Marketers are proficient in using a content engagement cycle, a practice for deciding when to engage whom with what kind of content during the customer journey. They plan months, quarters and even years in advance to create a content strategy that aligns with business goals and engages their audience pre- and post-sale.
L&D professionals on the other hand, often think about each training session or learning program singularly instead of looking at the overall learner experience. Mapping out the learner lifecycle and assigning content that engages them along the way not only helps create unforgettable learning experiences but also aids in the transfer of knowledge after a training session ends. Let’s take a page out of marketing’s playbook and treat content as a business asset in order to create engaging and thought-provoking content, plan well in advance and drive performance.
According to Kristina Halvorson, CEO and founder of content strategy agency Brain Traffic, content strategy is the “creation, publication and governance of useful, usable content.” It looks at content, which can be written matter, images or multimedia, as a business asset. Ultimately, having a content strategy helps create meaningful, engaging and sustainable content and allows you to identify the right content at the right time for the right audience.
In addition to determining what content exists, what content should be created and, more important, why it should be created, putting measurements in place allows you to see what content is in high demand and sheds light on how content is being accessed.
Where to Begin
Before creating content or a content strategy template, establishing a framework in which to embed that content is essential.
A starting and reference point for establishing this framework is Brain Traffic’s Content Strategy Quad infographic. At the center of the quad is the core content strategy, the overall approach for using content to achieve an organization’s business goals — or in this case, L&D’s goals. To achieve that strategy, four critical components must be addressed:
- Substance: What kind of content do we need (topics, types, sources, voice, tone)? Substance fulfills business objectives by meeting the audience’s needs.
- Structure: How is content prioritized, organized, formatted and displayed? Structure makes content findable and usable.
- Workflow: What processes, tools and human resources are required for content initiatives? Workflow creates efficiencies across content properties.
- Governance: How are key decisions about content and content strategy made (policies, standards, guidelines)? Governance empowers, facilitates and aligns.
For example, consider a content strategy that aligns training initiatives with quarterly product releases (substance/topic). One part of this could be an internal excitement strategy (structure) run by the marketing department (workflow), and another part is the actual face-to-face training session accompanied by hands-on exercises and role plays run by L&D. The content is provided by product managers and maintained by the L&D department (governance).
Once the framework is in place, the next step is creating an actionable and reusable content strategy template. The purpose of a template is to align all stakeholders in the organization to focus on creating the right content for your audience based on the four core components.
Whether the content strategy template lives in a Google Sheet or is more elaborate, leveraging cloud-based project management tools, think about the elements that need to be covered to reach organizational goals. Each organization’s content strategy template will be different and will evolve over time, but areas to consider might include topic/theme, stage of employee lifecycle, description, target audience, objectives, delivery channels, media used, maintenance cycle and key performance indicators, to name a few.
Meeting with stakeholders and thinking through these considerations can help an organization create the right content for the right audience at the right time — and that content will also be reusable.
Implementing a Content Strategy
When faced with a new initiative, L&D professionals don’t always think about content as a standalone element within the initiative. They often create learning based on the ADDIE model — analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation — which may be an outdated approach when the goal is to give training a boost and make changes to an organization’s bottom line. Nevertheless, it is a starting point, and used in combination with the following seven steps for creating a content strategy, it can help leverage content as a business asset.
Identify learning content requirements. Explore whether training is needed and, if it is, what content will help fill the gap. For example, assume that, after successful completion of onboarding, staff still doesn’t perform as expected. Analyzing the reasoning behind this by interviewing stakeholders, gathering historic documentation, looking at data and evaluating the content environment (i.e., where and how the content is being consumed) will lay the foundation for a content strategy. Data is often only looked at after a training has ended, which means L&D professionals are missing out on crucial information such as best time to push content or how many times content has been shared.
Develop a sourcing strategy. Following ADDIE, L&D professionals typically dive into the design of a course. When it comes to the content life cycle, an additional step should be added to determine topical ownership areas and processes for content creation. For example, who writes content for staff onboarding versus content for process updates? How is content being maintained and how can it be it used for future training? To achieve this, it is best to develop a sourcing plan outlining human resources such as SMEs, experts in a particular field, graphic designers, etc., who are needed to create content. This is where the four core components of content strategy come into play again and content needs to be developed according to the organization’s business goals.
Develop the content plan. After strategizing, L&D professionals will either realize they have everything they need or that some sources are missing. For example, they might want to recommend staffing solutions to help write content or bring in a specialist. Most important, create a communication plan that includes responsibilities and timelines for everyone, as well as content or LMS distribution and customization. Use any of the free online project management tools available to help plan this stage and work collaboratively with the team.
Create structured and engaging content that is reusable. For example, content for process updates will most likely find its way to the onboarding program. If marketing created an e-book for clients, leverage this and create engaging webinars for staff. Collaborate with co-workers who are responsible for writing such content. After strategizing and planning, this step will feel less cumbersome and decrease production time. Go back to the data from step 1 and identify the ideal length of content and where it will be accessed. Optimize content for online or face-to-face delivery, or both.
Deliver the right content at the right time and place. For example, not everyone needs to attend the latest product update training if they are already aware of the content and using this knowledge successfully. For learners who do need training, identify how they will access it: online, on their desktops or tablets, or via face-to-face sessions. Leverage historical data, Google Analytics, the company’s learning platform or intranet metrics to identify how, and how often, content is being accessed. Push content at times when a learner is most aware to increase engagement rates.
Measure training success using both ADDIE and a content strategy measure. For example, is staff able to talk about the newest product update and decrease call duration times based on receiving the right content at the right time? The best way to create successful measures is to align them with business objectives and ensure they are realistic and attainable. If the training doesn’t hit the mark, the content wasn’t on par and needs to be revisited. It is important, though, to look at the content itself, not the overall training, and to use learning platform data to better understand when content is being accessed, where learners drop off and how they access content. In the end, the content might be spot on but the delivery time or mechanism isn’t. A pure ADDIE evaluation will not reveal this crucial information.
Keep content fresh and up to date. Maintenance is a step hidden in the evaluation stage of the ADDIE model and is often overlooked. Identify one person to be responsible for the content strategy (though it should live in a central space where it can be accessed by all team members), plan for periodic audits, continuously improve high-value learning content and set regular intervals for maintenance. Maintenance also means removing content completely if it didn’t hit the mark and wasn’t consumed as expected. If the first cohort of learners did not leverage the content as expected, the second cohort likely won’t either unless something has been changed.
Tips and Tricks
There are a few simple steps to begin creating and implementing a content strategy:
· Step 1: Create a content task force. Most organizations have an abundance of content with no central repository or one person responsible for maintaining it. Get all stakeholders together, including instructional designers, facilitators, copywriters and someone from marketing.
· Step 2: Summarize what already exists. Create the aforementioned content strategy template. List existing content and content that is being used on a regular basis.
· Step 3: Repurpose content. Think about upcoming training initiatives, look at existing content, and mark reusable pieces. This will help identify current gaps and show what additional content is needed to drive performance.
ADDIE gives us some basics when it comes to a content strategy lifecycle. By adding additional steps such as topical ownership, voice, branding and a maintenance plan, everyone can be a great content creator.
Start advancing content strategy planning and think beyond repurposing content. Content marketing platform Curata suggests that 65 percent of content should be created from scratch, 25 percent should be curated and 10 percent should be syndicated.
Keep in mind who contributes to each step and how those different contributors come together to define the final product. There is value in including multiple perspectives on deliverables by inviting other departments and specialists to the team. In the end, we don’t create content for ourselves, but for learners.
Additionally, use data wherever possible. Instead of waiting to evaluate until training has ended, get in the habit of using data to create training in the first place.
Learners will have a preferred time to access content, a preferred medium and an average time in which they consume training. This information is crucial to timing content delivery.
Modern learners want information at their fingertips. A thorough content strategy will help identify exactly what content is needed to drive each individual’s performance.
Put measurements in place, such as video views or click-through rates, and leverage learning platform metrics to see which content is in high demand. Don’t be afraid to delete content, but recycle whenever possible.
Most important, always keep the learner journey in mind. This will help create learning experiences that stick.
Bianca Baumann, CTDP, M.Sc., is director, Learning Experience Design, at GP Strategies Canada.