Let’s look at the menu of “writer” job title options one has at a digital agency:**
Copywriters write mostly short-form, marketing-focused words.
Content Creators focus on more editorial mediums like articles and blogs.
Brand Strategists aren’t always part of an extended digital marketing team (though they should be), and deal purely in strategy – high-level, research-based stage-setting for a brand that defines a company or product’s DNA.
And then there are Content Strategists, who work between brand and copywriting/content to think in a user-centered way about how a site’s information should be presented.***
And here’s where the problem lies: in web and product development, Content Strategy is a bit of a grey area that always felt more like a title bump for seasoned copywriters than a real, differentiated position. To be sure, if you’ve written sites for a while, you have (I hope) long realized your responsibility to telling a story rather than filling boxes, so you are already strategizing to some extent. But the bigger issue is that the combination of words – Content + Strategy – does a disservice to what Content Strategists really do.
When done right, strategy is well-researched deep thinking about a problem and the formulation of a course of action to solve it. Consultant-types however have degraded the term into something that means “100-page PowerPoint deck and no plan for implementation.” Talk to a client who’s been burned by a dime-a-dozen “Branding” consultancy and you’ll know what I’m getting at.
Content and Design however, mean something. They’re deliverables. Tangible, actionable, meaty things that can be tested and iterated upon and their worth measured. They’re “real”…and so, I argue, is the real work of the former Content Strategist, whom we should be calling Content Designer.
Think of it like the distinction between a food brand labeling their snack as “natural” versus “certified organic.” Natural isn’t a regulated term — anyone can claim that their product is natural, and depending on their justification for that claim, they’re probably not going to get sued.
“Certified organic,” however, does have guidelines behind it — a product labeled as certified organic can’t use fertilizers, herbicides, or hormones in the growing process in order for it to earn that label. The FDA enforces this distinction through testing and proof, so as a consumer, you can be sure that you’re getting what you’re paying for.
The difference between content strategy and content design is similar, because while content design is a defined school of thought with its own goals, practices, checks and balances, content strategy is more nebulous. Depending on who you’re talking to, Content Strategy could mean anything from a site outline to a fully-integrated collaboration between content and UX.
But the better distinction is both real (and helpfully) semantic.
Said simply: Content Strategy connotes thinking. Content Design connotes doing. And the true good of the role follows the intent of the title for those who hold it, and for those who buy the work it produces.
And my experience is that clients love the idea of doing. (I mean, don’t you?)
No-code and the increasing urgency to create accessible, imminently usable digital experiences for users of all types now living their lives mostly online (due to both pandemic stay-at-home orders and the simple time-saving convenience of everything web) have changed a whole lot in a short period of time. As such, I believe that we should also be changing how we think about our roles, staff our projects, and work together to make the web a better place.
Ditching titles that aren’t descriptive and that lack definition is a good way to start. If you know you design with content, you own the responsibility of making user-focused things. You step up and take your place alongside others creating the marketing layer of a website. And you gain a voice in shaping the overall look, feel, information, structure and story of a site. ?
So, Content Strategists, how do you feel about moving more purposefully into the role of thinker and doer? Into the role of collaborator and maker of the thing rather than lover of the problem? How do you feel about changing the way you think about your work, from strategizer of content placement to designer with words??
** This is my perspective from 20-some years in digital marketing; your agency or in-house team may very well define them differently (and that’s part of the point I’m making here, so keep reading).
*** Note that I’m talking about website and product creation. There are Content Strategists who plan CRM and inbound marketing that are strategically directing how content is planned and created over time and channel. They’re a bit different.