Last month Lacey Kruger kicked off the first in a series of blog posts on content strategy that she and I will be posting with the excellent Content is King. Her post is a great primer on why it’s so crucial to pay attention to content on your web site. It’s important to focus on the visual and structural aspects of website design – layout, color schemes, navigation – but if you don’t have quality content to actually put into all of the wonderful templates and designs you have developed your site will not be that effective. This month I’ll be describing a strategy document you can use to focus your website content on the things that matter.
This document is called a “message hierarchy” and at its simplest it’s nothing more than a prioritized list of what you would like people to “grok” after visiting your site (science fiction geeks and fellow travelers will recognize the word grok from Heinlen’s Stranger in a Strange Land. To grok something means not only to understand it, but to understand why it matters, and more importantly to understand why it matters to you specifically.) By explicitly stating what you’re trying to communicate with your website, you’ll be in a much better place to evaluate whether your content is moving you towards that goal.
A message hierarchy consists of the following four buckets:
- Primary Message: This is the single most important thing you want the user to learn. This message supports all of your business objectives, and should speak to all of your core audiences. Think of your primary message as the elevator speech you are giving to site visitors – you don’t have a lot of time to tell them what you’re all about, so you need to give them the big idea in a way that they will understand immediately.
- Secondary Messages: These messages elaborate on and support your primary message. You don’t need to rank these in a general order of priority, but it does help to think about which secondary messages speak more directly to specific audiences. Each secondary message should map to at least two key business objectives
- Details: All the information that proves your messages. If you think of your primary and secondary messages as the statements that you want other people to accept, then details are the data and hard facts which support your assertions.
- Calls to Action: These are all the things you want people to do after they grok your messages.
It’s important to remember as you’re going through this exercise that your messages are not your content. What do I mean by that? You don’t need to spend an enormous amount of time wordsmithing your messaging and getting the phrasing just right, because your online audience is rarely (if ever) going to see your message hierarchy. The only standard for quality is that it is clearly written and people within your organization can understand it.
Once you’ve taken some time to map out your message hierarchy, there are a number of ways in which you can put it to work for your organization:
- Create an effective tagline: Taglines are a great vehicle for communicating your organization’s primary message. Basically a tagline is a quick “what we do” statement that immediately communicates to site visitors your organization’s purpose. Here are some of my favorites:
- Evaluate your content: Take your message hierarchy and walk through key pages on your site – the homepage, landing pages, and pages with high levels of traffic. Are they doing a good job communicating your primary message? What secondary messages are they communicating?
- Make sure everyone is on the same page: Distribute the message hierarchy to people in your organization responsible for creating content. Use it as a common language for all of your online content and outbound communication.
Hopefully the above exercises have given you some concrete ideas for how you can begin creating and using message hierarchies in your organization. As with all strategic documents, the point of message hierarchies is to be mindful and purposive about your objectives so that you have an agreed upon yardstick to measure your success.
Comic reprinted with permission from xkcd.com.
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