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Why Content Strategists Shouldn’t Lose Sight of Actual People

smiling guy in hat, glasses-cco logoEditor’s Note: At the Content Marketing Institute, we’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking about content strategy — and what we’ve learned is that marketers on the whole have a hard time understanding the discipline, never mind integrating a content strategy approach into their current activities. For that reason, in the February 2015 issue of CCO magazine we’ll be cracking open content strategy and asking experts in the field to describe how it works on the ground.

In the meantime… One of our favorite experts on the subject is Jonathon Colman. Jonathon is not only a content strategist at Facebook, he’s also a blogger and author of the now-infamous Epic List of Content Strategy Resources — for those who want to take a deep dive into the subject.

Rather than ask questions of Jonathon from a pure marketing perspective, we wanted his fellow content strategists to get his thoughts on current issues. Our crack team of content strategists includes Laura Creekmore, Natalya Minkovsky, and Carrie Hane Dennison.

@LauraCreekmore asks: What do content strategists need to understand to be successful today? In the next three years?

Plastics!” Just kidding.

Systems, systems, and systems. It’s not enough to make a video go viral, to design a funny infographic, to write that killer blog post. We need to plan for and develop the content systems that help our brands go the distance and endure for the next hundred years. And not just technological systems, but also the infinitely more complex people systems.

Organizations sometimes make the mistake of building or selecting their content systems based on a gigantic list of technical features, a wish list of buzzwords dropped into an RFP template. And they end up with a behemoth “frankensystem” that might technically suit their needs on paper, but is completely unusable by actual people… and it can’t adapt to how the organization itself truly functions.

To be successful, content strategists need to be able to map out people, processes, and politics (contrary to popular belief, they exist!) and the roles they all play in creating and maintaining content in your organization. Understanding people is the first step toward building a great system that they can use.

Three years from now — as content delivery, promotion, analysis, and iteration continue to fracture across multitudes of platforms and devices — content strategists must further delve into enterprise information management and architecture.

As Source editor Erin Kissane once said, “We don’t make things. We make systems that make things.” I think we need to get out of the business of creating individual things like videos, infographics, blog posts, and other artifacts. Instead, we need to get into the business of creating and planning for the systems that make, manage, and distribute those things. Design and systems thinking will help our brands endure over the next century.

@hejhejnatalya asks: What’s the biggest content strategy opportunity that companies can take advantage of in the near future?

Organizations need to understand that metadata is far more than just <meta> data.

There are companies that are still optimizing for meta-keywords, even though it does them no good — and wastes a non-trivial amount of their time and other resources. Wiser marketers are employing page-level metadata standards like Facebook Open Graph, Twitter Cards, and to drive more visibility and engagement with their content. But even that’s still just dipping your toes in the water.

Metadata can do far more than aid in SEO or increase clicks in social media. It can power your navigation across millions of products. It can help you carry out multivariate tests against your site structure all the way down to the look and feel of individual pages and their modular elements. It can help you reuse your content across your website, or even deliver your content to other platforms. It can help you transform your content from the web to print and back again, all from a single source. At scale, metadata can help power content services in the form of APIs that developers can use to build content-driven applications on top of your platform.

All these opportunities are possible when you conceive your content not as an artifact of text, but as a product in and of itself.

@carriehd asks: What will the next generation of content strategists need to know to be successful?

Part of what makes the content strategy industry great is that we all come to it from so many different paths: technical communication, user-experience design, library science, marketing, information architecture… no matter their skill set and experiences, everyone gets a say. Everyone has a seat at our table. We want to hear your voice. And what keeps us creative and nimble is what helps us evolve: our diversity and humility.

What I fear about our future, however, is that we get so caught up with the technologies, tools, and tactics of our trade that we reassign our thinking from the long term to the short. We start thinking and strategizing in ever-shorter cycles: months instead of years, campaigns instead of life cycles, individual infographics instead of the brands they represent.

What brings us back from the brink is what the next generation must focus on far more than we have: empathy. The ability to build connections with people — to truly understand who they are and what their experience is like — and shape product experiences to best fit their needs is what will set the most successful practitioners of content strategy apart from others.

As people continue to create and consume more and more information at a faster pace than ever before, our ability to help them make sense and create meaning is our single most important contribution to the world.

Start with empathy. Engage with utility. Improve with analysis. Optimize with love.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.