Content strategy and content design: best friends forever

It’s the difference between doing the work for someone and giving them the tools, resources and skills to do the work themselves.

Co-authored by Etain Ní Fhearghail

When looking at content work with clients we’re often curious to know if the project’s focus is content design or content strategy. What’s the difference you might ask? Broadly, it’s the difference between doing the work for someone and giving them the tools, resources and skills to do the work themselves.

Part of dxw’s mission is to help government spend less on technology so that it can spend more on the services that help people. Content strategy projects are a perfect example of that. Developing a content strategy empowers organisations to be strategic about content and to develop the skills and resources to move this work in-house.

Wait, so how exactly is content strategy different to content design?

Content design solves an immediate problem. It’s about understanding what your users need and using the right content in the right channels to satisfy that need. It’s something we’ve done a lot of at dxw. As Candi Williams expertly demonstrates in this talk at ConFig 2023, user experiences are almost impossible to navigate and understand without language and good clear content. 

But for all of its immediate impact, content design often needs content strategy if it’s going to continue being effective and impactful. A content strategy provides teams with the right tools and the right processes to create user-centred content. 

We always encourage our clients to think beyond the words on a page and encourage them to challenge their organisation’s long term approach to content.

Why you need a content strategy

A content strategy isn’t just a document. It’s a set of agreed ways of working, processes, structures and resources that help organisations produce, maintain, and publish good content. The work you’ll do to discover, discuss and agree on these methods and processes are as much part of the strategy as the final output.

A content strategy should be part of your organisation’s wider strategic goals. For example, if your organisation aims to be carbon neutral, how will you show that you’re meeting your targets? What content needs to be produced and when?

A good content strategy means you:

More cynically, an organisation that understands and values content strategy could save money. You’ll no longer be dependent on agencies or contractors to review and improve your content. 

Coming up with a content strategy that works

Having done content strategy work for several clients we know that having an external agency lead content strategy work can bring huge value.

Having an external pair of eyes and ears to work with you on your content strategy can:

We obviously don’t want to talk ourselves out of a job but the most satisfying work for us is when we get to work with clients who consider the short term work that needs to be done alongside long term planning. Here are some suggestions on how you can think strategically about your content.  

Understand how your content is currently being created and how it’s performing 

Map out what content you currently have. Think about:

Help your organisation understand why a content strategy is important

You need to show why this work is important and you’ll need to consider things like:

Understand your users and how well your current content serves them

Your content may have lots of different types of users. Find out who these groups are, what they need from your content and how you should prioritise them. Content Design London’s user research blog posts have lots of ideas to help you do this. 

Do a content audit. Find the problems in your content. How much of it is irrelevant, out of date or unused? Is it accessible? Is it inclusive? Is the purpose of all your content clear? Does any of it pose a risk to the organisation or to users?

An interesting example of understanding user groups was our work with Settle, a housing association. They had duplicated content on their website as they had several user groups who they felt needed similar information – they had different content on problems with neighbours for users who were Settle tenants and for users who lived next to Settle tenants. Users told us that it was difficult to find the information they needed. So we advised them to restructure their content to avoid duplicating information and to make it clearer who the content was written for.

Decide what good looks like

Figure out how you’re going to measure and evaluate future content. Deciding what good looks like for your content means asking questions about what you want your users to do once they’ve looked at your content. Is it a good thing that people are spending an average of 5 minutes on one of your webpages? It could mean that they don’t understand the content or they’re not finding what they’re looking for. Deciding what success looks like for your content is worth spending time on. 

Establish a clear content proposition

Your content proposition clearly sets out what you will and won’t publish. GOV.UK’s proposition is an excellent example that clearly defines what does and does not belong on the site. 

Review your existing information architecture and publishing infrastructure

Think about how you currently group, label and organise your content. A common misstep within organisations is organising content based on internal structures and divisions, but this usually isn’t helpful for users. Exercises like card sorting and tree-testing improve your understanding of how users categorise your content. 

You’ll also need to think about the tools that you use in your publishing workflows. How well do these work for publishers? Do they support collaboration? Are there ways you can better use these, or alternatives, to make publishers’ lives easier?

Embedding content design principles

Your content strategy will only work if people can understand and appreciate content design. Share some basic fundamentals of content design with the wider team and why these are important:

Define your organisation’s style and tone of voice

As an organisation, think about who you are and how you express that in your content. Guidance on tone of voice needs to be specific and include examples. 

Your content strategy should also include information on your house style. This could be something simple like saying you’ll follow an established style guide, like GOV.UK, the BBC or the Guardian. But you will also need to include guidance on how to talk about things that are specific to your organisation. 

Set up a content lifecycle and define who is responsible for what

This is one of the trickiest, but most important, parts of content strategy. You need to decide who owns what and how decisions are made. Your strategy is only going to succeed if content is treated as a continuous service and not something that’s finished with once it’s published. 

The content lifecycle should set out the individuals and processes involved in:

Maintain the processes that support your content lifecycle

The steps above will help you draft your content strategy. But it’s the ongoing commitment to the processes that support your content lifecycle that will determine if it succeeds or fails. So make sure you have structures (and resources) in place to support content planning, research and iteration. And think of how you’ll capture feedback on these processes and structures to review and revise your content strategy so that it continues to be fit for purpose.

Resources to help

These resources are a great place to start if you’d like to learn more about content strategy:

Examples of content strategies

Planning, writing and managing content, GOV.UK 

Shelter’s digital framework content guides

Natural Resources Wales content strategy


The Content Strategy Podcast, hosted by Kristina Halvorson

Content Strategy Insights, hosted by Larry Swanson


Everything you need to do content strategy, Content Design London

Start a content strategy, Australian Government

Content strategy: a back to basics guide, Lauren Pope


Content Transformation, Hinrich von Haaren

Content strategy toolkit

Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson

The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane

Leading content design, Rachel McConnell