northwestern debate house content strategy

The problem with defining “content strategy”

Embarking on the quest to define content strategy feels like navigating a constantly shifting landscape. What we consider “content” morphs continuously, driven by the ever-evolving trends in content marketing.

Simultaneously, the term “strategy” grapples with misinterpretations. Let’s delve into the captivating complexities of these definitions, unravelling the nuances between content and strategy, while deciphering the subtleties that often lead to confusion…

Scott Bampton 6 months ago

What is “content”?

What we think of as “content” is evolving all the time, especially in the realm of content marketing. New “cool” web formats emerge and then change depending on the fashion – video went from horizontal to vertical thanks to Instagram, then went from long format to short format thanks to TikTok, and now may be going back to long format again.

Yet, video – whether it’s landscape or portrait, short format or long – is merely the container, not the content itself. The content is what’s in the video. What’s on screen. The message of the video. What the video is about.

So even defining what “content” is gets conflated with debate over which formats your content should be presented to your audience in. It’s not the same thing – so it’s easy for clients or colleagues who aren’t in the content space to get confused.

What is “strategy”?

Strategy is another term that gets thrown around, often incorrectly. Think of military strategy – the plan to win a war. For example, engaging in guerrilla warfare to catch a larger and more powerful enemy off guard. What you do to win that war – the list of actions you take to engage in that guerrilla warfare, like attacking at night, or seizing weapons from the enemy to use against them – those are tactics. And too often, businesses are keen to skip the actual strategy part and leap straight to planning – i.e. making a long list of tactical actions that will form a plan.

It’s easy to understand why. Strategy can feel intangible. It can seem too obvious – “of course we all know how we want to win the war” (whether that be in the marketing space or on the actual battlefield!). Assumptions can easily be (incorrectly) made that all the key players within an organisation are clear on goals, the general direction to take to reach them, and that they will all pull in exactly the same direction to get there.

That’s why it’s so tempting to leap straight to planning. That nice, friendly, easy-to-understand list of actions that can be satisfyingly “ticked off” throughout a campaign.

But planning and strategy are very, very different beasts. It’s why a content strategy and a content plan will often get confused for each other by the uninitiated:

Differing definitions and explanations of “content strategy”

So if it’s so difficult to accurately and clearly define “content” and “strategy,” is it any wonder there are so many different definitions of content strategy floating around? Here are some of the most well-known examples – you’ll see how, while there is some general alignment, there’s no crystal clear consensus:

  • Rachel Lovinger’s Definition: Content strategy involves “planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.”
  • Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Definition: Content strategy is “the planning, development, and management of content—written or in other media.”
  • Margot Bloomstein’s Definition: Content strategy is “planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of content that’s useful (and usable) for a strategic business goal.”
  • Northwestern University’s Definition: Content Strategy is credible, trustworthy, transparent content that enhances the organisation’s strategic goals.
  • Content Marketing Institute’s Definition: Content strategy is “the planning, development, and management of content—written or in other media—that’s distributed or published to reach and engage a target audience.”
  • Halvorson and Rach’s Expanded Definition: Content strategy is “to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.”
  • A List Apart’s Definition: Content strategy is “to plan for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”
  • Ann Rockley’s Definition: Content strategy is “planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.”

Take Northwestern’s explanation of content strategy as being: “credible, trustworthy, transparent content that enhances the organisation’s strategic goals.” While that is an ideal way for any organisation to think about the function of its content, does that really define what content strategy is?

That definition, and some of the others, seem rather passive. As if the strategy itself will simply manifest, and that the content production machine will perfectly execute that strategy over time. Good content strategy isn’t just about “set and forget” – it’s about optimising and re-optimising your strategy and content plan based on key learnings as you go.

And how many of those explanations seem to very quickly leap straight to words like “planning” and “creation”? Is that really what ensures an intricately-woven web of content all pulls towards a strategic goal? Isn’t planning and creating kind of the opposite? Doesn’t the inclusion of terms like these within a definition of content strategy just further muddy the waters?

So…what is content strategy?

Within the intricate dance of content strategy definitions, the varying perspectives from experts shed light on the multidimensional nature of this discipline. They spark curiosity about the passivity in some definitions. The rapid transition to terms like “planning” and “creation” invites contemplation on whether they truly encapsulate the intricate weaving of a strategically aligned content web or oversimplify the process.

In my own opinion, effective content strategy extends beyond initial planning and creation. It  urges exploration. Holistic understanding. And embraces adaptability and continuous optimisation.

Written By

Over the past 17 years, I've developed a passion for helping businesses understand content marketing in simple terms. I've been lucky enough to work at some of the most well-regarded agencies in the world - on successful campaigns for Bosch, Optum Health, University of Southern California, JD Sports Brands, Fosters Wine, Greene King, Tough Mudder, University of Arizona and Disney Interactive. I've also held in-house content marketing roles at Silicon Valley tech unicorn Truepill, and WPP-owned AI company Satalia.