What is content strategy?

In this article, we look at the question: What is content strategy? How is content strategy different from content marketing strategy? Or digital strategy? Or brand strategy? Or any strategy? Read on to find out.

Editor’s note: This article was substantially updated on 1 April 2017.

Given there are many different types of ‘strategy’, working out what any of them is, is tricky. It’s particularly difficult when you aren’t an ‘insider’, and don’t have any specialist knowledge that can help you work out who does what and why.

What is content strategy?

The phrase content strategy is a combination of content and strategy.

It sounds obvious. But it’s when we break the phrase down that we find ourselves confronting two significant problems. The first is how to define ‘content’. The second is how to define ‘strategy’.

Defining content

For the majority of content strategists, ‘content’ simply means ‘any information presented via a digital channel’. This can therefore include:

  • websites
  • intranets
  • specific areas of websites, such as blogs
  • material in social media
  • audio material, from podcasts to music
  • video material and animations
  • anything related to digital communication: emails, collaboration tools
  • anything related to marketing that occurs in a digital format, such as email newsletters
  • web-​based applications
  • software
  • databases
  • … and so on.

For some content strategists, the term content has a postmodern flavour: ‘Content’ is anything that can be considered a ‘text’.

This therefore means that everything listed above is included, but so is everything that (a) has a user interaction; (b) supports a business activity; and © is an ‘item’ in its own right, whether it’s digital or not.

This therefore includes:

  • printed marketing materials, from cards to brochures
  • anything in hard copy within your business, from calendars to training manuals; guidelines to standard operating procedures
  • content that your business produces if it’s in the business of publishing: Books, articles, audio, video, magazines, etc.

So where does the ‘strategy’ part come in?

Defining strategy

If you’ve ever done any reading or training in strategy, then the first thing that you will understand is that strategy is hard to define because no singular definition exists. By extension, this is why every other ‘strategy’ (content, digital, marketing, business) feels so fluffy, stupid, and indefinable.

It’s also why you will get a different response when you ask people to tell you what content (or digital, or marketing, or user) strategy is.

By its nature though, strategy tries to understand and shape the future. This is why, as the eminent strategy writer Bob de Wit points out in this book, ‘strategists must have the ability to challenge current beliefs and to change their own minds’. A strategist will examine a set of circumstances that ask for a reconsideration of a course of action. That course of action might need to change to take advantage of opportunities, change to avoid risk or threats, or stay the same. This is, by definition, a ‘strategic problem’.

De Wit again:

Strategists need to understand the nature of problems, in order to select the appropriate way of dealing with them. A decreasing profit margin needs to be handled as an either/​or problem, and paradoxes need to be managed as a both/​and problem. Most people are used to solving either/​or problems by solving puzzles and resolving dilemmas, and to making trade-​offs in both/​and problems […] However, most people are not used to dealing with paradoxes. A paradox has no answer or set of answers — it can only be coped with as best as possible. […] Paradoxes will always remain surrounded by uncertainty and disagreements on how best to cope.

The further we delve into the realm of strategy, the more we understand that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what strategists can or do propose.

The difficult work of strategy lies in trying to find the best outcome in a paradox.

This is why non-​strategists find it hard to understand strategy: It’s surrounded by uncertainty and disagreement as to whether one particular outcome is the best way forward.

What is content strategy if it isn’t marketing?

Content strategy looks to understand, shape, and support the future of a business through interaction with content. Content marketing strategy looks to the best way to market and sell content.

Marketing strategy and content strategy feel same, because the process is similar

We developed a model that explains why separating marketing from content strategy is so hard. It’s because the process is the same.

The ‘official’ definition of content strategy (which comes from Halvorson’s keystone work Content Strategy for the Web) can apply equally to marketing:

Content strategy guides your plans for the creation, delivery and governance of content.

It’s not the process that’s different. It’s the focus of the process.

  • Content strategy is mostly inward-​facing.
  • Content marketing strategy is mostly outward-​facing.

The two also have a financial component. But again, the focus is different.

  • Content strategy strives to add value business as a whole.
  • Content marketing strategy strives to deliver a good return on marketing spend (whether that’s awareness or sales).
This figure describes a process flow that relates content strategy to marketing.
As you can see in the figure, the process for content strategy and marketing is identical.

The primary differences between content strategy and content marketing is that content strategy is a corporate strategy element, with a holistic view of the business. Marketing is much more finite, typically restrained to specific campaigns. Both have specific outcomes and specific measures, and often address the same audiences.

You will notice also that content strategy is a definitive process. It defines governance, for example. Marketing uses existing definitions and governance.

Content strategy comes in different shades

As to the flavours of content strategy, there are:

  • business process-​focused content strategists
  • content-​focused strategists
  • systems-​focused strategists.

The reason for this is because content strategists, like accountants or lawyers, play to their strengths. You don’t just go to any lawyer if you have a tax problem; you go to a tax lawyer. You don’t just go to any old accountant if you want startup finance; you go to a startup finance focused accountant.

Similarly, if you have a problem with duplicating information in your company, then you need a content strategist with a governance and policy focus (as your first step). If you produce software and have huge knowledgebases for users, then you require a content strategist who gets systems and also taxonomy.

None of these roles is better than the other. But each one has a different application, and a different position.

Most content strategists are not trained in strategy

One of our greatest bugbears at Brutal Pixie is the simple truth that most content strategists are not trained in strategy, or do not read, promote, or talk about strategy as part of their profession. One way to spot this is by looking at the methods many use and repeat to others. They are often stepped and linear (first this, then this, then this), and often in the sequence of audit, assess, propose, design, implement.

A content strategist who has strategy training will acknowledge that certainly this is one way to do things. But they are more likely to understand that each part of a strategic resolution has an influence on the other parts. Therefore, a stepped or linear process may not be appropriate. In fact, in some cases the process of identifying what’s going on, diagnosing problems, and coming up with solutions can happen simultaneously. Action, too, doesn’t always come last.

Sometimes you might need to take action before “The Strategy” can be properly formulated, so that you understand first-​hand what the problems are, and can test assumptions through experimentation. For organisations that require agility, this is potentially a better method than the linear method that might not fit.

If you are lucky enough to have a great strategist with whom your business has a long-​term relationship, you may well find that the ‘strategy’ is one of unfolding. This ‘unfolding’, for want of a better word, happens as reality changes. Every action that you take has consequences; therefore, working with a rigid strategy over a long period of time may not be the best way to work. This is particularly the case if you’re a medium-​sized business, you have a vision and a mission and intent, and grow from year to year.

What you were doing in Year 3 is not what you would do in Year 5: A good content strategist works with that unfolding reality to see, identify, assess, diagnose, and solve. And then watch and see, identify, assess and solve. Positive change happens when you have someone like that embedded in your business. The challenge for the strategist is to gain enough distance to challenge their own thinking, continue to challenge the business owner or manager, and continue to push for strategic application and strategic change.

What is content strategy, if it doesn’t involve a strategist focused on content? In those cases it usually means someone with content- or system-​related skills who has a strong user-​relationship focus. As an ‘audience advocate’ this type of content strategy is still enormously beneficial. But what it will not do is give you the strategic depth, or connection with your business strategy, that a strategist can provide.

Content strategy has fixed parts and movable parts

We all know that websites are never ‘finished’, that software is never ‘finished’. We understand that anything that is content related never resides in a fixed state. Audiences change, methods, devices, and needs change over time. But some things can be relatively fixed, and some things are movable or have to be responsive to the changes in an organisation’s lifecycle.

The fixed things may include governance rules, or the frameworks for how your decisions are made. The responsive things may be who your audience is, and the ways that you interact with them (and the tools you use to do that).

Every change in the lifecycle presents unique opportunities and risks, and not all business owners and managers have the time, training, or ability, to keep things moving.

This is why content strategists must be able to surmount their own ‘cognitive maps’, approaching every new set of circumstances with a fresh view, with the ability to develop new understandings.

Content strategy is different for a small business than it is for enterprise or government

Small businesses, and medium-​sized businesses, have different requirements from enterprise or government.

A content strategist in a small to medium sized business may find him- or herself in a project role, often advising on (and usually doing) most or all of the parts of whatever is required. So for example, at Brutal Pixie such things include content writing, strategic planning, identifying of risks, opportunities, weaknesses and threats, recommendations, testing, and much more besides. It includes everything from the writing to the taxonomy; from the brand alignment to the business vision; from coaching to implementation.

But in an enterprise or government organisation, places where there are already teams with the responsibility for content and communication channels, a content strategist will take on a much more defined role. Usually, this is as a consultancy to assess, diagnose and solve already-​defined problems. So for example, this might be a user experience problem; it might be a brand-​alignment problem after rebranding; it might be the rethinking and redevelopment of an entire content management system, website, or intranet, because it just ‘doesn’t work’.

The challenge for enterprise and government is understanding that even though a content strategist is brought in to work on ‘a problem’, it’s highly likely that the identification of the real problem may be different, and that any change can have a cascading effect throughout the business.

And because every strategist works differently, has different method, and has different strengths, whether or not they are right for you will depend on what you need.

So how do I know which content strategist to work with?

If you are outsourcing, there are a few ways you can assess fit. One is to present the information and ask the right questions. Here are some questions you can ask to set yourself on the right track:

  1. provide a brief about what you perceive the problem to be, and what your vision is (and how that vision aligns with your mission or intent)
  2. ask the content strategist, what is content strategy?
  3. request an outline of the content strategist’s method in this situation
  4. request an explanation of why they believe that method is the right one for this problem
  5. request the types of information, detail, access, and activities that they would engage in, so as to solve the problem
  6. ask for their vision of the solution and a timeframe
  7. ask them how they will give you transparency over the process from week to week, and progress reports.

Given strategy is often highly ‘internal’ or subjective work, point six is really important. As with many services type businesses, gaining visibility and transparency over your spend is sometimes extremely difficult. It’s also extremely critical that you understand how and where and when your money is being applied to the problem. Whatever your return on that investment is will depend on the value that the strategic process gives to (a) your business, and (b) the solution of the problem.

In asking these questions, you will tend to gain a couple of types of responses. The first is a fixed ‘this will fix XYZ’ type response. The second is an ‘it depends’ kind of response.

Which one is more likely to provide you with a good solution? The second one. This is because the content strategist will understand that the work is flexible, that the outcomes can change, and even that your identification of the problem might be one thing — but that the real problem might well be something else. It indicates that you have found someone with a real understanding of the nature of solving a strategic problem.

More information

If you have any questions relating to the topic of what is content strategy, or guidance on writing briefs for content strategists (or content strategy tenders), please get in touch.

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