Yes there is.

A colleague sent me a link to a post by Gerry McGovern entitled “Is there such a thing as content strategy?” I made the mistake of clicking-through and reading it late last night before going to bed. At first I took it lightheartedly, thinking, “That’s an interesting perspective… although I don’t think I agree with it.” Then it started to gnaw at me, and sure enough, I ended up NOT falling asleep for about an hour while getting increasingly bothered… to the point that I *almost* got out of bed to draft a response. I didn’t. Fortunately it was wasn’t top of mind in the morning, and I’d all but forgotten about it, but I happened upon that link again while clearing out the inbox at the end of the day.

The two things that bothered me the most:

  1. The premise that strategy lives alone at the executive level…. and that everything below that is execution. Yes, strategy *should* be established at the executive level (and too often it isn’t), but not only does it exist at levels below that, but it *should* exist at every level below, otherwise everyone is shooting from the hip.
  2. The idea that you shouldn’t talk about content to senior management. From my perspective (as narrow and near-sided as it may be), content is increasingly *the* interface between company and customer. Good content results in good sales performance and happy customers. So, not only *should* we talk about content with senior management, but the more we do and connect the dots between content quality and business results, the more we can push for dedicating more resources to generating and publishing good content… in turn netting better results for the whole company.

I could leave it at that, but the lost hour of sleep left me with a chip on my shoulder…. and I’m bothered by the strongly worded arguments that really didn’t make any sense.

For example, to the point that every organization or role wants a fill-in-the-blank strategy, the author states, “This silo-fication of strategy does not lead to a better customer experience.” Aside from introducing me to the awesome word “silo-fication,” the statement is troublesome. I would argue that silo-fication in organizations is more likely due to the lack of strategic planning than the result of it. I would continue, then, to suggest that good content strategy is, in fact, a strong progressive force to reducing the silo-fication of organizations.

To the author’s point that Kristina Halvorson has done a great job promoting the importance of quality content, he adds, “However, I would argue that content is strategic, not strategy.” What does he mean by that?  That’s the same as arguing against the need for business strategy by saying, “I would argue that business is strategic, not strategy.” The meaning of his statement is either hovering above my intellectual reach, or it just doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, what is growing clearer and clearer is that Mr. McGovern doesn’t seem to understand what content strategy is.

Bothered as I became about this post in general, as I started to deconstruct it in order to grasp the logic (still haven’t), the last paragraph actually made me start to feel sorry for the author in the same way you might feel sorry for a sad, lonely drunk who is proudly and passionately singing an 80’s rock ballad – off key and off beat – at the local dive bar’s not-popular Karaoke night. (Don’t ask me why I’m there, too, but I’m sure it’s something to do with drowning my sorrows for not being able to write a brilliant, yet brief analogy.)

The bulk of the last paragraph serves up a series of statements that each alone may or may not be correct, and together they fail to add up to any real argumentative statement against content strategy.

“To me the essence of strategy on the web is customer centricity.”

Yes, customer centricity is an important part of web strategy, but one could create a fabulous customer-centric web site that does nothing to support the business. The essence of web strategy, I might argue, is more like that elusive sweet spot that is customer-centric and perfectly satisfies the needs of the organization. Am I too nit-picky?  Customer-centricity is a good point to make, after all. OK… let’s let the author continue to make their point:

“The Web is about the rise of customer power. Social media is just one example of that. Is the organization truly going to focus on and organize around the customer? That’s the key strategic question. How do we frame content in that context?”

Hey Sherlock! This series of statements, if anything, supports the need for content strategy – the strategic planning for identifying, creating, delivering and governing content – which in any strategically-driven business *is* all about framing content that helps the business succeed in the context of what the customer wants and needs (and in the format and through the channels where they consume it).

But can the author finish with a punch to drive the point home?  (I think that’s a mixed metaphor. Sorry. Kinda.)  No.  The author concludes:

“So, it’s not about content but rather about culture, because as the great Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Two things irk me about this:

  • Without a doubt, culture is a strategic consideration when planning content, whether it’s the cultural landscape of your target audiences, or the culture of the silo-fied organization who is creating the content intended to engage those targets at various points on the customer lifecycle (or not). Culture is relevant to the discussion about content and strategy, but to say “it’s not about content, but rather about culture,” is like saying “it’s not about pickup trucks, but rather about utility vehicles.” The author’s series of statements is illogical and irrelevant — it isn’t either/or when it comes to culture and content.
  • Although I don’t claim to be a Peter Drucker scholar, I believe his statement “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is in reference to the culture of the organization, and the notion that business strategy (or any fill-in-the-blank strategy) is not effective in an organization who’s culture is in the dumps… that business leaders need to foster a strong positive culture in their organization in order to expect any success from their lofty strategic plans. Well, I don’t claim to be an organizational psychologist, either, but that makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is how Drucker’s statement supports an argument against content strategy, other than how it minimizes any kind of strategy if there isn’t a culture that will support it.

In conclusion, I mostly walk away with the idea that the author just doesn’t understand content strategy. It is the lack of content strategy that helps promote the silo-fication of content creation, in which the silo with the strongest voice prevails, however disconnected from the customer’s needs and culture that voice might be.

10 Replies to “Yes there is.”

  1. I particularly like (as in “like”) his weasely word-wrangling when he contrasts strategy with strategic. Playing the fiddle of fringe semantics almost always is a sign of people desperately trying to hold together an argument which would otherwise collapse.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this, cause it saves me from doing something similar and I can’t improve on what you wrote here. I was especially pissed at the top-down premise about content strategy. I think precisely the opposite is true. Executives are in the worst position to set content strategy, as they tend to focus on their brands and pushing their agenda into the market. The role of a content strategist is to take the user’s side and present information for the audience. Of course, they need to incorporate the executive’s perspectives because they write the checks. But the way to manage up is not by focusing on language or content but by focus on the results: How many users engaged with the content? If you can bring the conversation to this level, the executives get out of the way and let content strategists build content plans that tend to help users achieve their goals–or to use McGovern’s language, complete their top tasks. Executives don’t care about top tasks. They care about how their revenue and cost numbers are stacking up. You can only talk to them on their level if you provide results.

  3. Well done! I particularly like your dissection of the last paragraph in Gerry’s article. The stream of statements had no coherent argument holding them together. Also, throwing in the talk of culture right at the end was problematic. Developing how that should be directly related to this discussion would take many more pages to accurately present.

    Regardless of all this, one of Gerry’s points, that as content strategists we need to help others with THEIR strategy, rings true. Unfortunately, this gets lost in his many questionable and, in my opinion, unnecessarily provocative claims. I’ll choose to take that as a nice reminder from Gerry’s piece.

    Somersaults to follow!

    ~ Gabby

  4. Jim
    You made the second biggest blunder of all time….. The first of course is don’t get involved in a land war in Asia…. But only slightly less known is that you never get involved with an anachronistic writer only interested in a semantic argument as link bait 🙂

    In all seriousness though – this was a wonderful response… And excellently presented….

    Just remember… There’s strategy and strategic and strategery ….

    Again well done!

  5. I have to admit I feel a bit too nerdy for comfort because I’m fist pumping while reading this post, but I think you’re spot on. Content strategy is a key cog in the web program management machine. And, your clarification of the “culture eats strategy” quote is on point.

  6. Gerry wrote a post that made you stay awake, one that made Karen McGrane write a response (which she says she normally doesn’t do —, and one that was introduced as a topic of discussion at my question and answer panel at Content Strategy Applied UK today. I don’t think Gerry’s message is really that controversial, there are grains of truth to it. Of course, content is important (sometimes even king) and content strategy (or its distant cousin, business strategy) matters. Indeed, content strategy is a discipline we need and content strategists will play a critical role in reshaping how businesses interact with their employees, customers, partners, regulators, etc.

    But it’s also true that Gerry McGovern is smart. He just manipulated most of our industry and earned a lot of Google juice in the process. Like a good wardrobe malfunction or a leaked sex tape, Gerry’s post attracted lots of attention. All sort of people now know who Gerry McGovern is.

    Other than that, Gerry’s message isn’t really worth getting all excited about. It makes sense that his experience is different than mine (and likely, yours). He’s writing, I would imagine, to his audience, people who think the way he does. I don’t agree with him (for the most part). But again, I think he’s just manipulating our socially-connected world and benefitting from the exposure.

    Thanks for sharing your views. As Rob Rose points out: Well done!

  7. To those who left the comments above, and to those who have tweeted and mentioned this post elsewhere: Thank you! I am more than tickled by the response. What started as an email to a colleague morphed into an exercise in literary… uh… self-pleasure. When I finished writing this piece, however, I thought that just *maybe* someone else might enjoy it, too. And so, this little blog was conceived… and after a really short gestation (two hours, give or take), it was born. It’s amazing how fast someone can set up a soapbox to start spouting off.

    I was tickled enough to just write the piece, and thought if anyone else should take notice and leave a comment (right!), well that would be the frosting.

    Over the years I have largely been a mute consumer (lurker!) of the broader content strategy conversation. Needless to say, I am very tickled to see the tweets and likes and links and +1’s and comments about this post from everyone, including a handful of authors and speakers and bloggers and pundits whose thoughts I have enjoyed over the years. My heart went pitter-patter for a moment when I read the fine print “Re-tweeted by Kristina Halvorson,” and I’m humored to know my name was mentioned at Content Strategy Applied UK the other day, and I’m happy as a clam by all of the comments above.

    My favorite comment, however, was Matt’s “I feel a bit too nerdy for comfort because I’m fist pumping while reading this…” because that’s exactly how I felt when I was writing it and while hitting the publish button.

    Thanks everyone!


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