Note: I wrote this post in 2011, after the first edition of the Confab content strategy conference in Minneapolis. It still rings true today, so I'm republishing it here, along with the comments it generated.
Earlier this month, I had the great fortune of being able to attend Confab, the first conference dedicated to content strategy in the U.S. There were lots of interesting presentations on a wide variety of subjects, yet there were two themes that emerged in the thousands of tweets (5000 just on the first day – make sense of that, if you will!), late night discussions, session notes and blog posts that followed.
The first was that although content strategy is all about busting silos, the discipline needs to ensure it doesn’t put itself in a silo; the second, a logical extension of the first, is that content strategy is really about change management.
But first, the silos. On the one hand, there are those who worry that by focusing too much on content strategy for the web, we are losing sight of the fact that content lives in many formats and needs to address multi-channel needs. As Arjun Basu, Content Director of Spafax, wrote in a post-Confab write-up :
By being a web-centered industry (and I don’t think anyone will deny that the word “content,” at least at Confab, has been entirely appropriated by the web community), content strategy risks putting itself into a silo.
Consumer content doesn’t start and end on the web. The word “magazine” was heard once or twice, the first time by newyorker.com’s Blake Eskin (who bravely admitted to creating his first PowerPoint presentation ever) and then again by Junta42’s Joe Pulizzi at the conference wrap-up.
When content strategists start talking multichannel and multiplatform they will realize the fullness of content strategy and be able to move both land and sea. That is, the entire world.
At the same time, there are those who are concerned that content strategy, by focusing strictly on content, is ignoring its cousins UX and IA, and by doing so, risks putting itself – again — in a silo, but this time from a different angle. As Ottawa content strategist Kristina Mausser tweeted:
These are legitimate points, and they’re not entirely wrong — but they’re not entirely right either.
I’ve started thinking about two types of content strategy – horizontal and vertical content strategy –, and this helps me both address these issues and put things into context. Bear with me.
Horizontal content strategy is concerned about a holistic, enterprise-wide approach to content. It covers everything from ‘about us’ to products and solutions to thought leadership; from promotional offers to after-sales technical support to contacts and addresses, community and everything in between. Horizontal content strategy seeks to ensure that every part contributes to a wider, consistent whole. This whole is most fully manifested in the enterprise website. In fact, in most companies, it’s really the only outlet that addresses this scope of content, especially if you’re in a reasonably large company.
Speak to enterprise web teams, and this is what they are referring to when they say content strategy. It’s also the content strategy of UX/IA folks, who are rarely involved in channels other than web. In and of itself, it is a huge task. (See Kristina Halvorson’s article ‘Why I wrote Content Strategy for the Web’.)
Vertical content strategy is also a holistic approach to content, but on a more granular level. It takes one part of that whole – a section, a specific topic, a content type – and delves into it across not only channels (websites, social media channels, print, events, etc.) but possibly a wider spectrum of audiences as well (particularly audiences within firewalls like internal sales or channel partners).
Speak to marcom specialists – indeed, marketing and communication professionals of all kinds — and this is likely what they mean when they refer to content strategy. This is also what many advertising and PR agencies mean when they talk content strategy. I’m not convinced that user experience or information architecture is high on their radar.
Of course, there have always been overlaps between the two, and social media, by expanding the boundaries of horizontal CS and deepening the playing field of vertical CS, is bringing them closer together still. But if social media is the key driver behind the rise in vertical CS, horizontal CS has gained traction for an entirely different reason: the growing recognition that content on websites should get as much attention and consideration as CMS systems, user interfaces and design.
These differences give some explanation as to why content strategy is a practice in and of itself: it’s not just about UX, and it’s not just about marketing. Even within horizontal and vertical content strategy, there are several specializations (Rahel Bailie’s series on The extraordinary world of content strategists remains a great reference for this).
So does that mean content strategy is creating its own silo? I don’t think so. Specializations are NOT silos. People require some boundaries to work effectively together. But specializations can become silos if there’s no collaboration, no recognition for the impact of one’s work on a wider whole. Indeed, a very recent HBR article suggests that communication and collaboration are pretty much the only solutions available to silo-spanning work and results. Content strategists, by the hybrid nature of their work, are in a great position to do this, and yes, it will require some change management. But that’s for another post.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear if this horizontal/vertical approach is useful to anyone else out there.
Note: this post generated quite a few comments, which I'm replicating here.
RSGracey (juin 3rd, 2011 at 17 h 21 min
I love it. It articulates the conversation very well. To think of content strategy as having breadth as well as depth helps us to talk about where and how the discipline becomes critical–not just in a particular medium, and not just in relation to another, particular discipline.
Let’s talk some more about the change management aspects: I see a couple of threads right off. 1) How do we add new media to the content strategy mix as technology changes? 2) How do we represent the pressures (pro and con) on the content strategy focus in the long term?
Lise: @rsgracey: How to add new media to the CS mix? I think that’s a challenge we all have; there is no one answer and it’s a subject broad enough to the object of several posts (I’m sure there are already several out there). How do we represent the pressures on CS over time? Not sure what you meant here…maybe you can expand on it, here or on your own site?
Redlincook| Content Marketing (juin 3rd, 2011 at 17 h 33 min)
Agreed. This is a very good overview of this ongoing conversation surrounding the broader view of content strategy and it’s impact on a business holistically. The hybrid nature of the field is in large part what most attracts me to the discipline to begin with.@redlincook Agreed, the hybrid nature of content strategy is one of its main appeals. There are not that many jobs that give you such a broad vantage point.
Lise: @redlincook Agreed, the hybrid nature of content strategy is one of its main appeals. There are not that many jobs that give you such a broad vantage point.
Clare O'Brien (juin 3rd, 2011 at 18 h 33 min)
Thank you for this excellent articluation of a very complex thing. This is only my VERY initial response to what you’ve written.
If I’m reading this right, horizontal content strategy addresses the content and how it’s managed, regardless of where it ends up. This is an important distinction. It also requires corporate attention – let’s call it governance – because it cuts across business silos and focuses on what anyone might want, need or expect when they encounter or seek out a touchpoint (to use a marketing phrase) with an organisation, whatever that touchpoint might be. Hence change management because we’re talking about applying structures across an organisational structure and changing the way people think about and do things.
I and other content strategists I know sometimes talk about built environments – this is very much the language of UX and IA practictioners. The way space is designed to work best for what people want it do do, how it’s partitioned most efficiently, so people can move into it, through it and out again intuitively, comfortably and without losing their way or leaving empty handed. So I see the horizontal content strategy you’ve described here a key component of the blueprint, the engineering principles, if you like, of that environment.
The vertical content strategy creates and makes best use of the content to achieve specific aims – promote something, sell something, create something – it’s perhaps more overt in its specific objectives, and is more transient / tactical (though no less important) and yes, it’s more concerned with its message than by how people experience it in the wider context of the organisation. It probably makes use of the content structured for the horizontal strategy or at least its structure? Perhaps that’s content marketing?
Like I say, this is my initial take on your piece which is really going to make me think hard.
Your thoughtfulness chimes with much of my thinking even before ConFab, which is that there’s content that needs to work at many levels in a multi-platform world in order to help companies manage their brands and messages and there’s the content that is, to all intents and purposes, the business structure itself.
They are part of the same piece in the same way that a company’s buildings, products, services – even people – are a physical manifestation of itself in a consistently well managed way. At the same time things shift and change, seasonally, by campaign, trend or directive. I’m not sure I explain this as well it it should be, but I do know that content strategy is about so much more than messaging.
Lise: @clareobs Lots of points here. Yes, horizontal CS addresses the content and how it’s managed, regardless of where it ends up – at least, that’s the goal. The reality today, though, is that it’s very much website focused, though social media is pushing the boundaries – think web presence rather than website (so the ‘built environment’ becomes more of a space). But we’re a ways off – hence the calls for change, for ‘Chief Content Officers’, and so on.
Vertical CS as content marketing? Content marketing certainly requires vertical CS, though there are instances where vertical CS is not necessarily content marketing.
CS as more than messaging: Yes, it’s more than messaging, and and more than channels too.
Kristen Sukalac (juin 6th, 2011 at 13 h 59 min)
Lise, this is thought-provoking. In your definition, what is the difference between strategic communications and content strategy?
Lise: @ksukalac: Response probably involves another blog post. But question first: what do you understand by strategic communications?
Kristen Sukalac (juin 15th, 2011 at 15 h 21 min)
This definition of strategic communication encapsulates more or less what I think it is: « Strategic Communication refers to policy-making and guidance for consistent information activity within an organization and between organizations. Equivalent business management terms are: integrated (marketing) communication, organizational communication, corporate communication, institutional communication, etc. »
Lise: @ksukalac Thanks for your definition (which I find a little broad btw) I won’t even attempt to answer your question here, but the subject of another blog post. And as you know, I’m pretty slow :-)
Clinton Forry (juin 6th, 2011 at 16 h 29 min)
To @RSGracey’s question: How do we add new media to the content strategy mix as technology changes?
Having a core strategy in place that addresses the business needs is critical to the new media discussion.
A core strategy should fall under the purview of the « horizontal content strategy » above (quite a useful distinction, I say!) It should succinctly address the reasons why a business does anything at all: Why are we doing this? Who are we doing it for? What do they want? Etc.
Considering new media for the mix becomes much simpler when viewed through the lens of a core strategy. It moves the internal conversation from « Should we? » to « Why should we? » Then, the other, more tactical questions can be asked. « How can we? » « Who will do it? » These will be more thoroughly addressed in the « vertical content strategy. »
As new media comes and goes, a core strategy must remain steadfast. The details of the new media channel itself become less important than the internal cultural shifts required to consistently and sustainably participate in them.
Lise: @wd45 (Clinton Forry): I think I agree, but the ‘Why’ question needs to be asked whether you’re doing horizontal or vertical CS — or diagonal or 3D, for that matter!
Joe Zeigler (juin 6th, 2011 at 17 h 55 min)
Bravo! Tear down them silos!
Though the concept of « content strategy » has emerged from the web industry, it is critical that it be applied effectively across ALL communications. If the messages in your brochures, ads, direct mailers and sales materials are inconsistent with the messages in your website content and social media efforts, then the whole thing falls apart.
I would argue: Content Strategy = Brand Strategy
What differentiates your brand and is relevant to your targets must be consistent horizontally across all media (new and old), and vertically among all stakeholders, channel partners, influencers and customers.
Granted, a website can be significantly more complex than a print ad or brochure. Regardless, effective communication requires that each interaction – whether digital, print or IRL – must be true to the brand.
Lise: @JZMrWrite (Joe Zeigler): A content strategy is essential to a brand strategy, but is probably wider. We tend to think of content in terms of sales: but content is the lifeblood of any enterprise, including operations, training, customer service, customer support, product development, etc. I’m not convinced brand specialists are really involved in these areas; or at least, they haven’t been. Social media may change this.
Kristina Mausser (juin 8th, 2011 at 13 h 09 min)
I wanted to provide additional context to the 140 character tweet you posted above. What was intended as a response here, blossomed into its own blog post which you can read at http://bit.ly/mBGm4g
I don’t think it’s wrong to specialize, however I do think that we are an industry that is fundamentally based on a breadth of experiences to provide solutions, not depth. If the ultimate goal – create great web experiences that deliver ROI for our clients – is the same, why should we not choose to use the best tools available to achieve these results?
Yes, collaboration is part of it. However, awareness of different practices, knowledge of the tools and assimilation of both knowledge and tools is what we risk when we start putting blinders up and extracting greater detail out of something to the exclusion of everything else.
Lise: @krismausser Enjoyed your post, but I don’t think we’re quite on the same wavelength: close, but not quite in sync. You wrote in your comment: ‘If the ultimate goal – create great web experiences that deliver ROI for our clients – is the same, why should we not choose to use the best tools available to achieve these results? Again, creating great web experiences is the goal of horizontal content strategists, but it’s ONE goal among several for those in the vertical sphere.
David Skarjune (juin 15th, 2011 at 3 h 56 min)
Content Strategy was originally defined as horizontal, i.e. « Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, » Rockley, Kastur, Manning, New Riders, 2003; in which web was one of many vertical dimensions.
This is an important distinction Lise makes, but distinguishing vertical content strategy as having granularity seems a bit confusing–as Clare indicates, that’s more tactical. The multichannel question Arjun brought up as « The irony of the silos » would seem the obvious verticals as in Rockley’s original methodology.
Interesting that Kristina neither intended nor created a silo [she wrote FOR the web, not OF], but there may be some risk of reducing content strategy into silos, and yes ConFab was limited in scope, though still awesome.
Lise: @skarjune Someone called me on my use of the word granular (which I’m fond of, mea culpa :-) What I meant was that you may need a content strategy for something like a single topic.