The Content Strategy Terminology Problem

Cute dog with barking bubblesWe have a terminology problem. And I think it is causing us to trip all over ourselves and misunderstand each other on a frequent basis. The term I’m talking about is Content Strategy.

It appears that we have multiple types of content strategies. I think it’s high time we started distinguishing between them.

Content Strategy for Technical Communication

In the technical content arena, there is an activity (hopefully ongoing) called content strategy. Usually, content strategy in technical communication has these components:

  • Structured authoring
  • Single-sourcing
  • Content management systems
  • Content reuse
  • XML with or without DITA
  • Multi-channel publishing

In other words, most tech comm content strategy is really about moving from unstructured content (such as Word, unstructured Frame, and so on) to structured content, most often using XML. Without XML-based structured content, single-sourcing, content reuse, and multi-channel publishing are almost impossible to do.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to have a content strategy in the technical sector. You can definitely have a content strategy that includes unstructured content. But when you simply say to someone, “Oh, I do content strategy for tech comm,” the immediate implication is the list of bullets above.

If I could rename this type of strategy, I would call it structure-based content strategy. That way, we’d all know that we were talking about a strategy that evaluates the structure of content, creates models, taxonomies, workflow, governance, includes content management systems for the storage (and other features), and is quite likely dependent on some flavor of XML.

Content Strategy for Marketing and Web

Next, we have content strategy in the marketing arena. As Rob Rose skillfully points out, “[Content strategy] seeks…to manage content as a strategic asset across the entirety of the organization.”

My personal experience of content strategy in the marketing vertical is that the focus is almost exclusively on marketing content. Rarely have I seen marketing content strategies consider non-marketing types of content. For example, technical documentation, knowledge-base information, or training.

In her article, “5 Things You Need to Know About Content Strategy,” Kathy Hanbury provides very useful information for people who are developing a content strategy for marketing content. Every example she uses revolves around marketing content. None of the examples look at any other type of content. Yet, we still call this content strategy. Confusing, isnt’ it?

Sometimes, we use the term web content strategy. That’s not a bad term. At least it’s descriptive. But, once again, the web content strategies that I’ve seen are inherently marketing-focused.

If I could rename this type of strategy, I would call it marketing-based content strategy. That way, we’d all know that we were talking about a strategy that is focused on the goals of marketing content,  audits marketing content, describes governance for marketing content, and so on.

Global Content Strategy

Now we have global content strategy. And this is where things get pretty messy.

Global content strategy is focused on all of the content that needs to be managed, analyzed, modeled, developed, localized, translated, delivered, and eventually sunsetted, in multiple languages.

If your company provides content in more than one language, every type of content strategy that you undertake should include the rest of the world. In effect, there should be no such thing as “global” content strategy. Global content should never be treated separately from any other type of content.

I truly get tongue-tied when I talk about “global” content strategy and non-global content strategy. What do I call that non-global content strategy? Is it regular content strategy? (No, that doesn’t fit.) Is it source-language content strategy? Or single-language content strategy? Yes. That technically describes the difference. But the aspects of global content strategy need to be included in every type of content strategy.

If we leave the rest of the world out of our content strategy, regardless of flavor, we are doing our company and our customers a great disservice. And we are causing the company to spend way too much money for translations that are mediocre and slow to market.

When it comes to global content strategy, our terminology problem is really a peek inside a much broader issue. And that is treating global as an independent topic from everything else.

It’s All in the Words

So, Houston, we have a terminology problem. On the one hand, we have a generic term being used when we really need to be more specific. On the other hand, we have a specific term that is being used when, in actuality, it should be generic AND inclusive.  

In order for us to communicate effectively with each other, we need to have a shared terminology. And in order for us to communicate effectively with the rest of the world, we need to include all languages that we translate into, from the beginning of any content strategy undertaking.

Val Swisher

Val Swisher is the CEO of Content Rules. She is a well-known expert in global content strategy, content development, and terminology management. Using her 20 years of experience, Val helps companies solve complex content problems by analyzing their content and how it is created.

When not blogging, Val can be found sitting behind her sewing machine working on her latest quilt. She also makes a mean hummus.
Blog · Content Strategy · November 9, 2013


  • Noreen Compton

    I like the breakdown between technical communication and marketing-based content. Some others of us are also trying to define this elusive term “content strategy” and this is very helpful.

  • HamonWry

    This was an interesting read, thank you. I don’t know if I entirely agree that the Techcomm content strategy is reduced to just those bullet points. I tend to think of content strategy as the organization of a huge amount of content, structured or not, as you illustrate in the paragraph before the Marketing Strategy heading. To me, consistent taxonomy and governance is the heart of content strategy, regardless of role.

    But I think the bigger question is, how do you (by which I mean we technical writers and content strategists) bridge the gap between the two?


    • Thanks so much for your comment. I didn’t mean to imply that Techcomm content strategy doesn’t include organization, taxonomy, and governance. And you are right to point that out. It most certainly includes all of those things!

      Creating an inclusive content strategy – by that I mean one that includes all types of content in all languages – is a monumental task for most organizations. I think there are forward-thinking companies who are starting to see the benefits of content reuse across groups, not just within a group. To really bridge the strategy gap, we are going to need tools that we can use across content types. We are also going to need to educate folks on the benefits of being more encompassing when considering content and content strategy. I think we are just at the beginning of this important task. I don’t think anyone has really figured it out yet in a repeatable way. It’s an opportunity! 🙂

      • I’m currently a tech writer, trying to also implement a content strategy and a new tool as part of a very small team in a very large enterprise. It’s been alternately fun and frustrating trying to get other teams on board, so I can definitely relate.

        Thanks for clarifying, Val!
        Ed Marsh

        • Hi Ed; Fun and frustrating – Yep! Sounds about right. Glad the article helped you. 🙂

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  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Nice clarification of the difference between “structure-based” and “marketing-based” content strategy. Readers who find this post helpful will want to watch for the book (coming out soon) called “The Language of Content Strategy,” edited by Scott Abel and Rahel Bailie—with a chapter contributed by Content Rules’ own Val Swisher. To Val’s point above (“Houston, we have a terminology problem”), this book defines over 50 terms related to content strategy. The content community can use all the definition help we can get!

  • Mysti Berry

    We do all of these, and I’m the touchpoint for much of it, though of course each group does their own kind of CS on their own, as well. Helpful to think about them as separate, but they also work together. Building bridges across these three types is important.

    • Mysti – Absolutely!! Building bridges is critical for so many reasons. Glad to hear that Salesforce is doing it the right way! Thanks for your comment.

  • Andrew Bredenkamp

    Nice article, Val. I started writing a response, and then it got too long. Best not to get me started on this topic.

    My short comment is:

    Content Strategy has be really strategic. It’s not just about editorial calendars, corporate identity, the website or a user manual. Content Strategy should be about who is my target audience and what content do I need to give them to win them (and keep them) as happy customers.

    My long comment is here:

    • Agreed, Andrew. I’ll also take a gander at your blog. Thanks!

  • Ben

    Totally agree on this – I’m more on the web/marketing side (though not focused solely on marketing content), and have met many others focused on tech comm. There are similar goals and a lot of overlap as others have mentioned, but the gaps have brought up questions about whether we’re all really doing the same thing (I felt this way at LavaCon at times, for instance).

    This is especially important for a profession that is still building legitimacy in some organizations. If we’re selling the need for content strategy, it should be clear to everyone what exactly that means.

  • I love this article, Val! And it’s very topical. I recently wrote a blog on CS trends for 2014 where I predicted that we’ll see more definition in CS skill-sets, an end to the endless arguing about what we “really” do, and more collaboration and communication. Your article sets the stage for all of these things.

    The challenge is that content strategy touches ALL aspects of ALL content. It’s huge. The overlaps and distinctions are confusing, but no more so than the various sub-disciplines of the customer-experience field. They’ve made good headway articulating their different skill-sets and value to client, and I’m confident that we will too.

    Thanks to these types of discussions, we’re starting to make progress distinguishing technical content strategy (content engineering?) from content-marketing strategy from web content strategy. People are starting to understand the importance of integrating process and governance into all content strategies. And I’m glad you’re around to keep shining the spotlight on GLOBAL content strategy which is going to be increasingly important and is so often overlooked in these discussions.

    For those interested, my blog post is here:

    • Kathy – Thanks for your comments and I really like your blog article. I hope that we can achieve all of your predictions in 2014. 🙂

  • Great article! It addresses the real issue in much of corporate America, but to add to the mess, what about Enterprise Content Strategy? Each Enterprise needs a strategy which addresses all the areas you address. Companies need an Enterprise Content Strategy first, within which they address Global, Marketing and Technical content. As an enterprise they must align their business goals with their communications strategies. Few but the largest corporations are truly global, so that label can also be misleading, but “global” must be interpreted two ways: within a companies “universe” of content, what are the lifecycles, authoring processes and publishing channels for all their different content; and, more literally where in the globe must this content be published.
    Thanks for broadening the discussion and challenging the status quo!

    • Thanks for your comments. Enterprise Content Strategy is, indeed, the nirvana of all content strategy. Having a clear understand of ALL content within an enterprise is critical. I think that web content strategy and technical content strategy could certainly be combined (let’s toss in some content strategy for purely internal content, such as HR content, too)!

      As for your comment on global, I believe that all companies are truly global – regardless of whether or not they act that way. In other words, people who speak myriad languages are translating your content, whether or not you provide the translations for them. But, I do understand what you mean. 🙂

  • Sascha Stoltenow

    Great post mapping the difficulties we run into, and it did not even touched the question how CS plays together with Business, Marketing, Sales, HR, Communication Strategy, etc.

    How about this: thinking it through from the stakeholder perspective, we are most likely to see, that we as a corporate (any corporate that is) are working in a multi-stakeholder environment of multiple stakeholders. What do I mean by that? From the audience perspective corporates no longer break into silos. While in the past the media related to the PR folks, clients turned to the technical service and candidates to HR (I am simplifying here), nowadays there is no possible way to avoid spill over effects of content. To make things worse, the multiple stakeholder interacts with the corporate in different roles: client turns to potential employee to potential buyer. Every piece of content is attributed to the corporate, any inconsistencies show within seconds. Therefor I would propose to rather develop a content strategy framework which defines how (values, governance, style, etc.) the corporate manages its (digital) media assests and from that derive as many specific content strategies as needed.

    • Sascha – Wouldn’t it be great if the specific content strategies all rolled-up into one big plan? Imagine the resuse potential! Imagine the consistency of voice and brand! Imagine the ease of use! (Imagine whirled peas!) It would be wonderful.

      • Sascha Stoltenow

        I would say, this depends on the plan. If the plan, as it often has been, is a dictatorial order, it is likely to fail, first and foremost because it neither reaches the people nor has the required complexity to be applicable. If, however, the plan has more of a strategic narrative, to which the people involved can relate and use their inspiration and professional skills interpreting this narrative, we are set for a new form of consistency, which might drive the logo cops from the CD department nuts, but will work wonders in terms of agility.

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