What is Content Strategy for the Web?

Content strategy may seem like an intangible, undefinable term, but there are actually clearly identifiable guidelines that can help us determine what content strategy for the web is (and what it isn't).

When we approach web projects, content strategy is always a part of the conversation. You can’t have a successful website redesign or other major digital initiative unless you are accounting for the content in some meaningful, purposeful way. Taking a content-first approach ensures that the end product succeeds in both communicating and motivating effectively.

However, we still sometimes see confusion around what content strategy exactly is (and isn’t). It can sometimes be perceived as a monolithic, all-or-nothing approach, which can be intimidating for those new to the concept. Also, for organizations only recently adopting a more digital-first, strategy-over-service mindset, content strategy can be a lot to take in.

What shall we do? Let’s break it down.

What’s the Definition of Content Strategy?

Kristina Halvorson, author of the seminal text “Content Strategy for the Web”, offers three valid working definitions of content strategy:

  • Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.
  • Content strategy means getting the right content, to the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
  • ​Content strategy is an integrated set of user-centered, goal-driven choices about content throughout its lifecycle.

Note that these definitions define content strategy more as a mindset or an approach, not a specific, immutable, all-in-one thing. Content strategy is really a methodology offering useful approaches and tactics for centering content within your digital effort. The good news is that means there’s more than one way to do it right. At the core of the methodology is the understanding that a content experience cannot truly succeed (or be considered strategic) without an underlying process or structure.

Here are some other characteristics of content strategy that I find particularly clarifying:

  • Sustainable: If at the end of the day you can’t execute your plan on an ongoing basis, from a resource or timing perspective, was it ever the right plan at all?
  • Purposeful: Meaning. Intent. Whichever way you want to splice it. Content needs a goal and direction in order to succeed.
  • Engaging: This is probably the most overused (or misused) word in any discussion about content, so let’s pin it down. Engagement means that the content captures the attention of its audience (through its high relevance and quality), and motivates them to feel, understand, or do something. That’s the real mark of engagement.
  • Holistic: A good content strategy isn’t one-sided. It’s accounting for multiple platforms, multiple influences, multiple outcomes. It’s got 360-degree awareness of what could impact it, and what it will impact.
  • Appropriate: This word is one that content strategist Margot Bloomstein has woven into her working definition of content strategy, and it’s a good one. There’s a lot of important meaning wrapped up in the word “appropriate” — it evoke that sense of “right place, right time” as well as a keen sense of audience.

If you work in higher ed, you know there are specific organizational factors at play that influence how content strategy plays out. That’s why we detailed the three pillars of content strategy in higher education, providing another lens through which to understand the discipline.

What Does Content Strategy for the Web Look Like?

This is a very common question, likely stemming from the fact that content strategy can still feel obtuse to some. If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone ask for a sample content strategy or a content strategy template, I’d be taking myself out to a nice lunch, for sure.

Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. And again, even if you just revisit one small corner of your process and everything else stays the same, that is still content strategy at work! But here are some elements that may inform a comprehensive content strategy effort:

  • Discovery
    • User research & stakeholder input
    • Content inventory & audit/analysis
    • Analytics & SEO review
    • Content ecosystem/journey mapping
    • Defined goals and audience hierarchy

From there, your content strategy may comprise any or all of the following, depending on your needs and resourcing:

  • Messaging framework
  • Style guidelines, including considerations for voice and tone, SEO, readability, and accessibility
  • Defined content formats, structure, and hierarchy (written and visual)
  • Taxonomy & publishing strategy
  • Content modeling (mapping relationships across different content types and components)
  • Content operations and planning, including editorial calendaring and collaboration
    • Omnichannel/cross-platform considerations
    • Written and visual (photo and video)
    • Brand storytelling approaches
    • Taxonomy recommendations
  • Governance model, policies, and processes
    • Training & documentation planning
    • Roles and publishing workflow

But What Will My Web Content Strategy Look Like?

Great question! The answer: it depends.

Everyone is different — different goals, different audiences, different user needs to meet, different organizational objectives to achieve, different messages to convey, different scopes, different resources, different organizations, different priorities.

All of these factors will determine your ultimate content strategy — an understanding of what you need to do, ultimately informed by what you are able to do sustainably.

What Does Content Strategy Need to Succeed?

Sustainability: Once more for the people in the back. Content strategy needs to be sustainable in order to be successful. If your plans are not realistically resourced, organized, or scheduled, they will not come to pass. Are you planning for more stories than you can write within a given timeframe? Do you have the video resources to support that aggressive video content plan?

Culture change: As organizations — especially in higher education — gradually pivot away from a print mindset and embrace the pacing and expectations of digital, the culture needs to come along with it. This can be a slow and sometimes challenging process. Expectations, attitudes, perspectives, priorities, and, yes, feelings, all need to change in order to understand publishing and communications from a content strategy perspective. You can’t just start publishing new things in new ways — you need to bring people along for the ride and help them buy into it.  

Advocacy: Advocacy is the grease in the culture change machine. Find your champions, your leaders, your executive sponsors, your cheerleaders who will help advocate for the benefits and value of content strategy along the way — continually.

Accountability: The “git’r done” partner of advocacy is accountability. Content strategy does not happen in a vacuum. It happens because someone makes sure it gets done, and gets done effectively. It happens when roles and ownership are clearly defined and delineated.

What Content Strategy Is Not

Content strategy is not copywriting. Writing — even writing really, really well — does not comprise content strategy on its own. Rather, strong writing (or photography, videography, tweeting, what have you) should be the result of a thoughtful content strategy — imbued with goals and messaging, informed by research and analysis, shaped by content guidelines, empowered with structure and process.

Content strategy is not content marketing. Throwing an editorial calendar together to schedule your blog posts is not a strategy — all you’ve done is assign dates to what may still potentially be misaligned chaos. Content strategy can help a content marketing effort succeed, but they are by no means one and the same. (Learn more about what content marketing really entails.)

Content strategy is not digital strategy. While content strategy does comprise a significant component of a successful digital strategy, the latter accounts for a wider range of platform decisions, marketing efforts, and technological factors.

Recommended Content Strategy Books and Podcasts

It’s not cool if there’s not a podcast about it, amirite? If you want to keep diving into the wonderful world of content strategy, here are some more smart ideas to read and listen to.

Content Strategy Podcasts

The Content Strategy Podcast, hosted by Kristina Halvorson

Content Strategy Insights, hosted by Larry Swanson

Content Design, hosted by Vanessa Barlow

Content Strategy Experts

Writers in Tech

Books About Content Strategy for the Web

Brain Traffic maintains the most current and comprehensive list of books about content strategy, but here are some of our favorites:

  • Content Design by Sarah Richards
  • Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow by Mike Atherton and Carrie Hane
  • Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works by Janice (Ginny) Redish
  • Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson
  • Content Strategy at Work by Margot Bloomstein
  • Strategic Writing for UX by Torrey Podmajersky
  • Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design by Lisa Welchman
  • Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
  • The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right by Meghan Casey
  • The Elements of Content Strategy, by Erin Kissane
  • Content Audits and Inventories: A Handbook, by Paula Ladenburg Land
  • Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
  • ​Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane