Classic Content Strategy Mistake: In Which I Share My Red Face and Moment of Shame

Posted By on January 8, 2014

scarlet letter awarded for content strategy mistake

Everybody has their moment of shame. Emily Warn shares her content strategy mistake in creating a taxonomy that ignored context.

I’ll explain my blunder, but first a little background, which I’ve generalized for client privacy.

The Assignment: Developing a Content Strategy for a Worldwide Sales Organization

The client is a sales team within a global corporation. Almost 80% of the people are deployed worldwide with the remaining 20% working at headquarters. The people in the field depend on the people at headquarters to deliver the right content at the right time. This busy sales force has no time to search for a presentation or anything else when racing off to a pitch meeting.

This seemed like a pretty simple scenario to develop a content strategy around. The first two steps of organizing a content strategy went smoothly:

  • We gathered information about the client’s business goals, including identifying obstacles and analyzing their competitors.
  • We defined the types of content (topics and/or formats) that would be delivered to particular audiences in specific contexts, e.g., datasheets for closing a deal with a customer.

Here are some specific things I learned (generalized to protect the client):

  • The company has a well-defined internal and external audience: a sales staff selling devices to companies who could potentially also become partners
  • The company’s content is provided within a clear context: all content is delivered within the sales process: for example, pitch decks for selling to potential customers, branded assets to ensure the content retains the company’s look and feel, and more.
  • The company has a very clear business goal for the website and related social media: Make it super easy to find well-conceived content that will help sales people hit their numbers.

Taxonomy is a Highfalutin’ Word for Logical Classification

The information I gathered provided the foundation for developing a taxonomy–a fancy name for classifying content into logical categories. Here are some of the categories that we used:

  • Audience, e.g., sales staff vs. corporate staff
  • Format, e.g., webinar vs. text
  • Type e.g., whitepaper vs. datasheet
  • Source e.g., marketing team vs., field
  • Task e.g., pitching vs. reporting
  • Delivery channel e.g., website vs. Twitter

My Moment of Shame: Don’t Get Buyoff Once! Circle Back Twice!

Getting buy-off for any taxonomy is as critical as creating it in the first place. Why? Because content classification is the foundation for defining the user experience—the navigation, design, and search on the website and other channels–and for guiding content development.

Getting that buy-off is where I went sideways.

One team within the larger group is responsible for running the business, which in a sales organization primarily means gathering and reporting numbers at regular intervals. Their content requirements seemed straightforward when I first met with them: define clear navigation pointing to private folders where team leaders could upload data and find reports.

I worked with the sales force on creating the navigation and setting up secure folders, and thought all was good. A week or so before launch, I showed everybody the website prototype and asked how their content was coming along.

I was met with blank stares and then frustration. “We haven’t told you what content we need, and now there’s no time before launch to create it.”

“Uh, O.K.,” I said, and pulled out the taxonomy to refresh my memory about what they requested.

Content Categories Do Not Equal Content

My mistake was immediately clear. The categories in the taxonomy were too high-level for this team’s content needs. I had assumed all they needed were restricted folders where the field could upload data in Excel spreadsheets and the corporate team could crunch and analyze the data, then upload the reports.

Those were correct assumptions, but what I overlooked is the CONTEXT within which each team creates and shares content. I remembered to do that for the sales team; we worked together to figure out which type of content corresponded to which stage in the sales process. But I had failed to identify, or even think about, a similar CONTEXT for corporate staff. It turns out that each piece of data that they gather and/or report is part of a business process.

Patch Job

We got back to work and quickly amended the taxonomy and user interface to mirror additional content categories. Thankfully, there were only five separate business processes and most were clear-cut.
Needless to say, my face was red.

I looked back to analyze what went haywire on a human or organizational level, rather than on a process level. I learned that I can never forget that I’m the content expert guiding teams who do not think about content every second of their day. I had reviewed the content categories in the taxonomy with them–I even set up a card sort with them to ensure relevance of the categories. BUT I failed to think about context, context, context.

As every content strategist knows, once you broaden the context, new content categories emerge. “Oh, so you want a tool that helps you identify who has an outstanding task? An embedded Excel web-app can do that. I’ll show you how.” And so on.

Luckily, the folks on the team are amiable. Luckily, it was easy to fix the mistake. Numbers, after all, are not as squirrely as sentences, and Excel spreadsheets are not as fancy as infographics.


Ok, I’ve shared my moment of shame. What’s yours? I ask because mistakes are often the best teachers; you don’t ever want to forget what you learned.