This post originally appeared on my personal blog last year. It’s still relevant, so I’ve shared it with a few edits here.

I pondered this question often over the past several months. Why? One reason was a blog post where Joe Pulizzi explained his take: content strategy and content marketing are essentially the same. That makes sense for Joe, who focuses exclusively on content marketing. If you work on content for purposes beyond marketing, however, thinking about the difference is helpful.

The Difference, As I See It

Content strategy is a field of practice useful for content as marketing and content as a product or service. In other words, the practice is distinct from the purpose. Allow me to explain…

Content As Marketing

Content as marketing is paid for by the company or organization doing the marketing. Typically, it’s comprised of

  • Branded content.
  • Advertising.
  • Support / customer service content.

An example is The Home Depot’s content, which ranges from helping customers plan a room to instructing customers about how to install a sink.

Side Note: I believe support / customer service content should be treated as a type of marketing content but often is not. Fodder for another post…

Side Side Note: Some people think branded content is akin to evil. I believe it’s a real need as everything about business, including marketing, goes digital. I also think it’s okay, even necessary, to market good ideas. But, you can take branded content too far, as this clip suggests (courtesy of Predicate LLC).

Content As Product / Service

Content as a product / service can follow different business models, most commonly

  • Advertising – free to user and paid for by third party advertisers.
  • Subscription – paid for by user subscriptions.

An example of an advertising-driven content product is HowStuffWorks.com. An example of a subscription-based content product is New York Times. (For a smart rundown of content business models, see Erin Kissane’s post Paying for It.)

Why Defining the Difference Matters

Now, I don’t like to think for thinking’s sake. Defining the difference between content strategy and content marketing offers practical benefits such as…

Clarifying the Results You Want

When you think about whether you’re developing a content strategy for marketing or as a product / service, you’re planning the purpose of your content effort. That’s only going to help you define the results you want and, consequently, your strategy.

Guiding Your UX Decisions

With results in mind, then you can prioritize the rest of your user experience (UX) decisions. As a simple example, if content is your advertising-driven product or service, you’ll want to guide your users to other relevant content on your site. Your priority is to show more (and more relevant) advertising to your visitors by keeping users around. So, you’ll want tactics that get users from one article (or video or podcast) to many other pertinent articles (or videos or podcasts) with relevant advertising.

If content is your means of marketing, then your priorities will be different. One important priority is to guide users through a decision-making process. That process will span more than one visit to your website and, probably, visits to more than your website. You’ll need content for each phase of decision-making. And, rather than guide users to lots of other relevant articles, you’ll want to stress the most likely next step. You’ll want to lead the user from one decision to the next.

Getting a Jump on Content Patterns

Your content and design flow from your UX decisions. So, you can get a jump start on patterns for your content effort. For example, MSNBC.com (an advertising-driven content product) is experimenting with some interesting navigation patterns to surface related content.

Gaining More Insight from Marketing + Product / Service Mashups

We’re starting to see content as marketing mesh with content as product / service. Take Mint.com, for example. Mint.com is a free service paid for by relevant advertising. The advertising is so relevant because it’s based on the user’s own detailed data about her financial needs and goals. The service includes a useful blog (branded content) and support content. Crazy. Content worlds—and business models—are colliding. But, we can’t learn as much from this mad mashup if we don’t recognize those content worlds.

Laying a Foundation for Ethics

Ethics are our motives based on our ideas of right and wrong. So, if we understand the purpose, or motives, behind content as marketing and content as a product / service, we have a start on ethics. We also can identify potential conflicts easier. For example, a retailer might be tempted to skip checking the facts of its content or to include references. (Need some ethical inspiration? Read We Can Do Better.)

So, there you have the difference and why it matters to me. I hope it’s useful to you.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in January 2012.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the CEO of Content Science and cofounder of ContentWRX. She regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content. Colleen shares insights and guidance from her experience in these highly rated books:

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