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Content Strategy Is Not User Experience

by Erin Kissane on February 10th, 2011

"I'll show you weird markings."

Every couple of weeks, one of my colleagues in the content strategy community wigs out a little bit about marketing people co-opting “our” terms and processes for their own (presumably nefarious) ends.

As a content strategist who comes from the world formerly known as “web design” (and now mostly called “user experience”), I’ve felt sympathetic twitches when I see these complaints. Not out of territorialism, necessarily, but I, too, dislike seeing the whole sweep of content strategy work reduced to “content = customer acquisition!” After all, we’ve fought to have content strategy recognized as a core component of user experience work.

So it was with this bias that I sat down, a few months back, to write a book. And one of the first things I had to work out was what I really meant by “content strategy”—and why I felt it didn’t rightfully belong to the folks with “social media marketing” in their Twitter bios. Along the way, I discovered something slightly upsetting, which is that content strategy doesn’t really belong to user experience, either.

Bear with me, UXers. You can put the diagram down for a second.

What We Talk About When We Talk About …

The thing is, marketing people talk about CS and mean “content strategy as it applies to selling things, building brands, and providing customer service in ways that make people want to buy more things.” A lot of this sort of content strategy revolves around distribution channels, messages, branding, and sometimes, editorial workflow. User-centered design principles may or may not be involved.

Enterprise content strategy people, on the other hand—the people working with data and DITA and knowledge management systems—talk about CS and mean data modeling, technical workflow, documentation, planning for content reuse, and content management, often on a very large scale. Their attention to customer service and support tends to be about increasing efficiency, reducing redundant effort, and achieving consistency. Again, user-centered design principles may be involved, but are unlikely to be a primary focus.

When people from the media world talk about CS, they tend to mean discussions of business models, distribution channels,  and the development of content as a product, with secondary focus on marketing and customer service (unless they’re all Paul Ford). User-centered design principles may come up, but they’re far from the center of the conversation, which doesn’t usually get into the details of user experience.

And content people who come from or work in the UX world say content strategy and mean bits of all of the above, but with user-centered design at the core of the work. Product design becomes feature design; messaging and branding become content goals and style guides; data modeling becomes content templates and page tables.

But this sort of content strategy isn’t the One True CS. And even when we do it within user experience projects, content strategy doesn’t fit neatly within the usual boundaries of UX. Content strategy must often precede true UX work, as when it involves the organizational communication planning that must happen before a web design project can begin.

And, of course, all that messy editorial planning and workflow stuff tends to continue long after interface design and front-end development are complete. No other part of a UX project necessarily involves the implementation of long-term organizational practices (unless you expand “UX” to the IT resources that support systems over time, which is a stretch).

The Marmot Wars

You might think of each of these separate kinds of content strategy work as gophers, or maybe marmots. Each tunneling toward a cherished meadow as quickly as its wee marmot paws can manage, until, suddenly, it pops out into the open air—only to discover STRANGE OUTSIDER MARMOTS WITH WEIRD MARKINGS stumbling out of their own holes and blinking in the sun. And then you get the posturing and barking and little finger-snapping marmot West Side Story dances, and it’s all very tiring and no one gets a snack.

My point is not that the marmot-meadow is big enough for everyone, though it mostly is. The differing models of CS do sometimes come into competition, especially when clients aren’t quite sure what they need. User science people will probably never get along with the folks on the ad-world end of the marketing continuum, and editorial nerds will probably continue to underestimate the value of data wonks (and vice-versa).

But, we should nevertheless recognize that content strategy is a big, big world. It’s not just that we all have different specializations and approaches, though that’s true. Content strategy is a big ol’ loosely connected network of practices, and it doesn’t belong to any of us any more than graphic design belongs to advertising or project management to aerospace engineering.

I’ve met more than a few real, actual marmots, and let me tell you—we’re smarter than they are. So let’s give the rodenty turf wars a rest and try talking about content strategy in ways that admit the possibility of other useful kinds of CS work.    

One Love

There’s value in looking beyond our industry-specific tunnels and expanding our own capabilities to include some of those other kinds of CS, so we have more to offer our clients when they need it. That’s one of the reasons I’m stupidly excited about Confab.

The fact that so many of the sharpest minds from the far reaches of Big Tent Content Strategy are all going to be in one place—and I don’t just mean as speakers, either—can only mean good things for the curious content specialist.

With rapid growth comes weird pressures and the potential for irrational infighting, and we are definitely in a spell of rapid growth. We need a gathering of the tribes. And I daresay we could use a big party, while we’re at it.

So I hope to see you there—or around, online—whether you come from social media marketing or the geekiest depths of the data-wrangling world, WEIRD MARKINGS and all.

("Gopher" image via Flickr user Fil.Al (cc: by 2.0))

  • http://twitter.com/crosswiredmind David Fiorito

    I think the notion that UX must include user cenetered design is not 100% correct. The user will have an experience even if he or she was never consulted or considered during the design process. For the users of the Web, mobile apps, periodicals, or any information system the content strategy is a HUGE part of the experience regardless of the methodology used to create it.

  • http://twitter.com/KathyHanbury Kathy Hanbury

    Great article! You’ve pin-pointed what’s at the heart of the content strategy wars, and opportunities. I think it’s hard for many people to really understand how many niches there are in an industry that’s already so niched. And though, as content strategists, we’ll always have our own areas of expertise, we need to learn from each other to fully understand the opportunities for improving content, helping our clients, and furthering content strategy.

  • Anonymous

    Great post! I completely agree– it is time to put the turf wars to rest! There is FAR too much to gain in continued dialogue and cross education between our specialties to let our slight differences divide us. Content Strategists unite! Unfortunately, I don’t think that I’ll make it to Confab this year but will be there in spirit.

  • http://twitter.com/richardjingram Richard Ingram

    The moment I discovered the deep and colourful nature of our world came when I began mapping out what would eventually become ‘Approaches to web content strategy’. Those early sketches in particular were little more than a huge mass of tightly packed arrows shooting off in countless different directions. I think I realised there and then I hadn’t a hope in hell of gaining a deep enough knowledge of all the potential facets of our work!

    Bonus: You have also inadvertently introduced me to the wonders of the marmot. Thanks.

  • http://about.me/karenmcgrane Karen McGrane

    I must take exception to your straw man definition of UX. You equate the whole field of user experience with user-centered design (or worse, web design.) Most practitioners talk about UX as something bigger. Bigger in pretty much exactly the same way that you say content strategy is bigger: concerned with business model, organizational culture and planning, workflow, governance, and change management.

  • Meghan Casey

    I don’t think that’s what the post said at all. It said that it considers a lot of other things with a focus on user-centered design.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Huh. I think we may be talking past each other, because I vehemently agree with you.

    I’m not equating UX with UCD or web design; I’d never suggest that the field is so limited. What I tried to do in this post is suggest that content strategists within the UX world are differentiated from content strategists in other fields in part by their focus on UCD—which is true, in my experience at least. (I can’t imagine doing good UX-focused CS work without putting the user and her experience at the center. Maybe that’s just me.) But I didn’t mean to suggest that UX is only about UCD.

    In my own experience, UX-world CS people tend to work on that CS people in other fields mostly don’t—like feature design, which is subtly different from product design. I do think that that non-CS parts of UX projects are not *necessarily* concerned with governance/long-term planning—whereas I think content strategy MUST concern itself with those things. We might disagree on those points, but I tried to avoid the implication that other kinds of UX work never ever consider governance/org. structure/etc.

    The thing is, I consider myself to be a CS person who comes from the UX world (with some publishing experience on the side). UX biases are my native biases, so if I gave short shrift to UX here, it’s probably because the big-ness and good-ness of UX is REALLY OBVIOUS in my own head.

    Anyway, my point was that while CS work is an important part of many UX projects and teams, it doesn’t belong exclusively to UX. And though UX often considers itself to be the biggest circle in any Venn diagram, and this isn’t about CS’s circle being EVEN BIGGER MWAHAHAH. (That gets us right back to marmotry.)

    It’s just that there’s a whole lot of CS work out in the world that doesn’t happen within teams or projects that would ever call themselves “UX.”

    (One might argue that UX, like the Force, is “everything.” But at that point, I’m not convinced that it’s a useful term.)

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Seriously, Richard, god bless you and your sanity-maintaining diagrams. You’re a braver man than I.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Yay! I’m really hoping that the post-Confab conversation about CS will be more integrated in a lot of ways. I’m going to do my best to help cross-pollinate wherever I can.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Thanks, Kathy! There’s an interesting tension between necessary specialization and the attempt to cross-train in ways that will make us better at our work. Still a whole lot to figure out, there.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Well…see my response to Karen, above, for part of this. I’m really not out to define UX in a comprehensive way, but to suggest that CS also takes place both within and outside of what we think of as “UX.”

    (As someone who mostly works within UX, I’d argue that user experience design work that doesn’t include UCD principles is unlikely to be good. But that’s a different conversation.)

  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Wise — and beautifully written.

  • http://www.messagescience.com Dr Evan Mitchell Stark PhD

    I dislike being so blunt after reading such a thoughtfully constructed post that makes many points, many nuanced points. Yet, hoped as I did to find a strong refutation, you did nothing to eradicate the 800-pound gorilla in the piece: that for all but a very small domain of content, ultimately, it’s about getting people to spend money. All the quality content, giveaways, tip sheets, etc., are not the handiwork of altruists. Whether or not the money is spent after 6 months of reading a site’s content, the purpose of the content all along was the sale. So aren’t we (not you specifically, Erin) being intellectually dishonest when we simply create taxonomies of CS, discuss the pitfalls of silo dwelling, and conclude in the end that there’s room for CS diversity? It’s business, it’s jobs, it’s for profit, and it’s really mostly about money.

    Thank you for taking a position and for eloquently stating it.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    I love blunt! And I appreciate your comment, through I’m not sure it relates to the CS work described above.

    I’d say that every application of content strategy mentioned in the post is primarily commercial. Marketing content work isn’t any more about hardnosed capitalism than is, say, editorial product development, or data modeling used to save a multinational corporation hundreds of thousands of dollars by improving customer support systems. None of the categories mentioned are especially altruistic—they all have the potential to increase profits (and there are many ways to do so that have nothing to do with sales copy).

    The exciting thing, to me, is that all these varieties of content strategy work aren’t taking place in an imagined future. They’re already happening, many of them on a very large scale, and they’re gaining momentum as we conduct more and more business (and other stuff) online and via digital systems.

    As content strategists working within individual fields, we have a choice between recognizing the potentially relevant CS work being conducted all around us, or ignoring it and assuming it has nothing to do with us. I suspect that the former will be the smart choice, in the end.

    Of course, I can’t help but engage with the ideas in your comment, whether or not they seem directly related to the post above. I think it’s good to keep in mind that although marketing-related content work is the most highly visible sort of content on the web (to address just one slice of all content in the world), there’s a lot of other stuff going on beneath the waterline. The amount of online information dedicated to education and training, documentation and support, and news/current events—just to pick a few topics—is staggering. Wikipedia, Google Books, Twitter, the whole walled-off world of corporate intranets…these are just the beginning. Some of these resources are commercial, some are not, and all are generally set well apart from marketing or sales work.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein mbloomstein

    I see comments about turf wars and marmot wars–please, let that be like the Trojan Wars and let’s film glorious, sweeping scenes of marmots storming down hills in full battle dress–but I’d like to voice support for the niches. Homogeneity in our industry might help us reinforce common methods or defend against external naysayers, but it’s not how we naturally focus, or best serve our clients. I *love* that content strategy has matured to point of recognizing its many facets–and more and more clients seem to identify their needs with specific areas.

    Frequently, I explain content strategy to prospective clients as a broad umbrella under which some people specialize in enterprise content strategy, some in more metadata-driven strategy, some in CMS-driven consulting, and some in more brand-driven work–and that’s where I focus. I find this specialty allows me to limit what I do to what I do well and partner effectively with designers and marketers. I have nothing against content strategists that focus on other areas of content strategy; it’s just not what I do.

    Erin, you point out that the rapid growth of content strategy raises the potential for infighting. While defining the self by demeaning “the other” has precedent in other disciplines, I think content strategy offers great opportunity for defining the self by helping to champion–and heck, throw work at–the many others that do what they do equally well.

    Also, YAY MARMOTS. Has content strategy found its patronus animal?

  • http://twitter.com/juliov27612 Julio Vazquez

    Very interesting post. I agree that there appear to be turf wars and we should probably come to an agreement to a cease fire or there won’t be any turf to war over. :D

    That said, it’s important that we understand our different views of content strategy and consider working together by communicating openly and considering strategic alliances when we’re involved in an engagement that may need a broader view of CS than we may possess on our own.

    Better to share the turf than lose it due to an incomplete view of the meadow.

  • writer

    I come at content strategy from the point of view of a writer. At the end of the day content in whatever form should be engaging, useful, etc. And to accomplish those things it needs to be well written.

    So a Content Strategist HAS to be a good writer or a good editor. Even if they don’t do the writing themselves they need to be able to review and quality control content.

    I worked as a Web Copywriter and Editor and did content audits, inventories, sticky note IA planning, etc before I’d ever heard the term Web Content Strategist. I also did editorial schedules for blogs, then twitter and social media etc, which I believe also comes under the ‘repurposing content’ element of a WCS’s role. I also wrote user content and transactional content, which firmly taught me that programmers should *never* be allowed to write anything other than code!

    So my view is that the ideal background for a Web Content Strategist is a web writer/editor with an interest in the overall user experience (which every good web copywriter should have anyhow).

    I’m basing that on the fact that is is easier to teach a writer those things rather than to teach an information architect how to write.

    I’m interested in thoughts on that, or is writing not a core part of a content strategist’s role? It wasn’t really mentioned in this excellent blog post.

    For me a combination of being able to write well, or at least quality control and edit others’ writing to a high standard, plus knowledge of usability best practice and IA design methodology plus a good knowledge of content marketing and other uses for repurposed content is what a Web Content Strategist should aspire to having in their toolkit.

    Although I’m biased as that’s my background!

  • writer

    I agree with this approach – roles should be flexible. We can get too hung up on job titles and descriptions sometimes.

    Not every project has a the budget or available resources to get on board an Information Architect, Writer, Designer, Web Developer, Editor, Project Manager, and Web Content Strategist.

    The big agencies or web services teams at large corporations could, but not everyone has those resources to hand.

    A designer who also does web development and a talented, organized writer who can perform the content strategist tasks should be able to do a good job between them of putting together even a fairly large site and manage the content strategy and marketing on an ongoing basis.

    So I think a writer who can do that, even with no background in UX, has every right to call themselves a Content Strategist.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Absolutely. That’s what I meant when I suggested that we “try talking about content strategy in ways that admit the possibility of other useful kinds of CS work.”

    Territorial possessiveness prevents us from understanding and appreciating the work that other kinds of CS people do. When we let that happen, we lose opportunities for useful collaboration.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Please holler if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you read the post as being against niche work—and that wasn’t my intention at all.

    There are many kinds of CS work. When those of us in a given niche denigrate the work of the other kinds of CS because it’s not what we do, we lose chances to improve our own work and to understand and collaborate with other content people.

    So when I see a CS person who works within the UX world define CS *exclusively* as a subset of user experience—or grouse about those other fields stealing our terminology—it strikes me as a real disservice to our profession.

    Now, all that said, YES PLEASE to epic marmot movie. Calling Peter Jackson…

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    I think it really depends on what kind of content strategy we’re talking about. CS work that leans toward IA and information science—that’s heavily reliant on data modeling, knowledge management, and content reuse, for example—might not require expertise in writing or traditional editorial work.

    But I do think most CS work benefits from strong writing and editorial skills even on projects that don’t go near the actual creation of content. I write a LOT these days, though almost none of it is copywriting—it’s all client documents, and clients deserve good prose, too.

    Thanks for the comment and perspective!

  • writer

    Is data modeling part of a CS’s job? Surely that’s quite a technical discipline that your average writer/editor will not have or be interested in?

    I’m getting two types of Content Strategist coming through here – one more technical and one more creative – and it’s quite confusing.

    It reminds me of the way some people blurred the job descriptions of Web Designer and Web Developer. One is more creative and one is more techy, but both could have the skills of the other. A similar thing happens with Content Developer sometimes too.

    Although it’s always easier to learn technical skills than creative skills.

    The same seems to be happening with Content Strategists. People like me who have a writing background but have also picked up good IA and SEO skills (as you do when you work on a lot of web projects) are naturally starting to call themselves content strategists – because it seems like a very good fit – and others who have a more technical background are also calling themselves CSs, but think of themselves as more content organizers rather than creators.

    I can definitely see how confusion and turf wars will arise!

    Is there a standard person or role profile for a Content Strategist out there anywhere?

    I guess that’s what I was getting at in another comment I left wondering what the ideal background for a Content Strategist is. I guess until there is a formal degree and qualification in it it will always be open for debate.

    Sorry for the long comments. I’m just thinking out loud.

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Hi writer,

    The real point of my post above was that there *are* many different kinds of CS work being done, and that to attempt to exclude some of them simply because they’re less visible or familiar is a mistake.

    This part of the post:

    Enterprise content strategy people, on the other hand—the people working with data and DITA and knowledge management systems—talk about CS and mean data modeling, technical workflow, documentation, planning for content reuse, and content management, often on a very large scale.

    …was in reference to that more technical version of CS, which is most often called enterprise content strategy, and which has been around for many years.

    Those of us with more traditionally editorial backgrounds might not be interested in these aspects of content work, as you say, but I think we’re going to see more and more crossover in what our clients need and expect—particularly with large organizations who have complex content management needs.

    FWIW, Ann Rockley has written a great, thorough introduction to the subject in her book, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy. Rahel Bailie and Joe Gollner are two other well known content strategists who write about intelligent content (by which they don’t mean “being smart with your content”) and data-related CS work.

    I do think content development is quite different from content strategy, whatever ‘flavor’ of CS we pick. Plenty of people do both, but many of the best CS people I know don’t do content development, even though they’re mostly excellent writers.

  • http://twitter.com/gpgarner Grey Garner

    I find it fascinating that a thoughtful article arguing against CS-minded folks running to their corner and swinging to defend their territory resulted in a comment thread full of people running to their corner and swinging to defend their territory.

  • Theurgetech3

    for sharing. i really appreciate it that you shared with us such a
    informative post…

  • http://reelWebDesign.com Peter

     Excellent choice of words. You couldn’t be more correct or more eloquent!

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