Content strategy, or the management of marketing communication

For a technical writer, what is content strategy? And is content strategy relevant if you are not a consultant?

I watched as the new the term "content strategy" appeared and then evolved at the list contentstrategy@googlegroups.com since 2009, and I kept thinking that all these clever people were just renaming what I do daily at Altitude Software: writing and maintaining an evolving set of technical and training documentation through the years. The whole thing seemed just a new buzzword created by consultants to sell more exciting services to their customers. Still, I kept wondering if I was missing something.

Today I attended the Kristina Halvorson's workshop "Content Strategy and User Experience" with the hope of figuring out the missing bits.

Kristina and her Brain Traffic company are the mother and family of all things content strategy. In fact, Kristina had just presented her workshop at the new CONFAB 2011 conference (the content strategy conference, May 9-11, Minneapolis) which, of course, should not be confused with the ConFab 2011 (meeting for key decision makers on semiconductor fabrication, May 15-18, Las Vegas), or the 34th ConfaB 2011 conference (the conference for consultants by consultants, October 22-24, Reno). But I digress.

Kristina did make a real effort to present at the amazing UX Lx conference in Lisbon (May 11-13) right after CONFAB 2011, and she suffered the effects of jet lag. Thankfully for the workshop attendees, Kristina succeeded in making the major points gracefully and, for me personally, she succeeded in clarifying my own relationship with content strategy.

Kristina spent over half of the workshop defining the problem: lack of content for a web site on due time.

However, I also inferred that Kristina's background is the design or redesign of web sites. Not just any web sites, but marketing-related web sites whose major goal is to sell a product or to pass an emotional message, as opposed to inform or train. The content she is referring to is the marketing "copy" written by copywriters (full disclaimer: I always hated these two words). Also, Kristina is not an in-house professional that cares for a web site over time; she is a consultant, so she must get in and get out of projects on a defined schedule. As the deadline of each project approaches, Kristina's problem is that the marketing copy is not aligned with the purpose of the web site, has poor quality, or is non-existent, and usually has to be faked at the last minute. Without appropriate content, web sites fail to achieve their objectives. Unless, of course, you do content strategy.

As far as I can see, the methods of content strategy are nothing more than the traditional methods of technical writing applied to marketing copy. The crux of the method is the ill-called "page table" (where is the table?) that documents management knowledge for a type of topic. These page tables state policies, guidelines, standards, source of information, decision makers, criteria and process for change.

At Altitude Software, the equivalent of page tables is not written down anywhere. However, I know the relevant pieces of information for each topic authored or maintained by my team... It's just required for my daily work. Except that Kristina, in her own words, said "I'm a content person, not a technical person," which kind of rules out the term "technical writing". However, it does not rule out STC's term "marketing communication", which seems quite appropriate.

After attending Kristina's workshop, I conclude that content strategy is just a buzzword for "management of marketing communication" (for the web), using the traditional tools of technical writing.

This is enough to satisfy my curiosity, illustrating the difference between technical writing and content strategy, and why web consultants want to sell one of these.

I welcome comments by email; with the consent of the authors, I will append thoughtful comments to this article.

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