Assumption, the mother of all… (an ecommerce content strategy case study)

I recently completed a content strategy project (with my contractors, Exploded View) for an ecommerce client who runs one of the largest online yoga stores in the UK. The project was a first for me in that the content strategy was not attached to a website redesign but instead needed to be completed within the structure of the client’s existing website and ecommerce platform. Their website and ecommerce platform were far from perfect, a point readily admitted by the client, and so much of my work was centred on finding ways to make content production and output vastly more efficient and targeted even if it was that little bit limited by the existing site and system.

As part of the project I completed a website content audit, which allowed a clear view of where the biggest wins and fails were in terms of content structure and style and, more importantly, allowed me to make clear and realistic recommendations as to how to improve things without altering structure. I produced simple but accurate audience profiles and, along with North Kuras at Whitespace, ran a brand messaging workshop, off the back of which we formalised the company voice and altered their approach to content style and production. Using this information I produced an extensive Tone of Voice and Style Guide document and a content strategy document, which outlined guidelines and strategies for the creation and deployment of content across several channels, specifically their website, direct mail catalogue, and social networking channels.

I am pleased to say that our work with the client has been very successful; they now have a growing and lively Facebook community; their Twitter following is developing nicely; their website content (in most places/I still have a few axes to grind) has improved dramatically; their email newsletter campaigns are now focused and engaging; and, best of all (in terms of my sense of job satisfaction), their Marketing Manager has said: “I now feel I’ve got more structure to my working week, with efficient tools in place, timeframes to adhere to and meatier, engaging projects to get my teeth stuck into.”

That all sounds very good. So, what about those assumptions?

There were two major assumptions I made when I started this job. I’ve briefly mentioned ‘Assumption no. 1’ in a previous post but it’s worth mentioning it again in this context.

Assumption no. 1

Before the start of the project, I boldly listed the deliverables I would be supplying the client with and the process I would follow in order to give them a content strategy. Not too far into the project I realised that I’d made an overarching assumption as to what the client needed before I had taken the time to nose about, learn, look, and conceive what they actually needed. It sounds so simple, especially now that I’ve written it down, but it’s a mistake that seems to be made often and not only in content strategy jobs but in all types of consulting jobs – a fact I’ve garnered in chatting with several colleagues.

How to solve the problem…

Even if sometimes difficult to sell, the most effective process is to complete R&D (or what I now call R&D and Diagnosis) first. With R&D and Diagnosis complete (and billed for) you should then provide the client with a project plan, a budget, a schedule, and list of resources required. This project plan should be agreed upon and signed-off.

The reason is this…

During R&D and Diagnosis you should have discovered what the client needs are and been able to prioritise those needs to see what you can do for their budget and timescale. You should also have been able to ascertain whether you need to call in any specialists to consult on the project, such as a trusted Adwords campaign person perhaps. It’s much easier to make sure that the services and deliverables you have promised the client can be delivered for the cash and time estimated. Sure beats trying to live up to promises hastily made off the back of a standardised process.

In my experience, this approach results in clear and realistic expectations from the start of the project and a more successful and focused project all-in-all.

Assumption no. 2

Back to the ecommerce client…

The client is an ardent believer and doer of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method of information and time management. The business has followed GTD for a long time and it’s an integral part of all their systems. I came into the project promising to help the client develop a content calendar, something which I did using an industry standard Excel spreadsheet (though I did fancy it up a bit). The spreadsheet was completely incompatible with their GTD methodology and was, at the end of the day, just not something they wanted to include in their daily workflow. As nice as my content calendar/spreadsheet was, if they weren’t inspired to use it, it was useless. In fact, it was worse than useless; it was destined to become a guilt-creating device that would forever more stand as a reminder of where they didn’t get things right and where the project failed. Not the kind of service I was looking to provide.

Aside from that, a content calendar is an absolute necessity for a marketing team and there was no way I could complete the project without them falling in love with one.

Whilst it would be just a little unreasonable to expect, on a medium-sized project like this, to get to know absolutely everything there is to know about a business in the first week of project time, it is important (during R&D) to become familiar not just with an organisation’s website and marketing processes but also with the systems that they use to manage their output. No, it’s more than that, to become familiar with how they think about their processes – what their ideologies are in terms of process and efficiency. I’ve learned this lesson now.

This company has a very specific ideology in terms of getting things done (other clients might not be aware of having an ideology but everybody has some habit formed in how they do, or don’t, get things done). Because content is fundamentally about repeated process – the process of conceptualising, planning, briefing, creating, publishing, sharing, responding to comments, and possibly archiving – in my experience, if you want a system to be taken on board with enthusiasm, the process that is introduced must be intrinsically and ideologically friendly to the people who will use it.

If I had to point out the most important sentence in this post, it would be that one. In fact, it’s worth repeating I think it’s that important:

A process that is introduced must be intrinsically and ideologically friendly to the people who will use it.


After a few mildly frustrating discussions with the client regarding the content calendar, the client offered to call in GTD to work with them in creating a content calendar system that would nest nicely within their current GTD processes. I explained the needs and purpose of the calendar and they collaborated with GTD in creating a system which fulfils all the content calendars requirements but in a way that suits them best. GTD have done an excellent job and even though the client is, much to my disappointment, not doing any recording of content take-up on social networks or analytics, they are at least planning their cross-media content output weeks ahead of publication. Everyone’s happy. Including me.

How Assumption no.2 could have been avoided or mitigated by Assumption no.1

When the content calendar went pear-shaped and the client took the problem to GTD, I felt that I had failed them – at least on that task – and I had. Now that the project has been successfully completed, I see that if I had taken the time not just to understand the users, the resources, the stock schedules, the website, and the wins and fails of their content, but also to understand the ideology of the organisation, the stuff they believe in and don’t believe in terms of management and getting things done, I may well have spotted the need for a consultation with GTD long before we got there. I may also have been able to suggest and plan it into the schedule and the budget.

At the end of the day it has been a successful project and, even with the calendar-inspired hiccup, the client remained happy and cooperative throughout (perhaps it’s the yoga). The fact that all worked out well means that I could simply sweep the bungle under the rug. I do however feel that on another project and in another set of circumstances, a mini-mistake like this could have become a real ‘stick in the wheel’.

Last thoughts for now…

It seems that in every project there’s a little lesson or two to be learned that shouldn’t be overlooked and, you might need to take the time to listen over the bigger noise of communications to realise what those lessons are. In terms of this project, the problem was not necessarily in the content calendar or documentation; I feel, on a more subtle level, that the problem stemmed from not taking the time to find out more about how the people who would use the content strategy think and how they do things. It’s not about them using Excel, Microsoft Mail, or GCal, it’s about how they use and feel about these systems, if they have a system at all.

In being a Content Strategist I realise that I need to remember to take the time to move beyond the more gross and bullish, albeit useful, tools of audits, workflow charts, and specifications. We are at the end of the day not only working with data and systems but with people (and their ideologies) too.


  1. Interesting. It is like there are two ‘users’ to consider in this Content Strategy work. Not just the end user, your client’s (website) user, but then there is your user, your Client, who is to use the CS work themselves.

  2. Exactly and nicely put. I was in the midst of writing a very long and enthusiastic response to you about the process of documentation and the ideals and aims I think all document producers should be aiming for when, my elbow slipped, the browser tab closed, and the comment was lost. Bummer. Thanks though, you’ve inspired some thought and several nights of writing!

Add your thoughts