Why we need to move beyond the content strategy vs. content marketing debate

Posted on July 10, 2014 by - Strategy

Sharing challenges and opportunities in a strategy session

If we want our content to reach its full potential, then we need content strategy and content marketing to work together. What’s holding us back, and how can we move forward? Photo by Dale Frost, Creative Commons

Content strategists and content marketers should be natural allies. We appreciate the potential of content and design to inform, inspire, and persuade. We care about our users’ needs and our organizations’ objectives. We make plans based on research. We experiment. We measure results. We try to learn from our successes and failures.

But too often we’ve stepped on each other’s toes—sometimes by conflating the two disciplines, sometimes by emphasizing our differences. The debate has arguably improved both disciplines, but it has also created barriers between us, limiting our opportunities to collaborate with each other.

If we want our content to reach its full potential, then we need content strategy and content marketing—but we also need them to work together. Otherwise, we’ll only frustrate our readers, our stakeholders, and ourselves. So rather than write another blog post about what content strategy and content marketing mean and why we need both, I’d like to share my thoughts about what’s holding us back and how we might move forward.

What’s behind the disagreements?

From my perspective, there are three main reasons why there has been so much tension between content strategists and content marketers:

1. Our fields are still defining themselves

Content strategy and content marketing are new disciplines (albeit ones with deep roots in digital and traditional media). There is considerable consensus within our fields about how to define our work, yet our definitions are still in flux.

This creates understandable anxiety among professionals who want to protect the definitions that support their professional interests. So, for example, when a Coursera course from a reputable university offers a weak definition of content strategy, it makes sense that content strategists would want to set the record straight. Of course, it can be challenging to do so in ways that not only correct misunderstandings but also elevate the conversation.

2. The content “gold rush” means more opportunities but more competition

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago the terms content strategy and content marketing were virtually unknown. Both fields have attracted tremendous interest in a very short time. Yet Google Trends indicates that interest in content marketing has far surpassed interest in content strategy since 2012:

It’s easy for content strategists to look at a graph like this and worry that they’re being left behind. Meanwhile, content marketers are also concerned that organizations will overlook or misunderstand the value of their experience. As Joe Pulizzi pointed out in “4 Truths About Content Marketing Agencies,” content marketers now face competition from advertising agencies, traditional media companies, PR organizations, social media agencies, direct marketing agencies, and SEO companies—many of which have little experience in creating and implementing a robust content marketing plan.

3. Content strategy and content marketing are twins

If the two disciplines were siblings, they would be fraternal twins. Content strategy would be the serious one who creates plain but practical plans to address systemic problems over the course of months and years. Content marketing would be the fun-loving one who pulls out all the stops in order to entertain and persuade.

In other words, content strategy and content marketing may strongly resemble each other in family photos, but they have different personalities and different interests. You can hear it in the way we speak. Content strategists tend to be passionate about audits, structured content, governance, and sustainability. Content marketers tend to focus on storytelling, viral content, engagement, and conversion.

Of course, these interests are complementary, and there are plenty of content strategists and content marketers who get excited about all of the above. But we can’t specialize in everything. We naturally focus on the aspects that best match our interests and needs. As Colleen Jones noted in “Has Content Marketing Hijacked Content Strategy?,”Content strategy is essential for a wide range of purposes—media products, technical support, customer service, sales, and marketing, to name a few. Content marketing focuses on strategy and implementation for—you guessed it—marketing.”

If we want to help ourselves, we need to help each other

The truth is that most organizations need both content strategy and content marketing, but often clients don’t know the difference, or they don’t know why they should care. So we end up competing with each other rather than working together.

Content marketers, when your clients ask for a glitzy microsite, six new social media accounts, and a suite of print collateral, your clients need to understand that these investments might not be sustainable. Otherwise, you’re inviting buyer’s remorse and potentially shrinking your market. Consider hiring a content strategist, or refer your clients to content strategists who could help them address these “out of scope” issues.

Content strategists, please don’t look down your nose at content marketers. They’re often frustrated by short-term thinking, too. It’s logical to think of content strategy as the foundation that supports content marketing, but in reality organizations are constantly building annexes while tearing up the foundation. Consider working with a content marketer to help you meet clients’ short-term needs in a way that will support long-term efforts.

Case in point: Sometimes content strategy starts with content marketing

I work with subject-matter experts at an international NGO. When I joined the organization, my division was already publishing a wide range of materials, including brochures, case studies, evaluations, fact sheets, manuals, papers, and reports. Analytics and anecdotal evidence suggested that the materials were not influencing our audiences to the degree that we’d hoped, but this was a controversial view that was easy to dismiss, since we didn’t have the evidence to make a proper argument.

Like most content problems, this one had broader implications than many people realized. Yes, we needed to improve our content: Our communication pieces generally did not have objectives or well-defined target audiences. Our publications were often too long and too complicated for the people they were meant to influence. We did not know enough about what some of our audiences wanted and needed.

But these classic editorial issues thinly veiled a trickier set of problems: Staff members understood why they should create content, but “publishing more” had become an end unto itself. Publications often languished on our website, which served as little more than a warehouse of PDFs. Meanwhile, the organization’s marketing and communication resources were disproportionately allocated to communicating with a different set of audiences. Staff in marketing, communications, web, video, programs, and fundraising mainly worked in silos. The organization expected marketing and communications staff to fulfill bottom-up requests but did not empower them to create top-down strategies, plans, or standards.

What we needed was a comprehensive content strategy, one that would address people, processes, technology, culture . . . oh, and content, too. But was this realistic? No. We needed to start smaller, with a content marketing plan.

First we commissioned market research on our audiences and their perceptions of our content. The report recommended tailoring our content to specific audiences and creating marketing plans for our publications.

With the research in hand, we worked with our authors to help them create targeted content. We also sought their feedback on our proposal to start an e-mail mailing list. Together, we crafted a strong value proposition for our target audiences and created an inventory of our experts’ professional networks—the first of its kind at our organization. Many of our experts agreed to share the mailing list’s sign-up form with their networks. We launched the list with cross-divisional enthusiasm, and we maintained support by sharing analytics with stakeholders.

It took only a few months to plan and launch the mailing list, but the point wasn’t to get a “quick win.” The point was to help people begin to imagine new possibilities and work with us in a different way so that gradually the organization could become more influential.

We continued to build on our success. We used analytics to improve our digital conversion rates. We invested in two social media accounts and upgraded our e-mail campaign service. We traveled to overseas offices to help field staff conduct marketing needs assessments. We worked with our program directors and their teams to create the organization’s first global strategic communication plans. And now, at long last, we are working with stakeholders around the world to develop a comprehensive content strategy for our website and the organization.

For us, content strategy started with content marketing. That approach won’t work for every organization. If your Fortune 500 company is happy to pay creative agencies to churn out content until the next recession, then content marketing probably won’t lead to content strategy—not unless you can help people understand that they’re driving without a map. And if you have the luxury of setting your organization’s marketing agenda, then by all means, start with the broadest view possible and plan for content marketing where it makes the most sense. No matter your title, your role, or your organization, the key is to be practical and flexible while always steering toward a larger goal.

Case studies on integrating content strategy and content marketing

Two recently published books offer wonderful examples of how organizations are integrating content strategy and content marketing: Sue Apfelbaum and Juliette Cezzar’s Designing the Editorial Experience: A Primer for Print, Web, and Mobile and Margot Bloomstein’s Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project.

Both books are excellent. I just finished reading Designing the Editorial Experience over the weekend. Check back soon for a review!

What do you think?

Have you experienced tension between content strategy and content marketing in your work? How do you balance the needs and considerations of both disciplines? What advice would you give to people who are dealing with similar obstacles? Please let us know in the comments section.

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist and content marketer in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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Why We Need to Move Beyond the Content Strategy vs. Content Marketing Debate by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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