Content Strategy & Content Marketing: Not The Same

Content Marketing has been a hotly contested topic of late. It has been promoted as the best way to market yourself overall, the replacement for link building, and a requirement for success today. While I wholeheartedly agree that content marketing can provide an immense amount of business value, it is not in and of itself a strategy. Every good content marketing effort should be built on top of a separate and distinct content strategy.

We often hear or read advice about how to manage a successful “content marketing strategy”. Don’t be fooled by the use of the word “strategy”. This term is just another way to describe content marketing itself. It is NOT the same as a true content strategy.

Content Strategy Defined

There is a very important reason for breaking out “strategy” from “marketing” for the purposes of this post. Historically, the use of the word strategy has been focused on building the frameworks, structures, rules, governances, and boundaries within which tactical execution should play. Strategy as related to content is no different.

Having read a great deal about this topic, I offer our standard definition of content strategy as follows:

Content Strategy defines the ground rules within which content marketing will operate. A well built content strategy will outline the keywords to be pursued, the structure and intent of the website holistically, what types of content will be produced, who will produce that content and how, what the goals/objectives/metrics are for content across the customer life cycle, and the process through which that content will need to be pushed in order to get the necessary approvals and execution support to publish content externally.

I know, that’s a real mouthful! But each part of it matters, because content strategy is by it’s very nature not tactical. It is about building the platform which will regulate what content can be produced, how it is approached, and how an organization can manage quality and consistency across externally facing materials.

There are a few things that should jump out at you in the above definition:

  1. Heavily focused on process
  2. Type of content is much more important than topic of content
  3. Most of what content strategy dictates is focused on building repeatable and controlled execution standards
  4. It provides the people involved in content with guidelines or rules of operation

So content strategy comes before content marketing. It spans across the whole organization. It is quite literally the platform on which you will be able to execute against true content marketing efforts over time.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the other side of this discussion.

Content Marketing Defined

As I mentioned in the last section, content strategy sets the foundation for a solid content marketing program. What, then, is included in content marketing itself?

Content Marketing draws from established content strategy guidelines, aiming to build relationships and rapport with prospects, customers, and other stakeholders by way of the written word. It focuses on precise topics to be pursued, the media in which those topics can best be addressed, how content will be published, where it will be promoted, and the reactions and discussions which occur after the content is found by the intended target audiences.

Whew, another huge bite! Here is the key point – content marketing is about execution and connection. It is about getting real materials created and distributed, and taking advantage of the interest and reactions to that content.

Content marketing objectives can vary widely. Some content is intended to focus only on generating interest and awareness (Demand Gen). Other content is hyper-focused on converting readers to leads (Lead Gen / Conversion). Self-service content may be aimed at helping customers solve problems without requiring intervention by the customer support team (Efficiency / Self-help). Some would argue that this last example isn’t marketing at all, but it is still content!

And as old school link-building gets squeezed tighter and tighter by Google’s latest anti-spam tactics, premium content can be built specifically to pursue “earned” links (Increase Website Visibility Overall).

How Content Strategy and Content Marketing Interrelate

As you can likely surmise from the above, neither content strategy nor content marketing can provide full value without the other. All too often we hear of companies who announce they are delving into content marketing immediately, but haven’t taken the time to put together a plan of action for content as a whole.

Sure, you could get lucky and create a blog that becomes a hit without a content strategy up front, but that’s a rare occurrence. What we find more often is that poorly planned out content marketing dies a slow (or sometimes a very fast) death. This is why blogging in a vacuum rarely works, leading to dead blogs that were active for a few months before falling off a cliff.

Start by overtly determining what role content needs to play in your organization. It isn’t just about marketing – there are a ton of different content types to be organized. Before you start trying to push out content, consider the following:

  1. What theme do you want to use as a primary focus for your content generation? A good theme will be narrow enough to grab the interest of your target niche(s), but not so narrow as to limit your options for content marketing down the road.
  2. What keywords are suitable for ranking content associated with that theme? Which of those keywords present opportunities to rank for less competitive keywords?
  3. Who will be responsible for managing the various activities within the content execution process? Think about roles and responsibilities up front, to prevent confusion during execution. Roles to keep in mind include things like marketing programs folks, writers, designers, video producers, editors, and whomever it is in the organization that will have final say on what is and isn’t approved for publication.
  4. What guidelines should be followed when crafting the content itself? This can dictate things such as topics to be avoided, what tone and voice should be used, and similar topics. Buyer personas (web personas) are typically generated during the content strategy process, and these can serve as outstanding tools for helping keep everyone on task and focused during content marketing execution.
  5. How do we intend to measure success for our content marketing and other content efforts? Remember that lead gen is not a silver bullet – there are many ways to measure success. It could be growth in overall organic traffic, increased referral traffic (e.g. for contributed content offsite, which needs to be part of this ecosystem of rules), or decreased volume of customer support requests resulting from self-serve materials.

Next, you can start to turn your attention to content marketing. The following are the areas to consider when building a more tactical content marketing program.

  1. Where do we want to place content in support of the various sub-topics within a theme? Website content across the buyers cycle is one type, while blog content is another. Then there are infographics, videos, and a range of other options to consider.
  2. How will we promote content once it is created? Should it differ by medium, topic, or even buyers cycle stage? This is what we often see referred to as “Inbound Marketing”. It is all about how you will seed the content and take advantage of word of mouth to help distribute it to new audiences.
  3. What is the intended reaction to each piece of content created? Where can we best elicit such a reaction? Social media marketing tends to have a strong role in helping to drive engagement after content is published. Content is a great way to start a conversation, but social networking is the way to continue the conversation to identify opportunities and interested prospects.
  4. And finally, what should I write / design / record in pursuit of the intended reactions? This is where you can start to put together a content plan or schedule against which to start driving execution. As you can see, there are several items to consider before you even think of brainstorming final topics.

Of course, there are many more details to consider, but the above outlines a great place to start. When you are ready to get serious about aligning a content strategy and your content marketing efforts, keep these tips in mind as a jumping board.

Summary

Content strategy and content marketing are distinct concepts, and it is time that more of us start thinking of them as such. By aligning both of them within your organization, you will reap many benefits for how you manage the structure, process, and execution of your overall content efforts.

I’ve included some more reading materials for you below. These are some of the best resources I’ve come across online to discuss this topic, so it will be worth your time to cull through them and see how others approach the topic as well.

Has your company adopted both of the above as prescribed? What is and is not working for your own business?

Resources:

Content Marketing. Content Strategy. What’s the Difference? (Altimeter Group)
How Content Strategy and Content Marketing Are Separate But Connected (Content Marketing Institute)
Rahel Bailie Provides A Content Strategy Primer (The Content Wrangler)