Is Content Strategy Strategy?

Over the weekend a tiff arose between two people whose thoughts and ideas I respect regarding whether “content strategy” is a meaningless buzzword or a legitimate practice that is part of business strategy.

In one corner, we have Olivier Blanchard, aka The Brand Builder, a marketing strategy expert who is a leader in helping companies grasp and integrate social media into their brand marketing programs. In the other corner, we have Kristina Halvorson, author of Content Strategy for the Web and principal of the content strategy firm Brain Traffic, who has helped define and elevate the discipline of content strategy.

The spat seems to have begun when Blanchard stirred the pot with the kind of blog rant he can be counted on to write, calling BS on the dilution of meaning and substance in marketing by a new buzzword, confusion on basic marketing concepts, or when someone claims a mantle of authority in the emergent world of social media who hasn’t earned that authority.

In this case, Blanchard set his sights on content strategy. I can’t tell what set him off, but he seems to be reacting to the ridiculous overuse of the word strategy in general. Perhaps he chose to focus on “content strategy” because it seems at first hearing to be a pedestrian and silly sounding term — redolent of the empty vocabulary of annoying jargon that gets slung about in business nowadays. But then again, social media was scoffed at, too.

I sympathize with Blanchard’s confusion: Content strategy is not an obvious term for most people; show me a content strategist and I’ll show you someone who frequently has to explain what “content strategy” means. The discipline has existed for at least a decade, but has only taken on the name “content strategy” over the past couple of years.

I think Blanchard is mistaken to single out the term content strategy; apparently he is unfamiliar with its meaning. The term usefully describes a distinct discipline that has emerged over the past few years that was hard to describe and lacked a good handle. Content strategy involves an understanding of the processes of web development, design, information architecture, databases, editorial, marketing, and PR — but it is distinct from each of those disciplines; the content strategist is less concerned with the details of the tactics involved in each of those things than in how to intelligently mobilize and align resources from those areas for the purpose of meeting an organization’s overall goals — through content.

Why is strategy needed for content?

A few weeks ago I discovered my kitchen faucet was leaking. I wanted to fix it without calling in a plumber. I found lots of good video tutorials on the web about fixing leaky faucets that convinced me I could do it myself.

Somehow I discovered an official blog on the manufacturer’s web site that had coincidentally recently posted a how-to article and video on this very subject. On their site I was able to identify the exact model faucet I have, and — here’s what surprised me — the product page for the faucet provided helpful information for owners in a separate tab from information for plumbers and installers. Aha! Was someone thinking strategically about content for their market segments? It took some clicking around but eventually I got what I needed and found out what part I had to replace. Their online store sold that part for sixteen dollars. I was able to buy it for about six dollars at a local plumbing supply store.

To be honest, the company’s execution left a lot to be desired. The “owner” information was mostly generic, and I had to go to the “plumber/installer” tab to get the information I actually needed. I was satisfied in this case only because I was determined to save the hundred dollars a plumber would cost, and was willing to jump through a few hoops. But overall, the experience did not change me. It didn’t make me a loyal customer who would prefer this manufacturer’s products.

This failure is not simply a failure of execution — of tactics — on the manufacturer’s part. It’s a failure of strategy and in particular, content strategy. They had an idea for a content tactic: provide information tailored to the needs of our two types of customers. But that tactic was allowed to be executed poorly because it was not anchored in a strategy — a content strategy — that aimed to create competitive advantage by delivering content that would maximize customer satisfaction. Not enough thinking went into preparing the environment of the customer experience, and as a result, my customer experience was nothing special.

How much of your customer’s experience of your product, your service, your brand is experience of content? Isn’t it time to start thinking about content strategically?

Content strategy is in increasing demand as more and more marketers discover they have to think like publishers. In the digital world we now live in, they have become publishers whether they like it or not. For a publisher, business strategy, marketing strategy and content strategy are closely connected, and often, one and the same.

Strategy vs. tactics? Or Strategy vs. Planning?

But back to our original question: is content strategy actually strategy?

Strategy is the guiding plan for meeting the overall goals of an organization. Tactics are the specific operations undertaken to achieve short-term objectives. Strategists plan. Tacticians plan and execute. That’s the usual definition.

It’s worth remembering that strategy comes from a military context, and that has implications for deciding what is strategy and what isn’t. Perhaps I’m a purist, but I think the more salient feature of strategy is that it’s about beating your competition. Without an enemy, it’s not strategy, it’s just a plan.

Think back to those short-term objectives mentioned a few sentences ago. Are they “strategic objectives” or mere objectives? In my view, they are only strategic objectives if they give you an advantage over your competition.

But this is my definition, and it’s obvious that in actual usage, most people use the word strategy more loosely to mean a high-level plan for achieving an organization’s overall goals.

Who does strategy?

Is strategy something done only in the C-suite? In my experience, organizations that don’t push strategy and strategic thinking down the organization are doomed. If I’m a top executive in a company, I want people all the way down the line to be thinking about beating the competition, to understand the strategic value of their role, and to recognize if what they are doing is aligned to meeting the organization’s strategic objectives or not.

On the other hand, organizations that don’t carve out a specialized strategist role near the top are also doomed. The last thing you want is employees who are supposed to be focused on strategy getting pulled off to execute tactics. Consider how many organizations have lots of directors who have no staff reporting to them. If I had a nickel for every development director who sat alongside volunteers stuffing envelopes I’d be a rich man. It’s like asking the navigator to be the pilot or the flight attendant and it’s a short-sighted waste of talent.

Yet, the location of responsibility for strategy and tactics is fluid. Ultimately, I think the difference between strategy and tactics is a distraction. A lot of us are required by our jobs to be both strategist and tactician. We start with strategy and move on to tactics. In practice, strategists end up spending a lot of time involved in the design of tactics. In my experience, this happens because the strategists usually have spent the time “in the trenches” earlier in their careers and therefore possess the real-world experience it takes to identify the most important strategic objectives and craft effective tactics for achieving them.

The Value of the Strategist

One of the hallmarks of a great strategist (and I suspect this is true of Olivier Blanchard) is the ability to look at the tactics a company is using and say, “wait a minute — why are you doing that?” (Answer: “Well that’s how we have always done it.”) The great strategist is willing to call out the organization’s leaders and say, “none of those things are going to get you where you want to be.” In essence, the strategist is saying, “you’re doing it wrong.” You’re focused on the wrong objectives. You’re goals have changed, but you are still following the strategy for achieving your old goals. You need a new strategy.

That’s why I usually enjoy and admire Blanchard’s straight-ahead, take-no-prisoners attitude. Someone needs to say these things. Anyone who risks annoying and alienating people is bound to be wrong sometimes, but right most of the time. This is one of the times I feel he’s mistaken.

Definitions matter. Lots of things are called strategy that aren’t strategy. The problem that content strategy aims to solve is that too often organizations just put out content without thinking about why or how it serves their overall goals. They publish or distribute content that isn’t what their customers need. They put out content that in no way helps them beat their competition. They need content strategy. (I think they need a content strategy that clearly focuses on how to beat the enemy, but that’s a subject for another blog post.)

Think what a waste most college alumni magazines are, yet colleges keep spending an insanely huge share of their budgets on them. The way colleges market to their alumni and donor customers is badly in need of a new strategy. If a college were to take a step back, start thinking like a publisher and make content strategy part of the strategy toolbox, their marketing to alumni and donors would involve completely different kinds of content and engagement than it does now. If, however, they neglect content strategy — that is, they don’t think about and plan how to produce content that can help reach the overall marketing goals of increasing customer satisfaction, expanding market share, increasing customer spend — they’ll miss the opportunity to truly reinvent what they do, and they’ll lose to the competition.

So do you think content strategy is strategy?

Why or why not? I’m hopeful that the brand marketing strategists and the content strategists will continue talk to each other, come to understand each other, disagree on some points, but still see their obvious common ground in achieving competitive advantage through content and through strategy. It’s clear from the conversation so far that many already do feel that way.

Postscript/Disclaimer

When I first encountered the term content strategy a couple years ago, my reaction was, “Isn’t that nice.” My initial impression was that it was basically editorial planning. I was wrong.

My understanding of content strategy eventually converged with my struggle to describe what I do. For almost two decades I’ve been leveraging the internet to achieve strategic marketing and communications goals. I thought of myself as a marketer. Yet, I have a lot of expertise that would not be considered part of marketing that is nevertheless intricately connected to my experience in marketing. My work combines things like information architecture with branding and editorial governance. One day it hit me: I create elaborate and detailed plans for creating competitive advantage through content: I am a content strategist.

Other good posts on the subject (added at 4:55 pm)

What Do Content Strategists Do? by Erin Kissane (@kissane)
“The central message of content strategy in 2010 is that it’s not enough to think tactically about content. To serve our clients and readers, we have to look beyond individual battles and ensure that the whole array of individual campaigns and choices works together to serve a clearly defined set of overarching goals.”

Fear, Loathing and Content Strategy by Elizabeth McGuane (@emcguane)
“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.”

4 Responses to Is Content Strategy Strategy?
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ben Shoemate, John McCrory. John McCrory said: Early bird special: Is Content Strategy Strategy? [blog post] http://j.mp/cpzbcb #contentstrategy […]

  2. Mark FidelmanNo Gravatar
    October 7, 2010 | 12:17 am

    I like simplicity. This presentation will help explain content strategy: http://www.slideshare.net/fidelman/are-content-st

    • johnmccroryNo Gravatar
      October 7, 2010 | 10:23 am

      I enjoyed your preso, Mark. (Saw it Tuesday). It's a nice contrast to my more oblique approach to the topic.

      • Mark FidelmanNo Gravatar
        October 7, 2010 | 11:17 am

        Thanks John. I've learned the hard way that simplicity seems to be the better approach in most circumstances. Keep up the great work.

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