Am I a Content Strategist?

By | 2012/04/13

I’m a fan of emerging technology, and generally tolerant of emerging terminology, but when it comes to job titles I tend to the view that if it was not mentioned in the Domesday Book, it isn’t a real job. I have, on diverse occasions, decried attempts to replace the title “technical writer” with something else, maintaining that as long as that is what the job ads call it, that’s what the job is called.

Thus I have been reluctant to call myself a content strategist. Scott Abel’s recent interview with Barbara Saunders indicates I am not the only one having doubts about the title. Yet many of the people I interact with professionally call themselves content strategists, and more than once those people have used the #contentstrategy tag when tweeting about my articles or blog posts. I seem to write a lot about the issues that content strategists care about, yet still I find myself reluctant to get the content strategist tattoo.

My Domesday Book prejudices aside, there is no doubt that the move to the web has profoundly changed how information is created and organized, so it is not unreasonable that new job functions should emerge, and new job titles to go with them.

In the paper world, there were three main jobs in the creation and organization of information: writer, editor, and librarian. (One could easily add teacher and publisher to that list, but for the broad point I want to make here, the basic three will suffice.) Each of these may have had a strategy (or at least a plan). The editor, particularly the editor of a periodical, would give instruction to writers so that they could produce content that complied to the editor’s strategy. A librarian, on the other hand, may have had a strategy for building their collection, but they did not communicate that strategy to editors or writers. Librarians did not commission books or periodicals; they merely collected from what was out there according to their collection strategy.

Today the units of information are not books, periodicals, and libraries, but web pages, web sites, intranets, and the web. Some websites, such as The Content Wrangler or The Dynamic Publisher do operate on the periodical model, and are governed by an editor (the industrious Scott Abel in both cases cited) who has a strategy for each periodical and recruits and instructs writers accordingly. The venerable title of editor still fits this function.

But many other sites are larger and more diverse. It is hardly feasible to run a large corporate web site or intranet on the periodical model in which all pieces are commissioned and approved by a single editor. Managing these kinds of sites looks much more like a job for a librarian. Yet that term has almost never been used in this context. Instead the emerging job titles that cover this territory are webmaster, information architect, and content strategist.

Webmaster is the oldest of these terms and originally covered the entire territory, but it now more often describes the technical role of keeping the site and its supporting systems running, rather than taking responsibility for the content. Information architect describes the role of establishing and maintaining the structure of the web site, while content strategist describes the role of governing the overall approach to the content and focuses on the content as a business asset.

Here’s the rub, though. Traditionally, the librarian collected and collated material produced by many different authors and editors, each of which was following their own strategy or plan, but they did not attempt to dictate strategy to the writer or the editor. They did not decide what content should be produced; they only decided what content should be preserved.

Command and control content strategy

Is content strategy a command and control approach to content?

A content strategist, on the other hand, creates a strategy for what content should be produced, not merely what should be preserved. They attempt to exercise an editor’s discretion with a librarian’s scope. That’s a tough row to hoe. It also cuts, somewhat imperiously, across the functions of many other departments.

But is that really what content strategy is about? The debate between centralized control and distributed authority is eternal. The Web, with its capacity for both personal connection and instantaneous global distribution, profoundly affects this dynamic, generally in favor of distribution of authority. As David Weinberger says, hypertext subverts hierarchy. Can one have a content strategy based on distributed authority?

Nominally, the word “strategy” is neutral on this question. Centralized control and distributed authority are both strategies, and approaching a problem strategically should involve considering both approaches. In practice, however, the word “strategy” is much more often used by those who favor central control over distributed authority. Thus when someone says “we need a unified content strategy” what they are likely to mean is that they want centralized control over content creation and distribution. People who want centralized control may be more likely to create a post of “content strategist” or even “chief content officer” than those who want distributed authority.

Can content strategy facilitate without imposing control over content creators?

Can content strategy facilitate without imposing control over content creators?

But is it really impossible for a content strategist to favor distributed authority over content? Is there a reason that a central “content strategy” function cannot act as a facilitator building bridges and sharing resources between distributed content creation functions, each of which has independent authority over content creation and distribution in their own sphere? I think you can have a content strategy based on distributed authority, and I am sure some content strategists advocate for this, but I still can’t shake the fear that by getting the “content strategist” tattoo I will brand myself as an advocate of central control, which I most definitely am not.

You see, I am entirely in agreement with Barbara Saunders (in her interview with Scott Abel) that you can’t make content better simply by organizing it. That is the whole point of this blog: that every page is page one; that it is the individual pieces of content that matter. As I have pointed out previously, Websites are upside down. People encounter the leaves. For the most part, they never see the branches. The Web, as experienced through the portal of Google, is not a collection of websites, but a collection of web pages. Good content strategy, it follows, is not good organization but good content.

Actually, this is what makes me think that I am a content strategist, and that I should call myself by that name. Every Page is Page One is fundamentally a proposition in content strategy. If I am a content strategist, then my vision of content strategy is that Every Page is Page One.  All the strategic and tactical recommendations I make to my clients fall out from that basic idea.

Of course, other content strategists would disagree with this vision. But economists often disagree on the most fundamental propositions of economics, and yet the rivals still acknowledge each other as economists. Actually, that is what distinguishes a genuine job function from a mere philosophy: fundamental disagreements among practitioners about how to practice and what to recommend. If content strategy is a philosophy of centralization of authority over content, then I am not a content strategist. If content strategy is a field that considers and debates the best way to facilitate the creation of good content (and that includes divergent and antagonistic views on that subject) then I am a content strategist.

So, what do you think? Should I get the “content strategist” tattoo?

Images: digitalart /



9 thoughts on “Am I a Content Strategist?

  1. Barbara Saunders

    Thank you, Mark, for articulating this angle. I agree with you. Centralizing control of content may (appear to) make organizations more orderly. I don’t think it will make content better for people who eventually consume it.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Barbara, thanks for the comment. Some of what I hear content strategists say does rather remind me of the Walrus and the Carpenter:

      They wept like anything to see
      Such quantities of sand:
      “If this were only cleared away,”
      They said, “it would be grand!”

      Not all of them, to be sure! But enough to give one pause.

  2. Joe Pairman

    Mark, I think you are indeed a content strategist (though the body art decision is entirely up to you). For sure, the field should include distributed models.

    But I think the term “content strategy” is sometimes used too broadly. Too much on all the various bits and pieces that go with the development of content, and not enough on strategy. To my mind, Richard Rumelt gives the best picture of what a business strategy should look like.
    (This presentation he gave is great, too: .)

    My boiled-down version is that a strategy should consist of insights into an organization’s situation in the market, which lead to focused actions that make the most of the organization’s resources, which have a good chance of improving the organization’s competitive advantage in some way. A content strategy is no different.

    So a statement such as “Enforce consistent style across all content”, wouldn’t be a strategy, because it lacks the connection to the wider business goal. It might be part of a strategy, but it wouldn’t be a strategy in itself. Neither would a fluffy goal without focus such as “User-generated content will grow to fulfill the majority of our customer support needs and improve satisfaction across global markets”. But if an organization put effort and intelligence into your advice to “focus on those parts of the life cycle where injecting information into the marketplace makes the most difference to sales and to margins”, that could lead to a very effective strategy.

    So the developing and articulating of a strategy is really quite a specific activity. I’d argue that the executing of a strategy may not in itself qualify as “doing content strategy”. Not that content strategists shouldn’t get involved in execution, but that we can’t really call those day-to-day things a strategy.

    As for keeping Domesday occupations, I’m all for it.

    Joe Pairman
    Content Beadle

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Joe, I’m with you entirely on the scope of the term. As I have grouched before, if your content strategy isn’t tied to revenue, it’s not a strategy, it’s just a schedule.

      But things don’t always get named in purely logical ways. I suspect that there is a certain period in the development of any new field or technology where the terminology sets, and from that point on the terms persist even if they don’t seem to quite fit the current case. “Horsepower” is a prefect example of this kind of terminology. I suspect “content strategy” is another, a term that set when we still thought of a web site as a publication (it isn’t — more on that later).

      Frankly, content strikes me more as “stores” and its creation and delivery as” logistics”: stuff that is needed to execute a strategy, and therefore created and delivered in response to a strategy, but not in itself a strategic end.

      But whatever we may think, the term “content strategist” does seem to have set (it shows up in job ads). Thus if we want people to know what we do, it does now seem like its the name we should call ourselves, though I agree that the body art should remain optional.

  3. pamela clark

    Hi Mark,

    Another excellent article. I agree with your last sentence:” If content strategy is a field that considers and debates the best way to facilitate the creation of good content (and that includes divergent and antagonistic views on that subject) then I am a content strategist.”

    I’ve worked closely with you and you qualify because I agree that content strategy is not about centralized authority, but rather about the kind of vision that you provide.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Pamela,

      Thanks for your kind words. The work we did together was really formative for me in framing and being able to express my sense of how the web was changing content consumption, and what I think we need to do in response.

  4. Patrice Fanning

    Thanks for an interesting read Mark. Like Joe, I would differentiate between the development of a content strategy on the one hand and its execution on the other. I’m not sure that the title of technical writer or content strategist encompasses both, although for some projects the same person could be responsible for performing both.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Patrice,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that we should distinguish clearly between the development of content strategy and the actual execution of content. Indeed, I see no particular reason why experience as a content creator should particularly qualify one to be a content strategist. To go back to the old division of responsibilities, writer, editor, and librarian were generally separate career paths.

      One could certainly be both. I’ve called myself a writer for all of my professional career, and I have now decided that I am justified in calling myself a content strategist, but I don’t think one is necessarily an outgrowth of the other, except, perhaps, in the sense that one would need to be interested in content in order to be interested in becoming a content strategist.

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