I guess I’ve always been a content strategist

The other day, Charlie Lowe posted to the tech-rhet emailing list some information about “Content Strategy” as a new and evolving term in the web business.  Charlie posted this article from A List Apart, “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” and this Google knol page about content strategy.  He also pointed to some books, including Content Strategy for the Web, which lead me to Brain Traffic, which is the operation where Content Strategy for the Web Kristina Halvorson works, and also this presentation from Halvorson on Slide Share.

All this eventually lead me to amazon.com and a number of purchases:  Halvorson’s book, along with  Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice “Ginny” Redish and The Web Content Strategist’s Bible: The Complete Guide To A New And Lucrative Career For Writers Of All Kinds by Richard Sheffield.  And there are plenty of other books to find with a “content strategy” search.

Anyway, all this made me contemplate a number of different things.

First, while I like to think that I keep relatively “current” with these sorts of things– I mean, I have been teaching Writing for the World Wide Web for years– I had never even heard of the term “content strategy.”  I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it probably means a) I ought to pay better attention, and/or b) these job titles/terms/catch phrases in the world of “web work” come and go really really fast.

Anyway, after browsing through the web sites and thumbing through the books a bit, I see the point of “content strategy,” at least sort of.  It is true that a lot of web style books assume content as something that needs to be managed in the sense that it already exists and thus the trick of “good web style” is sound information architecture/design to allow your users to navigate that content.  And, if you think for a second about how people like Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton got into the “Web Style” business, that was very true:  as I understand it, they both found themselves pioneers in web style and design when they were faced with making all the content available online through Yale University’s hospital system make sense.

I think one of the points of content strategy advocates is that this has swung too far in the direction of design and architecture.  It’s all fine and good to have an easy to use and navigate web site, but if there is not “there there,” then what’s the point?  Halvorson has a good slide in her presentation where she depicts the web design team going to the warehouse to find some off the shelf content for their spiffy new web site, when, of course, it should have been the other way around.  And in my own teaching of Writing for the WWW, I always spend some time after we discuss “good web design” pointing out that there are a lot of really badly designed web sites that we all tolerate because they offer important content.

So I get it, and as Charlie pointed out in his email post to tech-rhet about this, we’re actually training students in technical and professional writing programs who are great fits for these positions.  In other words, even if “content strategy” is simply another industry “buzz word” of the moment, it’s one that lines up well with what we do in writing studies.

Still, I am a little miffed.

When I read the definitions of content strategy, I just keep thinking “well, that’s a writer.”  Go take a look at that Google knol link and substitute the “content” or “content strategy” phrases with  “technical communicator” or “professional writer” or “writing” and you’ll see what I mean.  For example:

  • Content Strategy Professional and Technical Writing is an emerging field of practice within the discipline of User Experience Design (UXD). It also describes in a professional context the roles, work products, knowledge, methodology, and perspectives of technical communicators content strategists.”
  • Content strategy Technical Communication is an emerging field of practice encompassing every aspect of content, including its design, development, analysis, presentation, measurement, evaluation, production, management, and governance.”
  • Content Writing includes the text, graphics, video, and audio that make up an interactive experience.”

And there are a series of charts on this knol site that look a heck of a lot like the kind of chart/diagram you’d see describing “the writing process” or “the rhetorical situation” in books in our field.

These overlaps and borrowing of terms occurs all the time, of course.  In library science, there’s the concept of “information literacy,” which sounds a lot like the work we do in classes like first year composition and other research oriented writing classes.  Lots of academic departments claim terms like “media,” “rhetoric,” “literacy,” and “writing.”  Still, there is something about content strategy that seems kind of like an effort to rebrand and/or make the field seem more sexy.  Technical writing or professional communicator seems so boring, especially when you can be a content strategist!  Oh, hell ya!

But let’s face it:  sexy sells, new terms get attention, and in the marketplace of ideas, getting attention is all you’ve got.  I have a cookbook (well, “uncook book,” really) of raw and vegan food called RAW, and there’s a recipe in there for an apple and beet juice drink called “Blood.”  In the explanation of this recipe, the author (“Juliano”) writes “I called this ‘apple blaster’ in my restaurant and we sold 1 a month.  I changed the name to ‘blood’ and now we sell 45 a day.  So, blood it is.”

So, “Content Strategist” it is.

I’m not going to be changing the name of “Writing for the World Wide Web” to “Introduction to Content Strategy” anytime soon, but I am going to be incorporating some of these new readings and philosophies into the class.  And who knows?  Maybe it’ll help some of these professional writing and technical communications students navigate into that field before the buzz wears off.

2 thoughts on “I guess I’ve always been a content strategist”

  1. Wow. You’ve gotten into thinking about this more. You might like Rachel Lovinger’s 2007 post at Boxes and Arrows, Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data. From what I can tell, her post seems to have stimulated a lot of interest in the term.
    “Content strategy” seems to work well, too, for describing what these technical communicators do because it aligns their title with the main publishing tool of the content strategist, the content management system. Since CMSs are probably not going away, I suspect we’ll see this term around for a while.

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