Content strategy vs. content marketing strategy – who cares?

Sonja Jefferson

What’s the difference between content strategy and content marketing strategy? Sounds like a bad joke (or a Monty Python sketch) doesn’t it? And frankly it is, in normal life, but not in content land. It’s a topic that can get the content-focused world all steamed up, confused and tetchy.

I’ve struggled with the need for this distinction. From where I sit it can sometimes seem a bit like navel gazing and petty content handbags. But an upcoming conference and chat with fellow Bristol content consultant Tim Tucker has helped to clarify my thinking.

Here’s my take on the difference between content strategy and content marketing strategy, and why in my opinion you only sometimes need to care.

Content marketing and content strategy

Let’s start with some definitions.

Content strategy. Content strategy is the means by which you make your content work for your business. It forces you to make decisions on the big content questions – why, who, what, when, where and how – and focuses your content activities around a clear goal. The definitive definition of content strategy comes from Kristina Halvorson – the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” You can think of content strategy as “how to manage content as a strategic asset across the whole organisation” says Robert Rose. Content strategy’s remit is wide.

Content marketing is, quite obviously, a marketing approach – the use of valuable content to build awareness and better relationships with clients and customers. As the official definition from the Content Marketing Institute clearly states: “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.”

Content marketing strategy. If you want to make content that people care about and that works for your business, then there’s a clear need to take a strategic approach. I believe that every businesses would benefit from a road map for how they use content to meet their strategic marketing goals. This is where confusion arises. Content marketers like me sometimes refer to this exercise as content strategy (yes, the focus is marketing but the exercise shares all the hallmarks of our definition of content strategy above) and this causes some content strategy purists to get very grumpy indeed (See: How content strategy got hijacked by content marketing).

The question is, does the distinction really matter? My answer: only sometimes. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

An example of when it matters

I’m part of a panel at the London Book Fair’s ‘Publishing for Digital Minds’ conference tomorrow. Our session was originally named ‘Effective Content Strategies’, but in this context I felt the title was misleading.

Talk to many book publishers about content strategy and they’ll immediately focus on how best to monetise the content they own. Their business is content; how should their business models evolve to capitalise on the digital opportunity? But when looking at the case studies we were asked to present it was clear that the conference organiser’s intent was to host a debate on marketing, not on wider business strategy. So the session name has rightly been changed to ‘Effective Content Marketing Strategies’.

In this case there was a need to differentiate between content strategy and content marketing strategy. It would have caused the audience confusion so it was important we made that distinction clear.

And when it matters not so much

A lot of my work as a consultant and trainer is with leadership teams in independent firms, helping them to work out how to use valuable content to market their businesses, so they win more of the customers they really want.

In this context, I feel it’s perfectly valid to use the term ‘content strategy’ to refer to the decision making and road mapping process I help people think through. The work we do together has a clear marketing focus and intent and it doesn’t matter to the client which term we use. The strategic process we go through makes them think hard and wide.

Here are the 10 steps we follow to help them use content to deliver their marketing goals:

  • Step 1 – Get clear on your goals
  • Step 2 – Know your business
  • Step 3 – Know your customers
  • Step 4 – Find the story behind the content
  • Step 5 – Your content sweet spot and vision
  • Step 6 – Set your content commitment and plan
  • Step 7 – Your chosen web platform and tools
  • Step 8 – Organising to make it work
  • Step 9 – Measuring for success
  • Step 10 – Working out where you are now and plan to make it happen

We have a chapter on this process in the new edition of the Valuable Content Marketing book, and that chapter is called ‘Content Strategy’. I make no bones about that. In smaller firms the strategic content and marketing skills needed to make an impact with great content have to merge.

Should you care?

Content-focused business practice is relatively new and still evolving. It’s not surprising that there is confusion and a few arguments as the industry matures. Should you care about the difference between content strategy and content marketing strategy? Here’s my summary:

  • If you’re working in content world or hiring content experts to help you with a project then it’s important to recognise the nuances. There are different disciplines, roles and skills at play here, depending on the project’s intent.
  • On large web projects and in industries like publishing the distinction between content strategy and content marketing strategy must be clear.
  • If a project’s intention is clearly on marketing, particularly in smaller firms, then it matters not if the terms ‘content strategy’ and ‘content marketing strategy’ are used interchangeably.

As with all good content, tailor your communication around this topic to the needs of your audience. Ditch any needless content handbags I say and just make sure you’re clear.

That’s my starter for ten but do help my thinking here. Content strategy vs. content marketing strategy – important distinction or navel gazing nonentity? I’d really welcome your view.

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  1. Avatar

    Corking question Sonja.

    Two trains of thought sparked by your article.

    1.) ‘Content’ and ‘Content Marketing’. For most it’s a label. Those from a journalistic background are Content Strategists. Those with a background in marketing (and SEO bods), retain the moniker and refer to their work as Content Marketing Strategy.

    2.) The deeper level…. content strategy relates to what you create and why it matters. Content marketing is the process of framing, sharing and reaching those that matter.

    The question is important. Whichever way you look at it, the two terms are/should be entwined. The impetus has to be placed on why your content matters. Without it, there’s little motivation to market it.

    We (as content strategists or content marketing strategy champions) do need to make this question matter within our organisations.

    It’s a valuable question to address. Thanks for getting the cogs whirring on a Monday afternoon 🙂

  2. Avatar

    Hello Ian.

    Great comment – thank you.

    Interesting point in terms of content strategy background. In my experience it’s journalism or sometimes UX. I’m curious to hear from others though.

    That’s an interesting way to cut it up between content strategists and content marketing strategists/strategy.

    ‘Why’ is definitely the best starting place. As Richard from the Bath Content Meet Up comments: “the problem distinguishing between the content strategy and content marketing strategy is the definition is almost the same. The key difference is the focus.”

    Hope to catch up soon Ian and thanks again for the insightful comment.


  3. Avatar

    I agree with Ian – the two are intertwined but it’s the idea of ‘marketing’ that I have an issue with – and that’s not just in direct relation to content.

    If we assume that the purpose of marketing is to help a business or organisation to grow, then everything you do is a form of marketing. But to 99% of the population the term ‘marketing’ stands for coercion, irrelevance and unsolicited pressure.

    I’m trying to get clients to think of their whole business (brand, their products, their services and their marketing) in terms of customer communication.

    Is everything you are doing communicating the right thing, to the right people, in the right way, on the right platform and at the right time?

    People don’t want to be marketed to – they want to be helped and informed. Well chosen, human, personalised and sympathetic communication – providing the right content – will build trust and integrity. And sales will follow. Ipso facto – don’t market, communicate.

  4. Avatar

    Ah Tim. Thanks so much for that. Definitely deserving of more than 140 characters!

    ‘Marketing’ has a massive communication problem doesn’t it, and deservedly so for many of the icky tactics businesses have resorted to over the years.

    I’m in your camp – up for truthful communication that’s genuinely helpful and is in the customer’s best interest.

    At the end of the day marketing is becoming more about the customer’s overall experience – give them a great one at every step and they’ll ‘market’ your business for you. Content has a big place to play in that.

    Bringing it back to the content strategy vs. content marketing strategy debate – the only thing that matters for me is communicating what we’re talking about in a way that means something to the customer. And they have different needs.

    In business, in marketing and in life, I’m coming to learn that the more I can put myself in the other person’s shoes, understanding and communicating from there, the better things will work out. My friends Charles Green and Andrea Howe call this ‘other focus’. It’s very hard to do consistently but if we want to build trust it’s the only communication that counts.



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