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.