Confused about what a content strategist actually does? You’re not alone. There are content strategists who work in IT teams, others like us who work in business strategy. And now there are even marketers claiming that they do content strategy too. So let’s straighten this issue out and find the answer.
Last updated 1 April 2017.
Before we start: Know what is content strategy
You may recall that in a previous article we looked at the question, What is content strategy? For those of you who haven’t read that article, we broke the term down. Looking first at strategy, and then at content, we worked our way through to the fact that there are three types of content strategy.
Here’s a quick reminder.
As to the flavours of content strategy, there are:
- business process-focused content strategists
- content-focused strategists
- systems-focused strategists.
You may also recall that content strategy is a holistic, inward-facing process.
So before you know what a content strategist does, you need to be clear about which type of content strategy you are looking at. If your understanding is in business process, but you’re talking to a systems-focused strategist, it’ll be like trying to open a lock with a stick of cheese.
Content strategy has commonalities among its streams
For all that content strategists do different things, there are some significant commonalities. Those commonalities are so central to the work of content strategy that even content strategists debate about the definition of the term!
It’s really in the detail and in the provision of service where things start to vary. And that variation is largely because a content strategist will play to his or her strengths.
A great way to think about this is in a parallel with medicine. Medicine is one huge field, but it’s in the focus and delivery that it varies. You couldn’t, for example, go to a tropical diseases guy and expect to get an obstetrics service.
Tasks common to content strategists
The tasks that are common to content strategists include:
- content inventories
- content audits (an inventory is finding what’s there; an audit is assessing it against predefined criteria)
- consideration of content type (albeit at different levels)
- consideration of what you’re saying and to whom
- audience (or user) pathways, user experience (at some level) and audience advocacy
When you really strip it back, this is what it looks like. A content strategist wants to know what content you have, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, where it is, and how you govern (or manage) it from start to finish.
That’s a pretty comprehensive service in and of itself. It says to you that any content strategist ought to be able to help you work out what you have, who it’s for, how you deliver it, where to keep it, and how to manage it.
In the room with us are three content strategists. One is content-focused, one is business-process-focused, one is systems-focused.
Content-focused content strategist: This is all well and good. But how do you know that the content meets the user’s needs?
Business-process-focused content strategist: Correct. And how do you know that what you’re creating in the first place is even needed? Or what the rules are for that management?
Systems-focused content strategist: Good questions! I want to know how you’re making sure that all the users of the technology can just do so without pain when you’re getting to these outcomes?
It would be nice to think that all content strategists would ask all of these questions. And, truthfully, some will do their best to cover all three areas. But the problem with doing all three at once is that it’s really hard to sell.
The truth of the matter is that even if you could do all of these things, all three truly only fit in large organisations. It’s why we often see content strategists who work in big companies and government departments covering all of these things. But could you talk about systems-focused content strategy to a small or medium-sized business? You sure can! But good luck getting the budget to do what needs to be done.
Content-focused content strategists: What do they do?
A content-focused content strategist will most likely have emerged from editing or writing. These guys are concerned about the content itself. They will work to:
- ascertain your audience (users): Creating and working with personas
- reorient your content away from you: It needs to be audience-focused, not business-focused
- make your content consistent
- make your content findable and useful
- make your content easy to create (tone and style guides, for example).
Your content-focused content strategist will most likely run message architecture sessions, write audience personas, create tools to make creation easy (and consistent), and assess your content ecosystem to make sure it all aligns.
Business-process-focused content strategists: What do they do?
The business-process focused strategist may similarly have emerged from the publishing world, but they may also have come from some kind of management. They are properly business-systems focused. The kinds of things with which they concern themselves include:
- whether or not your content workflow is healthy
- the rules that you have for creating and managing content
- the risks around your content activity and how you manage that
- whether you have a strategic imperative for your content activity
- and so on.
Your business-process-focused content strategist will do things like run strategy sessions, assess or build workflow, assess or create rules for governance and management, get your teams engaged from the board downwards, look at other systems (like ISO 9001) and work out whether your content framework meets requirements.
Systems-focused content strategists: What do they do?
The systems-focused content strategist (for whom the Poster Child is Kristina Halvorson) emerges from the world of IT. They have a strong understanding of technology and help to make technology really work for people. The kinds of things they do are:
- bring together rules and systems, so your users don’t have separate documentation
- enable create-once-publish-many-times systems that make content easier to manage
- help you to future-proof your content so it can be delivered in any form, on any device
- …and so on.
Your systems-focused content strategist will define and create content types, assess use patterns and experiences in order to craft better ones, reshape blobs (like whole articles) into chunks (of smaller pieces), and generally work in IT project teams to deliver particular assets that really work for people.
How do I know what a content strategist does then?
It’s ok, I feel your pain. If you’re evaluating whether a content strategist is right for you, then it really comes down to what you need.
The red flag for you is if your answer is ‘lead generation’. If, when you start thinking about what your business needs and the answer is lead generation, you don’t need a content strategist: You need a marketer.
Content strategists are not marketers. Yes, your business will likely improve when you work with a content strategist. That improvement is because a content strategist works to make both ends of a transaction work: Your team, your focus, and your audience. It is not because they’re putting pop-ups on your website to acquire leads.
The things that content strategists don’t do:
- social media
- lead generation
- marketing of any kind.
Wait, does that say copywriting? Yes. Content strategists are not copywriters. They are often excellent copywriters (and here at Brutal Pixie, we like to think we’re great at it!) but it’s not their core business. The reason why many content strategists do the writing is because it’s work that aligns more closely with the strategic stuff than does something like marketing. (And they’ll still argue they’re not copywriters.)
What a content strategist does will largely depend on what sort of content strategist he or she is. Content-focused strategists will make sure that all of your content outputs (of all kinds) work for you and for your audience(s). Business-focused strategists will make sure that your business can support and use publishing activity. Systems-focused strategists will make content delivery fantastic for all users at both ends.
Content strategists do not do marketing, SEO, lead generation or (in most cases) writing. But what many can do is refer you to someone that they know will do a good job.
As for us? At Brutal Pixie we work to help you design spectacular service through content and communication. We are business-focused strategists. We work to help your business relate as humanly as possible with the people it’s trying hardest to reach. Contact us now to find out how we can help you or sign up to our weekly newsletter.