Content Strategy and the Paradigm Shift

During my ongoing quest to help (big M) Marketing and (big S) Sales organizations find better ways to succeed through more strategic approaches to engagement with prospects and customers, I have become a practitioner of, and an evangelist for Content Strategy. I have helped a number of organizations to understand and realize the value of Content Strategy based marketing initiatives. On the other hand, I have often felt like Sisyphus while trying to get my colleagues in Marketing and (especially) Sales to not only understand what Content Strategy is, but why it matters, what its value is, and why it represents a paradigm shift in marketing that ultimately *finally* brings Marketing closest (back to?) to it’s purpose of delivering the right message to the right customer at the right time.  Allow me to step onto my soapbox to deliver the premise:

Technology companies are frequently started by engineers with good ideas, from which companies emerge with a “Field of Dreams” culture — focused on building and messaging the features and functional components of products. Marketing is all too often the puppet of Sales, who all too often own the messaging around products/solutions/services, which is overly focused on “What we need to say about our product” and “Why our product is so great” and “What are the features and benefits of our product.”   Marketing is all too often the execution arm of Sales, who’s singular demand is that Marketing produce fresh hot leads.  This has prompted the emergence of “Lead Generation” and “Content Marketing” (which, in a sense, is just the digital-ification of “Cold Calling” and “Direct Mail”).

Technology marketing – more often than not – is reactive.  Even as Marketing has come to understand that the world around us has become more digital and social, all too often Marketing’s execution is still reactive – creating “digital marketing programs” and “social media programs” and “email marketing programs” and “content marketing programs” and “lead generation programs” – better ways to deliver the same old “why we are so awesome” Sales-driven message.  More often than not, Marketing’s “________ Strategy” isn’t truly strategic.

The approach to B2B marketing and sales is evolving (or needs to evolve) to address the paradigm shift in the relationship between prospects and company/product.  While traveling through the “buyer’s journey” — more and more of prospect’s time and energy is spent searching for and consuming content. The time they spend with Sales is diminishing, and coming later in the sales cycle. Meanwhile, there is so much noise and information for prospects/consumers to digest, that the same old “features and benefits” and “we’re the greatest” messaging is barely ever even heard, much less resonates with a target audience.

The practice of Content Marketing – the use of content to attract and engage prospects and convert them to leads – is a more recent discipline.  The focus on content marketing has helped elevate the need to engage with prospects earlier in the customer lifecycle, but the focus of Content Marketing is all too often on the format of and channel through which content is delivered – in order to capture juicy hot sales leads – and is all just new and effective ways to deliver the same old “features and benefits” and “we’re the greatest” Sales-driven messaging, with an occasional poorly executed sales pitch disguised as a “thought leadership” piece.

In sum, although we have (nearly) realized the full paradigm shift from outbound to inbound, marketing strategy has generally failed to evolve. Yes, we have our “web strategy” and our “email marketing strategy” and a “social media strategy” and… holy crap, now we need a “mobile strategy.” These various strategies are generally based on outdated targeting and messaging as dictated by Sales. The “strategy” that Marketing generally touts is at the content channel and execution level, not in the overarching approach, methodologies and processes. The end result is that Marketing’s over-emphasis on channel-specific strategies and programs has generally ignored the overarching tenet of marketing: Delivering the right message to the right customer in the right place at the right time.

Although some discredit “Content Strategy” as even being a thing at all, I posit that its emergence and growth over the last few years is a solid sign that not all in Marketing shoot from the hip and/or focus their strategic thinking at the channel and tactical level… that those who fundamentally “get it” are developing effective ways to introduce real strategy back into marketing. This has been articulated by others better than how I describe it, but the fundamental awesomeness of Content Strategy is the turn-the-tables paradigm shift it represents for Marketing and Sales. Content Strategy is a 180 degree change from the execution of promoting Sales-directed messaging (“Here’s the message we need to deliver to prospects, so figure out how to deliver it”) to a higher, more strategic starting point that begins by questioning who are the people we need to engage with, and identifying what their  needs are  (“Who are the people we need to engage with to be successful? Who are the buyers, and who are the influencers of those buyers? What are the needs of each?  How can we help each of them? How can we engage with each through the channels they prefers at each point in the lifecycle?”).  Content Strategy turns the camera around and forces Sales and Marketing to look through the lens at the universe of content from the (desired) audience’s perspective.

Content Strategy is essentially *the* critical marketing communications strategy (or strategic process), upon which all content channel-specific strategies need to be based.  You can’t have an effective “email marketing strategy” or “social media strategy” or “mobile strategy” or any kind of fill-in-the-blank strategy without first establishing the core Content Strategy framework and/or process (depending on if you’re the type that refers to Content Strategy as a thing or a verb — I don’t take sides, I see it as both).


If this diatribe had a sidebar: Ask a room full of practitioners who self-describe as “Content Strategist” what Content Strategy is, and you’ll get dozens of different answers.  Ask each to describe how it’s done – the steps, the processes, the deliverables, the outcomes – and you’ll get an even broader variation of answer. So, for what it’s worth, I’ll offer mine:  Content Strategy is the practice, methodology and/or processes that enable an organization to achieve success through a strategic framework for identifying, defining, prioritizing, creating, delivering, promoting, measuring and governing the content that effectively engages the organization’s segmented target audience(s) throughout the lifecycle of relevance to and engagement with the organization. (I was going to leave it as “…the lifecycle of engagement with the organization…” but that doesn’t capture the very important pre-aware/pre-engagement awareness-building phase of said lifecycle.  Perhaps someone could suggest a better way to articulate that.)  The diatribe above presupposes that pillars of Content Strategy are (a) the goals, objectives and needs of the organization, and (b) the relevant logical and emotional content needs of their buyers and their influencers.  (Depending on the organization, replace “buyers” with “prospects,” “members,” “customers,” “consumers,” “subscribers,” “partners,” or whatever else properly describes the organization’s primary “target.”).  Point is – what I would describe as “true” Content Strategy (hey… who am I to make that claim?) assumes that it’s entire construct is around the needs of the organization’s target.

One Reply to “Content Strategy and the Paradigm Shift”

  1. Nice position, Jim. There is indeed a range of descriptions. I find that just talking about the “strategy” works with traditional folks, and once they are listening, you lead the discussion toward the “content” that serves the strategy (as the subject matter expert).

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