What I learned about content strategy this year

I spent the first two years of my content strategy career trying not to freak out. Every day was full of terror: what thing that I’ve never done before and have no idea how to do would I have to do next?

This year, things got better. My blood pressure went down a bit. I’ve done this stuff before, I know what to expect. I don’t think the impostor syndrome-fuelled terror will ever totally disappear, but this year I got to focus on refining my work and processes (instead of just trying to survive the day). Here’s what I learned.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (are my job)

I used to think my job was to make a bunch of recommendations and deliver them into my clients’ waiting, appreciative arms. But oh yeah, that doesn’t work. Recommendations are only half the battle — the other half is helping clients implement and maintain them in their organization. It’s not just about the content; it’s more about managing change.

People problems are my problem

Content problems are caused by people. The content problems your client thinks they’ve hired you to solve are really people problems in disguise. The content is just the most visible manifestation.

That’s why it’s so important to get to know everything you can about your client. Who they get along with, who they go for lunch with. Who just had a bad inter-office relationship breakup that’s stopping two departments from working together (yes, that happened). If you know all the people-whys behind the content-whats, your content strategy work will be much more successful.

Web CMSs are the worst

Our projects always start the same way: “Our CMS is terrible.” “Well, we can fix that!” I always said. “This CMS will be different.”

This, I’ve finally realized, is delusional. All web CMSs suck (sorry CMS industry). And by “suck”, I mean this: all web CMSs are complicated. They do a whole bunch of complex things. To the average user, that equals suck. They don’t understand it. It’s overwhelming and difficult.

This means two things for the content strategist:

  1. Training training training training. Train in person. Train often. Have good training materials available, always.
  2. Fix the CMS UI (if you can). Some CMSs are more flexible than others, but take every opportunity you can to make yours better. Create help text. Redesign the UI. Have (up-to-date) tutorials easily available. And most importantly, have strong relationships with your clients so they’re comfortable going to you for help.

Don’t use spreadsheets

I love spreadsheets. I love them so hard. They’re clean, and orderly, and I can do fun things with them (if you consider conditional formatting fun).

So naturally, I assumed my clients would love them too. I mean, who wouldn’t find joy in my perfectly organized, colour-coordinated fonts of insight, amirite?

Nerd newsflash: no one (normal) likes spreadsheets. Much like CMSs, they’re complicated and overwhelming. Give your clients a short, easy-to-understand summary of your work and what it means for them.

Communicate always

As a slowly recovering awkward person, I prefer to limit my exposure to possible mortification. I take every opportunity I can find to run away.

Turns out, that doesn’t work in content strategy. Quite the opposite: that’s a straight shot to total failure.

Present everything. Don’t email it and walk away. Get on the phone. Talk. Don’t hide behind jargon, talk to your clients like people. Address their real fears. Relate all of your work back to your client’s life — how will it impact their day? Their year? Their career?

In conclusion

That’s what I love most about this gig: there’s no such thing as done. The industry will keep changing faster than any of us could possibly keep up with. But hey, we can try.