Op-Ed: What is Content Strategy, Really?

By Kiran Aditham 

Alas, our usual Extractable contributor Simon Mathews is sitting this month out, but we gladly welcome this rather epic debut from Dana Larson, VP/user experience at the aforementioned San Francisco agency. Larson has spent 20+ years in the biz, holding a wide range of positions including copywriter, CMO, content strategy director and ECD. Seeing as she has some experience in the content strategy field as noted, Larson offers a comprehensive look into what this job exactly entails. Read on.

Recently I was reading a discussion on LinkedIn Groups about whether or not it was a promotion to go from copywriter to content strategist. I asked one of my old colleagues what he thought, and his response was, “I don’t know…what is content strategy, really?” Actually, that’s a good question as I think a lot of people don’t really know what content strategy is. Erin Kissane explains this phenomena in her book, The Elements of Content Strategy, by saying, “In an industry in which the efforts of visual designers, information architects, front-end developers, and content creators can be seen center-stage when a new website launches, content strategy is a fundamentally backstage discipline.” And because content strategists typically work with all of these more visible roles, it can make their role seem even less clear-cut.


I’ll get to just what a content strategist does in a bit, but first let’s set the stage by taking a look at a website that was clearly designed without the aid of a content strategist. I’m kind of at a loss for words at how a renowned organization like Massachusetts Institute of Technology could produce something like the Center for Advanced Visual Studies website. Its haphazard placement of text islands obscured by clouds of floating type combined with random web 2.0 animations is a recipe for digital indigestion. Wow. Go there. Now. Resize the window. Experience the wonder. It’s the site that keeps on giving.


So Back to the Question at Hand… What Does a Content Strategist Do?

While there are content strategists that have specific areas of expertise—such as marketing communications, user experience, information management, content marketing, etc.—all content strategists work through a process of evaluating, designing and developing within the content strategy lifecycle. And they all work cross-functionally with UX, creative, marketing, strategy and development teams. I won’t bore you with the details of a content strategist’s job activities and responsibilities and instead I’ll give you the general idea by describing what a content strategist typically produces at each phase.

As you can see, there’s quite a mix of activities and a deliverables represented here, with a broad range of skills required to deliver on them. Going back to the original LinkedIn Group discussion, and looking at this list, it kind of makes you wonder why copywriter to content strategist is even a logical career path given the wide-ranging skills required. Although I’m sure the proofreaders in the office would probably appreciate the clean copy they get from an ex-copywriter. And I feel pretty confident that if a content strategist had worked on that website for MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies it probably would have turned out a lot different. But for all I know, my inability to understand their site is some special kind of test that I just failed. To be fair, that example was a bit extreme. Here’s a couple more to ponder:

Enrichment Technology

First, the site was built in Flash, which is really not going to buy them any SEO points. On top of that, I’m not sure just how much utility users are going to get out of the fly-by navigation. Yes, those tiles you see are actually set in motion and the user is meant to snag the correct one at the right time to get to the content they want to access. This goes against any idea of intuitively labeled navigation or clearly stated purpose. Maybe they only tested it with gamers? Or gamblers? Honestly, I still don’t know what Enrichment Technology is or what they do.

 Creative with a K

This site is quite visually appealing and interesting, but my guess is that most users could never learn more than what one can glean from this static screenshot. As the site suggested, I tried clicking around to explore but could never get any interaction to work until I realized that I had to close the one thing that was open before I could open anything else. Multiple people in our office had this same issue. I can’t imagine that anyone stays with this site nearly as long as I did and it could be easily fixed simply with clear instructions… and correctly fixed with user testing and a better UX interface.

So, What Is Content Strategy Good For?

When companies invest in content strategy they can deliver projects that ensure:

-Content is effective and compelling
-Content is on-brand
-Content aligns with business goals (e.g., appropriate mix of lead‐generation opportunities, informational content, support content)
-Content is findable—site uses clear, intuitive navigation
-Content is optimized for mobile users
-Content is optimized for organic search
-Consistency of tone and voice
-Site meets W3C accessibility standards
-Social media is appropriately integrated and sharing is easy
-That there are resources lined up to create the content needed to build a website
-That proper tacking mechanisms are in place to ensure there are no content-related shortfalls throughout a project

As you can see, a content strategist has a lot to offer a project, especially when s/he can work collaboratively with cross-functional teams. And if s/he has copywriting skills, all the better. Feel free to share any sites you think demonstrate an exceptionally good—or exceptionally bad— content strategy. I’d love to see them!