It’s time for content strategy

Written byMelissa Rach. 14 comments

Melissa Rach

Melissa Rach is director of content strategy at Brain Traffic, a leading US-based content agency. She's been helping clients and colleagues tackle messy online content problems since 1993. Her methodologies have been featured in university curriculums and several books, including 2009's 'Content Strategy for the Web' by Kristina Halvorson.

As a web professional you are in the right place to become a content strategist. And now is the right time to do it.

They say there’s a time and a place for every­thing. I’m not sure who they are, but I was start­ing to think con­tent strat­egy would prove them wrong. You see, despite the fact that we have been in the ‘infor­ma­tion age’ since 1956 and rid­ing on the ‘infor­ma­tion super­high­way’ since 1990, con­tent never got much respect.

Until now.

These days, peo­ple (espe­cially web peo­ple) are jump­ing on the con­tent strat­egy band­wagon faster than hip­pies catch­ing the bus to Wood­stock. I know what you’re think­ing — web pun­dits have been annoy­ing every­body with this ‘con­tent is king’ busi­ness for 15 years and it never mat­tered before. Why should you care now?

What is con­tent strat­egy anyway?

Before we go too far, let’s define con­tent and con­tent strat­egy.

Con­tent is any­thing that informs, instructs, or enter­tains peo­ple. Text, raw data, images, games, music, lec­tures, videos, flash wid­gets, a good joke, road­side signs – it’s all content.

A con­tent strat­egy is a plan for cre­at­ing, shar­ing, and gov­ern­ing con­tent effectively.

Con­tent strat­egy isn’t just a web thing. In fact, it’s been around for thou­sands of years. Con­tent cre­ation and shar­ing began when our ear­li­est ances­tors started telling each other sto­ries. By the time the Pale­olithics were paint­ing on cave walls in Las­caux, there is evi­dence that con­tent had rules. So con­tent strat­egy was hap­pen­ing in 16,000 B.C., if not before.

Since then, the amount of con­tent has increased expo­nen­tially with each gen­er­a­tion. Today, more than half of the work­force in indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries is paid to cre­ate or share con­tent. Adver­tis­ing peo­ple cre­ate ads, prod­uct peo­ple cre­ate spec sheets, lawyers write com­pli­cated poli­cies that no one reads. A con­tent strat­egy ensures all of the time, effort, and money invested on con­tent is well spent.

What’s the web got to do with it?

Before the web, if your com­pany didn’t have a good con­tent strat­egy, it wasn’t a big deal. Every depart­ment or busi­ness unit cre­ated con­tent for their own audi­ence. Press releases were only sent to the press. The finance team gave reports to the investors behind closed doors. Con­sumers may have received a sales brochure and an instruc­tion man­ual – but rarely at the same time. Because pieces of con­tent weren’t seen or used together, there wasn’t a lot incen­tive for orga­ni­za­tions to make con­tent cohe­sive.

The inter­net changed all that. Online, dis­parate con­tent is (lit­er­ally) linked together in ways nobody expected. The press releases are right next to the investor infor­ma­tion, which is right next to the cus­tomer information.

In addi­tion, all of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels are inte­grated with the web. The print brochures say ‘learn more at our web site.’ Then, at the web site you see, ‘Stay informed, fol­low us on Twitter.’

When done right, a cor­po­rate web site or intranet project brings all of the busi­ness units together – some­times for the very first time. But as web vet­er­ans know, it can get ugly. Web projects expose all of the organization’s con­tent incon­sis­ten­cies, inad­e­qua­cies, and inef­fi­cien­cies. Fin­gers are pointed, pol­i­tics get petty, and pas­sions run high.

Nego­ti­at­ing the con­tent mine­field can be chal­leng­ing. But, unless the con­tent issues are addressed, inter­nal teams won’t be sat­is­fied, and more impor­tantly, the user won’t be sat­is­fied. And we all know, if the user ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Why now?

If web has been around for more than 15 years, why hasn’t con­tent strat­egy come to promi­nence before now? Let’s face it. Con­tent strat­egy is hard. It’s not par­tic­u­larly sexy either. Tech­nol­ogy, usabil­ity, graphic design – even SEO – all sound like more fun. It’s human nature that peo­ple tried every­thing else first.

I like to com­pare the web’s evo­lu­tion to a human life cycle.

The mid-​​nineties were the web’s child­hood. Web sites were full of all sorts of toys like splash pages and flam­ing gifs. Big busi­ness didn’t take the web seri­ously, so no real sub­stance was nec­es­sary. When we did attempt to put con­tent online, we did what kids do – we imi­tated our pre­de­ces­sors: older forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion like brochures and catalogs.

Around 1999, the web entered ado­les­cence. Like a teenager, the web indus­try became obsessed with what other peo­ple think (the user expe­ri­ence) at the expense of all else. Com­pa­nies were no bet­ter. They acted like uni­ver­sity stu­dents with their first credit cards – blow­ing the wad on trendy CMS sys­tems and chang­ing their online ‘iden­ti­ties’ every few months.

In 2009, the web has become a young adult. We still like to have fun and act like kids some­times and the lessons we learned as ado­les­cents will always be valu­able. But, now it’s time to prove our met­tle. We need to grow up, join the busi­ness world, and start mak­ing money. Busi­nesses now want the web to prove ROI, and tech­nol­ogy and design can only get us so far.

At the end of the day, the web is about shar­ing con­tent. We have no alter­na­tive but to focus on con­tent strat­egy. It may not be sexy but it is rewarding.

Why you should care, part one: con­tent strat­egy works

Good con­tent strat­egy has many ben­e­fits. But, pri­mar­ily it helps orga­ni­za­tions ensure con­tent is use­ful, usable, pur­pose­ful, and profitable.

Since con­tent strat­egy is a rel­a­tively new busi­ness con­cept, the effec­tive­ness of con­tent strat­egy hasn’t been mea­sured very often. But there are a few famous successes.

In 1988, ‘Just do it’ started as an ad cam­paign but quickly turned into the core of Nike’s con­tent ecosys­tem. It was on every shoe­box, prod­uct label, pro­mo­tional pam­phlet, and web page. Whether you saw story about Michael Jor­dan or a job descrip­tion on the Nike career page, the ‘Just do it’ mes­sage came across.

Dan Wieden, the guy behind ‘Just do it,’ explained why they chose to use con­tent to hold the orig­i­nal ad cam­paign together.

We were doing so many [ad] spots and the look had to be dif­fer­ent, but we felt we needed to have some cement to the thing.

Between 1988 and 1998, Nike boosted its share of U.S. ath­letic shoe sales from 18 per­cent to 43 per­cent. World­wide sales increased from $877 mil­lion to $9.2 bil­lion. (Source: Cen­ter for Applied Research)

Not bad, eh?

Why you should care, part two: you’re already a con­tent strategist.

No mat­ter who you are or what you do, you’re a con­tent strate­gist. You prob­a­bly cre­ated con­tent before break­fast this morn­ing – maybe you updated your Face­book sta­tus or sent a text mes­sage to a friend. Actu­ally, you cre­ated con­tent before you even woke up. By sim­ply con­tin­u­ing to exist, the data in your med­ical and gov­ern­ment records changed.

We each cre­ate, use, and pub­lish an aston­ish­ing amount of con­tent. Whether we’re con­scious of it or not, we need strate­gies to deal with it. We intuitively

Con­tent is one of the things that makes peo­ple human. Why is this impor­tant to your career? Every col­league you have and every client you’ll ever meet is a con­tent strate­gist, too. Finally, since inter­ac­tive media are pri­mar­ily designed to deliver con­tent, if some­one hires you to help on an inter­ac­tive project of any kind, you are part of their con­tent strategy.

You’re wel­come to stay.

As a web pro­fes­sional, you’re in the right place, at the right time to become a con­tent advo­cate. We’ve got plenty of room here on the con­tent strat­egy band­wagon. You’re wel­come to stay.

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Comments on this article

  1. Written byRichard Warzecha on the 14th of January

    I really enjoy the con­tri­bu­tion Melissa, Kristina and all the crew at Brain Traf­fic have offered the web pro­fes­sion­als com­mu­nity. Obvi­ously they get it, and I hope that oth­ers plan­ning and redesign­ing their web­sites take their mes­sage to heart. The long over­due impor­tance that some are now finally giv­ing con­tent strat­egy will make for many more great online experiences.

    How­ever, one aspect of their mes­sage has always trou­bled me. In this arti­cle Melissa men­tions that the web has been around for more than 15 years and won­ders “why hasn’t con­tent strat­egy come to promi­nence before now?” In _​Content Strat­egy for the Web_​ Kristina has a sim­i­lar por­trayal of this dis­ci­pline being a rel­a­tively new addi­tion, even, I believe, using the term “emerging.”

    But haven’t many agen­cies been using terms like “Con­tent Strate­gist” for over a decade? If Dan Brown hap­pens to be lis­ten­ing in, I think he could ver­ify that at the dot-​​bomb poster child march­FIRST there were dozens of con­tent strategists.

    Of course, the argu­ment can be made that Melissa and Kristina are con­cerned more about the wider audience’s aware­ness of this dis­ci­pline and role. I accept that. I just have always found it odd that through­out their dis­cus­sions of con­tent strat­egy they have never acknowl­edged that many peo­ple have had “Con­tent Strate­gist” on their cubi­cle for many years now.

  2. Written byMelissa Rach on the 14th of January

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the thought­ful comment.

    I def­i­nitely agree that con­tent strat­egy has been around awhile. I’ve been doing it in one form or another for more than 15 years myself. There are many con­tent strate­gists — Ann Rock­ley comes to mind first — who have been using the term con­sis­tently and pub­licly the whole time. And, like you said, Dan Brown — smart as they get.

    And before them, there were the cham­pi­ons of inte­grated mar­ket­ing and library sci­ence who cre­ated the foun­da­tions of a lot the work we do today. As I men­tion in the arti­cle, con­tent strat­egy existed a long time before the web did.

    How­ever, until recently, those of us in the trenches were fight­ing uphill bat­tles, largely alone, to get con­tent taken seri­ously online. In the last three years or so, con­tent strat­egy has gained momen­tum and atten­tion. The peo­ple who prac­tice it are start­ing to iden­tify and part­ner with each other on a much larger scale. So, I do think con­tent strat­egy is an emerg­ing dis­ci­pline, in the respect that it is grow­ing rapidly and becom­ing a more unified/​recognizable profession.

    Con­tent strat­egy may not be new to you and I, but it’s new to a lot of peo­ple — and those are the peo­ple this arti­cle was intended to reach.

    Thanks again for the com­ment. I love a good his­tor­i­cal discussion!

  3. Written byMargot Bloomstein on the 15th of January

    Bravo, Melissa! I’ll sec­ond Richard’s remarks, with one mod­i­fi­ca­tion. While teams at Sapi­ent circa 2000 included con­tent strate­gists, I think it’s fair to say the process and inte­gra­tion of con­tent strat­egy is very dif­fer­ent now. We’ve estab­lished con­ven­tions, stan­dards, and rules of engagement–all of which help other inter­ac­tive team mem­bers give con­tent and con­tent strat­egy the time and bud­get they require. As you point out, there’s a lot to rel­ish in matu­rity. Happy we no longer have to beg to bor­row the metaphor­i­cal keys to the car.

  4. Written byDaniel Eizans on the 15th of January


    Great stuff. It does finally feel like peo­ple are start­ing to pay closer atten­tion to our prac­tice. I sup­pose what’s start­ing to trou­ble me is that many com­pa­nies are start­ing to divorce their Web con­tent strat­egy from their enter­prise con­tent strat­egy. At some point I believe it will become nec­es­sary to blend the two.

    As con­tent strate­gists I believe we’ll start to be tasked to do much, much more and think about how online con­tent and engage­ments that result from that con­tent will even­tu­ally start to influ­ence how we plan and pro­duce our offline mate­ri­als. In other words the scale will even­tu­ally tip in favor of the Web and all of its won­ders reshap­ing what’s con­sid­ered to be “tra­di­tional content.”

    Enjoyed this piece a lot. Great stuff.

  5. Written byShannon Krause on the 15th of January

    Great arti­cle!

    I’m in the mid­dle of a mas­sive con­tent audit right now. While con­tent strat­egy may have been around for a long time, it hasn’t been put into prac­tice the way it should. Now, those of us on the band­wagon are look­ing at major clean-​​up.

    A word to the wise — get on the con­tent strat­egy band­wagon early. Expo­nen­tial con­tent growth means that every day you go with­out a con­tent strat­egy will add days to your time­line when you finally decide to sort it out.

  6. Written byMelissa Rach on the 15th of January

    Daniel: Agreed. Con­tent is often so closely tied the enter­prise that is dif­fi­cult (and some­times dan­ger­ous) to sep­a­rate it enter­prise strat­egy. I think we do our clients a dis­ser­vice if we think of con­tent strat­egy for the web alone. Even if we’re work­ing on a web-​​only project, we need to con­sider the ram­i­fi­ca­tions on the rest of the orga­ni­za­tion. And, yes, I do think in lead­ing orga­ni­za­tions the inter­ac­tive con­tent leads the tra­di­tional content.

    Mar­got: Thanks!

    Shan­non: Thanks, and good luck on your audit.

  7. Written byNoreen Compton on the 15th of January

    It is indeed an excit­ing time for Con­tent Strate­gists. I’ve been doing con­tent strat­egy since Com­puServe first decided to stop using pro­gram­mers to sup­ply con­tent and started bring­ing in writ­ers and edi­tors in 1996. But as recently as 3 years ago, while work­ing at a con­sult­ing firm that has used the title “Con­tent Strate­gist” for many years, I had to con­stantly try to explain what I do. I was usu­ally brought in after the design phase. IAs could not under­stand why con­tent couldn’t just be added to their fin­ished wire­frames near the end of a project. More recently, I worked on a project at Razor­fish where they really got what con­trent strat­egy is. Ah, hiome at last… But the bat­tle still rages on with clients.

  8. Written byJeremy Ford on the 4th of February

    With the advent of smart­phones and prod­ucts like iPad con­tent strat­egy is chang­ing before our eyes. New ques­tions come into play. How will peo­ple receive there con­tent? where will they receive there con­tent? Com­pa­nies like iScroll can make con­tent avail­able in a new for­mat that is acces­si­ble from anywhere.

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