What Makes A Content Strategist?

Rachel Lovinger   May 29, 2009
superhero-ingredientsElasticity, immortality, telepathy… good ingredients for a CS superhero. (image via CFAGELNYC)

I have this friend who’s been looking for a Content Strategist for a web design project. He’s having trouble finding someone who has all the skills and experience that he wants them to have. This is bound to happen, because the field is new enough that there’s no standard set of skills and experience for people who practice content strategy. Plus, he was looking for some pretty specialized extras.

My advice to him was to look for someone with the core skills, and then prepare them to acquire the rest on the job. I’m pretty confident that a person with the following five qualities could pick up any content strategy task you might need them to do:

  • A passion for content – the written word, of course, but this should also include a love of photos, art, music, film and/or video. Your ideal person will be well versed in many modes of expression.
  • Editorial capabilities - this doesn’t mean that the person has to have held a position as an editor, but they need to be able to distinguish between meaningful content and deadweight, and they need to be able to cut, tweak, and trim to emphasize the former.
  • Familiarity and comfort with the principles of content management and databases – experience with a specific CMS is less critical than understanding the general concepts and processes.
  • Understanding of logic - critical analysis, pattern recognition, and creation of rules are all very important to content strategy work, which has to take into account both big picture vision and fine details.
  • Communication skills - which includes not only the ability to clearly express ideas, but also active listening, interpreting, translating ideas, and otherwise facilitating communication between others.

Other skills, talents, education, and experience— such as IA, library science, coding, writing, data modeling, design, content production, DAM, SEO, accessibility, etc.—are great additional tools, and may be needed to accomplish specific goals on specific projects. But any creative Content Strategist with the skills I described above should be able to pair with a subject matter expert and come up with a solution to any content need you might have.

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11 Responses

  1. This is absolutely spot-on, Rachel. I’m so glad you’ve documented it here.

    If I could add anything, it would only be to to say that alongside an ‘understanding of logic,’ an appreciation for taxonomy–a yen for auditing and defining organizing principles–is critical.

    Such a person is going to wrestle order out of chaos and find fresh ways to rethink and reorder data. This can result in structural improvements to how content is ordered, sure, but also to the workflows and processes required to maintain content organization.

  2. Rahel Bailie says:

    Great article (as usual). I’m so glad you added in there the basics of technology. Content delivery on any decent scale is so tied to technology that it behooves us to familiarize ourselves with it. Now, if we could educate our clients about what content strategists really do.

  3. Bob Scheier says:

    A comment and a question:

    1) I would add, in addition to editorial capabilities, that a content strategist have a deep understanding of the subject matter they’re “contenting” about and the needs of the target audience. Generic content not tied to the specific needs of the reader doesn’t cut it these days.

    2) And as an ex-journalist trying to BECOME a content strategist, what are the key CMS tools or at least processes one should know?

    Great post; thanks much.

  4. Thanks, Rachel for a very good set of attributes!

    If I could add one thing (yes, it seems that some of us can’t keep our hands out of your already very fine recipe), it is to be explicit that a content strategist needs to see the relationships among content and content types. The ability to create analogies, to see the interrelationships among content types, and to abstract them to another level is critical to developing an effective content strategy.

    Thanks again for the post!

  5. Bob,

    In response to your first point – understanding the subject matter is important, but you can’t always count on having someone with deep subject matter knowledge AND other content strategy skills. In these cases, I think that a combination of doing a lot of thorough groundwork (in the form of primary and secondary research) and partnering with a subject matter expert can suffice. Similarly, the needs of the target audience are learned by doing research, it’s not an inherent skill (though the ability to make connections and gain insights based on the research is tied to several of the other skills I listed).

    As for CMS tools, I personally think it’s more important to understand the general principals of how they work, less important to be super familiar with any particular tool. The easiest way to get this understanding is by working at a place that publishes content on the web and getting involved in that. If that’s not possible, there may be online tutorials you can take for some of the more prominent tools. CMSwatch.com has a lot of reports and courses. It won’t be free, but you could gain some in depth knowledge there.

    Of course, there are probably as many different opinions about this as there are content strategists. If you want to know more about the tools and processes that other CSs find most valuable, consider joining the Content Strategy Google Group (http://groups.google.com/group/contentstrategy) – it’s a great source of information, and you can pose questions like this and get a wide range of perspectives.

  6. […] Check out this great write from Scatter/Gather, the information is top-notch: […]

  7. […] Check out this great write from Scatter/Gather, the information is top-notch: I have this friend who’s been looking for a Content Strategist for a web design project. He’s having trouble finding someone who has all the skills and experience that he wants them to have. This is bound to happen, because the field is new enough that there’s no standard set of skills and experience for people who practice content strategy. Plus, he was looking for some pretty specialized extras. […]

  8. […] Strategist because it’s more than accurate. It was amazing to read Rachel Lovinger’s What Makes a Content Strategist? and be able to check off each one of the listed attributes as if it had been written about me. […]

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  11. […] 2009, 4 years ago, and a year before the first Content Strategy Conference was launched, Rachel Lovinger reviewed a content strategist‘s qualities. She pointed out that “ the field is new enough that there’s no standard […]

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