By Marcia Riefer Johnston published March 10, 2016

What Should Marketers Look for in a Content Strategist?

marketers-look-for-content-strategist

The day has come: Your boss signed off on your proposal to get the help your marketing team needs from a content strategist. Great!

Gulp.

What skills should you look for in a content strategist? What are some good questions to ask? Where and how can you find the right help?

Here’s advice from some of the experts who spoke at the 2016 Intelligent Content Conference.

Seek visionaries

What should you look for in a content strategist? It depends. Content strategists aren’t all created equal. Some specialize in the editorial aspects of content (writing, messaging, tone of voice), while others specialize in content choreography and content engineering (making sure your content travels unencumbered through a maze of systems to reach its destination).

The most important thing is the ability to help you devise the strategy you need. Strategy is not software. It’s not project planning. It’s not how you’re going to work or with whom. Strategy includes a vision of the future, goals for achieving it, and a plan of attack.

Strategy includes a vision, goals for achieving it, and a plan of attack says @scottabel #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Scott Abel, president, The Content Wrangler| @scottabel

Identify influencers

First, look for people experienced and skilled in content – marketing, technical, instructional, any type of content – and then look for user experience design and engineering skills.

Look first in your company’s own ranks: Content strategists or information architects who are working on the experience of the content vs. implementing infrastructure and technology (like content management systems). You might also consider hiring a content strategy consultant or consulting company who could help you hire someone. Model your job descriptions on other companies’ job postings in content strategy and information architecture.

After you’ve identified some candidates, sift out those who can think both abstractly and analytically, who are excellent problem solvers, who dig for root causes, who understand the goals and needs of other roles on a cross-disciplinary team and can influence them. Content strategists need to rally a team to implement a vision, so they need to not only have the vision but also communicate it to get buy-in and build enthusiasm.

Ask candidates these questions:

  • What is an exceptional content experience?
  • How would you get the input you need for each inflection point: Content, person, place, time?
  • How would you develop a content strategy if you had no product strategy, no market data, and no user data for input?
  • How have you created content strategies and content experiences that have helped achieve marketing or sales goals (revenue, customer advocacy, etc.)?
  • How do you know that you helped achieve those goals?
  • How would YOU partner with you?

Andrea Ames, enterprise content experience strategist/architect/designer, IBM | @aames

Hunt for big thinkers

Find a big thinker, someone who does the following:

  • Understands all forms of content production, distribution, and connection
  • Understands design thinking and user experience
  • Shows an ability to connect content to business results
  • Has business acumen
  • Solves problems creatively

Questions to ask:

  • What does content strategy mean to you?
  • What does your content dream team look like?
  • How do you create content strategies with low budgets and small teams?
  • How do you prove content ROI?
  • How do you determine whether content is successful?

Jake Athey, marketing director, Widen | @jakeathey

Go to your network

You need a content strategist who can complement your strengths so that you can address both the editorial and technical sides of content. If you’re consumed by editorial demands (brand and messaging and omnichannel marketing), you’ll want someone who understands best practices for production, structure, and semantics – someone who knows the right systems and methods for multichannel delivery and so on. Finding these people isn’t easy since they’re in demand. Networking is the best way to determine who knows their stuff and will be a good match.  

Rahel Anne Bailie, chief knowledge officer, Scroll | @rahelab

Look for outstanding content creators in your field

Existing managers can be surprisingly good content strategists. Most often, the best strategists have a track record of making awesome content. If you can find people with a lot of experience creating content in your field – even if they’ve never held the title of content marketer or content strategist – they can almost certainly give you what you need from a strategist: Insight into how best to reach your audience systematically over time.

Andrea Fryrear, content marketer and Agile evangelist, MarketerGizmo | @andreafryrear

Find people who feel your pain

Seek people who will create a strategy you can execute. If you get a hint of the engagement being about them, thank them for the coffee and walk away. These folks may be measured by their ability to grow and win awards instead of by your ability to execute their strategy. You need a partner who feels your pain and celebrates only when you win.

Jeff Julian, chief marketing officer, AJi Software | @jjulian

Discover people who constantly learn

Great content strategists are chameleons who can quickly become experts in any industry. What is most important is that content strategists embrace the craft.

Ask content strategists how they help teams do the following:

  • Capture audience attention
  • Convert that attention into value
  • Define reachable business goals
  • Create tactics to accomplish those goals
  • Stay abreast of the latest changes in this discipline

A good strategist never stops learning.

A good #content strategist never stops learning says @bediscontent #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Vishal Khanna, director of digital marketing, Wake Forest Innovations | @bediscontent

Select for the skills you need: editorial or structural

I often distinguish between editorial and structural content strategists (also known as front-end and back-end content strategists). Of course, every content strategist has a unique set of skills, but I find that people’s skills and work history often fit into these big buckets:

  • Editorial content strategists might have a background in copywriting, journalism, or brand strategy. These people might help define the tone and messaging for the site, maybe even serving as a managing editor.
  • Structural content strategists might have a background in library science, information architecture, or data modeling. These people might help plan a CMS implementation or define structured content, metadata, and taxonomies.

Rather than simply partnering with someone with the title of content strategist, first define which subset of skills you need. Not every content strategist is great at both editorial and structural work.

Karen McGrane, author and managing partner, Bond Art + Science | @karenmcgrane

Look for realistic planners

While content strategists must have big ideas, they must also have enough love for detail to create a realistic road map for implementation.

Questions to ask:

  • How would you optimize a blog post for search engines in 2016? (Anyone who mentions meta keywords is not up to date on best practices.)
  • Why do brands invest in content marketing? Why are users so receptive to great content?
  • What is your process for creating a strategy?
  • How do you determine what you can achieve with the resources available?
  • How do you develop personas for content?

Kat Robinson, director, strategic planning, Vertical Measures | @katrobinson1

Stretch beyond the strategy deliverables

While the ability to create an effective content strategy – the ultimate deliverable – is important, it’s not enough. Ask the content strategist these questions:

  • How do you determine what needs to get done and how best to approach a project?
  • What are the steps that you follow when building a content strategy?
  • What are some memorable lessons you’ve learned on both successful and unsuccessful projects?
  • How can we work best together to achieve success?

Ann Rockley, CEO, The Rockley Group, @arockley

Find innovation seekers

Great content strategists focus on the customer experience. They identify the needs of the users so that they can create the right messaging AND they work with content engineers and technologists to make this content nimble, agile, and deliverable to any place at any time.

Ask content strategists how they define and work with content:

  • If they talk about branding, messaging, and personas, you understand their (front-end) focus.
  • If they talk about content models, intelligent content, and content attributes, you understand a different (back-end) focus.

The best content strategists understand that content has a continuum between strategy, marketing, and engineering, and they know how to integrate the worlds. They underscore the importance of working across silos and departments to deliver a good customer experience. Look for those candidates who are excited by the potential of content as a digital asset. Find someone looking for innovative new ways to discover, create, target, distribute, and deliver value with content.

Content strategists underscore the importance of working across silos to deliver a good customer experience Click To Tweet

Cruce Saunders, principal founder, Simple [A] | @mrcruce

Look for people who create content outside of work

First, make sure that you and your interviewees agree on what a content strategist does. Then, look for someone who understands the range of tasks that are required to plan, execute, measure, optimize, and govern content across multiple channels.

I favor people who create content outside of work since it gives them the opportunity to experiment with ideas and techniques. It also shows a level of curiosity and initiative that’s required for the role.

Right now, it’s a difficult time to recruit the right talent because so many people are adding “content strategist” and “storyteller” to their LinkedIn profiles. LinkedIn is a good place to start – as long as you ask the right questions and filter out people who are just using the keywords.

Ask people to show you examples of their content strategy work. Ask them to show you the tools they use to manage their content strategy plans.

Buddy Scalera, a content strategist focused on healthcare and pharmaceutical communications | @buddyscalera

Seek someone who understands marketing

Marketers need to seek content strategists who have these three key traits (aside from solid content strategy skills, of course). They:

  • Appreciate marketing. You want someone who understands and appreciates the role marketing plays in the organization and the way marketing interfaces with other functions, like sales and customer service. This is table stakes for delivering sustainable, scalable content experiences that serve the needs of the total customer.
  • Get that content marketing is just one type of marketing content. Sometimes a company needs to talk about itself. All types of content must adhere to the same core content strategy, the same messaging, the same tone of voice, the same overarching approach to content planning, production, workflow, and governance.
  • Know what it takes to produce good content. As a marketer, you’re judged by what you produce, not by what you plan. A content strategist must help you bridge the gap between planning and production. Strategy (of any kind, content strategy included) is only as good as an organization’s ability to execute it well.
Strategy is only as good as an organization’s ability to execute it well says @gregverdino #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Greg Verdino, managing partner, VERDINO & CO | @gregverdino

Search for someone who understands more than marketing

A content strategist needs to understand marketing and the value of content marketing, but beyond that, look for a content strategist to support your marketing team with additional skills in these areas:

  • Editorial management: How do you get a team to create, manage, and deliver the right stuff, when it’s needed?
  • Content structures and metadata: How should content be shaped, tagged, and modeled so that it’s ready for all your channels and adaptable for all your personas, touchpoints, formats, and audience scenarios?
  • Content process and governance: How can we not only get content out the door but also make sure that the assets remain useful and compliant with the automatic rules we set for them over the content’s life cycle?
  • Technology: How do the technical underpinnings work? It’s not about the tech, but that tech can hold you back or open new avenues.

Noz Urbina, founder, Urbina Consulting | @nozurbina

Conclusion

What should marketers look for in a content strategist? A visionary. An influencer. A big thinker. A motivated content creator. An empath. A lifelong learner. A realistic planner. A seeker of innovation. A strategic thinker who appreciates marketing.

How do you find such a person? You shake your network tree, gather candidates, and ask them questions. Many of the suggested questions for candidates sort themselves into three groups in my mind, something like this:

  • Customer goals
    • How do you define an exceptional content experience?
    • How do you help teams determine the goals of customers and prospective customers?
    • How do you help teams plan content that meets those goals?
  • Business goals
    • How do you help content teams define reachable business goals?
    • How do your strategies help achieve those goals?
    • How do you know?
  • Strategist’s fit with your content team
    • Are you primarily a front-end or back-end strategist?
    • What is your process for creating a content strategy?
    • What expertise do you offer marketing teams that they typically lack?

Marketers, what other questions would you ask? Content strategists, what other questions would you want to be asked? Please let us know in a comment.

Want to expand your content strategy skills? Subscribe to Content Strategy for Marketers, our weekly email newsletter for forward-thinking marketers.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • Noel Wurst_Skytap Social

    Thanks for contributing this, Marcia! This is one of those pieces that should make the best in this biz proud. To read what likely looks to many like an ungodly or impossible amount of requirements, skills, and experiences for one person to posses—and recognize every one of them as something you excel at is an awesome feeling!

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Noel, I’m glad you found this article affirming. It’s a lucky company that finds content professionals who brings all these skills and characteristics together.

  • http://www.wordspicturesweb.com/ Buddy Scalera

    Love these quick-hit posts that include insights from multiple people on the same topic. It’s a great way to get some distilled advice and action items. Good stuff, Marcia, keep ’em coming.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks, Buddy. I like these, too. So many smart people speak at the conferences, why not tap their brains?

  • Alexandra Sheehan

    I really enjoyed this article – lots of great info. What I think would make for a great follow-up article is what to look for in the answers to some of the questions listed above, particularly in sections like Look for realistic planners, Hunt for big thinkers and Stretch beyond the strategy deliverables.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for the suggestion and feedback, Alexandra.

  • Dave Bannon

    Excellent piece Marcia, very worthwhile. Would you think a person who mentions keywords is out of date or is a person who only mentions keywords when optimizing content for SERPS is out of date. I’m not sure they have become completely redundant and still part of the mix.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Dave, Thanks for your comment. The very day you posted this question about the changing role of keywords in SEO, CMI published an article on this topic. See “A Nutshell Guide to Proper Keyword Research” here: http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/04/proper-keyword-research/

      Hope that helps.

  • Firozali A Mulla PhD

    We are living in a small world and there are many who would like to crack the IT codes and make themselves rich yet we keep on manufacturing the drones that kill and say guns do not kill what is the difference I am at a loss