For over 35 years, Sarah Winchester, the widow of the famous Winchester firearms magnate, never stopped doing construction on her house. Rumor has it she did it to ward off the ghosts of those killed by Winchester guns, but no one’s certain of her motivation. What is fairly certain is she didn’t have much of a blueprint guiding her work. Her 24,000 square foot house includes oddities like staircases leading to ceilings and a door that opens onto a 2-story drop.
When I began thinking about the relationship between content strategy and content marketing this house – now known as the Winchester Mystery House – came to mind. It’s the perfect visualization of what happens when your plan is doing something just for the sake of doing something.
Without content strategy, this is basically what content marketing becomes – a nonsensical house built without blueprints. This complementary relationship, though, is often why content marketing and content strategy are mistaken for the same thing when they are very much distinct practices.
What is Content Marketing?
The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as, “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action” (Rose, 2013).
Traditional marketing relies on a more direct sales pitch: “Buy our product because x,y,z.” Content marketing on the other hand is indirect and subtle. It tries to earn people’s attention by offering them something they want or need in the hopes this carrot will help them build a stronger, positive relationship with a brand and inspire sales and loyalty.
The means through which you attract people’s attention in content marketing is content – articles, videos, photos, podcasts – which may not even involve a reference to a brand or its products in any way. So, content marketing in practice is primarily concerned with ideating, creating, curating, publishing, and promoting content that has a marketing purpose (McKetta).
For example, if you’re a car insurance company you might create an online quiz about texting and driving for parents and teachers to use with teenagers, or you might publish a blog with tips on what to keep in an emergency kit in your car during winter. These pieces of content initially will draw in users out of usefulness then some users may begin to think that this insurance company really cares. That maybe it isn’t like the others and these users may become new customers or remain loyal customers based on this emotional relationship with the brand.
What is Content Strategy?
Content strategy, “plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content” (Halvorson, 2008). Content strategists work to make sure that content can meet both the goals of the users it’s meant for and a business’ goals. They understand content to be a “strategic asset” of an organization and therefore their work is often meant to maximize the value of this asset (Rose, 2013). In practice content strategy determines (McCoy, 2020):
- why you’re creating content
- who you’re trying to reach with it
- what form content should take to meet needs and goals
- who’s going to create the content
- what metrics will be used to measure success
- how content will be managed
Importantly, content strategy is not just applicable to marketing. Content strategists look at content across teams and across an organization, for both internal and external audiences, and make sure it and the processes involving it are consistent and efficient (Rose, 2013). They create the guardrails to ensure an organization’s content has a valuable purpose.
How do they relate?
“Content marketing without content strategy is like that proverbial tree in the forest that no one hears.”Scott Morris, “Tech 101: Content Marketing Vesus Content Strategy — What’s the Diff?”
So, while content strategy can and does exist without content marketing, content marketing can’t exist without content strategy – at least not very successfully. To create, publish, and promote content as a marketer you need to know what the goal of it is, who it’s for, and how to measure its success. You need strategy from which to work.
Robert Rose (2013) explains this relationship as such: “the content marketer addresses the “whys,” the content strategist addresses the “hows,” and together they work out the “whats” and “wheres.”
The overlapping area between these 2 practices in which a content strategist is specifically focused on content marketing is sometimes referred to as content marketing strategy. Professionals in this area of content strategy may be tasked with building content vision, defining goals, doing audience research, defining voice and style, creating a content production process, ideating content, and addressing external governance of content.
They may also be involved with content marketers in choosing publication channels, the timing of content publication and lifecycle, and content reviews (McKetta). The smaller a marketing team, the more likely a strategist’s work may start to bleed into content creation, either out of proximity or necessity.
This is why there tends to be confusion about content strategy and content marketing. Many businesses themselves do not understand what a true content strategist does and thus hire for roles that are a hybrid or even mostly about marketing.
If someone has the right combination of skills, this can sometimes work. However, it’s important to remember that content strategy is not set it and forget it work. Strategy needs to evolve and be refined as often as possible based on the performance of content and the shifting needs of businesses and audiences. Having someone on your marketing team focused on this work can have a great payoff. After all, it’s never fun to find out you’ve been building staircases to nowhere.
McCoy, J. (2020, March 1). The difference between content marketing & content strategy (& why you need both). Search Engine Journal. Retrieved from https://www.searchenginejournal.com/content-marketing-vs-content-strategy/349392/
McKetta, I. Beginner’s guide to content marketing, Chapter 2 : Content strategy. Moz. Retrieved from https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-content-marketing/content-strategy
Morris, S. Tech 101: Content marketing vesus content strategy — What’s the diff? SkillCrush. Retrieved from https://skillcrush.com/blog/content-marketing-versus-content-strategy/
Rose, R. (2013, October 16). How content strategy and content marketing are separate but connected. Content Marketing Institute. Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/10/content-strategy-content-marketing-separate-connected/