A trip across the ages from the beginnings of content strategy to the present. We’ll start all the way back when tablets were, well, tablets…
Let There Be Light
In the beginning was the Word. But, it turned out, the Word needed lots of other words, too. The development of language out of simple gesticulatory sounds through syntax, word change, derivation, and discourse was a kind of proto-content strategy at the level of the human brain itself. Combining individual words into longer and longer utterances, conveying information through meaning and emotion through tone, resulted in an idea about how language should be. Clarity and consistency were essentials, especially once language became codified and written down. On tablets, on papyrus, on rocks or just about anywhere, a person could now deliver a message to someone without actually being there.
And lo, in the East, editorial was born.
Give Me That Old-Time Religion
At first, structured, written language was mainly used to document laws and kingly proclamations for the masses. But divine laws, religious narratives, and the language of a higher authority also began to appear in written form. With this move away from purely functional information (‘do this or don’t do this or I’ll chop your head off’) towards language of inspiration and wonder, literary style emerged. It was a short jump from there to literature not only about gods or heroes, but about people and every day life as well (well, actually it was a long jump, but we’re skipping the dull parts here).
By the early centuries of the common era, we began to expect texts to have different points of view, for language to have a specific personality, for it to address something that we were looking for (hope, aspiration, or the directions to the best thermae in Antioch). One could argue the development of the Gospels were a kind of early Christian content strategy: what do we really want to say about Jesus? How should it sound? How will we–to use a word that ended up meaning something a bit different–convert our readers into taking action?
As Christianity, monastic thought, and philosophy chugged along, it occurred to some (and Martin Luther in particular) that content of this kind would be most effective in the language of everyday use: the vernacular. Soon across Europe, vernacular Bibles (such as the English King James) began coining phrases and setting literary standards that are with us to this day. In fact, much of what we call ‘branding’ clearly has its terminological origins in religious and philosophical discourse.
Publish or Perish
Of course, what really got things going for the nascent profession of editorial was the invention of printing. Mass production of books not only made copying texts far less laborious, but it took it out of the hands of monks and scholars and into a burgeoning printing and publishing industry. Editorial became a professional trade that could be learned and practiced towards commercial as well as academic and religious ends. And so it went for the next few hundred years, the forms of literary style developing and changing over time, but the essentials of good editorial always remaining the same. And then, towards the end of the twentieth century, an entirely new way to publish language spread across the world: the Internet.
From Readers to Users
So how, basically, was this new way of publishing any different? Simply put, engaging with a text went from being linear to dimensional. I could go back, forward, up, down, sideways, jumping from link to link and browsing navigation, putting content together in a way meaningful to me, in a way unimaginable with a printed, physical text. So readers became users: people following a path to some goal, whether it be information, a transaction, or a connection. Once content was parsable in this way, organizing content had to be fundamentally rethought.
And so, in response to these new ways to understand and structure information, we develop content taxonomies, plan for content management, define conversion paths, ensure keyword optimization, and target metrics to match. In sum, the apparatus of twenty-first century content strategy we know it today. However, as we’ve discussed in other posts, the core principles of good editorial and good writing remain essentially unchanged. Even though we’ve come right back to reading on … tablets.
Those first Sumerian scribes would be proud.