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Content and marketing and strategy – oh my! It seems like there are endless combinations of those three simple words floating around these days.

Yet, despite the fact that they all seem to use the same words, they’re each a bit different.

Grasping those differences means a flourishing brand that harnesses the power of content, rather than one that churns out article after article with barely visible returns.

Still, if you’re finding yourself confused at the difference between content strategy and content marketing, you’re not alone.

Even in 2020, the Content Marketing Institute finds that only 9 percent of companies using both have a mature, sophisticated approach to their content strategy and content marketing. Some 22 percent report major growing pains, challenges, and confusion.

Here’s a quick rundown of the differences between content strategy and content marketing to help you get your brand off the ground.

You’ve got a million things on your to-do list to build that brand. Work smarter, not harder.

Let’s get started.  

The difference between content strategy and content marketing

Table of Contents: What’s the Difference Between Content Strategy & Content Marketing? Everything You Need to Know

Content Strategy and Content Marketing: Two Sides of the Same Coin

What Is Content Strategy?

What All Successful Content Strategies Have in Common

What Is Content Marketing?

What It Looks Like in Action

3 Pro Tips for Nailing Both

1. Start With Your Brand

2. Align Your Content With Your Customer Journey

3. Trace Everything You Do Back to a Business Goal

Content Strategy and Content Marketing: Two Sides of the Same Coin

In its 2020 report on the state of content marketing, SEMrush noted that content strategy and marketing are no longer “optional” for businesses.

If you aren’t engaged in them, you aren’t going to succeed in the realm of digital marketing. 

However, content strategy and content marketing get mixed up a lot (it doesn’t help that some people use them interchangeably).

They aren’t the same, but they are connected, and a solid content marketing strategy leverages both to drive brand awareness.

In a nutshell, content strategy informs your content marketing, which in turn drives the content marketing strategy that you use to create your brand and sell your product or service.

The content marketing element is typically also the most visible part of the whole process, which might be why some mistake it for the actual strategy. If you’re the visual type, you might find the following analogy helpful.

Content strategy, content marketing, and your brand

Now, let’s look at each side and see if we can’t detangle what the differences between the two really are.

What Is Content Strategy?

A lot of different ideas about content strategy exist out there – and they’re all right.

The multi-faceted nature of content strategy makes it difficult to pin down and even harder to separate from content marketing.

In my book, Practical Content Strategy & Marketing, I referred to content strategy as: “the underlying drive, the engine of your content marketing. It governs, manages, and guides the principles of your overall content marketing.”

In short, it’s the planning, development, and management of your brand’s content. That means your articles, web copy, brochures, FAQs, transaction emails – everything – are created with a sense of purpose and direction behind them.  

When you adopt a strategy to direct your content’s creation, a few things happen:

  • You stop mindlessly producing content for the sake of getting noticed by the search engines and start publishing the information that your readers are actively seeking.
  • Your brand’s topics and areas of expertise become clarified, allowing you to build authority.
  • Your brand becomes more customer-focused because the bulk of your digital presence emphasizes the delivery of helpful, engaging, valuable information.

With those benefits, it’s little wonder 49 percent of marketers report that well-crafted content is the single most effective tool for moving customers into the sales funnel.

Content marketers vs content strategists

What All Successful Content Strategies Have in Common

Your content strategy provides vision. No matter what type of content strategy you use, it will always determine the HOW and the WHY of your content.

But here’s the catch. To truly answer how and why of your content, you have to step way past the content elements entirely. (That’s why your editorial calendar isn’t a strategy.)

You’ll need to define your:

  • Area of expertise. That’s your turf, what you know about, the reason you’re in business. It’s also your core topic around which you’ll produce content.
  • Target audience. Before you can identify the topics related to your expertise that your readers want to know about, you need to know who your readers are.
  • Keywords. Based on your topic and your audience, you should be able to identify the best keywords to rank for in your online content.
  • Overall vision. Where should your brand be in three to five years? This will help you set SMART goals and pick out the right KPIs for measuring your content’s performance.
  • Competitors. Do you know what you’re up against? If not, now’s the time to discover them and figure out how you can build better content.
  • Customer journey. Your content should guide your customers through the sales funnel and provide the right information at the right time.
  • Content types. There are more content types than just blog articles out there. (Video content improves organic search traffic by 157 percent.)
  • Style guides. Your style guides will align your content’s style, POV, and voice with that of your brand. (Here’s a great resource on style guides from the CMI.)
  • Creation strategy. A solid content strategy, like brand guidelines, keep everything consistent. That makes it easier to outsource your content creation (and 80 percent of brands do).
  • Content lifecycle. Content isn’t meant to be published and forgotten – Google will drop your page ranks over it. You’ll need a plan to review, refresh, update, and even remove old content periodically.
The six cores of a profitable brand content strategy
Profitable Content Marketer Skills Cheat Sheet

What Is Content Marketing?

If there’s one thing to take away from the above, it’s that your content strategy does most of the work.

It’s the groundwork for your empire, and if you’ve done it right then the rest flows a lot easier.

So, if content strategy is the planning, then content marketing must be the execution. It’s “the actual form of marketing that involves creating, publishing, and distributing content for a targeted audience online” (Practical Content Strategy & Marketing).

In other words, it’s the WHAT,the WHERE, and the WHEN.

Content marketing often gets mixed up with content strategy because, to an unpracticed eye, some parts of the content creation phase do occur during content strategy. Things like: 

  • Identifying topic clusters,
  • Finding ways to address business needs with content,
  • Creating opportunities for premium content…

… are all content strategy activities.

So, what’s the trick here? It’s subtle:

Content strategy decides the topic cluster – it doesn’t decide the article titles.

It determines that you’ll be creating a video as opposed to a blog for a specific piece of information – it doesn’t tell you exactly what that video will say.

Content strategy even creates room in your plans for the development of premium content (like downloads, webinars, courses). It doesn’t necessarily identify where in your sales funnel to offer it, how, or to what audience segments. 

Content strategy provides the framework for what content you’ll create and why, but once you move into development, you’re in content marketing territory.

Here’s a closer look at how that plays out.  

Imagine content strategy and content marketing as a train

What Content Marketing Looks Like in Action

Content marketing includes the proactive steps taken toward your business goals through creating, publishing, and distributing content online. Goals may range from increasing revenue to expanding into a market or even developing a competitive edge against a rival.

Here’s what it looks like in action with a hypothetical scenario.

  1. You’ve launched a new product that complements the rest of your line but targets a different audience. To raise awareness of it, you decide to begin publishing content around the product and the needs it meets that appeals to your target audience.
  2. You determine that the best type of content includes a mixture of blog articles and video tutorials on using your product. Based on this, you create a series of blogs and videos that work together, with CTAs compelling to your target audience.
  3. You publish the new content on your blog and YouTube. Then, you run a series of social media campaigns to drive your readership to the content.
  4. Studying the KPIs of your new content’s performance, you identify what’s working, what’s not, and where pain points may lie in the customer journey. You adjust your existing content and publish new content according to feedback.
  5. After a while, you identify ways to improve your product. You update your content accordingly and remove pieces that are no longer relevant.

Paying attention? If so, you may have just noticed something: all content marketing methods need an underlying content strategy to function.

Without a content strategy, you have no content marketing. You simply have content creation – the endless churning of articles and social media posts that get you nowhere.

SEO and content marketing go together

3 Pro Tips for Nailing Both

When done correctly, the CMI finds that content marketing generates three times more leads than paid search advertising.

Now that we know what both are and how they work together, it’s no surprise why. Content strategy and marketing emphasizes the value you deliver to your customers – not blatant and obnoxious advertising.

To round things out, here are three Pro Tips I’ve discovered that can amplify your content strategy and marketing.

1. Start with Your Branding

Just like your content marketing builds off your content strategy, your content strategy builds off your branding. Many of the components of a content strategy require you to know a thing or two about your brand. Things like your style guidelines and even your decision to use certain content types will all be influenced by this.

So, nail your brand guide first and build your content strategy from there.

2. Align Your Content with Your Customer Journey

Knocking it out of the park with content quality is only part of ensuring success. According to 99Firms, creating content that aligns with your lead’s place within the buyer’s journey can increase sales by as much as 72 percent. That’s because you’re delivering helpful content with the utmost relevance in that exact moment.

3. Trace Everything You Publish Back to a Business Goal

Never hit publish unless you’ve got a reason for doing so. Whether pushing out new content or auditing your existing content, always ask yourself, “does this piece of content further my business goals?” If not, update it to add more value or remove it.

Now You Can Rock Content Strategy and Content Marketing, Too

The difference between content strategy and content marketing is subtle but getting it right means crafting an effective strategy to use content to drive your business goals.

Hopefully, the different analogies here have clarified that difference and given you fresh ideas for crafting your content marketing strategy. (See what I did there?)

So, go forth, plan that empire and prosper. While you’re at it, get the tools and knowledge you need in under 45 days in the Content Strategy & Marketing Course.

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