What Is Content Strategy?
How do you explain content strategy to friends at a party? I used to work in book publishing and everyone understood that. Now, as a content strategist, I often find myself fumbling to accurately describe what I do.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that content strategy is evolving and means something different depending on who you are and where you work. The day-to-day life of an in-house content strategist working at a giant software company, for example, is very different from someone who works in higher education.
I recently attended an event that tried to tackle this content strategy identity crisis. It featured an all-star panel of speakers:
- Kristina Halvorson, CEO and Founder of Brain Traffic
- Erika Hall, Co-founder of Mule Design Studio
- Marissa Phillips, Head of Content Strategy at Airbnb
- Sara Culver, Senior Manager of Product Writing at Slack
Here are some of my key takeaways:
How do you define content strategy?
The most generally accepted definition of content strategy originated with Brain Traffic: Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.
But how does that change depending on what kind of content strategy you do? For bigger software companies like Airbnb and Slack who focus on products, the basic premise of “what to say and when to say it” is still the same.
At Slack, internal conversations have moved beyond the standard messaging, writing, and information architecture to more process and systems-oriented discussions, or what Sara Culver calls “back-end content strategy.” For example, audits and inventories of automatic emails.
Erika Hall defines content strategy as communication and the creation of meaning, independent of devices, platforms, and channels. Content systems are bursting out of containers, becoming multimodal and not tied to any one device. Concentrating on meaning can bring clarity when you’re stepping back from a device or platform and thinking about what you’re trying to say, who you’re saying it to, and what response to incorporate. (Erika talks more about what this means in this Content Strategy podcast episode.)
When Kristina Halvorson talks to stakeholders about content strategy, she tries to help them understand that content strategy is the connective tissue between editorial, user experience design, and back-end systems. It helps fill the gaps.
Making the case for content strategy
Whether you’re on an internal team or work on the agency side, it can be difficult to get stakeholder buy-in, particularly if they don’t quite understand what a content strategist brings to the table.
“People don’t care about your fancy PowerPoint deck that describes what you do and why it’s important,” said Kristina. “They care about what’s in it for them.”
Erika suggests that you start by understanding what business goals you’re trying to help your client achieve. What does your client value? Then do the work that needs to be done to meet those outcomes—without getting mired in justifying a label that, in the end, doesn’t really matter.
To uncover what those values are, Kristina often asks her clients two content-related questions right off the bat:
- What’s getting you out of bed in the morning?
- What’s keeping you awake at night?
Nota bene: Asking “When is content successful?” is the wrong question—because content isn’t magic. There is no such thing as content ROI. Rather than worrying about defending content, worry about meeting your clients’ goals, and measure success that way.
The future of content strategy
Content strategy has come a long way just in the past few years alone. (For a brief history, check out this article by Fiona Cullinan.) But where do we go from here? How will it evolve over the next 5 to 10 years? Here’s what the panelists think:
- Kristina Halvorson: The word “content” will be used less, because it implies containers, which are becoming increasingly irrelevant in terms of where users want to get information. So we’re going to need to get more comfortable designing and writing outside of constraints.
- Marissa Phillips: Product content strategists will be treated (and valued) more like designers, with better ratios of content strategists to designers on projects. Product content strategists will get to take a first stab at user flows and create the information architecture and experiences ahead of the designers.
- Erika Hall: In the Mad Men era, copywriters used to lead advertising. The articulation of the idea and the storytelling was the most important part—everything else followed. Since we won’t be designing containers first, the people who best understand how to articulate meaning and communicate to people will need to lead the design process.
And the answer is…
There is no answer. (Sorry.)
We may never be able to succinctly describe our jobs at parties or reach a standard definition of what a content strategist is. But that’s okay. As long as we’re all out there trying to make the connected world a clearer, easier-to-navigate-and-use place, it doesn’t really matter.