Why content should be led by strategy

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Content marketing has been hard to miss recently. I’m always happy to talk content, but to me it feels that the conversation is missing something important: strategy.

Content strategy is so absent from the content marketing conversation that it’s starting to feel like content marketing is evolving into a separate discipline. A separate discipline that’s bypassing the more mature one of content strategy.

While the buzz around content has grown steadily over the past decade, content marketing has boomed in the last 18 months, in large part due to Google’s Penguin and Panda updates. These updates had a huge impact on the SEO industry, so it’s no surprise that SEO is one of the areas where content marketing is seeing the biggest growth.

There have been endless ‘Is content marketing the new SEO?’ blog posts. At a recent content marketing conference I attended the majority of the audience were SEOs, with few dedicated content specialists. Lots of SEO agencies are now offering content marketing as a service, and no doubt some have gone the whole hog and rebranded as content marketing agencies.

This post isn’t a beef about the SEO industry making inroads in content though – that’s not the problem. The problem is that in most instances where I see or hear people talking about content marketing, they’re not talking about content strategy too. And I think content that isn’t led by strategy is a recipe for failure.

Here’s why:

They’re not the same thing

Having canvassed opinion on this, a lot of people seem to see content strategy and content marketing as either very similar or exactly the same. They’re not.

Content strategy, as defined by the discipline’s doyenne, Kristina Halvorson, is:

“… the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

(If you haven’t read Content Strategy For the Web, do. It’s in its second edition for a good reason.)

According to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing is:

“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience.”

These definitions might look similar to first glance, but look more closely and there’s a fundamental difference: content strategy focuses on the planning, and content marketing on the execution. Or to put it another way, content strategy is ‘how’, content marketing is ‘what’.

The split harms our credibility as an industry

Given that they fulfil two different and complementary functions, you’d expect content strategy and content marketing to fit together seamlessly, but it doesn’t seem to be working out that way.

I don’t know of any content teams with both content strategists and content marketers. (Let me know if you do.) The ‘what’ part of the content lifecycle that content marketers do is fulfilled by a content editor, content producer, copywriter and/or journalists.

This split seems to stretch to the content community too: when I go to content marketing events, there are no content strategists there (and vice versa). This worries me – if the two disciplines can’t come together, we’re going to end up with a big knowledge gap. At content marketing events I see people talking about battles that content strategists have already tackled, and I have no doubt that content marketers could bring valuable insights to the content strategy community too.

Ultimately, it’s going to have an impact on all of our credibility, because it’s confusing and adds unnecessary complexity for clients looking in and trying to work out which service they need. As we’ve already explored, they look pretty similar from the outside, and we risk a situation where content marketers tell clients that content strategists are selling a service they don’t really need, and where content strategists tell clients that they’re cutting corners by going for content marketing.

Content without strategy is cutting corners

Ultimately though, I have to say that I think content without strategy is cutting corners. I think it’s a big mistake, and a short-term way of thinking. You can make the best content in the world, but if you don’t think about it strategically it won’t serve you well in the long-term. Great content is pointless if it’s not aligned to you business objectives, if it’s not usable, if you don’t have a plan for its curation and governance. What happens without strategy is that you publish a load of content and end up with a sprawling unwieldy site full of dead ends, cobwebs and skeletons in cupboards, which you’ll probably call a content strategist to straighten out with an audit, a cull, a new taxonomy and a set of content types.

It comes back to the idea of bread and butter content that I’ve blogged about previously. With content marketing alone, I think you’ll get jelly beans: tasty content that gives you a short-term boost of traffic and links, but no long-term sustenance. Add content strategy, your bread and butter, and you’ve got a more balanced diet.

Google will get wise in the end

I don’t want to tar the whole content marketing industry with the same brush, but there is a minority which is just creating content for links and rankings, as a new name for the kind of link building activity it used to do as SEO.

As we’ve seen time and time again, if you try to game Google, Google gets wise. If content continues to be used as ploy like this, it’s only a matter of time before we see another change to the algorithm to penalise poor quality content. (We’re already seen a move towards this with Matt Cutts’ recent warning that any links in advertorials, native content etc should be marked as ‘no follow’ so that they don’t pass Page Rank, and clearly marked as sponsored content for the sake of users.)

My concern is that content marketing is rooted in here and now, and that on its own it won’t provide long-term value for brands. If it’s not providing long-term value, it won’t have much longevity as a discipline, which puts the whole content industry at risk. We need to look ahead and think strategically – we shouldn’t be trying to find ways to recover from the last Google update, we should be future-proofing and making content that’s so valuable to users that penalisation isn’t even a possibility.

Ultimately, whether we label ourselves marketers or strategists, ‘content’ is the important part of our job titles, and that’s the banner we should be gathering under. If we work together to create a discipline that’s strong, united and coherent, we’ll all have an easier path in the future.

Image credit: tackyspoons