What Do Content Strategists Do?

Many others have capably defined content strategy. My favorite definitions are these:

content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design
Rachel Lovinger

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.
Kristina Halvorson

And my newest favorite is:

Content strategy is just content planning.
Elizabeth McGuane

Also, Rahel Bailie has a fantastic post about the definition of content itself.

In real life, content strategy falls somewhere between traditional editorial leadership, communication strategy, and information management, all of which have their own distinct connotations. It’s easy for discussions of terminology to float off into abstraction, so instead of talking about “content strategy” or what “a content strategist” does, I’m going to say what this content strategist does.

What I Do

Right now, I’m working on a few projects. One is very large and is a good example of a big, serious CS project, so I’ll talk about it in detail.

I’ve already collaborated on a quantitative and qualitative content audit for this project, which involved many thousands of pieces of content spread across several divisions and databases.

I’ve also already done high-level content recommendations, which included a description of major assumptions and concepts that would affect future content, structural design, visual design, and development choices. These recommendations included:

  • a cognitive model that translates pieces of the organization’s mission into a conceptual blueprint for deepening user engagement with the site
  • proposals for major new communication approaches and content-related features, including initial requirements for a proposed back-end system that would support specific kinds of content creation and management, all of which are linked to goals articulated by the client before and during the project’s initial phases
  • audience prioritization and high-level plans for meeting the content needs of each of the site’s major audiences

Now I’m working on the next round of content strategy work, which will include:

  • detailed discussions of the content in each of the site’s major sections, keyed to the wireframes that we’re developing—this includes clear documentation of the goals, style, format, sources, and upkeep needs of each major class of content on the site, and will eventually turn into content templates
  • notes on new content that needs to be created and existing content that needs to be revised before launch
  • a discussion of the editorial calendars (yep, plural) that will be in place before launch and will guide content creation and review in the future
  • a snapshot of existing web publishing workflows in use throughout the organization and a discussion of new publishing workflow models and processes that the client may wish to adopt
  • a discussion of underlying content-related business rules that affect workflow and content management
  • a proposal for integrating appropriate, useful social/interactive features into various parts of the site

None of this work deals with all the content strategy aspects of off-site content, social media, email, mobile integration, and so on—we haven’t gotten there yet. Someday, there will also be a style guide, much of which will be integrated directly into the CMS and workflow documents so that people can actually see and use it. And all of this work happens in collaboration with the client, with the web consulting team I’m part of, and with a specialist consulting firm acting as our partner on this project.

Edited to add: This project also included a very substantial research phase, which was run by the UX team while I tagged along taking notes.

For two other clients, I’m collaborating on product development. For one of those clients, I’m also developing messages and writing copy. For another, I’m doing ad-hoc project management and sometimes general, old-school web strategy work.

Oh, a certain amount of staring off into space, which turns out to be essential for keeping the brain juicy enough to do all of the above.

That’s what I’m doing now. Strategic and tactical. Planning and execution. Also sometimes cake.

That Thing I Said I Wouldn’t Talk About

Risk game board (world map) and pieces

Never get involved in a content audit in Asia

If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that I’m an etymology nerd. It’s my main defense against ill-tempered, shortsighted prescriptivism. Here’s a little bonus geek-out.

“Strategy” is derived, of course, from the Greek word strategos, which means, roughly, “general” or “highest ranking military leader.” Strategos is derived from two other Greek words: stratos, which is used to mean “army” but literally means something like “the thing that is spread out” and agos, which means “leader.”1 The OED, bless its adorable face, defines the modern sense of “strategy” as:

The art of a commander-in-chief; the art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign. Usually distinguished from tactics, which is the art of handling forces in battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy.

Quite.

In Summary

The central message of content strategy in 2010 is that it’s not enough to think tactically about content. To serve our clients and readers, we have to look beyond individual battles and ensure that the whole array of individual campaigns and choices works together to meet a clearly defined set of overarching goals.

Notes

  1. Incidentally, “the thing that is spread out” comes pretty close to defining content on most projects. Considering my childhood obsession with Stratego and Risk, it’s probably no accident that I wound up in this profession.

20 thoughts on “What Do Content Strategists Do?

  1. I always enjoy posts like this from content gods because it makes me feel like I am preaching the right stuff to our clients.

    While I am no content strategist I still try to instill the importance of thinking before you type, especially since we work very hard designing great sites. It is a shame when it begins to get filled with crap content.

    People do not want to spend the money (or time) on content because it is not immediately gratification. However, changing the background of a site from white to pink is (not saying I have done that haha).

    Good luck on the project!

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  4. I appreciated you outlining what exactly you do, in terms of actual deliverables. Many articles about content strategy tend to be a little abstract. Thanks!

    There appear to be a couple of gaps, though, which for me are some of the thorniest CS problems:

    1. How did you become an expert in this client’s content domain? How do you evaluate the quality of content (besides in terms of how well it’s written or how up to date it is)? How long does it take before you can “speak the same language”? (Consider clients in esoteric fields like financial products or pharma.)

    2. How did you engage with content stakeholders within the organisation? How do you make sure all content experts were consulted? (I.e. not just those in corporate comms.) Do you know who will be responsible for generating content, and how do you know whether they will be able to deliver? Do you typically advise on changing people’s roles, or hiring new staff to fulfill the strategy?

    I really consider content strategy the hardest problem in web design / online communications. I’m very glad the topic has gained such prominence lately.

  5. I’ll second what Francois said regarding deliverables; my opinion is that the ongoing argument over the definition of CS comes back to a lack of clarity about the basics of the job. Thanks for the insights.

  6. Do you have a prescribed list of content styles (first bullet, assuming this is akin to tone) that allows you to lock into a mode? Or is that a loftier, loosely descriptive qualifier that is part of the creative process? I.e., Are you bucketing content into such categories as:

    Traditional
    Corp
    Playful
    Sporty

    Or just capturing adjectives to help create ideas?
    Etc

  7. @Francois Jordaan

    How did you become an expert in this client’s content domain? How do you evaluate the quality of content (besides in terms of how well it’s written or how up to date it is)? How long does it take before you can “speak the same language”? (Consider clients in esoteric fields like financial products or pharma.)

    A thorough answer to these questions would require another full-length post, but I’ll try to hit the main points.

    First, I’m very rarely going to be a genuine expert in the client’s field, and I don’t need to be. My role is to work with their experts to develop goals, untangle problems, and create a sustainable publishing plan. (If I were coming in as a copywriter, my approach would change.)

    That said, I tend to do a lot of research. On this project, there was a long, thorough research phase that included dozens of stakeholder and user interviews, tons of reading, and a lot of meetings and discussions with the client, as well as a study of similar organizations and their websites. I also read half a dozen issues of relevant academic journals and several books about the field and its concerns.

    I don’t actually know anyone else who does that much prep, and it’s really not necessary, but that’s what I do.

    When I evaluate content, I look at whether or not it’s meeting the intended audience’s goals, what format it’s in, how it fits into the site and section structure, how accessible and readable it is, and so on. The evaluation categories change from project to project, but user needs are always at the center.

    2. How did you engage with content stakeholders within the organisation? How do you make sure all content experts were consulted? (I.e. not just those in corporate comms.) Do you know who will be responsible for generating content, and how do you know whether they will be able to deliver? Do you typically advise on changing people’s roles, or hiring new staff to fulfill the strategy?

    For the first part, see the above response. We also attended something like a dozen content meetings with groups of stakeholders and experts throughout the organization to listen to their needs and ask questions about content-related processes. Right now, we’re doing more interviews that deal specifically with publishing workflow.

    On a project like this, I’m a consultant, rather than an internal manager, so although I do learn who will be creating and revising content, I don’t typically stay on to direct that process. But I do often make recommendations on hiring content people. In an organization like the one I’m working with now, it’s really a question of working with the client to make sure that our recommendations are feasible, given the available resources.

  8. @Mark

    Do you have a prescribed list of content styles (first bullet, assuming this is akin to tone) that allows you to lock into a mode? Or is that a loftier, loosely descriptive qualifier that is part of the creative process? I.e., Are you bucketing content into such categories as:

    Traditional
    Corp
    Playful
    Sporty

    I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job with a condensed explanation of what I mean by a “cognitive model” — it’s not about tone, but about desirable ways for site users to interact with the information on the website. It’s more abstract than user flows, though. (I tried to be as specific as possible, but the result looks like buzzword bingo.)

    Part of the problem is that I’ve never seen anyone else create this sort of thing, so I’m not sure how to describe it. I’ll try to work a more detailed discussion into a future post.

    Tone comes in later, for me, and I usually go over overarching style and voice guidelines and then discuss exceptions and the ways in which those guidelines might change for specific audiences. On the project I’m working on now, for example, the content written for hardcore academic researchers will sound different from the content written for grade-school students ,or for high school teachers.

    Does that answer your question? Do let me know if I’ve misunderstood.

  9. “Does that answer your question?”

    It does, thanks! You’ve distinguished between “hard-core academic research” and “high school teachers.” Do you start with a clean slate when identifying those audience-types on each project (obviously these are both examples of pretty specific groups) or is there a list in hand when you start that project phase, similar to what I described above. Would that list work 80% of the time? Or is it always subject to audience research?

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  11. Erin, Thanks for publishing this blog. I’m a neophyte in terms of this role but very much involved in working with an organization to develop a content plan. I found this post particularly helpful in that it confirms that a day in the life of a content strategist isn’t always typical, or predictable. I also liked how well you answered the other commenters questions.

    By the way, I’d love to see an example of your cognitive model mentioned above.

  12. I will second Zachary Beggs. Also, you are multi-tasking. :)

    About cognitive model: it is the assumption people do about how something might work or what can I do to make that thing works even If I have never used it before.

    Previous experiences helps to build your cognitive model about that something – Don Norman has a text about cognitive model in his site, I guess. Google him.

    That concept is also explored in the book Interaction Design – Beyond Human Computer Interaction, by Dr. Helen Sharp.

  13. Helpful explanation of strategy … thanks. And, always trust Vizzini. He always knows the way, mostly.

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  17. Wow. I’m a copywriter dabbling into digital marketing and i find content strategy the logical next step for me. Your article has been very helpful.. its also made it very clear that its a lot more complex than i ever anticipated

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