Harnessing expectations in content strategy

If expectations about your content veer in different directions, it can lead to poor focus, distractions, and bad tradeoffs. Don’t let loose expectations get in the way of your content success. 

Michael AndrewsPublished on Feb 24, 2022

Content strategy defines the process for enterprises to provide content that simultaneously satisfies customer and business needs. Its goal seems straightforward but can be challenging to realize. With most attention directed at what teams want to achieve, less notice is given to the factors that can push the strategy off course.

Success in content strategy will depend on dozens of capabilities, from staff training to taxonomy to governance. One of the most important factors in content strategy is a largely invisible one: the role of expectations. 

Expectations can guide your focus, generate distractions, and trigger tradeoffs in your content strategy. Because they operate below the surface, their influence can be hard to spot. 

Why does content strategy fail?

Many problems in content strategy execution arise from not understanding and harnessing expectations effectively. 

Content strategy outcomes depend on three parties:

  1. The customers who will use the content (which might include internal customers within your organization)
  2. The business unit that’s requesting and funding the content
  3. The people producing the content

Content problems surface when expectations get mismatched. For example:

  • Customers either expect more from the content that they encounter, or they expect something different.
  • The sponsoring business unit has unrealistic expectations about the content being requested and created.
  • The people producing the content expect support or direction they aren’t getting, or else expect autonomy in the decisions they make that they aren’t given.

Be sure you understand the relationship of the content to various parties.

Content exists to solve problems. The people asking for the content, creating it, and using it should all perceive that the content fulfills a need. Each of these groups may have different motivations relating to the content, but all of them should recognize that the content provides value. Nothing is more counterproductive than useless content that misguides customers or gets ignored. 

The impact the content delivers will reflect the value it offers. That value relates to the perspective of different parties: the problem they expect the content to address and the goal they have for the content.

Probe deeper into the purpose of the content. Rarely does content have only one purpose where all parties have precisely the same goal, such as fixing a problem that annoys everyone. More often, content needs to support different purposes and balance various goals. Customers may have subtly different motivations when using the same content. Business stakeholders may have different goals and expectations for content depending on their current work priorities or where they sit in the organization. And the content team will also have a range of goals. Acknowledge the range of expectations associated with the content so that you can decide how best to support them so that they aren’t at cross-purposes.

Get the focus right. Content needs focus. Never dilute the focus by trying to make content support too many goals. Content also won’t be successful if its focus overemphasizes certain considerations and excludes other important needs. Some content narrowly focuses on a single metric that can have secondary consequences that are negative. One of the benefits of structured content is the ability to sharpen the focus of the content that’s delivered to customers. 

Customer expectations

Business stakeholders and content creators must understand customer motivations accurately. If they have different understandings of these needs, then the content will have problems. 

Understand customer motivations. When distilled to the basics, what customers want isn’t mysterious. Customers want content that:

  1. Attracts their interest
  2. Reduces friction for them

These motivations appear simple to address but can be difficult to execute.

Attracting interest is powerful, provided the interest can be sustained because it’s genuine. Hype ends up destroying interest.

Consider a situation where customers aren’t familiar with a new product or service and learn everything about it from the brand’s content. That content will be responsible for the customer’s expectations of the product. 

  1. The brand’s content marketing provides a great experience: it’s enjoyable and useful.
  2. The customer expects a great experience from the product.
  3. The customer uses the product and decides if the experience matches what they expected.
  4. If the experience falls short of expectations, the customer re-evaluates their expectations of the brand’s content.
Content sets expectations

When customers try the product, they will compare the experience against their expectations. If they detect a mismatch, then the customer will form new expectations about the content they use. The content now has a credibility gap. As the customer needs to consult the content to deal with dashed expectations about the product, they doubt whether the content will be helpful and reliable. 

Mind the expectations gap. Very often, customers start to evaluate products, services, or features with some pre-existing expectations. The extent to which content fulfills or surpasses customer expectations will influence their experience of the product. 

Let’s look at how this works:

  1. Customers start with expectations or opinions about products and services. These may be based on their past experiences, word of mouth, or how they see their interests and abilities aligning with the product’s attributes. They will expect products to have qualities such as being friendly, difficult, capable, time-consuming, or fussy.
  2. The customer’s expectations of the product will shape their expectations of the content about the product. For example, if they expect the product to be easy to use, they assume the content will be simple. If they expect the product to have lots of features, they may anticipate more detail in the content.
  3. Customers compare their experience of the content with their expectations of it. The content could fall short of expectations, exceed expectations, or reinforce expectations about whether the product will be reliable, friendly, comprehensive, or helpful.
  4. The experience of the content will directly influence how the customer experiences the product or service. For example, content that clearly explains a service they imagined would be hard to understand will greatly increase customer satisfaction. Content can also preview aspects of the product, helping to shape expectations of the product prior to a feature being used.
Content can change customer expectations

After years of seeing company-centric and product-centric content, customers today want content to be customer-centric. If the content can’t provide what customers expect due to some problem or limitation, the content needs to explain why expectations can’t be met.

While customers have expectations about the content and the product, both business stakeholders and content team members have expectations about the customers. It’s easy to convince yourself that you know what the customer wants, relying on assumptions.

Enterprises already have a wealth of information about customers, including data about customer buying behavior and analytics about content usage. Their customer support division may talk directly with customers and get feedback. All this data can inform the development of content, but it won’t provide deep insight into how customers perceive all the content that’s being offered. It won’t reveal the influences of the wording and language, the level of detail, the themes and messages, the layout, and other factors that shape the success of content.

Despite efforts to unify data about customers, gaps in customer understanding are common. It can be hard to pinpoint where the user journey breaks down or the moments that have an outsized influence to encourage users to do something.

Check your assumptions. While some content will be relevant to everyone, much content needs a tighter focus and should be intended for a specific customer segment. 

Customers aren’t monolithic. They are individuals—even though brands face cost pressures to standardize the content they offer them. Their different needs can sometimes be significant enough to influence the outcomes the content will achieve. Content can be tailored to customer segments. These segments may be represented as personas who can differ in various dimensions:

  • Motivations
  • Attitudes
  • Expertise
  • Goals
  • Habits and behaviors
  • Scenarios and journeys

Personalization requires an understanding of what attracts different customer segments or increases the relevance of content to them by reducing friction. Customers differ in what they care about. They are attracted to different things and can even vary in their tolerance for friction, such as how long it takes to do something. 

Not only are not all customers the same but they may also not be prioritized in the same way by the business. Customers may be prioritized according to their lifetime customer value or their customer journey stage. Some customer segments pose unique business risks. Other segments will be high-growth ones. Satisfying these high-profile segments can be important to establishing the business case and building a budget for content.

Just as customers have expectations about the brand that will influence their experience, the brand’s expectations about the customers play a big role in shaping the content.

Business stakeholder expectations

What is the content expected to achieve? Not all business goals are the direct reflection of an explicit customer preference.

Expectations differ for new versus existing content. Content can have a range of business goals. While attention is given to new content, it’s also important to consider business goals associated with improving existing one. 

Content improvements can influence customer perceptions and enhance internal capabilities. Rewriting or simplifying content can improve the customer’s satisfaction, which can support long-term loyalty and the likelihood to recommend the brand. Improvements to existing content can provide customers with reliable answers more efficiently, either more quickly or at a lower cost. 

When new content is created, its business goal is frequently to influence customer behavior. Many business goals are linked to customer actions (“conversion events”), while others will be linked to behaviors such as frequency of interaction or time-on-task. 

Distinguish what the content is expected to do from the business benefit the content is aimed to deliver. There needs to be a realistic relationship between the content’s goals and desired business outcomes. For example, just because many people view a web page does not imply that they will necessarily take a specific action. Some organizations track the wrong metrics or skew their attention toward new initiatives that are a small part of the overall content offered. Consequently, the content that’s tracked may carry unrealistic expectations about what it will achieve.

Customer content usageBusiness goal
OutcomesDesired customer behaviorBusiness benefits of the outcome
MetricsHow to measure and what threshold is considered successfulCost or revenue implications

Suppose the business goal for the content relates to customer acquisition. This goal has several dimensions. On the content side, some content will directly support customer acquisition, and other content may indirectly influence it. The content thus may promote either behaviors or specific actions that can be measured. On the business side, there needs to be knowledge of acquisition rates and costs. These factors influence the potential business value of supporting content.

Relationship of content and business outcomes

By distinguishing the content’s goals from the broader business goals, it becomes possible to check that expectations are realistic. Transactional content is easiest to measure since the customer’s interaction with the content is closely linked in time with specific business events. Other kinds of content require closer attention, as they can be either leading or trailing indicators of business outcomes.

The content should support a customer journey, and that journey will influence revenues and costs either immediately or in the future. Outcomes can sometimes depend on a single item of content, but more often they depend on a range of content provided at different times and in different forms.

What does success look like? Metrics should also be considered in terms of what’s “normal” (the typical performance in your organization or within your industry) and what would be a realistic goal to represent an improvement. Some organizations track data without any benchmark to compare against that would indicate what success would be.

Align group goals with collective outcomes. Specific business groups have targets that can interfere with the targets of other groups. It’s possible for content from different groups to be in competition with each other. There can be too much content that’s too similar in focus or that delivers conflicting brand messages. Delivering successful business outcomes depends on having goals that are prioritized.

When expectations are unrealistic, it can create pressure to produce bad content. Business stakeholders need to decide how different content works together, how much content is optimal to attract customer attention, and what brand messages it should emphasize. 

Help the content deliver business value. Content can support business outcomes, but the content also needs support from business stakeholders. Unclear or unrealistic expectations can constrain what the content can deliver. Over-burdened and under-resourced content teams can’t provide adequate support to deliver the outcomes that are wanted or expected. 

Content team expectations

What’s the content team supposed to do? And what do they care about? They must address the expectations of customers and business stakeholders, yet they have constraints placed on them. They also have their own priorities.

For content to have focus, the team creating it needs focus as well. It’s challenging for content teams to maintain focus. Content teams must respond to a range of internal and external considerations, as well as their own goals.

Internal organizational pressures and incentives
  • New business initiatives requiring content
  • Objective to deliver better business results from content
  • Pressure to produce more content or create content more quickly
  • Special requests
  • Need to please specific influential stakeholder
External customer prompts
  • Complaints
  • Requests for features or information not currently available
  • Influential customer reactions and opinions from the “ideal” customer
  • Survey results
  • Usability test results
  • Unaddressed needs
  • The popularity of different content types
Team or self-defined motivations
  • Customer experience advocacy
  • Excellence as defined by best practices
  • Content OKRs
  • Learning opportunities
  • Peer recognition and career advancement
  • Greater organizational visibility through relatable customer stories or headline success metrics

Content teams can be pulled in many directions. Even within a team, different roles exist that have their own priorities. A writer, SEO specialist, and content manager will all have distinct goals reflecting the responsibilities of their role.

Content teams can sometimes get stuck in a trap of having to “prove” their value to their organization. Because content normally does not directly generate revenue, its value is not well understood. Business stakeholders may consider content as:

  • A cost to control
  • A free resource that anyone can request

In either case, content is not treated as a scarce resource that should be prioritized to deliver the most value possible. If the content team finds itself needing recognition from business stakeholders, that can sometimes distort what gets done.

Set realistic expectations for what content can achieve. As custodians of the content, content teams have unique insights into how content works. They are in the best position to define expectations about what it can achieve. 

Few content teams have the resources and capacity to fulfill every request while also maintaining existing content. Because of capacity constraints, they must prioritize various requests and activities. How priorities get decided needs to be fair to all stakeholders and in the best interest of the organization overall.

Content teams can articulate what’s possible based on what they know and have learned. By documenting and socializing this knowledge, the team can pivot away from reactive decisions about creating new content that aren’t backed by evidence.

Drivers of reactive content decisionsThe basis for criteria-driven decisions
  • Individual opinions
  • Declared urgency
  • Political clout
  • Established processes based on prior experience
  • Recognized standards and best practices
  • Customer research insights
  • Content analytics and expected performance
  • Estimated effort or time required
  • Expected content longevity

Distinguish content priorities from business priorities. Content priorities are influenced by business priorities but are distinct from them. 

When determining priorities, content teams evaluate how to:

  • Support many stakeholders
  • Balance existing and new commitments 

Unfortunately, some stakeholders consider individual decisions about content as endorsements about business initiatives. The question of what content is important becomes entangled in questions about what business priorities are most important. 

The work of content teams should not be deciding the importance of business priorities; that’s the responsibility of corporate leadership to decide. But content teams sometimes get caught up in ambiguities about how various business priorities are ranked. This happens when:

  • Business priorities are not well defined, because various stakeholders hold differing views on which business priorities are most important
  • Business stakeholders emphasize short-term priorities without acknowledging their impact on long-term ones

Content can support a range of business priorities, from revenue generation to customer retention to reducing customer service costs. Yet improvements in content outcomes are typically incremental and will be realized over time. Their contribution to business outcomes will require time as well. If content teams are expected to “fix” business problems in the short term, then they will probably not be effective in the long term. 

Content teams and business stakeholders have different expertise and responsibilities:

  • The content team is accountable for content outcomes, which is partly dependent on funding from business stakeholders 
  • Business stakeholders are accountable for business outcomes, which are partly dependent on the content produced and maintained by content teams. 

Content priorities should be based on the expected outcomes that various content can deliver given the resources and constraints in place. Choices about how to support content requests involve opportunity costs if other projects or activities can’t be done.

What support should business stakeholders expect? The goal of content prioritization is not to decide whether to support a business priority, but rather how to best do that. There can be multiple ways content can support business goals in terms of the types of content and their quantity and frequency. Choosing the most feasible and best option requires professional judgment. As experts in content, the team needs the authority to decide how it can best support various business goals. If existing resources aren’t sufficient to support the content outcomes desired, the content team may need to request an additional budget for staff, tools, or use of external resources. 

Content teams have a responsibility not to squander their resources, especially given the limited budgets many must work with. They don’t want to spend time on activities they know from experience are unlikely to deliver concrete results, and they don’t want to burn out staff with acts of heroism that aren’t sustainable. They also must maintain balance in their work to ensure adequate coverage in the content they produce and support

Converging expectations for better focus

Diverging expectations can make content less effective. The ideal way to tighten focus is to have a solid content strategy that everyone can rally behind. A strategy can provide a basis to rank different priorities. It can help to vet competing requests and goals. But it may not be able to guide a decision if stakeholders don’t feel bound by the strategy.

Even if your organization has a content strategy, not everyone will necessarily follow it. Many organizations have content strategies that are too general to guide content decision making or they lack deep buy-in from stakeholders. A strategy with simple goals and shallow buy-in can gloss over the complexities involved with coordinating enterprise content. 

When the existing content strategy isn’t yet robust enough to guide decisions, they can depend heavily on having good relationships. Decisions should be more than a continuous series of ad hoc negotiations between content requestors and creators, however. Different parties need to develop mutual understanding and respect for the goals of one another. Relationships will be most effective when based on shared knowledge.

Everyone, show your cards. Acknowledge the presence of competing goals and priorities. Agreements are easier to reach when the expectations of all parties can be identified and compared. Tradeoffs, while unavoidable, should never be determined by what’s expedient. 

Identify and show which goals may conflict with one another. Make sure that the goals for customers, the business, and the content team are clear and rank the priorities for each. Determine areas of friction and dependencies between objectives.

Decide what’s most important for customers. Customers will have different needs and preferences. Decide how much personalization is desirable and feasible. Prioritize which preferences to address and balance what’s offered so that the content serves all segments. 

Deconflict business goals. Individual stakeholders will have specific priorities. But their priorities should never directly conflict with those of others. If they do, the outcomes they expect may be too specific. The content team needs to support a broad range of stakeholders. Individual stakeholders also need to present their goals as part of the broader mission. Show how individual business objectives relate to the overall strategic direction of the organization. 

Remove sources of friction in the work of content teams. The content depends on the contributions of different roles. If certain tasks aren’t supported adequately or are given too much emphasis, the agility of the team will be diminished. Tasks need to be in balance, tending to both existing and future initiatives and addressing all stages of the content lifecycle. The build-up of content debt can hold back the outcomes that content can deliver in the future.

Strengthen your content strategy. You can see the value of robust content strategy when discussing the differences in expectations held by customers, business stakeholders, and content teams, and the need to align them better. Use this opportunity to evolve your strategy further so that it can better guide your decision-making in the future.

A content strategy is not a document that once drafted is then finished. It is an evolving plan of action that provides direction to content operations. Over time it should become more mature. It can move from simple goals to more sophisticated ones that address the realities of different stakeholder perspectives.

By taking these actions, your organization will gain a tighter focus and realize better outcomes.

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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