I am a Content Strategist

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post asking Am I a Content Strategist? In response, Sarah O’Keefe tweeted “If you’re not, then nobody is.” — which is good enough for me. The question wasn’t really about me, of course. It was a question about the nature of content strategy. Was content strategy a field (in which people may differ about both values and methods) or was it (as it sometimes seems) a philosophy, a particular vision of content development and delivery that excluded other values and approaches. Is content strategy a big tent under which my not-always-mainstream views can find a home?

I take Sarah’s comment to mean that content strategy is indeed a big tent. Several other helpful (and kind) comments inclined in the same direction, and the final clincher, if one was needed, came during a content strategy birds of a feather lunch organized by Mysti Berry at the Content Management Strategies / DITA North America Conference. The talk turned to the difference between marketing and tech pubs when it comes to content strategy, and I observed that one difference was that marketing always knows where the money comes from, while tech pubs usually does not. Almost everyone round the table — self identified content strategists all — immediately responded that in their companies, tech pubs knows where the money comes from.

The  reason that seals the deal for me is that if a field is paying attention to where the money comes from, if it is submitting itself to the discipline of the market place, then it cannot be, or cannot remain, narrow or doctrinaire. The market burns that stuff out of you sooner or later.

So its official: I am a content strategist.

But if I had my druthers, I would never have called it that.

You see, I’ve always hated the word “content”. Many years ago, I asked a Documentum rep how Documentum defined the word “document”. (It was called a “document management system” in those days.) “A document,” he replied, “is anything you can store in Documentum.” And that’s the problem: the undifferentiated nature of “anything you can store”. The word “document” in this context gave way to the word “content” because people felt that “document” excluded things like graphics, videos, and sound. “Content” is broad enough to include anything and everything. “Content” is simply anything that fits in the container (be that a CMS or a website). It’s pretty much the digital equivalent of anything you can store in a barn. It’s “stuff”. Content strategy is stuff strategy.

But there comes a point where you have to stop debating the terminology and get on with doing the work. Terminology will only remain in flux so long, then either it evaporates or it sets. Thus we still measure the power of cars in “horsepower”. So “content strategy” it is. I am a content strategist.

But accepting that “content strategy” is the term does not mean that we should ignore the difficulties with it. Words, after all, shape how we see the world, and seeing the world in terms of “content strategy” can mislead us into thinking that it is all about the content. It isn’t. It’s about communications. Content is one medium of communications. In a recent article on techwrl.com, I suggested that technical communications is increasingly about conversations rather than publications. But actually the distinction between publications and conversations does not really capture what is happening on the Web.

Classically, corporations communicated in two ways. There were publications, created for mass distribution to a mass audience by staff who specialized in writing and publishing, and conversations, in which sales people and executives talked privately to individual customers, partners, suppliers, or investors. There was not a lot of crossover between the publications people and the conversations people. Technical and marketing publications were their own worlds.

But on the web, something new is emerging: communication that has the individuality and personal touch of a conversation, but the persistence and public availability of a publication. The most commonly used term, “social media,” does not really capture the whole implication of this. The model first came to prominence on social sites like Facebook, and first impinged on the business world when people started to use social sites to talk about businesses they dealt with and the products they used. But it is not merely social in its implications, it is the new business media as well. It is a perpetual, persistent colloquium of a business and its customers, suppliers, partners, and investors.

The question is, is it content? It is content, certainly, in the sense that it constitutes a set of media files that are long-lived and public. But rather than being the special domain of the publications groups, it is drawing more and more individuals within the enterprise into direct one-to-one conversation with customers, suppliers, partners, and investors. In doing so, it is gobbling up large swaths of territory that used to belong to the company’s publication folk, on the one hand, and its conversation folk on the other.

A content strategy based solely on publications is like a sandcastle strategy with a rising tide. Photo credit: Fairiegoodmother

In strategic terms, dealing with this perpetual public colloquium is the biggest communications challenge that companies face. Creating a content strategy that focuses only on the publications sphere, or that treats the company’s web presence as if were simply another publishing medium, is like having a sandcastle strategy  in the face of a rising tide.

On the other hand, a company cannot treat this colloquium the way it has treated private conversations either. Not only is it both public and persistent, it is intimately related to the company’s published content as well. Indeed, from the consumer’s point of view, the division between publications and individual contributions to the colloquium is likely to be increasingly invisible and irrelevant. Publications may continue to exist as a separate process within the corporation, but the product that publications produce is likely to be just another part of the colloquium between a corporation and its customers, partners, suppliers, and investors.

The strategy that we are likely to need, therefore, is not a content strategy, or a separate conversation strategy, or a separate social media strategy, but a strategy for the colloquium. If the word we are going to use for this is “content strategy”, then that’s the word. I am a content strategist. But the strategy itself needs to be a colloquium strategy.



8 Responses to I am a Content Strategist

  1. Scott Abel 2012/05/04 at 18:13 #

    Yes, as Sarah says, you are, indeed.

  2. Marcia Riefer Johnston 2012/05/04 at 18:48 #

    I like this new title, Mark–especially if we get paid by the syllable.

    • Mark Baker 2012/05/06 at 21:07 #

      I would love to be paid by the syllable. That would be Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

  3. Marcia Riefer Johnston 2012/05/04 at 18:51 #

    P.S. Your suggestion becomes particularly relevant when you add the concept of ownership. We can talk in terms of content ownership, but no one owns the colloquium.

    • Mark Baker 2012/05/06 at 21:22 #

      Yes, ownership is a really interesting aspect of the problem. Authors, even when published anonymously and in the pay of a corporation, still like to segregate work into mine and thine. But in the colloquium, especially if it is richly linked, as it should be, segregating mine and thine becomes very difficult.

      What one owns on the web is not so much one’s work as ones reputation, which does not satisfy much when one is employed to be anonymous. Part of the strategy for the colloquium may be the end of anonymity, not only because people prefer to talk to human beings rather than to PR phrase books, but because therein may lie the professional satisfaction of those who communicate on behalf of the corporation.

  4. Barbara Saunders 2012/05/04 at 18:52 #

    “It’s ‘stuff'” leaves a problem, in my opinion. I must admit this problem isn’t unique to content strategy! Again, managers (people who deal in widgets) get elevated above creators (the writers, designers, illustrators, videographers, and even customers who make stuff) as well as the conversants (sales people and customer service people who have relationships with people.)

    • Mark Baker 2012/05/06 at 21:54 #

      Barbara, I agree. If management regards the “stuff” as undifferentiated, then when they want some more “content” they will simply pop down to the content shop for a few jumbo sized containers. Content strategy has to see content as highly differentiated, which the name does not really promote.

      I’m not sure that a command and control management style ever worked for publications, but for the colloquium, I think only an educate and trust approach can be effective.

      • Barbara Saunders 2012/05/08 at 17:52 #

        Soon after the term “content” emerged, a SF Chronicle columnist wrote, (I paraphrase,) “Reducing a writer to being a content provider is like confusing a farmer with a waiter.”

        Here’s another artisan metaphor. I’d just as soon buy mass-produced shoes rather than have a cobbler make my shoes. It’s cheaper and faster. With modern machinery I can get the same or better quality. However, someone still has to design shoes, and that person needs to be as much an artist as ever. Sometimes I sense an attitude that there’s a push to turn the creators who used to have to be cobblers into assembly line workers in the shoe factory. In my opinion, what content strategy should do is free up the best of them to be shoe designers.