Content strategy is, in fact, the next big thing

Kristina Halvorson

In January of 2009, I started telling people that content strategy would be the next big focus for organizations worldwide. I even went so far as to say, “Content strategy will soon be getting more attention than social media.”

Lots of folks smiled encouragingly, patted my shoulder, and told me to get back to my style guides. Some people just laughed at me. And that’s when I hit them over the head with my content inventory. Bam!

Well. Guess what.

Numbers don't lie.

Here’s a look at Google search returns for “social media” as it rose in popularity:

2001: 1,060,000 2002: 1,350,000 (+27%)2003: 1,570,000 (+16%)2004: 5,830,000 (+270%)

And now, here’s a look at the past few years of Google search returns for “content strategy":

2006: 26,500 2007: 50,600 (+90%)2008: 83,200 (+64%)2009: 428,000 (+390%)

See those numbers? That's some sudden, explosive growth. (I'll refrain from saying "I told you so." I'm classy like that.)

Content strategy is gaining ground—albeit in smaller circles—even more quickly than social media did. Why?

I think it's because the reality of social media initiatives—that they're internal commitments, not advertising campaigns—has derailed more than a few organizations from really implementing effective, measurable programs. Most companies can't sustain social media engagement because they lack the internal editorial infrastructure to support it. They don't have a content strategy.

It's not that this hasn't been a problem for years. It's simply that social media has made the problem more obvious (and more public) than ever before. 

“Everything starts with a mission, and is fortified by the content we create.”

Social media rockstar Brian Solis recently published a landmark article that finally begins to identify social media for what it is: a component of content strategy.

In Why Brands Are Becoming Media (Mashable.com), Solis writes:

“One of the greatest challenges I encounter today is not the willingness of a brand to engage, but its ability to create. When blueprinting a social media strategy, enthusiasm and support typically derails when examining the resources and commitment required to produce regular content.”

He goes on to say:

“In the near future, brands and organizations will create new or augment existing roles for editors and publishers to create timely, relevant, and captivating content on all social media channels. This work is in addition to the other reactive and proactive social media campaigns that are already in progress.”

Solis discusses the need for publishing calendars, editorial oversight, content performance analysis, and cross-discipline collaboration:

“New media necessitates a collaboration between all teams involved in creating and distributing content, including advertising, interactive, communications, brand, and marketing — with an editorial role connecting the dots.”

Is this sounding at all familiar?

This is enterprise content strategy in action. And it's not just going to help us get social media right. It's going to fix our content.

I’m not just talkin’ style guides, here.

Last year, I wrote a book called Content Strategy for the Web. It offers a pretty straightforward approach to planning for content in your web initiatives. The good news: I'm starting to get daily emails from people telling me how radically it's changing their project processes and outcomes (in a good way, thank you very much).

And so, obviously, I’m a big fan of content strategy at the web-project level. It brings happiness and joy to all who practice it. (It makes us so happy here at Brain Traffic, it's all we do.)

But content strategy isn’t only about projects, and it’s certainly not just for websites.

That said, web projects are a terrific place to see content strategy in action. At the project level, we see almost immediately how content strategy’s tools and methods can literally transform how we consider and care for our content, how they can streamline processes and conserve resources. We can quickly measure our customers’ reactions to finally getting useful, usable, engaging, actionable content.

But once we’ve witnessed content strategy’s effectiveness at the project level, it’s time to take several steps back and examine our organizations. Because content strategy can’t be truly effective over the long term without an internal editorial infrastructure to support it. And that means widespread organizational change.

The proof is in the practice.

At its core, content strategy isn’t really about content inventories, or messaging, or publishing calendars, or governance policies. It’s a way of thinking that has direct impact on the way we do business. And the way we do business must include a clear focus on how we create, deliver, and govern our content. Because more than ever before in the history of commerce, content has become one of our most valuable business assets.

It's here. It's real. Content strategy is the next big thing. But, people, let’s not do what we’ve been doing for so many years with the trends the pundits sell us. Let’s not gloss over content strategy by focusing solely on what we should be doing; let's also focus on the why and how. Let’s work together to dive into the mechanics of it, the driving philosophies, the real-world resource requirements. Let’s share success stories from brands both big and small. Let’s not confuse tactics for an achievable, measurable plan.

Let's start considering content at the strategic level so we can start to deliver the right stuff: content that matters, both to our audiences and to our bottom line.