Content Strategy, In Their Words

10 leading Content Strategists share candid insight, experiences and advice.

In case you haven’t noticed, the interest in our field has been steadily rising in recent years.

Google Searches for “Content Strategy” from 2011–2016 (Lol @ the dips every Holiday season.)

And with 497,881+ people listing “Content Strategy” as a skill on their LinkedIn profile (as of Nov 2016), the community is still growing.

When talking with the people who do (or should) have content strategy as a skill on their profile, conversations usually center around a few topics:

  • “What are some of the resources you use? What are you reading?”
  • “What’s your method for dealing with X problem?”
  • “Ugh, it can’t just be me, right?”

There are so many great books and articles out there — but we love talking to people in the community, sharing ideas and laying out the welcome mat to anyone who shows interest in what we do. So that’s why we reached out to a few leading Content Strategists to give us their latest thoughts, struggles, resources and anything else they want to get off their chests.


Meet the Strategists

We reached out to 25 practitioners in total, and these 10 folks responded right away because they’re awesome. They have 127 combined years of experience in a variety of settings, from in-house to agency, with some even running their own companies. (Scroll all the way to the bottom if you just want their answers, straight-up.)

Here’s a snapshot of their Twitter personalities to get you up to speed:

Their daily work is in content strategy, and they have spoken, written, led workshops, or otherwise contributed to our collective body of knowledge in huge ways.

Their locations stretch from the Mid-West to London:

This map demonstrates the locations of our 10 Strategists, and doesn’t reflect the entire industry. We know you’re out there somewhere, West Coast...

And we’re excited to share their answers here with the rest of the community.

First Things First. What Is Content Strategy?

Something we’ve all experienced is the difficulty explaining what we do and why it’s valuable. So we asked for their go-to examples on explaining it to clients.

Content strategy ensures all of your content meets either or both a business goal and a user need. — Robert Mills
I like describing content strategy through the example of museum exhibit design — which doesn’t use the term “content strategy” at all. But they develop theses with communication goals, conduct content audits or calls for artwork, determine the perspective for metacontent, and organize and pull it from a collection management system. — Margot Bloomstein

Or, simply:

The right content in the right place at the right time. — Buddy Scalera

The Good, the Bad and the Fantastic

We asked about their favorite and least favorite experiences so that you can read this and think, same! Or if this is new-ish to you, you’ll know what to avoid, look forward to, or set realistic expectations for. No two jobs follow the same exact path, but many of them have similar detours.

Favorite tasks:

Our interviewees covered the full range of Content Strategy, starting from:

I enjoy the high level strategic planning. Coming up with the “Big Idea” that brings it all together. — David Dylan Thomas
Oh, I love the discovery phase — doing the interviews, putting the pieces together, and coming up with a roadmap to solve different problems. — Rahel Anne Bailie

to

I have an affinity for modeling and concept diagrams, and I will make them whenever I can. It’s a very nice feeling when spending a few minutes making a picture helps someone finally understand something about their content or ecosystem that they hadn’t fully understood before. — Scott Kubie
I like the actual content production side, whether writing in app copy, microcopy, long form content or educational pieces about content strategy. The actual ‘doing’ is my favourite part of the content lifecycle. — Robert Mills

and

Figuring out the governance, and executive buy-in. — Hilary Marsh

Favorite experiences:

Every client is my favorite client — really. With each new experience, I gain new insight to an industry or organization and learn so much. — Margot Bloomstein
Crafting an initial strategy and seeing the pieces come together. — Sarah O’Keefe
Solving business problems with content. — Ahava Leibtag
I’m currently working with a client to reframe how they present their product (and by extension, their messages) from the ground up. I don’t always get to start from the beginning, but when I do, it’s FANTASTIC. —Clinton Forry

Worst experiences:

No matter how long we’ve done this or how much we prepare, sometimes we get burnt. This section is basically just a big batch of empathy brownies.

Oh yes. When a company created a sophisticated UX, and I designed an equally sophisticated CS to work with it — and then a governance bottleneck scuttled the CS. That taught me to be very wary of governance trouble points. — Rahel Anne Bailie
Being asked to do a complete content strategy presentation on a Skype video call. — Buddy Scalera
Not defining the project clearly before we got started. — Ahava Leibtag
I’m not sure about worst experience but the worst feeling is when someone on your team is getting their ass handed to them in a meeting and you know you could and should have done more to help set expectations before things went south. — Scott Kubie

The Issues We’re All Working On

These are some of their responses to the biggest challenges, or things they would change overall. And Margot Bloomstein basically summed up the entire purpose of this article with her answer:

We put up barriers to access: vocabulary that’s impenetrable, techniques that are overly proprietary, and communities that don’t always support new people.

‘Content Strategy’ as a title

One divisive issue within the Content Strategy community is when one can begin writing ‘Content Strategist’ on a business card. Is there a magic number of years required? There’s no way the nearly half a million people currently listing Content Strategy as a skill also have a B.S. in our field.

Anyone can claim the title without any experience. — Buddy Scalera

But, on the other hand…

Not getting bogged down in job titles, defining roles and seeing content strategy as one way/thing. It is so varied in scope and the individual tasks and processes that sit beneath the content strategy label that I think it’s important to just focus on what you can do to help your clients/business… — Robert Mills
Don’t wait to attain expertise. If you’re the person in your organization who’s most interested in content strategy, or if you’ve been tasked with it, then jump in and start doing. Learn by doing. In the same light, never call yourself an expert. Our industry changes too quickly for that. — Margot Bloomstein

Which brings us to addressing…

The words we use

We know that terms like ‘Content Audit’ can generate fear or boredom, depending on the situation. The intricacies of our tasks and deliverables are hard to grasp, and we don’t do a very good job making our services sound sexy on their own.

Get everyone aligned on a common definition of CS. — Sarah O’Keefe
The many definitions of CS and why it’s so confusing to people. — Ahava Leibtag
To rename pretty much everything, to eliminate confusion. — Hilary Marsh

And even more high-level:

Is CS an industry? Technology, sure, the web, sure. I think of content strategy as a community of practice — a community of professionals who more or less do similar things and like to learn from and share with each other. — Scott Kubie

That whole Content Marketing thing

An oft-mentioned frustration is the co-optation of our practices by content marketers.

The confusion continues between content strategy and content marketing strategy. — Hilary Marsh

There is undeniable confusion as to what separates the two. People are confused, agencies offering work that impacts content strategy are confused, and Google itself shows confusion.

Google missing the mark a bit here.

Some well-known resources have even offered their mea culpa about contributing to the confusion:

Content Marketing Institute telling it like it is.

So now, practitioners of content strategy and content marketing (not to mention SEO, UX, and many others) are looking for resources to use and people to turn to learn about Content Strategy.

Which seems to be a good thing, for users, businesses, and job security.

What Aren’t We Focusing Enough On?

This is a chance to step back and figure out what we’ve been neglecting. And specifically for new people — or teams just beginning to offer Content Strategy as a service — to start on the right foot.

Audience research. I’ve seen many decisions made on assumptions about who the audience is, or on old data that hasn’t been validated for too long a period. — Robert Mills
The technical deliverables — content types and flows, domain and content models — are overwhelmingly overlooked or left to others (UX or devs) to do. This can limit the potential of content in small and large ways. — Rahel Anne Bailie
Connecting to public relations efforts. We do a good job of evaluating content outside of online spaces (advertising, print, etc.), but we often don’t get a window into the PR worlds. Working for an agency that is a PR agency first has really opened my eyes to it. — Clinton Forry
The actual strategy. People just go right to tactics. — Buddy Scalera
The soft skills of negotiating tough political issues within an organization. — Ahava Leibtag

Words of Advice and Resources

One thing you’ll discover about Content Strategy is that the community is super friendly and welcoming (case in point: the act of responding to our survey). We’re all rooting for each other — one company’s success is success for all of us.

Advice:

Practice makes perfect. Familiarize yourself with all the different aspects of CS. It’s not just one thing. Find the part that intrigues you the most and dig in. — David Dylan Thomas
Don’t be afraid to reach out to other people in the community and ask questions. They are a very welcoming and giving group who can offer great advice. They’ll be happy to help! — Robert Mills
Practice, practice, practice. The best way to learn CS is by doing. Take on small, outside projects, if you can. Get comfortable asking the questions and listening to the answers. And know that a big part of CS is managing change and navigating relationships. — Clinton Forry
…Learn the difference between content strategy as it’s been practiced for decades, and the thousands of articles out there claiming to define content strategy. — Rahel Anne Bailie

And…

Read everything you can get your hands on. — Ahava Leibtag

Resources:

You can’t go wrong with Kristina Halvorson, Margot Bloomstein, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Cleve Gibbon, Ahava Leibtag, Karen McGrane. Get your hands on every deck, book, podcast, talk they’ve ever given. Also look outside traditional CS. Read your Henry Jenkins to understand fan culture (on the cutting edge of how content is produced and consumed today). Read your Clay Shirky, your David Weinberg. Understand the ideas underlying the web and content, not just the ins and outs of the practice. — David Dylan Thomas

Books:

Websites:

Some Key Takeaways

If we want to keep working with great people, we need to make sure there’s an obvious pipeline into content strategy. Contact your local high school or alma mater to speak at a career day. Reach out to local colleges to guest lecture or participate in portfolio reviews. Help design students learn more about what we do, and help more students learn about it as a viable career path. — Margot Bloomstein
I want more people to ask, “Who cares?” It’s a brutal stance, but necessary to prevent more heaps of garbage content that never address a user need or expectation. — Clinton Forry
I think everyone would benefit from more cross-pollination of skills between UX designers and content strategists. Very successful practitioners and design-led companies already do this. — Scott Kubie

Passion Projects

Did this post give you all the feels? Why not keep it going and check out all the things that get our interviewees out of bed each morning. We asked for their passion projects, side gigs and anything else they’d like to plug.

Events

Content Strategy Applied in London

Education

Content Strategy School On-demand, right from your desk. Available Fall 2016

Blogs and Resources

Further Engagement

And if you’ve made it all the way down here, check out the unedited full survey questions and answers!


The collective Antics in Semantics is run by Maddie Goodwin and Nicole Hess, otherwise known as the Content Team at Greenlane.

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