Content strategy: the new social media or the old web editing?

Apr. 20, 2010 | by Tamsin Hemingray


Content Strategy is lining up to be “the next big thing” to happen online, if you are to believe the hype.

The queen of content strategy Kristina Halvorson wrote this post in February which argued that: “Content strategy is more or less on the same trajectory as social media was three years ago”.

There does seem to be a growing interest. Google trends data show search volumes for content strategy and related terms in March 2010 running at about twice the rate as January 2007 (taking into account the growth in overall search volumes). Searches specifically for “online content strategy” have risen 70% during that time.

It’s a compelling story. And being honest, as Content Director at iCrossing, it has really helped when talking to people about what we want to do with content to help them to reach their business goals. No one wants to be missing out on “the next big thing”, do they?

But this post isn’t about the “sellability” of Content Strategy as a project or service.

It’s about the idea that this is a new discipline.

Charlie Peverett and I went to a stimulating and well-attended event last week in London’s fashionable Shoreditch. Content Strategy, Manhattan Style invited attendees to meet “three of New York’s finest content strategists… for an evening of informal discussions, socialising, and perhaps a little drinking”. Most interestingly for me, the event blurb suggested that this was “the place to be if you want to learn more about the business value, opportunities, and practical application of this emerging field of practice” [my emphasis].

A web editor by any other name would spell as well

We had a long chat on the way to the event discussing this. I put my theory to him that content strategists are, in fact, the same thing as a “web editor in chief”. Here’s my little story that explains why I think this (and I admit it is based very heavily on my personal experiences of working within the discipline of online content creation):

Once upon a time, the internet was invented, and soon there were loads of websites and random bits and bobs and fun stuff to do and it was all really exciting. Companies who wanted to make money out of the internet got really excited too, and started building websites to join in.

Quite quickly they realised that they needed someone to run the website for them and make sure stuff looked right and there weren’t spelling mistakes and broken links everywhere. So they hired Web Editors. These people were a bit unusual – they knew about html and stuff and could also use Photoshop and write properly and fiddle about with content management systems. There weren’t many of them about. So they paid them LOADS of money.

Then, one day, a bubble burst somewhere and the companies decided that maybe the internet was rubbish and you couldn’t make money out of it. So loads of the websites got closed down and the Web Editors got made redundant or went and joined agencies and got jobs as producers or writers or Information Architects or UX guys, or they took massive pay cuts to hold on to their jobs and then got pretty much ignored to death by everyone else in the organisation.

Time passed.

Then, suddenly, the internet was back in fashion again, and quite a few companies had found that they COULD make money just by selling stuff on it directly. Then along came social media and everyone wanted their websites to be really cool and shiny again, and they wanted loads of content that did clever stuff and was really engaging and useful. So they hired Content Strategists to work out how to do it. Little did they know that these Content Strategists were in fact the self same Web Editors of yore. But that didn’t matter because the work got done and everyone got paid. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Charlie and I decided to put this theory to the panel at the event. Unfortunately, our question didn’t get chosen, and I got distracted by a different conversation about whether adding a blog to a client’s site can fix a rubbish content strategy [another blog post for another day].

So I was really pleased to see this post by fellow Brightonian Lauren Pope asking the exact question we had wanted to: what’s the difference between a content strategist and a web editor? Like Charlie and I, she has picked up on the fact that the overlap between the responsibility of a web editor and a content strategist seems to get ignored by the Content Strategy Superstars of Manhattan.

I’d add to this that there is a very strong focus on onsite content strategy with these guys that seems not to acknowledge the fact that content strategy in the social age has to cover offsite spaces where you have little or no control at all. [Again, another blog post for another day.]

The final part of the puzzle?

My belief is that content strategy isn’t an “emerging field of practice” at all. Actually it’s the remembering of what anyone who works day to day with content from the pre-dotcom days to right now this second knows: if content is queen [and, since the internet is content, how can it not be?] then you’d better get your content strategy sorted or you’re doomed to failure. And the best person to do that is the person who is creating, managing, curating and moderating it – and conversing in fine detail with users – day in day out.

However, the sad truth is that in most organisations, that person – the post-dotcom web editor – is rarely in an influential position, if they exist at all. That’s annoying, but there it is. So enter the Content Strategist: the next big thing and therefore, presumably, someone that gets listened to.

Image osted by Flickr user SirkullayIf you’re a web editor, don’t feel threatened or over-shadowed by a content strategist – see them as your ally. They are the person who is going to take a long hard look at content provision, user needs, technical barriers, business goals, and support you to deliver content that really hits the spot. It’s been a long time coming – but perhaps it is just part of a natural progression. It feels to me that over the last 15 years there has been an ongoing process where we’ve all been working to create websites that look nice, that are sensibly organised, that are really easy to use, that are easy to find, and now we’re finally considering building websites that have stuff on them that people want and like.

Content professionals – take heart. If Kristina’s stats are right, we’re the next big thing! For individuals, organisations and brands who seek to engage and trade digitally it’s even better news – because your websites and your social media activity is only going to get better.

Image by Flickr user Sirkullay, reproduced under Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 CC License.

Header Image by Flickr user 10ch

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    Comments (24)

    • sam

      niceSep 12, 2011 10:20 pm

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    • Kim Luu

      Hi Tamsin,

      Nice to see that you broke out in your comment about all the different people it takes to do a job correctly on a website.  It has been incredibly irritating to me to see so many people market themselves as being experts on everything web related.  It's a disservice to all the businesses out there looking for companies to work with.

      A web programmer is not going to have the same skills as a graphics designer.  Nor is he capable of editing and have writing skills to clean up a boring, rambling article.  You just need to educate the customers to understand the need for different experts. 

      PS. My site is only weeks old and in beta so I'm not a good example.  My poor experts have to snag my time to get decisions.  Thank god our launch date is July.  I have to admit I get overwhelmed when I get pulled in different directions with the SEO person telling me to use keywords, the freelance editor saying to write concisely, my desire to be accurate and engaging, and my review committee complaining about readability. 

      One thing that I noticed from reading the post and the comments is that the web industry is already falling into the same trap as other industries in using jargon.Apr 30, 2010 08:12 pm

    • Kristina Halvorson

      Yay! I love this discussion!!

      I just want to jump in and clarify something... when I say that content strategy is "an emerging discipline" or "the next big thing," I totally don't mean that it's a brand new thing that's just getting invented.

      I think we're all aware that content strategy has been around as long as the web has. It just hasn't gotten any damn attention. So let's revise to, "a discipline that's finally emerging as an important role in our larger community." Or "the next big thing people are going to bastardize and turn into a big ol' heap of buzzwords." Heh.

      Finally: it's my opinion that content strategy is really an umbrella term for several different, interrelated disciplines (see http://www.alistapart.com/articles/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy/). Do people need to pick one role and stick to it? Of course not. We all wear several hats in any web project. But I don't agree whatsoever that "the old web editing" is the same as content strategy.

      As for the question, "Where have YOU been?" ...what I want to know is, "Well, where have YOU been?" No one has taken responsibility for starting or participating in the larger conversation about the need for content strategy until the past year or so. Maybe some of the folks above have been doing this work for ten years, but the point is that they haven't been talking about it very loudly. So, instead of being irritated, take advantage of the momentum and attention content strategy is getting. Join in the conversation!

      Thanks for the post, Tamsin. It's started a great conversation!Apr 27, 2010 04:00 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Celeste - glad it's not just me :-)Apr 26, 2010 12:16 pm

    • Celeste Crocker-Payne

      THANK YOU, THANK YOU and oh,  did I say thank you? Great article and your 'fable' is spot on for those of us that were in this 'emerging' role more than 10 years ago. I started in a digital agency back in 1999 as a content strategist, but after the dot-com bust my formal job titles ranged from Web Content Manager to roject Manager to Online Director. But all in all, was still doing all the things that content strategists are expected to handle. While I'm also glad that the role is not becoming something I can point to and say to my family 'see that's what I do for a living' I have to admit that I'm a bit miffed that it's constantly referred to as the next big thing or trend. My response is usually content strategy has been here all the time. Where have YOU been?Apr 23, 2010 10:34 pm

    • Charlie Peverett

      @Muriel I think you're right about it being all about working through the job descriptions. Job titles are exactly that - while there's confusion over who does what, we're not going to agree about whether 'strategist' is unessarily high-falutin or just usefully descriptive.

      Some of the differences seem subtle now - maybe they will always remain fluid - but we'll only get a good working template by trying stuff out.

      As many others have said recently, Kristina Halvorson has done an amazing job of articulating the problem with <a target="_blank" href="http://www.contentstrategy.com/">Content Strategy for the Web</a>, and suggesting a practical way to tackle it.Apr 23, 2010 03:24 pm

    • Charlie Peverett

      @Andrew I think the prospect of "content strategist" blurring with "marketing manager" is a real problem.

      The point of needing a strategist is that an organisation's content now speaks so directly to its various audiences, in a multitude of circumstances, that you *must* co-ordinate it properly. For this process to sit under marketing, or be indistinguishable from it, is a mistake - albeit one that's quite understandable considering that many people in marketing are wondering what their role now is.

      Why is it a mistake? Because many forms of content vital to a business are not primarily about marketing - they're about product support, customer service and so on. The best people to retain ownership of that information are the people who are closest to it. A web editor can provide the editorial and technical support to make that information translate into good content online. I'd argue that the person to help join it all up with promotional and other creative content is a strategic web editor or content strategist.

      A secondary effect to all this is what we still refer to as marketing. If an organisation conducts itself well, in public, that's the best 'marketing' around.

      But if we continue to make content beholden to marketing strategy - rather than working alongside it - organisations will continue to miss out.Apr 23, 2010 03:06 pm

    • Ifraz Mughal

      Thanks for the thought provoking post Tamsin.

      As the Internet matures, techniques get refined continually and your thoughts are a part of that refinement. Any strategy must be based on research and experience - a simple statement now but one that was ignored 'back in the day'.

      Content is an integral part of the Information Architecture and so many times wireframes are produced with 'lorem ipsum' text dropped into content containers. This introduces risk - if we don't know the specification of that content how can we design around it?

      So perhaps understanding the users and their goals / tasks is followed by defining the content that helps users achieve their goals and tasks. Only then does the UX / IA designer begin to draw out the site-map and associated wireframe.Apr 23, 2010 01:46 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Kristina Halvorson has a clear idea of how the teams / roles fit together in her SXSW presentatione here - slide 13. It makes a lot of sense to me. http://www.slideshare.net/khalvorson/content-strategy-ftw

      At the risk of being accused of gazing too long into my navel . . .

      Andrew - I agree that the Content Strategist is probably much less hands-on and tactical than a web editor. But I hold firmly to the belief that if they don't come from a web editing background originally, they'll find the role a lot tougher than if they do. It's fairly easy to learn about a business's vision and commercial goals. Understanding user needs, and the practicalities of what content can realistically be created in given situations to meet those and a business's goals is a much bigger challenge, in my opinion. And this is different again from the separate and equally demanding challenge of defining a digital strategy - which will of course be much wider ranging than the specific task of defining and then supporting the delivery of spot-on content.Apr 22, 2010 11:25 pm

    • Mark Hanson

      excellent piece TamsinApr 22, 2010 09:22 pm

    • Muriel Vandermeulen

      Hi Tamsin,

      The Content Strategy Forum was a great success. Just track #csforum10, and you'll be amazed to seen all positive reactions. But this was mere a first step, a launch forum, so to speak, and we all agreed it has to be continued.

      I also agree with Clare comment (by the way, you offered us a very interesting approach to web content relevancy issues at the CS Forum - thanks again, Clare). I've been using some tags on my French blog under the webwriting category : these tags are "formal principles", "editorial principles" & "functional principles" . When reading Clare comment ("from what it’s for and how it’s used, to how it’s creatively, physically and technically managed), I realize that these three tags could be applied to the whole process of content strategy - optimizing the creative, physical & technical dimension of content within the whole media mix...

      About the job names per se, I wonder if agreing on the job descriptions would not help to give a clearer picture of our discipline as a whole. I had a meeting this morning with a new client. They called me because they needed a webwriter. When we shook hands, they called me a copywriter, when we sat, they asked me if I was a content provider, during the meeting they realized they needed my experience as a web editor too, and when I left, they agreed I was a content strategist. Funny, isn't it?Apr 22, 2010 08:55 pm

    • Andrew Lloyd Gordon

      A fascinating debate and some great comments.

      In my long experience (hear those violins playing) the job of 'Web Editors' were/are very different to 'Content Strategists'.

      A Web Editor is usually someone with half-decent programming and web editing skills who maintains the organisation's website. They're usually a dab hand at Photoshop and Dreamweaver etc.

      They keep the web presence on the straight and narrow and do their best to either support, or sometimes, ignore the requests from team members.

      They do not, however, decide on web strategy. Including it's 'Content Strategy'. They're usually far more tactical than that...

      Content Strategists on the other hand - rare as they currently are - should be the person(s) who 'think big'. They understand the way the Web works and how powerful good, quality and engaging content can be.

      They do not, nor should they perhaps, 'get their hands dirty'. By this I mean that they're not necessarily involved in the physical production of the content i.e. as in the creation of web pages, widgets, apps and so on.

      Although you will usually find them blogging, tweeting and erm, commenting on blogs such as this one ;)

      These people (if they exist) should be completely clear as to the broader Vision and Objectives of the organisation. The content they organise, outsource, buy and plan for, therefore, supports the Vision and Objectives.

      In fact, these days, in the organisations I work with, the description of the 'Content Strategist' closely matches that of the 'Marketing Manager'.

      Although, speaking with someone yesterday on a similar subject, she was considering asking whether she could change her job title from 'Marketing Director' to 'Conversation Director'.

      Would she then be the person who directs the 'Content Strategist' who then directs the 'Web Editor' who then directs the 'Web Marketing Assistant'...Apr 22, 2010 07:48 pm

    • Quba Blog » Content strategy for business

      [...] just read an excellent article called “Content strategy: the new social media or the old web editing?” The author points out that many marketing people are pointing to content strategy as [...]Apr 22, 2010 06:43 pm

    • Jonathan Saipe

      Hi Tamsin

      Interesting post. Having worked agency side for 15 years I'm always astounded by the lack of attention and importance clients give to online copy let alone their content strategy. The ephemeral nature of content management certainly contributes to this IMHO.

      With the emergence SEO (copywriting), web analytics and usability testing over the past 7+ years, I think people are waking up to the importance of content strategy, realising that website content is not about old school offline copy, but significantly different. In the same way that web design should not be siloed anymore, neither should copywriting or web editing. There are too many influences and measures to ignore its importance.
       
      Jonathan
       
      PS: Hi Clare (above)! Apr 22, 2010 04:56 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      CJ - I often think about how ad agencies (used to?) have a copywriter and a "creative" / design person paired up in partnership to deliver advertising creative and think it would be great if that kind of approach could be applied to the creation of online content for organisations and businesses. Except I guess that the partnerships wouldn't just be little pairs, but more like clusters: a web editor /writer, a creative design person, a content strategist, a project manager, a UX specialist, an IA / web dev genius, an SEO guru, an outreach specialist etc. (And the sooner those lines get blurred the better in my opinion - I don't think the assertion of content strategy as a discipline should be about land grabbing.) But a content strategist is an essential part of the cluster because nine times out of ten I'm willing to bet that the person whose skills best fit that role is someone who has hands on experience of actually making content for the web and then getting it onto a person's screen in a way that is appealing and useful to them.Apr 21, 2010 08:43 pm

    • CJ

      Thank you for a thought-inspiring post, Tasmin.

      I agree with your conclusion that content strategists are good for all of the web disciplines and content in general. Bringing attention, discipline and a structured strategy to the process can only help all of us produce higher quality.

      I also agree that web editors (I was one and we were often ignored!) have many of the same skills required of content strategists, but I also agree with Clare that it's a mish-mash about how they fit together. It's a bit random when I look at the web editors I knew - many, maybe most, would not have the skills to approach a web strrategy in the same way a new-style content strategist would. But a lot of that could be simply a change in the times.

      This "new job title" is good for the field in general by bringing attention to the content and web strategy; content strategists are not merely replacement web editors. The truth is that every role varies so much, both sets of skills (and IA and UE, etc. etc...) could come in pretty handy to get the job done right.Apr 21, 2010 05:58 pm

    • On the difference between content strategists, content managers, and web editors « Baddit Blog

      [...] the difference between a Content Strategist and a Web Editor? (#cslondon10) and Content strategy: the new social media or the old web editing? I love that people are asking these questions because I don’t think it does anyone any [...]Apr 21, 2010 04:54 pm

    • Clare O'Brien

      Hi Tamsin

      Thanks for keeping this wagon rolling. You make really good points about relative roles and I hadn't thought about the web editor axis you raised.

      From where I sit, I think it goes even wider. I've been working in media & marketing since the mid-70s and my interpretation of content strategy is that it is the art and science (and why I love Karen McGrane's company name: Bond Art + Science) of understanding the nature and characteristics of content - from what it's for and how it's used, to how it's creatively, physically and technically managed...

      That requires understanding a lot of existing and recognised web disciplines (which may include search, UX, IA, editorial, analytics, build, design etc) and - very critically core business disciplines (such as marketing, organisational management, strategic planning etc). It's unlikely that any one person will be a practice specialist in all these things, but a content strategist will have come from one of more of the strands and should be able to recognise the combination of expertise required for any project.

      The things is, business is becoming more and more dependent online and operating there as well as offline (sales, customer service, product delivery etc). A key requirement of content strategy is to establish cross platform consistencies and efficiencies on and offline.

      Whether that person used to be a web editor or a customer services director or an IA or a publisher or a  usability practitioner or brand director is immaterial. What's important is that someone is able to embrace the complexity of what a multi-disciplinary team needs to achieve.
      I’ve met lots of web editors with a wide range of experience and who are great thinkers who could call themselves content strategists. I've also met web editors who would make poor content strategists because they have little interest in the wider picture (sounds like you’re in the former camp).

      But above all else, this isn’t a job title land-grab. It’s about recognising that content needs to be addressed and managed properly if organisations are going to operate as effectively online as they do offline... it's about getting the business of content recognised by organisations at senior level.... ClareApr 21, 2010 01:02 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Hello Lauren - glad it's a bit of food for thought. It is a shame we didn't get to chat last week. Maybe next time? Or if you fancy popping into iCrossing towers for a coffee sometime we'd love to see you.

      Hello Muriel - I had been hoping to be at the event in Paris but pesky budget retrictions got in the way. Was it a good event? It looked like it was going to be genuinely thought provoking.Apr 21, 2010 12:55 pm

    • Muriel Vandermeulen

      Hi Tamsin, this was also exactly the subject I presented at the Content Strategy Forum last week in Paris. In French we use the phrase "stratégie éditoriale" (editorial strategy) to refer to Content Strategy, and we have been doing this for years before we called it "Content Strategy". But indeed, it now helps with the clients to have a trendy name...Apr 21, 2010 11:27 am

    • Lauren Pope

      It's good to read more about what other people think the difference between a content strategist and a web editor is - I wish I'd bumped into you at the event! 

      It's beginning to sound to me like a content strategist and a web editor are always going to work best as a partnership (which is probably why the roles seem so similar!) - an editor knows the day-to-day stuff inside out while a strategist can provide an overview and has enough distance from the website to be more objective.Apr 20, 2010 07:30 pm

     
    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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