By Melanie Seibert published March 31, 2016

A Take on 3 Confusing Terms: Content Marketing, Content Strategy, Content Marketing Strategy

3-confusing-content-terms

Are you looking for a job – or looking to hire someone – in a field associated with “content marketing” or “content strategy” or “content marketing strategy”? Do these terms pop up regularly in your reading and your conversations? If so, you know that people often misuse them.

Not that they mean to. It’s just that the terms often are used loosely, interchangeably even, resulting in confusion that can lead to ill will or poor business decisions.

For the sake of our businesses and our careers, all of us who work in these fields need to understand and appreciate the differences and similarities among these terms – and use the terms accurately.

For example, search job postings for “content strategist.” Go ahead, don’t be shy. You’ll find dozens of positions. In the descriptions, do you notice a theme? I’m willing to bet that you’re staring at a list of duties around writing, editing, and publishing content. And while that’s a great description of what many content marketers do, it doesn’t fit what content strategists (like me) do.

Where’s the disconnect? How does content marketing relate to content strategy, and how does content marketing strategy fit in?

Content marketing strategy as a sub-discipline

I’m just going to put this out there: I see content marketing strategy as a sub-discipline of content strategy. Let’s start by clarifying the difference between these two terms:

  • Content strategy is a sub-discipline of user experience (UX). A person in that role considers an organization’s content holistically and shapes the way that body of content influences people’s experiences with the brand. Content strategists think about how all the organization’s content fits together. As Rahel Anne Bailie puts it, “content strategy” equates to an “umbrella strategy.”
  • Content marketing strategy deals specifically with content marketing. Content marketing strategists determine what content will build the customer base by helping people make decisions or solve problems at various points in their experience with the brand.

I teach an introduction to content strategy course, and I break it down for my students something like this:

Content_Marketing_Strategy_2

How content marketing fits with related roles

Given content marketing strategy is a sub-discipline of content strategy, does that mean the folks in marketing report to a content strategist? Not usually. In most organizations the content strategist and content marketing team report up through different departments, even if they sit next to each other on the same project team. Content marketers typically report to the marketing team, while content strategists report to the UX team.

I show my students the hive diagram that Kristina Halvorson has used in her presentations. This diagram details a range of possible roles on a given web project team. Of course, not all content is web content, but the diagram (with a few tweaks) would look similar for any kind of content team.

The original hive diagram doesn’t include the content marketer role. In my class, I point to where I think the content marketer might belong, nestled in among the web analyst, content strategist, web editor, and web writer roles.

Content-marketer-hive-diagram

My version of the hive diagram created by skillset.org. See the original (not including “content marketer”) at the Brain Traffic blog.

Here’s how I see the content marketer role in relation to each of its neighboring roles. Keep in mind that a role doesn’t necessarily belong to a person. Sometimes, multiple people play a role. Other times one person plays multiple roles.

  • Content marketer in relation to the content strategist: Plans for the publication of marketing content, aligning with the overall strategy that the content strategist has formulated in partnership with stakeholders.
  • Content marketer in relation to the web editor: Adheres to the editorial standards put in place and enforced by the web editor.
  • Content marketer in relation to the web writer: Creates a plan that is carried out with or by the web writer.

Of course, the content marketer works with other roles, too, not just with the adjacent hexagons in this two-dimensional representation.

Zoom in to see more accurately the relationship I’m focusing on in this article, namely, the relationship between content marketing and content strategy.

Content_Marketing_Strategy_1

This view reinforces my point about content marketing strategy being a sub-discipline of content strategy. Content strategists do some things that content marketers don’t, and vice versa. The area where the two functions overlap – where people are thinking strategically about content marketing – is content marketing strategy.

It doesn’t matter who’s doing that work in the middle; it could be a strategist doing content marketing work or a content marketer doing strategy work. What matters is that someone’s doing this work. With traditional marketing becoming “less and less effective by the minute,” this overlap area – content marketing strategy – may represent one of your organization’s biggest growth opportunities today.

A call for clarity

In summary, when we use “content strategy,” “content marketing,” and “content marketing strategy” interchangeably, we confuse people, from new practitioners looking to enter the field to organizations trying to make sound hiring decisions.

I propose that we distinguish between these terms by distinguishing between the roles as follows:

  • A content strategist plans and guides content efforts across the organization, including marketing efforts.
  • A content marketing strategist plans and guides content marketing efforts specifically.
  • A content marketer may play a strategic role, a tactical role, or some combination of the two within the practice of content marketing.

If I’m being honest, I don’t see the confusion clearing up anytime soon. I expect to keep seeing content marketing roles with the title of “content strategist.” But it’ll be OK. We’ll keep working together. We’ll support each other. And we’ll keep explaining the distinctions between these three terms – content marketing, content strategy, and content marketing strategy – to anyone who’s interested. We’ll make the content world a less confusing place one conversation at a time.

Want to expand your content marketing strategy skills? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers newsletter featuring exclusive insights from CMI Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose. If you are like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his weekly thoughts.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Melanie Seibert

Melanie Seibert works as the senior content strategist at WillowTree. A user experience enthusiast, she has managed marketing copy and technical documentation for companies that include Razorfish, Rackspace, cPanel, and Crutchfield. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter at @melanie_seibert. Want to learn more about content strategy? Take a look at her content strategy courses, including a free 7-day email course.

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  • http://www.convinceandconvert.com/ jaybaer

    this is spot-on and a long overdue discussion. Nice job Melanie!

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Jay!

  • Becky Mollenkamp

    Love this. Very helpful in clearly explaining to prospects (not to mention friends and family!) what I do as a content marketing strategist.

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thank you! Marcia and the CMI team were very helpful in honing all these ideas, so I must give kudos to them as well.

      • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

        It was a pleasure working with you on this, Melanie.

  • http://www.babak-zand.de/ Babak Zand

    Thank You for this article which contribute to the discussion “What is a content strategy and what a content marketing strategy”. Great Work!

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Babak!

  • Joel Harrison

    This is fantastic. Perfect distinction between the three. I do believe the lines blur quite a bit for smaller businesses but that’s a different discussion. Great article Melanie.

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Joel!

  • http://www.vinishgarg.com/ Vinish Garg

    Super useful although there is some food for thought. When we have ‘content strategy’ and ‘content marketing’, should it not mean that content marketing is strategic? So, I am not sure whether we need this term at all – content marketing strategy.

    Let us take another example. An organization has content strategy and customer support process. Do we need customer support strategy?

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Hi Vinish. Good question.

      Since a lot of folks see Content Marketing as heavily tactical (for better or worse), I think it makes sense to call out Content Marketing Strategy as its own thing. That way we can talk about the tactical content marketing activities (producing content, etc) as distinct from the strategic activities (planning content).

      Thoughts?

      • http://www.vinishgarg.com/ Vinish Garg

        You say “…we can talk about the tactical content marketing activities (producing content, etc)”. Isn’t that a part of content strategy? Or, you mean that the organizations that do not have a formal and defined content strategy process, they need ‘content marketing strategy’.

        Worth a thought. But I come back to my original point. Does it mean that the same organization need something as ‘customer support strategy’ too? 🙂

        • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

          Probably so! 🙂

  • Niki Robinson

    Great points, Melanie! As a Content Marketing Strategist, I appreciate the distinct definition. Thank you!

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Niki!

  • http://isitedesign.com/ carmenhill

    We were just talking about this at our Content Strategy Meetup in Portland last night! You’ve done a great job articulating the distinctions between and nuances of different content roles, and it’s a great rule of thumb for folks who are trying to wrap their head around confusing terminology.

    But I do think things are a bit messier once you move outside of tidy hive diagrams and textbook definitions. In practice, every organization is a bit different, with job roles and reporting structures that vary depending on their size, industry, culture, etc. There’s often a ton of overlap between content roles, with people wearing multiple hats, especially in smaller organizations where one or a few people are responsible for pretty much everything having to do with content.

    For example, in my previous job, I led an agency content strategy practice that mostly worked on content marketing strategy and development, but also worked on straight CS projects for clients. Now, I’m heading up an internal marketing team, and I touch everything related to our content, short of design and development: from brand/style/editorial guidelines to web content strategy to content marketing to sales enablement to social content/marketing. Which is all a long way of saying, “It depends.”

    As Andrea Ames said in her keynote at the recent Intelligent Content Conference, “We’re all content people.”

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Carmen!

      I completely agree. One commenter on LinkedIn said, “I wear all three hats.” Whether we work in-house or agency-side, our stakeholders often need more than one of these job functions performed, and it doesn’t necessarily matter who does it–it just needs to get done!

      On a side note, I suppose the hive diagram is quite a little bit more black-and-white than our day-to-day work often is! It’s definitely an abstracted, cleaned-up representation of what we do, to try to help both those new to the field(s), and those we work with, understand what (and how much!) we actually do. Real life is way messier.

      I appreciate your comment!

  • Kunal shah

    Great Article. Very well sums up all the roles. However i would also agree with Carmenhill. On ground the things are completely messier. In my previous organizations i have seen that most of the Marketing departments in Information technology sector run by the definition of content marketing strategy as the content strategy for the organization.

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Yep, excellent point Kunal.

  • http://www.digitalwebproperties.com Ioana Sima

    Hey Melanie, thank you for the interesting article and for explaining the three roles. I find them a bit confusing.

    I will sum-up to ensure that I understood correctly: The content strategist is the one who creates useful, meaningful content (for the site) to improve customer experience, while the content marketer gathers insights, plans, creates, and promotes marketing content that aligns with business goals.

    Content strategist’s goal: engage & improve experience prospects, customers and visitors

    Content marketer’s goal: lead generation

    Since we started out as a small team, I was in charge of both roles. Now that we’ve grown, we want to find a structure that would best support our internal operations.

    We are currently restructuring our content team (of 30 people), so your input would really help.
    My questions is: should we create separate roles (content marketer & content strategist) or can one person still wear both hats?

    You mention: “In most organizations the content strategist and content marketing team report up through different departments, even if they sit next to each other on the same project team.” And you also say that the content strategist may guide marketing efforts.

    Does this not lead to communication issues between teams?

    I think there should always be one person who understands the big picture, or someone that both strategist & marketer report to.

    Maybe the content marketer should report to the content strategist? They can formulate a plan together, but the content marketer collaborates with the marketing team, while the strategist collaborates with the UX team.
    I added a sketch. (I hope this makes sense :D)
    Thank you 🙂

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Ioana! I think the way you’ve diagrammed it is a completely valid way of doing things, with one caveat – it’s rare for the Content Strategist to supervise the Marketing team. But I take your diagram to say that they collaborate (not necessarily that the CS is in charge of the team), and if that’s correct, then I think this makes a lot of sense.

      You asked “should we create separate roles (content marketer & content strategist) or can one person still wear both hats?” The answer depends on the person. The right person could wear both hats. This person would need the skill and time to both manage all your on-site content throughout its lifecycle, AND to effectively publish content that drives profitable action (content marketing).

      It may be that your company has relatively little content, so one person can easily do both. But if you work at a large enterprise, that person might find doing both jobs to be too much for them to handle.

      Does this help at all? If not, maybe one of our peers can also chime in with thoughts. Thanks!

      • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

        Ioana, Thanks from me, too, for your insights. One of the big takeaways for me in this conversation is the difference in scope. People who have the title (or at least the job) of “content strategist” typically have responsibility for the strategy for ALL the organization’s content—including tech comm, customer support, training, service, and other postsale content that is typically not managed by the marketing department. Content marketers typically do not have responsibility extending across all content in the enterprise. Is that helpful?

        • http://www.digitalwebproperties.com Ioana Sima

          Hello Melanie & Marcia,
          Thank you so much for your replies.
          @melanie75:disqus Indeed, the intention was to show that the C.S. and marketing team collaborate. We are a small company, and despite the fact that we create quite a lot of content, we are lacking in the marketing department.
          @marciarieferjohnston:disqus Very helpful. From what you said, I understand that the content strategist has many responsibilities (some of which I overlooked), and that it would be more effective for a company to have a C.M. that can focus 100% on pushing content and increasing brand awareness.
          Once again, thank you for your answers & for shedding some light on this complicated matter.

  • Mike Myers

    Great discussion here, Melanie. I found it particularly interesting the distinction you made between content types for CS being more about products/services and content types for CM being less so…did I understand that correctly? Pretty fascinating.

    We’ve struggled internally with the difference between so-called ‘marketing content’ and more ‘transactional content’ (billing, service messages, etc.); I also struggle getting people to think more broadly than just web/digital content and this distinction you’ve made could help.

    Thanks for tackling a difficult issue with clarity and reason.

  • http://kryptonitedigital.com/ Kryptonite Digital

    Hi Melaine, this is an interesting article to read. What caught my attention is the relationship between content marketing and content strategy. Now I understand that content marketing strategy is actually a sub-discipline of content strategy. True, it
    is really confusing and now you’ve made it clear.

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks! Glad you found it useful. Let me know if you have any more questions.

  • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

    Thanks Debbie! I will credit the CMI team for making the visuals look great. They do an outstanding job. Glad you like them!

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Thanks for the props, Melanie. And thanks for your observation, Mike. The notion that content marketing mostly avoids calling attention to the brand’s products and services took a while to sink in for me. What finally clinched it for me was the CMI documentary, “The Story of Content: Rise of the New Marketing,” which I found very useful in clarifying exactly where content marketing fits in: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/the-story-of-content-rise-of-the-new-marketing/

    • Mike Myers

      Thanks, ladies. If anything, I’ve been too much on the side of not including products or services in content marketing…the really interesting (and helpful) part for me here was the distinction about content strategy being focused on transactional content. It makes total sense when I hear it out loud. Thanks again!

      • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

        Mike, Would you please say more about what you mean by “too much on the side of not including products or services in content marketing”?

        • Mike Myers

          Hi Marcia. I just meant that I can be a bit rigid on my own definition of CM (being not about products ever), when the reality is much more nuanced than that.

          • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

            Mike, I like your point a lot. I’d love to hear more about content marketers whose efforts involve helpful information about products and services. Do you have such stories yourself? If so, let’s talk!

            Here’s the kind of article I hanker for more of (as pointed out to me by my CMI colleague Michele Linn): Why Your Content Marketing Strategy Should Go Past the Sale > http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/08/content-marketing-strategy-past-sale/

          • Mike Myers

            Marcia: I think there are two sides to what you’re talking about here, (1) before the sale CM talking about products in a useful way (e.g. River Pools And Spas); and (2) after the sale retention efforts, like the article you mentioned. I agree with you that both are in the minority across the board and we can all be doing this more. I’ll do some digging around here and let you know what I find! Thanks.

          • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

            Mike: Yes, please!

  • ronellsmith

    Melanie,

    I hope this post serves as the de facto document of record for this discussion. I too often see content marketing/content strategy/content marketing strategy used as if they are a part of a singular branch on the tree. No! No! And No!

    Where this really causes us problems is in how businesses come to see, think and about and produce content: They overemphasize the doing part, leaving the seeing and thinking part on the shelf.

    Thanks for being a beacon of clarity in what can be a dark tunnel of content (marketing).

    RS

    • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

      Thanks Ronell! I know you’re working in the trenches with clients on this stuff, so it means a lot that you find this helpful.