This is a condensed version of three chapters from the book Het Wat en Hoe van Contentstrategie (The Hows and How-Tos of Content Strategy), by John Verhoeven. The concepts in this short version are discussed in more detail in the book, which includes real-life examples and various tips for practical application in your content strategy. The book was published in Dutch by Business Contact and is available here.
© 2017 Business Contact and John Verhoeven, Amsterdam.
Three perspectives in your content
Solution, query and need
The following underlying question always emerges when devising and producing each piece of content, however small and simple: ‘to what extent will you talk about your products or services?’
Are your products or services central in your communications? You have a clear choice here. You could opt to choose the perspective of the environment in which you operate. Which social issues come to mind regarding the products you provide and the problems they seek to address? How can you include these issues in your content? Why should you even bother to try?
Beyond this social dimension, as I call it, there are emotional issues at play on an individual level. Personal feelings, the deepest emotions of your audience that drive their behaviour, on a personal and sometimes subconscious level. Here, we touch upon things like fear, the desire for safety and a secure future, the urge to take care of others, a yearning for luxury, bonding, the aim to leave a meaningful legacy. These three perspectives provide different angles and ideas for content that connects with your audiences in various ways.
Mapping the entire playing field in which your organisation functions and analysing the social, cultural and economic trends at play are among the biggest challenges facing every content strategist. How can these best be tackled?
Perspective 1: the solution
Over the years, I adopted the term ‘perspective’ to address the issues described above.
The perspective closest to you is that of your own organisation: the products and services that are made and sold there. This is what your organisation is about. It is your foundation. All the content that relates to this is product-oriented. It includes all the content you make about your organisation, your people, your customers, your products. In other words, this content concerns the solution your organisation is offering to customers and users. (…) All content that relates to this will touch on your organisation’s products or services, and therefore also on the employees and customers, the sales outlets, etc. This is the perspective of your organisation, where and how it provides concrete solutions. Therefore, the first thing I always ask the content strategist to do is to write down which related themes and topics come to mind in this regard. We put these under the ‘solutions’ perspective.
Perspective 2: the query
The next step involves looking outside, where you will see your colleagues, competitors, the umbrella organisation that your company is a part of, the trade unions who have a say in your working conditions, the environmental organisations focused on your sector, the consumer groups and various political institutions. Here we see the national government, which sets limitations on your target market. We see local administrators, such as provinces and municipalities, all of which develop their own rules for the environment, business establishment, start-up and innovation subsidies, etc. This is where we come up against all the laws and regulations that affect the functioning of your company or institution and yes, this includes the European Union. (…)
This playing field comprises all kinds of elements over which your organisation may have little influence, but that you must live with, such as the social or economic climate. People may face a crisis and have less money to spend (on your products), they may mistrust your industry more than ever (examples are the financial world, the accountancy sector or brokerage businesses), or consider your product so complex they have trouble evaluating the solution you are offering. Nonetheless, they have an opinion of you, influenced by consumer programmes and critical citizens’ initiatives. These are all factors you and your organisation must address, which can serve as the basis of inspiration for interesting and meaningful content.
Clearly, the perspective of the query is extensive. Not everything you see happening in this area will be equally important for you. And this is precisely why it is essential to think about the dynamics at play. Which questions does your company feel it should be involved in and which would it prefer to avoid? And indeed, can it avoid them?
Your job is to start by drawing up a list of partners you work with, whether occasionally or frequently. These may be organisations in the same field or in a related field of work. Then add in organisations you would like to form an alliance with. These may be a branch organisation, a local action group, a citizens’ initiative or a charity organisation, or creators of sponsored events you would like to be associated with (for instance, if you are a food producer, you may want to get involved in a food truck festival).
(…) Social issues (or queries) that emerge from your environment are therefore an important cornerstone for your content strategy. While you may be able to disregard them at times, the question is whether it is wise to do so… For example, a banking institution may not necessarily have to create content that addresses the financial crisis or the sector’s deplorable reputation. And ignoring these issues may be an option. But this is more often a missed opportunity to improve your image and branding. What does society want from your company and your sector? What problems do people want to solve by using your product? For which urgent social and emotional issues are they looking to you for help?
The types of questions audience groups may have with respect to your field can become an important foundation of your strategy. Do you know what in your environment is affecting your solution, which queries have emerged, and how you could address them in a way that would help your company or organisation? Are you able to speak with authority on certain trends and thus reassure your audience groups? Which partners or social or commercial players could you work with in your communications? The answers point to the themes you can use to participate in discussions as well as themes in the public domain. We will take a closer look at this aspect of developing your ‘thought leadership’ a bit later.
It is important to capture and record these stakeholders: the names of organisations, colleagues, partners and the societal queries that affect your business and brand. This will be a long list, and the list will never be complete. New themes and players will be added, while others will fall by the wayside.
It has been my experience as a content maker and strategist that such questions provide a rewarding perspective for creating content. Most organisations and companies take only limited advantage of this information, or they take the wrong approach and too quickly insert their own solutions. Clearly, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit for an alert content strategist.
Communicating about the queries is therefore somewhat distant from your products. Keep in mind that as a content strategist, you don’t simply want to be a spokesperson or voice for your organisation’s products. By addressing the societal questions in your field, you show that you understand what is happening around you, and that you have the right in-house expertise to help people.
Example: ICT and cybersecurity
If you are an ICT company that sells internet security software, the query from society could be: ‘How can we improve security on our children’s computers?’ Or: ‘How can we prevent children from landing on a porn site or an extremist jihad web page?’ After all, cybersecurity is your field of expertise. But perhaps, as a company, you don’t have a real solution for people because your product is not meant for retail consumers, but, say, for governments. In this case you could decide: ‘This is not our focus. We are a B2B company and don’t work with consumers.’ But that consumer is an ordinary citizen who is looking at your company and thinking: ‘I have a problem, so why don’t you help me?’
As a content strategist, you are not responsible for your company’s products but for its image, it’s reputation and brand awareness. Based on your strategy, you could develop stories that help ordinary citizens better secure their kids’ computers. You could provide tips, draw up a checklist or give clear answers to the questions you are asked, via email or your LinkedIn page. This way, you offer consumers an answer to their question, even if you don’t produce the solution. You ensure your name and reputation are connected with a hot topic and you present yourself as an expert player that wants the best for people. You can do this yourself or with a partner, or in coordination with an umbrella organisation of ICT companies.
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Perspective 3: the need
Finally, you should look even further afield, beyond the societal queries. What emotions and concerns are behind the questions raised by your audience groups? What basic need do people want to satisfy with your services? And to which core value are you hoping to appeal?
It is likely a bit more challenging to come up with concrete answers here. In the next chapter, I take a closer look at the needs and ways to create related content. What you are actually doing, is looking for the deepest desire that underlies the question being put to you . You will have to try to pinpoint this desire, which won’t be easy. Organisations are not accustomed to looking at their services and audience groups from this perspective. Try starting with a list of key words. Think of terms like ‘safety’, ‘unburdening the customer’, ‘meeting’, ‘contact’, ‘security’, ‘certainty’, ‘peace of mind’, ‘bonding with people’, ‘a sense of self’, ‘ease’, ‘responsibility for the planet’, ‘balance,’ ‘happiness’, ‘luxury’.
This completes our three perspectives: three links that join to form a content chain of solution, query and need. For your content production, use the following golden rule: all three links must be strong enough to enable the chain to function. The chain must propel a content machine that continues to operate throughout the year. This ‘machine’ produces varied content that serves to enrich and improve. The three links do not always have to be equally visible, nor do they take up an equal amount of time and actual content. In practice, you will often focus more on the solution than the needs. That’s fine, as long as each link in the chain is equally strong and well thought out.
The needs of your audience
Simon Sineks Why?
In my work, I often come across people who compare the element of need in my content chain (solution, question, need) with the ‘Why’ of the popular British marketer Simon Sinek. He calls this the core value of your organisation: ‘Why do you exist?’ Using this as a starting point, he sketches a scenario: every company that fails to clearly formulate its ‘why’ cannot develop products that stick around and are successful. Sinek states that everything starts with the ‘why’ of an organisation. I understand the comparison because Sinek and I are both considering the process of delving deeper into meaningful content, which extends beyond the product, the image and the sexy ad campaigns.
Still, my approach is not the same as that of Sinek. When applying the three perspectives, the internal motivation of the organisation is not the key to the need (the ‘why’ of your organisation). The key here is the deepest need of the users, the audience groups. I therefore focus on the ‘why’ of users and audience groups, not on the ‘why’ of the organisation itself. I am fairly certain that your content strategy is more successful when you figure out the ‘why’ of your audience group than when you emphasise the ‘why’ of your own organisation. Why do people use your services? What real need forms the basis of the question? And which solutions (products, services) have you come up with in answer to that question? How do you integrate all this with your content effectively and with integrity?
Freud or Einstein?
I think that Sinek’s approach is extremely valuable for every organisation and company. I essentially consider his approach a kind of psychological investigation of values. I would say that Sinek’s question is the ultimate Freud question: ‘Why do we do what we do? Do we remember why we ever started doing this?’
In mapping out a content strategy, I prefer to use the toolbox of the investigator, of an Einstein. What trends do we see in the world in which we, as an organisation, can play a role? What approach should we take? What do people actually want from us? How do we translate that to content and clear KPIs? These are not ‘why’ questions but actually the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions of the investigator, of Einstein.
The realisation that all content fits into these perspectives in one way or another gives you a clear idea of the choices you make. Do you constantly write about your products? Are you actually sufficiently aware of the societal dynamic around you? Do you understand where these questions come from? Is there a good overlap between the question and the concrete solution you are offering? Perhaps your solution is not an answer to everyone’s question. If this is the case, where should people go to find their answer?
Using the three perspectives will definitely help you create variety, balance and urgency. The ‘closeness’ of your products in your content may make you realise that you are, unconsciously, communicating a great deal from the perspective of your solutions: from inside out. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is no doubt it will benefit your effectiveness if you also consciously and explicitly create content that is better aligned with the questions from your environment: that is, from outside in. And if you extend those questions to the need, do we then see this aspect in your content? Is that core value accurately reflected?
Example: a holiday home company
One of my training sessions was attended by the head content strategist of an international company that rents homes for short stays in holiday parks. Which fundamental need is this company looking to satisfy? She needed no time to come up with the answer: ‘Our core focus is togetherness.’ ‘Togetherness’ as the deepest need: I thought she hit the nail on the head. The key note is not about renting a holiday home: the home is the solution to a question. Which question is that? Maybe something like: ‘How can we all easily, cheaply and comfortably get together for a pleasant holiday in our own country?’ The house is a means, not an end. People who rent this type of house are not generally coming for the peace and quiet, for nature or the ability to play all day outside with the kids – although people will certainly mention these as reasons to book a mini-holiday.
Behind the desire for a comfortable, short break is the need to be together. These people are less focused on the luxury of a home or the beauty of the surrounding countryside as they are on each other: parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, the sister who lives far away but managed to get together with the rest of the family. They are gathering to celebrate grandma’s eightieth birthday, a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary or the return of a family member who lived in a distant country. A nice get-together. If you ask them, they will probably say something different but you know better: their short break is all about ‘togetherness’. As a content strategist, understanding the deeper need will help you tremendously in selecting topics, approaches and, most important, setting priorities.
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The Content Canvas: a framework for content and form
Setting up an effective strategy starts with making a good layout for your content: separate out form, content, approach, suitability for a specific channel, etc. Which topics do you want to address, how, for whom and how often? And where? In order to create this overview, you need a framework, a system that helps you divide your content output into specific categories, forms and channels. In the media world, this layout is referred to as a ‘formula’.
One tool that can help is the Content Canvas, which aims to create a structure you can use to translate your ‘content formula’ into an action plan throughout the year. The formula is a document or a policy paper in which your choices are detailed, your spearheads developed and priorities indicated. It gives you a clear sense of direction.
The Content Canvas is the literal translation of this formula, spread over the year and classified into content (pillars, themes) and form (genres, channels, interaction and organisation). It is meant to be a support tool that helps your team navigate content development. The Canvas therefore not only provides a substantive overview (the component we refer to as storytelling) but an overview of form, channel and any interaction (the story-tooling element). (We will cover this in greater detail in the next chapter.)
For this book, I developed a Canvas template (based on an Excel sheet), so you have insight into your choices per month, for the entire year. Which topics are you covering, which approaches are you taking, which forms and which channels will you be selecting for these purposes and which content do you want to use for interaction with your audience?
Solution, Query and Need in your Canvas
The concept of the three perspectives – Solution, Query and Need – can be easily combined with the Content Canvas concept introduced above that helps classify your content (pillars, themes, approaches) and form. But how do you apply this in your day-to-day work?
The most practical method is to involve the three content links, the perspectives, as soon as you have come up with your topic and are ready to consider approaches and the like.
Specifically, the process involves brainstorming new ideas for your content, whereby the pillars and themes are used as your starting point. For example, you see an urgent need for fresh content in pillar A. Or the idea may come from elsewhere in your organisation, such as at the launch of a new campaign, product update, legislation change that will affect your service provision, etc. Let’s say the topic fits in pillar A. The next question would be: how do you approach the topic? When answering this question, editors often immediately think of a specific and developed form: an interview with X, a portrait, a product presentation, a photographic report, etc.
This is where you involve the concept of the three perspectives in your development process. You can approach the topic from the solution offered by your organisation, which means your story is closely meshed with your products and services. Or you can approach the topic from the perspective of the query. That gives you the opportunity to approach the topic from the dynamic of your environment: what questions do people ask about a particular topic? What is at play here? Which questions will we address? And, finally, can you choose the perspective of the deepest human need when addressing this topic? What do people actually want from your product? Your content will then be distanced from your product or service, but if you have a thorough knowledge of your audience group’s deepest motivations, you will surely manage to touch them emotionally and create a deeper and richer bonding with each individual.
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