What is content marketing? How about content strategy? Or content creation? Where does one leave off and the others begin? Definition fluidity plagues the content field. Using the proper nomenclature (or convention) helps all involved in a process achieve clarity. However, this is only achieved if an organization can agree on the definitions. The content field is in its infancy, so there is no consensus, and broad overlap exists between the terms and across organizations.
Thinking about content definitions is reminiscent of starting a new job. All of the organizational terms (or jargon) are new or different. It’s stressful when you have no idea what anyone is talking about. To further cloud the situation, the business community tends to simplify much of the content field. Content is often equated to copy (or text) and content strategy as an editorial calendar. Neither is incorrect nor is either a full representation.
To find clarity, let’s start with content. Content is information. Ahava Leibtag, author of The Digital Crown: Winning content on the Web, explains, “Content is information that is organized and arranged in a format. Embedded in that format is information—the solution to someone’s problem or question.”
If content is information, confusing content with copy is understandable. It is not surprising that organizations tend to associate copywriters as content creators. This narrow definition neglects the format of the content—it misses visuals, video and audio. The confusion stems from the early days of the internet. When bandwidth (we’re talking dialup connections) didn’t support visuals, most of the content was text. Thus, writers pioneered the modern content field.
Regardless of the format, content creation is the act of crafting a conversation or a story. The point of the story or conversation depends on the purpose of the content. Jodi Harris, the director of editorial content and curation at the Content Marketing Institute, writes, “Your content should serve as a platform for communicating your brand’s unique perspectives, capabilities, and value proposition. It also needs to tell a story that resonates strongly enough to convince readers to act.”
Content needs to convince those who engage with it to act. Harris is referring to marketing content (public-facing content), but it applies to all content. If the document is a procedure, readers need to understand the steps they’re required to take.
Content Marketing and Content Strategy
If there’s confusion surrounding the concept of content and content creation, then content marketing and content strategy are tied in a Gordian knot. Not only do the definitions overlap and contradict, but the inclusion of content marketing strategy further tangles the knot. Perhaps not surprisingly, everyone in the content business is armed with his or her definition.
Let’s start with content marketing because the Content Marketing Institute, an industry leader, provides a good starting point: “Content marketing is the strategic marketing approach of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
Two points are confusing about this definition. First, the word strategic is in there. We can’t escape this word. Content marketing needs to be strategic if an organization’s content marketing is to succeed. Second, the last part, “driving profitable customer action,” sounds like a sales pitch.
Content marketing is not about selling products or services. Michele Linn clarifies, “content marketing is educational but is not about the products the company sells. The vendor offers such good information that you become loyal to the brand.” Content marketing is about establishing brand credibility and trust. It’s providing content that answers an audience’s questions, giving audience members something they can’t find anywhere else. Content marketing is built on the belief that once an organization establishes trust and credibility, an audience will acknowledge an organization’s value with business and loyalty.
Let’s start with a definition from Kristina Halvorson, who penned the seminal article on the subject, “Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” Okay, one could read that definition and think content marketing is concerned with creating and delivering useful and usable content. What’s the difference?
Let’s include Megan Casey’s definition and see if it clears things up. “Content strategy helps organizations provide the right content, to the right people, at the right times, for the right reasons.” Notice she says the right people, not prospects or clients. Content strategy encompasses all of an organization’s content. It includes internal communication, like a company intranet.
Governance is another distinction between content strategy and content marketing. According to Halvorson, it concerns the policies, standards and guidelines that monitor content’s quality and performance. Our definition of content marketing didn’t include a mechanism for tracking content performance. It’s helpful to note performance tracking because without it content strategy is easy to confuse with an editorial calendar. As Casey puts it, “If you can’t articulate measurable business goals as reasons for producing or sharing content, you’re probably wasting your business’ money.”
But wait, just when we can begin to untangle the definitions, another term twists the knot tighter. Content marketing strategy does include governance. Its definition sounds similar to content strategy. According to the Content Marketing Institute, “content marketing strategy is your ‘why.’ Why you are creating content, who you are helping, and how you will help them in a way no one else can.” Harris even includes purpose and goals and a measurement plan as two of her five parts of successful content marketing.
Slicing the Knot
Let’s unsheathe our sword and slice through the knot. Content marketing strategy is a content strategy applied narrowly to content marketing. It’s the same but narrower in scope. And scope is the easiest way to distinguish content marketing and content strategy. Content strategy governs or concerns all of an organization’s content. Content marketing is a branch of marketing, focusing on building brand trust and credibility that will lead to profitable customer actions.
Did this untangle the definition knot? No, probably not. Definitions evolve. As people in the content business, we need to remain focused on having conversations and telling stories that align with our organization’s goals and help consumers achieve their goals. Content creators and content consumers need to have a symbiotic relationship, one that benefits all involved.
Casey, M. (2015). The content strategy toolkit: Methods, guidelines, and templates for getting content right New Riders.
Casey, M. (2017, March 30). Why you need content strategy before editorial planning. Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2017/03/content-strategy-editorial-planning/
Developing a content marketing strategy. Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/developing-a-strategy/
Halvorson, K. (2008, December 16,). The discipline of content strategy. A List Apart, 274 Retrieved from https://alistapart.com/article/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy/
Halvorson, K. (2017, October 26). What is content strategy? connecting the dots between disciplines. Retrieved from https://www.braintraffic.com/blog/what-is-content-strategy
Harris, J. (2019, September 2). Get a refresh on the what, why, where, and how of content marketing . Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2019/09/refresh-content-marketing/
Leibtag, A. (2013). The digital crown : Winning at content on the web. San Francisco: Elsevier Science & Technology. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/quinnipiac/detail.action?docID=1429412
Linn, M. (2017, July 30). How to explain content marketing to anyone. Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2017/07/explain-content-marketing/