Published on August 1st, 2015 | by Rahel Bailie0
Where content strategy belongs in an organization
Over the past year, the question about where content strategy should sit in an organizational structure has arisen several times. Little information has been published on this topic – in my search, I mostly found information about content marketing departments. This article is an attempt to provide an experience-based perspective.
The stock answer of any consultant to such a question is “it depends”. Unless you are looking for a cookie-cutter answer (and the thing is, no company has cookie-cutter processes), then there is no absolute answer. Unlike an accounting department, which clearly reports up the chain eventually to the CFO, or a marketing department, which reports up the chain to the CMO, content strategy doesn’t fit neatly into any department. There are forward-thinking companies for whom content is important enough of a business asset that they create a CCO (Chief Content Officer) role, but these companies are few and far between. For most companies, a reporting structure that works for “the content people” is a bit of a struggle.
The overarching answer to this question has a relatively straight-forward answer. Content strategy should be situated wherever it will be easiest to do right by content. If the role of content strategy is truly strategic – that is, if your organization sees content as a business asset that can significantly contribute to the bottom line, then the role should live in the Strategy Team. That’s where the strategic technology, strategic marketing, strategic organizational development, strategic product people come together to decide on overall directions for the organization. The content strategy would be to develop and implement a plan for content, and subsequently iteratively rethink and update the plan, for content that matters across the organization, in conjunction with the other aspects of strategic initiatives: marketing, technology, products or engineering, human resources, and so on. In some organizations, particularly the public sector, this team might be called Shared Services. Or, if there is no strategy or shared services team, content strategy might be a position at the level of Director or “Head of” (common in the UK and Europe).
The point, of course, is that content strategy lead needs to be outside of the product or marketing management levels. The reason for that is less about theory and more about practice. The content strategist’s role is to do right by content, and that is hard to do when reporting into content-producing departments.
Take, for example, Marketing. They play an important role in an organization, but are notorious for doing what’s expedient at the cost of best practice. They are always under pressure to produce more content, and when pushed, often revert to the familiar: campaign-driven initiatives. (In one eye-opening discovery interview with a marketing manager, the question arose of the content lifecycle and maintenance. “Maintenance?” he asked. The drive-by publish-and-forget method was the norm in that organization.) It’s not that they don’t understand or care about the bigger picture of content. However, for them, it’s about the editorial side of content, and they don’t like to be inconvenienced by the technical side of content, which is becoming more and more important, considering the changes that Google introduces on an going basis, or by thinking about the integration of marketing content with other groups such as the technical content group, the customer support group, and so on. When push comes to shove, and there will always be one of those moments, and when the people with the power choose expediency, the strategy devolves and eventually falls apart.
Product management is another example. Their slant tends to be to treat content like a supply chain, and doesn’t necessarily do justice to the bigger picture of content. The content processes is less like a product production line than an iterative spiral: with each iteration, the shortfalls of the previous cycle become magnified until the processes grind to a halt one day. (A favourite anecdote is the number of organizations that seek out content strategy help once they’ve run out of spreadsheet maintenance capacity to track where all the bits of content are used across their department or the organization.)
For organizations with User Experience or Customer Experience teams, it may seem like a no-brainer to put content strategy under their domain. Sometimes this works – after all, these functions should be natural allies – but sadly, I’ve seen too many instances of content strategy being brought in too late, relegated to a particular set of tactical deliverables, and hampered from wringing the true potential from content. It’s not always the case, but I’ve experienced that more often than not.
Information Technology is another of those departments that is handed content because they own the platform on which content gets delivered. Consider the implication if, say, accounting were owned by IT, based on the same reasoning. The most heart-breaking stories are of large content departments where the better part of the workday consists of unnecessary rote work because IT decided on a familiar-to-them platform without considering the business requirements of the content producers or the content itself.
Putting content inside of any of these departments runs the risk that the strategy is unbalanced and restrictive, and runs the risk of not being able to get the value from content that the organization or client expects. In an organization with a matrixed reporting structure, where there are checks and balances in place to prevent strategic devolution, it may work. This approach also has its tensions, though, if there is an imbalance of power among the executive sponsors or vastly different opinions about what constitutes best practice.
The bottom line is that in an organization where content matters, and so the organization is prepared to invest in a content strategy – a repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout its entire lifecycle – then the incorporation of the content function needs to be well-considered. In the end, the “right” home for content strategy is wherever in the organization that has the expertise and clout to best support content.