Curiosity Gap #1: No, Content Strategy Is Not Like Chess
There are other board games out there, friends.
Hello! Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Curiosity Gap, a newsletter about creativity, craft, and early-stage content strategy. In other words: Writing! How does it work? And how can brands be good at it, seeing as how every company is a media company now and all?
I believe it’s customary to kick these things off with some kind of meta-post explaining the “what” and “why” that inspired the newsletter. I will not be doing that. In the spirit of getting over the fear that the water will be too cold, we’re jumping right into the deep end with a regular old essay. Here we go.
No, Content Strategy Is Not Like Chess
Even in our world of chaos, there are some things that are certain. We rise as one for Kunta Kinte/Geordie LaForge/our Reading Rainbow hero, LeVar Burton. The correct amount to budget for candles each month is somewhere between $0 and $3,600. Any online #Discourse that goes on long enough will inevitably lead to, well… you know.
The content marketing world has its own laws, of course. Content teams and their processes will inevitably be referred to as content “engines” or “machines.” Skyscrapers get evoked any time the goal is to write what’s already ranking, just… more, somehow.
And anytime strategy comes up, it’s only a matter of time before somebody mentions chess.
Well. No offense to these fine folks, and the MANY others who have made the comparison over the years. But after seven years as a content marketer (and three years as a certified Board Game Nerd), I’ve decided that the chess analogy is, shall we say, a tad incomplete.
First of all: I’m gonna let you finish, but Go is the best two-person abstract strategy game of all time…
But more importantly, two-person abstract strategy isn’t even the best kind of board game to illustrate what content strategy is actually like in the year of our lord 2021. Or ever, probably.
“Chess is just like real life,” said no one, ever.
Here’s the thing about chess (and checkers, too, while we’re at it): they’re two player games. There’s you, and there’s your opponent. You start out on opposite sides of the board, with the same number of pieces, and the same set of moves available to you.
Sure, as the game progresses and you and your opponent each make your moves, the state of play changes. The options available to you and your rival diverge based on the choices you each make. But a knight always moves one space forward and two to the side. Pawns always sacrifice their pawny lives for the good of the cause. Play alternates back and forth between you and the other person, one move per player per turn.
Does that sound like the modern marketing landscape to you?
Aside from maybe everybody’s favorite duopolies like Coke/Pepsi and Democrat/Republican, what organization is ever really contending with one competitor? How many companies are playing with exactly the same pieces, and by exactly the same rules, that their opponents are? How often does content marketing feel like a game of chess as seen on The Queen’s Gambit — tense, sure, but orderly, each participant playing one carefully plotted move at a time?
Hopefully, we can agree that the answers are “none, zero, and never,” and that chess is not the game you’re looking for when it comes to illustrating the state of content strategy.
So if not that, then what?
Towards a better board game analogy
Guys, gals, and nonbinary pals, I give you: Scythe.
Scythe is an engine-building-slash-area-control game published in 2016 by Stonemaier Games. For those who care about The Stats, its BoardGameGeek rating is 8.2, it’s built for 1-5 players (up to 7 with expansion, although who would do that to themselves is beyond me), and its play time is 90-115 minutes, according to the box (this is, in my experience, a lie).
Because I believe questions of intellectual property rights are important to talk about with all forms of content, including board games, I should also note that the origins of the game’s (gorgeous) artwork have been the source of a hefty bit of controversy.
In Scythe, you and your opponents play rival factions battling for love, power, and territory in an alternate, peri-apocalyptic version of 1920s Europe. To start, you’ve got your character, their cool animal sidekick, a player mat that shows you what moves you can make, and an assortment of workers and mechs (cool robot sidekicks) that you can deploy to harvest resources and conquer territory, once you can get them on the board.
Behold: My idea of a good time. [Image source: Stonemaier Games]
So far, so good. Not too out there for our friends who’ve played a spirited game of Risk or Settlers of Catan. But what makes Scythe slightly spicier for folks whose main association with board games is Clue or Monopoly is that Scythe is asymmetric. Meaning, even at the beginning, no two players’ game looks exactly alike.
Each player’s player mat offers different combinations of moves players can make. Each faction has different special abilities that are unique to them. Bjorn can cross rivers from turn one if he wants, whereas other factions have to unlock that ability over time. Olga can repeat the same move on her player mat multiple times, while everybody else has to play a different space on their player mat every time.
What your setup might look like at start of play if you are Olga of the Rusviet Union. Top mat is your player mat, AKA your available moves. Bottom mat shows various special abilities you can unlock as play progresses and your strategy unfolds. [Image source: BoardGameGeek]
Each faction starts with different resources at their disposal. One character has immediate access to, say, villages, which means they can grow their army of workers right away. Another character starts out with access to metal, which makes it easier for them to get mechs on the board.
Each faction also has different secret objectives: side quests they’re trying to achieve alongside the primary objective of spreading out and controlling as much area as possible.
And finally, every faction starts with different amounts of the game’s three forms of currency: popularity, power, and actual money.
This, to me, is a far more realistic picture of the content marketing landscape — indeed, the attention economy landscape writ large. You’re never having to contend with what just one competitor is doing; you’re fending off competition from multiple sides. There are trade-offs to every move you make: some are expensive, but expedite your progress; some push back opponents and clear your path to controlling new territory, but cost you the love of the people in the process. You’re constantly having to balance your long term goals and strategy against side quests and quick tactical wins with the potential to either enhance your game — or throw you off track.
Oh, and there’s also a hefty dose of randomness to keep things “interesting.” I mean, seriously: did anybody have “global pandemic” penciled into their marketing plans at the start of 2020?
But maybe most importantly of all: in content strategy, as in Scythe, no two competitors’ resources, abilities, or collection of available moves looks exactly alike. Even at the start.
Tiny startups going toe-to-toe with huge incumbents are not going to be able to compete with those giants based on budget. Brands that are coming to a space as “disruptors,” with founders who are approaching the industry from the outside, can’t lean on their own experience or credibility in the industry to inform their content.
But a small brand likely has closer relationships with individual customers than the big behemoth has. The outside disruptor sees something in the space that those who’ve been in it for decades either haven’t seen — or haven’t had the vision or courage to change.
In the thought leadership post I wrote for the Animalz blog last year, I borrowed Ben Horowitz’s concept of the “earned secret” to describe the collection of advantages and assets that every business has that fuel their business strategy and should fuel their content strategy as well. In board game terms, your “earned secrets” are your cache of resources, and the collection of moves that you can make. No two brands’ cache of resources and available moves is the same.
And figuring out what, exactly, your brand’s resources and available moves are — and how you should play those resources and moves based on the state of the game board in front of you — is what we’re talking about when we talk about “content strategy.”
A content marketer’s guide to games and content strategy
I’ve been told that #Content needs to come with #ActionableAdvice attached. So, let’s talk about what we should do about all of this. If we agree that content strategy is not, in fact, like chess, but more like an asymmetric engine building/area control game set in a peri-apocalyptic world overrun by mechs and animal sidekicks, what does that mean for how you should think about content strategy?
Know how you win
One of the first things you (should) learn when learning any board game is the endgame, also known as: who wins, and how?
Is it whoever gets the most points? The most money? Is it a first-across-the-finish line kind of deal? The first time I played Scythe, I cleaned my opponent’s clock, not because I controlled more territory (I didn’t), but because upon reading the rules, I’d noticed that popularity multiplied how much each territory was worth at the end of the game. So I focused on keeping my popularity high while the other guy spent his down. Come scoring time, each of my territories (and objectives and resources) was worth more than his.
In Scythe, as in marketing, there’s power in cultivating the love of the people. [Image Source: The Daily Scythe]
Content strategy works the same way: before you can put your game plan together, you have to know how you win — what “success” looks like. Is it attracting huge amounts of traffic? Earning the trust of key decision-makers? Showing users how to get value out of the product fast so they don’t churn out as fast as they opt in?
Realistically, it will be either “some combination” or “all of the above.” But usually, there’s one or two objectives that rise to the top. Keep those “how we win” objectives at the forefront of your mind as you design and start to execute your content strategy, and chances are good that you’ll be headed in the right direction.
Understand your available moves
Once you know how a game is won, the next step to learning any board game is understanding the collection of resources and moves at your disposal for getting to that ideal end state. In complex strategy games like Scythe, this means knowing all the different tactical moves you can make on any given turn; but it also means thinking through how all of those moves and resources fit together into a larger strategy that you play out over a series of turns and, ideally, (as long as nothing blows up and nobody throws off your groove) the entire length of the game.
So, too, with content strategy. Before you play, you need to know: what are my assets? What are my liabilities? Who are my allies? How much money do I have in the bank? And how do I take all of those bits and bobs and spaces and potential moves and link them together into a sequence of plays that gets me from where I am now to where I want to be one, three, five, fifteen turns from now?
Of course, in both board games and content, chances are good that, as the game unfolds, your strategy will need to change. Your opponents will make moves that close off some avenues. A giant publication will start squatting at top of the SERPs for keywords you were counting on and bring your search-based strategy to an impasse. A generation-defining pandemic will roll through and take those in-person networking events you were counting on off the table.
But if and when the landscape around you shifts, it’s a lot easier to stabilize when you know what strengths you can fall back on. It’s a lot easier to come up with a Plan B when you’re choosing it from among plans C, D, E, F, and G. In order to make smart moves, you need to know what the available moves are. And, again, your moves are not necessarily (or even likely) the same as the brands you’re going up against.
Play your own game — or the game will play you
One of the surest ways to trip yourself up when you’re playing Scythe or other games like it is to get too caught up in what your opponents are doing. It’s tempting, once opponents start building momentum, or a leader seems to break free of the pack, to want to start replicating their moves, or shift your own strategy toward blocking their progress, rather than advancing your own. But that almost always backfires, especially when it comes to asymmetric games, because whatever strategy your opponent appears to be executing, chances are that you literally can’t replicate it.
At the end of almost every game of Scythe and other games like it that I’ve lost, I could probably tell you more about what my opponents were doing than I could about what my own strategy had been. And therein lies the problem: I was watching them play their game when I should have been focused on playing my own.
Ben Wyatt, playing literally his own game: “You’re a smart guy, you’ve clearly picked up some flashy tricks. But you made one crucial mistake: you forgot about the essence of the game.”
I see this all the time in the content marketing world: content specialists and marketing leads and founders who are so caught up in what their opponents are doing and what they should be doing to replicate or counter it, they lose sight of the game they should actually be playing — theirs.
Your game is your game. Yes, competition is a factor. Yes, you should know where your opponents are playing, and how. Yes, occasionally you may even have to resort to a knock-down, drag-out brawl over territory that involves throwing every last mech and power point you have at your opponent. But those occasions, in my experience both in Scythe and in content marketing, are far rarer than most people think.
At the end of the day, your game is your game. How far you get, how many points you accrue, how many customers you win over, is going to come down to how well you played your game, not what you think about how your opponents played theirs.
Every brand has their hand to play. Playing yours the best way you know how is the name of the game.
So game on.
Huge thanks to Nikhil Venkatesa for lending an editor’s eye to this here inaugural issue of The Curiosity Gap.
Because this is the kind of content marketer he is, Nikhil also pointed out the untapped opportunity for an audio version of this and future issues of The Curiosity Gap. We’ll put a pin in that one and come back to it.