The Rise of the Content Strategist

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 4/1/2012

Content strategy jobs are hot—Flip the Media’s Peter Luyckx called it last year. Type “Content Strategist” into a job search engine and you’ll see plenty of results. Reflecting that trend, my own title was recently changed from Editor to Strategist.

Five years ago, Content Strategists were rarer than unicorns. I’d know– I’ve been in content since 1997 and only recently started seeing the title come up. What’s happened in the content industry that’s driving this change?

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, first published in 2009, has been a big influence, as Peter notes in his post. In her book, Halvorson defines content strategy as “the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” How does this differ, though, from what professional content writers, editors and managers have been doing all along?

I see it as a question of abundance. When I began writing content, creation was the goal. Marketing copy. User guides. FAQs. Help systems. Writers and editors produced and published words, and moving up the chain meant managing an editorial calendar and other writers to produce ever greater sums of copy. As print gave way to the web, this became considerably easier and cheaper to do. Many companies employed (and still employ) a strategy that web usability expert Gerry McGovern refers to as “launch and leave:” produce a ton of content, and then leave it sitting there unmeasured and unmaintained. Clay Shirky calls this abundance a result of post-Gutenberg economics, in which “the cost of producing [content] has fallen through the floor… .and so [now] there’s no economic logic that says you have to filter for quality before you publish.”

However, several recent trends have contributed to organizations demanding more from content.. The Great Recession, the rise of web analytics, and the voice of the customer amplified by social networks have all given companies more tools and incentive to create and maintain “useful, usable content.” Organizations are now realizing that content ought to earn its keep — it should drive conversion (sales, donations), or reduce call drivers (solve frequent and actual problems customers have). If it doesn’t, it’s just polluting the relevance and searchability of content that does. Clay Shirky defines the problem of information abundance as one of “filter failure.”

Enter the Content Strategist — your organization’s filter for quality.

One question potential Content Strategists can expect to face in interviews is this: how have you measured and adjusted content based on metrics (conversion rates, customer satisfaction scores) with what tools (Omniture? Google Analytics?) toward what results (percentage sales increase or customer service contact reduction, with dollar sign preferably attached)? It’s not a question that writers and editors as creative workers have often had to answer in the past, but theseĀ  days, proving (and improving) the worth of your content is now an expected part of creative strategic roles.

Getting involved in a content measurement project at work could be the most useful way to prepare for your next interview in this field. Go for it.

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