Content strategy vs content marketing: A fight to the death?

If you hang around with content strategists, it won’t be long before you hear someone complain about content marketing. There’s a feeling out there that content marketers have taken over the term “content strategy” without really understanding what it means. This tweet from content strategist Dan Craddock is not unusual:

Then there’s Rachel McAlpine’s blog post “How content strategy got hijacked by content marketing” (see also Colleen Jones’s riposte).

So what’s all this about? Why are content strategists feeling besieged by content marketers? (It doesn’t happen the other way around, in case you’re wondering.)

In fact, there are two different answers to this question, depending on which content strategist you talk to. The first is a kind of “different but equal” answer. I’ll sum it up as follows:

Content strategy and content marketing are different things. Content marketers should keep doing what they do, but they shouldn’t call it “content strategy”. Content strategy is more than marketing.

But some content strategists go further. There’s a stronger version of the argument that I nickname “go home marketing, you’re drunk”, in honour of its best-known exponent, Kristina Halvorson. It goes something like this:

Content marketing as it’s currently practiced is based on flawed priorities, metrics and incentives, to which “real” content strategy offers a corrective.

Rather than try to deal with both arguments in a single blog post, I’m going to take them one at a time. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the “different but equal” argument. I’ll leave “go home marketing, you’re drunk” for another time.

Where Weave fits in

A bit of context: although at Weave we mainly identify with the content strategy side of the fence, we also offer content production services, some of which definitely qualify as content marketing. We’re members of the Content Strategy Melbourne meetup, which brings together people from both disciplines.

So we’re naturally inclined to build bridges between content strategists and content marketers. At the same time, we feel very strongly about the benefits of true content strategy. We don’t want content marketing to become the “one content discipline to rule them all”.

What is content?

One way of thinking about the difference between content strategy and content marketing is to ask the question (with apologies to Raymond Carver) “What do we talk about when we talk about content?” It turns out that the very term “content” can mean different things to different people.

Here’s an example. The menswear website Mr Porter includes a lot of very stylish and well-produced content marketing work, centred on what they call The Journal. The Journal is an online “magazine” that combines aspirational stories about lifestyle and travel (“How to taste wine”; “Seven spectacular journeys to clear your mind”) with stories that tell men how to buy and wear the clothes that the site sells (“Acquire a fool-proof wardrobe”; “Five ways to tie your scarf”).

All the stories contain links to products in the online store, but the principle behind the “magazine” is not just to sell stuff. It follows the fundamental content marketing principle that content should be useful (or at least entertaining) to readers, regardless of whether they end up buying a product. It’s clearly trying to position Mr Porter as a “lifestyle brand” by making the website a destination for lifestyle journalism, not just a place to buy clothes.

Now, ask a content marketer “Where’s the content on the Mr Porter website?” and they’ll head straight for this section. Content marketers are trained to think of “content” as “the stuff that content marketers create”. There might be an official “content team” within the marketing department that produces this content. This team is unlikely to interact on a day to day basis with the people who run the rest of the website.

Content strategists, on the other hand, have a very different view of what content is. For a content strategist, content is everything people interact with on a website. In the case of Mr Porter, this would include individual product pages, customer help pages around things like sizing, ordering and returns, and all the content that helps users find their way around the site and get things done: menu labels, link text, icons and illustrations, category filters, and the text that guides users through the checkout process. Any text, imagery, audio or video that conveys meaning and affects user experience is fair game for content strategy.

What’s content for?

So what counts as “content” is very different for a content marketer and a content strategist. But the two disciplines also have different ideas about what content is for: that is, they come to content with different assumptions and different priorities.

Even when content marketers and content strategists are looking at the same piece of content, they’ll ask different questions about it. Take articles like the ones Mr Porter produces for its “Journal”. Content marketers will focus on the immediate impact of content like this. When they report back to their bosses or clients, they tend to concentrate on “engagement” metrics: the number of times an article has been viewed, commented on, shared on social media.

Content strategists, on the other hand, are more likely to think about the overall life cycle of a piece of content. A content strategist will want to start digging through old articles, asking questions like “This thing about shawl-collared cardigans from 4 years ago: is it still relevant? Is anyone even wearing these things anymore? Are we still selling them? Should the article still be showing up in search results? If yes, should we make it easier for people to find without digging through the archives? Should we add a note at the beginning about what’s changed? Or should we just delete it?”

It’s not that content marketers don’t care about these questions. It’s more that their jobs come with the expectation that they will be constantly producing new, amazing content across multiple, ever-proliferating platforms. Their eye is on the present and (if they’re any good) the future; they have less incentive to think about content that was written in the past. I’ve met content marketers who simply never look at any content that was written before they started their job, except maybe to point to it as a product of “the bad old days”.

Yes, they are different

I hope I’ve convinced you that content strategy and content marketing are different things, and that however strategic your content marketing program might be, the fact that you do content marketing doesn’t mean you have a content strategy. Content strategists:

  • Think about all the content, not just marketing content
  • Think about content as an issue for the whole organisation, not just the marketing department
  • Think about the entire lifecycle of content
  • Think about the governance of content — who owns what content, what organisational resources are required to produce it, who approves it, how often it gets reviewed, what happens when it gets out of date

Do I sound like I don’t have much time for content marketing? Honestly, that’s not the case. Done well, content marketing can be exciting, daring and innovative in a way that content strategy rarely gets a chance to be. A great example is The Naked CEO, an initiative by CPA Australia, initially designed to build awareness of their organisation among young commerce students. This hugely successful content marketing exercise has taken on a life of its own, resulting in international exposure and even a book publishing deal.

Building bridges

What’s more, some content marketers are showing encouraging signs of wanting to engage with content strategy in its fullest sense. The Content Marketing Institute’s Robert Rose has been a leader in this, starting with a blog post back in October 2013 called “How content strategy and content marketing are separate but connected”.

Rose’s stated intention to engage more with content strategy isn’t an idle promise: his Content Marketing Institute has taken over the running of the Intelligent Content Conference, an event focusing on structured, adaptive content that includes speakers like Noz Urbina (one of the best-known content modelling geeks), and Ann Rockley (who may have been the very first person to use the term “content strategy”, way back in 2002!). Leaders in the content marketing community want to hear and learn from the wider world of content strategy. And that’s been Weave’s experience in Melbourne too.

Of course, there’s still room for some healthy debate between the two fields! But let’s leave that for a future post.

Further reading

Rahel Anne Bailie, “Why content marketers need to know about content strategy”

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