Fear, loathing and Content Strategy

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.