How to Become a Content Strategist [Collaborative Post]

How to Become a Content Strategist

I received the following question from a reader. If you would like to respond, please add your response in the comments below.

I’m a college senior graduating this May with my degree in Technical Communication. Do you have any tips for an aspiring content strategist? What skills or knowledge set would I need to have to pursue a career in content strategy? I know that as technical communicators, we already possess a lot of the soft skills for it (e.g. a knack for understanding what the audience needs). But would it be helpful to have, say, web developing and programming skills?

Since I haven’t made a transition from tech comm to content strategy, I can hardly outline the path. But I can still tell you my thoughts. If you want to be a content strategist, you need to do what content strategists do. In Erin Kissane’s book on The Elements of Content Strategy, she lists many of the deliverables that content strategists produce: “accessibility guidelines, benchmarks, channel strategy, CMS requirements, communication plans, community and social strategy, community moderation policies, competitive analyses, content production workshops, content sourcing plans, content style guides, content templates, editorial calendars, example content, feature descriptions, gap analyses, metadata recommendations, project proposals, publishing workflow, qualitative content audit and findings, quantitative content audit and findings, resource review (people, tools, time), search-engine optimization reviews, success metrics, taxonomies, traffic analysis, usability tests, user personas, user research findings, user research plans, user scenarios, visual presentation recommendations, wireframes, workflow recommendations” (41-42).

If you want to do content strategy, simply do content strategy. It’s that simple. You probably won’t be able to land a full-fledged content strategy job right out of college. You may slowly transition into it from technical communication, editing, information science, marketing, or web design. But if you begin to incorporate the content strategist’s deliverables into your work, eventually that road will start to unfold and your momentum will increase toward that direction. Eventually, when you’ve gathered enough experience and background doing content strategy, you’ll be able to land a job with the official content strategist title. But you don’t have to wait until you have that title to do content strategy.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

10 thoughts on “How to Become a Content Strategist [Collaborative Post]

  1. Julio Vazquez

    Interesting that you should blog about this today as I had a discussion about a similar issue last night. I think that the current issue is that most companies don’t know that they need content strategist or information architects until they are broken. Their customers start telling them about problems finding content or inconsistent messages and then the corporation starts taking a serious look at what’s going on with their information and realize it’s not working as intended.

    Some good advice on doing the job, but that’s not enough. You can’t just do the job silently, you have to make the stakeholders aware of what you’re doing, why, and the importance of implementing the strategies and deliverables to the publication process. If you’re quiet about what you’re doing, nobody will know about the difference.

    Silence is not an option.

    1. B Noz Urbina

      I can’t agree more. A content strategist has to be strategic about metacommunications as well as metadata. (Now that was a nerdy play on words…).

      You have to market new concepts constantly until they’re not new anymore. Sell what you’re going to do, sell the progress during, and sell the benefits after.

      On the original question of how to become one – exactly as Tom said, I became a CS by doing a CS. There are no certification or degree programs (yet), so you have to get out there and join the pioneers and blaze the trails and all that.

      My story in brief: I started mainly training in consulting in XML tools and techniques, mainly for publishing/tech docs projects. That flowered into larger projects which took on more strategic and financially driven concerns. Process, ROI, Governance, and collaboration became bigger requirements, and I had to rise to the challenge and partner with those who had the niche skills to address any gaps. 10 years on, I’m organising one of Europe’s largest and most focussed Content Strategy and CM events (http://www.congility.com/2011)

      It’s quite a journey and I recommend to anyone who feels they have the raw materials to give it a try. Learn from those who have already done – that’s what I did. Ann Rockley, Rahel Bailie, Scott Abel, Kristina Halvorson and Rachel Lovinger are names I follow. Also see the Knol: http://bit.ly/gZMLRp

      Last quick words:

      Don’t get put in a box. The only bounds of content strategy are when the content does or does not advance the business towards its goals using content. If someone tells you its synonymous with content management, or writing style guidelines, or social media strategy, or web marketing, or, or, or… just take on the good parts of what they’re contributing to the conversation then go on your merry way.

      CS is about casting the net wide and then reeling it in until you’ve caught your intended fish, wherever they may be.

      Don’t get frustrated. The market is only just accepting/developing the discipline. Don’t be cocky or condescending to those who are new to it.

      Noz – http://lessworkmoreflow.blogspot.com / @congility @nozurbina

      1. Patricia Cruz

        Thanks for the resources, I’ll definitely check these out! Also, when you said, “You have to get out there and join the pioneers and blaze the trails and all that,” I think this is part of CS’s appeal to young technical communicators. . . But it also makes CS a tricky career choice because from what I gather from all of the comments here, there’s no tried and tested method to be a content strategist.

  2. Comma Hater

    Being a content strategist is a relatively new concept. It most definitely falls in the realm of technical communications. Further, based on the ramblings of some of the most vocal technical writers, The responsibilities of a content strategist represent some of the most exciting and popular parts of a TW’s job. i.e., if i could focus on one part of my job, it would be the content strategy part.

    and of course, an excited worker will deliver a great product.

    To that end, because it’s so new, most organizations don’t see their Content Strategists as a conceptual job. But what they do see is the product that presents the content to the world. So you need to be the Sharepoint, Drupal, WordPress, or other CMS guy or gal.

    We all have seen consultants hired for creating those systems who don’t have much idea of the content or strategy aspect. The programmers in those roles often don’t have what it takes to make the most of the strategy aspect of the job. Fill in the job’s roll full circle and you’ll be successful.

  3. Patty Blount

    I think Content Strategy – indeed any ‘strategy’ is meant to be proactive, yes? As such, it’s something I think we should all be doing as part of our jobs. But, in reality, beating down deadlines and such often requires that we triage job responsibilities and that means only the reactive stuff gets done while the proactive tasks get deferred to ‘some day.’

    You’re responsible for your own career; no one else. If this is important to you (I agree; it IS), you’ll have to make time to stay on top of trends, read the latest/greatest news about who’s doing what and what results they got and then determine the best way to align and share this information with your managers. You can’t just say, “This is important.” You have to connect whatever IT is back to your job, your company, and their goals. “This is important and here’s why/how we can use it.”

  4. Marcia Johnston

    Great question. Please, you content strategists out there — those of you who spend most of your workday creating the kind of deliverables that Erin Kissane talks about — won’t you tell the rest of us your story? How did you make the transition into this role?

  5. Marcia Johnston

    [Ignore this comment. I forgot to select the "Notify me of followup comments" check box the first time, and I don't see any way to do it now except to submit another comment.]

  6. Eddie VanArsdall

    If you want to be a content strategist, spend some time in a related field where you’ll have a sure path to viewing content at both the micro and macro levels. In my opinion, technical communication provides the best path. No other field gives a more tangible view of the importance of how content is structured and tailored to the audience.

    Join the Society for Technical Communication (STC). As a member, you can join communities of professionals who view content from all angles: writing, editing, information architecture, user experience, accessibility, and of course, content strategy. Although you can’t specialize in all of those disciplines, you need to understand their perspectives. Read books on all of those subjects. Apply the principles and best practices to your work.

    Spend some time as a technical writer. Learn to be a good technical editor. Volunteer to write and edit non-technical content, too. Adopt a big-picture view of the content you’re delivering. Pay attention to how the information you deliver is structured, and think about the various types of users who will consume your content. Evaluate your own information design from the perspective of users who just want to search or browse, as opposed to those who prefer to read and learn sequentially.

    Learn as much as you can about web standards and best practices. Learn as much as you can about how a content management system (CMS) works, but don’t get mired in the details until you have to use a CMS on the job. Instead, look at the big picture. A CMS may have the latest and greatest features, but it’s useless if it doesn’t deliver quality content.

    Definitely read Erin Kissane’s Principles of Content Strategy before all other related books. Erin gives you her own recommended book list and a prescribed order for reading the books.

    My final advice: Don’t get bogged down in titles. I have been a contractor for the last 15 years, so I wear different titles on different projects, even though I play similar roles. For the past year, I have been called Managing Editor/Content Strategist. In my next project, I’ll be called Lead Technical Writer/Editor. I’ll be serving as team lead on a project where my team will be moving a government agency from antiquated printed manuals to a searchable knowledge base. I don’t care about the title change, because like most technical communicators, I have been practicing content strategy since long before the term was used. My new project will require the same type of analysis and execution inherent in all strategic content initiatives.

    Eddie

  7. Melanie

    Great advice here. I agree with Eddie: spend some time doing a related job (like tech writing) first.

    Content strategy is about anticipating and easing the “pain points” of dealing with content as a business asset. It really helps to see firsthand what those pain points are–how companies mishandle content and suffer from it (or alternatively, do things right)–before you try to brand yourself as a content strategist.

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