Content bubble burst

The Problem with Content Strategy

My very first job was as an editorial assistant for a tiny travel website start-up in New York City. I spent every day reviewing user-submitted travel reviews for submission guidelines compliance, editing for spelling, grammar, and readability (yes, really), and assigning each review a rating of 1-5 stars. On a good day, I could get through 500 reviews.

Sometime while I was I honing my copyediting skills to a razor-sharp point, our start-up was acquired by a large travel technology network to join forces with a major Internet travel agency. And that’s when things got interesting.

Over the next few years, my responsibilities slowly branched out and grew to a more senior level. But as we became more integrated with our parent company’s operations, I started to ask some serious questions about the role of our editorial team. In response, the General Manager asked me to rewrite my job description. I still have it.

Here’s an excerpt:

-Create an editorial calendar that supports marketing strategy, product releases, and community relations
-Work with product team to define content architecture
-Develop a social networking strategy
-Create and maintain site style and voice guidelines

To represent my transition into this new, self-styled role, I got an updated title: Content & Community Manager. It would be another 2-3 years before I learned that there was an actual industry term for a job like this (and lots of other, more varied responsibilities therein): Content Strategist.

I felt so validated and recognized when I first read about the discipline of content strategy. “That’s what I do!” I thought. “These are my peeps!” And I’ve been a proud, card-carrying member of the content strategy tribe ever since.

I firmly believe that thinking strategically about content and copy makes the world (and the Web) a better place. But after a decade as a practicing content strategist in both in-house and agency settings, I’ve taken the plunge to start my own content and copywriting services business. And as I work through my own strategy, I can’t stop gnashing my teeth over that damn nomenclature.

“Content strategy”: even after all this time, the term is still ambiguous. It’s still dry. It’s still a long way from doing justice to all the complexities inherent in peeling back the veil on how businesses communicate. And I think we’ve outgrown it.

One of the most frequent puzzlements we content strategists encounter is with the word “content” itself. It has both the unfortunate buzzy tenor of a term like “viral marketing” and the slippery quality of a word everyone thinks they know, but can’t really define when pressed (the ironic thing about the word “irony”).

The truth is, content is everything: writing, video, audio, slides, social media updates, customer service emails—the entire scope of your business’ communication, across all platforms and channels. Not just on your website, though that is a major (if not the primary) point of customer contact for most businesses.

So then, what the hell is “content strategy”? If content is everything, then is it everything strategy? And isn’t that just “strategy,” full stop? I daresay it is. And maybe I’m onto something—three of the top 10 Google search results for “web strategy definition”* are about content strategy.

I’m reminded of Karen McGrane’s awesome presentation The Mobile Content Mandate. One big, bold slide stated, “There’s no such thing as ‘how to write for mobile.’ There’s just good writing.”

I’m going to affectionately rip off that brilliant reality check here and take the plunge:

There’s no such thing as content strategy. There’s just good strategy.

Now, before you start pumping the pitchforks, bear with me for a second. I am not saying that we content strategists should all just shut it down and find new jobs. I’m saying that the label doesn’t do justice to the value we provide. Maybe it’s time to let go of the cause we’ve all held so dear, for so long, often above all else: protecting and championing the idea of “content”.

Here’s how I see it: strategy is a set of intentions, educated by market knowledge, customer insights, business capabilities, and so forth, that drives business decisions. It’s a navigational system for guiding what a business does and says.

When we consider that the general motivation behind all business decisions is to convert more customers in some sense—sell more product to shoppers, engage more readers or subscribers, sign more partners, or what have you—it follows that the action required is always going to be some sort of communication.

A January 2014 article in Harvard Business Review, provocatively titled The Big Lie of Strategic Thinking, describes strategy, in part, as “finding ways to acquire and keep customers,” completely distinct from cost planning and revenue projections. I’ll take it a step further and say that any “way” to acquire and keep customers necessarily involves reaching out to them. Interacting with them. Communicating with them.

But wait! What about web strategy, brand strategy, social media strategy, or [fill in the blank] strategy? Well, I’ll argue that these are all just different angles on core strategy, not different types of strategy in and of themselves. None of them can effectively exist in a vacuum. Good strategy accounts for all possible angles and applications.

And even if you believe that they are each entirely autonomous (i.e., you work for a large enterprise), you have to concede that they all ultimately serve the effort to communicate both externally and internally.

Bottom line: Communication is the be-all and end-all of business success or failure.

And what did we establish earlier about content? That it’s everything a business communicates.

The problem with the term “content strategy” is that it keeps us confined to an awkward, vaguely defined space, mutually exclusive of all those other strategy subtypes. You know how, when you’re packing boxes for a move, you always start out really organized—you’ve got a box labeled “kitchen tools”, another labeled “office files”, and so forth—but by moving day, you’re just throwing shit in a box and labeling it “Miscellaneous” or “DVDs + pet stuff/gift wrap”? We’re stuck in that box.

Ever been brought into a multi-month project during its final weeks, to “do the content strategy” for the text boxes in web templates that have already been designed? Found yourself left out of meetings about building product comparison tools or implementing CMS tools, because you’re thought of primarily as a glorified editor? Or finished a beautifully detailed, comprehensive content audit, only to find that all the strategic decisions had already moved ahead without you?

It’s because no one knows what to do with that box. They don’t know what room to put it in, or when to unpack it, or how important its contents are (excuse the pun). And since we’re hamstrung and can’t really prove our real value through our work, we do what we can do: resume our post on the “content” soapbox and try to demonstrate all the problems that have been created as a result of its mishandling (which—let’s be honest—no one wants to hear at the end of a long project).

The truth is, the word “content” just doesn’t really work as a modifier for “strategy.” Content is not an angle or an approach—an activated strategy is all about content.

Saying you do “content strategy” is sort of like saying you’re writing a “word letter” or eating a “food meal”.

My suspicion? Those of us who started out as writers and editors and content managers are used to fighting our way out of metaphorical corners (and describing them beautifully while we do it). The perception of writing as a “fluffy” discipline that doesn’t involve any proprietary skill has long been pervasive. Writers have been nesting in the world’s “starving artist” quarters since, oh, forever or so.

That we’ll be required to defend our value and fight for our seat at the adult table is a foregone conclusion. So carving out a strategy-centric niche for ourselves feels like a pretty big win. Producing methodical, insightful deliverables that prove our strategic value is a giant leap from the days of owning nothing more than copy documents (usually with about three different layers of tracked-changes at a time).

On top of that, we’re a proud bunch—we know how important good writing, thoughtful metadata, and strong voice and tone are. We know what a huge difference thorough content audits and scalable governance plans can make. So we embrace our strategic label and we own the shit out of it.

But here’s the thing: it’s not enough. Editorial standards, metadata strategies, customer journeys, voice and tone guidelines, key messages, workflows and governance charts and audit criteria—they aren’t just one corner of a bigger puzzle. They are the puzzle. They’re what define how a business communicates—and communication is everything.

I’m not suggesting we all up and change our job titles on a whim—content strategy is widely recognized as a respected discipline, thanks to a growing movement of kick-ass thought leaders and practitioners that I belong to myself. But I am suggesting we shed the out-of-touch idea that content is anything less than everything a business says and does.

I’m suggesting we shift out from under the “defining our niche” mindset to stop leaning so heavily on “content” and start owning the shit out of strategy.

We are a new generation of strategists who have spent years steering our way through the trenches of content’s ever-shifting landscape. We’ve got the firsthand experience to help businesses chart the right course, because we know how to grapple with what they’re actually putting out there—not just corporate pillars and market research and leap-of-faith revenue goals.

That we can develop editorial style guides, have a knack for articulating complex concepts, and know when to use “who” or “whom” shouldn’t be reasons to narrow our focus. They should be just the opposite.

They should be proof of our uniquely exceptional value.

*Search on 5/15/14

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