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The Language of Content Strategy

78 pages

The Language of Content Strategy is the gateway to a language that describes the world of content strategy. With fifty-two contributors, all known for their depth of knowledge, this set of terms forms the core of an emerging profession and, as a result, helps shape the profession. The terminology spans a range of competencies with the broad area of content strategy.

This book, and its companion website, is an invitation to readers to join the conversation. This is an important step: the beginning of a common language. Using this book will not only help you shape your work, but also encourage you to contribute your own terminology and help expand the depth and breadth of the profession

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The Language
of Content
Scott Abel
Rahel Anne Bailie
XML Press and The Content Wrangler logos


Stroll down the halls of any company, and you hear many languages: the language of engineering, the language of marketing, the language of finance, and others. These days, you also hear a new language. It’s a formidable language, a language that transcends department silos, a business language that ties other business languages together in a powerful way. In a world where content is king, you might call this language the king of business languages. I refer, of course, to the language of content strategy.

Today, every business needs to be in the content business. Customers buy—or don’t buy—based on their experiences with the information they pick up about a company and what it sells. So today’s companies need people who think about information strategically, people who speak the language of content strategy.

What do content strategists do with this language? They use it to grapple with questions like these: What content meets our customers’ needs while also meeting our business goals? How much content do we need? What forms must it take? How do we keep it on brand? Which editorial and technical standards shall we follow? Which terms shall we use, and which shall we avoid? How do we assess the quality of our content? What metadata do we tag it with? Who manages it? Who creates it? Which pieces of content do we share, and which do we keep to ourselves? What tools do we use to produce and maintain all those pieces? What results do we want our content to achieve? How do we measure those results? How much content do we translate? Where do we distribute it? How often do we update it? When do we archive it? How do we socialize it, monetize it, search-engine-optimize it, reuse it, and encourage customers to contribute to it? How much content do we have, anyway?

These are big questions. To even form them, let alone answer them, we need a big language.

The language of content strategy is as big as they come. Governance. Taxonomy. Content audit. Words like these straighten your spine, square your shoulders, and steel your gaze. Words like these call for unifying, boundary-busting, big-picture vision. At the enterprise level, words like these touch on every department in the company and every phase of the content lifecycle.

Are you ready to think big about content? If so, you’re ready to blaze trails down the halls (real or virtual) between editorial and technical teams. You’re ready to tie together all the languages you run into along the way. You’re ready to place equal weight on what goes into a company’s content and what that content goes into. You’re ready to argue that stellar content has business value only if it gets to the right people at the right time in the right way—and that a brilliant content-management plan has business value only if it delivers content that people care about.

If you’re ready to think big, whatever your job title—whether you’re a budding content strategist eager to learn more about the role, a veteran curious about the way others use the terms you use every day, a manager looking to hire a content strategist, or a colleague desperate to decipher what your content-strategist pals are talking about—you’re ready for the language of content strategy. Thanks to the efforts of Scott Abel, Rahel Anne Bailie, and all this book’s contributors, you now have access to this essential emerging lexicon.

Like any lexicon, this one perpetually evolves. Words have meaning and relevance only to the extent that people use them in ways they find meaningful and relevant. So go ahead, square your shoulders, and try out these words with your colleagues. See what meaning and relevance this vocabulary brings to your conversations. Think big enough to need the language of content strategy. Your company’s future depends on it.

Marcia Riefer Johnston

Author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)



The writing of a dictionary is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the “true meanings” of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one's ability, what words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a law-giver.

S. I. Hayakawa (from Language in Action, Harcourt Brace, 1940)

One aspect of having been in the workforce for over three—or in the case of one of us, four—decades is that we get to watch professions spring up and mature. Information architects, interaction designers, web writers, content strategists—all professions that rose as quickly as others withered away into obscurity.

In the 1990s, we watched the discipline of information architecture spring up and take hold. In his essay on the history of the profession, Peter Morville recalls that web developers complained of “a pain with no name.”[1] Information architecture may have alleviated that pain, but discussing information architecture created a new pain.

Negotiating deliverables was particularly difficult. Those conversations required a preamble wherein terms were defined. (What exactly do you mean when you say wireframe?) These conversations were the only way to be absolutely certain that contractors or colleagues envisioned the same concept. Eventually, as the discipline matured, terminology became codified, and practitioners could fall into discussions with the shorthand efficiency that comes with community and experience.

In 2009, the awareness of the relatively new discipline of content strategy began to spill out into the greater business consciousness. And as we found with the sister discipline of information architecture, the vocabulary for content strategy is in flux. (What exactly do you mean when you say content audit?) In a blog entry titled Dear Content Strategists,[2] Lou Rosenfeld, one of the elders of information architecture, suggested that language and framing is critical early on. In all fairness, his statement was about creating an association, but can equally be applied to the vocabulary used to create community. Having a common vocabulary, an accepted lexicon, is an important aspect of a mature discipline.

To paraphrase a favorite professor: your world is limited only by your vocabulary. So we brought together fifty-two contributors, each defining a term that is important to them. From Ann Rockley, who invented the term intelligent content, to Eliot Kimber, acknowledged as an expert on transclusion, to Dr. Robert Glushko, who wrote the book on document engineering, and many others, we have gathered the best and brightest to contribute their expertise to this collection.

We are honored to be able to contribute to the discipline of content strategy by providing a baseline vocabulary for practitioners to use amongst themselves and with their colleagues and clients. This book is by no means meant to be the entire lexicon of content strategy; this book is meant to standardize the basic vocabulary and expand our professional worlds.

A common vocabulary is an important aspect of the maturation of a discipline. A lexicon helps professionals across all industries, from clients and colleagues who need common terminology to have effective conversations to internal stakeholders who have diverse technical backgrounds. (What do you mean by transclusion?)

A lexicon helps hiring managers explain what they’re looking for in a job candidate and recruiters find the candidates most suited for particular projects. (Here’s what my client expects from a content strategist.) It helps students who are discovering the discipline and helps instructors who need to convey concepts that will be understood in the marketplace. (What your employer will expect in a message architecture.)

We expect this vocabulary to grow, progress, and change as time goes on, the discipline develops, and industry demands more from content strategy. This foundational work allows practitioners to conduct meaningful conversations, engage in healthy debates, and build on existing concepts and ideas. This is an opportunity to expand our vocabulary, our opportunities, and our worlds.

[1] http://semanticstudios.com/publications/historia.pdf

[2] http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/2009/06/dear_content_strategists.html


This book has been a labor of love by a group of expert practitioners who gave of their time and knowledge to contribute to what we feel is a long-overdue endeavor: a lexicon for our profession.

Our thanks go first to the fifty-two contributors who provided the definitions and essays in this book. They all delivered on time and with quality. The contributors are leaders in content strategy, and we are privileged that they agreed to be part of this project.

Val Swisher was an early contributor, and we want to especially acknowledge her significant contribution to the internationalization and localization terms.

This book would not be possible without the helpful assistance and good judgement of content strategy maven Laura Creekmore. In addition to contributing the term metadata, Laura’s work as Series Editor helped keep us sane, grounded in reality, and focused on the task at hand. We couldn’t have done it without her.

Thanks to Marc Posch, who created the cover design, which we are using for the entire content strategy book series, and to Tobias Anstett, Stefan Kleineikenscheidt, and the engineers at K15t Software, who provided the wiki we used to develop the book and the software that exported the DocBook XML we used for the print and eBook editions.

Thanks to Cheryl Landes who, in addition to contributing the term findability, created the index and to Murray Maloney, whose knowledge of publishing helped us as we created the book structure.

And thanks to Trey DeGrassi, who helped with a myriad of tasks, including creating the companion card deck, wrangling contributors, and helping us keep focused on our work.

Scott Abel & Rahel Anne Bailie, Editors

Core Concepts
Core Concepts

This section covers the foundational terms that underpin the discipline of content strategy. These concepts become the shot of thread that strengthens the fabric of the work built upon it. Understanding these terms and their importance enhances the understanding of the entire lexicon and of the work before us as practitioners.



What is it?

Any text, image, video, decoration, or user-consumable elements that contribute to comprehension.

Why is it important?

Content is the single most-used way of understanding an organization’s products or services, stories, and brand.

Why does a content strategist need to know this?

Content can be described in several ways, some technical, others conceptual:

  • Contextualized data: Data is a context-free value; content has enough context to aid with consumer comprehension. For example, the number “12” is merely data. Adding context to the data, such as 12th month or 12 years old, imbues the data with meaning and creates content.
  • The stuff inside a container: In a world where content is virtually always touched by technology, this means content is between a set of standardized markup tags, allowing technology to automate the processing of content.
  • An extension of theuser experience: Content is the treasure at the end of the treasure hunt. Without good content, the best user experience falls flat.
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