Intersectional content strategy

There’s an interesting tug-of-war taking place in the content strategy world: the “Content Marketing” wave has washed through, and it’s bringing a lot of attention to the “infographics and traffic-drivers” side of the equation. A nontrivial part of that comes from SEO firms and specialists who’ve had to branch out as Google’s algorithmic tweaks made their work tougher.

Content can serve a bunch of different needs, not just one. It can be a primary product that directly or indirectly generates revenue; it can be the means by which an organization accomplishes its externally-funded mission; it can be a “pure marketing” mechanism used to draw attention or communicate brand messages; it can be a component of a separate service (like documentation or support materials). These conflicts aren’t new, by any means. If you’ve ever head someone talk about the differences between “MarComm” and “TechComm” — Marketing Communication and Technical Communication — you’ve seen these distinctions and the resulting conflicts in action.

Most companies need to hit a bunch of those points, not just one. Our client MSNBC, for example, has primary editorial content that is its core product. It also has marketing content that’s used to convince people to watch, to communicate branding and positioning in relation to competitors or other forms of entertainment, etc. It also has a small quantity of what could be considered classic TechComm materials: FAQs, terms of service pages, instructional information, etc. Many times, a single post or video or tweet or case study or radio broadcast can cover several of those bases at once. Social content that exists on a client’s site (say, user generated content) adds other interesting angles.

Ideally, all of these needs and the content being produced to fill them are coordinated with each other, united be a coherent vision and (dare I say it) strategy. That helps ensure there aren’t inconsistencies or conflicts between the messages, that measures of success are being applied appropriately, and that important needs aren’t being overlooked because they’re served by an underfunded department or team.

Some folks say that everything is marketing — that the experience of purchasing and using one product is the “sales pitch” for the next sale, in non-content terms. That feels like semantics to me: one could just as easily argue that marketing is really customer service or editorial content is really user support, and so on. Usually those kinds of arguments are less about providing useful insights or process improvements than they are about a CxO or consultant extending their reach in an organization by hoovering up other business units’ responsibilities.

Not to throw a curveball or anything, but we can learn a lot from feminism: it’s a movement and an academic discipline that’s spent a few lifetimes trying to change entrenched values that hurt everyone but are vigorously defended. In 2011 Flavia Dzodan wrote a blistering essay entitled My Feminism Will Be Intersectional, Or It Will Be Bullshit. If you haven’t read it and you’re not the type to get the vapors from feminist thought, go check it out right now. Soak in her critique of the silo’d, sectioned-off, blinded-to-the-needs-of-others approaches that can undercut real change.

There. Awesome.

Appropriating a movement like feminism to talk about content feels lame, but Flavia’s insights aren’t restricted to one movement. Good content strategy is intersectional, not a silo in and of itself, and it’s certainly not an entrenching maneuver by an existing silo like a marketing or communications department. The challenge for 2014 isn’t to get content strategy its own powerful spot on the org chart, although for some organizations an empowered champion may be necessary. Similarly, the challenge isn’t to position content strategy under the umbrella of an existing well-funded, well-respected department like Marketing or (in some agencies) Design.

Our challenge is to make sure that experts and stakeholders and people in the trenches all receive representation; to be sure that they’re sharing their insights, needs, and priorities; and to ensure that the decisions about an organization’s resources and attention take them all into account. That’s hard work, cutting across traditional lines of power and internal competition, but it’s important stuff.

Happy 2013, yo. Here’s wishing you an intersectional 2014, with all of the frustrations and rewards that come with it.

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