Message architecture

Message architecture for GroWomen coaching website

In November 2019 my friend and former colleague Julia Steger approached me for support on her new website GroWomen. She had just finished her training as a systemic coach and was preparing to promote her life and career coaching services for women.

Before a single word was written for the new site, I met with Julia to set up a message architecture in order to make sure her communication through words and design would reflect her strong values. According to renowned content strategist Margot Bloomstein, the goal of a message architecture is to clarify a brand’s communication goals which will influence design, editorial strategy, content strategy as well as the website’s architecture.

Developing a message architecture through cardsorting

As I had trained under Margot Bloomstein during my Master’s Program in Content Strategy at FH Joanneum University of Applied Sciences in Graz, we used her cardsorting exercise to develop Julia’s message architecture.

This exercise takes about an hour and during this time you work through about 150 index cards with one adjective on each. Traditionally you would ask your client to assign each card to one of the following three categories:

  • Who we are
  • Who we’d like to be
  • Who we’re not

As Julia hadn’t started out as an independent coach yet, we skipped the first category and I asked her to group the cards into the remaining two categories. Some cards turned to be irrelevant as well. Those we just put aside. She was rather clear about what she wanted her brand GroWomen to be, how she wanted it to be perceived and what adjectives she definitely did not want to be associated with her coaching business. During the sorting I kept asking Julia to explain why she chose some terms over others and why she decided for or against a certain adjective after she had seemed hesitant at first. This conversation helped her to clarify her vision of her brand.

Setting aside the “Who we’re not” cards, I asked Julia to group the cards in the remaining “Who we’d like to be” category. One group formed around the technology and techniques Julia intended to use, another around how she wanted to make her clients feel. She ended up with five groups, with one umbrella adjective for each. During this phase some more cards dropped out which is fine. The more concrete you can get, the better.

The hardest part was to finally prioritize the groups on the table. Not all aspects of the business can get the same amount of attention – there is only so much space above the fold. After some discussion Julia had determined the order of importance of her messaging groups. To be clear, I merely acted as a sparring partner during the whole process. Only Julia can know how she wants GroWomen to be. I was there to ask questions and challenge choices which seemed contradictory to me.

How the message architecture helped to guide design and content decisions

After this exercise I put together a simple Word document for Julia with the resulting message architecture. It lists the main adjectives in the right order and explains what they each mean for GroWomen coaching. Note: Non of the adjectives need to be used verbatim on Julia’s website. This is about how the business wants to be perceived, not what exactly the copy says on the website. Here is the strongly reduced message architecture:

Julia’s most important mission as a coach is to empower women. She will work with modern technology and innovative methods to support this goal. She wants her coaching offering to be inviting. It’s important to her that people know she is properly trained and thus professional. Finally, authenticity is important to Julia as she has very strong values she works and lives by. She wants her coaching to offer a lasting positive effect for her clients.

From these terms and their deeper meaning for Julia’s business I derived implications for design and content strategy.

Implications for design

  • Plenty of white space and bright colors will make the site inviting, especially to women.
  • Pictures of Julia should be bright and friendly, with her looking directly into the camera.
  • All photographs should be bright and light to look inviting and help establish trust.

Implications for content strategy

  • Copy on the website should consist of short sentences which get to the point quickly. It needs to be clear fast what Julia offers and to whom.
  • Website visitors should be addressed in a semi-formal way to come across open, friendly and professional at the same time.
  • Quotes by famous women could help inspire website visitors to discover their own full potential.

These points can be carried further and grow into full-fledged corporate design or editorial guidelines. For Julia this first document was sufficient to get started. The resulting website proves that beautifully: