Ask Rich Schwerin to define content strategy and the first thing he’ll tell you is that “content strategy is not content marketing.” 

Schwerin, digital content strategist at VMware, recently gave a presentation on content strategy at a Bay Area Meetup for B2B bloggers

What is Content Strategy?

For Schwerin, any discussion around content strategy starts with Kristina Halvorson and her seminal book on the topic, "Content Strategy for the Web." According to Halvorson:

"Content strategy guides your plans for the creation, delivery and governance of content."

Drawing from Halvorson’s book, Schwerin thinks about content strategy as a trifecta:

  1. An overall mission and vision statement (i.e. the guiding north star)
  2. Supported by measurable objectives and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
  3. Supported by flexible tactics.

For Schwerin’s team at VMware, the mission and vision is “To accelerate and optimize the buyer's journey through personalized, targeted content experiences.”

When working with stakeholders, Schwerin insists on working in top-down order, starting with mission and vision, then progressing to objectives and KPIs. If the team jumps directly to tactics, Schwerin will steer the conversation from bottom-up to top-down, asking them to define their objectives first. Once the objectives are defined, the team moves on to KPIs, then tactics. 

For Schwerin, this order is critical.

What Does a Content Strategist Do?

According to Schwerin, a content strategist does these things:

3 things content strategists do

  1. Defines how content will meet business goals, while satisfying users’ needs
  2. Guides decisions about content throughout its lifecycle
  3. Sets benchmarks to measure the success of content

For content to be effective, it must simultaneously meet business goals and satisfy users’ needs. Content falls short if it achieves only one or the other. 

“Defining content that meets our business objectives and addresses users’ needs is essential. I think of it as a lens through which we should view all new content projects; if we map projects to the Venn diagram, do they exist in the common overlap?” said Schwerin.

venn diagram

Another way to think about content strategy is to look at content components vs. people components, as illustrated in Halvorson’s “Content Strategy for the Web”:

how content strategy works

For the left side of the diagram (“content components”), Schwerin spends a lot of time asking questions like: “Do we have the right topics and types of content and are they organized and prioritized in a manner that appeals to our intended audience?” He’ll use web analytics to help answer those questions, looking at metrics such as bounce rate, exit rate, time on page and time on site. 

If you’re focused solely on the content components, you can thrive for some time. However, Schwerin notes that the people components are critical to growth. “If you don’t have the people and process components down, your system won’t scale. So you really need to get these right.”

Think Like a Content Strategist

Infographics gained steam around 2008. Pinterest launched in 2010. In 2016, there’s a lot of buzz around live video (e.g. Periscope, Facebook Live, Snapchat, etc.). 

How do content strategists think about new formats and channels?

“There will always be new formats and channels. What’s our Periscope strategy? That’s the wrong question to ask,” said Schwerin. He returned to his content strategy trifecta, “You’ll have different tactics for different channels, but your overall content strategy shouldn’t change.” 

Content developed in a new format or delivered in a new channel needs to find that intersection between business objectives and users’ needs. If Periscope doesn’t address users’ needs — or, if your users aren’t on Periscope to begin with — there’s no benefit to using it.

According to Schwerin, “When a new content format or channel emerges, experiment and fail fast. Try a test pilot. Consult with your content peers, whether online or at a Meetup.”

When we created a SlideShare channel for DNN, the strategy was simple: for each scheduled webinar, we uploaded the slides to SlideShare. It was a low-cost, low-risk way to see if our target audience would consume our content on a new channel. 

The positive early returns encouraged us to create new pieces specifically for SlideShare on top of the webinar uploads. We hired designers with expertise in presentations to create original works. In fact, one presentation about Starbucks has garnered over 50,000 views.

When experimenting with new formats and channels, it’s important to ask the right questions. Schwerin advised, “Don't be afraid to ask questions. And be skeptical of self-described experts, especially for emerging formats and channels. Part of the fun of working in content is that we have a chance to learn how much we don't know.”

Why We’re All in Content Strategy

What if you don’t have someone dedicated to content strategy in your organization? 

The content strategy role should fall within the Marketing organization (in general) and the content marketer (in particular). Whether you have a dedicated content strategy team or not, anyone with a role in creating content should practice content strategy.

Title image "Thinking" (CC BY 2.0) by  GabPRR