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Published on June 14th, 2010 | by Rahel Bailie


Content strategy: The skills conundrum

A content strategist should have a range of skills that span the particular practice area. Going back to my metaphor of the medical field, a dentist will have a different set of knowledge than a pediatrician. Similarly, a content strategist in a PR agency will require different skills than one focusing on user assistance. While both content strategists will have common baseline knowledge of content, the specialties could be significantly different.

For example, a content strategist in the user assistance field – technical documentation, help, training, support, and related content – should know enough about the differences between major content development processes and technologies to be able to know about content migration, optimization, workflow, delivery, and management within that realm of content. Does that mean a deep knowledge of RoboHelp, Flare, Author-It, Vasont, SiberSafe, XDocs, XMetaL, XML Mind, RenderX XEP Processor, Antenna House Formatter, DITA Open Toolkit, and whatever other Web CMS, SharePoint, or collaboration tools are out there? No, absolutely not. However, the strategist needs to have enough experience with a range of these tools to know the differences between how they process content (and the determination to find that information). The strategist also needs to know how to exploit the content, and how to determine which system works in which situation.

A typical job posting for a content strategist focuses on the abilities needed to make strategic decisions. Here is one such example, which asks for:

  • 2-3 years experience in online content strategy, particularly as an Information Architect or Web Content Manager
  • Ability to develop user scenarios to better sort and display various types content
  • Ability to create and edit prototypes and IA deliverables
  • Experience writing and editing content for the Web
  • Knowledge of web standards, including W3C compliance, accessibility (section 508) and the SEO implications of information architecture
  • Understanding of the capabilities and limitations of Web technologies, including cross-browser compatibilities, HTML, XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, XML, AJAX, PHP, Flash, Flex and mobile computing
  • Ability to clearly articulate to internal team as well as clients the reasoning behind usability choices and recommendations
  • Strong organizational skills and a basic familiarity with [a popular CMS]
  • The ideal candidate will also have work experience in providing content strategy recommendations.

However, the temptation of organizations to simply ask for a laundry list of software skills has already begun. This approach, known in professional development circles as lazy recruitment techniques, confuse knowledge of a tool with quality work. A quick Web search revealed this post from a recruitment agency who seem to think that a Web developer with some creativity and the ability to articulate to stakeholders makes for a good content strategist:

Required skills:

  • Drupal, CSS, Photoshop, Flash, Action script, Adobe CS2+, Google Analytics, WordPress development. Experience in Joopla recommended.
  • Proactivity: A key part of what this role involves innovating the way of communicating our content through the web. Success in this role will require the ability to articulate, argue for and proactively push through your own creative solutions to problems.
  • Proven track record of success in prioritizing and managing multiple projects, project forecasting, and resource planning
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills – comfortable explaining problems, options, and decisions to stakeholders

Education/Experience Requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • 5+ years’ experience in a web management environment

This  organization (and many others like it – this example is by no means unique) may say they have a “strategic position requiring excellent project management and user interface expertise, as well as strong collaboration skills and a strong passion for [our] mission of principled performance. The ideal candidate will have experience visioning and implementing strategy to align content with the user experience and has the technical skills to work with the Drupal content management platform” but is that really what they mean?

What they are actually saying is that they’re not sure what a content strategist does, so they will list some software packages and a few skills having little to do with the actual development, management, or delivery of content (and that tend to be mutually exclusive – big picture thinkers are rarely detail-oriented) and see what happens. In the vein of “the music is not in the violin,” the ability to use a range of software tools is not what makes a good strategist. Many industries “hire for aptitude; train for skills.” This seems like sound advice for the emerging practice area of content strategy, particularly because so much of the work is tied to aptitude.

Related posts:

The extraordinary world of content strategists

Abilities and aptitudes for a content strategist

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,

2 Responses to Content strategy: The skills conundrum

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