Content strategy may be a new discipline, but it is an ancient art. The problems that content strategists face are, for the most part, ancient problems concerning the representation of brands, organizations, and entities. Our solutions rely on modern technology but are by no means fundamentally new. We can be better at what we do by taking a breath, looking back, and then looking back further.
Content strategy arose out of one basic problem: that of ungoverned quantity. Brands, as they began their inevitable transition from being simply manufacturers and marketers of products to full-scale digital publishers, created content that was short-sighted and disorganized. This content was developed (and generally abandoned) to populate the newly opened, limitless volume of the web — garbage launched into space – for a purpose akin to that of Sir Edmund Hilary’s in climbing Everest: simply “because it was there.”
The web has become crowded and is no longer a genuine frontier. The content strategist has taken a revisionary role in this process. As John Ford and Sergio Leone revised the wild west, so are we revising and recasting, in language meant to reassure us, the state of digital freedom and its limitless possibilities. But here’s the truth: somehow a capacity has been found. The content strategist’s job is to fight for real estate on a continent that is unquestionably settled.
Content strategists, on our worst days, are muckrakers of the digital revolution.
But we are not alone in our struggles. We have our peers, yes, but we also have history.
The Web and the New World
Bruce Scheiner wrote last year in Wired (and how frustrated was I to learn in writing this that the idea had already been taken?) of the feudal age of the web: how those few, great feudal lords – Facebook, Google, Twitter – vie for dominance over an increasingly supplicant base of digital vassals (us).
I like this analogy, though I can’t help myself in wanting to revise it – simply because feudal lords lacked any global influence, and the defining nature of those companies are their global dominance. I see the development and monetization of the web as being more akin to the devastation and development of the New World by European Colonialists from the 15th century onward – and I would say our progress has brought us to something like an analog of North America in the 18th century, with France, England, and Spain fighting over the freshly purloined territories. Somebody is going to win.
It is All Marketing – Or At Least it Should Be
As Erin Kissane identifies in her book The Elements of Content Strategy, our discipline is informed and founded out of four distinct traditions: information science, editorial work, curatorial work, and finally marketing and persuasion.
That final category, marketing and persuasion, is one I find myself as a content strategist incessantly defending. When I wrote Are Feelings Good for Content Strategy? a few months ago, a bunch of content strategy folks came out of the woodwork to argue with one another on Twitter and in the comments section about the complex relationship between data and empathy, which I had argued were or at least should be inextricably entwined.
However, the criticism I got about the article – which was relatively well-received – wasn’t actually related to my thesis, but rather to a sub-theme, in which I discussed the reputation of content strategy amongst other marketing disciplines. My general conclusion was that we weren’t being taken seriously yet, and needed to take corrective measures by adopting more data-driven market research practices. I got into a little bit of trouble (trouble is maybe too strong a word) for only discussing the marketing elements of content strategy. Okay, guilty. Maybe.
I am at my core a marketer, and content strategy is my discipline. Maybe I am looking at the world through rose colored glasses, but I see it all as marketing. Everything we do as professionals who deal with the development, refinement and maintenance of digital properties are practicing some form of marketing. But let’s clear up definitions. Here’s mine: Marketing is the process, from preparation to sale, of bringing a product to market. You catch the fish. You clean the fish. You sell the fish. If your organization has goals, and trades in a currency of money and/or influence, everything you do in furtherance of those goals is marketing.
Am I being a relativist out of convenience to my argument?
Queen Elizabeth I was perhaps the greatest marketer ever to ever occupy the English throne. She understood, as did her distant forbear Henry IV, the absolute power of language when applied with precision and intent. Elizabeth ruled with an acumen until then unparalleled in English history except perhaps by Alfred the Great, though we know very little of his actual rule.
When speaking in any public capacity (and when , let’s face it, were Elizabeth’s extant communications not in some way public?) she employed the royal “we.” Those less Anglophilic than myself may find a home base here with the humorous expression “we are not amused,” which is actually attributed to Victoria – though like many of our favorite historical quotations, was probably never actually uttered.
But I digress. Elizabeth, when speaking for herself, employed the first person plural pronoun because she intended to signal that when she spoke, she was speaking exclusively for England. As a female monarch stepping into the shoes (albeit a few monarchs removed) of her father Henry VIII, the most horrifically masculine monarch England had ever seen, an establishment of power was absolutely essential. And Elizabeth delivered.
Single words have immense power to persuade. But more often we are compelled by stories. Content strategists are in the business of telling stories. This can be something as simple as the organization of content. We look at swathes of unorganized content, and sculpt the excess into a clear brand story. Where we see quality, we augment and extrapolate. Discovering what is great about an organization, and allowing that content to blossom. Similarly, Elizabeth took inventory of what was already great about England: it’s fierce independence; it’s taste for religious opulence; it’s burgeoning culture of arts and intellect; and shaped them into a nation.
Apple & The Warrior Queen
We also look at the way she presented herself in her portraits, which was the way most of her subjects would have seen her — though in the form of woodcuts modeled after the original. England, having recently lost the decadence and splendor or the Roman Catholic church for the modesty and primness of its newfound protestantism, found once again that splendor and glory in their papally-inspired monarch Elizabeth.
We’ve seen Apple do this with amazing success – a success comparable even to that of Elizabeth. From 1984 until roughly around the middle of the last decade, Apple was simply the alternative. The other computer company. It was geeky, but in the way that your artsy college roommate was geeky. Its 1984 ad for the Macintosh promises freedom to the consumer by giving to them the fruit from the tree of computing knowledge. It was a brilliant ad. Macintosh had defined itself as the people’s brand — at once the outlier and the hero. Macintosh was in a position to dominate the market, but it didn’t. Steve Jobs was ousted. It became a niche alternative for those who were willing to spend the money, and explain to their professors why none of their files were compatible.
Fast forward to 1997. Jobs was back at the helm. And he begins to reshape the company into what it is now through a holistic apporach to product development with marketing built into every step. Still touting the think different angle, they took the next step in codifying it as litany for a generation of young people defining themselves not only by their usage of technology, but by their technology itself.
And apple encouraged that self-definition. In the wake of a number of failures by Microsoft to actually define itself as a branded entity (seriously, Microsoft was basically brandless), Apple, like Elizabeth in the wake of the protestant reformation, set itself up to be worshiped. And like Elizabeth, the process began ensconced itself in rigorously controlled image. Minimalizing when everything else was complicating itself, Apple invented its own mythology, built out of the counterculture and the tech revolution.
They even built the churches in which their disciples could worship.
This marks a major shift in the cultural attitude of Apple, recorded over the last thirty years of content the company has surrounded themselves with.
King James I
King James I, successor to Elizabeth, was perhaps the greatest editorial content strategist of the early modern period. Close to one hundred years after the separation of the church of England from the Roman catholic church, England at the height of its powers still did not possess an officially recognized English-language Bible. As the nation of England was coming into maturity not only as a major political power, but also as an artistic power, King James commissioned a new translation of the Bible, drawn from the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the old and new testament to bolster the strength of the new, purely English form of Christianity.
As Christopher Hitchens points out in his essay “When the King Saved God,” the translators of the Bible chose, whenever they could, to translate the words for ‘tribe’ or ‘people’ into ‘nation,’ further codifying the sense of manifest destiny England felt, as any burgeoning nation tends to feel, as the natural heirs to the title “God’s people.” The word ‘nation’ appears a whopping 454 times in the text.
But James’s translation wasn’t the only English language translation of the Bible. Roughly 75 years before, William Tyndale had mostly completed his version of the English Bible. While lacking the distinctly Jacobean poetry of the King James Version, the Tyndale version is a foundational text.
As Hitchens also identifies, a key differentiator between the two translations are the particulars. For instance, the word ‘agape,’ which in Greek describes a sort of familial or brotherly love, is translated differently across both texts. Tyndale translates it as ‘love,’ while the King James version translates it as ‘charity.’ Needless to say, the love translation certainly embodies the more modern sense of the religion, while the idea of charity almost makes devotion to God seem dutiful, with the implied financial obligation that comes along with the word charity.
Mind the Details
Small words make all of the difference. The names of things matter so much to us because our nomenclature is representative of deep logical relationships that shape our interaction with named entities. Why do you think so many serious SEOs have written articles about whether we ought to be calling SEO ‘inbound marketing?’ This stuff really matters.
When Mike King and I were hashing out the language for the iAcquire site redesign, we hit a stumbling point. Our Offerings section, where we house descriptions of everything we do as an agency, had a name problem. We wanted to call the section ‘Offerings’ because we felt it captured the spirit of our agency. We deplored the word ‘services,’ because it felt like we were serving our clients, rather than offering them the strategies that we’ve devised.
But here’s the problem: our offerings based keywords had way more traffic than our services based keywords – to the tune of 12,000 exact match searches each month. But the keyword still wasn’t right. Services didn’t make sense. We stayed with offerings. Simply put, we didn’t think the traffic that services would bring us would yield the kind of leads we wanted. We simply didn’t want to be servicing anyone’s SEO.
Sometimes we have to make extremely difficult decisions for the sake of our content. We don’t regret that one.
Shakespearean Content Strategy
Now let’s talk about Shakespeare. Why is Shakespeare so monolithically beautiful? Why is he eternal? He wasn’t necessarily the most popular dramatist of his day. He had tons of competitors whose plays were generally more popular than his. You’ve all probably read Marlowe (Doctor Faustus or Tamburlaine probably) but a very small number of people reading this will have read anything of Thomas Middleton, John Ford, Ben Jonson, or Thomas Kyd – who may in fact have written a play “Hamlet” a decade before Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece of the same name.
Additionally, Shakespeare was simply terrible at plot. Hamlet even contains a deus ex machina in which the ship bearing Hamlet to England for his execution is overtaken by pirates who for some reason or another take Hamlet back to Denmark allowing him to enact revenge upon his dastardly uncle Claudius. How convenient, Shakespeare. One need only consult Dr. Johnson for a comprehensive list of the Bard’s shortcomings. So why, then, out of a group of playwrights who competed on basically even footing, is Shakespeare eternal?
It is because Shakespeare understood with an acute precision the diversity and nature of his audience — what ideologies and prejudices, as well as fears and fetishes that diversity engendered. His language generally operated on at least three different levels at any one time. Shakespeare was a success because he understood the political climate of his day. He created content that catered at once to three distinct groups: groundlings, the nobility, and the crown.
But Shakespeare had a fourth audience: an eternal one. He was preoccupied with the idea of immortality through written works, and he sought themes that acted within the binaries of human experience. Unlike many of his rivals, who found popularity with puritan-bashing, esoteric representations of social class, or prolonged displays of torture and cruelty (the last of which, early on, Shakespeare was certainly guilty of), Shakespeare sought the themes introduced at the inception of theater: those basic tragedies which had resonated for over a thousand years, and have resonated since.
We need only look as far as Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 to see his ploys for immortality at work:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Notice how this poem, ostensibly a poem about eternal love, is really a poem about the immortality of Shakespeare’s art. Only through his words would she find everlasting life. Would seem to be quite the arrogant sentiment if it hadn’t proved to be absolutely true. Perhaps we have something to learn from Shakespeare about sustainable content?
What parallels in history do you see with your current work? Does looking back at historical challenges inspire you? Do you find them outdated and difficult to relate with? Let me know in the comments.