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Content strategy (Trends to follow or forget)

Trends to follow or forget

by Tom Johnson on Mar 5, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

This post is part of a series that explores tech comm trends that I've either followed or forgotten, and why. The overall goal is to better understand the reasons that drive trend adoption or abandonment in my personal career. This post focuses on content strategy.

What is content strategy

Content strategy isn’t a new tool or approach to writing docs. Content strategy is literally the shift to thinking strategically about documentation rather than just writing it. And not just thinking about it, but coming up with formal plans to achieve your content goals.

To understand content strategy, you have to grasp the difference between strategy and tactics. The content strategist sizes up the problem, comes up with a solution, maps out how the solution will be implemented, addresses risks and other hurdles, plans thoroughly for the scenarios, etc. In contrast, the tactician executes on the plan from the content strategist. The tactician puts the plan into action, writes the needed content, and comes through with the deliverables.

To use an analogy, the content strategist is like a general deciding where to position troops in a battle, what fighting techniques to use, the weaponry and soldiers, etc. The general isn’t the one going into battle, usually. Instead, the general sits high on a hill, assessing the work and thinking strategically about how to win. The general moves chess pieces on a war board in a tent. The tactician, on the other hand, is the soldier following orders. The tactician is the one wielding the weapons, getting his or her boots dirty in the trenches in hand-to-hand combat.

Sponsored content

For a better introduction to content strategy, see Kristina Halverson’s classic book, Content Strategy for the Web. Or see The Language of Content Strategy by Scott Abel and Rahel Bailie.

For some less formal background, see my post How to tell if you’re a content strategist. Or Strategy Versus Tactics and the Ongoing Debate about Roles.

Why I embraced content strategy

In many ways, content strategy gave a name to the strategic non-writing work that many people were already doing. Think about a consultant that you hire to come into your company, survey your docs, learn about your issues, and come up with a solution and plan to improve things. The consultant doesn’t come in to re-write your docs. Instead, the consultant comes up with a strategy for your docs.

Content strategy is all the meta-work around documentation. The term “content strategy” helps recognize this meta work as a full-fledged specialization, a practice that is worth its own recognition and respect.

When content strategy first appeared as a buzzword in tech comm, a lot of people changed their job titles. For many, this new discipline appropriately fit what they actually did. Rather than hiring a tech comm consultant, you could hire a content strategist. Who’s the person planning content for your product, deciding on messaging, outputs, audience reach, pouring over analytics, styles, and connecting all the pieces together? That’s a content strategist.

But even individual contributors still functioning as tech writers wanted to call attention to the strategic elements of their role, so many adopted the title to help raise awareness of this function. Personally, I felt like I was about 70% tech writer, 30% content strategist.

In 2012, I attended one of the first content strategy conferences: Confab (and wrote about it here). After interacting with attendees the first day, it suddenly dawned on me that I was at a marketing conference, and that the “content” most people were talking about wasn’t so much documentation but rather all the potential content customers interact with (pre-sales, post-sales, mid-sales — not just documentation). But despite the broad umbrella of content, of the 650 attendees at that first conference, the majority were in marketing.

Around this time, marketing practices themselves were evolving more towards content marketing — the idea that you develop and build relationships with customers by sharing helpful content with them, not by pitching more sales literature. Content was at the center of relationship building, and if content was so important, then you better have a strategy for how you create, publish, distribute, maintain, and retire that content. You need to go far beyond merely coming up with an editorial calendar for content or a style guide. Considerations of tone, messaging, branding, journey maps, key touchpoints, and more need to inform all efforts at content creation.

This all made sense to me. I wanted to embrace the more holistic perspective of content. I wasn’t just writing docs. I was contributing to a larger content narrative, and my docs were just one touchpoint along a larger customer journey. The content along the customer’s journey needed to be harmonious across the groups that produce it. Every group couldn’t just be creating their own unique, siloed content for users. Doing so resulted in a jumbled patchwork of content that revealed org lines, resulted in many redundancies and contradictions, and fragmented the larger narrative into disjointed sub-narratives.

To embrace content strategy, at one point I changed our doc group’s name to “Information strategy and design.” And I brainstormed ways to update the title in my email signature (changing my actual job title wasn’t possible due to HR designations). Regardless of the titles we considered, one trend was clear: It was no longer sexy to be a “technical writer.” Writing itself was considered a commodity — something anyone could really do. You needed to hybridize your job title and professional brand with something more “strategic.”

I still remember hearing Jack Molisani stress the importance of hyphenating your job title in some way. He often emphasized that you’re not just a technical writer. You’re a technical writer / usability specialist. You’re a technical writer / elearning specialist. You’re a technical writer / designer. You’re a technical writer / programmer.

Why I abandoned content strategy

Although I clicked with the strategic foundations that content strategy emphasized, adopting content strategy as an explicit label for what I did as a technical writer didn’t stick. And I soon became frustrated by the way content strategy seemed to remove the strategic elements of writing itself. If writing didn’t involve any strategy, what was it? Typing? Basically, yes (at least that’s how I felt).

If you were a technical writer instead of a content strategist, it suggested that you simply took orders and typed out documentation (subject matter experts probably just gave you the content). It cheapened the whole tech writer role. Didn’t tech writing include a strategy aspect to it?

In thinking about content strategy, a lesson from a creative writing teacher (Dean Hughes at BYU) reverberated in my head. During one class, Hughes said that when he interacts with people, such as at literature conferences or even in the supermarket, and he tells them he’s a novelist, they often say they have an idea for a bestseller for him. They say they’ll share with him the bestselling plot in exchange for 50% commission on the book. They swear this idea is brilliant and will sell thousands of books. Apparently this pitch happened almost monthly with Hughes. Someone had a brilliant idea, they just needed someone to write it out. This was Hughes’ biggest pet peeve.

Hughes said he always rejected these pitches. He said he already has more ideas for brilliant plots than he can write himself. He has endless plots scribbled on napkins just falling out of his pockets, with no time to see them through. Coming up with a brilliant plot isn’t the issue — what’s hard is actually writing the book.

I felt the same way about content strategy. Would a content strategist actually tell me something that I didn’t already know? The hard part isn’t coming up with a strategy. We already know what to do. The hard part is actually executing on the strategies that we know.

Admittedly, I haven’t worked much with content strategists, so my ideas at the time were probably a bit naive. I’ve usually worked in small doc teams consisting of about 5 or so writers. I’ve never been in the brain trust of a group managing 100+ writers and an immense developer portal. At most, I’ve led small groups and owned parts of a developer portal.

But while at Amazon, I did work on and off with a content strategist. She was in another group, working on a sister doc set. The content strategist was constructing a plan to create filters that would allow users to select some attributes in the sidebar and then have the content filter down to just what they were looking for — similar to what I described in my faceted filtering article. She got enterprise support that included an engineer to create a web app to match her vision. She worked out the prototype, design, writing workflow, and more.

I saw an early prototype in action. It was sort of interesting but lacked enough content to do much. After all, to see filters in action, you need to have enough content so that the filters can adjust what appears on screen. Then the project fizzled, she left the company, the engineer abandoned the work, and I never saw the project again. I think she worked on the effort for 1-2 years. It was bold and innovative, for sure, but most of the time I thought, we really just need someone to write better content, and to organize the content in a more intuitive way. In the end, there were probably 70 pages of design (templates, attributes, workflows, database schemas, etc.) and few pages of actual content.

Current status

Content strategy still remains a strong trend. As I said, this movement gives a term to all the meta-work that goes on outside of writing. Most non-writers don’t realize how much strategic thought is often involved in writing docs. I believe most assume that we just get the content from engineers, make it pretty, and then publish it.

There are many tech writers who are doing content strategy (to some degree) as part of their individual contributor role. In retrospect, as I’ve worked with more tech writers in my career, I’ve noticed that some writers are much more strategic than others. Many writers are reaction-oriented, waiting to receive requests, waiting to be drawn in. Others are more proactive, driving forward with ideas and vision and techniques to try. But like I said, I probably spend only 30% of my time on strategy, and the other 70% on writing. The number of people who are full-time content strategists, devoting 100% of time to strategy, with a similar job title (e.g., Chief Content Officer), remains fairly small.

Regarding the brilliance of the term “content strategy,” unfortunately the discipline suffered a semantic takeover by SEO firms looking for “content strategists” to churn out keyword-laden lightweight articles. Today, content strategy is often a dressed-up title to glorify an uglier role of content SEO farm writer. Or a content strategist is merely someone who creates social media content, or marketing articles. If you search job boards for positions in content strategy, you have to pick through the results to identify actual content strategy from these low-end content production roles.

Content strategy has many different facets to explore. For more, see Scott Abel’s series of books that he has edited and published on XML Press.

Takeaway

Don’t neglect the strategic aspects of technical communication work, and if the bulk of your job involves strategy more than writing, then consider yourself a content strategist.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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