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Content Strategy vs. Content Skills

2011 September 21
by Greg Satell

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about content strategy in marketing circles.  I must confess, I don’t really know what that is.

Possibly, that’s because I’ve spent a large portion of my career in publishing, shared a lot of time with other publishers, gone to conferences, the Stanford Publishing Course and never, in all that time, heard of such an animal.

Nevertheless, marketers seem to be quite excited by the idea.  Content is becoming a hot area and so would seem to require a strategy.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, I don’t know what a content strategy is.  However, after being involved in dozens of successful media launches over my career I do know how to publish.  Here’s how it’s done.


A publisher always starts with a mission: to inform, excite or inspire an audience about a particular subject.  That could be heady subjects of import, like news analysis or business strategy, simple guides and tips that make life a bit easier or emotionally driven stories that can make us laugh and cry.

The one commonality I’ve noticed among successful content people is that they are absolutely passionate about their mission and their audience.  It’s not just a job for them, but a calling.  You can’t fake that.  The audience will know.  They always do.

One thing I have noticed with much of the advertiser produced content that I have seen is that it often lacks that soul.  The purpose is split between producing engaging content and promoting a product – and it shows.  Big budgets are no match for a mission passionately pursued.


Any good content person is a student of their craft.  Part of their passion is that they have an insatiable appetite for what’s going on in their field.  They want to see what their peers are doing, what’s been successful, what hasn’t been and which new approaches have promise.

From a publishing standpoint, any good development process starts with key questions: Who’s done this before?  How did they do it?  What can we add?  What can we subtract? Marketers need to start with the same questions.

Moreover, they should staff true experts – those who are willing to devote their careers to producing  content for consumer consumption.  Editors, directors and programming people all have the expertise, experience and passion (notice how I continue to use that word) to put out a superior product.

To produce something new and exciting, you have to stand on the shoulders of giants.


Possibly the most important, and certainly the most overlooked aspect of content creation is structure.  As I wrote in an earlier post about media user experience, every content discipline has its own rules and every content product is defined by the rules it chooses to break.

Magazines have a clearly defined “brand bibles”, which designate flatplan and pacing. Radio stations run on clocks.  TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on.  The rules not only set audience expectations and make content easier to take in and enjoy, but form the crucial constraints in which creativity can thrive.

So when marketers approach content, they must go beyond the advertising pillars of target and messaging and think seriously about such mundane concepts such as standard length of content, how different elements are integrated to create a greater whole and which part fulfills which purpose.

As I’ve noted before, every great media product combines consistency and surprise, so it’s okay to break some rules now and again, but you have to know what they are first.

Emotional Transport

Once you get beyond the basics of strategy, the content product itself has to perform.  It has to, in the words of Peter Guber, provide emotional transport.  It needs to connect with the audience on a visceral level.  If it does not, it fails.  Everybody can name their favorite movie or TV show, but I’ve never heard of anybody having a favorite instruction manual.

And it’s not just about being warm and fuzzy.  Emotions are critically important for retaining information.  They are, as I’ve previously written, like little yellow highlighters in our brains.  They release chemicals that promote synapse building, memory and cognition.

And that leads us to the very crux of the matter.  You can’t wake up one day and decide that you will stimulate the passions of millions of people.  The huddled masses are not, as many would have us believe, idiotic drones.  They are, in truth, ourselves and can smell bullshit from a mile away.

The Post-Promotional Age

A year ago, I pointed out the difference between digital strategy and digital skills. Companies that pursued the former made big bets on big ideas and lost fortunes.  Those, however, who took a skills building approach tended to do much better, albeit without fanfare or headlines.

Moreover, content skills are distinct from, although related to, marketing skills.  Creating stories that inform, excite and inspire is a lifelong craft, not a three month campaign. Ironically, due to the upheaval in the media industry, such people are in abundant supply. They need only a conducive work environment and a reason to believe in order to thrive.

In a sense, the issue of marketing content is a microcosm of the central marketing challenge of the day: the need for a bigger tent with more diverse skills.  We are, in a sense, in a post-promotional age, where core values need to be infused throughout the organization and not just trumpeted in promotional materials.

Strategies, in truth, only become successful when the right skills and true passions combine to further business objectives.

– Greg

12 Responses leave one →
  1. September 25, 2011

    I’ll start by saying I’m a big fan. But on this piece I have a problem.

    I know in my writing I suffer from the lack of planning and think thru. Its a common problem all across the board. I think this piece suffers from that. And its ironic because respectfully, while you’re talking about not knowing what content strategy is; your piece here seems to validate that; in it’s very need for it.

    By the second paragraph I’m lost because all I can hear is Paul McCartney singing his “Long and Winding Road.”

    And at the end after the music stops I’m still not sure what the point of your piece was and why it took so long to attempt to make it.

    Unlike most of your work this piece is filled with the obvious. “Content” you say, “is becoming a hot area.” Really? We all know it been so for years – both online and offline and both inside and outside of traditional publishing.

    Then you go on to state that “the content product has to perform.” “It needs to connect with the audience on a visceral level. If it does not, it fails.” Again, really?

    Isn’t content performance the obvious reason responsible any audience growth whether that audience is micro targeted or macro and broad in its reach? And also, wouldn’t this be true across any media platform from blogging to YouTube, to social media, to radio, film to broadcast programming and yes even publishing? How else would you explain any niche author widening his audience.

    And as far as no one having a favorite instruction manual, again really? How then would you explain the hugely popular and profitable “Dummies” series. Isn’t that publishing success the result of visceral communication of passion, audience connection, skill and content strategy?

    Again, I’m a loyal fan. I save your thought provoking and insightful pieces for a time when I can read them unrushed and undisturbed.

    But in this piece on strategy – I think Tonto is off track and has lost the scent of the trail.

    I’m not sure about its point or purpose, right down to your final sentence which seems more suited to a hallmark card than the thought leader I know you to be.

  2. September 25, 2011


    Sorry to let you down. However, although the post didn’t resonate with you, it did with others. I think it’s a matter of perspective.

    Many major marketers are getting into publishing in a big way, but they are not approaching it from a user experience perspective as a publisher would. Instead, they focus on targeting and messaging as they would in a traditional marketing environment. Moreover, there is a serious lack of experienced content people within marketing organizations who can help bridge the gap. So that is the issue I was addressing.

    Great point about the “Dummies” series btw.


  3. September 25, 2011

    Thanks Greg. And so you know . . . no real let down. Still as dedicated a fan as ever.

    I get your point 100% with your boiled down response.

    Agree completely. Your points were a dart toss hitting the red bullseye -right smack dab in the center of the problem, cause and needed solution.

    Unfortunately whether we’re marketers or not – most of us can’t own up and confess that we just don’t know, what we don’t know.

    Appreciate too the acknowledgement on the “Dummies” point. Thanks.

  4. Mark permalink
    September 25, 2011

    Having spent over 25 years in advertising on the account side and coming up during the halcyon days of pharmaceutical print I was taught early on the value of a great story and the passion of the language. Account types, editors, writers, and art directors were wordsmiths. They understood language and its power.

    I learned early on that if you put your eye on the first word of an ad, sales aid, direct mail, etc and found yourself at the end, that was good copy. Effortless uptake of information and knowledge. Visceral is all about the embrace of words to create a feeling. Good copy (content) does that.

  5. Mark permalink
    September 25, 2011

    PS: And visceral/content is not just words it is the art directors job to communicate that with visuals and type. Both make it work.

  6. September 25, 2011

    Thank you, Jay! Passionate comments really liven up the site.

    Have a great week!

    – Greg

  7. September 25, 2011

    Thanks for both comments.

    – Greg

  8. Roni permalink
    September 26, 2011

    The term “content strategy” has been around for some years now, but it’s more recently that lots of marketers are hearing about it and reading it as “content marketing strategy” which it most definitely is not.

  9. September 26, 2011

    Thanks for your input.


  10. October 2, 2011

    OK so with all this expertise going around, who can re-write my blogs to make them emotional, story based, yet academic and compelling so they can lead the world away from the brink?

    I have had offers but they want my retirement cheque/check.

    If yo want to really live you need a passion. Here is something to be really passionate about. You will help more people with fewer resources and with more benefits than all those famous pilots did at risk of their lives in the Battle of Britain WWII.

    I’ve put my urls out here often enough. Now it is up to you to Google me and find them that way.

  11. October 2, 2011

    You always add an interesting perspective Edward.

    – Greg

  12. October 22, 2013

    Hey Greg:

    I am an active writer/blogger that still values the power of language. It is the business suit, the first-impression, the introduction that is key not just to marketing but to how we communicate ideas to the masses.

    Therefore, I had to agree with @Jay Levin who made some interesting points critiquing the points made in your piece. But if I may also add some of my own:

    1) Two paragraphs after Mission has a type-o: “They audience will know.”

    2)Under Analogues I would consider re-wording: “They want to see what their peers are doing, what’s been successful, what hasn’t been [successful?] and which new approaches have promise.”


    “Marketers need to start [I’d probably not repeat the word, ‘start’ but go with ‘ask’ or ‘begin’ so the sentence doesn’t sound repetitive] with the same questions.”

    This is not to judge the piece but only to enhance it. I know that you are attempting to inform but when you generalize and do not take the care in re-reading your text prior to submission, it sends the message that you are careless (which doesn’t seem to be the case considering your loyal readership).

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