If you want to take a closer look at your message architecture, you are in the right place. In my previous article Please, clean up your website I gave an overview of the steps you need to take in order to improve the content on your website. The base of it is a solid message architecture.
Now you will get a more detailed insight about what the message architecture is, how to define it and how you can use it.
What is a message architecture and why do you need it?
The message architecture is a hierarchy of your top 3-5 communication goals. It consists of words or statements that represent your brand and provide information about what and how your brand wants to communicate.
To give you a better understanding of a message architecture, let me give you some examples. I looked at two hotel brands – the 25hours hotels and The Luxury Collection by Marriott.
The 25hours hotels’ message architecture I would describe as hip (urban, young, uncomplicated), inviting (open, fun and charming) and authentic (individual and tailored to each location). Their mottos “if you know one, you know none“ as well as “come as you are” are both pretty suitable to their message architecture. Also, when scrolling through their website or social media you will notice: they work with a lot of pictures and colors (e.g. every hotel has its own main color on the website which underlines their individuality). The headlines are short and fun and it all feels very casual.
As a contrast to that, the hotels of The Luxury Collection are – as the name suggests – very luxurious. They are hotels with history. The message architecture: elegant (luxurious, timeless, sophisticated, historical), tailor-made (not just to the destinations but also to their guests by providing unique experiences), professional (experienced, quality-conscious, detail oriented) and inspiring (international, extraordinary). In their blog they share stories about their destinations and they work with aesthetic, high-quality photo and video content to represent them. They sell more than a stay in a fancy hotel; they sell an extraordinary and memorable experience.
Those examples make clear that the message architecture can help with choosing your brands’ language way beyond actual words. The communication goals can help define the design, colors, images, typography as well as the means of communication. If you have a serious brand, infographics might be a good channel to bring your message across. And if your brand is supposed to be elegant and inspiring like The Luxury Collection, a blog, high-quality photo and video content might be a better way.
Long story short: you want to have a clear and recognizable profile to stand out. That’s why you need a message architecture.
Let’s get to work!
How to define your message architecture
You can define your message architecture in a cardsorting workshop. All you need for that is a card deck with about 120 – 150 adjectives that are suitable for your company’s sector, a big table and no more than six stakeholders that will shape the message architecture. Oh – and of course one facilitator who is also responsible for taking notes (since you are reading this article, I assume that’s you ;)).
A face-to-face workshop works best, but you can also conduct the cardsorting exercise online. That comes in handy if – let’s say – a global pandemic hits and you can’t meet in person. With tools like Zoom or MS Teams as well as MURAL or Miro you’re good to go!
The workshop itself is divided into 3 phases: categorize, filter as well as prioritize and close.
In this first step you will get a lot of brand information in a short amount of time. In preparation of this workshop, you as the facilitator will spread the card deck with all the adjectives across the table. Card decks are available online (e.g. here) or you can check out Margot Bloomstein’s book Content strategy at work. In there you will find a set of adjectives for card sorting workshops that she developed over the years. I used her set in a message architecture workshop I did with my colleagues, and it definitely did its magic.
- Who we are: In this column the participants should put the adjectives of how they think the brand is currently perceived.
- Who we’d like to be: Here, they will put adjectives of how they would like the brand to be perceived.
- Who we’re not: And in this cateory they will put the adjectives they don’t want to be associated with their brand or the ones that are not relevant or more suitable for a competitor.
The first part is done – good job! Now use 10-15 minutes for filtering. The focus will be on the categories “Who we are” and “Who we’d like to be”.
Let the participants discuss what the brand currently does well and if future qualities are even more important. If current adjectives from “Who we are” should be carried to the future, the participants can move them to the column “Who we’d like to be”. Only jump in if the process slows down. The category that contains the future state might now be pretty full. We are going to deal with that in the next step.
You can take away the cards from the first two categories – you won’t need them anymore.
3. Prioritize and close
In the last step the participants will focus on the category “Who we’d like to be”. Let them look at all the words that are left and ask them if they are comfortable with them. If they have doubts, encourage them to speak out. The fewer brand attributes are communicated, the clearer the brand image will be for the target group. So, it makes sense to let go of some more words and make compromises.
As soon as all the final adjectives have been fixed, the participants should group and name them. Naturally, there will be between 3 and 6 groups – just like in the example of the 25hours hotels and The Luxury Collection. The last step is to prioritize those groups: what will be the most important communication goal, the second most important and so on and why? Once they have figured that out: that’s it.
Don’t forget to acknowledge their work along the way, sum it up in between steps and appreciate their effort in the end. They now have created their communication goals.
As a facilitator, take those prioritized goals and prepare them digitally, e.g. in a list and present the finished message architecture to the stakeholders a few days later. They now have a foundation for their future communication. Yay!
Of course, the message architecture should be used from now on. Make sure the people in the company know about those goals and work towards them – especially the people who (should) work with them every day, like the marketing or communications department as well as people that shape the brand’s language, design, content types etc.
If you want to dig deeper into this topic, make sure to check out Margot Bloomstein’s book! It will give you more hands-on techniques to develop a message architecture and will show you how to incorporate content strategy into your work.
Bloomstein, M. (2012). Content strategy at work: Real-world stories to strengthen every interactive project. Morgan Kaufmann.
Brand Cards. (2022). branding.cards
The Luxury Collection. (2022). the-luxury-collection.marriot.com
Stebner, A. Sprenger, A. (2022). Three steps to develop a brand-driven content strategy: message architecture – content audit – content types. contentstratgey.at
25hours hotels. (2022). 25hours-hotels.com