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February 6, 2019

Full transcript of What is content strategy? (podcast)

Bill Swallow:     Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 44, we take a look at several definitions of content strategy. Do they work, and are they accurate? Hey everyone, I’m Bill Swallow. I’m here with Sarah O’Keefe.

Sarah O’Keefe:     Hey everybody.

B. Swallow:      And we’re going to be taking a look at several different definitions of content strategy, and we will be putting links to all of these definitions in our show notes so that you can reference them.

S. O’Keefe:     Yes. Because you’re going to hear quite a lot of different definitions from quite a lot of different locations or resources. So if you want to go back and look at those or expand on them, you certainly could. So let me start with this one, Bill. “The purpose of content strategy is to create meaningful, cohesive, engaging, and sustainable content that attracts the company’s target customers.” What do you think of that?

B. Swallow:     It was good until we got to the attract the company’s target customers part. It seems rather singular in purpose to me, and I think content strategy extends well beyond just a sales tool.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah. So meaningful, cohesive engagement, engaging and sustainable, we are on-board with that.

B. Swallow:     Absolutely.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah. And I actually quite like the mention of sustainable because there’s an element of how efficiently are you creating this? Is it a process that’s repeatable? You know, sustainability has this idea in it that you aren’t just throwing content up against the wall, you’re doing it in a way that allows you to manage it and keep track of it and do what you need to do.

B. Swallow:     Right. And then you also have cohesive, which means that you’re not just throwing content out there in any shape or form or tone, voice, whatever. You actually have something that ties everything together, whether it be your approach to grammar, style, voice, tone, or in branding, or the way that you’re doing things. So, having that cohesive element is important as well.

S. O’Keefe:     Makes sense.

B. Swallow:     All right, let’s try another one. “Great content is created for a specific purpose, and this purpose needs to be defined. Ask yourself if you are creating content to boost brand awareness, generate leads, convert users, attract past customers, improve search ranking results, or something else altogether.” Sarah, what do you think?

S. O’Keefe:     Well, I agree that content should have a purpose, and I think that all of these are potential purposes. I’m on-board with all of that. I think I have a little problem with all of the non marketing stuff being lumped into something else altogether, you know, et al, et cetera. But other than that, this more or less make sense and it’s pretty good advice. I think the issue that I have here with this definition is that this is not in fact a definition of content strategy, right? It’s just advice on making sure that when you do content strategy that you have a purpose of some sort. So, what is content strategy, right? Is it, is it having a purpose? Is it one of these specific things? I don’t see an actual definition in here. Just some reasonable advice on how to execute.

B. Swallow:     Right. Yeah, they talk about great content, but they never get into what that ultimately means and how you achieve great content in order to do all of these things.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah, and how do you tie that purpose to those other things? So, all right, let’s take a look at another one here. This one’s from the Content Marketing Institute. Now, they first define content marketing strategy. “At its core, your content marketing strategy is your why. Why are you creating content? Who are you helping and how will you help them in an way no one else can? Organizations typically use content marketing to build an audience and to achieve at least one of these profitable results: increased revenue, lower costs or better customers.” So, that’s content marketing strategy, and then they go on to content strategy. “On the other hand, content strategy delves deeper into the creation, publication and governance of useful usable content, which is Kristina Halvorson’s definition. Note that content strategy often goes beyond the scope of the content marketing strategy, as it helps businesses manage all of the content that they have.” What do you think?

B. Swallow:     I think it’s a great separation of those two concepts. A lot of times we see the lines blurring between content marketing or content marketing strategy and content strategy itself. They do a really good job of explaining the difference, basically posing it as content marketing being a subset of content strategy, or content marketing strategy as a subset of content strategy. And it works to a degree. It works quite well, and both definitions are actually quite good. You know, being able to explain why, why you’re doing something, is a great position for content marketing strategy, and it also answers a bit of the things that we’re missing, I think, in some of the other definitions. And that’s, why are you going into or why are you pursuing a content strategy in the first place?

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah, that makes sense to me. I think my only issue here is that they use Kristina’s definition, which talks about creation, publication and governance, but then helps businesses manage all the content they have. I do think that content strategy goes beyond just managing content, but other than that I do like this very clear separation that they’ve provided of the two concepts, and I think they’ve done a good job there.

B. Swallow:     Agreed. All right, let’s try another one. “Content strategy refers to the management of pretty much any tangible media that you can create and own, written, visual, downloadable, you name it. It is the piece of your marketing plan that continuously demonstrates who you are and the expertise you bring to your industry.” Sarah, what do you think?

S. O’Keefe:      Well, it was going really well until we got to marketing plan. Content strategy is not a piece of your marketing plan. The management of pretty much any tangible media, and I think we could argue with the word tangible as well, but the management of media is reasonable. I’m not even sure create and own is necessarily correct. Right? I mean, you can have a content strategy that revolves around content that’s being created by other people, user generated content, those kinds of things.

B. Swallow:     Absolutely.

S. O’Keefe:     I would also question the categorization of written or visual or downloadable. Those are actually, in fact, intersecting kinds of things, and of course, audio would be an important component of some of these things. But, management of media is a good start, and addressing the fact that we’re not just talking about necessarily text, you know, walls of words, it could be other kinds of things, I think is a reasonable thing. They lost me at content strategy is the piece of your marketing plan that does things.

B. Swallow:      Right. I’d argue that’s-

S. O’Keefe:      Yeah.

B. Swallow:     The other way around.

S. O’Keefe:     Exactly. I mean it is just, you know … Content strategy drives, or things you decide to do in content strategy may intersect with your marketing plan, but it’s not a subset. That’s just not right. All right, what else we got? Oh, Wikipedia. So Wikipedia, again, uses Kristina Halvorson’s definition. “Content strategy refers to the planning, development and management of content written or in other media.” Period.

Editorial note: Kristina Halvorson’s quoted definition from Wikipedia should read:
Content strategy has been described as planning for “the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

B. Swallow:     Mm-hmm. It’s definitely a succinct definition. It’s a little vague, but it’s generally accurate. It’s a bit … It’s missing that why piece, that’s you know, why are you doing this? To what end? To what end are you planning, developing, and managing content? You know, why? Why are you going about this? You must have a particular reason for doing this. And I think that’s missing from this definition.

S. O’Keefe:     Right. So, it’s a strategy. So why? What is the purpose of the strategy?

B. Swallow:     Right. If you don’t have a reason why you’re doing it, then you don’t have a need for a strategy to do it in the first place. Okay, let’s try another one here. “A content strategy is the high level vision that guides future content development to deliver against a specific business objective.” Sarah?

S. O’Keefe:     So, I really like specific business objective and delivering against a specific business objective. So you identify a business goal or objective and then you say, “Okay, how am I going to execute on that goal and make that goal happen using content.” And high level vision is good. My quibble here is with future content development. The high level vision that guides future content development. Well, what about existing content? What about updates? What about a translation for that matter? Localization? That word “future” in here implies that once content is created, you’re done with it. You don’t manage it, you don’t update it, you don’t govern it, you don’t archive it, you just step forward into the future with no accountability for the content that already exists. So I think actually if you struck that, you’d be in pretty good shape here. If you said that a content strategy is the vision that guides content development to deliver against a specific business objective, which by the way is really hard to say.

S. O’Keefe:     So, the other thing is here, content development. What about other aspects of content, particularly planning and governance? This seems to only focus on content creation, but it’s definitely getting there.

B. Swallow:     It is getting there.

S. O’Keefe:     Here’s another one. “The essence of content strategy is simple. Make a plan for your content to achieve a specific result. Your strategy could be small in scope, such as targeting web copy to a specific audience, or tailoring your authoring process to suit multiple delivery formats. Or your strategy could be large in scope, aligning all content with a new brand or updating content infrastructure and workflows to improve localization, accuracy, and time to market.”

B. Swallow:     Who wrote that one?

S. O’Keefe:     Well Bill, you did. This is from our website, from a blog post in late 2017. And of course, well obviously we think this one is awesome. So moving on. No. You know, there’s some things in here … Tying together the result, the idea that you’re making a plan to achieve a result, right? And we’re not really taking a position on what kind of content you’re managing or strategizing with or anything else. We’re just saying it is identifying a desired outcome that you’re looking for, and then making a plan based on content to achieve that outcome, right?

B. Swallow:     Mm-hmm. Right. It could be big, could be small, but it has a specific reason for happening. And you are actually measuring to make sure that you do achieve a specific result.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah. So, with that I wanted to talk a little bit about management consulting because we’ve taken the position here at Scriptorium that content strategy is in fact very closely related to management consulting. So again, from Wikipedia, “management consulting is the practice of helping organizations to improve their performance, operating primarily through the analysis of organizational problems and the development of plans for improvement.” To which I just add, WITH CONTENT.

B. Swallow:     Absolutely.

S. O’Keefe:     So, identifying problems, figuring out how to solve them, using content as the vehicle to solve those problems. And we’ve got a journal article that we’re working on that will be out in May, I think, May of 2019, where we’ve taken a shot at writing a more formal discussion of this, because for those of you that follow our blog, we are not known for formal writing necessarily. But I wanted to give you just two or three sentences from this article as we submitted it. Content strategy is a subdiscipline of management consulting. Like management consultants, content strategists begin by identifying business problems. The key difference is that content strategists focus on business problems that the organization can solve with content.

S. O’Keefe:     So that’s where we are. And I think that when you look at some of these issues, when you look at some of these other definitions, they can fall pretty nicely inside this, I’m not sure the scope is big enough.

B. Swallow:     No, I think the scope is quite limited in quite a few of those previous definitions.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah. So, I mean, if your business problem is something along the general lines of when you need more leads coming into our pipeline, then clearly you’re probably going to be focused on marketing content and doing some things with your marketing content. But if your business problem is, you know, we’re trying to scale globally and we’re adding content in more and more languages, and localization costs are killing us, well then, Bill, what does that look like? I mean, what does a content strategy look like that’s based on trying to solve a globalization problem?

B. Swallow:     Oh, well at that point you’re looking at content quality from a more technical perspective and less in the terms of engagement and marketing. You’re looking at repeatability of phrasing. You’re looking at basically reducing the total number of unique phrases and words that you’re using throughout your content, and being able to build something up from that, where you can leverage existing content as much as possible, where you can consolidate and really reduce the number of ways you describe something. Instead of using three ways to describe something, you use one way consistently. And looking at all of that reduction in content, it could be a reduction in unique content, let’s say, because you could be creating a lot more, and then looking at how that can be leveraged by translators to reduce your overall cost and reduce your overall time to market in those languages.

S. O’Keefe:     So, yeah. So in addition to the sort of canonical marketing content problems that we’re trying to solve, what are some of the other sort of typical content strategy challenges that we see?

B. Swallow:     A lot of times we find companies that are using what they deem to be antiquated systems. Whether they are or not is another story, but they generally want to move to something else for a very specific business reason and they have hundreds of thousands of topics or pages of content that they need to migrate. And they need to get their arms around that. You know, they could be written in many different programs using many different styles.

B. Swallow:     Maybe, well, another case would be maybe a company is going through acquisitions, and with every acquisition comes in a need to rebrand all of the acquired company’s content, whether it be marketing, or sales, or technical, or what have you, and they need to get their arms around that. And part of that rebranding is, of course, making sure that the right logo and the right colors and the right fonts are being used, but you also have, you know, are there tonal differences? Are there differences in the way that these two companies talked about their products, services, offerings, what have you? And those need to be aligned. So, taking a look at that as a content strategy, of being able to bring alignment to those very different models. There are a lot of different reasons.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah, that’s a really interesting one because I don’t see a lot of discussion of content strategy requirements related to business mergers, but it’s actually one of the most common use cases that we see, is companies coming to us and saying we used to be four different companies. We have 18 different sets, I’m exaggerating a little, but, four different companies with six or seven different sets of content development tools and now we need to consolidate all of that because we need to produce a single, unified presence, user experience to our end users. We can’t continue to be companies A,B,C,D and another one that looks like E because company A bought it 20 years ago and we never changed their stuff.

S. O’Keefe:     They want to present a unified front, post merger, and that leads to all sorts of interesting problems around how the content is being created, planned, delivered, governed, and all the rest of it. So, I mean, I’ve been beating this drum for a while, but I’ll say it again. The issue, the bottom line of content strategy is, what is your business problem? What are you trying to accomplish? And how can you use content to do that?

B. Swallow:      No, I think that’s actually a good place to leave it. I mean, the focus really is on business. You know, you have to focus on those business goals. If you aren’t tying it to business goals, then there are a lot of opportunities to thwart or otherwise shoot down the strategy that you’re trying to implement.

S. O’Keefe:     Yeah, and obviously those business goals could be specifically business goals related to marketing, in which case your content strategy is going to be a a marketing content heavy strategy, which is fine. I just take great issue with the idea that the only content that matters from a content strategy point of view is marketing content.

B. Swallow:      Right. Because you might be using or leveraging other types of content in your marketing in some way.

S. O’Keefe:      You should be.

B. Swallow:      You should be.

S. O’Keefe:      Even if you’re not.

B. Swallow:      All right. Well, I think that wraps things up. Thank you, Sarah.

S. O’Keefe:      Thank you.

B. Swallow:     All right, and thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.