Putting the strategy in content strategy

Even before content marketers entered the fray, “content strategy” was a label that confused a lot of people. After all, not everything content strategists do seems to fall under the heading of “strategy”. Content strategy includes everything from big-picture, Strategy with a capital S stuff, to the extremely detail-oriented work of content audits and page-by-page planning.

Lately, I’ve seen some people describe the first of these things as “enterprise content strategy” and the second as “page-level content strategy”, but I’m not really happy with either of these terms. “Enterprise content strategy” seems to presume that the complexity of an organisation’s content strategy needs is directly proportional to the size of the organisation, which I don’t think is always the case. As for “page-level content strategy”…isn’t that a bit like saying “trench-level military strategy”; that is, an oxymoron? Strategy, if it means anything anything at all, means stuff that happens at a higher level of abstraction than “the page”, right?

At times in the past, I’ve even felt that “content strategy” was the wrong term altogether for what we do; I just used it because there didn’t seem to be a better one on offer.

But recently, I’ve been rethinking this, especially after absorbing Kristina Halvorson’s great presentation from 2014’s SXSW, “Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk” (see the slides and listen to the audio).

The first part of Halvorson’s talk is a well-deserved glass of cold water in the face of some famous content marketing “triumphs”, like the overhyped Oreos social media intervention of Superbowl 2013.

In the second part of the talk, Halvorson talks about how content strategy can help restore sanity to these conversations. She does this by defining what the “strategy” in content strategy actually is. Halvorson’s talk hit home for me despite having read umpteen books on content strategy (including Halvorson’s own).

The meaningful strategy statement

In particular, Halvorson talks about the importance of having an actual statement of your strategy, something that people can point to and see “this is our content strategy, and this is the yardstick by which we decide where to concentrate our content efforts — and where not to concentrate them.”

The idea of summarising an organisation’s aims in a single sentence has something of a bad rep: too often, we end up with vague motherhood statements that don’t give us any critical edge in making decisions. Think of most corporate vision statements — “To be the leading x in the y region by satisfying every customer every time” or whatever. Halvorson has a similar example of an insipid content strategy statement:

We will become the industry leader in the financial services arena by providing consumers with compelling, valuable content across all channels that deepens the brand relationship and drives business across all our product lines.

As Halvorson points out, not only could this statement apply to virtually any business, simply by substituting their own industry for “financal services”, but it’s a totally useless statement in terms of setting priorities. Since any content you create could potentially be “compelling, valuable content”, the statement becomes a license for every content marketing kite-flying exercise under the sun.

Instead, what you want from a content strategy is a way of sifting through all the possibilities and saying “these ones fit our strategy, these ones don’t”. Here’s Halvorson’s example of a content strategy statement that does this:

We will grow our online customer base to 300,000 active accounts by focusing our digital efforts on localized service and fixing the cross-channel user experience.

This tells us the goal (so we’ll know whether we’ve succeeded) and, in a very broad way, how we’re going to get there. We can look at any particular tactic — including content marketing tactics — and judge them by the extent to which they fit with this strategy. It’s this ability to point to something — a single sentence that (in our ideal scenario) everyone in the organisation has contributed to and agreed upon — that makes the individual “page level” activities meaningful and consistent.

It’s still possible to argue that those derived activities shouldn’t be referred to as strategy, but rather as “strategically informed content stuff” or some such. But let’s not get too hung up on where strategy begins and ends. As long as part of what we do in content strategy actually is “Strategy with a capital S”, and as long as we keep referring all the other activities back to this part, there’s a very good chance that we’re doing our job right.

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