Content Strategy: Keep Your Eye on the Hole

Flickr Creative Commons  photo by David Joyce

Flickr Creative Commons photo by David Joyce

Anyone who has ever played a round with me knows I'm a dismal golfer.

But there's one piece of golfing advice that has served me well: When you’re standing over a putt, your final sustained look should be at the hole. Not the ball.

This same advice also applies to content strategy.

In this case, the hole is your targeted audience. Those are the people you are trying to influence, engage, inform, and, ultimately, drive to donate, buy, advocate, or act.

Yet, a lot of content folks aren’t really taking a long, sustained look at those audiences – their attitudes, interests, motivators and preferences -- when crafting messaging and editorial calendars. 

Quite simply, too many people are keeping their eyes the ball. But they should be focused on the hole.

The reasons for this are many and largely understandable. Too little time. Preconceived, and likely misguided notions of exactly who your audience is. The quickening pace of change which means what connected with your audience two years ago completely misses the hole today. 

Really knowing your audience well takes some work. But it's far from impossible.

If you take the time to follow these three simple steps, you start sinking more putts with your content:

1. Work your beat

Back in my days as a newspaper reporter, I would spent the first two hours of each workday checking in with sources. I’d go from office to office in city hall, chatting up everyone from the administrative assistants to department heads. It was through that effort that I got a much better sense of what was going on. And it often was quite different from the stories chronicled by the city’s press releases.

Approach your job like a beat reporter, talking with as many people in the organization, particularly those the front lines working directly with customers or donors you are trying to reach. 

2. Rely on analytics

There is just too much good technology out there to rely solely on your gut when it comes to content. Your gut still matters, so trust it. But verify.  Get to know your analytics team or tap an outside source for expertise.

Data can reveal a lot of nuance and details about the people you are trying to reach that can then inform your content strategy.

And on the back end, good data and metrics can give you a steady feed of what’s working and what’s not so you can course correct accordingly.

3. Create and update personas

Personas provide a readily accessible and detailed profile of the people you are most trying to reach. As a composite of your most important audiences, personas can keep your content on track and help others in your organization focus their efforts as well.  Further, the process of building those personas reveal tons of great insights that help the content team get a much clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities that others in the organizations face, and how great content can address them.  

If you're new to the world of personas, check out some sample personas we’ve worked on. You can find them in the online appendix to Modern Media Relations for Nonprofits.


6 Alternative Narrative Formats for a 'TL:DR' World

Are your communications burdened with too much text?

As a writer, I understand the urge to use the written word to engage readers and convey information.

But in a TL;DR world (shorthand for “too long; didn’t read”), you stand to lose attention if you rely only on narrative pieces to spread your message.

Flickr Creative Commons photo by  Oralle Todorovic

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Oralle Todorovic

When readers see long blocks of text, they tune out.

But even if you lean heavily on the written word in your communications, you can still keep your audience's attention if you mix things up a bit.

Sometimes, a long article or report is necessary.

The rest of the time, though, think about how to pivot toward formats that will provide your audiences with something different.

Replace the walls of text with some creative narrative styles and you’ll see greater engagement (and you’ll have a lot more fun creating the content, as well).

Here are six alternatives to traditional narratives that you can employ with your nonprofit’s content:

1. The format: Q & A

An alternative to: Profiles

Many organizations use profiles to help put a face on their work. Education nonprofits often profile graduates or teachers. Foundations profile grantees.

And while profiles can humanize your work and provide readers with an easy way to see your organization’s impact, you don’t have to rely on a narrative structure to tell these stories.

Consider instead a Q & A (or question-and-answer) format. Q & A’s offer readers an accessible way to learn about a person and his or her opinions.

Paired with a strong photograph, they can help you tell a story quickly — and they are often easier to put together than a long narrative.

This can help you cover more ground — all while giving your readers something easy to digest.

Example: Teach for America’s profile of Ankur Arya

2. The format: Timeline

An alternative to: About Us/History

Your nonprofit or company likely devotes a page on its website and a section of its annual report to share information about its history. And, often, you need to tell stories about the evolution of a program or idea.

Rather than telling that (sometimes long) story in a narrative, share it in a timeline.

You can find a number of easy-to-use timeline creation tools online if you don’t have a designer at the ready — and you’ll make it much easier for your key audiences to digest and understand your story.

3. The format: Case Study

An alternative to: Impact stories

When it’s time to celebrate an accomplishment — or discuss how your nonprofit overcame an important challenge — consider doing it as a case study rather than as a simple article.

Case studies can be presented as short, bite-sized pieces or long, downloadable whitepapers. But however you decide to present them, they offer a great alternative to an article or blog post — and they make it easy for readers to understand the impact of your work.

4. The format: Quiz

An alternative to: Articles

The American Red Cross isn’t just about disaster response. Part of its mission is to help the public prevent and prepare for emergencies.

Often, that means it needs to provide information about topics such as how to prevent a home fire or and how to make sure your family is safe during a tornado or hurricane.

Rather than simply providing written guides and articles about these topics, the organization has developed a series of online quizzes that give readers a way to think about and digest information that will help them prepare for emergencies.

By giving them a tool that allows them to engage with the information, readers are more likely to access and retain the information.

Example: Are You Prepared for a Home Fire?

5. The format: Checklists

An alternative to: Articles

Similar to a quiz, a checklist gives readers of informational content something to do. Rather than simply writing about how to prepare for or accomplish something, break it into a list and present it as something readers can use.

6. The format: Alternative Listicles

An alternative to: Listicles

Buzzfeed — the purveyor of online gems such as 10 Important Life Lessons You Can Learn from Cats — has spawned a form of content commonly referred to as the listicle.

Listicles are essentially articles that are repackaged as lists — and many nonprofits have joined the growing legion of content creators who already use listicles as an alternative to the basic article.

The problem is that listicles are now so common that they have become a bit trite (even though we all know you’re dying to click on that link about cats and life lessons).

Consider instead the alternative listicle. This is a listicle that doesn’t just present a list, it offers an alternative to each item on that list.

This blog post is actually an example of an alternative listicle, since each item on the list is actually an alternative to something else.

Be Creative

And that brings me to my final point — which is simply to be creative when you think about your content.

It’s easy to revert to traditional styles and approaches when you’re presenting information. But take some time to think about how you can present that story in another format — or even how you might twist a popular format for your own devices.

Your readers will thank you for it.