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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