Not so long ago, press offices consisted of public relations people dealing with the media on large unwieldy telephones.
Then came corporate communications with its external and internal communications offspring and other relatives ranging from media monitoring to branding and reputation management. But the real baby boom came with the dawning of the Internet age.
In the words of the hype that surrounded the doomed mega-merger that created AOL Time Warner, Content was now king. And like all sprawling kingdoms, it quickly became almost impossible to manage.
From simply needing broadcasting and print media strategies, organisations were now also expected to have official rationales for how they communicated through digital, intranet, social media, knowledge management, messaging and search engine optimisation technologies.
In the scramble to be part of the Internet revolution, many companies simply didn't bother. Instead, a disorganised mass of data was flung online.
'Companies felt that they had to have a website and had to have things on it so they just scanned copies of corporate brochures and chucked them online,' says Harriette Hobbs, client director of written communications agency Stratton Craig. 'There was a real gold rush.
'Companies are only now realising that people read content on websites differently to how they read print media. Material on the web needs to be very different and this is why content strategy is so important.' Content what? Welcome to the brave new world of content strategy.
Just four years old
Spawned four years ago when Rachel Lovinger, associate content strategy director for marketing and technology firm Razorfish, wrote an article called Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data in design periodical Boxes and Arrows, the movement (as its practitioners like to call it) is spreading rapidly. It was developed as a discipline in the 2009 book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson, founder and president of Minnesota web content agency Brain Traffic.
And it has crossed the Atlantic. About 100 communicators attended a content strategy conference organised in London earlier this year by public relations and communications agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Internet auction site eBay. Another conference, entitled the Content Strategy Forum 2011 is being organised for September and a UK Content Strategy Association is in the making. But what is content strategy, do we really need it and where does it go from here?
First, the theory. Content strategy is described by Halvorson as 'the practice of planning for content creation, delivery and governance', while Richard Sheffield defines it in his Web Content Strategist's Bible of 2009 as a 'repeatable system that defines the entire editorial development process for a website development project'.
Lovinger pinpoints content strategy's goal as using 'words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences'. In its initial format, focused on the web, content strategy, say its practitioners, does what it says on the tin, encouraging companies to develop definitive strategies governing what they put onto the Internet.
Corporate websites unwieldy
The issue, according to Diana Railton, who runs content strategy agency DRCC, is that the amount of information on corporate websites has mushroomed to such an extent that some companies have thousands of web pages that their corporate communication teams do not know much or anything about.
'Companies were so overwhelmed by the need to set up on the web and get an online presence going that they overlooked the content,' she says. 'It was ridiculous. Companies set up websites and pasted things on them but very few thought through the content and what it was going to project about them.'
This is accentuated by the proliferation of platforms for communications and the lack of control that companies have over podcasts, videos, speeches, blogs and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
'It's such a mess out there,' adds Railton. 'Companies need to figure out what digital means. Companies say they have digital communications but what is it that they are communicating?'
Indeed, one content strategy agency has a client whose strategy is to have more than 30,000 web pages.
The rules of engagement for digital content are changing too. It is no longer enough to pepper online material with carefully-selected buzzwords and phrases that Google's search engine will recognise and propel to the top of search lists. 'Only a few years ago,' says Hobbs, 'it was all about search engine optimisation and agencies were employed to embed specific terms on websites so they would be picked out by Google searches.
'Now, Google has rules that mean sites need to be regularly updated. After a certain time has elapsed, it does not include you in the search results. But if it is on the web then someone will find it. So who is the audience and what do you want them to read?'
That's just where content strategy begins, however. The granular detail also gets involved with how companies want people to access their material. The tried and trusted technique of limiting a printed page to 250 words does not cut it at all online, warns Hobbs, saying content may be accessed 50 words at a time by someone using a BlackBerry, iPhone or iPad. Then there's Twitter and its enforced 140-character limit.
Short and sweet
Twitter is actually a good discipline for corporate writers, she believes, forcing them to be succinct. And on the web in general, anything with more than 150 words on a page is in danger of not being fully read.
For such a new discipline, however, content strategy generates a surprising degree of contrasting views.
Cynics wonder whether it is just another name for corporate communications, while disciples debate amongst themselves about whether content strategy should spread from its online roots to govern all of an organisation's written communications. Railton issues a firm 'no' to the first question, saying content strategy and corporate communications are definitely separate entities, though they are integral and complementary with each other, like the characters in a Russian doll.
'Corporate communications is an umbrella terms for disciplines as varied as advertising, brand management and public, media and investor relations,' she says, while content strategy is simply 'one of several supporting strategies'.
She also believes that content strategy should embrace all of a company's written content, both online and offline, but others are not so sure.
Lisa Moore, who runs copywriting and online agency Writebyte with clients including Vodafone, Orange and House of Fraser, is co-ordinating the fledgling UK Content Strategy Association. She takes a narrower view, arguing that content strategy is still really a discipline centred on the web.
Hobbs agrees, arguing that large swathes of communications are moving online, so that is what content strategy has to focus on.
How many years has the printed annual report got left, she wonders. And why would companies continue to spend so much money on glossy printed brochures when they can access many more people online at a fraction of the cost?
Maybe the distinction will not matter so much in a few years' time in any case. Alan Moore, founder of technology and innovation consultancy SMLXL, predicts that the days of thinking in terms of 'online' and 'offline' are numbered, with the two merging to create 'blended reality'.
Quoting William Gibson, the author and science fiction writer and inventor of the word 'cyberspace,' he states: 'One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible.'
Heather Atchison, creative director of brand language at public relations and communications agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, takes a holistic view. 'One of the difficulties with content strategy is that it overlaps with so many different areas of written material, as well as technical challenges,' she
'It's a huge new sector that's evolved very quickly and is changing. It's a strange beast because of how it evolved but the fact is that the communications world is changing.'
Those debates aside, discussion centres on how to deliver a content strategy. Railton advises clients to draw up a 'channels matrix' detailing the main communication channels available to their organisation.
'In the matrix, you can group types of channel, such as web, print, email, mobile, social media and face-to-face,' she says. 'You can show web convergence and how different channels interact. For example, a speech may be videoed; the video goes on a website or YouTube while other social media channels provide links and comments.'
Who delivers this? Atchison suggests a content strategy team, placed centrally in corporate communications and liaising with all the ways that a company presents itself in written material. Other communicators groan privately at the thought of more compliance systems, administration and bureaucracy but she is adamant that content strategists should not be seen as companies' communications police.
'Not at all,' she says. 'Most people who work in content strategy are coming at it from a credibility point of view. Modern companies need to keep the users of their information central to what they put out. Content strategy is about ways of doing that.'
Core content strategies
The five core strategies that make up content strategy
Cornerstone content strategy: This is the ongoing reason to encourage visitors to return to the website, to make a purchase or subscribe to feeds. It describes the website's goal and should be chosen carefully. It should be specific: is should be possible to describe a cornerstone content strategy in a 15 second elevator pitch.
Flagship content strategy: This is the content, such as viral video, viral comments, viral tweets, that gets noticed - where the world says Hello website, I've seen you. For every new development, flagship content should be created. On an ongoing basis, flagship content is the best way to expand a website over time. It can be the most creative part of the day.
Social content strategy: This is more than just social bookmarking. Social networks are incredibly important to the success of a website because they make it easy to send notifications of new content to existing readers with little or no cost attached to the distribution. An excellent social content strategy includes engaging with other websites, blogs, social users and web 2.0 comment enabled property online.
Content capitalisation strategy: This is not just about monetising your website, it is about capitalising readership by getting people to subscribe via the RSS feed, comment on a blog, click on a link or pick up the phone and make contact. These are each 'capital events' which will add up to determining the success of a website. Remember: your reader is your customer.
Content quality strategy: Editorial skills are mission critical. Aside from grammar, spelling and structure, an editorial group should consider search engine optimisation and capitalisation reinforcement in any written content. But a website's platform should also be stable, fast, reliable and inexpensive to support, while its layout must be browser compatible, mobile enabled, easy to navigate and creative. A quality strategy takes a bottom up approach.