The term “strategy” is defined as “alternatives chosen to make happen a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.” To borrow from the definition of management consulting, then, content strategy is the practice of helping organizations to improve their content performance, primarily through the analysis of existing content problems, and development of plans for improvement. A content strategy will assess an organization’s current state, understand the ideal future state, recognize where the gaps are, and recommend a roadmap. 

Defining Content Strategy

A content strategy is the analysis phase of a business problem that determines how content can be improved, either on the editorial or technical sides, to become part of the success story. In practical terms, a content strategy is the analysis and planning process to develop a repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire content lifecycle. A content strategy also provides context, so that the vision can be implemented in an integrated way, to meet business goals and project objectives.

To understand what content strategy is, we need to eliminate what it is not. A content strategy is not engaging in activities that lead to project deliverables, such as a content inventory or audit — those are tactical-level aspects of implementation. The strategy is the phase that comes before any of these activities and, in fact, determines what activities are needed to achieve success. 

Differentiating Content from Content Marketing Strategies

By the same token, a content strategy is not the same as a content marketing strategy. The goals of a content marketing strategy, as articulated so well by Robert Rose in his Content Marketing Institute article entitled “How Content Strategy and Content Marketing Are Separate but Connected:” 

“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” 

Ultimately, it is a marketing strategy, and looks at all of the content across an organization that can be used in multiple ways to build relationships with customers. The end goal is about reaching, converting, and engaging with customers through compelling content. A content marketer will understand the marketing story’s big picture, works out which channels will be used for which content, and align those tensions with the organization’s overall marketing goals.

Robert Rose says that the content marketer addresses the “whys,” the content strategist addresses the “hows,” and together they work out the “whats” and “wheres.” This is as an appropriate distinction as any, and emphasizes the collaborative aspect, and the fact that these responsibilities are two sides to the same coin. However, content strategists responsible for a number of “whys,” although the questions they ask are different from those asked by content marketers.

The Focus of Content Strategy

A content marketing strategy should result in a solid knowledge of why content is being created — what content and focus is intended for which audiences, why each target group needs to have that content served up in a particular editorial way. Content marketers develop some sort of deliverable that demonstrates insights into customer needs and desires, expectations of the organization and their products or services, and aspirations or aversions. These will be ranked, rated, and weighted to put the insights into some sort of hierarchy of priorities and rank.

Then the content strategy will answer how this can be done; the work done by the content marketers becomes one of the inputs of a content strategy. An equally important factor is user research done by a user experience team, and the insights from that discipline about how people use various technologies to successfully complete their tasks. Another factor could be input from the technologists, who can be great sources of insight into what is possible, and conversely not possible, within the technology ecosystem of the organization.

With all of these factors as inputs, a content strategy gets developed. The content strategy becomes the roadmap, the purpose of which is to define the content lifecycle specific to an organization’s needs, so that the content can ultimately meet the business goals. Even when a project or contract addresses only a portion of the overall need, the strategy should be designed to allow future projects to become part of a unified strategy. The content strategy should address how content gets planned, created, managed, delivered, and maintained post-delivery.

Just as the content marketers ask “why?” to understand the motivations and aspirations of their customers, the content strategists will ask “why?” to understand the motivations and aspirations of their internal customers: the content marketers. Thus, the “how” question of delivering content can become a “why” question is when gaps exist in the information provided to the content strategist. Asking “why” provides the content strategist with an opportunity to understand the requirements in a deeper, more thorough way. Understanding the “why” becomes the catalyst for delivering on the “how.”

The Role of Technology in Content Strategy 

The content strategy looks at both the editorial and technical sides of content. The technical side of content usually becomes a focal point for content strategists; the assumption is that the content marketers have satisfied the content questions on the editorial side. Content marketers who are good at their jobs will have done work around the content marketing mission statement, determined the target audiences, what type of content should go to each audience, what the desired outcomes are, and how to keep customers engaged throughout the customer journey.

What is often missing from this equation is thinking about the lifecycle of the content, and how to manage the content throughout its entire lifecycle. Content strategists will ask about how to make content publishing and delivery — because publishing is quickly being usurped by delivery of content to multiple channels, such as the Web, tablets, mobile, and still, yes, print — follow a recognizable, predictable, repeatable process. The processes may vary between content genres, but the overall process is consistent and stable, rather like creating a blueprint for everyone involved in the production of content to follow.

Through the Lens of the Content Lifecycle

Content strategists will ask about the fate of content throughout several stages of the content lifecycle: the acquisition of content, the management of content, and its delivery and post-delivery iterations.

  • Acquisition. Typical questions could include: Who will provide the content, and on what schedule? Will all of it be created in-house, or will some content be imported from other sources? If so, what sources, and in what format? How do you see the content being made to fit within our corporate style? Will the content be localized for other language markets? If so, what are the plans and timelines for that? Do you have a process in mind for the export of the content to the translation vendor, and what will be the mechanism to re-import the translated content for production? What about metadata — who is providing it and how does that mesh with the search strategies (SEO and SEM)? Any of the questions that elicit an “I don’t know” response may fall to the content strategist to answer.
  • Management. Content strategists may ask questions such as: Is the content management system set up to deliver the content the way you envision it for this campaign? Is the technical side set up so that we can push content through to all of the channels in an automated way? If we have to include manual intervention, how do we ensure that we minimize the risk of human error? How will we find the content later when the time comes to edit it or retire it? What kind of personalization is needed for the content, and how close can we get to dynamically delivering content, given the state of the technologies available within the organization? How is the content development process set up to ensure conformance with the style guide? Are we allowing time to get all the content conforming to the editorial style guide? Will we need to get a developer to make some changes, and if so, who will change the content model to reflect the new delivery needs? Chances are, the content strategist will be in charge of the technical deliverables, or for coordinating their completion.
  • Delivery. The questions around delivery will include the state of the content post-delivery, as well. Questions might include: Which channels get which content? Will we be doing adaptive content — content that differs automatically, depending on the device on which it’s delivered? Will the content be archived or deleted, and when? What about corporate retention policies? Once it has been delivered, does it ever get updated, or do multiple versions need to co-exist online? How will we distinguish one version from another? What inputs, such as feedback from search queries, will affect the way the content is improved?

Before a content strategist gets to any of these questions, they should also be asking questions to do with user research, from both the marketing side and the user experience side, which will influence how the content is considered. 

  • What are the expectations for the ROI of the content?
  • Are there other performance expectations?
  • Where does this content fall within the governance model?
  • What is the budget for the management of the content?

The questions may not all be put to the content marketers, but the questions do need to be considered, whether by a business unit, technologists, or marketers.

Content Production: A Joint Effort

A while back, Robert Rose made a statement to the effect that content marketers worked with brushes; content strategists with chisels – in other words, artists and sculptors. Both disciplines — content marketing and content strategy — have their roles in the making of useful, usable content that is delivered in efficient and effective ways. Therefore, content marketing and content strategy professionals should be working hand-in-hand to ensure the best content experiences for prospects and customers alike.

About the author: Rahel Anne Bailie

Rahel Anne Bailie is an integrator of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase ROI of content that matters, and a supporter of content structure and standards. She is founder of Intentional Design, Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, co-author of “Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits,” co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy,” and co-producer of Content Strategy Workshops. In 2014, she is developing a content strategy as Global Head of Content Strategy for RS Components in the UK’s East Midlands region.