Content strategy has been around longer than most people think. It has, like so many other fields of practice, been called by different names, and has evolved along with the enabling technologies. Digging into the history of the manipulation, management, and governance of content takes us down several paths that converged to become what we know today as content strategy. When Fiona Cullinan first published “A brief history of content strategy” on the Firehead site, back on June 24, 2013, the brevity largely ignored the pre-Web foundations of the profession. With all of the changes in the field, it’s time to revise the history, to go back further into its roots, and to include new developments. Many thanks to CJ Walker and Fiona Cullinan for allowing their article to be expanded into this treatise on the topic.
Content strategy is much like a tree with many branches. Scott Abel, a long-time content professional and advocate for “doing right by content and doing content right”, accurately notes that there is a big difference in scope between content strategies. Some strategies focus on solving focused problems, such as making a website mobile-friendly or communicating with more brevity and better comprehension, while other strategies are solving business-critical challenges for global brands, such as fixing the content production process so they can efficiently produce and distribute content in a multichannel way, while not introducing additional problems downstream.
I started looking into the question of where content strategy really started, and how it has evolved. I tried to be as inclusive as possible. However, keeping in mind that my perspective is only one of many, I can’t possibly cover all perspectives. Hence the word “uneven” in the title, though someone else suggested that “meandering” was a more lyrical term.
Also note that starting with the next heading, I step back and begin referring to myself in the third person, on par with everyone else. It feels a bit odd to do so, but reads better, should anyone want to quote from the article.
Laying the conceptual groundwork
Before the Web, before the internet, and before any of the technologies matured enough to be useful, the concepts that still underpin content strategy were being formulated by the pioneers in this field. While a lot of the background must be left to historians to uncover, this timeline captures a few highlights.
Don Day, himself a pioneer in the technical side of the field, appointed 1945 as the honorary birth of content strategy, with Vannevar Bush’s publishing of an important article, As We May Think. Bush clearly understood the potential in managing content for a range of uses; unfortunately, the technology did not yet exist for his conceptual browsing machine. But it did sow the seeds for thinking about content in ways that we find familiar today.
Day comments that “the technical enablement for the processing architectures that could mimic Bush’s ‘Memex’ concept came about with the innovation of structured markup formalized by Charles Goldfarb and his IBM associates as the Standard Generalized Markup Language from which HTML and XML-related methods have sprung. These markup systems exposed the underlying Document Object Model in ways that can be queried, manipulated, and executed, which finally made it possible for content policies to be discussed in terms of business rules, process descriptions, roles and responsibilities, syndication and subscription policies, reuse and republishing strategies, content repurposing across the business and its partners, and more.”
The Hughes Aircraft Company used what today we would call a content strategy to solve a business problem that involved content. Their report was called [STOP] Sequential Thematic Organisation of Publications: How to Achieve Coherence in Proposals and Reports”. The report advocated for structured content, and has a striking similar approach to material published 40 years later, by Noz Urbina in a 2015 presentation called “How to handle multichannel content (marketing)”.
Side note: This illustrates how much of “the old is new again” factors into content. Some issues never get resolved, simply recycled every couple of decades. The focus on technology has re-emerged in recent years, as organisations struggle to scale their content operations. More on that in entries in the years starting 2017.
There was a realisation that for content production to be automated, some sort of standard needed to be created. The ANSI standard committee for Information Processing published the first working draft of SGML this year. This powerful but complicated standard allowed aerospace, military, and other organisations producing masses of technical content to integrate their content into documentation sets. For example, an aircraft’s documentation was so extensive that it could weigh as much as the aircraft itself, if printed on paper. By having interoperable content, the documentation for all the components of the aircraft could fit on a single CD, with links to the various components.
A team at IBM published a report about improving the usability of publications. Understanding the way that people actually wanted to use content led to the development of task-based content, with seven quality characteristics (task orientation, organisation, entry points, clarity, visual communication, accuracy, and completeness), which is still pedagogically sound today.
Dr. Robert Glushko is notable for his contribution to the field, as he began in the field with document engineering and object-oriented XML. Content strategists still use “object-oriented content” as a way of explaining these 40-year-old concepts to software developers today. Glushko continued in the field until 2017, contributing to the field through teaching and publications. A few of his early publications include titles such as “Automated tools for information systems design”, “On-line documentation: Mechanizing development, delivery and use”, and “Text development and management in Unix-based projects”.
Lotus was the first software program to use context-sensitive help. This aspect of content strategy took the centuries-old idea of a publication — in this case, a manual — and broke the instructions up into self-contained, task-based topics. Whenever a user got stuck, all they had to do was press F1 and get help on whatever function they were using.
Software such as FrameMaker, which supported structured content, was introduced into the market and soon gained a strong following within the technical writing community. This was soon followed by a class of software called HATs (Help Authoring Tools) to facilitate structuring of topic-based help for electronic delivery, such as QuickHelp, WinHelp, and HTML Help.
The idea that markup systems were critical to managing content was taking hold, as evidenced by an article by James Coombs, Allen Renear, and Steven DeRose on the topic of “Markup systems and the future of scholarly text processing”.
Ann Rockley, affectionately called the mother of content strategy, began presenting on several concepts in 1988 that are still very pertinent to content strategy today. Content strategy gained traction in the technical communication community because of the need to tightly manage masses of content and publish it in varying permutations and combinations.
Once the Web opened up online publishing, the model of publishing documents and bursting them into smaller units was turned on its head; technical writers created topic-based content, which could be used as stand-alone topics or aggregated into larger topics, a collection of topics, a publication, or even a series of publications with what today would be called basic personalisation.
Rockley led the pack in discussing the advantages of what was then called “hypermedia”. Rockley’s seminal book on content strategy would not be published for another 15 years. A few of her early presentations included topics such as “Hypermedia — A Web of Thought”, “Writing for Hypermedia”, “Organizing Information”, and “Putting Documents Online: A Manager’s Guide”.
MIT Press published John M Carroll’s book, The Nurnberg Funnel, in which he introduced the concept of minimalism, based on a term introduced by Ginny Reddish. This focus on cognitive load took into account that people read “to do”, not read “to know” or “to learn to do”. The work done by the IBM research team, of which Carroll was part, is a standard aspect of learning systems still today.
Software vendors capitalised on the need for technical writers to manipulate content in the vein of having a definitive source — today we call this single-sourcing — and re-use (the original to Create Once, Publish Everywhere popularised by NPR in 2009). Software such as Adobe’s RoboHelp and later, MadCap Flare, filled the gap. These were not the only software applications on the market, but by far the two most adopted ones.
Adobe FrameMaker then allowed for basic content modelling through a mechanism called an EDD. The significance of this allowed for auto-generation of content. When structured FrameMaker was connected to UML (Unified Modelling Language) through IBM’s Rational SoDA, FrameMaker could automatically generate an entire body of content, complete with visual representations of the model.
The Web Changed All
The advent of the World Wide Web brought many changes to the way content was produced and published. Internet Service Providers started offering subscriptions to individuals about 1995 to access the World Wide Web. Content went from monolithic documents to hyperlinked pages.
Side note: Deciding on what to call a single screen of content was in hot debate in the mid-1990s. The term “web page” was seen as a throwback to print, with several attempts to bestow a more fitting, modern name. However, the mental model overrode the proposed terms, and “web page” stuck.
Anecdotal evidence from content professionals working in the late 1990s shows that digital agencies recognised some form of content strategy. Content strategy as an adopted practice was not yet in evidence but large companies such as Sapient and Razorfish agencies started to create positions called content strategist. These agencies focused on building websites and providing customer-facing, largely marketing, copy.
Credit: Fiona Cullinan of Firehead; screen capture from Twitter 2013.
Mark McCormick, MD at the internet consultancy, Scient, wrote “A Unified Field Theory of Content Strategy”. Sadly, this paper seems to have been lost to history. Molly Steenson spoke on the topic of content strategy at Web ’99 and later outlined how content strategy interacted with other disciplines in “Content strategy — Written aspects of interaction design”.
Robert Glushko was moving the field of electronic publishing ahead as the Web became a medium for business transactions, and used what we would now call content strategy to take advantage of the enabling technologies at the time. The complexity of SGML as a markup language gave way to a more simplified XML, and Glushko published a paper about how XML enables Internet marketplaces and trading communities, and why XML was a better use than EDI in B2B applications.
This was the year that IBM introduced a simplified XML standard meant for interface strings (the original UX writing) and explaining software functions for contextual help and software documentation. The standard was based on learning theory and usability principles. Doyle points out that O’Reilly books continued to use the format of Learning, Using, and Definitive References in their books, which is supported by the DITA schema of Concept (learning), Task (using), and Reference (definitive references).
Usability guru Jakob Nielsen posted articles and videos about content in NN/g as far back as 1995, but later re-categorised them as content strategy in 2001 (as logged by Rachel Lovinger in her “Content Strategy: Why Now?” seminar in 2012).
Various content professionals, such as Paul Ford of Copywire, Rahel Bailie of Intentional Design, both sites now retired, and Scott Abel of The Content Wrangler offered content strategy services as independent consultants. This is in addition to organisations such as The Rockley Group.
The first content strategy book that demonstrated a formal methodology was written by Ann Rockley, Pamela Kostur, and Steve Manning. The book, Managing Enterprise Content, was ground-breaking in that the book recognised and discussed what we now call multichannel publishing, and shared the first example of a modular content model, at a time when content strategy practitioners were jealously guarding their intellectual property.
From 2003 to 2007, the University of California, Berkeley operated a research centre for document engineering, which encompassed a range of topics that would impress any content strategist today. Document engineering integrates complementary theories “from information and systems analysis, electronic publishing, business process analysis, and business informatics to ensure that the documents and processes make sense to the people and applications that need them”, according to the Wikipedia entry. The centre became part of the Information and Service Design program at the iSchool, and is now part of the School of Information, focusing on the technology aspects of content.
Lavacon, a conference series founded by Jack Molisani, had presentations on various types of content strategies from 2003 onward, though the actual term was first on the program in 2010 with Intelligent Content: The Magic Behind the Curtain, Creating a Content Strategy, and Implementing Your Content Strategy using Topic-Based and Structured Authoring. Before then, the conference had presentations such as: Key Strategies for Global Information Management, Content Management: It’s the people, not the tool, Strategies for Reducing Translation Costs, Implementing an Internationalization Strategy that supports Simultaneous Releases in Multiple Languages, Content Management: No Mystery, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Strategies for integrating user-generated content. The conference series continue to run today.
Contentstrategy.com was registered as a domain name by a holding company, and later sold to a digital agency specialising in content strategy.
Amy Gahran of Contentious.com posted an article titled “What is content strategy and why should you care?” The full series no longer available, but the flagship article remains online and provides an interesting look into the explanation of content strategy in the first decade after the Web.
Apart from the editorial side of content strategy, an idea was emerging that content had a need to be engineered. In an article on management and strategy, Robert Glushko and Tim McGrath include content strategy, though the focus was on documents. As we see today, the principles continue to stand with digital.
The engineering of content was on the minds of many technical writers who were left to develop their own content strategies. The XML standard for authoring and storage, DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), was approved by OASIS, a not-for-profit consortium for open standards that helps people agree on intelligent ways to exchange information. This standard made a huge difference in the ability to author, manage, and publish topic-based content at scale.
Don Day, now retired, and Michael Priestley, an Enterprise Content Technology Strategist with IBM, were the drivers behind the standard.
A simplified version of the standard, Lightweight DITA, was launched in 2018, to make it easier for content developers to manage their content strategically. Michael Priestley continues his involvement on the DITA standard.
Side note: You may notice that people who have had no exposure to DITA or content production may be dismissive of the standard as being only for technical content. They have missed the point that it doesn’t really matter what genre of content is being created. The standard allows content to be structured in an industry-consistent way, and therefore, the processing can be automated, for the business advantages of decreasing production time, and improving interoperability and scalability.
Side note: A complementary standard, the DITA Open Toolkit, was also launched in 2005. This standard allows for the automated processing of content for publishing. This standard is governed separately from DITA. Robert Anderson, Lead Architect for the DITA Open Toolkit, has been involved from the beginning, and also contributes to the DITA standard.
A site, DITA XML.org documenting the DITA XML standard was launched by Bob Doyle, who was also the creator of the first Desktop Publishing Program, MacPublisher, back in 1984. The page on the History of DITA goes into the background of practices that developed into what we know today as content strategy, particularly in the domain of technical content.
Rachel Lovinger posted “Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data” on the Boxes and Arrows site, with the often quoted “content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design”.
Ginny Redish published a book that has seen lasting popularity. Letting Go of the Words was one of the best examples of how to work with the editorial aspects of content to conform to how readers consume content online.
Contentstrategy.com was purchased the Brain Traffic agency, founded and operated by Kristina Halvorson. At time of publication in 2020, contentstrategy.com is an active site operated by the Brain Traffic agency.
Credit: Fiona Cullinan, screen capture from The Wayback Machine
The first content strategy conference was held in Vancouver, BC in the spring of 2008. The program, curated by Rahel Anne Bailie, wove together three strands: content, technology, and management (such as consumer relationships and change management). The only remnant that remains online is an interview done by The Content Wrangler.
The first conference dedicated to leveraging intelligent content and a unified content strategy was held in Palm Springs, also in the spring of 2008. The brainchild of Ann Rockley and The Content Wrangler, the Intelligent Content Conference demonstrated how forward-thinking companies were manipulating content in ways that allowed them to automate content delivery at scale. While today, that may seem commonplace, it seemed revolutionary at the time. The conference has become the ContentTech Summit, focusing on content strategy for marketers.
A List Apart published a content strategy issue with features by Kristina Halvorson, “The Discipline of Content Strategy”, and Jeff MacIntyre, “Content-tious Strategy”. Halvorson’s commonly used definition was coined in that issue: “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” These two professionals proceeded to put the profession on the radar of the content, user experience, web development, and business communities alike.
Credit: A List Apart; screen capture from the List Apart website, 2009.
2009 was the break-out year for content strategy. Rachel Lovinger noted that the term started trending in search, rising from 880 results in 2000 to 286,000 searches in 2008, with a sudden jump to 4,210,000 in 2009.
Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach published Content Strategy for the Web, probably the most-referenced work amongst content strategists for over a decade.
Side note: On the one hand: At SXSW 2009, a publisher’s response to the suggestion of writing a book on content strategy was that there was already “a” book on the topic; the publisher assumed that there would be no appetite for a second book. On the other hand: During 2009, content strategy gained enough traction that associations such as the Information Architecture Institute, Interaction Design Association, the IEEE, and HCI were including content strategy on their conference rosters and in their publications.
The first dedicated content strategy meet-up occurred on 19 March at the IA Summit in Memphis: the Content Strategy Consortium was organised by Kristina Halvorson and Karen McGrane and was attended by 22 content strategists.
Side note: Different types of strategies are needed for different types of content. For example, a marketing department creating campaigns in multiple markets will operate very differently than their product counterparts whose content is shared across product, engineering, support, and so on. Later, these strands of the profession will be given designations such as “front end” and “back end” content strategists, or strategies for structured content or unstructured content, or for pre-sales or post-sales content, though these seem to be artificial distinctions. A commonly accepted ratio for an organisation’s content for customer use is 20% persuasive content (for example, marketing content) and 80% enabling content (for example, support, training, technical, and in-product content). As these types of content have very different operational models, the most useful distinction (at least for purposes of this article) seems to be content strategies for persuasive content and for enabling content.
Jeffrey MacIntyre started the Content Strategy Knol, using Google Knol, which functioned similarly to how Medium operates today. MacIntyre and a few other content strategists acted as content curators until Google discontinued the knol product, at which time the knol was transformed into a Google group.
Side note: One could speculate as to why the sudden interest in content strategy, when there had been close to a decade of practitioners plying their craft with digital content. The most logical conclusion is that the Web created new, exponentially complex challenges for content publishers. One anecdotal report from a large Silicon valley hardware/software company talked about the mess that had ensued because the organic growth of their online technical content, and the 100+ technical writing contractors they had to bring in to audit, categorise, and curate the over one million pages, to bring their corpus into some sort of usable form. These stories may have circulated within the technical communication community, but didn’t have the type of impact of similar situations on the marketing side.
The first Content Strategy Forum conference, which began as the STC France Chapter annual conference, was co-chaired by CJ Walker and Stuart Culshaw working closely with Destry Wion. The conference, which circulated among different organisers and locations, ran for six non-consecutive years, the final conference taking place in 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
The STC (Society for Technical Communication) launched its Content Strategy Special Interest Group, and put out calls for proposals for the 2010 STC Summit on the topic.
Side note: On the Intentional Design site, Rahel Anne Bailie enlisted a number of practitioners to describe and share typical content strategy deliverables, as a service to the fledgling content strategy community. For many would-be strategists, this was the first time they had been exposed to processes and artefacts. At a time when practitioners jealously guarded their intellectual property, this was a huge step toward sharing knowledge.
Branches of adjacent professions began to overlap and interact, and the umbrella term “content strategy” started to have its own strands. These connections may not have strictly been formed during 2009, but this is the year that content strategy featured prominently in online articles, podcasts, conferences, academic journals, and more.
Content marketing found a new audience. With the publication of Get Content, Get Customers, by Joe Pulizzi and Newt Barrett, confusion between content strategy and content marketing strategy began — and continues today, if today’s job listings are any indication.
Library and Information Science (LIS) became integrally connected to content strategy as the need to keep metadata under control and content semantically tagged led to the involvement of taxonomists. Heather Hedden’s book, The Accidental Taxonomist spoke to that connection.
The localisation industry, tired of feeling the adverse effects of being the process tagged on after the fact, started discussing content strategy as a way to influence content processes upstream in the production process. Val Swisher’s book, Global Content Strategy: A Primer, tackled that issue from a content strategy perspective.
Digital governance became increasingly important as did the need to manage change, processes, ownership, and standards. Theresa Regli’s book, Digital and Marketing Asset Management, provided a strategic framework for managing digital assets.
User research became an important connection as content strategists wanted to make evidence-based decisions when developing systems, workflows, and content itself.
The connection to interaction design became stronger as the recognition that content within interfaces was just as important as other product content, and needed to be managed along with the rest of the product content.
Business analysts became aware of the need to distinguish between processes suitable for data management and processes suitable for content management.
Content strategy took the big stage at SXSW, where Kristina Halvorson presented Content Strategy FTW to a participant-filled ballroom.
CS Forum was launched in Paris, the first content strategy conference outside of North America. The conference, organised by the France and Trans-Alpine chapters of the STC, the Europe SIG, and Firehead, a content recruitment agency located in France. Keynote speakers included Rahel Anne Bailie, Rachel Lovinger, and Kristina Halvorson.
Credit: CJ Walker; photo from CS Forum, 2010.
The conference happened to coincide with the volcanic eruption in Iceland, leaving some of the most recognisable names in content strategy stranded in Paris. The circumstances provided a unique experience for members of this new community to get know each other.
Credit: Unknown; photo from post CS Forum conference, 2010.
Colleen Jones published Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content.
Rachel Lovinger published a report titled Nimble: A Razorfish report on publishing in the digital age that recognised the importance of semantics to be able to automate the processing of content. (Like so many other online artefacts, the report itself has been lost to history, but a search of Slideshare revealed a presentation made at Confab in 2011 called Make Your Content Nimble.)
Erin Kissane published The Elements of Content Strategy (A Book Apart, 2011), which provided a how-to starter kit for professionals moving into the field.
Content strategy started to be discussed amongst German-speaking content professionals. Heinz Wittenbrink published his first article on the topic, PR Blogger Book Tips: The Content Strategy, on PR Blogger.
Side note: Wittenbrink’s discovery of Kissane’s book led to a research project called The Web Literacy Lab, which led to a proposal for a content strategy academic program.
Brain Traffic launched a conference series, Confab — The Content Strategy Conference, in Minneapolis, MN, USA. The conference continues at time of publication.
Lucie Hyde (then with eBay) launched a conference series, Content Strategy Applied, in London, UK. The conference has continued, though not every year, in both London and now in Silicon Valley.
Noz Urbina remembered being instrumental in renaming the X-Pubs conference to Congility to refocus on content strategy. The two keynotes at the inaugural event in 2011 were Rahel Anne Bailie presenting “The Content Strategy Paradox” and Ann Rockley presenting “Developing an Intelligent Content Strategy”. This conference series has been discontinued.
Jonathan Kahn, who founded Together London, spun off a meetup group — first called Content Strategy, then Agile Content — with a lightning talk format. The group has evolved into an organisation focusing on interpersonal business communication.
The UK’s GDS (Government Digital Services) launched the alpha version of the now very recognisable gov.uk website, which radically changed the way they presented content and still serves as a model for government bodies around the world. As part of the skill sets needed to work on producing and managing content for GDS, three distinct jobs were identified: content strategist, content designer, and technical writer.
Side note: The GDS distinction between job descriptions is worth noting here, as those differences have carried over into industry. Content designer with GDS experience is a common request on job descriptions, as companies seek out content creators with the training to pay attention to the UX side of content. The differences can be summarised as follows: Content designers have a strong slant to researching the UX of the content, then creating the content with that in mind. Content strategists develop systems, and the components within them (taxonomies, processes, architecture, governance models, etc). Technical writers do similar work to content designers but for technical audiences. The distinction between content strategy and content design has not occurred in North America, so many of the content developers who would be considered content designers in the UK and EU identify as content strategists in the US and Canada, though this has started to change, with the help of ex-GDS Sarah Richards.
Content strategy started to be included in conference programs such as Webstock, Content Marketing World, The STC Summits, and TCUK (Technical Communication UK).
Academic journals such as the asis&t Bulletin (American Society for Information Science and Technology) and the IEEE Xplore (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) published special issues on content strategy.
The Content Marketing Institute, then under the direction of Joe Pulizzi, launched Chief Content Officer magazine. Though the magazine seems more focused on content marketing, it regularly publishes articles about content strategy.
The three major search engines of 2011 — Bing, Google, and Yahoo — launched an initiative to standardise small units of content called microformats. The initiative, schema.org, allowed virtually all types of content to be structured at the presentation end. This became a game-changer for content developers and technologists alike, allowing content to be processed and discovered with reliability.
Rachel Lovinger’s presentation, “Content Strategy: Why Now?”, logged the rise of content strategy in search results over an 11-year period (chart on slide 27: ©Razorfish), where she noted the astonishing jump from 286,000 to 4.2 million results between 2008 and 2009.
Credit: Rachel Lovinger; screen capture from SlideShare presentation.
The CS Forum conference was held in Cape Town, South Africa — the first content strategy conference outside of North America or UK and Europe.
For the first time, Localization World included a dedicated two-day track on content strategy led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, to their conference in Seattle.
The first Content Strategy Workshops training event was led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, and Rahel Anne Bailie, Intentional Design, in Portland, OR, USA, over a two-day span.
The second CS Applied conference was held in London, UK, and divided its areas of interest into four categories: management of technical content, social media and mobile, CS fundamentals, and localisation strategies.
Credit: CS Applied; screen capture from CS Applied 2012 website.
2012 was also a bumper crop year for the number of content strategy books published, and content strategy was included as a section of books in adjacent professions. This is not an exhaustive list; these books are from multiple strands of content strategy, including a couple of books about creating content.
Karen McGrane published Content Strategy for Mobile.
Margot Bloomstein published Content Strategy at Work: Real-world Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project.
Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper published the second edition of Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy.
Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle published Content Strategy 101: Transform Technical Content into a Business Asset.
Elizabeth Buie, with Dianne Murray as the Series Editor, published Usability in Government Systems: User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants in which Chapter 10, authored by Rahel Anne Bailie, was titled “Content Strategy”.
Robert Rose, on behalf of the Content Marketing Institute, published a much-needed clarification between content strategy and content marketing. In the article, How Content Strategy and Content Marketing Are Separate But Connected, Rose emphatically stated: Content strategy and content marketing are two very different practices.
Side note: Rose goes on to state that “… content marketing is a marketing strategy — an approach that uses content to deepen our relationship with customers” whereas content strategy seeks to “… manage content as a strategic asset across the entirety of the organisation”.
Localization World made content strategy a standing topic in its conferences, from Seattle to Singapore to London and beyond.
The soap! conference series, focusing on new ways of working in technical communication, launched in Krakow. The conference included content strategy topics from its first year, with Noz Urbina doing the keynote in 2013, titled The Freedom to Grow: How Standards in Communication Facilitate Our Industry.
At the beginning of 2013, Jonathan Colman assembled a list of content strategy resources, with prominent content strategists of the day. As can be expected with a seven-year-old list, many of the links are broken, but the list does give an idea of the breadth of the resources available at the time.
Firehead Digital Communications, a France-based recruitment and training agency, released results of their survey, “Content Strategy Hiring Trends”, revealing pay rates, what skills employers seek in a content strategist, and hiring problems.
Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina published Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits.
Ahava Leibtag published The Digital Crown: Winning at content on the web. While some would consider this book more about content marketing than content strategy, at the time of publication, it was considered a content strategy book.
About this time, design agencies, such as Smashing Media and Johnny Holland, began publishing information about the importance of content strategy. (Jeffrey Zeldman deserves mention here, though he was well ahead of the pack, declaring that content precedes design back in 2008.) Individuals such as Dr. Cleve Gibbon, Dr. CJ Walker, Deane Barker, Lisa Welchman, and The Standardistas, all who might be called enlightened allies, regularly reached out to their audiences to include the strategic aspect of content in their business, design, and technology strategies.
Credit: Jeffrey Zeldman; screen capture from Twitter, accessed 25 August 2020.
About this time — no one consulted at TWIN (Technical Writers of India) could provide an exact year — content strategy started to take hold in India, where Sapient led the way.
Side note: At time of publication, a search for the job of Content Strategist yielded a number of vacancies. As is the case in other markets, the positions are mostly a mix of content marketing strategy and copywriting, with the occasional social media requirement thrown into the mix. So while “back end” content strategists for “enabling content” are a relative rarity, there seems to be a growing interest in “front end” content strategists for persuasive content.
FH-Joanneum, a polytechnic university in Graz, Austria, launched its Master’s Degree Programme in Content Strategy, and welcomed its inaugural class of 24 students for this 2-year program. Heinz Wittenbrink was the Program Director from the beginning of the program until 2019, when he retired. At time of publication, Robert Gutounig holds the position of Program Director. The program has almost doubled in enrollment, with students from around the world.
Side note: The whole question of documenting educational programmes in Content Strategy is problematic. Programmes come and go. Some are Certificate programmes, while others are part of a Master’s programme, such as the Content and Media Strategy Master’s Degree programme in Eindhoven, NL. Sometimes these programmes fall in the faculty of Arts and Science, or Applied Science, or Business and Management, or IT and Media, or Department of Media and Design. Sometimes, the Content Strategy programme turns out to be about content marketing, or social media, or communications management. At time of publication, the Master’s of Content Strategy at FH-Joanneum is the only Content Strategy degree programme discoverable on the Web; the curriculum includes the full range of subjects needed to be an effective content strategist. (In the interest of transparency, many prominent strategists mentioned in this article teach in the FH-Joanneum programme. The screen capture is from 2020.)
Credit: Rahel Anne Bailie; screen capture from online meeting July 2020.
Richard Hamilton of XML Press and Scott Abel of The Content Wrangler created a book series specifically for topics related to content strategy. Scott Abel and Rahel Anne Bailie co-edited the first title, The Language of Content Strategy, which consisted of 52 authors contributing one topic each, for which they were known for their expertise. Since then, the series has grown to over 10 books, with new books continually added to the series.
Image credit: XML Press website
Noreen Compton and Steven Grindlay founded the CSA (Content Strategy Alliance), an international association for content strategists and other content professionals. The alliance aims to be a professional standards, training, and accreditation body.
Side note: The idea of having a professional association has been a political football for a number of years.
On the one hand, no association means no regulation. Anyone can call themselves a content strategist, and they do — from highly experienced strategists whose skills are comparable to management consultants, to glorified copywriters. While this lowers the barrier to entry into the profession, it also means significant confusion about what should actually be expected of a content strategist. From client expectations to job listings by employers, the range is staggering. Compare the experience to that of project management, where the association sets out core qualifications, and someone having a particular accreditation gives an organisation a reliable benchmark of what the candidate can bring to a project.
On the other hand, when the content strategy community itself doesn’t agree on what a content strategist does, it’s difficult to set out a programme. The benefits of having an association could raise the bar for the profession, but needs buy-in from prominent practitioners, and from clients, employers, and even government. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the CSA can get their accreditation certificate up and running so that those who wish to take part in such a program are able to do so.
The range of resources — books, articles, podcasts, academic papers, special issues, and other resources became too numerous to catalogue here. However, two notable books were published that year.
Meghan Casey published The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right, giving practitioners solid examples of how to create useful deliverables.
Lisa Welchman published Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design drawing on over two decades of experience in the field.
James Mathewson and Mike Moran published Outside In Marketing: Using big data to guide your content marketing. Despite the book title pointing to content marketing, the book is a blueprint for content strategy in a large organisation.
Ann Rockley published an article on The Content Marketing Institute’s website titled Why You Need Two Types of Content Strategist. This became a watershed moment to separate the strategists who cared more about defining the content itself and its user experience aspects, and the strategists who cared about the infrastructure needed to automate and scale content delivery.
Side note: As professions mature, novelty turns into standard practice. The flurry of new publications slows. New editions of earlier publications are issued. In 2016, for example,: Mindtouch started publishing its list of top content experience influencers, including content strategists. Facebook expanded its fellowship program. UX claimed content strategy as a sub-discipline. Conferences included content strategy topics as a matter of course, not as a novelty topic. Cliques formed. Rivalries intensified. Allies shifted. Content marketers continued to appropriate the term “content strategy”. Organisations marketed workshops, mostly focused on producing good copy. Master classes were promoted, in specialty areas as diverse as higher education, virtual reality, Internet of Things, and conversational design. In other words, this is the year that content strategy normalised.
Ray Gallon, Andy McDonald, and a handful of other content professionals founded the Information 4.0 Consortium, which focused on managing and delivering intelligent content into complex ecosystems. (At time of publishing, the registered consortium is phasing itself out, and moving to an informal group.) The interest in content for complex systems originated with a German initiative, Industry 4.0, where automation is a key concept. These situations included self-managing factories, automated operating procedures, dynamic content delivery, chatbots, and artificial intelligence models.
Credit: Marie Girard; screen capture from Information 4.0 Consortium website.
Side note: The focus of the Information 4.0 Consortium was on the technologies rather than the content, closing the loop that started back in the 1940s.
Colleen Jones, founder of Content Science, launched Content Science Academy, offering multiple certification programs for content professionals, including content strategists and content engineers, with each program consisting of 4–6 courses.
Mike Atherton and Carrie Hane published Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow.
Two big ideas seem to be coming out of content strategy: content engineering and content operations. These concepts are closely intertwined and dependent on each other to succeed. Content professionals such as Joe Gollner, whose content career of over 25 years includes many presentations on both content strategy and content engineering, have moved on from the term “content strategist” to identify more with content engineering.
Side note: Content engineering is the technical side of content, and content operations is the process and governance side, to ensure that a content strategy can be implemented, in terms of optimising production of content at scale, while ensuring high quality at delivery time, to leverage content as business assets to meet intended goals. It will be interesting to discover whether the content strategists who work in the area of content operations begin to identify as content operations strategists, with the modifier readily distinguishing them from other types of content strategists.
Content operations became the hallmark of some seasoned content strategists such as Kate Kenyon and Rahel Bailie. They see content strategies as a means to an end, with the actionable outcome of a content strategy being its implementation, with anend goal of having an operational model that has strong editorial standards, processes, governance, and an underlying infrastructure to support the content ecosystem.
Companies such as GatherContent, which was founded in 2012, rebranded about this time, as a product supporting content operations. On the marketing side, companies such as Kapost and Contently have enterprise-level software to facilitate content operations.
Deane Barker published Real World Content Modeling: A Field guide to CMS features and architecture (Deane Barker, 2019). Content modelling is the backbone of any project that involves automation of content delivery through a CMS.
At time of publication, the latest discussion group to launch was the Content Strategy Community, founded by Hilary Marsh. Since the knol in 2009, content strategy groups have formed where practitioners can come together to share information and practice notes, and ask questions of other practitioners. The Google Group was very active in its early days but has died out. Two Facebook groups are still active, one with about 650 members, the other with over 4K members. LinkedIn shows many content strategy groups, though many of the groups have very few members and aren’t active. The Content Strategy Community provides a place for content professionals to discuss topics of interest, with a moderator who seeds conversations, keeps people on track, and ensures quality interaction.
Tracey Playle self-published The Connected Campus: Creating a content strategy to drive engagement with your university, as she recognised that different types of organisations have specific content needs.
A LinkedIn search in June 2013 produced 7,491 results for content strategist (24 June 2013). More than 5,400 were based in the US, 480 in the UK, and 460 in Canada. Razorfish currently employed the most (43), followed by IBM (32), and SapientNitro (29).
The same search in July 2020 produced 55,406 results. Some positions had a modifier, such as “Digital Content Strategist” or “Product Content Strategist” or “Content Strategist & Marketer” or “Social Media & Content Strategist”. About 31,000 were based in the US, 4,700 in India, 3,300 in the UK, 3,000 in Canada, 1,800 in the EU, 1,700 in East Asia, 1,600 in Australia and New Zealand, 1,200 in Africa, 1,000 in South America, 200 in the Middle East, and 58 in Russia.
2021 and beyond
In a discussion with Cruce Saunders from [A] about the future of content and of content strategy, Saunders sees an advent of an era of a convergence of disciplines and practices as management realises that bodies of content are substantial assets within a larger intangible IP. With an elevated value of content, organisations will see a need to organise those assets in some sort of integrated way, rather than operating in the fragmented, siloed ways that too many organisations do today. Saunders predicts a need for many kinds of strategists to fill the various roles needed to ramp up and keep such an operation going.
This big idea spans persuasive and enabling content, though sometimes in very different ways. As content strategy progresses, there will be a need for strategists who can incorporate new trends into their strategies: conversational design, Internet of Things, augmented reality, artificial intelligence models, and so on. The discipline of content strategy has many opportunities to grow and evolve, and though the principles may remain intact, the types of content we apply it to are bound to rapidly change.
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