    Things I have found that are mandatory are client engagement, especially during the research/discovery phase, the ability to speak the same language about client and user needs, and (as you said) open communication.

    Props for this article! Really nicely done.

  4. Jeri A Hastava
    August 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    Hi Richard,

    “Level of Support” in particular resonated with me. This is where I try to begin. If a client isn’t ready, willing AND able to collaborate, or engage as Nicole mentions says, especially early in the project, it doesn’t bode well for getting results.

    Thanks for another though provoking post.

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