5 Must-Know Things About Content Strategists

Going way deeper than simply SEO.

If you’re not a change agent, don’t even consider becoming a content strategist.

When corporations hire a content strategist, they’re at least tacitly acknowledging the need to improve or reinvent critical Web business processes. Many companies have wasted big bucks on underperforming content. They’ve recognized that someone needs to rethink and own their content marketing initiatives (among other issues, like building more engaging websites or improving lead generation).

Create Order From Chaos

In fact, when you’re the first content strategist in an organization, assume you’re entering a morass. That’s putting it nicely.

Expect to find that the legacy content management system (CMS) is an inflexible mess. It may turn out that the company has never conducted a thorough asset audit, much less analyzed the performance of different content types such as videos, White Papers or blog posts. And there’s often no blog strategy, or editorial calendar in use, or a plan to recruit company execs to demonstrate thought leadership on the site.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face is building consensus for a content strategy turnaround plan. Guess whose neck is on the line?

My High-Five for Content Strategists

To succeed in a field still defining itself, these five strategies should help the intrepid.

1. Content strategy was just called something else

Before the title content strategist was popularized, we were involved with the precursor to "content:" News, advertising, marketing or something in between. I was an online editor and consultant for the better part of a decade. But the majority of us came from marketing departments or advertising agencies, and some of us were copywriters. We all rebranded ourselves as Content Strategists in March 2011. Just kidding. It may have been June of that year.

Not surprisingly, companies aren’t all seeking the same qualities or skill sets in a content strategist. Some employers emphasize usability, analytics and technical chops; some prioritize content marketing and lead generation experience; others seek "digital storytellers" to generate highly engaging content. Whatever spurs the job req, the hire isn’t intended to be business as usual.

2. Better SEO is not our stock answer

Companies that depend upon search engines to drive most of their traffic face a special challenge. Determining the right keywords, links, headlines and metadata can make a significant difference in their page rank and traffic. While installing Search Engine Optimization best practices are a critical step, other techniques and expenditures such as a combination of aggressive Search Engine Marketing and clever content syndication may help these firms hit their target.

Optimizing a website for the recently announced Google Hummingbird entails fine-tuning site content to make it deeper, while also making sites more engaging to mobile users. There are lots of methods of driving more—or more qualified—traffic. In my book, nothing less than stellar content and an engaging Website will move the needle significantly.

3. We like our goals big, but realistic

A mentor advised me to identify realistic metrics and then over-deliver. That’s common sense, but the reality is we don’t set our own targets. Executives prefer stratospheric targets feeling that if you don’t aim high, you can’t possibly hit the number.

Rather than be passive about this challenge, before anyone asks, make a detailed assessment about what it will take to meet or exceed these lofty targets. Then put together a persuasive case to secure the necessary resources.

Content strategists do need a big bag of tricks. That’s because what was engaging last spring may not perform as well in the fall. Your content strategy may need to address not only a higher target but a moving one too.

4. Can’t succeed without more intelligent process

We like to make things happen, and sometimes we need to hack through the corporate jungle to open a forward path. It’s easy to understand why some content strategists like a blank slate, even a startup. That’s because they want to establish Web publishing and content management processes—ones they can execute effectively. In mature organizations, such processes may simply be inadequate to support the intended growth.

It’s good to start with low-hanging fruit. Inventory content on the site and then audit the performance of those assets. This establishes a baseline by which you can show improvement and smarter ROI going forward. Learn which content types or subject matter is most engaging to your site visitors. Next, establish an editorial calendar to ramp-up inventory to replace old, underperforming content.

5. Needing to explain what we do

New hires, such as HR managers or business operations managers, rarely come aboard corporations shrouded in mystery. That’s not the case with content strategists, who should be prepared to explain their role to their (most likely puzzled) colleagues in marketing, advertising, analytics, Web production and social media. Why? Because most people haven’t worked with a content strategist and don’t understand their multidisciplinary impact on an organization.

Content strategists should make it a point to meet both opinion makers and junior level people to define their position in a collaborative way. Discuss it over foosball. Or, during lunch. Or, at the holiday party. If necessary, conduct a guerrilla campaign when you arrive. It will pay dividends later.

Then, when the time is right, launch a formal internal marketing campaign to advance the content strategy. Spell out how it benefits all of the existing content and site stakeholders. Of course, this plan will be embraced 100% faster if you’ve already won executive approval.

Being a content strategist is a great job—one that large organizations definitely need. But get ready: It’s not for wallflowers.

Rusty Weston is a San Francisco-based content strategist, editor, and writer, and founder of Third Set Media. Follow him on Twitter at @rustyweston.

[Image: Flickr user Nina Matthews]

Add New Comment


  • Great post! I love the high-five segment. The idea that content marketing is an entirely new concept is crazy, especially in the fields you mentioned. Content has always been the nature of the business, but content marketing has evolved as a title for this focus on content.

    The necessity to explain the position is another interesting point. As an aspiring PR pro, I have noticed a need to share what it is I do as a profession. In the same token, content marketing is a specialized piece of the communications industry that I think is often misunderstood and, at times, misconstrued to mean something else.

  • Helen Lagares

    Great article! May I translate it into Portuguese?! I think brazilians need to enjoy this post as much as I do now! :)

  • Jayden Chu

    Content marketing is more important now than ever. Companies shouldn't have waited for Hummingbird to improve their content, it should be a priority.

  • Hilary Marsh

    Wonderful article! The good news is that if a company does engage someone to help them create and execute a content strategy, it's completely worth it -- they'll extract the valuable content that they're already creating and make sure it gets to the audience so it works for them. Thank you for writing this!

  • Das Keyboard

    We think it's a great idea for content strategists to report out to their teams/bosses on a regular basis. It's hard for a person to ask "what value do you bring to our company" when they have a stack of goals and progress reports to look through.