Content strategy

Content strategy history and thoughts on its future

Don’t be fooled into thinking content strategy is something we invented in the 21st century. Nor have we perfected it yet. Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Content strategy is the term we use to describe the creation and distribution of content, including written and multimedia material. It came into widespread use in the late 1990s, when the internet provided a new platform for content with unprecedented reach.

However, content strategy’s history is much longer, and much more compelling, than the history of web development. Its roots span industries and purposes. And yet the qualities of effective content strategy have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The better we grasp the interdisciplinarity of content strategy, the more effectively we can plan for a future in which content is more closely woven into a company’s overall strategy for success.

Today, we’re pleased to share some particularly fascinating aspects of content strategy history and some thoughts on its future.

Content marketing far predates the web

John Deere’s magazine, The Furrow, used engaging stories and sound advice to earn trust and build loyalty among farmers. It promoted John Deere products, but product sales were secondary.

By providing relevant and useful information in a way that was compelling and enjoyable, John Deere broke new ground (pun intended) in marketing.

The Furrow is still being published today, and its goals remain the same.

Women inspired audience targeting

Influencer marketing might seem like a 21st- century innovation, but 19th-century publishers got there first.

The Godey’s Lady’s Book was sought after by American women for decades as the definitive voice for so-called women’s issues, including education, homemaking, and fashion. It was also the first stop for stories by literary giants including Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In the 20th century, household-name brands such as Jell-O and Betty Crocker listened to their customers and came through with more than just a product people wanted, but advice and expertise they needed to cook with confidence.

In the early 1900s, the Jell-O Recipe Book boosted sales for a brand that was still looking for a foothold in a world just discovering refrigeration.

And in 1924, “The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” made its debut on Minneapolis radio, based on the flood of questions from housewives. It went down in history as one of the best-loved radio shows and made the transition to TV in 1949.

The golden age of American advertising in the postwar era sidelined the creation and distribution of helpful, meaningful content for prospective customers.

However, during this time a new discipline was emerging that would have a profound impact on content strategy in the late 20th century: technical communication.

Content problem-solving

Content engineer Don Day pinpoints 1945 as the year that content strategy was born, citing Vannevar Bush’s identification of the need to make specialized scientific and technical content more accessible. The technology didn’t exist yet to fulfill this vision.

Twenty years later, Hughes Aircraft Company published a report acknowledging the need for a methodology to improve the writing and organization of technical reports and proposals. This oft-cited report is viewed as the first modern-day content strategy. In fact, the structure of the Sequential Thematic Organisation of Publications (STOP) will probably look familiar to most content creators today:

  • Meaningful headings
  • Distinct “modules, paragraphs, or chunks” of content
  • Using formatting to set off distinct modules of information
  • Focus on a thesis statement
  • Illustrations that support the thesis statement and that appear in a logical spot

The methodology was deemed a success, but its use faded with the introduction of word processing and other computerized publishing tools.

Regardless, the need for accessibility remains, and the principles of STOP are still valid and, more importantly, evident in today’s content operations if not explicitly tethered to the Hughes experiment.

Tools and systems on the way

In the 1970s and ’80s, computers hastened the development of documentation and instructional tools to better structure content and increase usability in a rapidly changing tech environment.

Ann Rockley is credited with originating the concept of enterprise content strategy, beginning in the late 1980s with scholarship dedicated to “writing for hypermedia.”

Finally, in the mid-1990s, “content strategist” became a job title as large employers came to see the value and importance of dedicated content professionals, whose skills included a blend of writing, process development, information architecture, and subject-matter expertise.

Professionalization of the discipline

In the 2000s, education and scholarship on content strategy skyrocketed. Amy Gahran’s seminal 2005 series “What Is Content Strategy and Why Should You Care?” clarified and simplified the plight of the content strategist.

Her assertion? To be successful, content couldn’t exist in a void. It needed to connect with people, and it needed to be tethered to a goal. With this insight came the early seeds of what we refer to today as human and empathetic content.

However, the journey to content that speaks to us where we are today has been riddled with obstacles.

First came “content shock” – the rush in the early 2010s to produce massive amounts of content quickly. Like a bull to a bullfighter, digital marketers were driven by a desire to outsmart search engines, leading to keyword stuffing and content spinning.

The natural result? Too much content. Very poor quality.

By the time Google’s Panda algorithm neutered this kind of mass-produced content, it was too late: The internet doesn’t forget. Audiences (and copywriters) were burned out. Only then did the conversation turn to high-quality content (thanks, Neil Patel).

An incomplete history

This anecdotal look at content strategy history yields a few key insights but leaves many stones unturned.

Content’s history is multifaceted and nonlinear, and defining expertise in content strategy and development is problematic. Many aspects of the practice are re-evaluated and adjusted to address the unique problems and needs of specific industries and individual enterprises.

However, in understanding how and why the principles and practices have changed (or not), we can see a clear path forward. Using what we know, we can design a future in which content strategy is clarified, codified, valued, and embedded in organizations of all sizes across all industries.

Here are some practical considerations.

  1. Content strategists must be strong writers.
  2. More importantly, they develop complementary skills in a variety of disciplines, including data analysis, information architecture, technical communication, and business development.
  3. Content development is a team sport. In 1895 and today, it required people with complementary strengths to create an effective product. Don’t hire a team of one and expect to get a high-quality, multifaceted product that will meet all your needs.
  4. Content strategists walk on shifting sand. Help steady them and provide a path forward through consistent training and conscientious program development. Be transparent about business developments and never lose sight of the value content can add when addressing challenges. View content strategy as a strategic investment.
  5. Don’t silo audience development. It is the genuine origin of content strategy and the most important ingredient in cultivating usability and true insight.
  6. Never stop listening. Feedback is vital. If you create and distribute in an echo chamber, learning and growth take a back seat.

At Consummate Prose Consulting, we use what we know about content to help you grow and succeed. Contact us today to learn how a content strategy can transform your brand’s journey.

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