Content strategy, content marketing and the name game

I had to laugh this morning when I saw this tweet from UX champion Jared Spool:

Ah, the Content Strategy community has now caught the Define The Damn Thing virus. #DTDT #ContentStrategy

The situation has been circling for months, and it’s finally caught us. Guilty. We are engaged in a fight about what we are talking about. [“Fight” is really too inflammatory a word, as long as we’re trying to be specific. I think the fight is between us and our overly semantic selves, truly.]

Let me be clear up front that I find the discussion useful and unimportant: Useful to help our discipline better define itself and better educate prospective clients [customers, our boss, the CFO, whoever] about the need for content strategy, not altogether important in that much of this dialogue is about our internal terminology, and we’ll never fully convince the people who sign our checks to use the terms we like.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of thought-provoking posts from Lise Janody and Ian Alexander, and I’ve been following the great conversation on the content strategy Google Group. The Nashville Content Strategy Meetup also had a great discussion related to this topic at our event last Thursday. So all this has been swirling in my head recently. I’ll throw my thoughts out there, and I’d love your feedback.

Here’s how I approach content strategy:

  • I love Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, and Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy. I think both are helpful definitions and provide great examples, particularly of some deliverables that are useful in content strategy.
  • I think content strategy is NOT about deliverables. Though this may seem to be a contradiction, keep reading. I’ll elaborate.
  • Content strategy is a mindset. That’s the real value we bring to our clients at Creekmore Consulting. We help them think about content in a new way. We often use deliverables like audits, inventories, taxonomies, style guides and more as part of our work, but those aren’t the real value. They help us reveal and demonstrate the value that true strategy brings to the table.

Now, about content marketing.

Ian Alexander’s reference to content marketing kicked off some of the fuss in the Google Group, and I do think it’s a useful question he’s asked. How do we [internal to the discipline] differentiate content strategy and marketing? How does the marketplace [our clients and stakeholders] do so? I think he’s right in asking — I’ve seen lots of places where I felt the terms were used interchangeably, and incorrectly, I felt.

My background includes a whole lot of content marketing, so I’ve got some definite opinions here. I think the word “content” is part of what confuses us in both content strategy and content marketing, but I don’t have a great substitute for it at this time.

Content strategy: The mindset that puts content second*, whether you’re talking about enterprise content management, product development, web applications, mobile, print, marketing, whatever. This emerging discipline is particularly known for several of its web-content-based [but often more broadly useful] deliverables, like content audits, taxonomies, style guides, workflows and governance models. We put content second, because the business goal comes first. All else follows.

Content marketing: A particular marketing strategy, where marketers use content to build a trusting, reciprocal relationship with customers and prospects.

The fuzzy: The confusion happens in the middle. To me, effective content marketing must have content strategy as a component. You have to have planned for the [to use Halvorson’s well-known definition] creation, delivery and governance of any content if you want it to meet your business goal. In my previous, custom media life, this distinction was clear. The custom magazines and websites we created for customers were content marketing, and we used principles of content strategy to ensure we met business goals and effectively managed operations.

But I don’t think the distinction is always so clear. It’s sometimes hard to define whether a web property is a product, media or marketing….often, a single website can be all 3 at once. So it’s no wonder we’re confused about the terms.

What’s the takeaway? I’m not sure. I think the conversation is good. I think we can draw some distinctions. And I think we have more work still to do.

6 Responses to Content strategy, content marketing and the name game

  1. Ian Alexander June 14, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Laura,

    Glad you grabbed hold that it was a conversation. I think “fight” showcases all involved in a poor light but I do think it is a necessary discussion. To clarify my point was simply that people confuse the two and they are not the same. And in letting that message be spread around we are confusing ourselves and our clients.

    PS -I like your firm’s line “We put content second, because the business goal comes first.” -Ian

  2. Laura Creekmore June 14, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Ian, you are so right about the word fight. Hyperbole is one of my favorite literary devices [can you tell??] and here, in particular, I probably should have done without the crutch. Thanks for your comments. It’s been a fascinating conversation to me.

  3. Keith Wiegold June 14, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Amen, Laura!  I’ve long tried to explain the distinction to clients and colleagues alike….with varying degrees of success.  I concur that content strategy is required of any effective content marketing, but that content marketing isn’t necessarily involved in content strategy. 

    To further stir the pot, I consider one of my professional offerings as a Content Marketing Strategist — that is, someone who develops strategies to effectively utilize content marketing within a business’ overall marcomm mix. 

    Now, am I just asking for it or what?!?

    Thanks for your post

  4. Steven Parker June 15, 2011 at 12:17 am #

    Hi Laura, these distinctions are really important to marketers. In a way content strategists can at times avoid the definition conflict, because you are concerned with the BIG CONTENT STRATEGY IN THE SKY.  Which is to say “everything, not just marketing things.” It is the superset, and content marketing is clearly a subset. But you can hardly avoid bumping into marketers, and it’s going to become more and more frequent. In most organizations marketers own more than half of the content you want to improve and fix and maintain, etc. And then of course, there’s the 800 pound gorilla of the Content Marketing hype machine, which has turned the volume up to 11. I predict some dyspepsia among content strategy folks if they have to hang out with too many of the huckster types.

    There are many marketers, like Michael Brenner at SAP, who’ve gotten the message that content strategy could “save” marketing. I get it too. That’s why I went to Confab. But my own view of it is slightly different and still a work in progress. Thanks for bringing this to the fore…there’s going to be a LOT written about this over the coming months (at least from the marketing side). I think all marketers need to go to Content Strategy school.

  5. Laura Creekmore June 15, 2011 at 1:58 am #

    Steven, coming from my own custom media and marketing background, I can only add, Amen! I hope you’ll keep writing and talking about these issues. There’s still a lot of development to do on both these disciplines, and we need lots of smart thinking.

  6. Lise Janody June 17, 2011 at 7:12 am #

    Hi Laura, 

    Interesting post. Yes, this is a useful discussion, though I can understand why many find it a bit tiresome. (Enough already, just get on with the work!). I don’t think, however, that it’s unimportant, nor that it’s purely internal to our community. Yes, we’re the ones debating, but our customers are asking us questions and often making assumptions. I live in France, and when you say ‘content strategy’ (or ‘stratégie de contenu), many simply assume you are talking about content marketing. I wrote my post because I needed a way a describe my work in a way that felt comfortable to me, and that I thought would make sense to my customers.  I fully agree: effective content marketing requires content strategy, but content strategy does not only apply to content marketing (try doing a technical support site without a content strategy!). And yes, we have more work to do still :-) 

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