Author David Foster Wallace addressed the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College with a speech that would become one of his most-read works.
In it, he told this parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
The point of the story, he explained, is that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
In business, content is water
Business leaders ask me all the time, “What do you mean by content?”
Let’s back up, though, and ask, “What is a business, exactly?”
Peter Drucker defined a business as “a social group that differs from other social groups in only one way: businesses must have customers.” (This definition comes from his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, which is also the most Drucker-y of all Drucker titles.)
Other bits make up a business, too: products and services, a marketplace to showcase those products, and the processes and methods by which the group operates.
A business comprises one other inextricable thing (and I argue that it’s the most important):
Content is every business’s core operating system. It’s the communication between the social group and the customers it creates.
It’s the body of knowledge that describes the method by which the business operates. It’s the main ingredient of the experiences created to showcase products in the marketplace, and it’s the core to helping customers derive the most value from the product or service.
Content is everything. It’s all around us all the time. It is the water of business.
Content strategy puts purpose behind communication
Calling content the “water of business” might sound a bit esoteric. But stay with me.
Just as the two fish in the story are so immersed in water that they struggle to see it, businesses are so immersed in content that they can’t make sense of it.
I see so many executives struggle to rationalize putting a strategy around content. Managing the entirety of a business’s content can seem unachievable. Unsurprisingly, executives don’t consider it the best use of time.
But leaders must pick and choose the elements of the business to focus on.
Some rationalize their hesitation – they say that trying to affect the water all around doesn’t make sense. That’s why one of the first questions I get when talking about content strategy is, “What do you mean by content?”
But think about the impact of an unconscious approach to content: Content gets created with little purpose and without understanding how it affects the business’s big picture.
A content strategy’s entire purpose is to improve the quality of the water.
The implication for any business’ content strategy is two-fold:
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Content teams must lead communication
Content expresses a business’ strategy – it’s the byproduct of any one function (whether that’s
brand value, lead generation, sales enablement, customer service, or internal knowledge management initiative).
Yet, in many businesses, teams in different functions approach their content needs in a self-centered way. That’s understandable when they lack awareness of the greater context.
In that kind of environment, content practitioners are expected to respond to the needs of the “stakeholders.” Yet the content teams rarely count as stakeholders themselves. Every request is valid, and the content team acts on it.
That’s not a strategic approach.
Often, business leaders say they have a content strategy. Typically, though, they understand what the company has said – but still lack insight into what it should say.
The answer is to elevate content strategy to the level of business strategy. That means every content strategy needs a planning and prioritization step – an awareness of what the teams will create, not simply a measurement of what they created.
That feeds the second implication of a successful content strategy.
You need both quantity AND quality
Every business will always create more content. Every new customer, every new product, every new marketplace, and every new communication creates a need for more content.
A successful content strategy adds value by improving quality as it facilitates scale. The tension between improving quality and facilitating scale means you’ll never create too much content.
If content is the operating system for business, then every person – from senior executives to the frontline workers – serves as a coder for that system.
Content strategy should enable everyone to code at quality. You may prioritize some areas over others in the moment, but your mission isn’t to pick and choose which water to improve. It’s to be aware of the quality of all of it and then prioritize efforts to improve what you can.
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Businesses don’t need the ability to create any content requested. They need a process for making deliberate choices about what content they should create.
Differentiating your brand as a “thought leader” isn’t about writing the most intelligent white papers or having the most entertaining or compelling blog. Differentiating your brand comes from having the awareness and processes to direct all of the business’ knowledge into the most meaningful communication and experiences.
To end his graduation speech, Wallace came back to the fish-in-water story:
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
I’d translate that thought for content strategy this way:
The real value of a content strategy has almost nothing to do with the content and everything to do with the awareness of how content is essential, how it connects everything all around us that makes up the business.
To do that, we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is content.”
“This is content.”
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute