August 24th, 2010 / Ross Johnson / 21 Comments

Everything You Know About Content Strategy is Wrong

Concepts travel absurdly fast when it comes to the web. This is not surprising as those working with the medium are clearly of the “early adopter” group and are significantly more likely to talk and be vocal about their interests, passions and projects. This has always been an asset to the web, helping the medium grow and evolve. The rapid progression has made web technology more useful for everyone (early and late adopters alike). One doesn’t have to look too far back to find table based coding being the common practice. Fortunately due to the rapid idea exchange that our industry has we are now all very focused on producing semantic standards based code.

Like most things what is a blessing can also be a curse. Sometimes unevolved ideas get picked up and spread like wildfire causing a whole new wave of practice that simply needs more thought. Yes, I am referring to “content strategy.”

What Is It and Where Did It Come From?

I will be honest and admit that I am not sure where “concept strategy” came from. While it has largely been considered to have been born out of user experience design it seems as if it has been picked up largely by the marketing community. Either way it has violently pushed it’s way into books, blog posts, tweets and conferences. It seems that you would be hard pressed to be a part of a web project with out hearing or reading the term at least a dozen times.

The most common way I see it described (in more or less words) goes something like this the practice of planning for content creation, delivery, and governance” and “a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project.” (referenced from Wikiedpia).

The following high regarded A List Apart article describes the an ideal content strategy as the following:

  • key themes and messages,
  • recommended topics,
  • content purpose (i.e., how content will bridge the space between audience needs and business requirements),
  • content gap analysis,
  • metadata frameworks and related content attributes,
  • search engine optimization (SEO), and
  • implications of strategic recommendations on content creation, publication, and governance.

They follow up with a quote stating that “The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.”

This all sounds good right? right??

I will admit at first I was delighted to see more people worrying and focusing on content. Most of the time content is severally neglected in favor of more “sexy” aspects of the web such as design, social interactions and other fluff. However the more I saw how most were treating the practice of so-called “content strategy” the more that it bothered me.

My Issue with Content Strategy

What has ended up happening is a very mechanical and system driven “strategy” for the handling of content. This is likely due to the fact that the most “deliverable friendly” way to create a content strategy is to make one that is very mechanically focused. Think about it, if you are a marketing or web agency and you need to deliver a content strategy to clients the most repeatable structure would state:

  • Communicate “XYZ”
  • Distribute to sites “ABC”
  • Tone should be “blah”
  • Talk about these searched subjects
  • Publish at “X” frequency

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with developing a system that covers those important subjects. These are all things that we should be concerned with and plan. After all neglecting these items can have a poor outcome on our content.

What I have issue with is that this sort of strategy fails to address the most important element of good website content. I would even go so far as to say this sort of strategy actively promotes poor website content through it’s neglect.

This mechanical step by step process towards content leaves out the critical integration of creativity. As a huge Seth Godin fan I am always quick to quote his mantra of “to be successful you must be remarkable.” Simply outlining key messages, post frequency, tone, etc… completely ignores the most important part of content, it’s quality.

What a Content Strategy Should Be

The web is littered with lack luster and boring content. How many sites do you come across where the primary headline and message is “Hello! We are company XYZ and we do A, B and C?” I would rather read the dictionary one page at a time than actually read most web content.

It is easy to see how it came to this when you look at the “content strategy” approach. I can see the strategy document that says “The tone should be friendly and personal, the key messages are outlining what our services and key differentiators are.” The result is a generic “Hello we are…” statement that you see in so many places.

I propose that content strategy should focus more on the creative development of remarkable and interesting content, rather than the mechanical details. I would even argue that if you are making remarkable content schedule, keywords and tone really don’t matter all that much. People will find and share your content, remember your brand and come back when you post something new.

If we look at some of the recent examples of successful and remarkable content you can see that the mechanics of the content have very little to do with how well it has performed.

Don’t Be Ugly By Accident

OK Cupid, an online dating site recently published a stellar piece of content that looks at a study between what camera is used to take profile pictures and your level of perceived attractiveness. This content was hugely successful, passed around on social networks and bookmarked by thousands. Not only is it interesting regardless of your interest in online dating, but it also is relevant to the site and does a great job branding the website into readers mind.

This content was interesting, unique and compelling. The concept of this article, collecting the data and displaying it in an interesting way are all what made it so successful. These are all aspects of the article that are not at all covered in your “typical” content strategy.

Will It Blend

This is often the “classic” case study for viral content, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. The Will It Blend campaign is a series of videos produced by the Total Blender manufactures in which they blend expensive high tech gadgets like iPads, iPhones, etc…

Again this content is interesting, unique, funny and relevant. Not only do you get enjoyment out of watching them blend some fairly ridiculous things but you are also learning about the blender and how powerful it is. Again a typical content strategy at best would outline the key message of “powerful blender” but it would do nothing to assist in the development of this creative concept. The tone, keywords and publish schedule have nothing to do with the success of this content.

The Oatmeal

It is hard to find someone more talented at developing clearly remarkable content than Matt Inman. Through the use of clever content he was able to gain massive amount of attention to his self developed dating website which was then later sold as a result.

He continues to gain massive amounts of attention through unique content at his website, The Oatmeal. With entertaining comics and commentaries like What it is like to own an Apple product, How a web design goes straight to hell and 15 things worth knowing about coffee it is easy to see how his content not only gets attention but has many opportunities for marketing efforts.

By this point it should be obvious that a common approach content strategy would do nothing to help create the type of content that Matt Inman is so adept at. However Matt Inman could give you some insight into his strategy that actually would. In fact he recently did a five minute ignite presentation that is much more useful than your common content strategy document.

So What Should Be Delivered

What I am trying to communicate through this rant is that the content strategy document that you deliver to your clients, boss or board should contain very different information. I do believe it is important to identify key content, missing content and some of the other mechanics but I would call this more of a content “audit” than “strategy.”

The strategy itself should read more like a creative brief in which ideas and concepts for unique, creative and remarkable content are presented. This ideas should be presented and formed in terms of campaigns and series. If you look at the more successful content strategies a lot of them build and work off of a few key themes. The Oatmeal clearly has a formula that works through content, humor and quizes. The make it blend guys clearly have a theme that works and can be built upon over time.

Beyond the concepts and ideas the document should also outline the resources that would be required to make it happen. This doesn’t have to be exact, but it is critical to understand what sort of undertaking would be required for the concept to work. You wouldn’t want decision makers to select a time and cost intensive concept if they needed something cheap and quick.

What are Your Thoughts?

Have any ideas on how content strategy can be improved? Think I am off my rocker? I would love to hear and discuss your thoughts… it is the open discussion of ideas that helps our industry involve, so let’s discuss.

21 thoughts Everything You Know About Content Strategy is Wrong

  1. Couldn’t agree more with you on the point of quality over quantity. It’s a pet peeve of mine and currently a huge struggle at my “full time” workplace.

    Bossman: “I wants website now!”

    Peon(me): “Ok… Hello, …nm ”


    What would you suggest a way to address this issue with the people who give me a paycheck twice a week?

  2. Good question Matthew.

    I think it is a combination of starting small and educating. Rather than trying to force massive change in your business and get everyone to contribute to something like a “synergistic content ideation action plan (gotta make it corp speak to get people interested)” first get them to start thinking about what type of industry related content / information gets wide spread attention. For example, what are the major news media covering that is related to the business?

    What sort of content could them be developed that would get that sort of attention. Maybe it starts with just one article, blog post, video, etc…

    When they see that “Hey, people payed attention to this but ignore 99% of our website!” it makes a very compelling “Why do you think that is?”

    Ross Johnson
  3. Ross, I agree with you about some approaches to content strategy that attempt to prioritize content over mere copy yet simultaneously diminish that content by mixing it up with ugly marketing terms and dullard SEO mantras (as if keyphrase matchings were the only desirable outcome of “content”).
    Among the best advocates and practitioners of CS, however, it is refreshing to see content being elevated to writing (OMG), and writing conceived of as stories—narratives. Praise the lord that a concept from the humanities has entered the UX field!
    So even if some others have pretzeled the idea of “stories” into marketing speak, as in “telling your brand’s story,” generally it seems a good thing that narrative has been introduced to an otherwise dreary and bloodless social scienc-y set of UX deliverables (SEO strategy, Marketing strategy, IA, Task Analysis, etc.).
    If compelling and remarkable content defines “quality” content, which your examples mean to illustrate, then it is also important to remember that much quieter moments—smaller stories told by distinct human voices—can and do draw people in, too. Chekhov for web content strategy president.
    Not that I’m biased.

    Lauren Helwig
  4. @Lauren – Thanks for your reply.

    Yes I agree that not all content on a website can be the type of content explicitly outlined in this article. That is not my issue with “content strategy.” Rather that problem is that a typical approach “content strategy” promotes the use of uninspiring but well toned content and completely ignores the content that is actually going to make an impact.

    Almost all sites will likely need some sort of balance of the two, but content strategy almost always caters to just one… the less effective one.

    Ross Johnson
  5. It truly is nice right here. nice study. I have been looked this kind of data for quite a while. thanks

  6. You are completely right that much of the chatter around content strategy right now is overly focused on mechanistic process, and not the all important creative ideas which are the foundation of truly successful web content.

    I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

    Firstly it is fairly easy to tell someone how to do the mechanistic bits, whereas it’s almost impossible to tell someone how to come up with a brilliant creative concept. So all the How To pieces are mostly about the processes and systems you can use, not how to be creative.

    Then, because Content Strategy is the hot topic buzzword, tagging your tweet/blog/article/website as “content strategy” is seem as the way to get it noticed. So lots of things are getting tagged as “content strategy” that are really just about “content” (or, in fact, simply about copy and not about content in its true, wider sense).

    In defence of systems and processes, however, in my experience it is the lack of process which regularly kill off otherwise strong creative concepts. The idea is only the start. It is nothing without execution. Both Will It Blend and Oatmeal not only have a strong core creative strategy, but also have the processes and systems in place to regularly conceive, create and publish content which fulfills that strategy. I can come up with a great content concept for a client, but if I don’t give them a process for delivering that content, then my ideas are of precious little use to them.

  7. Great and well thought out response Sophie, I appreciate your feedback and insight. I agree that it is easy to develop a process around the mechanics which is no doubt why there is such a focus on it right now.

    Simplicity is a great catalyst for “sharable” information.

    I also agree that process and execution is needed, arguably as important than the idea itself. However it is not more important because posting mediocre content is likely just as bad or worse than not posting content at all.

    While I know you agree, my major point is that there is an abundance of focus on the process and almost no focus on the idea and quality. The mechanics are of course very important, but they are only 50% of the puzzle. Why doesn’t anyone talk about the other 50%?

    Ross Johnson
  8. This is a great post and as a former advertising planner something I’ve been grappling with. I couldn’t agree more that something like a creative brief should be delivered as a content strategy. But I think clients would have a hard time developing content based on a good creative concept – even if it contained a “formula” – since the execution requires at least as much, if not more creativity as the thinking up of the creative concept.

    So how would they realise it? By bringing in external resources?

    Inga Clausen
  9. Came across this article through a tweet this week.

    Ross, I very much appreciate your focus on the value of outstanding content. I agree with you 110%. Actually, the point of my original ALA article is that so much of content *is* crap simply because we don’t consider it strategically: what do we want to accomplish with it in order for it to support our business goals? What do our users want? What’s it going to take to get the kind of quality content that will get results? How can/should we allocate resources–time, budget, skill sets–to get that quality content you’re talking about?

    I know that “content strategy” is getting picked up by a variety of communities. Countless writers and companies will miss the point, just as they have with social media, SEO, corporate blogs, user experience…on and on back for 15 years. But. Some people *will* get it right. And those are the people I’d recommend you dialogue with.

    Marketers will have the hardest time with this concept, simply because they are constantly asked to focus on *execution* and not strategy. It’s how they’re measured on their performance. By introducing a very simplified planning process that starts with WHY and HOW and not only with WHAT, we can begin to engage them in the pursuit of quality content…enabled by content strategy.

    Thanks for taking the time to post this article!

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  14. Ross, I think you’d be surprised if you had the chance to take a look from some of the content strategy folks in the field. This is rough ‘cuz we’re usually not permitted to share client deliverables.

    My deliverables over the past year have increasingly centered on editorial strategy, which is what I think you’re getting at. The “content strategy document” is usually a presentation outlining highlights from an audit, strategic content pillars, distribution channels, etc.

    There’s definitely a case to be made to put the Strategy back in content strategy (if it ever really left), and I’ve had one-on-one discussions with people in the field to that effect. That being said, the ideal purview of the content strategist should encompass more than a aspirational vision reflected in a creative brief. That’s the territory of strategic planners and creative directors, and I wish you luck if you want to mount a conquest effort for that territory.

    I don’t subscribe to the “ideas are a dime a dozen, execution is where it’s at” philosophy, but I’ve also been burned by the lack of effective planning.

    It might be delving into the realm of sophistry, but could you get behind the idea that a content strategist spends only some of her time creating Content Strategies™ and the rest on Supporting Yet Critical Activities Et. Al™?

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