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.
Developing a Content Marketing Strategy
I teach an introduction to content strategy course, and I break it down for my students something like this:
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.
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 web analyst: Gathers insights from the web analyst to determine how best to target the customer with the right content at the right time.
- 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.
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.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute