"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.
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.