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The “Theory vs. Practice” debate takes many guises, and content strategy is no different. Those of us who deal with content on a daily basis must take a practical approach in order to get the job done.
Since the inception of the term, there has been an abundance of writing on content strategy, most of it concerned with defining “content” and “strategy,” as well as trying to justify their pairing. Yet content strategy has been in use much longer than the title itself. Although the name may be newly coined, it is, at its core, business consulting and editorial strategy with a focus on interactive (read: web-based) content.
This pair of articles outlines, in practical terms, the roles, approaches and tools used in the practice of content strategy. Part one covers the distribution of responsibilities on content-oriented projects, the different types of clients a content strategist might encounter and the character traits that might make a content strategist good at her job. Part two changes pace a bit, exploring the tools a content strategist might use to get things done. Let’s dive in.
Inquiry and pragmatism
Actually, before we begin, it helps to have some context. A simple question – asked by an innocent developer at a Content Strategy Q&A in Austin – incited this entire line of inquiry:
What new tools would [content strategists] like to see developed?
A room full of copywriters, tech consultants and, yes, content strategists responded with stunned silence. No words, just the thunderous rainfall of an unexpected summer storm assaulting the sidewalks of Sixth Street.
The question continued to tug at my thoughts long after the Q&A convened. I wondered: Do we lack ideas for new tools because we traffic in intangibles? Does the job stop at strategy, or does it extend into practical considerations as well? How far? Which tools do we use? Which ones do we need? …and who’s ultimately responsible for content, anyways?
The Spectrum of Responsibility
By the time the question of responsibility comes up we’re knee-deep in practicalities. We couldn’t be further away from tools.
But let’s say you have a client, Altstadt Automotive. They’re a large company that approached you, initially, for a “basic” redesign. After you’re done, they’re happy enough to come back, two months later, and ask for WordPress customization. It makes sense because, hey, you already know their code.
A couple months down the road, Altstadt sends you an email requesting a print ad for a trade magazine. You figure: “Why not? We can do that!” Then they ask for an email drip campaign; then they ask for a revised brand; then they ask for a monthly newsletter …you get the point.
Two years go by in this manner and your fairweather relationship with Altstadt has become more serious. Your role has grown. Altstadt has come to depend upon you. But with all these different projects going on (and more on the way) you are increasingly worried about maintaining consistency and efficiency across their endeavors. What grew organically – subtly – is now abundantly clear: Altstadt needs a content strategist.
Bring ‘em in early
Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.
Kristina Halvorson (emphasis added)
Content strategy is all about planning. Yet despite Halvorson’s counsel, content strategists are generally not brought on until the tail end of a project, long after the problem has manifested itself.
The first thing Altstadt – or any client, for that matter – needs is a clear chain of command, one that effectively determines “who’s responsible for what” and eliminates unnecessary steps in the approval workflow. Generally, the person responsible for content changes from project to project, from studio to studio. The person responsible for content may call themselves a content strategist, but they might also go by “copywriter,” “designer,” or “project manager.”
Unfortunately, more often than we’d like to admit, they may also go by “client.” This is an unfair assumption. If no one claims responsibility, clients assume we’re responsible. Naturally, we assume the client’s responsible. Then nobody wins.
The winning combination
To recap, two questions concern all content strategists: First, when were they – the content strategists – brought in, in the content-creation process? Second, who’s responsible for content creation?
The next question posed is: what makes a content strategist good at his or her job? Are there certain character traits that combine to make the most of these skills?
The ideal content strategist is a jack of all trades: quick to learn a new skill and able to apply his new skill in whatever manner he is called on. In Fast Company’s June 2012 cover story detailing the most creative people in business, for example, the publication attributes creative success to a wandering curiosity.
With regards to Cee-lo Green, the story begins:
If there’s a trendy marker of success these days, it is the hyphenate – a strung-together mashup of titles made mandatory when no single job description suffices to describe a certain someone’s magnificence.
Web professionals often share this quality, especially content strategists.
They’re user centered
Content strategists often make hard decisions on content issues, which invariably come down to one thing: users. Revisions that make old projects align with new goals can be a mess and a pain, but they’re worth it in the long run if they make for a better user experience.
So what does a content strategist actually do? Often, we begin by ensuring that a strategy is in place and end by ensuring that everyone agrees that the content that’s been created adheres to that strategy. Inbetween, we write, edit, fact check, and find images with proper licensing. Some days we help clients define their audience (Personas!). Other days we work with clients determine a manageable publishing schedule.
Rarely is our job content alone. Fortunately, because content creation is always a collaborative effort, it becomes easier over time – especially once we determine what kind of client it is we’re dealing with.
There are many many more types of clients but these are the basic types which, by repeated experience, I’ve had the opportunity to distinguish:
Startups and other entrepreneurial clients often enjoy writing their own copy. This can be dangerous. I find that the best way for a content strategist to work with an entrepreneur is as an editor and guide. Give them the responsibility and a place to start, and they’ll run with any idea that sticks.
Small or local businesses need a bit of wrangling. Typically, I audit their old content, and rework it to align with their business goals. These projects tend to have a focus on clarity and organization.
Clients in the middle often say: “We can provide you with content… But let’s see what you can come up with, first!” These are the best clients, in my opinion, because they grant creative license.
Onwards and upwards
Ultimately, it’s imperative that responsibilities are clearly defined, that content strategists are brought in early, and that content strategists and clients work together to learn about and develop the best content for the client’s target audience. But where to next?
In the next article, I will attempt to answer the question proposed by our developer friend, first by going over what tools are currently available to content strategists, and then by proposing ideas for a couple new ones. Between this week and next, though, check out this wonderfully pragmatic article/video by Fiona Cullinan, 18 practical content strategy tips in 8 minutes or weigh in with your thoughts on practicing content strategy, below.