Content strategy for startups: blazing a new trail

Wright brothers take flight.

During the first half of this year I was contracted to develop a content strategy for a newly formed organisation. I say ‘newly formed’ in that at the time of starting the project I didn’t know very much about the client and, bizarrely, hadn’t quite wrapped my head around the idea that they were a startup.

I’d always (silly now it seems) associated startups with technology. Since working with this client however, I’ve re-educated myself. I’m now fully cognisant of the fact that ‘startup’ can describe an infinite variety of sparkling new ventures from richly funded to pigeon poor, from independent to nested within a corporation, and from digital culture to any other field. The one thing they have in common though is that they all start at the same place, with nothing.

In this post I share how my tried and testing content strategy methodologies were turned upside down (startups are a creature unto their own), what I did instead (with a focus on R&D), and how I discovered that the work of a Content Strategist can be so much more creative and strategic than I’d ever realised.

Tried and tested

As a consultant Content Strategist, I’m used to the idea of learning a lot about a client’s business in a short amount of time.

I start every project with R&D and Diagnosis, a process of learning and discovery that results in a project plan and an informed foundation upon which initial strategic concepts can be formed.

Depending on the project, I might look at website and site search analytics, review any survey results, do a content audit, interview employees and customers, review customer feedback, and snoop about competitors sites and services; I’ll document project resources, branding documents, potential risks and challenges and sometimes even more.

It’s a well-practiced and reliable routine fuelled by data, analytics, and the brain-picking of people who know how their organisation works (or doesn’t work).

My first day of work at the startup was, if not career changing, certainly methodology changing. In one blinding moment I became acutely aware of something truly terrifying – that there were no analytics to analyse, no websites to audit, no previous content, no employees or customers and, with nothing yet done, no problems to fix.

No problems to fix? No analytics?

Without knowing it, I’d based much of my previous work on being a problem solver. I’d spot problems, suggest how to fix them and, as long as the results were positive, everyone would be happy. Sure there was a certain amount of creativity involved but by working with a startup – which by nature has no problems – I’ve come to discover that my work can be so much more than just problem solving, it can be truly creative and innovative.

Getting a grip so creation and innovation can start

With some experience behind me, I now know that you don’t wisely enter a startup project thinking, ‘Let’s hit the ground running’ but rather, ‘Quick! Where’s the ground so I can get running?’

In my darkest hour of feeling lost (you can’t afford to stay feeling lost for longer than a few hours on a job with a tight schedule), a friend suggested I pick up Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup (highly recommended reading if you’re involved in anything even vaguely entrepreneurial). In his book, Eric says:

“So here’s my definition of a startup. A human institution designed to create something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty. And, of course, the importance of disruptive innovation in creating something that is truly different than what came before.”

In those two spell-like lines my project methodology began to take form. First off, it was a relief to read that “conditions of extreme uncertainty” were ordinary, at least in startup land. Secondly, a content strategy can be inspired not by a dearth of problems and pre-existent content but rather by the opportunity to a) create something new and b) create something that is truly different from what came before.

Blazing a new trail

Inspired by Eric Ries’ quote, things took focus and (at least the first few steps) of a project methodology were born:

  1. I needed to find out exactly what and who came before (defining competitors, learning all about them and their fans)
  2. Research what innovations my client could offer within their field of service and where they could improve on what their competitors were already offering (creativity)
  3. With this information, I could think about where and how my client should place themselves (strategy)

In essence, at least until point three, I needed to turn the Content Strategist in me to mute and become, again, a nosey journalist on the hunt for a story, a story in which my startup could play a starring (and profitable) role.

An outline of what I did

For me, research is not a clear cut, step one, two, three process. It’s initially messy and then slowly comes together as visual diagrams or infographics and/or in document format. In other words, I’d love to give you a pretty list of research steps but it would be a distortion of my research reality. I can however describe various tactics used, which will perhaps be of interest to you.

There is however a step number one: to my mind, every project should start with a documentation of its starting point.

1. Dug up as much internal stuff about the startup as possible (it wasn’t much)

As with all projects, I began this project with what is for me a standard project kick-off R&D.

I researched and documented the startups business strategies and projections; the available short and long-term resources; timelines; audited any media already produced (super minimal in this instance); noted project team members and their roles, responsibilities and availability; documented project aims; collated and appended documents already signed-off; and noted anything else that seemed important to have written down and signed off.

I’m guessing that none of this is particularly new to you. It is however worth detailing as, whilst in my view a baseline R&D is essential to any project, in the chaotic world of the startup it’s more than essential, it’s vital.

Startups are volatile creatures – because nothing but ideas have been formed, things can change radically and swiftly and with those changes any work you’ve done may need to change too.

I’m not suggesting that you use a signed off R&D as a way to maintain a state of rigour and inflexibility (you can’t be inflexible when working with so many unknowns) but rather that, with a collection of signed-off information to fall back on, when and if changes happen, leaving your work upended, you’ve got something to refer to in reminding both you and your client why you’ve made certain decisions. It’s amazing how in the thick of things people can change their minds without even knowing it.

You might be thinking, ‘but hang on, that’s not content strategy, that’s project management’. Well, if you’ve got a switched on Project Manager who’s done something similar for the whole project then you simply need to build in your content specific stuff however, if no one else has done this work, it’s my recommendation that someone do it, and it’s a brilliant exercise if it’s you.

2. Went undercover, listened in on conversations, got to know the audience

I would usually focus my next R&D task on completing a website/s audit, reviewing site search and web analytics, and interviewing customer services etc. However, with none of these things available, I focused all my energy on getting to know everything I could about a) my clients competitors b) websites and services who were not direct competitors but who the target audiences were paying attention to c) what the fans of these competitors were saying, liking and doing.

I researched competitors on Google, found out where they were winning and losing, what people where saying about them, and how they were being described by the media. I audited competitor tone of voice across media. I phoned competitors up to see what it was like to be a new customer. How did they speak to me? What tone did they use? What follow up was there, if any? I also spoke to friends who might use the startup’s services to find out what they were missing in the services they already used. I engaged with news and conversation in the field.

In short, I made it my job to become a ‘quick-baked’ expert in the field – someone who could have an intelligent dinner conversation about it with a pukka expert (a regular and worthwhile acid test).

3. I learned that rudimentary mathematics and tactics can give good results

Luckily, and thanks to the joy of Wikipedia, along with the type of competitors I was researching (unions and professional associations), I was easily able to find out (generally) how many customers each competitor had. From this, I was able to work out what percentage of customers followed each competitor on social media i.e. if an organisation had 1000 customers and only 100 ‘likes’/followers, I could assume that a maximum of 10% of their customers were interested in Facebook/Twitter.

This information, combined with good consideration of competitor social media skills, allowed me to develop a general sense of my startup’s potential customer habits and digital awareness.

This investigation prompted several very important questions which needed answering: were these people not interested in social media, or was it that the social media they were seeing in their field was just so bad that no one would be interested in it? If something better were to come along, would they become interested?

In terms of Facebook engagement, I used a little (and sadly no longer available) application called Skyttle.Friends, which generated analytics about how a competitor’s Facebook page was being engaged with i.e. what types of posts were most engaged with, the times of day people engaged, most commonly used words, and a host of other really valuable stuff.

As mentioned, Skyttle.Friends seems to no longer be available. I did speak to the creator of Skyttlle.Friends a few months ago and, whilst for various reasons the project was shelved, it is, he says, being revived and perhaps at some point will be commercially available. I look forward to seeing what comes of it as it was a super-cool tool.

There are several paid for analytics services out there, which is something I need to research (I’ll let you know more when I do). I’ve also since then learned that you can use Facebook Insights (though far more limited than Skyttle) to learn about a competitor’s Facebook followers. Again, more research and experimentation needed.

4. Got down to the audits – not of the client’s content – of the competitor’s content

I completed a mini-qualitative-audit of each primary competitor’s website and social media: I noted down their tone of voice, key messages, and functionality. For instance, did they have a blog? Did they have polls or surveys? If so, how easy were they to use and how well were they engaged with? What were the competitors stated values and how well did their website content and social media express this? What areas of their service were hidden behind a paywall? Et cetera, et cetera.

I also completed a mini-audit of competitors blogs, which allowed me to see which of their blog content was most engaged with, what their audience (commentators) were asking or talking about, and their attitude. Did the organisation respond to comments and, if so, how?

In terms of presentation (and noted as a reminder to myself), it was useful to include screenshots of content that exemplified each competitor’s tone and style.

5. Reaction vs. innovation: explored outside the box

Thinking back to Eric Ries’ quote: “creating something that is truly different than what came before”.

If we were simply to research competitors and their clients, would we be able to truly address the needs of the clients or would we simply find out what people didn’t like or like about competitors and, in responding to this, set ourselves on a path of aiming to do what our competitors had done, but much better?

By closing ourselves within the confines of obvious-competitor analysis, I feel we would have drawn ourselves into a game of one-upmanship – the surest way to dampen the opportunity for true innovation.

In this spirit, I looked at organisations who were not direct competitors but who offered a similar service in a different field, or who offered a different service but engaged a similar audience to my startup client.

Online forums and resources offered interesting insights into the audience and the things they spoke about outside of the service, and yet which had everything do with their professional needs, fears, and opinions.

I asked these questions: were they complaining about or asking for something that we could fix or provide? What kind of voice, look and feel did the most popular services use? What kind of language did they use? An important pointer for tone of voice development. Was the information found something we should use in inspiring a route forward? Just because you find it doesn’t mean you need to respond to it.

6. Stepped five paces off centre

Using all the snippets, analytics, images, stories and conversations gathered in research (and stored for easy reference, sharing and signing off, in a quickly-produced R&D document*), I was able to define what the eco-system or environment my client was going to be ‘born into’ might look like.

This is a big ‘beef’ of mine and something which I’ll write a rant about at some point but, particularly regarding startup environments, don’t spend dozens of hours creating an impressive and pretty document. Not unless it’s what you need to get yourself in on the job. If you’ve got the job, use the document format purely to get the stuff you’ve discovered in a neat and coherent order so everyone can easily learn what has been found and you can reference it time and again. Get it signed off. Then get down to making and testing, making and testing, making and testing.

I did this in an infographic format, which I presented to the client as a ‘conversation piece’ during a three-hour ‘lets talk about brand’ workshop, which went down really well. I unfortunately can’t share it as it’s under NDA but in short, we had the following laid out.

(No reference to political lefts and rights intended):

  • On the far left: organisations that are really vocal, radical and negative in their views and communications (and who incite the same from their followers)
  • Closer to centre: organisations that are vocal and radical but more positive
  • On the far right: organisations that are a-political, very positive and non-reactive (but sadly a bit limp in defining what they offer)
  • Also: big news organisations with wads of cash and offices of highly skilled journalists and community managers who produce amazing content and engage with people conversing about professional issues
  • Last but not least: a long list of independent but highly-engaged professionals and organisations who run interesting and relatively popular blogs/forums and social media feeds, all providing opportunity for service and interaction but on a smaller and more personal scale than might be provided by big-wig media organisations

All but the media organisations (who offer content/interaction but not a professional support service) offered a poor and ‘fuddy-duddy’ content, design and online service experience.

I can’t say too much about where we ended up placing my client as I’d need to explain much more about their service proposition than I’m able to but, in essence, it became clear…

What was missing: an organisation who offered a professional and trustworthy service which was personal, direct, contemporary, digital and super-easy to use.

Including a forum and an extensive blog/news requirement in the launch design were not the way to go: an easy and all-too-often knee-jerk reaction is to think, “let’s produce a bundle of news content so that Google will notice us; we must build a community – give us a forum; we definitely need all the social we can get our hands on too.”

The media organisations were doing an amazing job of the community/content work – we were hardly going to be able to match their established’ness and their quantity and quality of output. Besides, making content and offering a community was not the core business of the startup, it was offering professional support services AND, as part of that service, offering the opportunity to directly and personally have a say regarding professional issues, whether through a poll or member-submitted blog – which was something no one else was doing well.

We therefore needed to focus initial content work on service content, low-budget blog content, and on a social media engagement plan to get the word out about the organisation. Obvious to state but, there’s no point in having a top notch service/website experience that no one knows about.

A few quick take outs

Outside of learning how to get going on a start-up project, here are a few other lessons I gleaned in working with a startup client, or any other client for that matter:

  • Use documents to collate research and not as a grand presentation.
  • Infographics go down much better than documents.
  • ‘Real’ prototype content is far better as a final deliverable than any kind of document, even if they’re more digestible infographics.
  • Call me a control freak but, try your best to get in on implementation too, it’ll be a far more satisfying project experience.

Tying up this post

There’s still more I could write about this project, even six months down the line. There was sadly not enough budget for me to carry things through to implementation, which was a frustrating experience, as I mini-blogged soon after.

Whilst a very good deal of my work was pulled into final design and the content for those elements is alive and kicking, the execution has not been nearly as refined as I would have liked and, social media wise, simply hasn’t been embraced with the amount of sustained enthusiasm that it needs.

In retrospect, and with a higher education project now (almost) under my belt, one which involved a well-funded round of content prototyping and testing (a truly lean approach to content strategy), I see now that had I actually made a few examples of real content for them to see how their website and social could look and behave I might have been able to get more across in the time I had.

This project changed (for the better) how I do things – I no longer simply look to problem solve, or robotically run through my trusted process, or find my sense of control in a project by auditing everything, simply because that’s what Content Strategists do. Even for monstrous organisations (with the security of an established business but the flexibility of late-stage rigor mortis) the startup and lean-content mentality is a viable and extremely valuable project approach – a notion proven recently on a current project for a university. But that’s a whole new post, and one for 2013!

An aside: a Professor I worked for many years ago used to come to my desk regularly and say, “Kate, better written than right.” Thing is, I was a radio producer, typos don’t show up in audio. After six months of sitting in ‘draft’ this post was finally published late on the very last evening of 2012. Old habits die hard.

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