Taking Content Strategy Out of the Proposal

There is a lot of talk lately about what is Content Strategy and who owns it. Is it a part of IA/UX? Does it fit under the wing of Content Marketing? Should the SEO/SEM folks be leading this charge? Or, is the call for Content Strategy to be its own practice practical and valuable?

The first yin/yang I’ll address is the one between IA (UX) and Content Strategy.

In some ways this struggle reminds me of the pole-vaulter: There is a 100 or so foot run which is required to gain enough speed to plant the pole, to get over the bar. A great pole-vaulter can’t just be good at arching his/her back to get over the bar; they must also be a powerful runner. In order for (a) IA/UX to be successful (get over the bar) they have to do some of that running = (b) Content Strategy. Conversely, in order for (b) Content Strategy to be successful (get over the bar) they must understand some (a) IA/UX. It isn’t that (a) comes before (b) that is important but rather that (a) needs (b) and (b) needs (a).

-Content Strategy is an emerging field.
-Information Architecture is an established field.
-An Amazon search for “Content Strategy” returns 1,535 hits—not all are relevant.
-An Amazon search for “Information Architecture” returns 15,198 hits—many more are relevant.

As an agency that practices a mixture of both Content Strategy and Information Architecture, I sense that clarifications to the items below would help legitimize/popularize the practice of Content Strategy in the eyes of both clients and related practices.

* What are they for Content Strategy?
* How do they relate-to/crossover-with deliverables for other related practices?

* What is the (perceived) inherent value of Content Strategy?
* Is the value of Content Strategy different when coupled with other services?

* What are the standard rates for Content Strategy?
* Is content strategy (to varying degrees) being performed more than once by different vendors? How does client avoid having this work done by multiple vendors? (Content Wireframing vs. Design Wireframing.)

* How does a client differentiate a “copywriter” armed with hot buzzwords from a content strategist?
* What is the required experience and toolset of a professional content strategist?

* In cases where there are separate vendors performing: IA/UX, Design, Content Strategy, Development, content creation. (We all know this happens.) How do vendors agree on a language that focuses less on who’s leading the show but more on what is best for the client?
* How much of content strategy is analytic and how much is creative?

Recently I had a client request a proposal for a web/print/content project, the project was equal parts: content, strategy, design and development. When I turned in the proposal there was a line item for “Content Strategy”, it included the research/interviews, content inventory, gap analysis, delivery methodology, metadata strategy, editorial calendar, tone and life-cycle of the content.

Here’s the catch. I was asked to remove “Content Strategy” as a line item from the proposal and redistribute the money across the rest of the project. Her reasoning, management wouldn’t understand or see value in “Content Strategy” as a line item with a $ amount attached to it. Now while this could be an isolated case I think it is indicative of a larger issue.

After removing the line item (with trepidation) I contacted some advertising friends. In advertising research and strategy shapes the campaign/creative and is usually a line item with lots of 0’s. One of them said, “Rename the line item Potato Sack Races, as long as they pay you.” Good advice, but advertising is a mature market and even splinter factions like The Barbarian Group and Wexley School for Girls dedicate significant hours to strategy/research before they go off and stick pins in buildings.

On one hand, big deal, move money from line item 4 to line item 5. On another hand it says something about how Content Strategy is viewed and valued. From a client’s perspective “Content Strategy” is a practice with a scope yet to be entirely defined and understood. From a marketing/branding/service offering perspective Content Strategy is a term that has yet to be fully owned by SEO, Content Marketing, Content Strategists or IA/UX’s. And for now maybe that’s ok.


What are your thoughts?

  • Filed under Branded Content, Content Strategy   /  

10 thoughts on “Taking Content Strategy Out of the Proposal

  1. Great post and a sweet gauntlet to be dropping at this particular moment.

    I’ve said this elsewhere before, but I think the client and organizational literacy around content strategy–itself as a field; a set of deliverables; and something of a methodology–has been one of the most telling things I’ve noticed in the last three projects on which I’ve worked. In two of the three (and I’m not far into the third) there were specific requests around deliverables that I was not aware were all that well known, nevermind appreciated or requested. This may be partly a NY thing for the moment. But you can hit the bricks here and find more than one agency that has found themself for wont of a CS because a prospective client had it line-itemed in their RFP.

    Appropriately enough, my next project is to write one such document, and you can believe I won’t leave the client exposed on that front.


  2. Excellent post!

    We’re noodling all of these questions at Brain Traffic – particularly helping to identify how CS-focused agencies can effectively partner with other agencies without ending up doubling up on deliverables.

    I think one thing that would help enormously is if content strategists can start working to woo information architects as our “life partners” – instead of continuing to watch IA and visual design walk hand in hand down the beach. Those two practices are, in my opinion, inappropriately coupled in most project workflows.

    Content strategy plans for – in fact, DESIGNS – information, from the inside out. Information architecture creates meaningful context and structure for that information. (Interaction design is something different, yo, and requires partnership with a usability-savvy copywriter.)

    One other note: A big challenge right now is to help folks understand that “content strategy” isn’t just answering, “What kind of content will you publish?” This is how I see it being regularly used by SEO, advertising, and content marketing folks. Until the work is recognized as a deep dive into the why, by who, for whom, when, where, how, how much, and what next, it will still be struck from proposals as “unnecessary, because we already know what we want to say.”

    Finally, with regard for standard rates for content strategy, I’d like to propose ONE MILLLLLLLLLLLION DOLLARS.

    p.s. write a book

  3. I have to admit some of the most relevant feedback I ever received about content (especially copy) was from designers. And it was the really blunt kind that usually only poetry professors hand out like, “I would never read that, it’s stupid,” or “it looks like the alphabet threw-up.”

    But to your point:

    “Until the work is recognized as a deep dive into the why, by who, for whom, when, where, how, how much, and what next, it will still be struck from proposals as “unnecessary, because we already know what we want to say.”

    I say, yes there is work to be done, a practice to be assimilated and much to be broken down, reconstructed and embraced.*

    *Kind of like when Sarah Connor has to wrap her head around Skynet sending a robot back in time to get rid of her husband John. But then it turns out her son is actually her husband but its all good because Sarah Connor learns to embrace what is now weird for what in the future will be shiny and cool.

  4. In every company content like people is an asset, we have executive leadership in sales, marketing, HR, Finance, Procurement, yet none in content?

    The thought leaders of content strategy should start justifying a leadership position for Chief Content Officer, this person does not report to the CIO. People come and go, but content as an asset remains.

    Just my two cents.

  5. I’m an on-staff content strategist for my organization. While this may sound like we’re ahead of the game, it’s still a challenge.

    The IAs happily include me, in their project scope and timeline, but we spend a lot of time “selling” the point of the content strategy. We come up against “not necessary, we know what to say” attitude and the “once the page/area/site is done, it’s done” attitude.

    The IAs and my supervisor give me a great deal of support to insert strategies and recommendations. We promote the common sense behind it, and we cite user experience. We’ve created a three-point relationship between IA, UX, and content strategy. All of them evolve and flex based on the others.

    It’s slow going, but we’re starting to see buy in – from top to bottom. It will be a while before we get to Kristina’s vision of Content Strategy leading the way, but that’s my goal. I’m keeping my line item AND working on it’s PR to be an essential task!

  6. I am an Information Architect/User Experience designer and I have to tell you, not all is well in the land of IA. And we are certainly not walking hand-in-hand down the beach with designers. Spend some time looking over the archives of the IxDA and IAI lists and you’ll see what kind of external and even, sadly, moreso internal struggles we go through (and put ourselves through).

    But I wanted to address your client’s comment about ‘management’ not understanding Content Strategy as a separate line item. It was the perfect opportunity to open a dialogue about that and ask her to explain what she meant. It’s more than possible that *she* didn’t understand the phrase and, as such, would not have been able to explain it to her managers. Ask her how to help evangelize and prove the value of Content Strategy to her team.

    A lot of IA work pre-project has long been spent figuring out why clients are resistant to it or think it can be glossed over. This requires any number of positively exhausting conversations, gaining an inch and then losing three. But it is worth it. You won’t win every time, but you will make progress.

  7. Very insightful article for the likes of me, Ian. Thanks so much. I was so busy penning my own little scratcher over the past 5 days I didn’t notice you had published this, getting to some of the questions I was poking and even probing deeper from within the CS circle.

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