December 4, 2016

Content is Meaningless – It’s The Messaging That Matters

Quick game: Put these in order of importance:

  • Social Media Marketing
  • Website Architecture
  • Navigation Optimization
  • Content Strategy
  • Website Usability
  • Conversion Optimization
  • Keyword Optimization
  • Local Optimization
  • Mobile Optimization
  • Messaging

Can you do it? If I tried, I’d probably get ten different results depending on what time of day I worked at it. It’s hard, because they are all vital aspects of a solid web marketing campaign.

Yet one thing that is often overlooked as we design, optimize and market websites is the messaging. We hear a lot about website content and content strategy, but we don’t often hear about messaging. A content-first strategy is putting the cart before the horse. Without the right message, content is meaningless.

So where does messaging fit in to the marketing framework above? I’m going to make a case that messaging is the most important thing, and everything else comes after that.

Messaging Precedes Website Design

One of my first ah-ha moments to this line of thinking was when my developer brought it to my attention as we started a new web design project. In the past, we’d start the design process by gathering as much information from the client as possible. Some of the new website development questions we ask are specifically geared toward how the client perceives themselves and what message they want to get across. But most of the questions were focused on site design and functionality.

I still stand behind all of these questions as a matter of understanding the scope of the project, but more questions are needed to understand the messaging of the site itself.

With the answers we received, we would then dive into keyword research, using that to understand some of the key topics that need to be addressed, and then map out the site’s navigation and architecture. We would use that information to start working on the wire frames.

But how can we wire frame a home page until we know the primary message of the page? Or any page, for that matter?

Typically, wire frames have been the function of website designers. They draw a rough outline of what the site will look like, making sure every element has its place. There is a spot for navigation, a spot of social icons, some images, and let’s not forget to leave some room for content.

But what content? What images?

Oh, all that gets determined later!

So now, the messaging is a slave to the wire frame and design of the site.

Wire frames for internal pages are a bit easier, but not always. Many pages can follow the same basic format, but not all of them. And if you have not figured out your messaging, again, the message and how it’s displayed will be a slave to the design.

That’s all wrong. The design should be a slave to the message. Period.

Messaging Precedes Marketing

Content used to be one of the last things we worked on when we developing a new site. And even when it came to the online marketing, most marketers look at content as a “strategy” that is used to drive traffic and gain exposure. There is certainly nothing wrong with a solid content strategy to go along with your SEO and social media efforts, but that’s after-the-fact content.

What about optimizing existing site pages? The typical process is to grab existing content or have the client put some together as a starting point. We’ll then use our keyword research to make sure the page is a good representation of the topic and searcher needs, improve the readability and sales-ability of the content, add some calls to action and then move on.

Sounds simple, but it’s not. When you’re writing for personalities and personas, and trying to make sure you give each what they need to “convert,” it can take a good deal of time to craft (or recraft) the content of any given page.

But again, here we are more focused on the page topic than the message. Yeah, we want to have content that hits all the key selling points, making sure to address the key benefits and selling the sizzle, but the true message of the page often can get lost in all of that. Why? Because we are letting the content drive the message rather than letting the message drive the content.

Messaging is the Mold That All Else Fits Into

So how do you fit messaging into web design and marketing?

That was a trick question. The point is to not fit messaging in, but let the message be the mold that all other aspects of web design, development and marketing fits into.

And it all starts with the design.

Designing the Message

We take a content-comes-first approach to web design. Or rather, a message comes first approach. Everything we do when developing a site revolves around the message. There is an overall site message, but even more important is the message of each individual page.

We don’t wire frame a page until the content is written, and we don’t write the content until we understand the point of the page. That means, on a page-by-page basis, we first need to understand what the goal of that page is.

What does the page need to communicate? Why are visitors seeing that page? What information do they expect to see/read? And just as important, where does the visitor need to go from there to continue on the conversion path?

These are all important questions to answer because the answers will determine what content goes on the page and–important for the designers–how that content should be laid out for maximum impact.

Optimizing the Message

When it comes to optimization of existing content, we go through pretty much the same processes. We may keep some or all of the existing content, or we may keep none of it. We are less concerned with using the existing content so long as we get the messaging of the page right.

But this is also important when it comes to keyword research. Many web marketers use keywords to determine what the message should be. This is backwards. We use the messaging to determine what keywords make sense for the page topic. This means we have to consider the searcher intent of each phrase and make sure that we are not trying to tie in keywords for the sake of optimization. Instead, we use the messaging to help us determine which keywords the page should rank for.

Messaging Comes First and Last

As I’ve noted above, not too subtly, messaging comes first. But it also comes last. Why? Because after everything is said and done, you have to make sure the messaging you set out to accomplish in the beginning remains in tact through the end.

We started with messaging in the design, added all kinds of whistles and bells, calls to action and important bits of information. But does the messaging still hold?

We’ve optimized pages, integrated keyword-rich content, targeted personas and made sure it’s a robust, topically relevant page. But does the message still come across solidly?

Everything we do in web marketing revolves around the message. Site architecture is just a means to ensure that search engines and people can see the message. Social media is an engagement platform to establish the message in the hearts of your audience. Keyword research just helps us use the right words for the message. Usability ensures the visitors can get the message. Conversion optimization is a way to find tune the message.

You see where this is going? Messaging matters.

Content? That’s just the delivery mechanism for… that’s right… the message.

Stoney deGeyter
About Stoney deGeyter 39 Articles
Stoney deGeyter is CEO of Pole Position Marketing , a leading web presence optimization firm helping businesses grow since 1998. He is also the author of The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period! A prolific blogger, he is the main contributor to Pole Position Marketing's E-Marketing Performance Blog and writes regularly for well-regarded industry blogs such as Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Land and Marketing Land.