When I tell people what I do, their first question is usually, “What the heck is a content strategist?” In many ways, content strategy is a field that’s still being defined. One of the best definitions out there is from Kristina Halvorson, who says, “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication and governance of useful, usable content.”
Touching on the areas of writing, information architecture, and user experience, content strategy often attracts people who come from diverse backgrounds – from programming to journalism. Content strategists have a wide range of skills, but there are a few qualities that all the good ones hold in common. Asking for all of these qualities from one person can seem unreasonable, but it’s not impossible.
So what should you expect from your content strategist?
- Godlike omniscience. Your content strategist needs to know your site inside and out. The best way to get this knowledge is by doing an extensive content audit, going through every page on your site to see what content exists and how good it is. This can be a grueling task, but it’s the only way to a) understand the status of the site’s content and b) start to re-craft it so that it works better for users. At the end of this process your content strategist should know the site even better than you do.
It’s also critical for your content strategist to thoroughly understand your organization. This means talking to everybody who has a stake in your digital properties. Grasping the logic behind the current content and understanding where there are gaps between the current state and the ideal state – and how these gaps can be bridged – is essential.
In addition, your content strategist should know your users inside and out. They should be involved in every part of the user research process, since they are the ones who will need to understand what content users are seeking and where and when they’re interacting with your site. Without this knowledge, your content strategist will have a hard time delivering a product that serves everyone’s needs.
- The brain of a scientist. Developing a content strategy is a highly analytical task. Once a content strategist has gathered huge amounts of data about the website, the organization, and its users, the next step is to look for patterns in that information. This will help them identify content groupings and important themes, cull repetitive information, and develop a taxonomy.
One recent trend in content strategy is creating modular content that can be easily repurposed in different contexts and across different devices, as NPR is now doing. This requires content strategists to break down content into its smallest possible components. Then they can identify what kind of data the content management system (CMS) will need to capture, and how those data elements can be recombined in different contexts. They don’t need to know how to code the CMS, but they do need to be involved in the planning and creation process and understand what the programmers are talking about.
- The soul of a poet. Good content doesn’t deliver information to users in a vacuum. It also needs to deliver on intangibles like producing an emotion, enhancing the brand identity, or provoking action. This requires both an ear for which messages strike a chord with people and a strong sense of empathy for the user. A certain amount of touchy-feelyness is required.
And while content strategists aren’t necessarily writers, they do need to understand what good writing is and why it provokes certain responses. They also need to have a strong feel for the organization’s voice and be able to recognize when content does or doesn’t fit with that voice.
Sound like a lot to ask from one person? It is, and I’d say most of us are stronger in some areas than others. But it’s great to have one central person who pulls all these elements together and has the big-picture view. And if you’re a content strategist yourself, make sure you’re cultivating all these skills so you can give your clients (or your employer) the complete package.
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