The first-time content strategist’s survival guide

Jillian Smith
Jan 9 · 6 min read

I’ll often do this thing where I become fascinated with a burgeoning field of work — let’s say content strategy. I promptly get a job in said field, and then quickly realize, despite my enthusiasm, I don’t know as much as I think I do. (Please, tell me this is normal.)

True to form, after seven years of comfortably working on marketing teams at startups, I joined Envoy’s design team as a content strategist. Before day one, I’d studied Kristina Halvorsen’s Content Strategy for the Web like a sacred text and read all the most clapped-for articles on Medium. That said, it took maybe 48 hours to realize there was more to content strategy than what I’d read online.

Four months in, here’s what I now know about content strategy that would have come in handy on day one.

Not all content strategy is the same

The way people talk about “content strategy,” you’d think all content strategists do the same work. But in the way that electrical engineers’ work is different from that of software engineers, I found that a content strategist’s work and skillset are quite distinct based on their specialization. Here’s a quick look at each role.

Product content strategist

Product content strategists are user experience designers who specialize in words instead of visuals. They conduct research, map out user journeys, and wireframe pages like a designer. But instead of using visuals, the product content strategist uses language to guide the user through the product and help them achieve their goals.

Their writing is first and foremost clear and concise — there’s little room for flowery language or unnecessarily long words. As partners of the product team and designers, they work under tight deadlines that often map to weekly or bi-weekly engineering sprints.

Help center content strategist

When you launch a new product, how do you predict every question a person might ask? Furthermore, how do you answer those questions in the most precise way possible and organize that information to make it easily discoverable? Answering these questions is where help center content strategists shine.

These folks are product experts whose technical knowledge mirrors — if not surpasses — that of a product manager. Because they aim to connect customers to the answers they seek, help center content strategists are skilled information architects. They take care to write and structure articles that are as easy to scan and digest as they are to discover.

Web content strategist

Web content strategists are in demand within companies that produce and maintain large swaths of content. Think e-commerce sites, online media outlets and blogs, and educational institutions. Because a website’s purpose is to attract visitors and turn them into customers, web content strategists tend to sit on marketing teams or work for agencies hired by marketing teams. They need to know SEO best practices and be skillful in writing calls to action, landing pages, and resources that convince and convert.

No one’s a perfect writer — it’s ok to get help

Up until working as a content strategist, I’d judged my grammar and style based on if it “sounded right.” No one was editing my work, plus I was a marketer, so no one expected my writing to be perfect anyway.

The expectations are a bit higher when you’re the resident wordsmith, so I went ahead and bought both Grammarly and Readable.io based on recommendations from others. Using a writing analysis tool felt like a cop-out — shouldn’t I know these things already? However, if the amount of red on my documents was any indication, I needed to brush up on my skills.

I was misusing commas before dependent clauses, my lengthy sentences were difficult to parse, and I had unclear antecedents. I could also now see which words and phrases made my writing easier or more difficult to comprehend based on Readable.io’s readability scores.

Readable.io keeping my lengthy sentences and readability in check.

There are numerous writing analysis tools out there. Use them to your and your company’s benefit.

You won’t always follow AP Style

A few weeks in, I proudly let my team know that, per the AP Stylebook, we incorrectly formatted a.m. and p.m. as “am” and “pm” in Envoy’s dashboard. My team politely pointed out that Apple, Google, and even Slack all break with AP style when it comes to time. Which makes sense: when you have less room, removing the periods saves space without sacrificing the meaning. We’ve also chosen as a company to always use sentence case, even in titles, as research shows it’s easier to read than title case.

Google Calendar, Apple, and Envoy all breaking with AP style when it comes to formatting time.

AP Style should guide you, but don’t be afraid to question the rulebook if it makes your writing more clear and concise. If you do choose to make your own rules, remember to follow them consistently.

You’re a designer now, get used to it

I’d always identified as a marketer, so joining a product design team was a bit of a shift. Do I need to know about user stories and track my projects in Pivotal? Is it that important that I attend and share in design crit when I’m not really a designer?

Well guess what: you are a designer, and the more you know about design, typography, and building products, the better you’ll be at your job. You don’t have to buy a beanie and a pair of funky glasses just yet, but you should get familiar with the tools designers and engineers use, like Zeplin and Sketch.

Also get comfortable giving and receiving feedback on copy and designs daily. Listening to your teammates’ critiques will help you sharpen your writing, design thinking, and eye for visuals.

Lots of feedback from the team on one of my and Jon Rundle’s recent projects. At first, it was overwhelming having so many eyes on my work, but ultimately it’s helped me get up to speed faster.

Some resources are better than others

I binged on content strategy resources when I was first learning about the field. Of everything I’ve read and listened to, these are the few I turn to regularly for inspiration and guidance.

If you’re a fellow Content Strategist, what did you find most helpful or surprising when you started out? I’d love to hear your tips and stories in the comments 🙂


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Envoy Design

Stories and ideas from designers that challenge the workplace status quo.

Thanks to Tina Xu, Amy Devereux, Pedro Carmo, Katie Riley, Jon Rundle, and Wells Riley.

Jillian Smith

Written by

Cats, coffee, copy. Content strategy @ Envoy.

Envoy Design

Stories and ideas from designers that challenge the workplace status quo.