A brief history of content strategy

Content strategy is a new ‘old thing’, as old as publishing itself, so it’s potentially a foolhardy exercise to lay down a history – although we won’t let that stop us, oh no! (Scroll down for our timeline of key markers, or read on for a slower, more exciting build-up.)

When it comes to web content in particular, whether technical content or marketing comms, content strategy has experienced exponential growth in the past decade. You can see that visually in our Google Trends’ chart which logs interest in the term:

Chart showing rising interest in the term 'content strategy'

Why now?

Digital content strategy in particular has grown out of a set of new frustrations and needs, for example:

  • A jumble of app iconsThe cost and skills barriers to publishing have virtually disappeared overnight; anyone can now publish, and this brings both threats and opportunities.
  • More tools, channels and platforms means more content than ever is being uploaded – 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, for example (Source: YouTube) – although often still with little thought for audience or benefit for the publisher.
  • Existing print and broadcast communications and legacy web content need to be integrated with new, fast and cheap online avenues, but content silos remain and need to be overcome.

Content strategy as a career move

staff t-shirtIt’s no surprise that a growing army of content strategists is on the rise, seeking to sort the content mess, and bring strategy and process to content planning and production. Experienced practitioners are increasingly being sought out by major clients and agencies to address the content mistakes of the past, as well as set structure for the present and future. By degrees, the elements of content strategy are becoming as established as those essentials of information architecture or web design.

Which is good news for those interested in developing a career in the field.

As recruiters in the digital communications field, we know from our 2012 Content Strategy Hiring Trends Survey that those who can DO content strategy are in  demand. Meanwhile, there is a growing list of  content strategy books, conferences and other resources to help those transitioning into content strategy from related career areas, such as copywriting, web editing, IA or project management. (See Richard Ingram’s 2011 survey for a full log of the many routes in.)

A timeline of content strategy

As part of Firehead’s work towards mapping the content strategy recruitment and employment landscape, we wanted to put together a timeline of how the field has developed. So we asked the content strategy community for their help.

We’d like to thank the following in particular for their comments, links and feedback in helping us compile the timeline below: Kristina Halvorson, Molly Steenson, Rachel Lovinger, Hilary Marsh, Richard Ingram, Karen McGrane, Adam Tinworth and Margot Bloomstein.

1997

    • Tweets about CS at RazorfishAnecdotal evidence that content strategy is being used as a term among early content professionals.

1998

    • Content strategy as an adopted practice is not yet in evidence but large companies such as Sapient and Razorfish agency start to hire ‘content strategists’.

1999

    • Mark McCormick, MD at internet consultancy Scient, writes A Unified Field Theory of Content Strategy (does anyone have a link to this? – Ed). Colleague Molly Steenson speaks on the topic of content strategy at Web ’99 and later outlines how content strategy interacts with other disciplines in Content strategy – Written aspects of interaction design.

 2001

    • Content Critical by Gerry McGovern published, focusing on the subject of web content and containing similar insights/arguments to his later bestseller, Killer Web Content (2006).
    • Usability guru Jakob Nielsen posts content tips as far back as 1995 but seems to have tagged them into content strategy in 2001 (as logged by Rachel Lovinger in her Content Strategy: Why Now? seminar)

2002

    • Paul Ford of Copywire.com offers content strategy services (Source: Rachel Lovinger, as above).
    • Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy by Ann Rockley published.

2004

    • Contentstrategy.com is registered as a domain name by a holding company. It is later purchased (in 2007 by Braintraffic.com, for $2000) and developed into a website.

Contentstrategy.com site

2005

2007

    • Rachel Lovinger posts Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data with the often quoted “content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design”.
    • Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice (Ginny) Redish published.

2008

    • kristina halvorsonRichard Sheffield self-publishes The Web Content Strategist’s Bible by as an online ebook in February 2008 (now in paperback).
    • A List Apart publishes a content strategy issue with features by Jeff MacIntyre and Kristina Halvorson (pictured), who has proceeded to put the field on the map. Halvorson’s commonly used definition is coined in one of the articles, The Discipline of Content Strategy: “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

2009

    • Break-out year for ‘content strategy’ – the term starts trending in search rising from 880 results in 2000 to 286,000 searches in 2008 but then suddenly jumps to 4,210,000 in 2009 (Source: Rachel Lovinger, as above).
    • First dedicated content strategy meet-up occurs on 19 March at the IA Summit in Memphis: the Content Strategy Consortium is organised by Kristina Halvorson and Karen McGrane and attended by 22 content strategists.
    • Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson published 22 August 2009.
    • Get Content, Get Customers by Joe Pulizzi and Newt Barrett also published.

2010

    • Sign on door for Rahel Bailie keynote at CS Forum 2010.First content strategy conference, CS Forum (pictured), takes place in Paris, France in April – co-organised by Firehead.
    • First content strategy speakers on the programme at SXSW Interactive.
    • Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content (Voices That Matter) by Colleen Jones and Content Rules by Ann Handley published.

2011

    • Two new content strategy conferences launch: Confab – The Content Strategy Conference in Minneapolis, USA, and Content Strategy Applied in London.
    • The topic makes it onto other conference agendas, from Webstock to Content Marketing World, Tech Comm UK to Congility.
    • The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane published.
    • Contentini notes that content strategy appears limited to certain geographical areas, such as coastal US cities and London, and asks if it will break out.
    • Second CS Forum held in London, UK.

2012

    • Content Strategy: Why Now? by Rachel Lovinger logs the rise of content strategy in the past 10 years (chart/slide: © Razorfish).Razorfish-chart-of-content-strategy's-rise
    • Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane; Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits by Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina, and Content Strategy at Work: Real-world Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project by Margot Bloomstein published.
    • CS Forum expands out of Europe to be held in Cape Town, South Africa.

2013

    • Confab London conference launches.
    • Megalist of content strategy resources posted by Jonathon Colman.
    • Firehead releases results of Content Strategy Hiring Trends Survey, revealing pay rates, what skills employers seek in a content strategist and current hiring problems.
    • LinkedIn search produces 7,491 results for ‘content strategist’ (24 June 2013). More than 5,400 are based in the US, 480 in the UK and 460 in Canada. Razorfish  currently employs the most (43), followed by IBM (32) and SapientNitro (29).
    • Search for ‘content strategy’ continues on an upward trend – see this Google Trends chart from 2004 to the present (24 June 2013). The regional breakdown below also shows uptake – whether adoption of the term or of the role, we don’t know – is still predominantly in North America and the UK, with coastal US and London as hotspots.

Heap map showing interest by region/city

 

Any other key markers to add? Did we miss something major? We’re sure the conversation about the who/what/when of content strategy will rage on – and we look forward to hearing your views in the comments.

[Update: the comments below are filling in a number of other content strategy strands and links to information. Please read on and add more.]

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18 Responses to A brief history of content strategy

  1. This timeline is lovely! What a great resource for charting our history, celebrating the highlights, and auguring the future of Content Strategy.

    Thanks so much for putting this together, Fiona!

  2. Sascha Stoltenow says:

    2012: Content Strategy comes to Germany. IA Konferenz in Essen has Content Strategy as its key theme – http://web.archive.org/web/20161105173532/http://archiv.iakonferenz.org:80/
    2013: Content Strategy stays in Germany. 1st Content Strategy Camp at University of Applied Sciences – http://www.cscamp.de/

  3. Lucas Van der Aart says:

    Very nice timeline! I would like to add why, in my opinion, content strategy is also getting more important : The price of being ‘heard’ online. With the costs of traditional online advertising risen to levels where in many cases (and for many businesses) it is no longer economical, content provides a great democratic leveller. If you add value by means of great content you can use it to pay for exposure. Or in other words, ‘content is the currency’. The need to approach it in a more strategic way stems from the need of the organisation to manage this in a way beneficially to the organisation. E.g. content can help to attract the right or wrong visitors, can strengthen or weaken the brand and can encourage or discourage certain behaviour.

  4. Great article Fiona. When clients and prospects have asked me if content strategy is just a new buzz phrase I’ve been pointing them to old bits of the web to prove it’s been around almost as long as ecommerce. Now I can point them to something new, well-researched and as complete as any client will need.

    Anything missing? How about a last bullet point “timeline of content strategy published” 😉

  5. Scott Abel says:

    Some fairly significant work is missing from this timeline, including:

    1963

    The first publication dedicated to solving a content problem strategically — and using structured content — “[STOP] Sequential Thematic Organization of Publications: How to Achieve Coherence in Proposals and Reports” by the Hughes Aircraft Company.

    http://faculty.washington.edu/farkas/TC510-Fall2011/TraceySTOPReport.pdf

    2001

    The first book with a formal methodology (still in use today at dozens of companies around the globe) — “Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy,” by Ann Rockley; Pamela Kostur; Steve Manning (2001, New Riders)

    2008

    First conference dedicated to leveraging intelligent content and a unified content strategy created by Ann Rockley, The Mother of Content Strategy, and Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, — Intelligent Content Conference, Feb 2008 (and every February since), Palm Springs, CA

    http://www.intelligentcontentconference.com

    2009

    The first year a dedicated three-day track led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, was added at tcworld Conference and tekom Trade Fair (the largest technical communication conference in the world — attracting 3500 attendees), November 2009 (and every year since) Wiesbaden, Germany

    http://conferences.tekom.de

    2012

    First year for a dedicated two-day track on content strategy led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, added to the roster of Localization World Conference, Seattle, October 2012

    http://www.localizationworld.com/lwseattle2012/program.php

    The first training event dedicated to content strategy led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, and Rahel Bailie, Intentional Design: Content Strategy Workshops, Portland, OR

    http://www.contentstrategyworkshops.com (now three events a year)

    Published: [Second Edition]”Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy,” by Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper (with foreward by Kristina Halvorson (2012, New Riders)

    http://www.managingenterprisecontent.com

    2013

    First year two-day content strategy track, led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, added to the roster of Localization World Singapore, April 2013

    First year two-day content strategy track, led by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, added to the roster of Localization World London, June 2013

    http://www.localizationworld.com/lwlon2013/program.php

    Also missing is hyperlinks to the books about content strategy:

    Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits by Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina
    http://thecontentstrategybook.com

    Content Strategy at Work: Real-world Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project by Margot Bloomstein
    http://appropriateinc.com/book/

    There are many more, but these are just off the top of my head.

  6. Scott Abel says:

    Also…
    2012 — Published: “Content Strategy 101: ” by Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle

    http://www.contentstrategy101.com

  7. Thanks so much for this. It gave me a much needed overview of how things have all come together over the past decade or so. I am a wannabe content strategist, something of a lone voice in my particular government department, so I would be interested to know what the impact has been in terms of changing practice. Perhaps not a topic for inclusion in this particular timeline, it may need one of it’s own, but I’d still be interested in the relationship between the establishment of content strategy as a recognised field of practice and changes in behaviour by large organisations.

  8. Noz Urbina says:

    Great list! Content strategy didn’t just “make it onto the agenda”, X-Pubs was renamed Congility to refocus specifically around content strategy! The two keynotes at the inagural event were “The Content Strategy Paradox” (Rahel Anne Bailie) and ” Developing an Intelligent Content Strategy” (Ann Rockley)

    The main learning points on the site start off with “See how other companies have… Turned content and their content processes into a business asset / Implemented unified content strategies across teams and silos”

  9. Rahel Bailie says:

    Also in 2008, Content Convergence and Integration conference – a three-day content strategy conference in Vancouver, BC – the remains of which are here, including “Making Content Portable” )

  10. Thanks for taking the time to compile this resource, Fiona! I wonder if it would be useful and more accessible to add it to the content strategy Wikipedia page?

    In that same vein, I’d love to see a preface to this timeline that includes link to technical and cultural precursors that still influence the industry today. Those other subjects and industries have continued to evolve in parallel to content strategy and therefore aren’t linear antecedents in our industrial evolution, but their impact is still relevant. I’m thinking specifically about library science, knowledge management, automated publishing, and I’m sure there are other such topics. But in much the same way a Wikipedia article focuses on a topic while linking to related material, I think this timeline should continue to focus on content strategy while offering readers links to related fields.

  11. Bob Glushko says:

    “Content strategy” might be today’s marketing buzzword, but it makes me laugh that people think that the idea of content strategy began when “early content professionals” started to use the term in 1997.

    Let me apologize a bit here because I suspect my comments will seem a bit snarky, but I have to point out some glaring misconceptions about the history of content strategy. I suspect that some other readers had the same reaction that I did when i saw that content strategy was invented in 1997. SGML was invented in the early 1980s, XML in the mid 1990s. Shouldn’t they be on this list as important enablers of content strategy?

    Some of these “early content professionals” were in kindergarten when people started thinking seriously about how to describe, organize, and manage content so that it could be reused and repurposed. In the late 1970s at Bell Labs my colleagues invented source code control systems and other institutional technology for managing software development and reuse, and a few years later I was part of a team that applied these concepts and technology to document content to enable online documentation, document version control, automated regeneration when source files changed, and so on.

    For some details about this early history, let me provide some references (there is much more than this, but these are some of the articles I wrote). The first paper here could be republished today with just modest changes because it is a list of content strategy challenges that we set out to solve thirty years ago:

    Glushko, Robert J. Text development and management in Unix-based projects. Twenty-Eighth IEEE Computer Society International Conference, 1984, 473-477. PDF

    Bianchi, M., Glushko, R., & Mashey, J. “A software/documentation development environment built from the UNIX toolkit,” In H.J. Schneider & A.I. Wasserman (Eds.), Automated tools for information systems design, 107-109, North-Holland Publishing Company, 1982. PDF

    Glushko, Robert J. & Bianchi, M. “On-line documentation: Mechanizing development, delivery and use,” Bell System Technical Journal, 61:1313-1323, 1982 PDF

    A few years later, when the Internet became an important focus on electronic publishing and business transactions, there was a great deal of “content strategy” required to make good use of enabling technology. For example, here’s a paper that explains why it is better to use XML in B2B applications than EDI.

    Glushko, Robert J. “How XML enables Internet marketplaces and trading communities,” Proceedings of Graphics Communications Association XML’99 conference. Philadelphia, PA (December 1999)

    PDF

    And in 2005, I co-authored a book :

    Glushko, Robert J. & McGrath, Tim. DOCUMENT ENGINEERING: Analyzing and Designing Documents for Business Informatics and Web Services. MIT Press, 2005

    which has a chapter titled “Management and Strategy.” The most relevant section for “Content Strategy” is 16.2.2, A Sample of Project Justifications

    16.2.2.1 Reduce the Processing Costs for Goods and Services
    16.2.2..2 Improve Operational Visibility and Control
    16.2.2.3 Accelerate Existing Processes or Enable New Ones
    16.2.2.4 Making Publishing Processes Cheaper, Better, and Faster
    16.2.2.5 Reduce System Development, Maintenance, and Integration Costs
    16.2.2.6 Enhance Employee and Customer Satisfaction

    You can read Chapter 16 here. PDF

    Sorry to go on for so long. But there are a lot of old timers out here who are amused and dismayed by the idea that “:content strategy” sprung out of nowhere just a few years ago. I am sure that others with gray (or white) hair like me can add here to make the history more accurate and complete.

    • Fiona Cullinan says:

      I guess my get-out of content strategy being as old as publishing didn’t work then, Bob? 😉

      Thanks for adding in your thoughts. And everyone else who has taken the time to add in missing markers. I have a friend who gets enraged and justifiably snarky when ‘experts’ at web conferences talk about the history of the internet without mentioning Licklider and other internet pioneers from the late 60s. It’s the lot of the early adopter.

      As someone who has a fair few grey hairs myself after 20+ years in journalism, I’m very aware that there are lots of links and overlaps with my background – and a number of others. There are many, many elements of editorial strategy, production and process in Halvorson’s book, for example, which is probably why I relate to it.

      I guess there are lots of precursors and other names under which ‘content strategy’ is practised. I’ve focused on the rise of CS over the past decade, and its tipping point in 2008/9. That’s why I wanted to open up the comments to include other views and perspectives not known to me. In that respect, the more perspectives, the better, and people can make up their own minds and add to the conversation as it develops, which I hope it does.

      Overall, the important thing for me is that the work of those mentioned in the article, and the recent push to create a discipline around content strategy, has allowed me to get a seat at the table and raise content issues up the agenda.

  12. Don Day says:

    Hi, Fiona. I appreciate your willingness to start some data points on the history of content strategy. As I read Bob Glushko’s additions, a couple other observations came to mind.

    I’ve been able to work in both the Web and the corporate publishing sides of content policy-making (a broad euphemism for today’s “content strategy” concepts), which itself is an extension of the deeper problem of Information Retrieval–making knowledge itself more easily discovered. I’d peg the honorary birth of the discussion as being in 1945 with the publication of Vannevar Bush’s epic article, As We May Think. Bush clearly understood the potential in managing content for a range of uses, but his conceptual browsing machine had to wait for better technologies.

    The technical enablement for the processing architectures that could mimic Bush’s “Memex” concept came about with the innovation of structured markup formalized by Charles Goldfarb and his IBM associates as the Standard Generalized Markup Language from which HTML and XML-related methods have sprung. These markup systems exposed the underlying Document Object Model in ways that can be queried, manipulated, and executed, which finally made it possible for content policies to be discussed in terms of business rules, process descriptions, roles and responsibilities, syndication and subscription policies, reuse and republishing strategies, content repurposing across the business and its partners, and more.

    Other related resource I know of, just to get them on the record, include Bob Doyle’s treatise on History of DITA (which despite its name is not solely about the origins of the DITA architecture itself, but rather a view of the background of practices developed in the interest of improving content strategies in the technical publications domain) and this article by Coombs, Renear, and DeRose, Markup Systems and the Future of Scholarly Text Processing. These, along with Bob Glushko’s references, are valuable for the insights they offer to the solving of pain points that continue to shape the strategies and policies of adept content utilization.

  13. Rahel Bailie says:

    I guess what bugs me is that the article itself will stay intact, and people will come along and quote it because they won’t read the comments, and will believe the rather selective and short-sighted original article. I wish that publishers would do more/better research to begin with, rather than slap something up and then rely on readers to do their work for them, and compromise the credibility of the site.

  14. Scott Abel says:

    Thanks for your effort, Fiona. It’s appreciated. You took the time to try and capture some highlights and for that, I thank you!

    As we all know instinctively: “It’s all about content and context (as this thread demonstrates). Those of us with the “Content Strategist” title on their business cards since the 1990s (mine since 1999), do get a bit tickled — and ticked off — when we hear misinformation being spread by some of the newer entries into our field.

    Some of the loudest, most vocal “practitioners” are so far away from my/our reality (professionals who believe that content is a business asset worthy of being managed efficiently and effectively; we solve big business problems associated with content and technology by starting with strategy) that it has become clear to me that there are two distinct sects (maybe more) in the discipline: those that focus on the low hanging fruit (editorial problems, responsive design, tone and voice) and those that focus on connecting content with customers (process redesign, elimination of time-sucking manual tasks, automation of value-added tasks, information flow, tools and technologies…).

    It also is clear that there is a big difference in scope: some focus on solving problems in isolation (making a website mobile-friendly or communicating with fewer words) versus solving the bigger business critical challenges for global brand (fixing the content production process so they can efficiently produce and distribute the right content to the right customers at the right time in the right language in the right format on the device of their customers choosing while not introducing additional problems downstream).

    These differences likely impact a content strategist’s view of history (and of the current industry).

    One thing is clear, for us to grow the discipline and gain the respect it deserves, many of our fellow practitioners need to better understand that there is a pool of existing strategists working diligently on solving big ticket problems using methods, terms, tools, technologies that are being dismissed as irrelevant by some of the newer entries into the field. This disconnect is impacting the “content strategy” brand. The term is getting watered down to mean less than it should, and that’s not good for anyone.

    A quick look at the history from different angles is a good thing. It’s healthy to discuss the differences and for all of us to respect each other and our different paths to content strategy. And, it’s amazing what we can learn from one another when we open ourselves up to discovery.

    Thanks again for your hard work. And, speaking of work, back to it I go.

  15. Fiona Cullinan says:

    Thanks to everyone who has contributed suggestions in the comments for adding a wider perspective on this topic. I’ll look at updating some facts/figs into the post in time – though I’m wary about doing this, as noted below.

    @scott – thanks for your comments and a good reminder of the (marketing/technical) divide. I admit I am from the editorial side so my experience of CS is more on that track. That’s why I’m grateful for the input in the comments. (I don’t suppose you still have your business card from 1999 to scan for inclusion by the way?)

    @rahel Thanks for your suggestions and comments. I heard you talk about content strategy at CSForum10 and I still quote your ‘It’s all about the metadata’ interview with me from CS Applied.

    Perhaps I could set the record straight on how I put this article together, though.

    I did actually spend a day researching this, online and off, and writing it up. Firstly I asked if there were any existing timelines out there under the #contentstrategy hashtag on Twitter. Quite a few people offered their views/links and I followed up several suggested leads via email. I double-checked dates/links/books and sent it to those who contributed for a sense check. I also looked through a number of CS books for their perspectives and disappeared down the Google rabbit hole for a while; in the end I made a decision to focus on “content strategy” as a search term for reasons of resource and timing. I didn’t look for precursors to content strategy because, well, I only had a day, and I think we could go back to the dawn of publishing if we wanted to make the argument.

    Regarding updating the post, it’s not something I would normally do, apart from to correct typos etc, as big media would do. I’m pretty wary of trying to curate people’s comments and opinions into the original post and I think the story does continue and fill out in the responses. I think blog readers understand that this is a post and a conversation starter rather than a definitive history – and that everyone is welcome to add to the story.

  16. Ann Rockley says:

    Good blog post that covers the recent history of content strategy. There is always a lot that happens in the years before a concept/practice reaches the “tipping point” where it becomes mainstream and accepted. I wasn’t quite doing this 35 years ago, but I was 30 years ago and I really felt like a voice in the wilderness. There were pockets of understanding in areas like hypertext where people really began to focus on the content, its interrelationships and effective methods of communication, but unless a company had massive amounts of content, content management or content strategy was not something they cared about.

    I began presenting on the concepts in 1988 “Hypermedia— A Web of Thought” presented at the International Technical Communication Conference, Philadelphia, May 1988, “Writing for Hypermedia” presented at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute, Technical Writing Institute, June 1989, “Organizing Information” presented at the International Technical Communication Conference, New York, Apr. 1991, “Putting Documents Online: A Manager’s Guide” presented at the European Conference on Hypertext ECHT ’94, Edinburgh, Scotland, etc. etc.

    History is always told from a person’s perspective and it is always a judgment call on where to start the timeline. This is recent history, many of the comments have fleshed out the timeline for recent history, and others have provided a timeline for the roots of today’s concept of content strategy. I like Margot Bloomstein idea about adding a timeline for the influences on content strategy though I’m not sure I agree that they weren’t linear antecedents, show me something that is being done today that wasn’t being done 10 or 20 years ago, and I might agree. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that the concepts and methodology remain the same, only the context and of course the content changes.

    The knowledge in this post plus the comments are a rich source of information that should be added to something like Wikipedia so it isn’t lost. It would also make a great source of information for a thesis on the roots of content strategy.

    Thanks for collecting this and sparking the conversation!

  17. Fiona Cullinan says:

    *wow, Ann Rockley*

    Thanks for the additional info and context – much appreciated. The irony is that this post came about from needing to find 5-10 CS bulletpoints for a separate project. It seems there is a need to write a definitive history but I’ll leave the thesis writing to someone else, I think!