Toward a Unified Field Theory of Content Strategy (Presentation Notes)
Independent Content Strategist
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Toward a Unified Field Theory of Content Strategy
Presented to the Content Strategy Consortium
IA Summit 2009, Memphis, Tennessee
March 19, 2009
I’m Elena Melendy, an interactive content strategist who consults on the planning, design, and development of
large enterprise websites from the perspective of their content, mostly by contracting with digital marketing,
advertising, and web design agencies. This presentation was given to a small group of other digital content
specialists in the first organized knowledge-sharing meeting dedicated to defining the discipline of content
strategy. It is, however, scalable to a larger community of content strategists engaging in similar work. And
indeed, I hope it will be useful to any group of professionals with the intention of establishing an international
The title of this presentation, “Toward a Unified Field Theory of Content Strategy,” is both a pun and a
metaphor. Albert Einstein spent the last decades of his life attempting to arrive at a Unified Field Theory of
physics—a single theory that would explain all of the fundamental forces of elementary particles. He failed.
Contemporary science doesn’t yet have the tools to prove the existence of unified fields; these are still
theoretical projections based on mathematical models. The best known may currently be string theory—but
there are competitors, such as this one proposed by Antony Garrett Lisi. Some physicists believe that a Grand
Unification Theory, or Theory of Everything, is an unreachable goal. Though as you can see by the model Lisi
used as a foundation for his work, it would be extremely beautiful.
A unified theory of content strategy would also be very beautiful. As Rachel Lovinger’s seminal (sorry, Rachel)
article on content strategy established, everything is content. So it would also be a Theory of Everything.
But unlike the scientific Theory of Everything, a Theory of Content Strategy would have immediate and
measurable application in the business world. Our best sources for industry forecasting tell us that at the dawn
of 2009, rapid advances in interactive and digital technologies are intersecting with the breakdown of old
business models in news, information, and entertainment.
Some of the news isn’t so new, but it’s becoming increasingly important, as content owners and producers
become more aware of how their users’ preferences and activities affect their bottom line. For example, in
2008, more than 43% of total time online was spent on sites specializing in news, information, and
Business models for content publishing and distribution will continue to change rapidly. Print may not be dead
(this book was published in hardcover in 2008), but its relationship with digital content bears explicit
examination. As consumer demand for digital content increases, publishing and related industries are forced to
make way for the new. Despite economic doom and gloom, professionals who specialize in digital content are
lie at the threshold of a great opportunity.
Making the most of that opportunity will rest on our ability to define our emerging discipline. It’s a far-
reaching goal with complex challenges ahead. To face them, we must align our approach as a unified
professional community. Luckily, as content strategists, we have a unique set of skills at our disposal.
The practice of any field of inquiry benefits when the individuals engaged in it exchange knowledge and work
together toward common goals. In sharing stories of their professional backgrounds, goals, and interests, the
22 participants in the first Content Strategy Consortium discovered many points of intersection and common
purpose—as well as great diversity.
The question’s ambiguous, yielding several potential interpretations: Why did the participants in the first
Toward a Unified Theory of Content Strategy: Presentation Text Elena Melendy
Content Strategy Consortium invest so much time, money, and labor to be present? What do content
strategists have in common? How does a diverse and geographically dislocated group of people form a
community of practice? These are all good questions.
Like most things that people do, our motivations for organizing and evangelizing as content strategists may vary
from the pragmatic to the idealistic.
Communities provide support as we turn outwards to accomplish our goals. Content strategists are not the
only professionals who have these general goals. But we may understand better than other professionals the
particular challenges our peers face—and be better able to appreciate, and celebrate, their successes.
Of course, since we’re human, we bring our private motives with us wherever we travel. But these and the
previous considerations might be shared by any business group. What differentiates our community?
Given the task of creating this list, no doubt each of us would choose different adjectives. Yet we’re
recognizably (as it were) on the same page. As content strategists, we share a common purpose and set of
values. We also have the perfect set of tools to overcome challenges to community organization and alignment.
What challenges do I mean? Any group creating a professional community early in the growth of a discipline
would encounter certain difficulties, though some are specific to the discipline of content strategy itself.
Tensions may arise within the community simply because of the great diversity among content strategists.
We’re building a relatively new discipline in a rapidly evolving industry. That means we come from profoundly
different academic and professional backgrounds. Our training will naturally influence how we approach not
just our daily work but also how we conceptualize its nature.
The context in which we practice may also influence our assumptions about how we define our practice. It’s
natural to assume that the approach we take to our work relies on similar premises no matter where we do it.
Yet that’s an assumption we don’t know is valid until we test it.
We haven’t yet achieved consensus about how our specialties break down—or even about what to call them—
March 19, 2009 Page 3 of 5
though great progress has been made by some of the people who attended the Consortium (see References,
slide 32). Other content strategists break down our work into categories different from those I show here, or
arrange them differently. The fact remains, though, that our individual proclivities, our job descriptions, and
the business requirements of the companies we work for frequently require us to specialize. The work each of
us does on a daily basis will color our perceptions of where the boundaries of content strategy lie.
And, as always, we bring our personal differences to this work. We all intersect at the point of our common
interest; many of us will converge and combine in other ways as well. Yet like other communities that head
into uncharted territory, we must remain aware that cohesion requires attention to difference.
There are a couple of other points to bear in mind as we think about diversity and inclusion.
We need to remain aware of geographical and cultural diversity both within and outside the United States. We
must not assume that we’re all urban, all American, or for that matter, all native speakers of English.
We should also be careful not to cripple ourselves with our job descriptions. Content strategists already work
on non-web software projects. As interactive TV becomes a reality and content moves more readily across
platforms, content specialists experienced with multiple digital media will be in demand. To define content
strategy as web-based seems short-sighted.
But back to our current challenges, many of which arise from well-organized forces external to our small but
growing peer group. Some resistance comes from clients, which is understandable. More intractable and
ubiquitous is the co-opting of the term by related fields that have have a stake in defining what content is and
how it should be created, managed, and consumed.
[A second example.]
No less intractable, and possibly more insidious, are challenges from within our own industry. Note that these
flaws are neither emblematic of nor exclusive to the digital universe. I might argue, in fact, that they’re less
common there than elsewhere. Nevertheless, we work in the business world with other humans, and they have
their own interests to protect.
Toward a Unified Theory of Content Strategy: Presentation Text Elena Melendy
So there are challenges. There’s also hope. And lots of work to be done.
The forces of entropy are powerful. Without concentrated, aligned effort, content strategy is likely to be
subsumed into marketing discourse.
A group that attempts to define and elevate a discipline without an action plan is likely to suffocate under the
weight of the work. But we’re used to doing this kind of strategic thinking.
And we have the perfect skill set for it.
‘Nuff said. Get going.
March 19, 2009 Page 5 of 5