Ten Years Later: The Discipline of Content Strategy

Kristina Halvorson reflects on the process of writing her seminal article and the people who made it possible.

It is not easy to write an article about something you only sort of understand.

First, you have to research the hell out of your topic, which is especially difficult when you can only find two books and a handful of people online to learn from. Second, you have to constantly check yourself against what you actually know and what you only think you know. And finally, you have to risk revealing your own ignorance to people you really respect.

Such was my experience writing “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” which appeared 10 years ago this week on A List Apart. It was both a terrifying and heady undertaking. I knew I was writing about something really important in a very public forum, and I knew I couldn’t screw it up. I also knew I wasn’t necessarily the right person for the job—while I’d been doing my own made-up version of content strategy for many years, I didn’t feel nearly as experienced as the folks I’d sought out for interviews and advice.

But what I definitely had going for me at the time was that I was really mad. I was mad about constantly getting called about website projects—projects that were almost done and nearly out of budget—and being asked to “just write the content.” I was mad that digital agencies always left it to the client to “do the content,” when the client clearly didn’t have the skills or capacity to manage it. I was mad that designers and IAs kept making beautiful boxes with placeholder copy, expecting that someone would magically make the “real” content work.

And most of all, I was mad that no one was listening to the people who had been yelling and pleading and bargaining about the importance of content since websites became a thing.

So I wrote this somewhat sardonic, extremely passionate article about content strategy. In it, I tried to synthesize everything I’d learned from those three books and the smart, kind, generous people who talked to me about their own experiences. I threw a few definitions against the wall to see if anything would stick. I appealed to people’s sense of the greater good. Better content for everyone! We deserve it.

Turns out the timing was right. The article caught fire, and I found myself with a platform to do a lot more yelling about content. The best part was that, when I spoke at conferences, I’d come face-to-face with people who did what I did. And for the first time, I felt like I’d truly found community in my work.

So, 10 years later, I am still really proud of my article, and I’m proud of the part I’ve played in the world of content strategy. But what I’m most proud of is how smart I was to look for and listen to the people who were the true pioneers of content strategy: Gerry McGovern, Ann Rockley, Jeff MacIntyre, Karen McGrane, Melissa Rach, Colleen Jones, Rachel Lovinger, Ahava Leibtag, Margot Bloomstein, and so many more. I’m also deeply indebted to Jeffrey Zeldman for asking me to write for A List Apart, and to Carolyn Wood for providing unequaled editorial guidance during the writing process.

I am forever grateful to be a part of this amazing community.

Kristina Halvorson is CEO of Brain Traffic, founder of Confab Events, coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, and host of The Content Strategy Podcast.

Intro to content strategy workshop

Want to dig deeper into the core principles of content strategy? Join Kristina’s workshop at Confab 2019, coming up April 23–26 in Minneapolis. Tickets on sale now!

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