Rahel Bailie, CEO and Chief Content Strategist, at Intentional Design discusses what defines the work of a content strategist. With a little bit of technical difficulties we were unable to record the webinar this week so instead I’m providing you with the slidedeck and notes from the presentation. I apologize for the inconvenience but confident you’ll gain just as much knowledge and value from the resources below, as you would the recording. So here it goes…

There are many discussions right now about what defines the work of a content strategist. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s helpful to first exclude what content strategy is not. It’s not:

  • Editing
  • Copy writing
  • Social media
  • Structured content
  • Project management
  • Designing cool websites
  • Content management systems

All of these are aspects of the implementation of a content strategy, but it’s not the strategy aspect. If we look at the definition of strategy, we see that it’s:

An alternative chosen to make a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem. (businessdictionary.com) To build on that definition, then, a content strategy is a problem-solving process that plans how content will be implemented, to meet a organizational goal. The strategic aspect of the plan is defining a direction, and making decisions on how to allocate resources to implement the strategy.

We define content strategy as a repeatable process that governs the management of content throughout its entire life cycle. That means putting in place a methodology that is reliable, and it means looking at the entire content life cycle, from planning and creation right through to what happens after content is published.

So to get back to what makes a content strategist: it means thinking like a management consultant. Management consultants who come from a management accounting background finds solutions to financial problems. They’re not concerned with the bookkeeping; they’re concerned with what the organization’s financial goals are and how to construct a plan that makes sense in context. Similarly, a content strategist’s primary concern is not the editing or copy writing; it’s looking at the goals of the organization, and creating a plan that will allow the content to support those goals.

The plan concentrates on the analysis of content needs, and should include some metrics-based Key Performance Indicators to demonstrate success. For example, let’s say that an organization decides to expand its North America market base to include Europe. As a content professional, you’ll figure out how much content will need to be produced in how many new languages, and what that will take. You’ll also consider the time frame for the marketing plan, which may revolve around trade shows. You’ll look at internal processes and figure out whether you can create the marketing websites and produce whatever product content is needed to sell the product. If your processes aren’t robust enough and you need to make some capital expenditures to make sure you have the right content available at the right time, you’ll calculate the ROI of making the investment. You’ll also plan out how the content will get produced in order to meet the organizational objectives.

Behind any consulting methodology are some basic building blocks. It involves creating a strategy that applies structure, processes, and systems against a type of asset – in this case, the content assets – to meet an organizational goal. The basic steps are:

  • Conduct a current state assessment
  • Conduct a future state assessment
  • Conduct a gap analysis
  • Create a plan to bridge the gap

Each type of management consultant brings an extensive toolkit to the task at hand, and for content strategists, it’s no different. Some common tools are listed here, with a note that not all projects use all tools. Each project has unique needs, and a content strategist pulls from their toolkit as needed.

Current State Assessment

  • Content inventory – Quantitative inventory
  • Content audit – Qualitative assessment
  • User research – Interpretation of marketing and other research about content needs
  • Personas and scenarios – Analysis of typical audiences and specific ways they experience the product or service and associated content

Future State Assessment

  • Content brief – A recap of the organizational goals and the plan to ensure that content supports those goals
  • Competitive analysis – An assessment of various types of content, from keywords to sentiment analysis, that could shape the content required in the future state to ensure success
  • Requirements matrix – Summary of various types of requirements that impact the content, or where content has an impact on other operational aspects
  • Governance assessment – Summary of roles and responsibilities related to content operations management, particularly in regards to decision-making authority, and workflow to be programmed into a CMS
  • Wireframes – Sketches demonstrating how content should appear on a web page for logical flow or maximum impact
  • Personalization requirements – A summary of content to be personalized, and how the content should be architected to achieve that goal
Gap Analysis
  • Content review – Assessment of content in context of the future state, and identification of any content to be developed as a result
  • Technology review – Assessment of content life cycle processes, and determination of whether the existing technologies are robust enough to meet the future state goals
  • Localization review – Determine what the localization needs will be and the impact of current life cycle processes on meeting the organizational goal
  • Metadata review – Assessing the need for content find-ability or other processing needs that require metadata, and whether the content has sufficient metadata to meet the future state needs

Strategic Plan

  • Content matrix – Mapping of content to an architectural structure; usually discussed in terms of delivery on the web, but also applied to mapping of product or technical content
  • Style guide – Standardization of editorial guidelines
  • Accessibility guidelines – Guide to determine content suitability for audience accessibility, such as adherence to Plain Language principles or reading level assessments
  • Writing templates – Content visualization aids for help authors create content for the web
  • Editorial calendar – Schedule for publishing content through particular channels; generally an annual calendar
  • Process models – Diagrams that provide guidance about content life cycle processes; for use by both authors and CMS integrators
  • Content models – Specification of elements within each content type; used by integrators to build content types within a web CMS
  • Delivery design – Diagrams that demonstrate how content variations will result in multiple combinations of content per output channel
  • Standards guidelines – Technical specification for integrators to indicate which content types must conform with which recognized content standards
  • Content migration plan – Blueprint for moving content from one system to another, with the most automation and least amount of manual intervention

The content life cycle sits at the middle of this circle. It’s there whether it gets acknowledged or not. And as often as not, the lack of acknowledgment is what prevents it being dealt with, maximized, and optimized. By recognizing that content isn’t a “supply chain” of single-use content, but an ascending spiral of iterative versions and variations, you can develop a strategy that takes all the aspects and stages into account.

Where do content strategists come from?

Content strategists come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from marketing communications to library sciences, from technical communication to web development, from editing to information management. Similar to the User Experience field twenty years ago, content strategy is still in its formative stages. Higher-education institutions haven’t yet put together academic programs to train content strategists. The field of content strategy is a little saying the field of “medicine” – there are many specialties that address different problems. Some may be stronger in metadata, others with structured content, and others with marketing. Not all content problems are the same, and neither are the professionals who are brought in to solve them.

However, if there’s one strength that every content strategist needs, it’s to understand the nature of content. You’ll be asked to regard content not only from an editorial point of view, but also from a technical point of view. You don’t have to be expert in every area, but you should have at least a working knowledge of the various ways that content can be manipulated to leverage its value.

Additional categories: Industry Trends, Knowledge Management