Content strategy is an emerging field that could do much to define whether old and new media can succeed and make money. It is also an emerging opportunity for consulting and careers.
The term won’t be familiar in old media and even in new media, it isn’t that common. In old media, the model for how to use and display good writing had been around for hundreds of years, and there isn’t usually much need for new strategies. In new media there has tended to be an assumption that this can be left to either the content creators (writers, for example), or the techies, or the sales folks. It can’t, in my view.
“Content” means all the stuff that goes onto a website, and indeed increasingly refers to all media material of any sort: writing, pictures, video, music. It is inherently threatening to a former journalist like me. When I first heard it at a dotcom back in the golden age, I bristled: it sounded as if the thoughts that I spent so long honing were just the stuffing in a cushion, commoditised, indistinguishable, raw material for some sausage machine. That was indeed what it meant, it turned out. However, I realised that if the “content” was right -the right people were attracted to it, and spent the right amount of time with, and then did the right things afterwards – then it would help make money; and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t. So: the content – and the strategy for creating it – had to be right.
Most newspapers’ content strategies derive from a formula laid down many years ago, to do with selling papers to a local community from a stand or by subscription; selling display ads to retail stores and car companies; and getting the readers to stay on a page for a while, long enough that they clock the ads and then buy a coat or a car. This doesn’t work so well any more, and it tends to work very differently online, so evolving the content strategy is one key dimension for what happens next to media. The other key dimensions are the business model and the technology. All three need to fit. Mostly they don’t at the moment, and one reason is that in general the content strategy didn’t change, or didn’t change enough.
“Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content,” says Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic, a web content agency, as part of a recent attempt to define this emerging field in the excellent site A List Apart. “Content strategists combine the skills of writers, editors and publishers to think in a holistic way about what users should see when they visit a site,” says Jeffrey MacIntyre, the principal of Predicate, a content and editorial strategy consultancy for digital publishers. “The analogy I’ve been using recently is that content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design,” says Rachel Lovinger, a Senior Content Strategist for Avenue A | Razorfish.
It is easier to define by doing it than explaining it. This article by Robin Good on MasterNewMedia is a useful one: what makes a blog post get attention? Ed Roussel of the Telegraph speaks here about their content strategy for breaking news. This piece by MacIntyre sets out some useful issues and arguments.
There are already Content Strategists with Capital Letters and there will be More. This book sets out how to become a content strategist, especially from a technical background. “The role of the Content Strategist is to scope and plan interactive media product’s content and determine its overall style – what to say, how to say it effectively, when and where to say it,” says Skillset, the industry Skills Council for Creative Media in the UK. “He or she will usually work alongside an Information Architect, and the role has similarities with that of Web Editor, though the latter is mostly concerned with on-going web site maintenance after launch, and is usually found within the client organisation, whereas the Content Strategist tends to work within the supplier company during the product’s development.”
To old media types this will sound like reinventing the wheel. Any subeditor from a daily newspaper, any layout person, page editor, news editor, is a content strategist (some much better than others). The problem is they are used to doing it in a context where the commercial principles were fixed, and some elements of the technology had been around for a very long time. Their creative energies need to be turned to a world where these are very different. And in particular, they need to think about making money, and quickly.
Good content strategy – the right stuff, laid out well and with the right ads – makes money. In the jargon of the web, “Content helps drive traffic, which leads to results,” says Heidi Cohen, president of Riverside Marketing Strategies, and formerly with The Economist, writing at Clickz.com. “Content is intricately woven into your brand. Content attributes such as voice, presentation, area of expertise, markets covered, and points of view define a brand. These factors all contribute to attracting a reader base. The contrarian, irreverent approach to investment advice of “The Motley Fool” differs from in-depth, low-key reporting style of “The Wall Street Journal,” for example.”
So: lets reinvent the wheel. Some of this is about news values; some of it is design; some is editing. All together, it seems to me, is the way to think about it – helping media to build audiences that achieve the business’ strategic goals.