Fear, loathing and content strategy

by Elizabeth McGuane

Web-related job titles. No topic is more likely to generate possessiveness, fear and rampant insecurity.

There is a prevailing and ongoing confusion around the relatively new title of content strategist, and the field called content strategy. I find these arguments simultaneously boring and frustrating, and while I hardly think one post from me is going to silence the issue, I wanted to see if I could tease out some of the arguments here.



The only way I can do that is by thinking, in practical terms, about the situations I’ve come across in my own work.

The tree of knowledge

The whole thing started with a Very Sane Book that Launched a Thousand Semantic Arguments, Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web.

She picked that title, I imagine, because it seemed to frame, for her, what she was trying to say about the importance of creating a plan for your web content.

Plan = strategy. Content = content. Easy.

Some people, married to other keywords, don’t want this new term to exist. I’ll get back to them later.

Others want the term, but are obsessed with defining exactly what it means, thus owning and bureaucratizing it.

Now, absolute definitions are absurd – but let’s plunge on regardless.

(Web) content and communications: separate but equal

Some want the term to mean a strategy for all types of content produced by a business. To me, this becomes a communications strategy – simply because it encompasses all the types of communications a company produces, not just web content.

It’s also, in my experience, a strategy so large that it will probably never be executed – only because I’ve never seen a marketing/communications person in a company who knew how to create a workable plan for all their different publishing platforms. And it doesn’t take into account the unique differences of publishing on the web – different timelines, different metrics, different possibilities.

Keep quiet or keep whining: a content person’s dilemma

In the bad old days, content was seen as an element of website production. In fact, most times, it still is. This is seen as ‘smarter’ than making special time to make an extra-special content strategy, because any content plan based on the past can’t possibly tell us about future needs, and of course is not as good as actually getting things done.

Getting things done matters. But in my experience, business marketing is inherently reactionary. It is not based on anything but a desire to react to present circumstances – usually, the actions of the competition. The outcome of this knee-jerk style of publishing leads to inconsistent content quality over time.

For example, if you’re an editor at a newspaper, you have to react, tactically, to the news. But the ethos of your paper – its slant, its awareness of its audience – will help you, as an editor, decide how your paper is going to react – under the guise of journalistic objectivity, of course.

Plus, the knowledge that you have to fill column inches every week, major news event or no, means that a plan must be in place to fill those gaps not taken up by current events. This is why we have lifestyle pages and the sport section, think of them what you will.

Content strategy for the web is about bringing editorial skill and methods into website planning. In order to create good content, you need a plan for how you’re going to get it and keep it coming. So have a plan. Hire people who can write. Get good content.

It is bone-headedly simple, which is why, I think, no one really disagrees with the process – we’re just arguing over the nomenclature.

My job title kicks your job title’s ass

Content strategy is just content planning. Fine. So why is there a new term for it?

Because, before it started being championed by Kristina and others, there was little or no editorial presence on websites run by large corporations – there were few people in place to actually do this planning. Those that were there were swamped and stifled by the ‘content is a production exercise’ mentality mentioned above.

The idea of content professionals being given time and scope for planning was still a fantasy. I base this entirely on my own experience at an agency, and on widespread anecdotal evidence from speaking to everyone at last year’s Content Strategy Forum in Paris.

Today, not that much has changed. We forget this when we get caught up in industry identity crises. But there is still no real editorial method being practised at most large websites.

New terms are created to give power to certain skills. Using the term content strategy is all about positioning people who already hold those skills a little higher up the food chain, so they can make sure things get done.

I’ve been called a ‘content girl’ in my time. I glared, but didn’t care, as long as I was allowed to be involved in the design process, and content was taken into consideration when it needed to be, making it easier for me to do my job and do it well.

But it takes a lot longer to get respect when you don’t have a clearly demarcated field and a more-or-less widely understood title. User experience professionals have known this for some time. And they still fight over what they should be called. Words make people angry, what can I say.

What to do about it

How content strategy is implemented at your company or in your agency is entirely up to you. Think you can have a communications strategist who can create a plan and then make sure it’s executed on every publishing platform you have, including the web? Go for it.

Want to keep your web strategy linked but separate from your print or marketing strategy, because you know different skills are involved, different publishing timelines are in place, and having a strategist with a web-specific skillset increases the possibility that the plan will be based on reality and will actually happen? Hire a web content strategist.

Figure it out for yourself

Agencies and companies have to work out how they want to implement editorial skills and practices in a way that makes sense for them. What the rise of content strategy has done is made sure that companies are actually thinking about editorial skills and practices.

For me, it’s important to keep talking about ‘content strategy’ now to make sure that keeps happening. The term has gained a foothold, as one term or another tends to do. Arguing over nomenclature, at this point, gets us nowhere.

Why does one job title undervalue another?

If editorial skill is already valued where you are, with your present title, then you’ve nothing to worry about. But recognize that there is still plenty of ground to be gained in the effort to improve the way companies communicate online, and the promotion of content strategy is all about gaining that ground.

Keep your hate for bad work being done under the guise of a new job title. Don’t hate the good work done by people using the definition of their field to make their work more widely understood and more effective.


Written by
Elizabeth McGuane
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25 responses to Fear, loathing and content strategy

    • Thanks Larry – I’ve thought about that one, but am not sure where I stand, if I stand anywhere at all. I feel like it’s a metaphor for dealing with content, rather than an industry/title problem. But I know it’s raised a lot of hackles because the word has been owned by another field entirely. I’d like to talk to a lot of art/museum curators before being able to understand what the word can mean.

  1. This is a great and thoughtful piece although what’s your take on the content strategy side that intersects more with design and information architecture than the editorial side?

    • I don’t see them as opposites, Carl – probably because I worked at an agency where I gained experience in information architecture and design while bringing my own previous experience in editing and writing to the table. It’s a (perceived) schism that’s interesting to me – so many people see content strategists as being either editorial or design/UX based, but not both. I see that our origins might be different, but surely we should be aiming to hold all these skills. And I think they’re a lot more complementary than we imagine. I almost think of IA as a subset of content strategy – controversial, please don’t throw things – only because in my experience, the IA devolves after a site launches, and becomes the web editor or content strategist’s problem. And because it’s about the organisation of information, about choosing a certain taxonomy & structure to provide a journey through a site: a story, in a way.

  2. “Content strategy for the web is about bringing editorial skill and methods into website planning.” Huh? Why emphasize editorial activity when that’s useless without structuring the content so that it can be effectively used by the audience? How about, content strategy is about finding/creating the semantics that provide structure to an enterprise’s content?

    • “Why emphasize editorial activity when that’s useless without structuring the content so that it can be effectively used by the audience?” Can you explain what you mean by that, Paul? I’m not sure I understand why editorial activity and content structure are mutually exclusive.

      • It wasn’t clear that your use of ‘editorial’ includes information-technical website activities like identifying taxonomies and explicit semantic relationships. I would avoid that conflation of meanings because the two activities are distinct and independent of each other.

      • To my mind “editorial” means the activity of monitoring/revising visible content with respect to the enterprise’s goal(s) of communicating with one or more audiences. By that definition, addressing nonvisible metadata and nonvisible structure is not an “editorial” activity. So I say editorial and information-architecture activities address different objects and are therefore functionally distinct and will attract specialized workers as the content field matures.

    • I’m with Elizabeth – this is where you start to get into the gray zone of where content strategy ends and information architecture begins. It’s more about where your particular focus is – the content itself, or the meta structure that contains it. Needs to be both, but rarely in equal degree.

  3. I totally agree that lumping in enterprise content considerations would be better served by a “communications strategy” moniker.

    I do quibble with the equivalency of strategy and planning.

    “Plan = strategy. Content = content. Easy.”?

    How about “Strategy = strategy. Plan = plan. Content = content.”

    A strategy proceeds and gives rise to one or more plans, which are made up of one or more tactics. Way too often I’ve seen entire strategies thrown out because a particular plan didn’t work as well as expected. Worse still, sometimes the whole thing gets dropped because a single tactic failed.

      • We won’t judge you for it. It actually makes sense to me both ways – I read it as ‘[as] a strategy goes forward it gives rise to plans’. Any strategy needs to be adaptable, or we end up with the very problem you’ve mentioned. I don’t mean in a wishy washy sense that ‘a strategy is whatever you need it to be’ – just that it sometimes needs to adapt to circumstances. A big event can shove aside everything else for awhile, but a strategy ensures you’ll still know where you’re headed when things return to normal.
        Thanks for the comments & careful reading!

  4. Pingback: What Do Content Strategists Do? : Incisive.nu

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  7. I also like your writing style. Which would only be natural for a “content girl”. Funny, the term has a Mad Men ring to it.

    Are you saying Content Strategists are primarily Digital Marketing Strategist?

    If Content Strategy beyond the web becomes an unmanageable task of “Communication Strategy”, who’s role do you see it is to manage the story across trans-media platforms?

  8. Thanks Greg! And would that everything were as simple as it is on Mad Men, where men are men and copywriters are (hardworking, undervalued) copywriters.

    I would not subscribe to the definition that Content Strategists are primarily Digital Marketing Strategists, because not all content is marketing material, and the scope of the job involves organisation, governance and design as much as it does copywriting and marketing. Erin Kissane’s piece on ‘What do Content Strategists do?’ provides a great overview of this. (http://incisive.nu/2010/what-content-strategists-do/)

    On your last point, when I said “Think you can have a communications strategist who can create a plan and then make sure it’s executed on every publishing platform you have…” I meant it, my slightly disbelieving tone notwithstanding. That person would be a communications strategist, if you like. But I’ve never seen this role in action at any large company I’ve worked with – if they have existed, they haven’t yet started to deal with content strategy for the web, or they wouldn’t have needed me.

  9. Thanks for the response. Your clarification that “not all content is marketing material” makes a clearer distinction between Content Strategists and Digital Marketers. I believe however, that while all content is not put online and into digital form for marketing purposes, as soon as the public interacts with that content, it will have some type of marketing or branding effect.

    Thanks for the link – it’s filled with interesting information from a very knowledgeable blogger, but I still prefer the accessibility of your writing style.

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About Mapped.

We're two writers who make web things. We're interested in what makes stories go: in our brains, online, in design, fiction, culture and everywhere.

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