There’s a lot of junk out there. And I’m not talking about in orbit around the Earth or in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or even in that she shed in the backyard that you swore would be for meditation stuff and nothing else. I’m talking about content. Technically anything can be content, and it’s always been around, but in the last 15 years, we’ve done a pretty good job of creating an astronomical amount of it in the digital sense.
With the steep rise in social media and smartphone use, everyone from celebrities to your grandma has become a content creator, and, while some content always rises to the top, most is just clutter. Content strategist Rachel Lovinger recognized this problem in 2007 before the mobile revolution that accelerated it even began when she said:
“Because content is so pervasive, everyone thinks they know all there is to know about it. If you can read and write, you can make content, right? But the fact is, as interactive experiences become more complex, so does the nature of content. A superficial understanding of content isn’t going to cut it anymore.”Rachel Lovinger (2007), “Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data”
Who she’s talking to about this approach not cutting it anymore are all the businesses and brands who at this time suddenly found themselves required to abandon traditional marketing and advertising approaches and retool themselves to be media companies in order to compete.
No longer could they just run TV commercials or provide sponsorship money to make their goals. People were starting to demand they offer them something of more value for their attention. So, businesses started making content. They invested in constantly churning out photos, videos, articles, blogs, you name it, and focused on self-publishing their content to social media, on webpages, and in emails.
But even with all this effort businesses didn’t always see a good return on their investment. Why? Because as Lovinger (2007) said as well, “simply more content won’t do; it has to be accurate and relevant. It has to be meaningful.” Meaningful meaning what the user wants or needs when and where they want or need it. That was a key businesses were missing and a reason why the popularity of content strategy exploded in the last 15 years (Bailie, 2020).
The Evolution of Content Strategy
According to Kristina Halvorson (2008), “content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” While in this post I’m looking at it specifically from the perspective of its recent rapid adoption for marketing and user experience (UX) purposes, content strategy can and has been applied to a range of business problems.
The history of content strategy as told by Rahel Anne Bailie (2020) often intersects with the computer science and engineering fields which naturally produce vast amounts of content in the form of technical instructions or computer code and which were forced early on to deal with content well or face setbacks and limitations.
For example, in 1980 a standard markup language was created that allowed for copious content to be stored on a disk and linked together. Professionals working in the aerospace, military, and other organizations who acted as content strategists, although not always officially called content strategists, used this language to digitize the technical documentation for aircraft onto single disks. Before this innovation documentation on paper often weighed as much as the aircraft itself and proved to be difficult to share and interconnect in a usable way. Without this approach, a certain percentage of the intended benefit of this important content would have gone to waste.
As I previously mentioned, content wasn’t this central to most businesses’ success until recently. The shift to content marketing paralleled our world’s shift to digital, to the internet. Suddenly, a brand’s only interactions with some people might be through a website, so the impression of that space became critical. Enter UX into the lexicon and priorities of business.
“It’s inherently impossible to design a great user experience for bad content”Kristina Halvorson (2011), “Content Strategy and UX: A Modern Love Story”
But while businesses now had UX designers working to make better, more usable containers for content and marketers filling these containers to the brim, both camps started to realize no one was focusing on whether all this effort in the name of content was actually what they should be doing or how they should be doing it.
This shared need is why the demand for content strategists skyrocketed in the 2010s and why you can now find content strategists working with a variety of teams – marketing teams, social media teams, product teams, UX teams. Some may be focused on creating more sustainable processes for digital content generation in an organization while others may be tasked with helping develop a new content direction for a website redesign.
“Content strategy is a big ol’ loosely connected network of practices, and it doesn’t belong to any of us any more than graphic design belongs to advertising or project management to aerospace engineering.”Brain Traffic (2017), “Content Strategy is Not UX”
What exactly a content strategist does day-to-day is unique to the reasons a business has for hiring one. Just like doctors or teachers, each content strategist has an area of specialty. However, they are all guided by the central principle that content should meet both user and business goals and that in order to do this, you need to strategically plan for it, not fly by the seat of your pants and hope it happens. Content strategists are there to see and paint the bigger picture of content for everyone else who may be lost in the weeds.
So, even though content strategists have found their skills being popularly applied in new areas in the last decade not a lot has changed – except maybe that they’ve decided to coalesce around the term content strategy for what they do.
The Road Ahead
As the balance of power in content shifts ever more toward users, content strategists – especially in marketing – may find themselves in the near future feeling more like they’re on the side of users than business in their work. Jonas Muthoni (2020), founder & CEO at Deviate Agency, speaks of the current evolution of content as a transition from “something that brands push to customers into a tool where brands influence customers to create content for them.”
Even with the shift away from traditional media, businesses have been resistant to giving up control of their image and message. But users now demand authenticity and they can smell marketing a mile away. User-generated content is a strategic way to address this, but it’s not always perfect and certainly not what management or executives are used to.
Content strategists are going to be required to pivot internal thinking in a big way for the second time in 20 years. Businesses have barely gotten used to the requirement to get down in the dirt and fight for attention against everyone else with self-produced and published content and now they’re being asked to trust the use of content made by people outside their control.
“right for the business” and “right for the user” are the same thingErin Kissane (2011), “A Checklist for Content Work”
Content strategist Erin Kissane offered a perspective back in 2011 that may be helpful to the many content strategists faced with arguing this reality. “Fundamentally, though, “right for the business” and “right for the user” are the same thing,” she says. “Without readers, viewers, and listeners, all content is meaningless, and content created without consideration for users’ needs harms publishers because ignored users leave. This principle boils down to enlightened self interest: that which hurts your users hurts you.”
Content strategists know content can be a powerful tool, but also that it’s just as, if not more, likely to be a waste for both those who produce it and those who consume it if it’s not done well. As content strategy continues to become a common role in more and more business areas, content strategists will continue in various ways to do the same work they’ve always been tasked with and stop the creep of content waste.
Bailie, R. A. (2020, September 2). An uneven history of content strategy. Medium. Retrieved from https://rahelab.medium.com/an-uneven-history-of-content-strategy-d514cfd7eee5
Brain Traffic. (2017, June 30). Content Strategy is Not UX. Retrieved from https://www.braintraffic.com/articles/content-strategy-is-not-ux
Halvorson, K. (2008, December 16). The discipline of content strategy. A List Apart. Retrieved from https://alistapart.com/article/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy
Halvorson, K. (2011, February 14). Content strategy and UX: A modern love story. UX Magazine. Retrieved from https://uxmag.com/articles/content-strategy-and-ux-a-modern-love-story /
Kissane, E. (2011). A checklist for content work. A List Apart. Retrieved from https://alistapart.com/article/a-checklist-for-content-work/
Lovinger, R. (2007, March 27) Content strategy: the philosophy of data. Boxes and Arrows. Retrieved from https://boxesandarrows.com/content-strategy-the-philosophy-of-data/
Muthoni, J. (2020, November 16). The evolution of content and what it means for business success. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2020/11/16/the-evolution-of-content-and-what-it-means-for-business-success