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Linguistic Implications of Content Strategy

Towards another definition

“The brain is hungry not for method but for content […].” —Frederick Turner

Names, Labels, Definitions

Despite, or maybe precisely because of the continuing buzz about Content Strategy, we still seem to have only a vague idea of what it contains. I love some of the definitions smart people have come up with and I don't mean to amend them. The following is to be seen as part of the discourse on how we, as content strategists, think about what we do.

Names and labels — especially successful ones — are usually not happy coincidences. We can learn from their implications if we turn them inside out. So, I'm proposing a structured analytic view of the term “Content Strategy” to hopefully connect some of the loose threads.

Part of our job is to take things apart, find out what the pieces are about (their intent, purpose, conclusions, and on), and then re-assemble them to get a clearer view, to find the “more” that's hidden in the sum of the parts.

Let's start with the taking-apart.

Content

A look into a dictionary tells us that content encompasses a wide scope of meaning.

n. Something contained, as in a receptacle.

But content is more than something passive, unilateral:

n. The material, including text and images, that constitutes a publication or document
n. The substantive or meaningful part
n. The meaning or significance of a literary or artistic work

Content, thus, also establishes and enacts substance, meaning, and significance. Put in a pedestrian way, it is not something thrown in a box that we then rummage through. That which is contained also shapes the container, defines it, becomes its essence. By that, the content starts to communicate, but only — and this is merely implied in the above — if it is given a structure, a pattern that we can make sense of.

We do so, as Rahel Bailie points out, by contextualizing data. Content does not create meaning by itself, but relies on our ability to arrange it and form mental relationships, so that its individual parts can be mentally connected to form something coherent.

n. Containing capacity or extent.

Content itself contains something that we have to read and bring to the foreground. It is (and here we get philosophical again) potential meaning that we are after. Especially if we think about “capacity” and “extent”, there is quite a material feeling to it: Content takes up space. We have to create enough space for possibility and development, because they are an inherent part of content. (Notice again that terms like “capacity”, “extent”, and imply something active.)

So okay: content is not static, but rather dynamic, in motion — if alone for the fact that it communicates.

But funnily enough, content implies something more:

adj. Desiring no more than what one has; satisfied.
n. Contentment; satisfaction.

As strategists who deal with content, it is our job to make content satisfying. I would argue that what makes it satisfying is essentially “meaning”. Few things are more satisfying for us humans than obtaining meaning. On the other hand, things without meaning are, for the most part, utterly worthless, even frustrating to us. We have to make sure that our content contains meaning by way of its structure and contextualizations, and that this meaning is easily understood by the ones who peruse our content.

Let's dig a little deeper:
Etymologically, content is derived from medieval Latin: contentum, a plural form, and merely meant “things contained”. It's also worth noticing that there is hardly a singular meaning inherent in “content”. We generally speak about multiple elements.

Contentus is the past participle of continere, which also meant “to hold” and “to restrain”. Not only, then, is our content the holder of meaning. There is (etymologically at least) a limit implied, beyond which containment is impossible. We have all experienced this: too much content for the container obscures meaning.

For now, I hold that the main goal of “content” is making meaning possible.

Strategy

According to our trusted dictionary, strategy is

n. The science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations.
n. The art or skill of using stratagems in endeavors such as politics and business.
n. The use of artifice, finesse, or stratagem for the carrying out of any project.
n. an elaborate and systematic plan of action
Synonyms: generalship, tactics

“Strategy”, therefore, implies an approach both scientific and artful, elaborate but not artificial. It implies a certain artfulness even, in the positive sense. A “project” (whatever that might be) lays down very clear boundaries and restrictions — the space in which the strategist moves is limited — she cannot start from scratch, but has to use what is already there. The image of war and warfare is inherent to the word. From etymology:

Strategy. From Old French strategie, from Ancient Greek strategia, “office of general, command, generalship”, from strategos, “the leader or commander of an army, a general”, from stratos, “army” + ago, “I lead, I conduct”.

The commander-in-chief, the general, is the highest office in the military (in ancient Greece and today). Responsible for the carrying out of actions according to an elaborate plan that comprises many individual parts, the general uses stratagem (artifice to surprise an enemy) to successfully take over foreign ground. For this, naturally, he has to have an all-encompassing overview of capabilities, resources, and the terrain he is working with. It's not only what the strategists do, it's above all how they do it: according to an artful, meticulous plan. This might sound trivial. But it's the understanding of those trivialities that makes endeavors successful in the end.

Difficulties (A Short Excursion)

General! We have to fight those damn Baccarudas!
It’s ‘Barracudas’, my Lord.
I can’t pronounce ‘baccaruda’.
It's easy: say ‘ba’.
‘Ba.’
Now ‘ra.’
Ra.
‘Cu.’
Cu.
‘Da.’
Da.
‘Now put it all together!’
Babararacucudada!

Much can go wrong with plotting a strategy. There's the capabilities and understanding of the strategist to consider, the material she has to work with that will pose difficulties, as well as the (sometimes limited) understanding of the client. The strategist’s responsibility, therefore, is to have a clear view of those constraints, the matter she works with (container of the content, its specifications with their constraints and freedom), the terrain she is working on, and the decision-makers she works with.

And yes, we have to guide our client through the whole process and take care of all matters, big or small, because the client can’t be bothered with what seems like “minor details” to her, but is a huge issue for us due to the fact that we think it is relevant for our users.

On a side note: It does not bring you into disrepute to ask for help. In fact, you will need to — generals always depend on input and help from other experts or informants. And clients.

Content Strategy

To return to Frederick Turner, why is the brain hungry for content, anyway? Because it is already equipped with some very elaborate methods, so we can do the meaning-making ourselves, alright — if we get structured access to content. Let’s make sure nobody leaves hungry.

If we apply the implications of both “content” and “strategy” outlined above, one definition of “content strategy” could be: “The science and art of structuring meaningful communication.” That would make the content strategist the commander of the architecture of elements needed for creating meaning with communication. Does that sound in any way less vague?

I’ll spell it out again:
We try to establish meaning with our content.
Content is inherently dynamic.
It serves to satisfy the user.

Strategy has a scientific and artful approach.
It focuses on the how over the what.
A successful strategy imports an overview of all elements.

Content Strategy is the systematic, dynamic approach to creating meaning with structure.

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