A Complete Guide to Agile Content Strategy: Personas, User Stories, and Story Mapping

Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute and oft-cited godfather of content marketing, recently made the following prediction about the near future of content marketing:

While we will see shining examples of content marketing magic in action, the sheer majority of brands will continue to crash and burn with their content creation and distribution efforts.

Wow. That’s quite a distinction. We’re beyond success versus failure; we’re well into amazing versus appalling.

So, the big question now is: how do we make sure we’re a shining example of content marketing magic and not a heap of burning content wreckage?

Of course we need to create compelling, high quality work, but at the heart of that we must have a content strategy.

If you don’t have one of those sitting in a file drawer somewhere there’s no need to panic.

Because if we take an agile approach to content strategy we can create a map to meaningful, audience-driven content efficiently and accurately.

This step-by-step guide will walk you through a three-step process:

  1. Identify your key user personas
  2. Write user stories that focus on the types of content each persona needs
  3. Create a Story Map to allow you to prioritize and group your user stories

It sounds a little arduous, but really all you need is an eager team, some time, and a whole lot of sticky notes.

Content Strategies Are Non-Negotiable

First let’s get the obvious out of the way: content strategy is no longer negotiable.

Companies who have documented content strategies are simply more successful than those who are flying by the seat of their proverbial pants.

Not only that, but the Content Marketing Institute reports these additional benefits from documented strategies. Those with a documented content marketing strategy:

  • Are far more likely to consider themselves effective at content marketing
  • Feel significantly less challenged with every aspect of content marketing
  • Generally consider themselves more effective in their use of all content marketing tactics and social media channels
  • Were able to justify spending a higher percentage of their marketing budget on content marketing

Churning out more articles, creating more Slideshares, and designing more ebooks isn’t going to magically bring you customers anymore. You need a strategy to connect what you’re creating with the people you want to reach.

The Perils of a Missing Content Strategy

Let’s say you wrote the perfect diet book. It could help anybody lose any amount of weight in just a couple of days.

Great, right? You’re obviously going to be a gajillionaire.

But what if all you did was send the written manuscript to business publishers? You didn’t publish it online or do anything but mail a few hard copies. Those publishers who actually got it would probably just toss it aside as soon as they read the title because the content had no relevance to them.

The book wouldn’t ever get into the right hands, and you would not make a gajillion dollars, even though you had the best diet book ever.

This is a simplified example, but its lesson is still valid. Content strategy is key, and there’s a simple, fun way to get one using agile principles.

Personas: An Intersection of Content and Agile Marketing

Personas aren’t unique to agile. In fact, they’re a popular tool for marketers who don’t have any connection to agility at all.

This makes them a great point of entry for creating an agile content strategy because most marketers are already familiar with personas and their power. Whether it’s on agile team or in a traditional marketing department, personas help us connect with our audience on a more individual level.

There are many ways to come up with your personas, but this is the efficient and flexible approach that product owners on a Scrum team typically take:

Step 1: Profile User Types

Start with very broad characteristics of your users that are relevant to how they interact with your content.

Don’t get hung up on their favorite TV shows or what they like to do on the weekend if those habits aren’t relative to your content. Stay focused on general profiles.

Step 2: Personify User Types

From these high level overviews, zoom in to create different types of users. Leverage what you understand about your users to describe a realistic example of each type.

Again, keep your focus on demographic details and characteristics that are relevant to your product, service, and content.

Whenever possible include references to how your content will intersect with a user’s daily life. Name characteristics that the content must have to be valuable to the users, and use these as imperatives when drafting content.

You should also focus on naming valuable content features, ideas, or opportunities that will have an effect on your different user types.

Step 3: Pragmatic Persona Representation

Now you’ve got your persona characteristics, and it’s time to turn them into “real” people who have names and pictures.

It’s tempting to make something beautifully detailed that you can turn into posters and hang all around your office, but you don’t want to get too attached to these particular “people.”

That’s because when you switch your content focus to a different user segment you’re probably going to need new personas, so make something you won’t hesitate to toss aside if needed.

creating agile personas

These pragmatic personas shouldn’t be any less detailed than ones that cost hundreds of dollars to print, they should just be more flexible and open to change. We’re talking about agile principles, after all.

We need the ability to adapt to changing conditions or shifts in our audience’s needs and behavior in order to continuously deliver the most relevant content possible.

Agile User Stories and Content Strategy

Once you have a handful of personas ironed out, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to create content that’s truly meaningful to those people. That’s where user stories come in.

Origin of User Stories

Kent Beck coined the term “story” in the late 1990s, and in Extreme Programming Explained they are described as an alternative to working with traditional programming requirements.

Beck originally said:

What I was thinking of was the way users sometimes tell stories about the cool new things the software they use does: “I type in the zip code and it automatically fills in the city and state without me having to touch a button!” I think that was the example that triggered the idea. If you can tell stories about what the software does and generate energy and interest and a vision in your listener’s mind, then why not tell stories before the software does it?

The idea was like this:

agile user stories

A user has a need, which they tell as a story to a developer. The developer then uses that information to create a software feature that meets the user’s need.

It typically works out much better than traditional development, which requires the up front collection of dozens (or hundreds) of “requirements” before a developer can create any code.

Agile, lean, and extreme programming instead advocate the creation of small, discrete releases that correspond to a few small user stories. The general rule of thumb is that a story should take a couple of developers a couple of days to complete.

How This Relates to Creating Content

Content marketers aren’t creating software (thank goodness), so how do user stories relate to us?

Well, as I hope you can see, they are an excellent way to allow us to focus in on a very specific user need or goal with each piece of content that we create.

User stories are usually phrased like this:

As a [user type] I want to [do something] so I can [achieve a goal].

A more specific example:

As a stay at home mom, I would like to learn more about how to add fitness activities into my day so I can get in shape without detracting from the quality of time with my kids.

It’s a whole lot easier to create an infographic that addresses that particular user’s need instead of trying to “help moms learn about fitness.”

When you combine user stories with targeted personas, your content has a much better chance at actually helping your audience out, which means it has a much better chance at success.

Creating Your First Story Map

Ok, now we have personas, and we know how and why we should write user stories for them. What about that whole strategy thing? Time to put it all together in a story map.

Story maps are an agile tool that many product owners use to guide the release of software features, but they work just as well for content marketing teams.

These maps represent your audience’s journey from problem to solution (which hopefully means from problem to purchase via your content).

When you’re creating your first story map, the goal is to go “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Basically this means you want to get the big picture in place with very little detail. Don’t get bogged down in minutiae at this point.

This ideal path will form the backbone of your story map:

backbone of agile story map

Once it’s done, you can then segment the journey into discrete steps, each of which would require its own content to help your audience on their way.

If you have multiple personas who have different needs as they progress down your ideal path, you can create vertical layers to your story map so you can group user stories appropriately:

grouping stories by persona

Whenever you’re creating user segments, make sure you look for differences that make a difference in content consumption. Don’t create groups based on arbitrary characteristics.

For example, unless skiers and snowboarders will be interacting with your content in a different way you don’t need to create segments for each of them. One group of “snow sport enthusiasts” will be fine.

Now the Content Strategy Part

It’s time to take all this great information and turn it into a content strategy, i.e. decide which parts are most important so you can prioritize your content creation efforts.

(Note: from here on out I’m assuming you’re taking an agile marketing approach to executing your content strategy, meaning you can release content consistently and often. For more on that, I suggest this Content Marketing Institute article.)

Content Strategy #1: One Persona at a Time

Your first option will be to focus all of your content on a single, high value persona. Under this approach you would go across the whole backbone of your story map creating content for only one persona.

Each sprint can tackle a new piece of content or a segment of the map, depending on your resources and cycle length.

If your audience consists primarily of a single user type, then this content strategy will work out very well for you.

Once you’ve got the full story map covered for your highest value persona you can move on to the next highest value user type, and so on down the vertical axis:

grouping stories by persona

Content Strategy #2: Good-Better-Best for All Personas

The second option is to create content for all of your personas simultaneously, but to start out with content that is “good enough” and then iterate on it until it is better and finally the best it can be.

Under this approach you would get “good” content out for all your personas over the course of a few sprints or cycles, process the data on content engagement, and then improve each piece of content incrementally.

If you have a varied audience with distinct content needs, then this strategy will serve you better.

(This article offers a more detailed overview on iterations versus increments, an important distinction within this particular strategy.)

Why Agile Content Strategy

You’ll see in all the photos that these story maps are made using sticky notes. They are impermanent fixtures because they’re meant to be adaptable.

If market conditions change, your users stop behaving like you expected, or you encounter an unexpectedly successful content type, you should be able to adjust your content strategy accordingly.

This should be as simple as writing new user stories and adding them to your story map, then adjusting the priorities of your next sprint(s).

Gone are the days when we could draft a year-long content strategy and expect to carry it out in a vacuum. Users expect responsive content that reflects their current needs, not something we came up with in a conference room eight months ago.

If you aren’t using an agile content strategy, the odds are good that you’ll be left behind by someone that is.

Many thanks to Aaron Sanders, whose Certified Scrum Product Owner Training course from Rally’s Agile University inspired this article and was the source of the slides/screenshots. Thanks also to Jeff Patton, whose book User Story Mapping provided Aaron with much of his source material. 

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

Leave a Comment

  • Josh Agusti

    Hi Andrea! Great post, great read. Thank you!

  • Afryrear

    Hi Josh! So glad you enjoyed the post :)