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Content Strategy Message Hierarchy Explained: Who’s in Charge Here?

Recently I was putting together the final touches of a Content Strategy for one of our clients. Several coworkers had spent weeks and weeks conducting consumer research about our client's target audience. I'd spent hours with our client learning about their sales process, their company culture, their goals and their value proposition. I then went back and reviewed the results from our consumer research and compared them to the notes I had from our client meetings.

by Beth PopNikolov

I was finishing up one of our major deliverables of Content Strategy which helps our clients align their content with their business goals, and includes multiple message types:*

  • A Core Content Strategy Statement - This is essentially the target at which all content should be aimed or measured by.
  • The Primary Message - What makes your organization different from your competition.
  • Target Audience Message - What each audience will walk away from the site knowing about the client.
  • Voice - The personality of the brand.
  • Tone - This will flex based on each page and how a user will feel on said page or where the user is in the sales funnel.

I was nearly done with the Content Strategy document when our Lead Strategist asked me, “How do these messages all work together?"

I had to really stop and think. Writing is so second nature to me that I'd never really considered how all the pieces worked together. Yet here I was about to dump all this information on the client and then leave them to sort out the puzzle all by themselves.

We needed a way to visually represent the message hierarchy that would clearly show clients how the deliverables of Content Strategy work together to help them create the type of content they want. The visual representation would also help clients see that what we're giving them are tools, not rules.

And thus the sketch was born.

Fiberon Content Strategy2

Allow me to explain.

First the Primary Message is the head of the house. Your Primary Message is short and sweet and something that if you could Inception your consumers, this is what they would think about your company. It won't be written out word for word, it will be implied through the way your content is written and by what your content says.

Next up, each Target Audience will have its own message (also inception-ed) throughout the site. Our Project Manager Joe says "It's what a consumer would tell their friend about your company after visiting your site." It's a sound bite of your main selling features that appeal to each audience, which is a smaller bite than the primary message.

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All these messages are communicated through your Brand's Voice. The voice of your content is like the personality of your brand. Here are a few quick thoughts to consider before diving into creating a voice:

  • Do you want to be scholarly, casual, upbeat, irreverent, empathetic, academic?
  • Who would your audience want to hear from?
  • What voice is going to make them believe what you're saying?

(Actually creating a brand voice is a very involved process and another article entirely. Stay tuned. That one's coming soon.)

Tone is in its own little dotted box because tone flexes and changes based on the page, what the user expects from the page and where the user is in the client's sales funnel at the time they are on the page.

Finally, the Core Content Strategy Statement (CCSS) like a never-ending checkbox that floats next to every line. It's your measuring stick for each piece of content, each page, each paragraph. At any time you should be able to read a block of text, reread the CCSS and say "Check. That content matches with the goals outlined in the CCSS."

So the CCSS and the messaging are constantly going back and forth as a type of checks and balances to make sure that the content on your site and the aim of your content always line up with the goals of your overall digital strategy.

At our Agency, offering clients deliverables is a major priority. We want our clients to feel like their time with us is well spent. We want to leave them with tools to help them successfully achieve their business goals long after their website redesign project is complete.

However, I learned an important lesson on this project. Deliverables are not enough. Yes, I will always hand Content Strategy documents to clients who have that as part of their project. But, we cannot expect clients, or anyone for that matter, to instinctively understand how to use brand new tools that they've never worked with before.

My hope now is that not only do we offer clear strategies to lead our clients to success, but that we also bring practical ways of immediately applying those strategies so they will have continued success at achieving their digital and business goals.


* Major shout out to Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach for their book Content Strategy for the Web. Without them I would know nothing.

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