Why Content Strategy Is Now Business Strategy

If you Google the term “content strategy,” on the first page of results the top link is to the Wikipedia entry.

That’s notable for two reasons.  First, Wikipedia itself is a living stack of content entries that almost always earn the top place on the first page of Google results.  That’s because they’re useful, unambiguous and on point, all of which causes Google to value the content—including the content about “content strategy.” So Wikipedia arriving at the top spot of a search on “content strategy” itself proves the value of content strategy.

The second reason this is notable is because the Wikipedia article defines content strategy so broadly that it’s almost ambiguous:

“In her 2007 article, “Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data,” Rachel Lovinger described the goal of content strategy as using “words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.”

Note that Dr. Lovinger’s definition doesn’t say anything about “online” content.  That definition could  describe anything from an online database to a TED.com Power Point.   So content strategy now needs to be considered more broadly than online, let alone the Website.

As many of the best practitioners of “content strategy” will attest, what we call content strategy needs to be the bulwark of what should be called “communications strategy.”  Defining this as “content strategy” focuses on the deliverable, not the purpose of the deliverable—which is communication.

We first stumbled into content strategy as a practice in the 1990s when sizable Websites were built for important purposes, and suddenly we realized we needed on-going content to support on-going interactions with visitors.  It hit us that we “launch” Websites, not “deliver” them.

There was an earlier bucket of practices called “Marcom,” or marketing communications.  This was the group of people assigned to write and produce “collateral” like sell sheets, newsletters and press release copy. “Marcom” now means any damn thing created to speak to customers, which makes the term useless today.

That’s the problem that content strategy is trying to break out of now.  It was born in the ghetto of the Website, inside the flophouse called Marcom.   Today it really needs to be re-christened as “Communications Strategy”  and live at the C-level.  It needs to wrench control of brand and reputation away from traditional media channel mongers like advertising agencies.  It needs to usurp the power of strategic consultants because words matter.

Because how you communicate business strategy is equally important as what strategy you’re trying to communicate.  Let me say that again:  How you communicate business strategy is equally important as what strategy you’re trying to communicate.

Content strategy  is  beyond marketing, spans operations and should be the anchor of customer service.  It’s Communications Strategy, and it’s the equal partner with Business Strategy.

Communications Strategy comes in five broad strategic flows:

  1. Communications with the community – this is marketing and advertising, but now has become more about the on-going awareness and conversations with consumers and among them, potential customers.  So now this comes to include the huge frontier of social media communications with customers—Yikes!
  2. Communications with current customers – customer service, yes, but also maintaining the on-going relationship with contextually relevant two-way communication, including participation and sponsorship of communities.
  3. Communications with partners and vendors –easily understood in a B2B world, where the eco-system of technologies or systems requires clear communications and knowledge management.  But think about what General Mills went through with partners when it switched to all whole grain cereals five years ago.  How was that seismic partner transformation handled?
  4. Communications with expert audiences—these range from financially regulated communication with investors to sophisticated communication with technical and medical experts.   A Boeing 747 has more than 6 million parts, so I expect the Boeing content strategy to support that is pretty sophisticated.  (More than 3 million of the parts are fasteners, btw)
  5. Communications internally—this is the poor step-child of communications strategy, and this is one area that I predict will undergo a revolution in the next five years.  Companies generally do a lousy job of communicating internally.  They rely on a combination of ad-hoc management, knowledge management and formal communications that range from poorly designed intranets to company meetings.  And when you throw is broad communications practices like knowledge management and business process management, this one stratic flow becomes enormous and perhaps central to a company’s success.

    Jon Iwata, Chief Marketing Officer, IBM

The first two flows on this list are where content strategy msotly lives today.  And most of that content strategy is online.  That will change over time.   Without strong, clear and authentic communications strategy businesses will founder in the new communications landscape.  What we now call content strategy has to be elevated as a strategic planning practice across the enterprise as well as becoming a daily practice within and across all groups within the enterprise.

This is an accelerating movement caused by the fragmentation of traditional media and the explosion of social communications.  This movement towards a central, powerful communications strategy is seen today in companies with strong CMOs like Barry Judge at Best Buy, Jon Iwata at IBM and John Hayes of American Express.
These organizations and leaders are just the first shifts in this gathering movement towards the complete integration of communications strategy with strategic business planning.

The flagging challenge that will humble most management teams will be figuring out how to migrate their current mess of communications into an effective, evolved “Commstrat.”

Commstrat. It has a ring to it…

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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