Your Next Position: Content Strategist?

This post, the first in a regular series of profiles on digital media careers, was first published on Flip the Media.

Content Strategist is a new position for many organizations and an attractive career option for copywriters, editors, content managers, journalists, freelance writers, and other digital media professionals with a passion for content—and an appreciation of a paycheck that matches their talents.

Digital agencies have long had content strategists on staff, but a variety of organizations are seeing the need to add someone to their team to be in charge of “the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content,” as Kristina Halvorson defines the job in Content Strategy for the Web, the book that popularized the term.

Because few people have been employed as content strategists, employers are open to considering job seekers looking to break into the field.

“All of the people in content strategy that I know have fallen into it through different routes,” says Vanessa Casavant, Content Strategist for Electronic Media at AdoptUSKids. “I came into it through journalism. I realized that it wasn’t the best career outlet for me and the outlook of having a job in journalism wasn’t that good. But I really enjoy the part of telling stories and finding the story within the story.”

Beyond copywriting

In her book, Halvorson identifies multiple steps in the content strategy process; first audit the existing content, then analyze, strategize, categorize, structure, create, revise, approve, tag, format, publish, update, and archive. Rinse and repeat.

Creating an effective content strategy is a bit like trying to put together the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle, says Casavant. Not all of the pieces will fit together perfectly at first, until you spend time figuring out what are the corner pieces, and how do the other pieces fit together.

A background in editorial management and editorial process is helpful, but a passion for writing and editing is not enough, warns Mira Shields, Recruiter at Creative Circle, which places content strategists at digital agencies.

“In a straight copywriting job, the client already has a mission that they need to accomplish, or maybe they even already have the content and they’re looking for someone to create a voice. Agency clients need a content strategist to help them create and architect the messaging,” says Shields.

Mediator and instigator

Content strategists collaborate with a wide variety of other digital media professionals. Organizations such as World Vision—a global NGO based in Federal Way—are hiring content strategists to optimize the cross-team collaboration between many different disciplines and provide the vision and strategy to align the content with business goals and user needs.

“World Vision needs a content strategist to help bridge the gap between Web Content, Information Architecture, User Experience, Marketing, and Client Management,” says Rachael Boyer, Web Writer/Editor at World Vision and MCDM graduate student. “We have around 40 internal client teams who request new landing pages and micro sites, but need guidance and recommendations about the best approach that will balance donor needs with organizational goals.”

Because content is often owned and influenced by stakeholders across a variety of departments, content strategists need to be mindful of conflicting interests and priorities, and be able to prevent and defuse tense situations.

“People may not want to have a conversation about how things are done, because it means organizational change,” cautions Casavant.

To argue their case, content strategists heavily rely on data to support their analysis of whether the way content is being created, managed, and updated is working. “If it is, great. If not, let’s think about how we can better meet our goals,” says Casavant.

Breaking into the field

A background in marketing, PR, social media, community management, or copywriting with a good understanding of conceptual architecture and an interest in the development of the content will help if you’re looking to shift careers.

Recruiters and hiring managers may consider you for a content strategist position “even if you haven’t had the title before,” says Shields.

But, she adds, if you haven’t yet worked as a content strategist, it’s crucial to create a portfolio of relevant work.

“In any emerging field, the people who will have the easiest time getting a job will have samples to show—in this case writing samples or strategy samples. You should also be able to list what channels you feel comfortable developing content for, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, blogs or email marketing.”

Hands-on strategy

There aren’t any specific software programs or platforms candidates need to be familiar with, says Shields. “This position is more on the strategic, client-facing side. Presenting an idea can be done with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.”

But that doesn’t mean content strategists aren’t expected to get their hands dirty, warns Boyer. “We’re not looking for someone to just sit and ‘strategize’ as much as someone who can jump into the thousands of pages on multiple platforms, and help us create a cohesive, strategic approach as we move forward.”

“We are looking for someone tactical who is experienced with content audits, content inventories, content management systems, SEO, and someone who loves Kristina Halvorson as much as we do!” Boyer adds.

Key concepts

Audit
A review of existing content—how much there is, how well it’s organized, and how accurate and how well-produced it is.

Content
Content is much more than text. Multimedia elements—pictures, graphic elements, video, audio—can help tell the story.

Content lifecycle
Content needs to be regularly evaluated: What needs to be refreshed, updated, retired? A website is never finished.

Message architecture
A hierarchy of the core messages that define an organization or brand, which helps content strategists figure out the story they are trying to tell and what content is off-brand and unnecessary.

Who’s hiring?

While content strategists have mostly been employed at digital agencies, organizations like World Vision that manage complex and sprawling content are adding this position to their payroll. “Currently, my requests for this role have been agencies,” says Shields, “but it’s going to be a common in-house role as well.”

Career level

Mid to senior.

Next step on the career ladder

“Because the role is strategic, content strategists can eventually move up into a role strongly tied to business objectives,” says Shields. “The role can also evolve into a Senior Content Strategist position working with key members of company to develop high level messaging, supervising a team of three or four copywriters and content strategists who do the more hands-on execution.”

Salary

Because this is a relatively new position, reliable salaries are hard to come by, but an experienced content strategist can make a 6-figure salary according to glassdoor.com, where the few listed full-time salaries range from $90,000 to $110,000. At non-profit organizations, salaries will likely be significantly lower.

According to glassdoor.com, hourly contractors at a major digital agency like Razorfish can expect to make about $50/hr. Creative Circle  has recently been advertising its content strategist openings at $35/hr.

Required reading

Kristina Halvorson: Content Strategy for the Web

Erin Kissane: The Elements of Content Strategy

Meetup

Content Strategy Seattle: Third Wednesdays.

Peter Luyckx recently joined Milliman as a Digital Content Editor, a role encompassing content strategy. Previously, he was the Managing Editor at Flip the Media, and a Web Producer and Editor at Microsoft’s MSN Health & Fitness and MSN Shopping. He is a graduate student in the MCDM program and can be followed on Twitter @peterlux.

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