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Seven Essential Skills for the Content Strategist

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In this article you'll learn:

  • Why strong content strategists bring editorial skills to the table, including an author's gift for narrative, an editor's talent for precision, and a curator's ability to pick the best.
  • Why content strategists' also keep an eye on the crowd, with a campaign manager's focus on the message, a publicist's talent for getting seen, and an analyst's love of the data.

The word "content" is about as necessarily vague as the word "change" is in political circles. It has become a portmanteau, a kind of verbal suitcase into which people pack whatever meaning they like.

That may be a necessary evil of the marketing trade, since the discipline of content strategy is hard to define in a brief but holistic way.

It touches so many other skill sets, and straddles the line between departments so regularly, that one can be forgiven for a relativist approach to the discipline. For example...

  • For people concerned with enterprise issues, content strategy largely refers to governance, migration planning, and technical issues related to integration into content management systems.
  • For media mavens, content strategy conjures thoughts of content production, distribution channels, and associated editorial strategies.
  • Writers often see content strategy as a way to think about copy in a more holistic manner, and how it comes together in a clear narrative architecture.
  • For information architects, content strategy can summon a sudden vision of taxonomy spreadsheets, content models, and massive site inventories.
  • And, finally: in her article "Content Strategy Is Not User Experience," Erin Kissane, author of The Elements of Content Strategy, notes the differences between content strategy and user experience, and usefully enumerates how different disciplines define the term.

Now try to sum all that up in 10 words...

Instead of whittling down the definition into a few lapidary phrases, I've found it useful to simply bring more concision to skill sets involved in the content strategist's role. Although not exhaustive, the following are some of the skills I've seen applied.


1. A curator's Capacity to Recognize and Aggregate Quality

Curation is growing in importance because somebody has to parse the quality from the quantity.

A curator is not simply an aggregator. Marketer Rohat Bhargava, on his popular blog, proposed some interesting approaches to curation that remind us that, done well, curation is always more than aggregation.

It can distill excellence from a mass of mediocre content; it can showcase an unnoticed trend; it can blend content to produce a new vantage point; and it can shape a chronology that might, for instance, illustrate the evolution of a field.

2. An Author's Ability to Structure a Meta-Narrative

Websites can benefit from a novelist's touch—the ability to see the big picture and to structure a plot and unfold a storyline across a defined space, whether a site architecture or trans-media campaign.

For sites, it often begins with the content architecture, perhaps a card-sorting exercise that identifies the hierarchies and taxonomy of content that function something like chapters in a book. This work essentially produces a narrative architecture for the site.

For campaigns, channel considerations often reveal the mindset of the user on receipt of brand content, and require the content strategist to consider the digital context as an influence in the shaping of a story.

3. A Campaign Manager's Obsession With Staying on Message

There's been some debate about where content strategists should sit, literally. In Strategy? In Creative? In User Experience?

Valid arguments can be made for each, but if the CS is anchored outside of Creative proper, he or she should still be attentive to brand tone and voice, overseeing writers if possible, and at least offering content templates or page tables that help guide Web writers as they craft the story.

4. An Editor's Willingness to Cut, Revise, and Retire Content

Often, editorial competency comes into play during migration projects. Large brands, especially, often lack the time or motivation to closely track all the content their brands are publishing at a mind-boggling pace. The content strategist can step forward, conduct a thorough audit, and make editorial recommendations on what content should migrate whole, what should be retired, edited, or originated.

5. A Publicist's Focus on Maximizing Exposure

Credible content is worthless if it isn't visible. Content strategists should be familiar with the controlled vocabularies that a brand employs onsite, but also with the keyword groups used for search campaigns. Optimizing content, writing the metadata, or working with the media team on metadata can ensure that content is always developed with findability in mind.

6. A Subject Matter Expert's Eye for Content Gaps and New Requirements

Content strategists should participate fully in the discovery phase of new work, not least to master the brand segments and the audience-specific messaging that needs to unfold within a site or across a campaign.

Seeing what's missing doesn't necessarily mean important content is nonexistent; it may be hidden from consumer view, buried down unrelated paths no user would ever follow.

Understanding the brand story means knowing each proposition in the brand messaging matrix, how each is argued, what proofs each offers, and how each culminates in a compelling call to action.

7. An Analyst's Readiness to Mine Data and Optimize Campaigns

Although the content strategist sometimes seems to deliver a healthy percentage of his or her work up front—in the strategic stages of a project—oversight is critical during the build phases, and also post-launch.

As metrics are compiled, the content strategist should mine the data for evidence—for or against the effectiveness of the content and the strategy. A review of the numbers will almost always uncover something worth optimizing, whether site copy, navigational paths, or hierarchies.

* * *

Not all projects will engage all of these talents all the time. But they should all be in the content strategist's toolbox. Editor, analyst, specialist, brand manager, author and curator. Put that on your next resume and see where it takes you. Possibly to a new content strategy position...


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Jason Hirthler is content strategy director at MRY. He's been a content strategist and writer and has 17 years of experience in marketing and communications. He cut his content strategy teeth working on Olympic bid campaigns.

LinkedIn: Jason Hirthler

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  • by Matthew Thu Apr 18, 2013 via web

    It's interesting that you didn't mention technical knowledge in there -- related to HTML, CSS, or any other web technologies out there. Either way, this is a very nice codification of the types of things content strategists should look to be able to do.

  • by Beth Worthy Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    "Content strategists should participate fully in the discovery phase of new work, not least to master the brand segments and the audience-specific messaging that needs to unfold within a site or across a campaign"-best line of this post, which I came across. I think its really important to include this section in the content strategy as to be updated with the current day-to-day happening can be really beneficial for the business.

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