Content strategy is a phrase that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
For some, it’s a rigorous, drawn-out process that can take months to complete. For others, it’s a handful of slides. Or worse, whatever it takes for the client to sign off the annual retainer. It usually depends on the agency or in-house team you’re working with.
Product management, by comparison, is more standardized. And arguably more sophisticated. It relies on a range of frameworks and models that help product managers:
Steve Messer is a product manager on GOV.UK, the United Kingdom’s online portal. As user bases go, GOV.UK is pretty massive. On a typical day, it gets around 4.9 million sessions from 3.5 million unique users.
Steve agreed to talk me through a handful of product management practices that would benefit any content strategist or creator. If you have questions or want to learn more about anything mentioned below, you can contact or follow Steve on Twitter at @StevenJMesser.
Product managers are serious about user research. It’s one of the key parts of their role. And they don’t just comb the internet for stats to drop into their decks. They survey users on a regular basis to find out what they’re thinking and how their product could be improved.
Why is this so important? Steve says, “You don’t want to spend time building the wrong thing. That’s a lot of wasted effort. For example, you could build an app which solved a problem you’ve been having for years -- but without establishing whether anyone else needs that problem solved, you’ll just have wasted a ton of money."
“Proper research can help you build the right thing, but it can also help you build it right. A good mantra for product development is ‘You are not the user,’ which reminds you that not everyone sees the world the same way. It’s important to understand the diversity of your user base.”
An interesting distinction Steve talked me through was how product managers differentiate generative and evaluative research.
“Generative research helps you define the problems to solve, and evaluative research helps you work out how well you’ve solved those problems.”
Marketers and product managers alike review quantitative data on a regular basis so they can keep track of user behavior and performance. But I wondered how often Steve’s team surveyed their users to gain qualitative insights.
“We try to hold research sessions with users once every two weeks, which helps us stay current and pick up on changes in user behavior.”
Cherry-picking stats that back up assumptions that you’ve already made.
Having real-life conversations with users on a regular basis to find out more about them.
Any content marketer who has launched a new domain or brand knows how hard it can be. Things take a while to get going. Often, you spend your first few months publishing content that gets seen by next to no one. It’s pretty crushing.
Product managers share our pain. They’re well-versed in launching apps and startups from scratch. And, true to form, they have a methodology of their own for identifying and reeling in those precious “early adopters.”
“Early adopters will help your idea get off the ground,” Steve says. “They’re usually people very interested in the area you’re working in, so they’re happy to answer questions and test things, in return for being one of the first people to use a new product.”
A great way to onboard early adopters is during your user research phase.
“Start off any new project with at least 20 customer interviews. That’ll give you a good idea of what to create and who it’s for. A great question to ask at the end of interviews is: ‘Is there anyone else you think we should speak to who’d be interested in what we’re doing?’ Most people who are passionate about something will know others who are too. Then you can build a community around what you’re doing.”
So, where can we find these people?
“Figure out where they’ll be and speak to them -- and not necessarily online. This might mean speaking to people outside a supermarket, near a travel agency, on the bus, or on forums”
Staring at your analytics wishing someone would visit your new site.
Figuring out where your early adopters hang out, contacting them, and asking for introductions.
Product managers are serious about roadmaps. And it turns out they hate it when people confuse Gantt charts with roadmaps. Steve explains:
“It’s really annoying when people confuse roadmaps for Gantt charts. A Gantt chart shows what you’re going to deliver by what date, but that doesn’t always work out in the agile world. A roadmap shows what value you’ll create for users now, next, and later. A Gantt chart assumes that the solution has been perfectly scoped and built upfront, but the agile world is all about starting small and iterating. For that reason, you can’t really pin a date on things.”
So, why is having a roadmap so important? Steve explains, “It’s a good communication device. It tells your users, your team, and your stakeholders what value you’re going to create in what order. A roadmap can show your strategy for achieving the organization’s goals. It helps everyone understand how what you’re doing now relates to future work and priorities.”
When asked if he has any tips for content teams wishing to build more meaningful roadmaps, he says, “Start off with 3 columns: Now, Next and Later. In the first column, write all the pieces of work you’ll need to do now to make your users happy. These are your high-priority tasks. In the second column, write everything you’ll need to do in the future to keep them happy. Or anything you couldn’t fit in the first column. In the final column, write everything you’ll probably need to do at some point to keep adding value over time.”
“It’s that simple,” Steve explains. “Use a spreadsheet, a piece of paper, Post-its on a wall, a Trello board, anything your team and stakeholders can access easily.”
Focusing on when you’ll deliver things instead of what value you will create.
Sequencing events based on what your users want, instead of what your marketing calendar dictates.
Product managers sit at the intersection of the business, the users, and the development team. As a result, they’re often fielding a lot of requests.
This makes prioritization a key part of the job. You should be able to identify the highest-value tasks to make in order to allocate your time effectively.
“We focus on delivering the right thing in the right way, which means we’re constantly making prioritization decisions. One way we do that is using Value/Effort scoring, a simple technique for working out whether it’s worth doing something based on how much effort it will take you and what you’ll get back.”
How does it work? Start off by drawing a four-point axis, like this:
Then, plot the requests or tickets that are currently live against it. Tasks that fall into the top-left quadrant are high priority. Tasks that fall in the bottom-right quadrant are low priority.
Prioritizing tasks based on the level of value they create for the user and how much effort is required.
User stories are a great way of bringing your user research to life.
Most marketers recognize these as being pretty similar to personas. However, I think user stories articulate a groups’ preferences and needs in a more human way, because they’re written in the first person. And, because they’re more concise, they can be stuck up on the wall to keep them front of mind.
“User stories are there to remind you that the work you’re doing is for real people, to help them solve real problems,” Steve says. “As the stories are written from the user’s perspective, their needs really come through.”
So how do you write a useful user story? Follow this simple structure:
“As a [type of user]I need[to use a product or feature]so that I[can achieve a goal/receive value/complete a task].”
Steve explains, “Once user stories have been written based on our research, we’ll bring these into team design sessions where we co-design a solution. Once we’ve estimated how much effort it will take to create that thing, we’ll bring the user story into a development sprint to be built and released.”
Turning your personas into users stories, sticking them up on the wall, and referring to them in your brainstorms.
This is less sophisticated than the others, but no less essential.
When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to lose track of the vision, the strategy, and the end goal. But as soon as this happens, you’re more likely to waste time. Keeping your roadmaps and user stories on the wall for everyone to see is a great way to counter this.
Steve says, “We’ll usually keep our roadmap near the team area, stuck up on a wall for others to see. This means we can point to it and remind the team of our strategy and why we’re doing what we’re doing. But it also allows us to move tasks around as needed.”
“You might expect digital teams to work purely with digital tools, but having something tangible really helps get things out of your head.”
Letting your precious roadmaps and user stories gather dust on Google Drive.
Printing them out and sticking them up for all the team to see.
So, there you have it -- six product management practices that will benefit any content team or marketing department.