By Robert Rose published October 16, 2013

How Content Strategy and Content Marketing Are Separate But Connected

two sides connected-content strategy-content marketing strategyFull mea culpa here: Content Marketing Institute has been remiss in the way that we’ve covered the evolving practice of building and executing on a content strategy.

Sure, we’ve offered up some great thinkers in the space at Content Marketing World. But, here at CMI we haven’t yet (at least, not to the extent that we should) fully embraced the advancement of content strategy, or helped preach the distinction between the skill sets needed for content marketing and those required for content strategy. In fact, we’ve been guilty of using the terms “content marketing strategy” and “content strategy” interchangeably at times (we have resolved to be more clear on this, moving forward). 

One of the things that I often discuss in workshops, and with CMI’s clients, is the distinct need for content strategy within the approach of content marketing. Specifically, I point out how many agencies are doing themselves a disservice by throwing a skilled content marketing planning expert into a content strategy project, and vice versa. Additionally, as enterprise marketing organizations reorganize themselves with strategic management of content as a centralizing force, we see managers start to feel lost because they have a skill set that’s specifically suited to one practice over the other.

In short: Content strategy and content marketing are two very different practices.

Are they related? Absolutely, and there’s usually significant overlap. But, as we all move into our budget and other planning for 2014, it’s well worth outlining where the differences lie, so that we can resource our strategies effectively.

Magic markers and fine pens

When asked to explain the difference between content strategy and content marketing, I usually turn to my stand-by metaphor: Content marketers draw on the wall with magic markers, while content strategists use fine pens.

But this simplification is merely a starting point to describe the distinctions. Content marketing is, after all, a means of marketing. Content marketers draw and develop the larger story that our organization wants to tell, and focus on ways to engage an audience, using content so that it changes or enhances a behavior — something CMI has always stressed in our definition of content marketing:

“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

So at its heart, content marketing is a marketing strategy — an approach that uses content to deepen our relationship with customers.

Content strategy, on the other hand, delves deeper into (in Kristina Halvorson’s words) the “creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” It seeks (in my words) to manage content as a strategic asset across the entirety of the organization. In fact, on his website, content strategist Scott Abel wonderfully states it as one of his company’s main missions: “Your content is your most valuable business asset. Let us show you how to manage it efficiently and effectively.”

In the very beginning of Erin Kissane’s book, The Elements of Content Strategy (which is really good, by the way), she quotes Rachel Lovinger, who said, “Content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design.”

As a content marketer who’s had his feet in both approaches for the last decade, this really resonates with me. It’s not unlike Ahava Liebtag’s take on the differences. In a wonderful post on the topic, Rebecca Lieb refers to Ahava’s definition of content strategies as being about repeatable frameworks, and content marketing as being about building relationships.

Or, consider Rahel Bailie’s view of content strategy. She believes it includes:

“…the planning aspects of managing content throughout its lifecycle, and includes aligning content to business goals, analysis, and modeling, and influences the development, production, presentation, evaluation, measurement, and sunsetting of content, including governance.”

Onward, content marketing

To use an extremely simplified and surface-level explanation, the content marketer addresses the “whys,” the content strategist addresses the “hows,” and together they work out the “whats” and “wheres.” The content marketer draws the story and plans the channels that will be used to develop the customer relationship with the brand. The content strategist ensures that story, language, and management processes work consistently and efficiently across multiple teams, languages, and every publication the brand leverages. Yes, the two approaches are different, but whether or not they can be implemented and executed by the same person (or team of people) in your organization is another matter.

So, to be clear, we are not trying to offer up CMI as the definitive source for content strategy. In fact, that’s worth repeating: We are NOT trying to offer up CMI as the definitive source for content strategy. We leave it up to the thought leaders named above — and the many others whom I don’t have space to name — to set the stage for discussing and debating excellent frameworks, useful job descriptions, and definitive processes and procedures for content strategy practitioners.

CMI is, of course, here to further the practice of content marketing — and to this point, I offer up my advice:

  • If you are an agency: Whether you are an SEO agency transitioning into content marketing, or a full service agency adding a content marketing practice to your suite of services, please recognize that there is a distinction. I’ve seen too many agencies that are simply throwing the title “Content Strategist” at someone whose responsibilities would be much better served by the title “Content Marketing Strategist.” They are not the same thing — and your business will be better served by respecting their differences and/or offering both categories of service.
  • If you are a brand: If you are putting together teams and processes to create facile management of content as a core marketing strategy — employ both!  Don’t assume that a marketing team that knows how to tell compelling, engaging stories understands all the intricacies of content strategy (they might, but it’s exceedingly rare). And, don’t assume that the content strategist that you’ve got managing the consistency and hierarchy of your technical documentation knows everything about content marketing.
  • If you are a practitioner: Know what you are passionate about, and pursue that practice with all your heart. Most of the best content strategists I know really don’t want to be content marketers — and vice versa. As a content marketer, I couldn’t admire content strategists more. What they do, quite frankly, mystifies me most of the time. On every marketing team I have the pleasure of working with, I adore having a content strategist there who will help make sure we don’t blow the place up.

This story is just beginning…

As I mentioned earlier, look for more content strategy to come from CMI in the days, weeks, and months to come. But look for it to come from the expert perspective of thought leaders in that field. We want to help you understand how content strategy principles apply to — and provide advantages for — content marketers. And, by learning more about this discipline, we can all benefit from getting the right people on projects. Look for new content strategy-specific tracks at our events to come from those experts, as well.

As the marketers who are now empowered to tell stories, our job is to engage customers and make it look effortless. There is a wonderful quote attributed to Mark Caine that says, “Meticulous planning will enable everything a man does to appear spontaneous.

I can tell you that all great, spontaneous, and effortless-looking content marketing strategies are formed and scaled with a smart content strategy at their core.

Transform your content marketing from a subservient service to a strategic, enterprise-wise partnership for greater business success. Download Launch Your Own Content Marketing Program

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory - the consulting and education group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been said to “rewrite the rules of marketing”. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

Other posts by Robert Rose

  • Editorialist

    Of course, it’s also true that a lot of content work is done for clients who would shy away from the idea of “marketing” – this post at the UK Content Marketing Association is interesting:

  • Laura Creekmore

    Robert, thanks so much for this post. I think it’s going to be really helpful, particularly to those who’ve been introduced to content strategy via content marketing. I like to tell people that content strategy CAN be used in content marketing, but it’s also used in other areas [product development, customer service, operations to name a few] that get far afield from marketing. Perhaps the names of these two fields are an unfortunate accident [in that they sound so similar], but it’s helpful to everyone to clarify what we mean. So thank you!

    • Robert Rose

      Laura….. Thank you so much for that… I truly appreciate that from thought leaders in the space such as yourself…

  • leenjones

    Hi Robert,

    I agree with the distinction you’re making–separate but related. Thanks for fleshing it out as both content strategy and content marketing mature. Exciting stuff.

    If handy, I shared my two cents on the connection in this post at Content Insights:

    For content strategy, a key distinction content as a marketing / communication tool vs content as a product or service. Both need strategy, but the strategy would be quite different.

    I look forward to seeing the perspective CMI shares in the weeks and months ahead.


    • Robert Rose

      Thank you for that Colleen…. I truly appreciate that…. And I love your post.

  • Steven Wilson-Beales

    Robert, even though I loved this article I think there’s room to debate this: “the content marketer addresses the “whys,” the content strategist addresses the “hows,” and together they work out the “whats” and “wheres.”

    I think that depends on the nature of the project and the client.

    From my own experience in the UK I wouldn’t steam into a boardroom and discuss ‘content strategy’ or ‘content marketing’ unless I knew the client knew what they were. I would use terms like ‘processes’, ‘people’, ‘marketing’ and ‘conversion funnels’ – but that depends on the project as I said.I deploy skills and insights from both fields.

    Maybe, as the two fields advance, the distinctions will become clearer. For now, there is still a blurred line between the two…

    • Kane Jamison

      I’d agree here. Both disciplines have to cover the “how” and “why” of what they’re doing.

      I usually split the difference by focusing on the purpose of the content. Organizations have tons of internal content that never sees the light of day. To me that type of content still falls under the scope of content strategy, but has very little to do with content marketing.

      I think a good variation on the split described in the article is that both disciplines cover the what/when/where/how, but each has a different “why”. For the content marketing side, the “why” is to support the organization’s sales funnel (before and after conversion) and to support broader branding goals.

    • Robert Rose

      Sure… I don’t disagree with that….. Everything is situational….. And I can see where you’re coming from…. But as soon as the conversation gets into “marketing” and “conversion funnels”, we’re having a *marketing* discussion…. Thanks for the kind feedback…. And yes – the debate is open…

  • Stephen Bateman DipM MCIM

    Close cousins for sure. The quest for a distinction is interesting (especially to purists.)

    As a practising (verb) content marketer I’d be the first to admit to “borrowing” and employing disciplines from content strategy including content auditing and inventory, and “mapping and gapping” and using the outcomes to develop the themes, topics and calls to action to connect, build and develop relationships and business across channels.

    The “big pen” content marketing would be a lot less effective if it were not tracing over the finer lines, detail and rigour of the “finer pen.” I’m still not sure the boundaries can or need to be any clearer than what you’ve made them Robert, but knowledge of content strategy, for me at least, provides the finer touches that enhance content marketing. I see the two practices (noun) in mutual and reciprocal relationship.

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you Stephen….. Coming from you I appreciate that especially….

  • Chris Gaffney

    Robert, I really like this article. I find myself having to make this distinction with clients all the time, but somehow we keep getting lost in the weeds with it all as the two are very intermingled. In your advocacy for separating the two concepts, would you compare the strategist more to a publisher making decisions about large-picture resource allocation and compliance with business objectives, or to a museum curator, piecing together different works of art to attract the best audience and most effectively deliver the artist’s intended message?

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you Chris… I appreciate that very much…. For the content *marketing* strategist – I’d very much agree with the Publisher metaphor… – especially for the Chief Content Officer role that we advocate…

    • Don Day

      The museum curator role works well if you look at it as using a subset of a much larger collection to represent the whole. Before the curator-vis-“content marketer” could assemble the exhibit, others had been at work accessioning, cataloging, restoring and storing the incoming items. The comprehensive finding aids represent the audit and value appraisal of the “content strategist” in the organization. But even the appraisal itself depends on someone with deep knowledge of the provenance and composition of the artifact–the bringer of structural and semantic distinction to the item–the “content engineer” who enhances the value of the collection so that the strategist can appraise/index the item properly so that the curator/marketer can select the most representative piece for a particular exhibit. Having been a photographic conservator in my distant past and an avid camera collector today, I can see Robert’s distinctions more clearly in this light. Hoping it works for others.

  • techcommdood

    I love the marker/fine pen metaphor! Great plain language explanation of the similarities and differences.

  • Sarah O’Keefe

    The easiest way to understand this, for me, is that content strategy is a prerequisite to content marketing (and many other things). That is, you shouldn’t do any content marketing work until you knew what your overall strategy is.

  • Guest

    Thanks for publishing this. As someone on the content marketing side who fully recognizes that we don’t touch most elements of content strategy, it’s nice to h

  • Kane Jamison

    Thanks for publishing this. As someone on the content marketing side who fully recognizes that we don’t touch most elements of content strategy, it’s nice to have a place to direct people for clarification. FWIW, we use “content marketing strategy” when discussing overall gameplan with clients, and “content marketing strategist” as primary job role title. It definitely paints a much more distinct picture of our purpose.

    • Robert Rose

      Awesome Kane…. Thanks for that.

  • Tragester

    Thanks Robert for your insightful article that attempts to provide a distinction between CS and CM. In my experience, agencies and clients have difficulty budgeting and understanding the value of CS let alone hiring for both roles! Heck, think how long it took to get UX to have a place at the table alongside Creative.

    Most of the work I do as a CS requires identifying “ways to engage an audience, using content so that it changes or enhances a behavior,” as well as figure out how content will be developed, maintained, and governed. In general, much less time and resources are scoped to achieve the latter.

    I don’t think it’s a black or white issue, but more deep hues of grey.

    Lisa Trager

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you for that Lisa… I appreciate that comment… And agree… Maybe even… “shades of grey”… Oh dear… Did I just do that?

  • Andrew Kaufman

    While I appreciate that CMI is clarifying their usage of the terms content strategy and content marketing, I’m a still a bit uncomfortable with the broadly draw metaphors that you use to describe the differences, especially the Magic Marker/Fine Pen, and “How, What, When” ones. As @stevenwilsonbeales:disqus noted, content strategists usually start with the “Why” and then move through the rest of the W’s (depending on the project). Personally, I see content marketing as a sub-set of content strategy. While it’s fine to have someone on your team solely devoted to content marketing, their work has to be informed by a content strategy or it won’t be effective.

    • Robert Rose

      Andrew… thought I’d posted this yesterday – but then saw that my comment never went through….

      Why doesn’t it surprise me that as a content strategist you’d be uncomfortable with me drawing a completely big, vague, imprecise metaphor? …. That said – yes the how’s and why’s and what’s may be a bit overstated here (and definitely overlap) – but hopefully it provides the groundwork for a continued discussion…

      • Andrew Kaufman

        Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that you’re getting this discussion started, and overall I think your approach is intelligent and measured. As a content strategist, I love a good metaphor as much as anybody, I just want to make sure that they’re clarifying rather than causing more confusion.

        Again, love what you guys are doing and can’t wait to keep moving this discussion forward!

  • JaynaLocke

    Very nice coverage of this complex topic. I agree with you on so many points. I also agree with Steven regarding the debatable distinction between “why” and “how,” and that these distinctions will depend upon the project. For example:

    * In small organizations, one person is likely to be in charge of both content strategy and content marketing.

    * In many organizations, much of content marketing is about the “how” and the content strategy is about the “why,” not the other way around. In other words, you’ll have a content strategist laying out a plan and a content marketing team managing press releases, blogs and social media content.

    * And some organizations will have content marketing professionals who are equally involved in strategy and implementation on the social media marketing and PR side, while on the website content side you might have a content strategist who is involved in design, UX and overall strategy, but a tech team doing all the implementation.

    Those are a few organizational mixes I’ve come across, and I’m sure there are many others.

    I love this post because it provides a framework for how we view these roles, but the fact is that the terminology is most likely never going to be fully clarified since everything from budget, need, head count and internal skill sets goes into the definition of these functions for any given organization.

    • Robert Rose

      Thanks so much for those kind words… I really do appreciate it… And yes – as has been pointed out in other comments – I may be too off the cuff with the whole “how’s and why’s and what’s” especially since we didn’t really even define all that…. But hopefully it’s the start of a fun conversation.

    • Phil

      I agree totally that the roles depend on the project and available resources. So long as *someone* is thinking about a content strategy (instead of for example treating the website and brochure as different countries) and *someone* is thinking about how to get the most value from existing and future content (through using it in marketing efforts) then that’s the most important thing.

      Perhaps a better way would be to define what skills are needed to manage a content strategy and a content marketing campaign (which I agree would always come after the strategy is worked out)?

      When the skillsets are defined, it’s easier to identify who is best placed to do the work. Starting with the job title or practice definition and trying to find someone to fill it is doing it the wrong way round I think.

  • Muneeb ur Rehman

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  • Alexandra Petean-Nicola

    A very troubling aspect of the content industry. I for one like to proclaim myself as a Content Writer for now, because that is what I do basically I write content. But I now understand that the goal in mind fits better with content strategies than content marketer because I am more interested in each piece of content than the big picture and how one can convert an audience into costumers.

  • Scheidtweiler PR

    I disagree with the article. A little bit. 🙂
    It can depend in the German translation of the terms. But I see in Marketing and Strategy to different things. Strategy means to plan (not to execute) the communication. There we find the target audiences, the message, the USP and the aims. And then follows a decision if content is the right action.

    • Robert Rose

      Sure…. I think you could replace Content Marketing Strategy with Content Marketing Planning…. And I won’t answer for the Content Strategy folks – but I think a good many of them would also agree that it’s the successful PLANNING of content across its entire lifecycle that is at its heart…

  • ReferralCandy

    Content marketing has been getting quite a bit of limelight these days.

    While content strategy seems to be a holistic concept that covers all content generated across the entire business, do you think that is something that all businesses have locked down? It might appear that not all businesses have thought about marking content strategy on their to-do list, even though they should. What are your thoughts?

    • Robert Rose

      Hi there… I’m not sure that many organizations have either approach “locked down” completely… Both are relatively new muscles for organizations… I think you’re comment about content marketing is spot on… Many are just beginning this process. As Joe often says – ‘we’re in the early innings here’

      • ReferralCandy

        Good point; It’s true that both content marketing and content strategy are relatively new concepts that are now getting picked up by organizations. I think that both concepts require a new perspective and approach of looking to provide relevant and good content, and to engage customers earnestly and personally, both which require a genuine desire to provide value for customers.

  • Sita

    Would it be right to say that Content Marketing helps design content better, and Content Strategy helps manage content better?

  • Lee Odden

    Well said Robert (as always). I get the need for the disclaimer about CMI as a resource for content strategy, but why not be one of the definitive resources? CMI is growing a substantial community in need of leadership when it comes to content strategy, content marketing strategy and especially how they intersect.

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you Lee…. As always your opinion means a lot… And we plan to be… My intention was to make sure that we didn’t come across as trying to barge our way in and circumvent the wonderful thought leadership being put out through other platforms… Over time, we’d like to think that CMI can evolve into one of the platforms for many of these thought leaders to further the practice of content strategy – through the lens of content marketing…

      But – we’re not there yet….

  • Margot Bloomstein

    Thanks for bringing this conversation to a broader stage, Robert. As we’ve discussed, content strategy and content marketing aren’t the same–but because strategy is nothing without execution, we need to acknowledge and fund both parts of effective organizational communication.

    Content marketing without up-front and ongoing strategy can flail, favoring big hits over sustainable evolution. But content strategy without execution is an equally questionable investment. Content marketing isn’t the only way to execute on content strategy (see also editorial content, instructional content, training, governance…) but without some point of execution, our work is theoretical at best.

    • Robert Rose

      Margot, as always you put things into perfect perspective….

    • Lani Habrock

      So would you say there are actually 3 jobs then- Marketing (the big picture), Strategizing (the mid shot), and Execution (the close up)?

    • Linda Lecomte

      Margot and Robert, I look forward to posts on how content marketing strategists and content strategists can work together. I have worked on both sides (marketing communications and technical communications) of organizations. There is always major tension bridging the two disciplines. Communications suffer, as a result.

      Margot, I will be attending my first Content Strategy New England Meetup (Joseline Mane told me about it) on December 4th and hope to meet you.

      Robert, I enjoyed your talk at the Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston last week.

  • Dan Kassis

    The “markers vs. fine pens” analogy is very helpful. What I’m trying to figure out now is where should the majority of my efforts as web content pro fall? Am I a marketer or a strategist, primarily? Should my career direction determine the answer, or should I answer that before I fix my direction? It’s kind of muddy for me right now.

  • Phil

    I don’t think you need to apologize about mixing the two. Who decides on the definitions anyhow? For example, I disagree with the common definition of content strategy you quoted. The most important thing is that high quality content is being valued these days.

    Content Strategy and Content Marketing have both been around for ages, just maybe not known by these titles. I’ve always worked as a writer. Part of being a writer is organizing content, eg structuring it for a website or print brochure. Sometimes I have to find ways to repurpose existing content for marketing purposes. Other jobs have involved coming up with an editorial plan for a series of emails or a blog. Other projects have involved planning custom magazine content. All copywriting jobs are essentially content marketing jobs – using content to sell, engage or whatever other job it needs to do.

    So what am I? A writer? A Content Strategist? A Content Marketer? I’d say all three.

    What agencies can afford to hire different people for each of these things? Do we really need a content strategist to plan the content, a content marketer to focus on the tactics and a writer to create the content? For massive institutional websites, maybe. But for most digital projects that’s a lot of budget? Surely content strategy and content marketing skills are just essential parts of any writer’s role working in digital these days?

    Put it this way, if you planned and created the content for a website, and created blog, email and social media strategies to spread the word, you are both a content strategist and a content marketer.

    When it comes to the technicalities of delivering content to the audience – that’s what printers or web developers and IT departments are for. Whether we’re talking digital or print, a content strategist in my opinion should not be a technical person – they should be a storyteller with enough of an understanding of the technology to be able to communicate with the experts in those areas and get to grips with the limitations and opportunities of whatever technology is being used to deliver the content.

    • Edwin Tam

      I’m in the same position as you, Phil. And budget realities certainly prevent too many specialists from working on the same project.

  • Diana Railton

    Thank you for a very useful article.

    A single, unified content strategy should cover all aspects. There’s an interesting case study of how Virgin went about this in:

  • Edwin Tam

    Actually I think it’s flipped.

    The content strategist addresses the “Why”, “Who” & “How do I write/reuse some content”, while the content marketer addresses the “Where” and “How do I reach/get people?”

    • Vin

      absolutely. “why” answers the purpose based questions. “how” answers the execution based questions.

    • Peter Kelly

      I had the same reaction Edwin. By its very nature, Content Strategy is intended to solve the “Why.” A proper content framework, pulled from business requirements and user needs, gives you all the “why” you’ll need to properly execute any resultant Content Marketing initiatives. The Content Marketer, then in turn, is an expert in teasing those framework nuggets into campaigns, executions, etc., identifying the proper channels and delivering the right message that rolls back up into the “Why” in the first place.

  • ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

    Hey Robert,

    Definitely an insightful article on the differences between the two! I agree with you that the marketer address the “why” and the strategist addresses the ‘how”. As a content marketer, here is what I do to address the “why” in my content.

    I always keep customers in the buying part of their brain. This is essential when using methods of indirect marketing, such as internet sites, a promotional piece, e-mail blast, social networking or an article. Create content material that is so excellent it gets to be ‘forward-able,’ meaning it is so great people will forward it to buddies or business associates who could become potential customers. This will ease several of the stresses a consumer feels when ‘being sold’ on a service or company. This helps me to realize “why” the content is being created.

    Thanks again for a great article,
    ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

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