Written by Nicole Hess

While the roles of content strategy and content marketing can overlap, their differences are significant. Yet, if Google has it confused, it’s no wonder other people are getting it wrong, especially if they haven’t worked in or with both fields.

So does it matter if they get confused? I believe it does. Here’s my case as to why.

When I’m requested to join a meeting to discuss “content strategy” I prepare by researching the tone of the content, the journey, and content organization among other things. Yet, when I arrive at the meeting and am asked, “What content should we create to have other sites share it?” – well that knocks all that preparedness out the window. I don’t want to waste time. I don’t want there to be confusion. So clarifying the differences for everyone with examples that relate to our industry seems to be in order.

So, while this isn’t a comprehensive list, I wanted to share some of the clearer differences between them.

1. Strategy vs Marketing

One might guess that the words in the titles themselves tell us that they represent different practices. But unfortunately, the word change isn’t enough. Personally, I blame the famous ‘Sanitation Engineer’ and ‘Trash Man’ dichotomy for this confusion (thanks to Maddie for the great example).

So, I want to shout it from the rooftops that these titles are not interchangeable. Here’s the main difference:

Content Strategy focuses in delivering strategy and recommended actions to implement on a site and for the site’s contributors.

Content Marketing focuses in marketing content – determining what assets to have, creating them and marketing them to other websites and online presences (social profiles and other variations).

Ready for the details? Let’s get to it.

2. Inbound vs Outbound

Cold calls go out to make a sale, as does a pitch email to get a backlink to content. Whereas a sales center takes calls from potential customers, as does a website ready to service a visitor. Does everything come back to sales? Maybe not, but this is an easy analogy that most of the industry understands. Here’s the breakdown without the sales lingo:

Content Strategy focuses on the visitors who are coming to the website. It’s enhancing the site’s experience for the traffic it receives.

Content Marketing focuses most on the online profiles of others. The content they share, write about and link to, and how to create something that those other profiles will share.

3. Onsite Engagement vs Links

While both content strategists and content marketers use data to inform decisions (at least they do here at Greenlane) – the difference lies in what data is needed and used to make those decisions.

Content Strategy uses metrics such as sessions, scroll depth, conversions, bounce rate, and readability.

Content Marketing uses metrics such as outbound links, inbound links, domain authority, and market reach.

It’s not a data tug-of-war, both content strategists and content marketers can have strategies that take any combination of these metrics into consideration. It’s more about what’s at the core of the majority of decisions.

4. In what scenarios should you consult with them?

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All the time! Would be an ideal answer – if budgets and resources were endless. But alas, they aren’t (unless you’re Amazon?) so we need to know when to call in the experts and for what.

Content Strategy: website redesigns, reviewing content production plans, content audit, editorial guidelines, and information architecture.

Content Marketing: building authority for a site, increasing brand recognition, content promotion plans, content asset ideas, prospecting and outreach.

In a nutshell, content marketing is called for when you need to get the word out about your website (outbound sales) and content strategy is called for when you want to improve your website visitors’ experience (inbound sales).

5. Who are their rock stars?

I don’t know of an industry that doesn’t have a revered leader of some kind. You’ve got Neil deGrasse Tyson to Steve Jobs and Maya Angelou. Our industry is no different. We may be young, but since these two practices exist for and because of the Internet, their rockstars have an easy and eager audience awaiting them every day online.

Here’s who I (biased as I am) say are in their Rockstar Halls of Fame:

Content Strategy: Kristina Halvorson, Karen McGrane, Scott Kubie, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Hilary Marsh, and Margot Bloomstein

Content Marketing: Rand Fishkin, Julie Joyce, Brian Dean, Matthew Barby, Kerry Jones, Michael Brenner, Joe Pulizzi, and Paddy Moogan

6. Writing content for SEO! vs Make this go viral!

These are the biggest irks. This may best be explained through visuals. Here you go:

Biggest irk for Content Strategists:

Biggest irk for Content Marketers:

Frankly, both Content Strategists and Content Marketers will be annoyed with all of these.
Use them at your own risk.

Recap: They’re two different things.

For those of you who skip to the end, there’s no bait and switch going on in the post. Content Marketing and Content Strategy are two different things. Here’s a final analogy of how they’re different, this time it’s in the form of an example at the far end of the spectrum for each.

A piece of content that works great for content marketing, because it’s published on another site for that site’s audience, can be fairly different than the content strategy’s editorial guidelines for content to be published onsite.


A content audit may show that the blog posts with the majority of the sites’ inbound links provide no other value to the site because there is very little traffic coming through those links, and the traffic that does come in requests outdated services that we no longer provide.

It’s like a venn diagram, yes, they’re overlapping circles, but only a small area.

So what’s in that overlap?

We agree on the need for quality content and that less is more these days. We agree that each practice is meaningful and beneficial on its own while recognizing that one can impact the other. And we commiserate because we’re often so confused for one another, it’s like we’re the Olsen twins – before they grew up and everyone could easily see their different features.

  • JHTScherck

    Hey Nicole,

    Solid post. I see the point you are driving at – but I also think you are writing about this from a marketing agency POV, where the goal is growth/acquisition/conversion – and I don’t think that’s the goal/role of content strategy. Content strategists can provide those things as a side effect of their good work, but it’s rarely the goal. A huge part of content strategy is the actual operational management of content. A good example of an ideal project for a content strategist, in my opinion, would be working with a team to create a support wiki/knowledge base section of the site for a technical product. It’s a ton of info/content to present to users, so picking out how to present that info, how it will be maintained, the conventions of support articles, what justifies writing a new support article, determining how support articles get approved and published, who is responsible for maintaining them, etc – is what i find to be the ideal for content strategists to take on – the strategy and ongoing management of content. I don’t see them as optimizing for KPIs, but more building towards overall business goals.

    • Hi John-Henry,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

      I agree with the content strategy work you’ve mentioned to also be a great example of content strategy. There’s so much more than what I’ve covered in this post, including what you’ve mentioned, and beyond. To use your example, I would add a style guide, defining target audience, metadata and tagging conventions, and the full governance plan (in addition to who is maintaining, who are the SME’s to reach out to, who has publishing approval, etc.) as ready examples.

      Perhaps I laid a bit heavy on the “inbound sales” analogy to have you infer that this post is stating that content strategy should line up with marketing goals. That’s not the case or the intention.

      The metrics listed in the post were used to point out that content strategist also use data that is available to them and don’t shy away from projects that involve enhancing the performance of a site towards a business goal, however that should be achieved through content.

      – Nicole

      • JHTScherck

        Thanks for the clarification!

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