What is content strategy?

To me, “content strategy” is a new phrase for some older concepts, repackaged to meet the expectations of a new time.

Which isn’t to say that it’s wearing the emperor’s new clothes – but I’m not sure that calling myself a content strategist now makes me different from calling myself a writer, copywriter, editor-in-chief, managing editor, or even art director prior to the year 2000.

I say this because Wikipedia’s definition (via A List Apart) is completely accurate and the need its definition fulfills didn’t arise from a new demand now being met by myself and the content strategists of this world.

The definition is as follows:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

I have done all of these things, under various job titles, since 2008 – the year this definition was published. As yet, I’ve never held the job title of content strategist.

These titles have included but are not limited to the following: senior web editor; content manager; web content specialist.

At the same time, friends and colleagues in the world of print media have taken on similar roles. My partner’s job title is Managing Editor: she works with her editor-in-chief to do all of those defined tasks for her magazine’s print editions and for the magazine’s online content.

This might mean that we are all content strategists. Or that none of us are.

When did we start saying “content strategy”?

And yet, there are some specifics about the work of a content strategist that differentiate it from the rest. This has a lot to do with the timing of the term’s coinage.

This graph, taken from Google Books (so not infallible, clearly) starts in 1970 because mentions of the term before that are almost non-existent. The term is barely used (relatively speaking) before the year 2000.

To my mind, this is more important than what a content strategist does. Since content strategy is closely associated with the field of user experience (UX), also a term that replaces previous names for similar concepts, it’s the pairing of the two and the focus of a content strategist’s work online that makes his or her role different.

In other words: a content strategist combines aspects of the roles of editor-in-chief, managing editor, copywriter, art director, and more, into one role; he or she excels in UX; he or she more-than-likely has a stronger data analysis background than those other roles; he or she usually works for a primarily digital company.

And the idea that one would combine UX, data analysis and editorial in one role but have that role act primarily in a marketing or communications capacity – rather than an IT one – is specific to the 21st century.

This does not mean that somebody working as a managing editor (or an editor-in-chief, or a copywriter, or an art director) does not also perform combined duties. To the contrary. This is my main problem with calling myself a content strategist: plenty of other job titles exist that do basically the same thing by other names.

Which is why the key to the question ‘What is content strategy?’ is not the what but the when.

It’s tautological: a content strategist is a content strategist because that’s what we call them now.

As editorial, marketing, and information people, we needed a term that suited the time: changing the name is easier than adapting old definitions.

Alright cool. Seems like a bit of a cop-out. So then what is content strategy?

Now the name thing is out the way, let’s get to the good stuff. My definition:

Content strategy combines UX with a background in editorial, and usually (but not exclusively) refers to online content.

This comes in all kinds of forms. I would divide the role between frontend and backend strategy (as Ann Rockley does), and therefore separate the functions as follows:

Frontend strategy. The Editorial stuff

  • Developing the customer journey: what do customers really want, and when?
  • Writing of guidelines: tone of voice, branding, SEO, and style guides
  • Researching, creating and enforcing use of customer/user personas
  • Maintaining information architecture: where should content permanently live?
  • Developing content key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Defining core concepts and messaging: what will be said, and why
  • Creating a long-term vision: what will the result of a strong content strategy be?
  • Maintaining a production schedule. Based on the backend strategy, what will be published?

Backend strategy. The technical stuff

  • Content types: how can we produce re-usable content? How will it be re-used?
  • Automation: What content can be automated based on other information, such as user group or behavior?
  • How will the content management system (CMS) function, so that writers and editors can work with it?
  • Backend information architecture: where is data stored and what (if any of it) is manually retrievable?

Even for the backend content strategist, my definition holds; in previous years, he or she might have been called an ‘information architect’.

So what do you do?

I’m primarily a frontend content strategist. I work with my colleagues to develop user personas, map out customer needs and journeys, and sketch a content plan that can fulfill their needs and aims.

I also manage the publishing schedule for that content – and I look closely at how a core concept should filter through channels and content types.

For example: if you were a travel brand publishing a series of destination tips from a local Brooklyn expert, should it be in text? Are we publishing it on our own website, through Apple News, or both?

Would a video suit better? Might we produce a video for use on social media and text for Apple News and our own site?

If we make a video, what sort of video should it be?

And most important of all: what is this content giving to our target audience? And which persona in our target audience is it meant to please and attract?

There is the pedantic-boring-guidelines aspect to that too. When we publish, are we meeting the guidelines set out in our SEO governance? Does it match the tone of voice guide? Is it (sorry) “on-brand”?

Then you’re not a backend content strategist?

I think about backend strategy a lot, and have quite a lot of experience in it — if briefing requirements to somebody counts as experience. That is, I tend to work with a product owner and his or her team of frontend developers to develop aspects of backend content strategy.

To give an example of how that worked: at Albelli, I worked in seven different CMS; one for each vendor in the Albelli group. Each of these CMS was identical to the other but for the language: we published content in Dutch, English, French, German, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Naturally this is massively unsustainable. It leads to both long and unnecessary manual work and, more worryingly, to human errors in basic information.

If you have to change the price of one aspect of a product (in the case of Albelli, that might be the price of changing a photo print from gloss to matte), and you have to do that manually seven times, often working in languages you can’t read, you’re likely to make a mistake.

Similarly, if every piece of content on your website is written in manually, it becomes almost impossible to know if something needs to change in more than one place.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could change it in a single place or, even better, have that information pulled from a central database that a writer or editor never even has to see?

Well (here comes the twist) that’s what we did. As far as possible we made sure prices and product names, no matter where they were used, could be pulled from a central information source.

Then, we began to look at how we could connect our text translation software with our CMS, via a custom-built API, so that we’d have to do very little manual publishing at all. Instead, frontend developers would build a module that could pull the correct content from the translation system and then publish the module, with the relevant content, to the places we’d defined.

In this scenario, I (and my boss and my colleague, a visual merchandiser) would define our requirements and then I would work with the product owner, in this case acting as backend content strategist, to make it all happen.

Or at least, we started doing all of this. As with anything, not all the work was done when I left the company. No doubt the work continues now.

A content strategist is a content strategist is a content strategist

Such has been my experience: that product owners act as de facto backend content strategist and I work with them as the frontend content strategist; I take on aspects of the backend strategy and so do they.

I’d love to work with a completely dedicated backend content strategist one day, to see what difference it makes.

But I suppose most of all, I’d like to keep doing what we’ve all always done: keep mixing roles and responsibilities to perform our work, whether we’re product owners, managing editors, information architects, copywriters, art directors or editors-in-chief.

Enjoy that waffle? Contact me about developing a content strategy for your organization.