By Melissa Breker published May 2, 2014

4 Tips for Hiring a Content Strategist with the Skills You Need

illustration-hiring right personWhen it comes to content, having the right skills can mean the difference between project success and failure.

As demand for content continues to grow, so too does the demand for content strategists. Content strategy is a relatively new discipline, so there’s no surprise that organizations and agencies struggle to define the content strategy skills they need.

Organizations want to embrace content strategy, but too often here’s what actually happens:

  • People are hired for the web content strategist label vs. an actual content strategy skill set.
  • Content creators are being nominated and appointed as content strategists, although they don’t have the depth of skills required to develop a core content strategy.
  • Consultants are hired who can “talk the talk,” but have very little practical experience. People get in over their heads and projects go off the rails.

Simply put, there is a lack of knowledge regarding what to hire for and how to find experienced content strategists who can deliver good results.

4 tips for finding the right content strategy resource

1. Understand project and organizational requirements: Take the time to research the required activities for project success and understand your organizational needs. Are you hiring for a one-time project? Ongoing content creation? Will the requisite skill sets and responsibilities change over time?

Here are some skill sets that you can consider for different content strategy stages and project types. No single content strategist will have a deep knowledge in all of these areas, so it’s important to first identify what’s most important to your organization and project.

Content skill set
Content strategy focus and activities
Analytical skillsTo gather strategic business and user insights:
• Document review
• Stakeholder interviews
• Content audits and inventories
• Content review and analysis
• Competitive analysis
Strategic planning and designTo support long-term vision for content:
• Content vision and recommendations
• Content concepts, examples, and samples
• Content governance and process design
• Taxonomy
• Information architecture
• Content typing and requirements
• Quality checklists
• Writing style guides
Project managementTo keep the project on track and budget:
• Project plan
• Content brief
• Content matrix
• Content strategy roadmap
Training and presenting skillsTo educate and inform:
• Workshop development and delivery
• Stakeholder presentations
• Content training programs
• Editing and mentoring
Technical integrationTo ensure that technology and content work together:
• Content management system assessment
• Content migration planning and management
• Content matrix
• Business analysis
• Content workflows
• Content modeling
User experience skills For user experience projects a content strategist can provide important content insights to help shape:
• User research and success metrics
• Personas
• User journeys
• Wireframe development
• Information architecture
• Wireframes
• Content workflows
Content marketing skillsFor content marketing projects a content strategist can provide important insights to help shape:
• Branding through content
• Search engine optimization
• Social media strategy
• Content mix
• Editorial and content maintenance calendar
• Targeted messaging
• Web analytics setup and reporting

2. Write a job posting that matches both core skills and desired character traits: Once you understand the right set of skill sets, create a job description that supports a visionary future for your content and includes the character traits needed to get there. Are you looking for a leader to bridge and educate different organizational teams to align all your content efforts? Are you looking for someone with a deep knowledge in a particular area, and experience implementing content solutions? Consider the political environment and team dynamics to identify the kind of person who will be most successful. 

3. Ask behavioral questions (such as, “Can you tell me a time when you…“: Lead with questions that allow prospective content strategists to demonstrate past work and knowledge that’s applicable to your project. These questions give you a sense of how their approach could meet your project requirements. 

Try questions like:

  • Tell me about a time when you…
  • What approach did you use to…
  • What was the result of a time when you…
  • How do you measure the success of…
  • What do you look for when you…
  • How do you evaluate…
  • How do you decide…
  • What tools do you use to…
  • What would you do if…
  • How do you support the content team in… 

4. Ask for samples of project deliverables: This allows you to see the work they have completed and lets them showcase their knowledge. Think about if this type of work will be useful to you.

If you’re hiring a content strategist, but are not a content expert, you may want to hire a content strategy professional to help you identify your needs and hire the right resource.

What do you think? What processes do you use to identify candidates with the right content strategy experience? Share your experience in the comments below.

Want more instruction on how to manage today’s biggest content marketing challenges? Sign up for our new Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. Access over 35 courses, taught by experts from Google, Mashable, SAP, and more.  

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Melissa Breker

Melissa Breker is co-founder of Content Strategy Inc., a Vancouver content strategy agency that helps large companies to meet their business and customer-experience goals by changing how they think about content. She has a background in marketing communications and is passionate about connecting people, making a difference through content strategy, and body surfing. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaBreker.

Other posts by Melissa Breker

  • BigcomDevloper

    Great tips here, At this stage of the game, there is no argument that content marketing
    is the way to go. Content is key to search engine optimization.

  • Jen Dennis

    Wow. This is a really excellent listing of content strategy tasks! I think I might break the design and creative duties into a separate category from strategy, however. In many projects I’ve worked on, bridging that gap from strategy to creative is one of the bigger jobs the CS does.

    • Melissa Breker

      There’s no shortage of content strategy tasks! ;)

      For any content initiative, it’s important to get the right people in the room. Content strategy creates a common framework around content, regardless of your role. It is that bridge that can bring the team together.

      Bridging that gap, as you point out is critical for project success.

  • http://www.contentspruce.com Grant Draper

    Great post Melissa. It’s actually a nice template for writers to use if they are trying to add to their skill set.

    • Melissa Breker

      Thanks! Understanding the tasks can help build the right skills.

  • f-

    Hello Melissa,
    So how would you differentiate between a Content Manager and a Content Strategist? Do you see a difference between the two, i.e. an overlap in skills, or do you think they are two separate job roles?

    (I ask this because I am technically a Content Manager, but your description fits the vast majority of my actual activities so I’m left wondering whether I should change my job title or not!)

    • Melissa Breker

      Many people I talk to about content strategy have the same question!

      I think we do share very similar skill sets, but we apply them in different ways.

      From my perspective, there is a big difference in regards to the “visioning and analysis” piece. In our work, we spend a time looking at not only where we are going, but how we are going to get there.

      This involves watching for patterns and developing content-focused strategic and tactical recommendations.

      Of course, it all depends on the organization, and the requirements, but I found that to be the big difference when talking with other content professionals.

      I’m planning to write a second blog to address similarities and differences, so watch this space. :)

  • Aparna

    Hi Melissa, This is an excellent piece and so important for people who are aspiring content strategists. I am curious though of what tools you use to measure SEO.
    If I may add, a discussion on the change management process can also be crucial for brands who are looking to revamp or polish their overall content!

    • Melissa Breker

      I’m glad you found it useful. We use a variety of SEO tools, but typically we are assessing via Google Analytics.

      Content strategy is a catalyst for change. As content strategists, we are responsible for setting a new path for content, which means … you guessed it, change.

      Getting buy-in and sharing successes is an important part of what we do.

  • thatdigitalcopywriter.com.au

    G’day Melissa. All these chiefs working around what one little indian does: write words. This is just a small, gentle comment on how essential it is for the writer to pump out words that woo. Cheers.

    • Melissa Breker

      Agreed. Content meets the audiences needs (as you put it “words that woo”) and the business needs in order to be successful.

  • dfab123

    It is interesting to see the content skill sets broken out in this way. It really does highlight the fact that there are very different types of brains needed.

    At some point a content marketing program needs most or all of these areas covered. Assuming, as you say, nobody will have all these skills – and assuming limited salary resources – do you find there certain people in existing roles in an agency setting (or client side company) that are well suited to take on certain of these tasks? Or is that wishful thinking?

    • Melissa Breker

      Assigning content strategy tasks to people without an in-depth experience in content strategy can be risky.

      As I pointed out, projects can go off the rails, so you have to look closely at project and organization requirements.

      If the budget gets tight and you want to assign these tasks in-house, look for people to “play to their strengths”.

      If you have a project manager, they may be able to work on a project plan. If you have a content manager, they may help with editing and mentoring other writers.

      Before assigning tasks, consider the level of experience, involvement, and requirements, for all team members to ensure project success.

  • http://adaptgather.com/ Andrew Nhem

    Melissa– great job on outlining what a true Content Strategist should be capable of doing. Most content initiatives already have a high chance of exceeding its original scope or growing into something pretty intense. The last thing any employer wants is to have someone at the helm who can’t handle it.

    I don’t think anyone employee or employer wants to get caught in that kind of situation.

    It reminds me of the old Friends episode where people mistake Joey for his Days of Our Lives doctor persona in a time of need: http://youtu.be/DRiuGCoKPT0?t=1m15s

    Now, I’m not knocking anyone wanting to transition into the role. It’s definitely a learnable skill and the Content Strategy community is one of the most open and generous ones out there to learn from.

    But I agree with Melissa’s point that if your organization needs a content professional, you’ll want to make sure they’re fully qualified for the role.

    • Jane Tabachnick

      Great article Melissa.
      I would add SEO… though you may have considered that implied as part of the analytics

    • Melissa Breker

      Thanks Andrew.

  • peeweesf

    I often get hung up on the part when I’m asked to share project deliverables. As a content strategist, most of my deliverables are internal documents that really shouldn’t be circulated to the public (even if the public, in this case, is just a few people involved in the interviewing process). I’m talking about things like, content audits and recommendaitons, editorial style guides, copy decks, persona work, etc. While it would probably be okay and no harm done, it doesn’t feel ethical to distribute something that was meant for my client’s eyes alone. I’ve tried removing the client’s name and other identifying info, but that sucks the life out of these things. How do you suggest showing examples of my work without violating my personal principles around client confidentiality? Am I being too rigid?

    • Melissa Breker

      The purpose of showing project deliverables is not about the design, it’s about concepts and how you applied analysis to solve a specific content problem.

      We recommend removing logos and renaming the company something generic, like “ABC Company.” Take them through project deliverables to show them your work – without giving them your work.

      Yes, I understand it can feel like it “sucks” the life out of these
      things”, but ultimately, being generic helps set expectations around
      trust.

      Prospective clients may think: “if you’re thoughtful about other project details, then you’ll be thoughtful with my project details.” It’s a great way to start a new working relationship.

  • Jane Tabachnick

    Great article Melissa. I think this just highlights the complexity of the true content strategist and how its not a simple skill [certainly not a single one] that can be learned overnight.
    It is a set of skills and way of thinking accumulated over time and experience. Can one learn it… yes, and you have given people a great roadmap as to what skills they need to have to truly be worthy of being called a Content Strategist

    • Melissa Breker

      Agreed. Great content strategy skills are built over time. With every project, you uncover there are new opportunities to stretch and build new skills.