Three Flavors of Content Strategy

picture of serving of Neapolitan ice cream to illustrate content strategy 3-flavors conceptWe all think about content strategy differently. Here’s one way to look at it.

I’ve talked with several dozen startup founders over the past six months. They’ve each had their own ideas about what content strategy is. And my own thinking on the subject has evolved considerably as I’ve talked with them (and with other content strategists).

Unfortunately, “content strategy” has become one of those terms – like “community” or “wellness” – that can seem almost meaningless. Like those terms, it has been applied to a variety of activities and appropriated by a variety of practitioners.

Still, content strategy is a real thing and an important business concept.

One way to understand content strategy is to look at its three main flavors:

Contributors and managers practicing in each flavor operate differently and create different kinds of content. But they are all united in the common aim of content strategy: to guide useful, usable, fulfilling customer experiences that support a measurable business goal.

(That common aim means, of course, that there’s a ton of overlap in practices across these flavors. Just because I list an activity in only one section below doesn’t mean that it belongs only in that flavor.)

You can also look at ways to integrate and coordinate company-wide content efforts:

Business Content Strategy

Business content strategy guides the content you create to communicate information about your company:

  • content-marketing and SEO content
  • marketing content
  • newsletter content
  • social-media content
  • sales-support chatbot content
  • business “about” content
  • conference-talk content
  • conference-exhibit collateral content
  • investor-pitch content
  • and many other kinds of business-communications content

Business content strategists typically have backgrounds in marketing communications, copywriting, journalism, publishing, and other content-creation professions.

I was trained as a journalist and have worked in a variety of roles as a book publisher, digital-content producer, marketing manager, SEO practitioner, blogger, podcaster, and speaker. So I know a fair amount about this flavor of content strategy.

One big challenge that emerges in business content strategy is an inordinate focus on content production – cranking out content on a regular schedule. If you’re in a media organization or are doing a lot of content marketing, this focus may still make sense. But in a business setting, it’s often the case that less is more when it comes to satisfying your customers’ content needs.

Business content strategy job titles:

  • Content Director
  • Head of Content
  • Content Strategist
  • Content Marketer
  • Content Manager
  • Content Producer
  • Search Content Strategist
  • Social Media Strategist

Three experts to follow:

Three books to read:

Conferences to attend:

Is “business” the right label?

Some call this flavor “web content strategy,” since it typically revolves around an organization’s website and its web presence. I prefer the “business” label because:

  • business content isn’t always delivered only via the web
  • the two other flavors also use web technologies
  • folks sometimes conflate their business and their product, and it’s important to always be clear about the difference

Still, I haven’t convinced myself that “business” is the exact right label. For example, it may exclude nonprofits, educational institutions, and government entities that don’t think of themselves as a “business.”

If you’ve got a better name for this flavor, please leave a comment (sorry, “enterprise” is already taken – see below).

Product Content Strategy

Product content strategy guides the content for your apps, SaaS offerings, and other digital products:

  • user-interface content
  • navigation content
  • error-message content
  • product-information content
  • product-onboarding content
  • product-support chatbot content
  • and other content that is embedded in or describes your product

Product content strategists may have a writing background but most are also trained in user experience design (UX).

I’ve designed many websites and other digital products, so I have a fair amount of experience in this flavor of content strategy.

On large product teams in the most successful companies, product content strategists are embedded with researchers, interaction designers, visual designers, usability testers, and other professionals as part of a UX team. That design team is in turn embedded with the product’s business and programming teams.

On smaller product teams, product content may be created by a UX generalist who also works on research and design, including content design.

In the worst-case scenario, a product manager, designer, or developer is tasked with planning, creating, and managing product content. You may get lucky and have a natively gifted content strategist in one of those roles, but you’ll end up with a better product if you include someone with specific UX content strategy experience on your team (listen to this interview with Microsoft UX content strategy director Kylie Hansen for one product-content success story).

Product content strategy job titles:

  • Product Content Strategist
  • Content Designer
  • UX Content Designer
  • Content Strategist
  • UX Content Strategist
  • Content Developer
  • UX Writer

Three experts to follow:

Three books to read:

Conferences to attend:

Technical Content Strategy

Technical content strategy guides the content that describes the operation, maintenance, and support of complex products:

  • user-assistance/help content
  • knowledge-base content
  • operating-instruction content
  • technical-support chatbot content
  • technical-documentation content
  • engineering-specification content
  • and other content that describes the technical details of your products

Technical content strategists typically have a technical writing and documentation background. Many of them have also migrated into and/or out of product content strategy.

I’ve written a bit of software and product documentation, but I am by no means an expert in this flavor of content strategy. I love nerding out on information architecture, structured content, taxonomies, and metadata, though, so I definitely feel a kinship with technical content strategists.

Not that long ago, a lot of technical content still resided in old-fashioned formats like paper manuals and PDF files. Technical content strategists have worked hard to get that information into component content management systems (CCMS) and similar systems.

By structuring content and organizing it with taxonomies and other metadata, technical content strategists were among the first content strategists to build intelligent, responsive content delivery systems.

Technical content strategy job titles:

  • Technical Communications Manager
  • Technical Documentation Manager
  • Technical Documentation Writer
  • Documentation Manager
  • Technical Writing Manager
  • Technical Writer
  • Content Developer
  • Taxonomist

Three experts to follow:

Three books to read:

Conferences to attend:

Enterprise Content Strategy

Put a box around these three flavors. Organize and align their practices under a Chief Content Officer or similar leader. And you’ve got enterprise content strategy.

Enterprises – from small local businesses to behemoths like Microsoft or Walmart –have established at least one line of business and are optimizing operations and promoting established product lines.

Thanks to the work of people like Kristina Halvorson, Cruce Saunders, Gerry McGovern, and many others, enterprises are well-served by content strategy.

Still, only a few enterprises have actually created a company-wide position to oversee their content efforts. As companies see the benefits of unifying and coordinating their many content strategy efforts, I hope this number grows.

Enterprise content strategy job titles:

  • Chief Content Officer (CCO)
  • Head of Content
  • Content Director
  • Chief Content Strategist

Three experts to follow:

Three books to read:

Startup Content Strategy

Put a box around these three flavors. Drop that box into a bubbling cauldron in a mad scientist’s laboratory. And you’ve got startup content strategy.

Steve Blank famously observed that startups are not small enterprises. Rather, they are dynamic experimentation labs in which founders repeatedly iterate on product hypotheses that are tested against customer demand.

That’s obviously a very different situation than a business that is settled on its product line(s) and optimizing its operations.

I’m launching Virtual CCO [the site where this post was originally published] because I’m convinced that startups tech startups in particular are uniquely positioned to benefit from content strategy.

Much more to come on this in future blog posts, but here are a few observations that inform my hypothesis:

  • startup founders need to start a lot of conversations with prospective customers, employees, and investors about their company, so they need a lot of business content strategy
  • tech startups are, by definition, software design and development companies, so they can benefit immensely from modern product content strategy practices
  • tech startups need to document their software for both internal users and external customers, so they need a technical content strategy – and this is even more important in an environment in which prospective customers are as likely to evaluate your tech documentation as your marketing materials before they make a buying decision
  • startups haven’t (yet) built the organizational silos that make company-wide content strategy difficult in larger firms
  • like any impactful strategy practice, content strategy is best formulated at the executive level, and I’ve found it a lot easier to talk about content stewardship with startup founders than enterprise CEOs

If you’d like to learn more about how to be the best possible steward of your startup’s content assets, please contact me. I’m always happy to talk about this.

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