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17 Feb 2015

Strategy, Strategy, Strategy

By Scott Smith

Strategy. Strategy strategy strategy. I wonder how many times I’ve said that word in my career. Tens of thousands? I sometimes feel like Bubba talking about shrimp in Forrest Gump.

I even love the sound of the word. I love brand strategy, marketing strategy — and content strategy most of all. I could eat it at every meal. My name is Scott, and I’m a strategist. I vowed to utter the word strategy at least 100 times every day, so this article helps me meet my quota.

But here’s the thing about strategy: Don’t try to define it unless you have nothing planned for the rest of the day. There are too many variations, too many ways to slice it. But there’s one truism: strategy is separate from what the end user sees. Sometimes that makes it difficult to justify from a budgetary standpoint.

I cut my teeth in the design world doing branded environments and interactive installations. It was clear that if allowed to, complexity will take over a project. Building a solid strategy at the start always meant that the final experience was simpler and easy to understand, which made the end-user happier.

In 2012, I was working at an agency, and I published an article in the venerable information architecture magazine Boxes & Arrows called “Content Strategy — in 3D!” that described how this worked on a representative large interactive project.

In the article I explain that we built a solid strategic foundation around audience and messaging, which allowed us to develop a great creative concept while considering content, budget, and materials.

Revisiting the article recently, I was struck by how true that is for all of the projects we do at Smith & Connors, whether we’re working on branding or digital design. It got me thinking if I could break it down even more simply.


First and foremost, you have to know your Audience. That can mean doing tons of primary research, interviewing prospectives, looking at analytics — you can go really deep, depending on time and budget.

You can also get pretty far by paying attention, listening closely, and using your own powers of empathy to ask: What do these people want? Are they in a hurry? Do they have patience? How do they find what they’re looking for? What motivates them to act?

Often, we make assumptions, and then do a bunch of research, and find that the findings are very similar. That’s good — it confirms you’re on the right track.


What do you want to say? Have a strong, confident point of view, and a solid Message, and then begin to break down the message. This often comes in the form of a messaging hierarchy, an outline of how much emphasis to put on certain points. It becomes an essential and consistent playbook as you move forward.

Consider the action you’re trying to evoke, whether it’s buying a product, donating to a good cause, or signing up for a newsletter. Approaching your message as a story is the right approach. You are inviting people into your story (beginning), drawing them through the reasons why they should be compelled (middle), and then rewarding them for their interest (end).


Finally, Stuff. What content do you have — and what do you need — to tell the story you want to tell to the people who need to hear it? Because you know what you’re saying and what will resonate with your audience, you can start making good decisions about what kind of content and storytelling you’ll need to do the job.

Sometimes you have what you need, and sometimes you don’t. We had a client recently who wanted to express a strong message, and knew what would resonate with their audience, but they didn’t have the right photography to express that. We helped them find the right photographer and art directed the shoot.

Budget considerations are important here, but because you know the intent, you can often find a cost-effective way of telling the story you want to tell.

Putting It Together

Those are the basic building blocks of our strategic approach: Audience, Message, and Stuff. It helps to work through these pieces thoroughly, as this up-front work always saves time and complexity later in a project.


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