Content strategy

Ok, fine, I’ll blog about content strategy and content marketing

I’ve been writing a series of posts at work lately that talk about content from all sort of different angles. They’re an attempt to gradually let people know what it is I actually do for a job. Recently I tried to answer a couple of classic old questions:

“What’s a content strategist?”

– Smart person who’s keen to learn awesome new stuff


“Oh, right, you mean Content Marketer.”

– Someone who wasn’t quite listening the way they could have been

So, here goes. Please think twice before you @ me.

So you’re a content strategist. What’s that?

“Content strategy” is like “design” or “software development” or “management”: no-one knows it all, and job titles don’t always indicate all the different things that we do.

Rather than be daunted by what I don’t know, I try to be energized by the fact that there’s always more to learn. It’s nice to know that as long as you work with content, you can always get better, smarter, and more useful.

Types of content strategist

There are many different types of content strategist. Job titles abound: they usually start with the word “content” but they can end with “writer”, “designer”, “analyst”, “engineer”, “producer”, “developer”, “technician”, “project manager”, “strategist”, “director”…you get the idea. One popular label is “content marketer”, which is arguably a separate discipline (but I don’t buy that argument myself).

We’ll come back to content marketing later.

Even all these labels and job titles don’t capture everything that content experts do. It’s easier to start with a simpler division. The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) see a “front end/back end” split, which is useful. Front-end content strategy is mostly about writing and editing. The back-end is more about systematic stuff: reusable models/tools, and technical or organizational structures.

Front ends can be websites, or software, or other products. They can be external platforms, or formats like email. Every front end has a different set of constraints and freedoms. (We can design our own website however we like, but we have very little control over how a tweet looks. Email is somewhere in between). Back end work covers CMS configuration, databases, system integration that carries content from one place to another, company operations, and more.

The most productive working relationships in content strategy bring front-end and back-end people together. These labels are useful for understanding different skillsets, but shouldn’t be used to divide people into separate teams.

How did the content strategy world end up so broad?

Anyone who’s been working in content strategy for more than 4 or 5 years probably didn’t start as a content strategist. We couldn’t, because there were no ways to train as a rookie, and hardly any apprenticeships. Instead, we fumbled our way in by discovering problems adjacent to our area of work, and just kind of following them until we ended up working with the systems that produce and manage content. For years I described myself as a frustrated copywriter who never knew when to stop asking questions and ended up with a bunch of hard problems to work on. (In 2011, a lovely Englishman called Richard Ingram conducted a big survey asking content people about their professional origins.)

The questions I had were things like, “why can’t I take that paragraph from webpage A and mirror it on webpage B? Where did this menu structure come from? How come our website has thousands of pages for me to maintain when only 200 of them get almost all the traffic?”

A back-ender in the same company at the same time would have been asking, “why is this writer repeating the same facts in so many places? How come different parts of our site are in different CMSes? Why is everything stored as blocks of text when we could separate out prices and product specifications for reuse?”

Those are the same questions, by the way.

Content work sorted itself into back-end and front-end organically, mainly as a result of the different skillsets that these queston-asking people brought in. I started as a frustrated writer, but system designers, graphic designers, product managers, and information architects were frustrated too. We brought together different styles of thinking and different abilities, and eventually we discovered that our problems had shared roots. A writer doesn’t know why it’s impossible to manage one chunk of text and have it appear it lots of places; a systems analyst can’t calculate the human cost of maintaining multiple CMSes. Same problem; different angles.

What united us was this emerging sense that something was universally broken. No organization “did” content perfectly, and most of them did it badly. The idea we shared was that a more united approach – something that brought together writing and information architecture and system design and a dozen other things – could improve the output for everyone.

We were right. We still are.

So, what do you do after you accidentally become a content strategist?

Whichever half of this divide you start in, there are two main ways that content strategy careers develop. Some people go broad, and develop skills in lots of related areas (I try to be one of these people). When you can contribute to discussions about everything from database design to web content templates and CMS structures to grammatical consistency, you’ll almost always be useful. You’ll be able to spot gaps in a strategy, and you’ll probably know how to start filling them. If content strategy is the running of a big system, broad-based strategists are the people who have an overall understanding of all its basic parts and how they fit together.

On the other hand, some people develop very deep skills in a narrower part of the field. And sometimes only experts like these people can solve our problems. Deep experts are the best people to work on big jobs that need to be done right first time, like implementing a new CMS from scratch, setting up a new publishing team, launching a brand, or completely redesigning a website’s information architecture. They can also run specific parts of a bigger operation – perhaps as the senior editor of a blog, or the lead content designer on a product team.

This broad-to-deep differentiation stands alongside the front-end to back-end spectrum as two useful ways to understand what an individual brings to their content-related job.

The tent keeps growing

Content strategy keeps recruiting more and more people into our way of thinking from more and more starting points.

Now we’re training newbies from scratch, too. There are a few university courses in content strategy now, and a growing number of programmes like Facebook’s trailblazing Content Strategy Fellowship, which was a world-first offering when it accepted 3 students/graduates in its first year (2013). The fellowship recently collapsed under its own weight. Facebook is promising some sort of bigger programme, but given how that particular company has changed in the last 6 years I’m guessing it will devolve into something less attractive.

TL;DR so far

Heaps of different people are preoccupied with content, and when we can collaborate we can deliver more. There’s no standard path into content strategy, and the more paths the better.

But there’s a but

But there’s one avenue that is contentious in the world of content experts. Are content marketers a type of content strategist, or are they a different breed?

I said we’d come back to content marketing later. It’s later now.

How do content marketers fit in to this front-end vs back-end; broad vs deep; ever-learning, ever-expanding world of content nerds?

Content marketing is the use of content as a marketing tool. Specifically, a tool to build interest in your product/service category, or your area of expertise. It’s a “soft sell”. Many content strategists dismiss content marketing as lightweight (or even manipulative), but when it’s done well there’s no arguing with the results.

The best content marketers are actually content strategists with a deep understanding of content as a marketing asset, even if they wouldn’t describe themselves like that. Content marketing is largely a front-end discipline, and it requires a lot of up-to-date knowledge about tools and platforms that you can’t always control directly (like Google, Facebook, and email marketing tools).

A lot of practitioners learn valuable skills and earn good results before they get to know the wider content strategy picture. They operate successfully within a context that they can’t see. Conflict arises when marketing content creates issues for other content professionals: abandoned blogs, out-of-date landing pages, pieces that are off brand, campaigns that attract a large audience that doesn’t match the target market.

But everyone in content-world can – and should – keep learning. The best content marketers do exactly that, usually after starting with one of three basic sets of skills.

Three paths into content marketing

The functional path builds up from skills like email campaign management, efficient Facebook targeting, or search optimization. You start as a marketing coordinator and learn to work with content because you’re distributing it using multiple platforms and tools. You learn about marketing because it dictates what the content is about and who you target when you push it out.

The marketing path starts with an understanding of marketing – the 4 Ps, how marketing strategy fits in with business strategy, etc – and specializes that understanding down to the content level. You might be a marketing graduate in your first job when you’re given content to work with. That content is the substance that you use to achieve marketing goals. As a result, you learn the tools of content marketing because they get that content to the audience that your marketing strategy defines.

The authoring path starts with writing or editing content. You’re a content creator who needs to build an audience, so you learn to use tools and platforms to distribute your content. As you do that, you make marketing decisions (about target audiences or content types, for example), and you learn the marketing-based approach that improves those decisions.

Good content marketers end up equally able in the authoring, marketing, and functional aspects of the role.

Great content marketers appreciate that they work with content that lives in a world much bigger than marketing channels.

So you’re saying that content marketers are content strategists with blinkers on

Almost. I’m saying that content marketers are front-end content strategist with deep skills rather than broad ones. Content marketers can achieve positive marketing results (like more traffic, higher customer conversions, etc.) and justifiably claim professional success without any strategic strands to their bow.

It’s possible to be very good at your content marketing job without seeing very much of the content world at all. But the same can’t be said for jobs in copywriting, or SEO optimisation, or CMS configuration.

The difference that I’ve seen over and over is that content marketers are somehow less likely to fall into the all-questioning mode that turns people onto content strategy. They’re happily achieving things within a set of valid constraints. Perhaps roles based around copywriting, SEO, and CMSes are less well constrained. Perhaps it’s easier to peek through those fences.

Whatever the reason, I don’t buy into the “content strategy vs content marketing” dichotomy. As a content strategist I happily work with and learn from content marketers. I do see conflict between the two, though.

There’s a conference presentation I put together about this sort of thing. It’s called “Content People and Marketing People. It’s complicated”. Almost every slide contains a quote from a real-life content strategist or marketer. At content strategy conferences, people would laugh in recognition. At marketing conferences, audiences were surprised to learn that they weren’t universally popular.

Content People Talk About Themselves: "We're the last line of defence against crap going up online."
Content People Talk About Marketing People: "It's tricking. It's a tricksters' trade, and that's why marketing sucks."

My main point is that when you go into content marketing you can reach a point where it feels like you know (almost) everything you need to know. You know how produce and distribute content, gain an audience, and subtly direct people down a funnel (cha-ching).

You have a dashboard to look at, and it tells you whether you’ve done well or not.

Content-related roles that aren’t so well-contained are often harder to measure as well. When you start looking around for proof that you’re doing a good job, you start seeing more ways to deploy (and enhance) your skills.

Businesses want content marketing skills – with them, you’re a valuable professional. But remember that content must always do more than just marketing. This is where content marketing blends into content strategy.

With the skills that content marketers already have, they’re very well-placed to broaden into new areas, or deepen into content management beyond marketing-driven tools.

I’d love to see a time when content strategists don’t see content marketers as rivals (or dunces), but as a large skilled group of potential new recruits.

By Max Johns

Content strategist and web writer.