For a number of reasons I have been thinking about "Content Strategy" lately. One of the reasons came along somewhat unexpectedly in that I was named by MindTouch as one of the top 25 most influencial content strategists. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the nomination as the phrase "content strategy" has not been one of the many epithets that I have been known to throw around when discussing the ins-and-outs of content. That said, it is true that I have been excavating the concept of content, and the many things we do with it and to it, for essentially 20 years now. It is also true that few people have tortured the term as systematically as I have. All this aside, I was pleased to have my name associated with the still somewhat emergent concept of content strategy.
It would seem fitting then to establish a definition for content strategy, or at least a working description of what it is that content strategists do. As a stepping stone in that direction, I particularly like the visualization provided by Richard Ingram (below).
What I particularly like about this representation of content strategy is that it underscores the fact that content strategy is an integrative activity - one that must touch upon and pull together a variety of practice areas and mobilize their respective energies in a way that delivers maximum benefit to an organization and its customers. A content strategy becomes a form of game plan for how an organization will plan, develop and deliver content that helps people perform effectively. More often than not the focus of the content strategist falls on helping people to become customers through the facilitation of a sale and to be satisfied customers once the sale has been made.
It is also pretty hard to avoid noticing that content strategy is predominantly discussed with reference to web content. As I do elsewhere, I tend to look at how these discussions can be generalized so as to apply to all content. This does not take anything away from discussions of content strategy that are very much rooted in web user experience optimization. In fact, I find that web professionals often do a better job than others in foregrounding a strong emphasis upon user success and on leveraging analytical tools and techniques that help make such success measurable.
Now among the other reasons I have been thinking about content strategy lately is the fact that I have contributed to two articles that have appeared recently on this very topic.
In an issue of eContent magazine, I contributed a guest column called "Get Smart: Architecting Content for Maximum Value" (my original title was greatly improved by the addition, by eContent editor Michelle Manafy, of the delightful prefix "Get Smart"). In many respects this article speaks directly to the mission of the content strategist in aligning how content is planned and designed with how it needs to be delivered in order to be effective. It is noteworthy however that the primary focus in this article in fact falls on "content architecture" and its relationship with the "content technologies" that will be deployed to make the entire process scalable and sustainable. The point I would like to make here is that a content strategy does not stand alone and we will return to this later.
In the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T), I collaborated with Ann Rockley on an article titled "An Intelligent Content Strategy for the Enterprise". My main contribution is a case study that illustrates an intelligent content strategy being applied to the design process for a new aircraft.
Note: I have included excerpts from both of these, together with a few enhancements, as comments appended to this post.
One of the things that stands out for me in any consideration of "content strategy" is that it is centered upon the business goals of the organization. It sounds almost painfully obvious but grim reality shows us that it is not as obvious as it sounds. A content strategy should bring to the fore the idea that the content must be expressly designed and developed so as to address specific business objectives. This content must also, it follows, be designed to work with and leverage the tools that are being used, such as the search technology that a customer or prospect is most likely to call upon when looking for an answer. As we see with Richard Ingram's illustration (above), the content strategist must take on board a raft of considerations and then chart an efficient and effective path of content investment.
That content strategy is focused ultimately on user experience is significant in other ways as well. For one, content strategists in my experience have tended to be people with a strong background in content design and development. They are, simply put, content practitioners who are very close to the business of creating and publishing content. This is one of the key strengths of a good content strategist. This strength, however, is not the only one that an organization will need to tap into if it really wants to take its "content game" to the next level.
I would contend that, while content strategists lead the integration effort from the perspective of the business owner, the content strategist also needs to collaborate with another type of protagonist if success is to be achieved. That other protagonist would be the Content Solution Architect or alternatively the Content Engineer. Important caveat: depending on what jurisdiction you are in, both "architect" and "engineer" are controlled terms and of the two "engineer" tends to be the more tightly controlled - so you should be careful about which of these terms you take up and how liberally you throw it around. Whichever of these terms you adopt, this role will lead the integration and implementation effort from the perspective of the technologies and architectural techniques that will be applied so that the content strategy can find expression in a solution that actually works and that can be sustained and evolved going forward. Where the content environment being considered is large, such as would be found in a multi-national enterprise, the more important this role becomes.
I make the distinction between content strategist and content solution architect or content engineer because the strengths of a good content strategist do not automatically translate into adequate credentials for being a good content solution architect or content engineer. The reverse, I hasten to point out, is even more true. What does need to be acknowledged, however, is the inescapable fact that the technologies and architectural techniques surrounding content have decades of evolution behind them and it would be inadvisable to assume they can be picked up and mastered without systematic exploration and extensive implementation and operational experience. The ideal situation, I would suggest, will match a strong content strategist with an equally strong content solution architect or content engineer. Attacking the problems from both sides, as it were, this combination will achieve the quickest and surest success.
As a specialization of a model that I have used in the past to explore the nature of "content solutions", I am putting forward the following depiction of how the business-oriented content strategy interacts with the content technology and with the operating content process to form a solution that implements the strategy and thereby realizes its goals. (In an earlier version of this post, the position occupied by content process was held by the puzzling concept of content architecture. Both derive from what I classify, in the parent version of this illustration, as indicative of the "knowledge" perspective and I have come to the view that the content process is a more appropriate part of this content solution diagram. Content architecture remains an interesting, but more than a little esoteric, side alley that looks at how a variety of contending considerations, including the competing demands that are often placed upon content assets, can be worked out and worked out in a way that achieves the highest level of asset and solution persistence.)
In thinking about the respective roles of the content strategist and the content solution architect or content engineer, I come to the firm belief that these two roles should not be played by one person. There are a number of reasons for this, and some of them we have already touched upon. Among the most important of these reasons is the fact that it will be rare, bordering upon unheard of, for one person to completely straddle all of the requisite domains. Even more important however is the fact that these two perspectives should have strong and clear representation in any project and that, through the interaction between them, an effective balance is realized as the best way to ensure both short term and long term success. In a very practical way, it will also prove critical that a project be able to deal simultaneously with stakeholders from the business community and from the technology infrastructure community. Experience has shown repeatly how important it is for a project to be able to interact with major groups of stakeholders in a way that each of these groups acknowledges as valid (and therefore that they can "hear"). In an ideal world, the different backgrounds of content strategists and content solution architects / content engineers will allow them to fully engage these two important, and very different, communities.
Finally, in line with a basic principle of good governance, it is generally a good idea to separate the two concerns of content strategy (the what and the why) and content engineering and architecture (essentially the how, with implications for the what). This helps to prevent one perspective becoming overly enamoured with its view of things and thus to wander off into an echo chamber of its own interests. Both the community of content professionals and cadre of technology stakeholders have strong isolationist tendencies, so this type of checks-and-balances approach to framing and then realizing content strategies is a good idea. It is hard work, mind you, but any organization that depends on its content, and looks to it as a resource for future improvement, should embrace this more arduous route to success.
In venturing this exploration, with its suggestion that content strategy is only part of the equation, I am launching off from a somewhat specific conception of what is meant by the word "content" and therefore by its management. In this I emphasize that content is an asset because it represents a potential action that will drive a tangible benefit. In this regard, what content has been prepared, and how specifically it has been prepared, is important in part because this will determine how that content can be transformed (published) into one or more information events. I would invite readers to explore more of my posts under the category of "content" with The Truth about Content being a reasonably good place to start.