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Published on June 9th, 2010 | by Rahel Bailie

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The extraordinary world of content strategists

Content strategy is a big field. It’s a conceptual category that encompasses numerous fields of practice. Talking to someone about content strategy as a career is like talking to someone about being a doctor. The profession of doctor encompasses everything from neurologist to podiatrist, and all body parts in between. Yet there is a unifying theme, whether a doctor is a gerontologist or pediatrician, psychiatrist or orthopedic surgeon. Doctors start with the same training to understand basic functions of the human body, and then specialize in a chosen area.

Content strategy is a little like that. We are practitioners who understand content. We understand it at a level that many people never stop to consider. We understand the potential of content in ways that others overlook. We understand how content connects to other content, how the development and delivery of content affects, and is affected by, practices connected to our profession, and how content connects to content consumers.

Where content strategy differs from the medical metaphor is that our understanding comes, not from a common educational background or some content boot camp, but from a wide range of professions. There is no Bachelor of Content Strategy upon which you can build a specialization in technical communication, marketing communications, social media, or enterprise content. Instead, practitioners come to the content strategy table with their specialties already in place, and stretch their wings to embrace ideas beyond the confines of their existing fields of practice.

Makings of a content strategist

The model for content strategy is more like  that of management consulting. Every management consultant has come from a different background – accounting, operations, technology, communications – with the commonality of understanding industry best practices, and being able to apply them appropriately, according to the situation. In fact, the Wikipedia definition of management consulting is both the industry, and the practice, of helping organizations improve their performance, primarily through the analysis of existing business problems and development of plans for improvement.  Using this paradigm, then, a content strategist is a management consultant with a specialty in improving performance of content.

The Wikipedia article on management consulting goes on to explain that “consultancies may also provide organizational change management assistance, development of coaching skills, technology implementation, strategy development, or operational improvement services. Management consultants generally bring their own, proprietary methodologies or frameworks to guide the identification of problems, and to serve as the basis for recommendations for more effective or efficient ways of performing business tasks. ” This sounds a lot like what we do as content strategists:

Management Consultants Content Strategists
Strategy development Develop better ways to handle content as corporate assets, in context of the organization’s business goals and the goals of those who consume the content
Operational improvement Look at ways to improve how content is handled throughout the content lifecycle
Technology implementation Analyze content creation and production methods, and recommend technology that increases efficiency and effectiveness
Change management Recommend organizational changes, often to corporate culture, to better support the development and publishing of corporate content assets
Coaching Training and support of content developers and other content stakeholders to help them understand and embrace the new paradigm
Improved performance of business tasks Fashion the content strategy to mesh with business goals and activities

The skills to look for in a content strategist, then, can be specialized – for example, a content strategist working with newspapers concentrates on areas different than the strategist dealing with website marketing, who concentrates on areas different than the strategist dealing with user assistance content – but share some common underlying qualities.

Next posts in this series:

Abilities and aptitudes for a content strategist (coming Jun 11th)

Content strategy: the skills conundrum (coming June 14th)

Skills to transition to content strategy (coming June 16th)


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



21 Responses to The extraordinary world of content strategists

  1. Zahoor says:

    Thank you for a thought provoking article.

    I really like and agree with the analogy with established disciplines that everyone can relate to and thereby see CS from a different viewpoint.

    May I suggest you include other steps too such as business architecture, business process analysis etc.

    Z

  2. Bobby Taylor says:

    Great post. It is a relief to know that you don’t have to do it all because, quite frankly, sometimes you feel like you have to in order to be competitive.

    I believe that we will see more branches of content strategy (like the ones mentioned in the post) as the practice of content strategy continues to enter collective consciousness.

    Thank you for the quality info.

  3. Sita Bhatt says:

    good post. Looking forward to the rest!

  4. Destry Wion says:

    You left out the part about malpractice. What would be the CS comparison to a surgeon leaving the scissors inside? :)

  5. rahelab says:

    Zahoor, this is the first in a four-part series. I do address your other items in the other posts.

    Bobby, I thought back to the beginnings of what we now know as the broad field of user experience. Everybody started out lumped under “usability” and then we had information architects, interaction designers, and a whole bunch of other flavours. (Remember when alternative titles such as “head troublemaker” were formed because the vocabulary hadn’t been developed yet?)

    Destry, that’s what professional liability insurance is for. Management consultants have it, and it is often a prerequisite for contracts with government agencies, larger consultancies, and multinational corporations. I think that’s excellent fodder for a future post. I’ve never needed to actually invoke my insurance, so have no first-hand knowledge, and wonder if anyone would come forward who has.

  6. Noreen says:

    I like the succintness of describing content strategy as:
    “improving performance of content.”

  7. Yes, I love breaking out the parts/specialties. While search engine optimization is not /exactly/ part of content strategy, it’s also really critical to many marketers — and if content strategists /aren’t/ part of the SEO effort, it’s a disaster.

    Great post.

  8. Natanya says:

    I really like the comparison to the medical profession because it recognizes the diversity of applications content strategy can have while realizing there are fundamental baselines for how a good content strategist thinks about not only content but business. One of the elements that might be worth exploring more is the role of the content strategist as the translator/intermediate between the audience and the brand or business creating the content. In my experience one of the hallmarks of a great content strategist is not only the ability to identify and understand audience content needs, but to help the content creators get out of their own way and meet those needs. It’s a delicate balance that requires both insight as well as practical business and relationship skills.

    I’m looking forward to the other posts in the series.

  9. Rahel Bailie says:

    Natanya, great point. We are translators: geek to people, code to communication, data to information, strategic to logistic. Definitely on board with that. Great fodder for a future post, too!

  10. Great article, Rahel! I love the table. You’ve neatly packaged what we do into 6 easy-to-understand areas of focus. This will be a huge help to me when explaining the various facets of CS. The management consultancy analogy is also one that our clients will be able to understand and relate to.

    Looking forward to your next posts!

    – Kathy

  11. Donna says:

    You’ve set a high standard for the rest of the series. Can’t wait to read more. I’m an editor, but I think of myself as a CS.

  12. Jim Flanagan says:

    I was curious about this article when I first saw it posted on LinkedIn. I became more curious when I saw the analogy to Management Consulting. I’ve been talking to a few people of late about how do consultants use SM and Content Marketing most effectively, from the 1-2 person consultant, to the small boutique with maybe 5-6 senior people. Is there a firm “voice”? Do all the Partners participate and manage their own Content deliverables? Are there Subject Matter Expert (SME) roles assigned within the firm….i.e. in a PR firm, is one a commentator on Media, another on Issues Response, etc, etc. Does many voices create “firm noise”? How do you manage timing integration and other factors. And since in consulting the Consultant is the asset, is this fertile ground for an enterprising consultant to make their name versus the firm and in essence build their own Brand at the expense of the firm? So much to think about ! Looking forward to the next installments

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  15. Abby Gilmore says:

    As a budding Internet marketing professional, this article intrigues me, and I am looking forward to reading the next three. I’m super interested in content strategy, and I’m always looking to learn more, so I’m really glad I stumbled upon this post.

    “The skills to look for in a content strategist, then, can be specialized – for example, a content strategist working with newspapers concentrates on areas different than the strategist dealing with website marketing, who concentrates on areas different than the strategist dealing with user assistance content – but share some common underlying qualities.”

    This is an interesting concept, one of the few times I have heard this notion brought up. With a background in journalism and now a career in Internet marketing, I feel like I could go either way…

  16. rahelab says:

    Glad you discovered content strategy. You’ll likely want to read more about this field. There are a number of conferences on that topic now, and practitioners who have been compiling resources. You can look at http://www.delicious.com/rahelab as a starting place. I think I’ve compiled over 100 content strategy articles there.

  17. RendaB says:

    I must admit this is my first time hearing about content strategies. Very interesting but thanks for the post I learned something new today

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