Building Your Content Strategy with a Message Architecture

This is a guest post by Margot Bloomstein, principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston.

Image Credit: Barbara Gago

Content strategy and content marketing can easily become a numbers game if you’re not careful. Editorial calendars, keyword density, the number of clicks and conversions… and don’t forget about measuring the ROI of your SEO efforts. That alphanumeric siren song just wants to bash your campaign into the rocks, so you’d better be able to swim.

But how do you know what to measure — and how can you even determine success metrics — if you don’t know what you’re trying to communicate? If you don’t know what you need to communicate, how will you know if you succeed? That’s where content strategy can help.

What is content strategy, and how does it fit in?

Content strategy entails planning for the creation, aggregation, governance, and expiration of useful, usable, and brand-appropriate content in an experience. Content marketing, as Rebecca Lieb writes, makes good on all that, manifesting the strategy through sustainable content creation, aggregation, and curation.

“Content strategy is what makes content marketing effective,” she asserts. It underpins copywriting, video blogging, Tweeting, and all the other tactics in your toolkit. Components of content strategy can also help define the style in which you write, the frequency at which you publish, and the quality of content in the reuse pile. Before you attempt to republish a press release or feature from the annual report, a qualitative content audit can help you determine if it’s good and appropriate for other channels — or if you need to “translate” it for currency, accuracy, or relevance. Content strategy brings all of this together. Driving that strategy is the message architecture.

What’s a message architecture?

A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals that reflects a common vocabulary. It might be a concise outline of five attributes, each with sub-bullets that clarify meaning and add color. Those attributes and terms reflect a broader discussion to establish concrete, shared terminology — not just abstract concepts that fall apart outside the hallowed halls of marketing.

As a brand and content strategy consultant, I’ll often hear vague requests from my clients: “Make us look innovative — but not risky!” they ask. “We need to reestablish ourselves as experienced, but not old,” they propose. These are fine goals, but I don’t understand them — and often, my clients don’t all share an understanding of those terms either. One person’s “traditional” may be another person’s “conservative” or “old-fashioned.” These words are valuable, but they’re meaningless without context and priority. We can give them context through discussion and impose priority in the message architecture.

A process to envision the future

I’ll engage my clients in a facilitated exercise to “unpack” their communication goals and dig into the buzzwords. We’ll spend about 45 minutes in a card sorting exercise, in which stakeholders sift through a hundred adjectives, sorting them by the terms that currently describe the brand and the terms they’d like for audiences to associate with the brand. Content marketing is time travel: we can go from their current state to an idealized future, but only if we all understand what that future looks like and the words we use to describe it.

After my stakeholders determine what qualities the brand will possess in the future, I ask them to prioritize them in natural groupings. One grouping might describe how they want the target audience to think about their products or technology; another group of terms might describe their corporate culture. I need to know the order of priority of those groupings and terms because we can’t communicate everything all at once. The future is an accessible place, but only to those companies that work toward it with resolute focus.

Finally, they tell me the story of the brand and walk through those groups. I’ll hear what qualities get them in the door — what they cannot fail to communicate. We’ll discuss what terms like “innovative” or “cutting edge” really mean in their corporate culture. Then we’ll discuss what other attributes bolster those communication goals. I document all of this in an outline, the draft of the message architecture.

Why start here — and what comes next?

Before I can recommend new content types, compile a cut list, or determine editorial style, I need to understand what we’re trying to communicate. More importantly, my clients need to understand our shared communication goals, as do the marketing associates who will continue to create and maintain content over time.

A message architecture offers a concise touchstone by which you can then audit existing content. Is it accurate to the new goals, or do you need to spin it in a different way? If it’s most important to communicate “experience,” but your YouTube channel lacks breadth and your newest case study is from 2010, the audit reveals where you should invest your time. And popularity of that content is important. Suddenly, you may find yourself chasing new KPIs and measurements of success. That’s good, as long as they align with your communication goals. That’s the numbers game you want to win.

Margot Bloomstein (@mbloomstein) is the principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston. She helps retailers, universities, and other organizations engage their target audiences and project key messages with consistency and clarity through both traditional and social media. A frequent speaker, Margot is also the author of Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project.

Share Your Thoughts

  • http://www.shortcutblogging.com/ Dave Young

    We have a free outline tool at http://www.shortcutblogging.com that will help you to develop an architecture similar to what Margot is describing here. Think about the suggestions she makes as you go through our 37-minute exercise and you’ll have a list of weekly topics outlined for more than a year’s worth of blog posts.  

  • http://marketinginteractions.typepad.com/ Ardath

    Hi Margot,

    First of all I absolutely LOVE the phrase “Content marketing is time travel”

    Secondly, a question. Your process for establishing a message architecture is great, but I’m wondering what steps you then take to translate how the company wants its audience to “see” them to what the audience wants to “hear” that they’ll consider relevant to those attributes?

    For example, if the company wants to be seen as “innovative” – how does that apply to customer perception of the attribute? Do you do an overlay to translate from company wants to customer priorities?

    • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein mbloomstein

      Hi Ardath,

      Thanks for your feedback and excellent question! I focus on brand-driven content strategy; though not “brand-exclusive,” my process also isn’t user-centered. I’d call it more “user-balanced.” That said, I typically contrast the aspirational communication goals in the message architecture against what other teammates are investigating with user research.

      User research isn’t my area of specialty, so I tend to incorporate collaborative work from others rather than conduct my own research. We might partner to “test” the message architecture against current perceptions, such as by asking prospective members of the target audience to determine which company within a list the message architecture could best describe.

      If the rhetorical arena comprises the space between the company and their audience, I’d argue that a third facet defining the space is the competitive context. How do other brands and media that compete for similar attention and values fare in “owning” the space? Frequently, I’ll dig in here by conducting a qualitative competitive content audit. I’ll assess how well other brands’ media properties stack up against the same message architecture. That activity often reveals other opportunities to own communication goals, or at the very least helps make the case for investing in content that can convey the message.