Content strategy: the back to basics guide

We’re going back to basics with a simple guide to help you understand content strategy: what it is, why it matters, what it covers, and beyond.
A Roy Lichtenstein inspired painting of compass on background of mismatched patterns
In this guide

What content strategy is

Let’s start with a definition:

"Content strategy is planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content."

I like it because it highlights that content strategy is about the why and the how, rather than just the what. If you don’t know why you’re creating the content, or how you’re going to do it, you’re doing ad hoc content, not strategic content.

Why you need a content strategy

Having a solid content strategy (and following it) will ensure your content is:

  • purposeful and well-planned out
  • audience-focused
  • consistent and high-quality
  • produced and managed in an efficient way
  • aligned to your organisation’s goals

When your content is all of those things, it will:

  • create a better experience for your users
  • make a positive contribution to your organisation’s goals

Things to know about content strategy

Strategy isn’t inherently complicated

Don’t be intimidated by the ‘strategy’ part of content strategy. I see a lot of gatekeeping and over-intellectualisation of strategy, and that’s really off-putting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough to create a content strategy, but it’s not inherently complicated or difficult.

Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, says that a good strategy is:

‘A set of actions that is credible, coherent and focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s) in achieving a particular objective’

To create a strategy, all you need to do is gather data and insights so you can make educated assumptions about what to do and what not to do. Which is pretty straightforward, right?

It’s about bringing the user and the organisation together

A content strategy is all about finding the thing that unites what your users need or want and what your organisation has to offer. You’re looking for the sweet spot at the intersection of the two — that’s where you’ll get the best return for the lowest effort.

It’s an umbrella

It might help to think of content strategy as an umbrella — it should cover all your content. You don’t need different content strategies for your blog, for TikTok, for Instagram, etc. You have one consistent strategy for all your content, plus a set of specific guidelines on the purpose and execution for your different channels within it.

It’s not a document

A content strategy is not a document. Yes, you need to document it, but you also need to do it — every working day. If you just have the document, nothing will happen. You also need to share it, socialise it, talk about it, and make it a part of your platforms, templates, tools, and meetings. And then you need to talk about it some more for good measure.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

In a similar vein, you can’t knock out a content strategy and execute it in a matter of weeks or months. You might be able to pull it together in that timeframe, but executing it will take longer. It depends on the kind of organisation and the ambition of the team, but I usually suggest a 2–5 year strategic horizon.

It’s not set in stone

A content strategy isn’t rigid or permanent: it should evolve. It’s a journey — you start with an idea of your destination and move towards it with intention. But you might adjust your route, or even your end point, based on all the things you learn as you go.

What goes into a content strategy

We’re going back to Content Strategy for the Web for this, too. The book has a model — the Content Strategy Quad — that breaks down what content strategy‌ covers in a way that’s easy to understand. It’s made up of:



The kinds of content you’ll create and the messages it will share. This includes:

  • Topics: the subject matter your content will cover
  • Content types: the different kinds and formats of content you’ll create
  • Sources: where you’re going to get your content from


How content is prioritised, organised, formatted and displayed. This includes:

  • Information architecture: how content is organised, structured, and labelled on your website
  • Content modelling: a document that defines all of your content types, breaks them down into the granular parts, and captures the relationships between them.



How you’ll go about creating your content. This includes:

  • Processes: for each step of the content lifecyle
  • Tools and/or platforms: where you’ll do the work/use to help with the work
  • People and roles: who will do what


How you make and communicate decisions. This includes:

  • Policies: the big ideas or pillars at the heart of your content strategy.
  • Principles: the ideals and ways of working you want to uphold.

(By the way, Brain Traffic has updated the content strategy quad, but I still use the old one. See the updated quad here.)

How to create a content strategy

This is a very brief description of the long, tough process of crafting a content strategy:

1. Discover

  • Departure point: Find out where you are by doing user, stakeholder, and competitor/comparator research and writing, work out what big challenges and opportunities you’re going to address
  • Destination: Set your strategic vision, the end point you’re working towards

2. Plan

  • Compass: the north star and compass points to help you navigate and make decisions; your guiding policies and principles
  • Waypoints: the things you want to achieve on the way; things you need to do to get to your destination

3. Move

  • Directions: a set of coherent, prioritise actions to get you to your way points
  • Learning: how you’ll gather and analyse data and feed the insight back into your strategy and plan

This based on Richard Rumlet’s strategy ‘kernel’ from the book mentioned earlier.

Content strategy canvas

Demystify content strategy. If you’ve got no idea where to start with creating a content strategy document, this canvas is for you. This toolkit includes a canvas worksheet and lots of notes and tips to help you complete it.

What content strategists do

What a content strategist does varies a lot, depending on where they work and how where they work defines content strategy.

However, this article from Working in Content has a really useful overview that rings true based on my experience, and links to example job descriptions:

  • Define key brand messages for content
  • Create and communicate a content value proposition
  • Establish content workflow, management and governance
  • Create and disseminate content standards documents, such as style, tone of voice, and accessibility guidelines
  • Prioritise, plan, deliver, promote and maintain content for multiple channels and audiences
  • Brief colleagues and delegate content tasks
  • Content project management
  • Conduct stakeholder interviews
  • Carry out user research and usability testing
  • Create and work with audience personas
  • Map content to stages in the user journey
  • Perform content audits and keep a detailed and up-to-date inventory
  • Carry out competitor analysis
  • Identify gaps and opportunities in content
  • Find opportunities to rework and reuse existing content
  • Information architecture: Create content models, and give recommendations for taxonomy and metadata
  • Optimise content in line with SEO best practices, carry out keyword research
  • Create and manage editorial calendars
  • Publishing to Content Management Systems
  • Use analytics tools to monitor content traffic, engagement, leads and conversions after content is published

The difference between content content strategy and content design

To round things off, let’s look at the difference between content strategy and content design. Because while they’re closely related, they’re not the same thing at all.

 Content strategyContent design
  • Responsible for the overarching plan and vision for managing, creating and maintaining content
  • Might not ever do any content creation
  • All content on all channels
  • Long-term planning
  • Responsible for designing content to meet specific user needs. 
  • Likely to do a lot of content creation
  • Individual products, services, pieces of content
  • Iterative and responsive to immediate user needs and requirements
  • Get all the right content to the right person in the right place at the right time to achieve the org’s goals
  • Create content that solves user problems

Content strategy canvas

Demystify content strategy. If you’ve got no idea where to start with creating a content strategy document, this canvas is for you. This toolkit includes a canvas worksheet and lots of notes and tips to help you complete it.

More posts

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