Content Strategy Is About Publishing

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be on a panel called “New Publishing and Web Content” at SXSW Interactive, and I’ve been thinking even more than usual about publishing and the anxieties surrounding its supposed demise.

When people talk about the imminent death of publishing, they’re usually talking about something narrow, specific, and tied to ways of working that predate the internet: the publication of books, magazines, newspapers, and all kinds of printed legal and business data, along with the economic, logistical, and aesthetic structures that have made that process possible. And that kind of publishing is indeed getting whipped around like a very small cowboy on a very large bull.

Why? Because the internet is made of publishing, and its new and often anarchic publishing models are messing with older models in all kinds of ways.

A lot of smart people are talking about what will happen to traditional organizations and methods and how they’ll be changed by the forces of New Publishing. This is a great conversation, but for a lot of content people, it’s obscuring a more important point.

The really useful part of this conversation—for content people and the people who hire us—is that we are all now enmeshed in a publishing process that predates the internet by several hundred years.

Where We Go From Here

Last week, Kristina Halvorson published a great post about the thing that content strategy is becoming. And down toward the end is this little depth charge:

…once we’ve witnessed content strategy’s effectiveness at the project level, it’s time to take several steps back and examine our organizations. Because content strategy can’t be truly effective over the long term without an internal editorial infrastructure to support it. And that means widespread organizational change.

If that doesn’t make your ears ring, take a few deep breaths and read it again. (Kristina’s from Minnesota, which is presumably why that statement isn’t splashed across the Brain Traffic website in 72-point black text.)

She’s saying something that anyone who’s done much content strategy work already knows, but has until now despaired of telling their clients: Content strategy engagements are the very beginning of a much larger process. And if you don’t commit to the much larger process, you will not keep up in the new world for much longer. It’s not a new idea—AOL’s Steve Case was talking about it ten years ago and it’s the assumption behind the recent surge in attention to editorial strategy—but it’s one that the business world may finally be ready to hear.

To restate the basics:

  1. The internet made it possible for everyone to become a publisher.
  2. The internet plus the market made it mandatory for organizations to become publishers if they want to compete for the attention of their constituents.

The recent increase in client enthusiasm for content strategy is the sound of a significant minority of organizations slowly beginning to realize the above.

Old Think(ing) for New Publishers

So let’s talk about what this means. Publishing online requires a known set of skills: creative leadership, design, editing, production, quality control, and ongoing planning and management. It also takes a few new skills, like community management, curation, and semantic wrangling, most of which are borrowed from other disciplines. But it’s largely made up of new applications for old skills.

When we talk about content strategy, we’re mostly explaining to our clients that if you want to be part of an online conversation, you must become a publisher. And because we’ve been publishing books, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, pamphlets, and fanzines in various forms since the 1450s, we know a few things about that.

We know, for example, that publishing is a genuinely complex task that requires vast quantities of invisible labor. We also know that the things we’ve learned to do as publishers of books and especially of magazines and newspapers can help our clients do a much better job of communicating with their readers. Things like:

  • building a solid editorial workflow, including clear approval processes and thorough quality checks,
  • using editorial calendars and planning content campaigns and themes—explicit or otherwise—well in advance,
  • tuning content for specific channels and audiences (if you think this is a new idea, consider the challenges of putting out regional editions of newspapers and magazines in print, on the same day, all over the world), and perhaps most importantly,
  • regularly publishing smart, original content that readers can use, which means hiring people who can listen to internal experts and write, edit, and curate content that extends well beyond white papers, executive bios, and the annual report.

We (by which I mean you) are doing a great job of talking about this stuff amongst ourselves. Next, we need to do a better job of communicating it to our clients. In particular, we need to help our clients focus on this core challenge—publishing—in the face of constant distraction in the form of new tools and trends.

Keep Your Eye on the Doughnut

From about 1999 onward, the peripatetic experts of the leading-edge online trend of the moment have generated a standing wave of hype about tools disguised as paradigm shifts—just poke Twitter to see how many social media “gurus” are lined up to take your money. This is what happens on frontiers, and the snake oil salesmen aren’t going anywhere until the rate of change slows down. In the meantime, it’s our job as content and editorial strategists to help our clients focus on the central challenges and opportunities of online communication.

Right now, these are the trees: Twitter, Google Buzz, Facebook, YouTube channels, tagging, SEO (still), user-generated content. Publishing is the forest.

Help your clients and bosses come to grips with the publishing process, and the rest of your content strategy will sell itself.

Further Reading

12 thoughts on “Content Strategy Is About Publishing

  1. Thank you for this fantastically thoughtful post, Erin.

    The above handily encapsulates the philosophical approach to content strategy I’ve aimed to establish with my practice. As for the tactics of editorial strategy–the practice of publishing–there’s a wealth of existing tools and know-how just awaiting widespread rediscovery. (This is why I refer to editorial calendars as the killer app of content strategy.) I believe I’ve defined an entire methodology that addresses the client challenge on that front.

    But it’s the community discussion now that’s genuinely exciting, and the way designers and developers likewise have much to inform, challenge and enliven our preoccupations as content specialists. People tend to misunderstand publishing as a static and antique practice; at its finest, it’s a dynamic group enterprise.

    Understanding the legacy and centrality of publishing isn’t an exercise in quaint historical appreciation. It’s actually a return to the first principles of user experience. No less than semantically aware, “intelligent” content experiences, effective digital publishing is every bit the future of content strategy.

  2. You make some excellent points, particularly about the skill set that publishing requires and how that’s exactly what applies to new media communication. The one limitation I see to the publishing model is that, historically, publishing has been a specifically one-way phenomenon. To use the concept of publishing for modern communications, we have to update it to incorporate the importance of engaging in and generating conversation. If you’re just publishing to your social media channels in the old-fashioned sense, you’re missing out on the power and value social media offers.

  3. @Jeffrey: Great points, all.

    I think those of us (in content) who come from the editorial world, rather than from information architecture or web writing or marketing, tend to angle toward publishing and its methods. And even though I’ve been doing things like editorial workflow consulting for years, it’s been under the cover of webbier-sounding “new media” ideas.

    There’s that lingering notion left over from the first internet boom that everything old is irrelevant, and I find it so refreshing to see people—organizations, even—discover that some traditional processes are so applicable to online publishing.

    @Kate Johnson: Yes, definitely. But in the web world—in my sector of it, at least—people are much more likely to talk about the differences and the newness and the conversation and all that than they are about the foundational stuff like editorial processes.

    I do get why it’s that way: we needed some way to convince clients that building a brochure site was a dumb way to communicate with an online audience. So we talked about conversation and two-way communication and social media and so on, which we needed to do. Now we just need to go back and pick up those more traditional publishing tools and processes and adapt them to these new uses.

  4. Finally! A perspective on the publishing industry that’s less elegy, more eulogy, focusing less on mourning and more on the glass-half-full opportunities!

    Erin, you start out by citing the “imminent death of publishing” as a loss of specific media types. I appreciate your point that we need to incorporate many of the processes that evolved within those media. I’m curious about your perspective on another loss/opportunity topic: should we lament the loss of editorial perspectives and filters that we lose as traditional media types–often bastions of quality in service to a unified goal–fold and succumb to user-generated content? What’s the learning opportunity we can retain there?

  5. @Margot Bloomstein: Margot, I think your question is smarter than my answer could possibly be.

    To be honest, I wrote this post as much for myself as for anyone else. I’m a little terrified by the possible losses we face, but I’m also hopeful about opportunities to get a smaller amount of really great journalism and other old-school publishing in front of a much larger number of readers. (Mandy Brown’s soothing short post on publishing is my current security blanket.)

    What do you think? Can we find ways to hang on to the best parts of the editorial POV from traditional publishing?

    @Christopher Burd: Thank you! Years of frustration do tend to focus the mind. :)

  6. Pingback: Content Strategy Is About Publishing « Predicate, LLC | Editorial + Content Strategy

  7. Just now read this, as I’m a new follower. Brilliant across the board. The other part of this – you’d probably call it another “tree” – is the creative tone and voice publishers project. This is often confused with “copywriting,” but it’s more than that. In general, websites are marketing pieces. Personality matters.

    I can go on and on. I’m glad to learn about, and read you.

    Now, get rid of those Fluevogs. They’re like the parenthetical expression of footwear.

    Have a grand day!

  8. Pingback: Embrace content strategy: throw out your design process — lucid plot, by Jonathan Kahn

  9. You have a brilliant point Erin and there’s a lot of “things” that I must learn from u. To be frankly, I feel so small after reading this post.

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