What is content?

Why Content Strategy is Like Opening a Restaurant

Everyone loves a good metaphor. When you find the right one, it can lift away obscurity in one graceful move, revealing such crystal clarity that you never forget it—and the topic at hand never feels complicated again. Since “content” and “content strategy” are two such juicy, complex concepts, I picked a great field for metaphor-wielding. (And I intend to take full advantage.)

So let’s have some fun with content metaphors, shall we?

To lay the groundwork, let me explain my definition of “content.” It’s the sum of everything your business communicates, including your copy, images, illustrations, photos, videos, audio recordings, charts, graphs, interactive tools, you name it.

And keep in mind that though we usually talk about content in the context of external communications (what you communicate to your audience or customers), your internal communications are also content, especially if your business involves multiple departments or teams working together. (In fact, this is sometimes the toughest content to crack.)

Now, imagine you’re opening a restaurant.

There’s a long list of things to think about: the physical space, the kitchen equipment, the décor, the pricing, and so forth. But your chief concern is probably the thing people come to a restaurant for: the food.

The food is your content.

You’d probably plan your menu around several things: the theme or cuisine of the restaurant, the cost of ingredients, the chef’s special talents, what ingredients are in season, and (once your restaurant is around for a while) what your diners typically like the best and order the most. Guess what? That’s content strategy.

Launching a new website, brand, or product is a lot like opening a new restaurant. The physical space and décor (the design and information architecture) are important. So is buying the right equipment, hiring the right people, and training them well (the development and tools).

But when it really comes down it, people will come to your restaurant for the food, and they will buy into what you’re doing—or not—chiefly based on the food.

When you plan, develop, and continuously evolve your content according to a clearly defined strategy—and you put that effort above all else—your value is clear to your customers. They’re more likely to come into your restaurant in the first place, order dessert, recommend you to friends, and come back again. In other words, your content is what makes people convert, engage with and share your brand, and become loyal, premium customers.

Or imagine you’re restoring an old car.

Let’s go with an old Volvo 1800E (a particularly fond model for me—it’s what I learned to drive a stick-shift in). It makes a loud grinding noise when you start it, the seats are in bad shape, the window mechanisms don’t work, and without seatbelts, it’s not up to safety inspection standards.

The car is your website, left neglected and out of date, and the pieces and parts are your content.

When you’re ready to buy parts, you’d consider the model of the car, right? An old Jeep pickup bucket seat isn’t going to fit. A 2005 Ford Taurus engine isn’t going to work. You’ll need to make sure every new mechanical component works with all the existing ones, and you’ll want any visible updates to match the car’s original detail.

You’ll also want to invest in long-lasting, quality parts if you want to make the most of your money and efforts. Like those broken window mechanisms—jerry-rigging them for now, or putting in the cheap “universal fit” variety, isn’t going to change the fact that you’ll need to replace them with original parts sooner or later, if you want to maintain the integrity of your restoration.

Well, you guessed it: the same goes for your content.

When it comes time to redo your website, you need a guiding content strategy, a consistent brand voice, and on-point key messages to anchor every decision you make.

You need to invest in thoughtful, smart, high-quality content work that supports that vision—whether you’re investing your own time or you’re investing your money to hire someone else. And you absolutely must have a plan for maintaining and updating your content (and your content standards) over the long term, so you don’t find yourself right back where you started. Make sense?

Okay, how about gardening?

I won’t keep you in suspense here.

The plants are your content.

You probably already have some plants growing in your yard. They may or may not be growing well and thriving, which is probably due to a combination of factors: their placement in your yard, your level of care, their suitability to your climate and soil environment, the time of year, and so forth.

When planting season rolls around, you might relocate some plants to better meet their sunlight needs. You might group plants with similar water requirements in one bed, to simplify care and maintenance. And you may remove and replace some with plants that grow better in your climate and environment. You’ll also water your garden regularly, weed it, and prune it at regular intervals to encourage new growth.

If you’re a really bad-ass gardener, you’ll work with a solid knowledge of the plants that grow well in your area, and create a clear vision of the garden you want before you start planting. If you want an English garden look, you’ll bypass the prickly-pear cactus. If you’re aiming for a clean, modern xeriscape, you might skip the tulips. If you’ve got a vegetable garden, and your kids have decided that they won’t touch tomatoes with a ten-foot pole (god forbid), it probably makes sense to forgo several crazy-productive cherry tomato plants in favor of more spinach, eggplant, and summer squash. And talk some sense into your kids.

As a marketer and communicator (which we all are), you’re the gardener of your content.

That requires knowledge of your competitive landscape, a deep understanding of your customers, and a clear communication strategy. Then, you can design and cultivate the exact mix of content your business needs—and encourage it to thrive by maintaining it (and pruning it) regularly.

Throwing a plant into your yard only because you like the way it looked in the store? That’s kind of like throwing up a giant space for video on your site because “everyone’s doing video”. Result: either one lackluster video sits on your website for months…and months…because you don’t have the time or money to produce them regularly, or your videos just never gain traction—and you don’t see an adequate return on your investment.

Filling your beds with plants that may not work with your environment or design, just because that’s what you had on hand (or what was on sale)? That’s sort of like approaching your content with no strategy, thinking of it as “filling the modules” of your website design templates (probably with the content you already have, because you’re thinking you can just update the copy yourself, later). Bad idea. Unless you’re going for a Grey Gardens sort of look for your website.

But let’s end on a positive note.

Good content—thoughtful content, well-maintained content, strategic content—is actually pretty rare. Think about hearing the exact song you need to hear at the exact right moment, or eating something that just totally hits the spot when you’re hungry, or re-routing your commute to avoid traffic and breezing right past those shitty intersections where everyone else is stacked up, sitting through three full cycles of the traffic light. That’s how good content feels. You have the power to orchestrate that feeling for your customers.

And very few businesses are doing it.

Because most of them approach web development from a design-first standpoint, and Shiny Object Syndrome continues to take no prisoners, even small steps in that direction will be giant leaps ahead of everyone else.

Your opportunity to rise above the pack is as simple as making common-sense decisions about your content.

Not genius-smart. Not complicated. Just consistent and thoughtful.

By communicating what your customers need, when they need it, in a voice that’s true to your brand, in a way that adds to your long-term brand story, you win. By a mile. Or a million. Or a Yard of the Month sign, depending on your metaphor.

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