Recently I was asked: “How do you define an exceptional content experience?” My response was “I don’t deal with front-end experience. I make the content sing and dance by managing it behind the scenes. A front-end strategist tells me what’s needed, and I develop the back-end strategy to support those needs.”
Content strategists come in two main types: front-end and back-end. If you’re a marketer who treats your organization’s content as a business asset, you need to understand both types of strategist so you can bring in the right kind of help at the right time or develop the appropriate skills in-house.
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Two mindsets, each important
You must coordinate strategies for both the front end and the back end if your enterprise aspires to a scalable approach to content – an approach that leads to content that performs well with customers and takes advantage of automation.
Front-end and back-end roles require different mindsets, each important. In some cases, an individual may play both roles, but most content strategists develop one skill set or the other.
Front-end content strategists typically have a love for the content and the customer experience. They make recommendations about the content itself. When marketers say “content strategist,” they typically mean front-end strategist. That makes sense because the front end – the customer experience – is where all business planning starts. The front-end strategist answers questions like these:
- Who’s our target audience?
- Why (for real) are we creating content for those people?
- What content do they need most?
- How well do we meet those needs today?
- How can we meet those needs better tomorrow – while also serving the goals of the business?
- How can we better coordinate the efforts of all our content creators?
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Back-end strategists like me (typically known as intelligent content strategists) have a love for structure, scalability, and technology. They make recommendations about how to use technology – hardware and software – to handle all that content in efficient and powerful ways. This type of strategist answers questions like these:
- How can we organize content so that our authors can easily store and retrieve it, and prepare it for automated selection and delivery in the relevant channels?
- How do we structure the content so that modules are consistent and can be easily assembled (mixed and matched) on-demand to meet customer needs?
- How do we make sure that we aren’t creating, recreating, and recreating content over and over for each channel?
- How do we scale our processes so we can do more with the same resources?
- How do we take advantage of the wealth of content we have and surface it for our customers in a way that is fresh and valuable?
- How do we future-proof our content to take advantage of the next big thing?
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Let’s take the example of personalized content. Personalized (adaptive) content delivers the right content to the right customer on the device of their choosing. Well-written content designed to meet the customer’s needs is important (front-end strategy).
You have to start there, but you can’t stop there.
Personalized content also relies on back-end strategy: Modularized, structured, format-free content supported by rich metadata. In other words, back-end strategy assures that content can be used and reused in various contexts and tagged with metadata so that computers, and people, can find it.
A deeper look at the two roles
Both roles are important, and they must coordinate. If they don’t, front-end strategy without back-end strategy can lead to solutions that are effective for the customer but don’t scale or cost a lot to create and maintain. Similarly, back-end strategy alone may lead to technologically elegant solutions that fail to resonate with customers.
I talk in terms of “roles” because content strategy today is often handled by people in the role of dedicated content strategist, but content strategy can also be a function within other job titles. You don’t have to be a content strategist to take on strategy-related tasks.
- Define customer personas.
- Define customer journeys.
- Analyze and map customer needs to the business strategy.
- Determine what topics to address when, including content marketing offerings, to support the customer at multiple points in the customer journey.
- Choose the best content types (text, visuals, video).
- Develop SEO guidelines to ensure that people searching online can find the content.
- Develop style guidelines (on how to write for the audience).
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- Identify how content varies based on customer needs and where each need arises in the customer journey.
- Identify how content can be modularized so that it can be automatically reused (mixed and matched) to meet customer needs.
- Develop format-free structured content models so that content can be written in a consistent way and automatically published to any channel (mobile, web, print).
- Define the structure of the CMS repository so that it supports authoring and content retrieval.
- Develop metadata to tag all content modules for dynamic content retrieval.
- Develop business rules to identify how content should be assembled automatically upon customer request.
- Define structured-writing guidelines (on how to write for each content model).
As you see in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram, front-end and back-end strategists share responsibility for workflow governance – determining who creates what content, who reviews content, who has permission to change content, and who decides what gets delivered when and where.
Get the help you need with back-end content strategy
Lots of people talk about front-end strategy. I will focus on getting help with back-end strategy. That’s what I do: I help to grow back-end content strategists within organizations or help organizations hire resources to fill that role.
If your organization is looking to hire a back-end content strategist or to assign those tasks to in-house content teams, first explore your current resources for creating and managing content. Remember your web-management team or even IT resources when trying to determine the options.
Also look into what may seem like unusual places in your organization for individuals who can help with the intelligent content strategy. Some of these people might be too technical for your needs, but companies often have gems in hiding.
Examples of places to look internally:
- App-development teams – They are familiar with interactivity and dynamic delivery.
- Learning-development teams – They are familiar with modularizing content to create reusable learning objects and reassembling that content to build self-directed interactive learning.
- Document-management teams – They typically have experience with developing rich metadata for content storage and retrieval.
- Technical-communication teams – They have been creating format-free structured reusable content for decades.
Questions to ask when hiring for back-end content strategy
Here are some questions you might want to ask of candidates you consider hiring for back-end content strategy tasks:
- Have you designed personalized content, content-as-a-service, or multichannel/omnichannel materials? Describe those projects. What made these projects different from a typical content marketing project?
- What is the best way to scale a project for long-term success?
- What kinds of technology (not specific product offerings) lend themselves to scalability, personalization, or omnichannel?
- What are the greatest challenges you have faced on one of these types of projects? How did you overcome them?
- How do you educate team members on these types of projects? How have you overcome resistance?
- What are the best practices for these types of projects?
Today’s companies need both front-end content strategy and back-end strategy. To deliver content that wins over customers while achieving business goals, combine the skills and outlooks required at both ends. If you have found your own ways of making these ends meet, please tell us about it in a comment.
Missed the Intelligent Content Conference? Don’t fret. You can purchase the Post-Show Video pass and catch Ann’s talks by signing up. Access is good for one full year and contains video, audio, and slide capture for the Main Conference sessions.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute