The relationship between content strategy and content marketing

This article represents the collective thinking of several content professionals having various backgrounds, expertise, and interests in the fields of Content Strategy and Content Marketing. As the important work of content professionals has become more widely recognized, these two valuable and related practices have often been confused. We have come together to define these roles and explain how they relate with each other.

This article received contributions from:

  • Michael Andrews (Italy),
  • Carlos J. Campo (Spain),
  • Katie Del Angel (US),
  • Kelly Harbaugh (US),
  • Chris Menke (US),
  • Diana Railton (UK),
  • Àfrica Rubiés-Mirabet (Spain),
  • Eva Sanagustin (Spain),
  • Sascha Stoltenow (Germany),
  • Edwin Tam (Singapore),
  • Alvaro Vargas (Canada), and
  • Destry Wion (France).

Table of contents

  1. Setting the stage
  2. History
  3. Defining roles in the digital age
  4. Defining content
  5. Work of the content strategist
  6. Content strategy deliverables
  7. Work of the content marketer
  8. Content marketing deliverables
  9. Overlap in content strategy and content marketing
  10. At the end of the day

Setting the stage

Let’s begin where we often try to, with definitions from some of the leading voices on both sides of the orchard.

Kristina Halvorson gave us the world’s most recognized definition of content strategy in her first book, Content Strategy for the Web:

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

The Content Marketing Institute gives a widely regarded definition for content marketing:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Colleen Jones, who’s been outspoken for both fields, makes this distinction between content strategy and content marketing:

I see the main distinction between the two fields of practice as purpose. Content strategy is essential for a wide range of purposes — media products, technical support, customer service, sales, and marketing, to name a few. Content marketing focuses on strategy and implementation for — you guessed it — marketing.

Rachel Lovinger also sees a difference between them:

People have been blurring the lines [between CS and CM] at least [as] far back as 2008 (maybe more). There are overlaps, sure, but [they’re] not interchangeable.

And Melissa Rach probably gives us the best reason yet why there’s been so much confusion, pointing out the irony of our difficulty with these terms:

People have been creating on content for eons, but this new iteration of the content industry is young and developing at a rapid pace. As a result, our vocabulary is still fluid. Content practitioners may use the same term to mean different things based on their experience and talents.

As a community of content professionals, we seem to have trouble clarifying our own vocabulary.

A recent work by Scott Abel, Rahel Anne Bailie, and 52 industry specialists — The Language of Content Strategy — may be what helps remedy the vocabulary problem. In this book, Rahel provides her definition of content strategy.


Content strategy and content marketing have been practiced for a significant amount of time under different labels. Content marketers often point to John Deere’s magazine and Jell-O’s book of recipes as two of the earliest practices of content marketing. Firehead notes in their brief history that content strategy is “as old as publishing itself”. However, as the digital publishing age has emerged, people from several diverse fields have come together to create the role that we recognise today. Richard Ingram’s 2011 survey of content strategists shows a diverse population of curators, editors, designers, managers, marketers, and technical writers.

Defining roles in the digital age

In 2009, Richard Ingram published his diagram, Collaboration with Content Strategist (Figure 1), to illustrate the content strategist’s role in the larger process of web content development.

Figure 1. Collaboration with Content Strategist by Richard Ingram (2009). Emphasis has been added to the Copywriter cluster to show where content marketing is largely concerned, and where identity crises happen. Provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

The semantic confusion at the time existed between content strategy and other roles in the field of web content development. Ingram’s graphic clarified separate roles while showing where tasks overlapped. In this diagram, marketing tasks such as advertising models, brand strategy, and editorial strategy are placed under the role of the copywriter. This model worked well under web 1.0.

However, with the development of the interactive web (web 2.0), direct access to target audiences and the ability to measure engagement in real time opened new opportunities for marketers. A new role of “content marketer” has grown into the original model, as the practice of planning, executing, and measuring engagement with an audience through multi-channel publishing has become much more complex.

If Ingram’s model was modified to reflect the role of content marketers, you would find them between the content strategist, the copywriter, and the visual designer. In this space, tasks such as advertising models, editorial and brand strategy, style guides, and content production could be shown in the overlap, and new tasks such as analytics could be added.

There will always be overlap in the work of content professionals. While the content strategist and the content marketer serve different functions, their work is intertwined in the common goal of delivering useful and relevant content.

Defining content

Content is a means of engagement between the content producer and content consumer. Content is exchanged between producers and consumers through a broad range of digital and offline channels. An organization’s content is information that enables its audience to engage directly and make well-informed decisions.

Here’s Scott Abel’s definition of ‘content’ from the aforementioned Language of Content Strategy.

Content can take any form to meet the need of the user. Razorfish identifies all of the following as content;

  • text
  • images
  • video
  • audio
  • data
  • user comments
  • email
  • online conversations

Effective use of content as a tool to achieve business objectives encompasses diverse skill sets, establishing a path of strategy, planning, and execution. This path can include the work of a content strategist and a content marketer.

Work of the content strategist

strategyplanninggovernancerolescommunicationsschedulinginfrastructuredata modelingarchitecturemigration

A content strategist analyses an organisation’s current content in relation to its audience and business goals. The work that follows is customized based on what is discovered.

The content strategist might conceptualise new content for use in achieving business objectives — including marketing objectives. This could also involve recommendations to refine the effectiveness of existing content.

The content strategist’s work could focus on improving the user experience and revising content so that users can easily find what they are looking for. This might involve close work with an interaction designer to create wireframes or an information architect to establish categories and meta tags for products or data.

A content strategist works to make content “future-ready” and flexible for various formats, screen sizes, and resolutions. Content modeling and content engineering are used to apply a high level of structure to a larger body of content so that it can be created once and published anywhere.

A content strategist might also create a message architecture based on the company’s brand values and the primary audience or target market. This work includes guidelines for the voice, tone, and message of content so consistency is maintained across multiple writers. It may also include the creation of content templates for the same purpose.

Content strategy keeps the publishing machine well-oiled (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Web Content Cogs by Richard Ingram (2009). The diagram describes, through a model of mechanical gears, a typical editorial workflow relative to an article scheduled for publishing in the editorial calendar. (Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.)

Richard Ingram explains his Web Content Cogs:

Publishing web content should work like clockwork. As the Editorial Calendar ticks along it should start a chain reaction which sees the Editor pass along the task to the Creator. Technical support, in the shape of SEO and IA practitioners, as well as the Researchers will help keep the Creator moving before passing content along to the Reviewer and, upon acceptance, the Publisher has the task of uploading the content and passing ultimate responsibility for its lifecycle back to the Editor.

While much focus is given to managing content creation, this is not the end of a content strategist’s work. Governance of the content lifecycle is a key component of content strategy. A policy might be written to establish a clear workflow for creating, editing, publishing, maintaining, and archiving content. A governance policy identifies who is responsible for certain tasks or specific areas of the website. This ensures that the content lifecycle is supervised and that the process and results are assessed regularly.

Content strategy deliverables

Shelly Bowen has created a comprehensive list of content strategy deliverables, and has even placed them into a downloadable checklist (PDF). Shelly’s list of deliverables is categorized by purpose:

What are you trying to achieve?

  • Summary of company goals

What do you own?

  • Content inventory or audit
  • Content assessment (quality and quantity)

What’s missing?

  • Content gap analysis
  • Comparative content analysis
  • Competitive analysis

How do you present the words?

  • User personas
  • User scenarios (think believable stories)
  • Editorial strategy
  • Core messaging strategy
  • Content templates
  • Sample content
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy
  • Metadata strategy
  • Brand strategy
  • Style guide
  • Glossary

Where does It go?

  • Copy deck
  • Content conversion/migration strategy
  • Content flow schematic
  • Channel strategy
  • Community and social strategy
  • Visual presentation recommendations
  • Wireframes

How do we make it happen?

  • Content approval workflow
  • Communication plans
  • Community moderation policies
  • Content production workshops and training
  • Content sourcing review and plans (people, tools, budget, time)

How do we stay organized?

  • CMS requirements
  • Business rules
  • Taxonomies
  • Responsibilities
  • Schedules

What’s coming up?

  • Editorial calendar

How do we know it’s right?

  • Benchmarks
  • Checks and balances
  • Summary of company goals
  • Success metrics
  • Usability tests

Erin Kissane also provides a comprehensive list of deliverables in her book, The Elements of Content Stategy. If you happen to have that book, see page 41.

Content strategy can be applied to various types of content presented in formats such as print, digital, audio, video, and interactives. Strategy also covers multiple channels such as web, mobile, social media, broadcast, self service (kiosks), printed publications, signage, and even mail.

Content strategy can direct internal communications such as company policies, standard operating procedures, technical guides, training materials, memos, and email. It can also direct outbound content such as web content, help content, error messages, and a wide range of marketing materials. When content is directly targeted to consumers, overlap occurs with the role of the content marketer.

Work of the content marketer

marketingchannelsbrandspersonalisationcustomer journeysconnectionsrelationshipsmessagingsocialpersuasion

A content marketer works to understand a clearly-defined targeted audience and then creates relevant, useful content that is delivered through the right channel at the specific time that the audience needs it. In-depth research into consumer preferences and buying cycles is performed to map content to specific decision points and publishing channels. In order to align consumer needs with the organization’ objectives, this work may be done in collaboration with others in user experience and business development.

The role and purpose of content marketing has shifted based on lessons learned from traditional “push” marketing, allowing organizations to connect on a more meaningful level with useful, relevant content. Therefore, a key component of content marketing is understanding what the audience is looking for and when to meet their needs and expectations. This can be found through a blend of qualitative (social media, customer service, or survey feedback) and quantitative (keyword, search engine, or site traffic data) research. The right combination works together to reach the intended market. (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Diagram showing the basic concept machinery of content marketing: content, search, and social media. <a href=">Image by Geoff Livingston (2012). (Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.)

The intent of content marketing is to build loyalty and to persuade a target audience toward a conversion goal. Content is used to engage, inform, influence, and expand its audiences by connecting with them on an emotional level and appealing to their needs and interests. Ultimately, content marketing should find the “sweet spot” between audience and business needs.

A content marketing plan will usually include information about the target audience followed by specific suggestions for published deliverables. A content marketing plan will also include recommended channels to publish, distribute, and promote content. Other plan elements can include a governance model or workflow plan for development of the deliverables, an editorial calendar, and establishment of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s).

A content marketer will also track and measure the impact of content on business KPIs and engagement metrics to optimise and improve content efforts over time.

Content marketing deliverables

Content marketing deliverables are intended to reach prospects with valuable information when they are looking for it rather than interrupting them with an advertising message. Deliverables include analysis and process-related outputs as well as finished, audience-facing products.

Analysis and process:

  • Marketing objectives
  • Creative brief
  • Segment targeting approach
  • Content distribution strategy
  • Social listening analysis
  • Social media strategy
  • Keyword identification
  • Business KPI analysis
  • Cost per reach analysis
  • User behavioural targeting approach

Audience-facing products:

  • Case studies
  • White papers
  • Buying guides
  • How-to videos
  • Social media posts
  • Ebooks
  • Newsletters
  • Infographics
  • Digital or print magazines
  • Slide shows
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Teleseminars
  • Customer support content

Overlap in content strategy and content marketing

The strategy and planning stage for content marketers overlaps with planning that content strategists do for marketing purposes. How tasks are divided largely depends on the organisation and its workflow model. The following content strategy deliverables could be part of the work of a content strategist or a content marketer:

  • Buyer personas
  • Competitor analysis
  • Message architecture
  • Brand strategy
  • Style guidelines
  • SEO strategy
  • Publishing channel map
  • Editorial calendar
  • Content sourcing review and plans (people, tools, budget, time)
  • KPI metrics
  • Web analytics

Content marketers and content strategists might also share the role of overseeing the development of deliverables and/or analysing metrics. As they work together, the content lifecycle is established (Figure 4):

Figure 4. Diagram of Content Strategy Lifecycle. The repeating cycle shows five phases of work — Plan, Create, Publish, Distribute, and Analyze — centred around a continuous presence of Governance. (Image is copyright Ahava Leibtag, and used with her permission.)

Returning to the Language of Content Strategy, Robert Rose explains the ‘content lifecycle’ in detail.

At the end of the day

Content strategy and content marketing are separate but complementary roles. The size of an organization often determines how separate these roles are. A larger staff can have several content professionals, ranging from strategist to manager to marketer and writer. A small business might have one person in charge of strategy for all purposes, including marketing, plus the development and distribution of content.

A formal written uniform content strategy is essential for making roles and processes clear, eliminating silos, and ensuring an organisation’s goals are met. Joe Pulizzi has pointed out that the lack of a uniform content strategy results in awful branded content. Diana Railton has prepared a workshop that addresses how to prepare a single unified content strategy.

As the next phase of publishing arrives, new roles may emerge. Although our lexicon may evolve, content professionals will always have to collaborate to create useful, usable content that is meaningful to the consumer.