Last summer, during the three weeks that pneumonia grounded me and confined me to my bed, I decided the best way I could truly relax (once I exhausted the first two seasons of “30 Rock”) was to finally read the Harry Potterseries — to chill out with some lightweight kids’ books.
More than a year later I’m still picking my way through the series. I’ve come to realize they’re more formidable than I’d given them credit for being. They’re also so much smarter than I expected, and as a writer I’m fascinated by the J.K Rowling’s wonderful imagination. (Not to mention how funny she is. Yes, I finally understand why she’s a baziliionaire; it only took me several years longer than everyone else in the universe to get it.)
One of my favorite devices in the book is the Marauder’s Map, the live-action map that shows its owner who is prowling around Hogwarts at any given moment. I always have loved stories with maps — when I was a kid I was drawn to books that featured maps of their fictional town or place. I would spend hours staring at them, imagining the characters moving around inside their little worlds as the details of their lives unfurled.
I think of a website content plan as a sort of Marauder’s Map. I like to imagine how people make their entrance — whether stepping wide-eyed through the grand double-doors that creak open in ceremonious welcome, or sneaking in through a back kitchen door left propped open. Once they’re inside, where do they go? Which corridor will they take? Are they in search of mischief — a professor’s office to snoop through, a refrigerator to raid? Are they there as a guest of a ball or a sporting event? Or are they simply trying to get to class on time?
Choose your own adventure
The best thing about content strategy is that it’s a chance to stand above the map, look down, and think about the big picture. Once you see the whole world laid out before you, you have to then start thinking about the people who will live within that world and the choices they will make.
We often design user flows to work through complex functionality and applications, but I like to think about user flows in terms of content. Based on the problems people are trying to solve, what how can we make sure people get a sense of the whole adventure (the brand story) while being given the cues and messages they need exactly at the point they need to make a decision about what to do next.
For this I use message mapping. It helps me:
- Tell the story holistically. Narratives are told piece by piece, but there has to be an overarching theme, idea and structure. Message mapping ensures that a brand’s key messages remain the underlying framework of every single piece of content on the site — and that everything we write is in context with the brand message.
- Determine the right substance of each specific page. We can anticipate that as users navigate through a site, they get closer to making decisions. Message mapping help us trace that decision-making process and provide the support content necessary to guide people in the right direction.
- Offer up relevant content and strategic cross-linking. People may come to the site for one reason, but it’s beneficial for everyone if they end up other areas as well — whether it’s shopping other products, discovering the support community, or finding original content that educates and enriches their experience. Message mapping helps us see the big picture in order to establish these relevant links and more effectively usher people around the site. They’ll stay longer, which ultimately means they’re more likely to buy something or engage.
- Plan the right calls to action. “CTAs” are often one of the weakest area of a website — but they’re important. A message map helps us think about them strategically instead of making them up as we go along (or worse, forgetting them altogether.)
- Pay particular attention to places where people might get stuck. Whether we have good analytics that show dramatic dropoff rates or we know our sales cycle well enough to understand where the sales process breaks down, we can use message mapping to properly head off objections and overcome barriers before they happen, and then deliver supporting content to get visitors over the big humps.
Staying on the grid
Before we create the messaging map, first we need a messaging framework. It’s often surprising to me how this often doesn’t exist for a company; I’m more often than not building at least a basic set of key messages for a brand before beginning the website project.
Then, we need to determine how to organize and label the content in a site map. Once that’s nailed down, I create a content matrix based on the site map, and it’s there that I start mapping messaging. That’s right. My Marauder’s Map is a trusty Excel spreadsheet.
I work through the content matrix plotting key messages and determining any specific messages or points. I use a separate column just for the call to action, so that it doesn’t get short shrift. SEO is an important part of this too — a message map helps us start thinking about the specific keyphrases that correspond with a customer’s stage in the cycle and what they might be looking for or concerned about in a specific place.
A message map creates an exhaustive amount of work to do before the actual writing begins, but when I do start writing copy it’s a much better process, because I know exactly what page needs to convey and achieve. It’s why I start every web content project, whether it involves 10 pages or hundreds, with a message map that frames everything.