This post is being published on Friday this week, rather than Thursday, because my body turned on me late yesterday morning. I hate publishing late and missing deadlines, but since The Content Technologist is once again a solo newsletter operation (for the time being), I had to prioritize my own wellness, and I didn't want to send out a half-edited newsletter. I am better-ish today.
I am mourning Pitchfork, my forever-example of "a website I check daily out of habit." I don't mind GQ as a brand, but I absolutely despise when music criticism is categorized under gendered media. Women like rock 'n' roll (and all the other genres covered by the 'fork) just as much as men do! Pitchfork was always an example of how great websites could be, how independent thought could power through the feed noise, although the site's quality has significantly declined under Condé Nast ownership (isn't that always the case?).
If you are building the next web-based outlet for independent music criticism, television recaps, or movie reviews – or even video game deep-dives and book criticism – please contact me, because you are my dream client.
Speaking of, for the first time in years, I'm actively seeking client work. If you have a content strategy, website redesign, or measurement project you need help with, respond to this email.
In this issue:
- A few housekeeping notes
- What is content strategy, and how is it different from content planning?
- Links of the week: Bots, Buzzfeed, and Google Best Practices
- Did you read?: Movies!
Weekly publishing will resume next week on Thursdays, but our long-form essays will only be included in every other week (even-numbered issues) throughout 2024. Odd-numbered issues will feature short thought-starters, previews of other Content Technologist products outside the weekly newsletter, the return of the chum bucket, and links of the week.
Most of you probably do not care or even notice, but some of you may be asking, "Why does this newsletter seem to be going back and forth on its purpose and publishing approach?"
The answer is mostly in this post, but last year I made some unsustainable decisions and had some unexpected experiences last year that I'm rectifying, business-wise. In 2024 I'm hoping to get The Content Technologist more firmly on its feet committed to its advocacy of a digital future where the people who make the internet—knowledge class workers—enjoy fulfilling careers while creating lasting, meaningful and trusted online experiences.
Also, it turns out it's easier for me to publish a weekly newsletter than an every-other-week newsletter. Habit makes my brain happy.
My inbox is always open for questions, comments, frank discussions, and general lollygagging.
–Deborah Carver, publisher and consultant, the DC who is solo newslettering at the moment, but not forever.
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Redefining content strategy: Matching business needs with audience behaviors
by Deborah Carver
How can we better elevate content strategy at the business level so that our roles, our passions, our work, and our brains are not considered replaceable?
If you ask this person
Or these people
Or this person
About the definition of the word “strategy,” they’ll likely talk about how strategy involves looking at the big picture to connect to their eventual goals. One wants to take over New Jersey, one Westeros, and the third, the American songbook as it connects to personal happiness. One will quote Lao Tzu, another will talk about the superiority of dragons, and the third will provide an overview of her creative process.
Only after those high-level outlines, I imagine, will these strategists dive into the technicalities of their plan.
What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that if you ask a content professional about the definition of content strategy in 2024, it’s likely they’ll respond with some version of the words on Usability.gov, the American usability standards website. It says, “Content strategy focuses on the planning, creation, delivery, and governance of content.”
When asking content professionals directly about the definition content strategy, “planning” is the word that comes up repeatedly. Content professionals love to create a plan and call it strategy.
But I argue that planning – and its attendant resource allocation, calendars, posting velocity recommendations, style determinations, channel recommendations, voice and tone guidance — is not content strategy.
Even the most universal definition of content strategy from the landmark 2009 book, Content Strategy for the Web* by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach, distinguishes the difference between strategy and planning.
“Content strategy guides your plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of content.”
Strategy guides the plan, but is not the plan.
When asked to define "strategy," most of the executives in your life would likely cite a professor from their MBA program. Strategy is distinct from planning. Strategy is directional, specific to a business's needs and goals. Strategy informs the plan. But it’s not the plan itself. The plan itself is a tactic. Content strategy is no different.
Semantics! you may say. We’re content people. All we want to do is make make make according to the schedule, so we can gather those leads and traffic or whatever our business wants from us.
But, as content professionals, we literally practice semantics. Precision of language and taut storytelling are our bread and butter, so we should pay attention to the words we use.
*I assume the same definition of content strategy is in the 2009 first edition. I pulled the quote from my copy of the second edition, published in 2013.
Why content planning is not content strategy
Those of us who came up in publishing naturally veer toward “planning” because it’s in the wheelhouse we're comfortable with, happily positioned away from the dagger-eyed finance folks, and aligned with the editorial functions in 20th-century media. But that imposter syndrome – how am I supposed to know the forecasted business impact of content when I’m just a writer? – is often what holds us back.
Understanding content’s role in business separates the junior specialists from the executives. Even in contemporary publishing, when the institution preaches “separation of church and state,” senior editors, managing editors, and commissioning editors are responsible for numbers at some level. Understanding content’s role in business separates the junior specialists from the executives — and helps all content professionals maintain their careers.
When I see content professionals struggling** to be heard in business after business, or when I see independent publishers struggling to pay writers, or when I see colleagues outright rejecting algorithmic distribution, I wonder: how can we better elevate content strategy at the business level so that our roles, our passions, our work, and our brains are not considered replaceable?
But then I consider all the work that’s made my clients successful (as well as all the failures) and I see patterns of thinking that are more successful in rising above common digital business challenges.
And based on every reader I’ve talked with, every LinkedIn post I read, that there are standards content professionals have for themselves—values that aren’t always shared with the executive level—but that matter deeply in the business success of content. So we can all make a decent living, have some job security, and not feel like we’re selling our souls.
Also, selfishly, I just want to read better writing online and get out of the mire of mediocre digital content.
Let’s create a more accurate definition of content strategy, revised for the 2020s. Let’s set the plan off to the side for a minute and ask ourselves: what is the business strategy of content? How do we transform that into content strategy? What are the activities that fall under strategy versus planning and production?
**I have struggled with these in my business privately and publicly, so I see you! Publishing digitally is a massive challenge, and it takes years to build a content-first business. Having a career in content is a huge challenge, and sometimes it makes us all wish we were just happy in a discipline that seems a little more stable, like accounting.
A new definition of content strategy
Here’s how I’ve been thinking about strategy for The Content Technologist approach, which aims to explicate the goals and ultimately champion the various roles and responsibilities of digital content professionals, whether they focus on strategy, creation, research, UX, journalism, design, or one of the many other professional categories that modify the word “content.” It’s based on a career spent half in legacy publishing, half in digital strategy, and the hard lessons and business realities I’ve learned in each:
Content strategy defines why, how, where, and for whom a company creates content. It comprises the activities that connect business goals with audience (aka consumer, customer, user, or client) needs, defines content’s purpose in an organization, and specifies the conditions that make content successful.
Why am I altering this definition of content strategy from those that already exist?
- All definitions, particularly the ones that define our careers, should be a part of an evolving discussion and not set in stone by any single organization. You may take from my definition and expand upon it, add to it, and critique it. But there has never been a single answer on what content strategy is.
- Halvorson’s and Rach's definition hints at business goals but does not explicitly state the role of content in supporting a business.
The “business” aspect is important, even though it’s implied in strategy, because it elevates the role of content beyond filling in words on a page and ties it to real-world outcomes. What I’ve observed in the past ten years is that the further content is removed from business goals, the more replaceable it becomes in an organization. And one of the goals of the Content Technologist Approach is to create a direct tie to business outcomes.
- The definition of content strategy above is meant to be separate from editorial strategy, which can be a part of content strategy but is specific to the publishing/content marketing business.
For example, customer support content, which is very important to many organizations, doesn't need an editorial strategy in the traditional sense. In my view, every business should have a content strategy, even if it's just for a website and a few pieces of collateral a year. Not every business needs to refine to the level of editorial strategy.
- None of the existing definitions addresses audience and the data they provide that supports business goals in a digitally networked world. The core features of 21st-century digital distribution are rooted in the networked connection with its audience, versus a 20th-century mass communications broadcast approach, where the audience has no real say and is even scorned by producers. I fully believe that the audience is inextricable from business goals. So, let’s name it in the definition.
- The phrase “useful, usable content” is succinct but extremely vague. It doesn't specify for whom the content should be useful and usable, which when not explicitly defined leads to significant dissonance between the executive level and production, or even among content teams. “Useful” and “usable” shifts for every audience.
Not every piece of content is designed to be global and universal; not every piece of content needs to be laden with voice and uniqueness; and not every piece of content that performs for a business needs to be “useful” in a traditional sense.
- “Planning,” for reasons I’ve identified above, follows content strategy, but is not a part of the strategic activity itself. In The Content Technologist approach, planning is spread across the administrative, production, and distribution functions, but is separate from strategy.
Content strategies vary for different types of businesses. Some businesses only need messaging frameworks for occasional collateral and social media posts. Many need customer-support-oriented content strategies to keep their existing user base happy. Other businesses publish content as a part of their customer acquisition and marketing process. Many nonprofit and cultural organizations are mandated by their endowments to maintain archives of their content. Still other businesses are media companies, whose sole purpose is to create and distribute content.
All need to address the why, how, where, and for whom of content strategy, but they require different strategies for their business needs.
The activities that comprise content strategy
What activities are part of content strategy, according to this approach? Anything that supports a content’s why, or its purpose, for a business. A partial list includes:
- Defining content strategy within an organization, of course. I defer entirely to Content Strategy for the Web on the best methodology for creating a content strategy statement.
- Audience research, both qualitative and quantitative. This includes keyword research, user interviews, channel performance analysis, creating personas or profiles, defining dat collection opportunities for personalization, and other activities that involve understanding what an audience needs from content.
- Creating information architecture, format development, content typology, and messaging frameworks that guide broader content initiatives, whether those are website architecture designs or advertising and marketing campaigns.
- Brand values and content alignment, via defining content pillars or research frameworks that function in an organization. Activities around brand values may also address the role of artificial intelligence in creating content for an organization, although most AI-related activities also fall in administration and production.
- Identifying what success looks like, either via key performance indicators (KPIs), objectives and key results (OKRs), or just plain statements that identify what success looks like for content at the business level.
- Acknowledging content’s challenges and opportunities at a business level. Another brilliant content strategist, Lauren Pope, creates spaces entirely for challenges and opportunities in her content strategy canvas, which I love.
- Understanding where a business’ content adheres to and deviates from industry norms. Content is fundamentally a creative discipline, but understanding the boundaries of that creativity is crucial for business consistency and success.
- Defining content’s purpose, substance, and team structure at an organizational level. What does content do at an organization, and which departments are responsible? What is content saying at an organizational level?
Notice I don’t say “governance” here, not only because I have a well-acknowledged problem with institutional authority, but also because content people can be shoeboxed into the role of an elementary school teacher with a red pen or “grammar police,” and that’s not a way to set yourself up for success at a business level. As I've written before, collaboration is the expectation in 21st century businesses, and "governance" connotes top-down authority. I much prefer purpose, substance, and structure, which are more positive terms.
And whether you identify as a Tony Soprano, Daenerys Targaryen, or Taylor Swift-type strategist (I kinda hope we’re all Taylors, specifically for the “never did a murder and is a real person” factor), you now have a new definition to take your content beyond a simple plan. You are no longer just making. You are acquiring the tools to strategize and elevate your work at the business level.
Thanks for Brain Traffic, Lauren Pope, Erin Schroeder of Lullabot, Michelle Keller, the Nielsen Norman Group, friends/clients at Storythings, everyone who contributed to this LinkedIn discussion, and everyone writing about content strategy online for contributing to this discussion, directly or indirectly.
In Part II of this essay, which should land in your inbox on February 1, 2024, I’ll identify new dimensions for understanding content strategy that align with the needs of contemporary digital businesses.
Content tech links of the week
- A Media Operator asks publishing experts what they'd do with Buzzfeed in its current hollowed-out state, and I learned that SaaSification has nothing to do with yassification or Sassy.
- In Rolling Stone, Anil Dash thinks the internet is about to get weird. We do, too. (If you want to make your own weird internet space, consider Let's Build a Website.)
- In the same vein of restoring the weird, old internet, I really enjoyed Daisy Alioto's writing in Dirt on archiving the digital ephemera of a friend who recently passed away.
- Mia Sato in The Verge writes about SEO on-page best practices, and learned by doing while building a website about lizards. It's a visually beautiful story and really well-written, especially if you're not familiar with how many companies believe they should optimize their content for SEO.
That said, the "best practices" in this story are not really what I'd call Best Practices since about 2017, as they're focused on minutiae that barely move the needle rather than high-quality structural SEO that actually makes an impact.
- The New York Times reports that museum archiving software has recently been hit with a number of cyberattacks, to which I say: Yikes, and I'm sorry to anyone who has been affected. Most museums and libraries are operating on pretty shoestring budgets, relative to higher profile organizations that are more often the target of hackers.
If you are or know of an infosec expert who understands these types of attacks, please reach out! Security is an area of digital strategy that I'm less familiar with, and I'd love to connect with more experts.
- From last year, but new for me: who are we talking to when we talk to the robots?
- There is a kerfuffle over at Substack regarding its moderation policies and public relations, and if you spend a lot of time reading a certain stable of writers, you may have heard of it. Or you may be blithely in the dark, and if so, good on you, keep living a healthy life.
I have written before about how software choice and activism should be separate for businesses, considering there is no ethical consumption under venture capitalism, and we have all profited from many of these algorithms and tools, despite the objectively wretched politics of their founders or other deeply offensive content on their platforms.
But in case you don't want to hear it from me, Max Read also addressed the conflict today with pretty much the exact same reasoning I'd been using.
My professional advice: No, I don't think you should change newslettering platforms if the one you're on is currently working for your business, especially if you've been finding success with Substack's recommender system, which is way better than it used to be when I initially advocated moving from Substack. If you move, you'll have to shift your entire content strategy (see above on where) to something either SEO or paid media-based. Also, don't judge others on their business decisions; we're all just writers trying to get by, and it's an ethically complex world.
But if you do want to switch to Ghost, help a girl out and use my referral code.
The Content Technologist is a newsletter and consultancy based in Minneapolis, working with clients and collaborators around the world.
Did you read? is the assorted content at the very bottom of the email. Cultural recommendations, off-kilter thoughts, and quotes from foundational works of media theory we first read in college—all fair game for this section.
In the northern hemisphere, it's time to hunker down and watch movies. The Criterion Channel has an entire series of cat movies this month, featuring The Long Goodbye and Inside Llewyn Davis (my favorite Coen brothers movie), among others. Poor Things is in theaters, and I very much recommend it. May December is still on Netflix, and it's made me very conscious of the fact that automated AI speech correctors make it sound like I have a lisp.