Rahel Anne Bailie
Content strategy sits in the intersection of communication, user experience, and content management. The first book on content strategy, published in 2003 by Ann Rockley, favored techniques to manage product content, while digital agencies focused on the creation and management of content for websites. Since then, the breadth of content strategy has broadened to encompass content across a number of audiences, channels, and media.
The field of content strategy has undergone significant changes. The emergence eerily parallels the nascent field of usability—and later, UX—in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when passionate practitioners began to determine best practices, processes, and naming conventions. The field of content strategy is undergoing those same growing pains. Without a Society or Institute to further and codify the body of knowledge, content strategy has largely remained a community of practice. Though initiatives are being undertaken to further the practices of content strategy and ensure that the framework is robust enough to ensure the rapid changes in the demands on content, these efforts are at risk of falling behind when it comes to the practices in the greater field of “digital” and in the content strategy field itself.
The term content strategy conjures up a number of images, some of which are complementary, others contradictory. The aim of this issue is to place content strategy within the larger grid of professions that collaborate and sometimes overlap. Content strategists may work in specialty areas that range from marketing to product to social to entertainment content, but the common thread is that they create plans to ensure that the right content gets to the right audiences in the right context. The strategy—in other words, the plan and design—is what separates a content strategist from a technical communicator, content designer, copywriter, UX writer, and so on. I often use the field of medicine to explain the range of specialties in content strategy: There are many types of doctors that practice in a variety of specialties, but they all have a basic medical degree as the common denominator. In content strategy, the common denominator is the systematization of content—creating an operational system that allows content to be produced reliably, at scale, and without degradation of quality.
Developing Content Strategy into a Discipline
Many of us have encountered the Indian parable of several blind men touching an elephant, where each person describes the elephant in terms they can understand. As the individuals assume that they each know the absolute truth of an elephant, an argument ensues about the true nature of the elephant, not taking into account that each person’s perspective is based on their personal, subjective experience. Content strategy is like the elephant, and the discipline is experienced in different ways across the vast industry of content by the professionals who practice it, by the agencies who contract for it, and by the employers who hire for it. We’ve seen diverse definitions of content strategy, with the top definitions being those of Ann Rockley and Kristina Halvorson.
Ann Rockley, recognized as one of the early innovators that led to the discipline of content strategy, has defined a content strategy as “a repeatable method of identifying all content requirements up front, creating consistently structured content for reuse, managing that content in a definitive source, and assembling content on demand to meet your customers’ needs” (Rockley, 2003, p. 2).
Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic, defines content strategy as the process that “guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content” (Halvorson, 2019, para. 1).
Content professionals working on the digital agency side may relate more to Halvorson’s definition, while content professionals working in the technical communication space are far more likely to relate to Rockley’s definition.
Yet, in the twenty-plus years that content strategy has been a discipline, there has been an evolution of the profession, as one would anticipate in the fast-moving world of content, the principles remain relatively unchanged. My own definition of content strategy as the design of a “repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire lifecycle” has been an attempt to span the two realms. I’ve worked on strategies in businesses and in digital agencies, and for government bodies as well, and while the details and deliverables can be wildly different, the core remains constant.
Content Strategy as a Distinct Practice
One of the early criticisms of content strategy has been from senior technical communicators, who claimed—rightly so, I hasten to add—that they did much of the work of a content strategist as part and parcel of their overall job description. It was in the best interest of the team to figure out what content was needed, what outputs were required, and how the team would manage to deliver sometimes hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of content by the time the product was supposed to ship. The job of planning out content for the product, particularly when the content team was a small team, fell to the most senior writer, who took on the planning, perhaps in conjunction with the product or project manager, as the step before actually producing any content.
This was a good deal for the organization, as the areas covered by what we now think of as content strategy got accomplished, but without being considered as something separate from the actual content production. As the content landscape became more complex, however, organizations recognized that the need to plan content was a job unto itself. Planning content was not just getting the “right content to the right people at the right time” but delivering content reliably from the right sources, on the right platforms, to the right people, at the right times, in the right channels, in the right formats, in the right versions, in the right media, in the right contexts, in the right languages.
The realization that delivering content needed a strategy, and a distinct skill set, was not an easy transition. Perhaps the realization comes when a techcomm manager’s sole responsibility becomes to manage dozens of spreadsheets. It could be when the company is so daunted by the complexity that they bring in a supply chain management consultant to determine how to fix their particular mess. A delivery manager in an Agile environment inherits the process for producing content and discovers that it’s a far, far messier process than producing code. Depending on how much pain is involved in delivering content as part of a larger project largely affects how seriously an organization takes the problem. The content strategy—in other words, the analysis and planning—became a practice unto itself. The need for this practice becomes more evident than ever as our deliverables fragment across an increasing number of content types, from the core of product instructions to emerging technologies, such as voice assistants influenced by AI (artificial intelligence).
Locating the Content Strategy Boundaries
A writer can be a content strategist, but not all content strategists are writers. More clearly stated, the practice of content strategy is not to write content, although, in some organizations, the practice of content strategy and content production gets rolled into a single job description. As well, content strategy should consider all content related to whatever goal is on the table, despite knowing that a particular project covers only a subset of content. A straightforward example is looking at all product-related content when being asked to create a social media strategy, in order to understand all of the types of content to which social media posts link—product information, support information, training modules, driver downloads, and so on.
If I had to roll all the varieties of content strategy into a single concept today, I would say that the boundaries of content strategy lie at somewhere between designing and architecting content systems. Today, I’d go a step further and say that the content strategy is the overall plan for how we operationalize content. What we didn’t have for the first twenty years was a recognizable vocabulary to describe what happens after we implement the strategy. When I look back to my publications about content strategy, I have mentioned content operations, but it was not until the larger digital industry wrapped their minds around concepts such as DevOps did ContentOps make sense.
A relatable metaphor is a house. An architect plans and designs the house—that would be the strategy. A contractor brings in workers to build the house—that would be the implementation of the strategy. Then the decorators bring in the furnishings—that would be the content. Only then can a family move in and start living in the house—those are the day-to-day operations. There’s not much point to designing a house that won’t get built. Similarly, build a house not designed by a proper architect, and you may end up living in McMansion Hell. And without furnishings, the home would be very hard to live in. At the end of the day, it’s important to begin with a solid strategy and follow through with good implementation to get a “living system” that works for the long-term comfort of those who use the house on a day-to-day basis.
Components of a Content Strategy
What goes into a content strategy? This entire issue delves into the aspects of the practice. However, the principles behind content strategy can be found in the discipline of management consulting. I sometimes describe what I do as management consulting, but, instead of financial turn-arounds, I focus on content turn-arounds. The similarities are striking, in that the core of both practice areas can be summarized as Discovery, Gap Analysis, and Recommendations.
In the area of content, we look at content as a business asset that can be used to help solve a business problem or further a business goal. To get to the heart of the content problem we look at the issues from the perspective of five pillars:
What are the business needs?
The business is likely sponsoring a content project because of a perceived shortcoming of the content. There are five overarching business drivers for content:
- Extend business reach. The business wants to reach new markets, which requires content for new products, contexts, or in new languages.
- Reduce time to market. There is time sensitivity about getting a product or service to market, and the content needs to be produced efficiently.
- Manage risk. Regulated industries are particularly interested in risk, as regulatory bodies can impose fines or halt operations if the company produces inaccurate content or falls out of compliance.
- Retain brand trust. This business driver covers a range of aspects, from brand loyalty to business growth, where content is a key aspect of ensuring that consumers trust the brand.
- Increase operational efficiency. This refers to when efficient and effective content production becomes a factor in being able to deliver quality content in a timely manner and scale operations as needed.
What are the user needs?
Content facilities user needs; whether to engage with a product or service on the acquisition side or to get operational or do some troubleshooting on the retention side, filling the needs of users is paramount to a content strategy. User needs and business needs should be matched, like two sides of the same coin, as users are interested in filling their own needs and have little or no interest in the needs of your business.
What are the content needs?
Once there is an understanding of what users and the business need, the content requirements can be analyzed, and a plan made for the content lifecycle. In other words, what content needs to be provided, and what editorial and technical aspects are involved?
- How will the content be acquired, configured, and metadata attached to it?
- How will the content be stored, put through workflow, and retrieved during each revision cycle?
- How will content be delivered and what are the post-delivery considerations for archiving or iterating the content?
- What will be the governance model around reviewing, authorizing, publishing, and revising content?
What are the operational needs?
What systems are in place to facilitate the production, management, delivery, and governance of content? Whatever system is being used, does it help or hinder the professionals who produce the content? Does the organization understand enough about content technologies to be able to even recognize what they need?
What are the technology needs?
What technologies are in place, and what new technologies are needed to support the efforts described? Does an organization have sufficient processing power to deliver on, for example, personalized content across multiple audiences, products, and markets, or does the organization lopsided in how they invest in content technologies?
As technical communicators, we may need to learn a new vocabulary to communicate with the executive stakeholders. But I firmly believe that the knowledge that technical communicators bring to the table is a huge advantage in the understanding of producing content at scale. A content strategist will carry out the discovery phase and gap analysis using some of the techniques that have become standard practice, such as the content inventory, quantitative audit, and qualitative analysis, which then culminates in a set of recommendations. You will see these themes repeated across the articles in this issue, sometimes explicitly and in other cases, implicitly. We are merely scratching the surface in this issue, with the goal being to spark discussion between the areas of the business where content strategy practices can be found.
Rockley, A. (2003). Managing enterprise content: A unified content strategy. Markam, ON: The Rockley Group. Retrieved from http://www.rockley.com/articles/The%20Rockley%20Group%20-%20ECM%20UCS%20Whitepaper%20-%20revised.pdf
Brain Traffic. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.contentstrategy.com/what-is-content-strategy
Wagner, K. (2016–2019). Retrieved from http://mcmansionhell.com/
Turner, A. (1982). Consulting is more than giving advice. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1982/09/consulting-is-more-than-giving-advice
About the Author
Rahel Anne Bailie is Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll in London, UK, and an instructor in the Content Strategy Master’s Program at FH-Joanneum in Graz, Austria. She has been consulting in the area of content strategy since 2001 for corporations, government, and charities, and has co-authored two books on the topic. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.