Content Strategy: Buzzword or the future of organisational communication?

A new trend is emerging as organisations come to terms with communicating online — a focus on content. Content Strategy is shaping that focus, helping organisations communicate better. Agencies in the U.S. are creating repeatable processes that are, perhaps, making it possible to teach content strategy at an academic level.

Communication in — and out of — businesses and public institutions is changing considerably. In her book, The Elements Of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane points out that organisations are learning to become storytellers, like traditional media companies, reaching their audiences more directly and economically.

Christian Müller, a leading voice in Germany on corporate use of social media, adds that it’s becoming compulsory for organisations to add social media to their communication plans, particularly as younger generations of customers expect organisations to be where they are.

In their German title, PR im Social Web, Marie-Christine Schindler and Tapio Liller show how social media and storytelling help organisations present products and services, and compete for user attention.

Meanwhile, a new trend has emerged — a strong focus on content. Experts now say organisations must provide content with added user value to capture audience attention and achieve long-term goals.

The content trend

As one kind of evidence to the growing focus on web content, we can use Google Trends to compare search interest in content strategy and content marketing over time (Figure 1). Though the marketing term is more popular, the pattern of interest between the two terms remains relatively parallel until about 2011 when the interest in content marketing explodes. Also noteworthy is the only point in time during the upswing when interest in the term content strategy is near equal to content marketing — May 2010 — one month after the first CSF conference in Paris.

Interest over time in terms 'content strategy' and 'content marketing'.
Figure 1: Search interest over time for the terms “content strategy” and “content marketing”. Source: Google Trends (Image modified to simplify presentation.)

On a regional scale, it’s not surprising to find the biggest search results for content strategy come from English-speaking countries, with the US at top of the list (Figure 2). However, India’s strong show of interest in the term over Canada, a U.S. neighbor, is curious; perhaps reflecting Mumbai’s booming tech industry and start-up culture.

Figure 2: Regional interest for the term “content strategy” is primarily from English-speaking countries. Source: Google Trends (Image modified to simplify presentation.)

Following on from Figure 1, regional interest for content marketing continues to grow rapidly in the US and UK, but in several European countries too, and with Singapore and India topping the list. (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Regional interest for the term “content marketing”, includes several countries where English is not the national language. Source: Google Trends (Image modified to simplify presentation.)

Search interest aside, are the paradigms developing around content strategy and content marketing innovative enough to professionalise organisational communication online? Can content strategy and content marketing be classified as independent disciplines? Or are tried and true methods and tools just being repackaged and sold in a way that’s inline with the times and the market? Are we being taken by buzzwords? Or can a fundamental change in organisational communication be expected from a focus on content?

The rise of content strategy

By and large, the methods of good digital agencies are rooted in User Experience. Increasing numbers of agencies in the US, UK, and elsewhere are adding content strategy to their services offerings, integrating into the experience design process.

The scope of content strategy is broad, dealing with different topics and specialisations. This diversity is reflected in online publications and literature, where authors often approach the topic in terms of their own backgrounds in editorial, information architecture, technology, business, or marketing.

In her first book, Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson gives what has become the most well-known definition for content strategy:

Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content.

Rachel Lovinger stresses the integrated character of content strategy in her seminal article, Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data (2007):

The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences. We have to be experts in all aspects of communication in order to do this effectively.

Content strategy thus helps organisations develop a strategic, long-term plan for their online communication. Content should be relevant to audience needs and interests, while supporting the goals of the organisation.

Content strategies never come to an end. They are circular processes, repeatable cycles. These repeating processes improve content quality, and ultimately its (economic) value for the organisation. Content is an important commodity, an essential business asset, to which personnel and financial resources must be invested.

Buzzword or discipline?

Content strategy is application-oriented and so suggests a concrete set of methods originating from various areas of specialisation: instruments from user research, information management, qualitative social research and content management principles and other tools. They are used to develop and establish an integrated content strategy throughout an organisation.

Normally it is undertaken in three phases. The used methods and instruments are well known: e.g. editorial calendars, workflow diagrams, templates, matrices, and audits as well as quantitative and qualitative social research methods. But in the context of content strategy they are applied to the web content of organisations and integrated into a repetitive, circular process. They allow the strategic planning and implementation of web-based communication founded on empirical knowledge and using documents from everyday professional life.

Content strategy has not reinvented the wheel; instead, it makes use of the tried and true in a changed context, consolidating all areas of specialisation relevant to the content lifecycle. And it creates a new job description: the content strategist.

Content strategy is a long-term concept for strategic planning and implementation of web content. In their title Managing Enterprise Content, Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper emphasize the importance of uniformity:

Only a formal unified content strategy can ensure that your organisation is addressing all the problems of content in a repeatable, systematic manner.

This approach classifies it as an independent discipline.

But the term content is actually used as a buzzword, especially by agencies and service providers. It is mixed up with storytelling, SEO, or social media communication. We are currently in a phase where content marketing and strategy is used to refer to almost anything that has to do with content on the web. This leads to a dangerous misunderstanding of content strategy’s true nature and value — a value on which even content marketing relies — and to a dilution of specialisations and methods.

Learn it and teach it

We, the community, have to distinguish content strategy from other areas of specialisation, concepts and approaches to communication. We must create an awareness and emphasize the status of content strategy as a discrete discipline which develops strategic recommendations for action on the basis of sound empirical knowledge. Because this characteristic distinguishes content strategy from most other (marketing) concept.

Content strategy is thus a discipline that can be learned and taught because it:

  • appears to be a clearly defined process for optimizing production, preparing, and administering web content;
  • includes methods and instruments for empirical investigation of web-based organisational communication, thereby operating based on facts that have been verified; and
  • proposes specific tools and documents for planning and implementing content strategies in web editing.

Content strategy describes optimal web-based organisational communication with a focus on their content and reacts to the evolving nature of the web and its trends through a practice-oriented approach to new questions. The defined phases, processes, instruments, and methods of content strategy can thus be taught and learned. It’s not only possible to pass on content strategy competences to organisations — since it can be conveyed as a complete, integrated concept — but it’s suitable for instruction in academic institutions as well.

The demand for professionals capable of planning and implementing long-term strategies for web-based communication also continues to rise in Europe. This shows great promise for our upcoming master’s degree program, Content-Strategie und digitale Kommunikation, at the University of Applied Sciences in Graz.

Content strategy can actually change the overall communication (as well as the structure) of organisations if it’s planned holistically, championed seriously from the top, and likely using the repeatable methods coming out of the U.S. From this perspective, content strategy is not just a buzzword empty of meaning which will be replaced in the near future by the next big trend. Its advancement is dependent on the community: it’s you who is giving distinction to the discipline and ensuring that content strategy will not become a meaningless buzzword.