The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Content Strategist

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Today, lots of folks are starting on a journey toward one of the most rewarding, exciting jobs in digital: Content Strategy.

Why's it so exciting? To explain, I’d like to share my own experience.

My story (the quick version)

As 2009 drew to a close, I worked as a Documentation Supervisor for a small software company. It was there that I learned there was a field called Content Strategy—and I instantly knew it was for me.

I discovered some incredibly smart people who called themselves Content Strategists, talking about problems I had at work, that I didn't know anyone else shared.

Fascinated, I learned everything I could about Content Strategy. Over time I built my experience, network, and résumé, using the techniques I’ll detail below. In 2012, I accepted a Senior Content Strategist position for a web hosting provider—along with a 30% pay increase.

(By the way, my little salary bump is nothing compared to what you can expect today. That's because, according to The Creative Group's 2017 Salary Guide, the average Content Strategist makes an average of $98,250—about 58% more than the average Web Copywriter.)

But you know what? A higher salary isn't even the best part about being a Content Strategist.

The best part, for me, is the work. I get to improve websites and apps that people actually use. I get to make decisions that improve people's lives every day. I get to learn about the latest technologies. And I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world.

Yes, it's hard work sometimes. There's more ambiguity, more responsibility.

I'm okay with that. To me, that's what makes it fun!

Why do you want to be a Content Strategist?

Whatever your reasons for becoming a Content Strategist—

  • to get a job that you like

  • to further your career

  • to increase your salary

  • to meet amazing people, or

  • to challenge yourself professionally—

I believe you can do it. Because the community of Content Strategists is amazingly supportive and accepting, full of incredible people ready to share their knowledge.

And most of all, because the need is there.

Just check out the Google Trends data for "Content Strategy" as a search term from 2004 to 2017:

Interest in Content Strategy has nearly quadrupled since 2004. Source: Google Trends.

Interest in Content Strategy has nearly quadrupled since 2004. Source: Google Trends.

The demand for Content Strategy skills has never been higher.

See why it’s so exciting?

So what is Content Strategy?

You may have started reading this post because you had some idea you were interested in Content Strategy. But maybe you're still not totally sure what it is.

Let's fix that!

First, I have a question for you. How do you define web content?

If you said text, photos, or video, you’re right.

If you thought about audio like music and podcasts, images like infographics, or animations, or long-form articles, you’re also right.

Basically, content is the stuff that people come to your website (or app) for.

  • In your banking app, it's your account balance.

  • On Netflix.com, it's that series you can't wait to binge.

  • On social media, it's the updates from people you follow.

  • It's also those annoying (or helpful!) errors you get when you're trying to buy a pair of shoes and you enter your credit card number incorrectly.

Good content is absolutely essential in order for the user to have a positive experience with your site or app. And good content doesn’t just happen by itself.

Which brings us to Content Strategy.

Probably the most popular definition of Content Strategy comes from Kristina Halvorson. She’s one of the pioneers of the discipline, and I refer to her and her book constantly. She defines Content Strategy like this:

“Content strategy guides your plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.”

Sounds simple, right? But this view of Content Strategy gives us some hints at how to effectively create and manage content for websites and apps:

  • First, it tells us we have to plan the content. Creating content without a plan is like shooting an arrow without aiming. Planning content can involve user research, inventorying what content we currently have, and measuring its effectiveness to determine what changes we need to make. You ask questions like: what content does the business need? What channels should we publish in – social media? Podcasts? Email marketing? White papers?Content strategy helps us answer these questions.

  • Next, we have to create the content. That sounds simple, but creating copy that’s on-brand and in line with your organization's voice and tone, not to mention factually accurate, requires analysis. You have to gather information about your company to know: what should our brand sound like? Who’s going to create the content?

  • Then, we have to deliver the content. Today we face a proliferating number of devices, which creates a tough challenge. How do we structure our content so that it works on an Apple Retina display, a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone, and a watch? Not to mention new devices that are being invented every day. Content strategists are wrestling with these questions as we speak.

  • Finally, we have to maintain the content. Back when the only content was printed content, this wasn't a concern. You published and moved on to the next thing. But that's not true online. Our content is kind of like an animal. If we release it into the wild and never tend to it again, it can come back to bite us later. But if we take care of it—feed it, give it its shots, bring it inside when it’s cold out—it can bring us a lot of value.

If that all sounds good to you, and you want to become a Content Strategist yourself, it really helps to know a bit of background.

Where did Content Strategy come from?

Background: a quick history of Content Strategy

One of the first people to write about Content Strategy was Ann Rockley. Her book Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, the first edition of which appeared in 2002, describes how organizations should take a holistic, enterprise-wide approach to planning and delivering their content. (It’s worth noting that, while Rockley and her co-authors published this groundbreaking book in ’02, she’d be practicing Content Strategy within the world of technical communication since the ’90s at least.)

From that point, the Content Strategy world was somewhat quiet (at least in terms of books and blogs) until 2007. That year, Rachel Lovinger published her article “Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data” on the blog boxesandarrows.com. She provided a brief introduction to Content Strategy and how essential it is to building websites.

Then, in 2009, two amazing things happened:

The Web Content Strategist's Bible, by Richard Sheffield, was one of the first books about Content Strategy.

The Web Content Strategist's Bible, by Richard Sheffield, was one of the first books about Content Strategy.

Both of these books had a huge impact on me, as well as the wider world of web professionals. Sheffield was the first person to welcome me (and all writers) into the fold of Content Strategists, encouraging us as he describes in detail how to begin practicing it on the job.

And while Rockley had pioneered Content Strategy as a concept, Halvorson’s charisma and no-nonsense advice helped it coalesce into a movement. Since publishing her book, Halvorson and her firm Brain Traffic have founded the Confab series of conferences—arguably the premier professional events for Content Strategists.

Soon after this, a few other Content Strategists came to the fore to share their knowledge with the broader community, including:

2012 gave us a couple of awesome additions to our Content Strategy libraries; namely, Margot Bloomstein’s Content Strategy at Work and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book Content Everywhere.

In 2014, I attended my first Confab and was duly impressed with the smarts on display. That year also saw the publication of Meghan Casey’s The Content Strategy Toolkit, an immensely valuable resource which I reference constantly.

Plenty of other smart folks have contributed to the field, but I want to keep this background concise. If you want an exhaustive list of people you should know about, I encourage you to follow Colleen Jones’ ContentStrategy list on Twitter.

So that’s the background. Which leads us to you. You want to jump into this stream and go where it takes you, right? So how do you get started?

Step 1: Read Content Strategy books

You’ll find an exhaustive list of important Content Strategy books in my history above. If you want my prioritized reading list, I recommend starting with these books, in this order:

  1. Halvorson: Content Strategy for the Web

  2. Sheffield: The Content Strategist’s Bible (especially if you’re a writer)

  3. Casey: The Content Strategy Toolkit

  4. Bloomstein: Content Strategy at Work

The other books I listed above can follow, depending on what topics you’re particularly interested in. I don’t want to overwhelm you.

Step 2: Follow Content Strategists on social media

Hey, I know Twitter’s not for everyone. I once heard that 80% of people with Twitter accounts don’t even tweet; they use Twitter to get news and follow interesting people.

Turns out, there are lots of amazing Content Strategists on Twitter! Where to start? Here are a couple of excellent lists:

And of course, you can feel free to follow me. :)

If you’re more of a Facebook person, check out these Facebook groups:

  • Content Strategists: This is a very active group populated by a good mix of experienced and new Content Strategists.

  • Become a Content Strategist: My group for newcomers to ask questions and discuss how to get into Content Strategy.

Michael Metts’s Content + UX Slack group is another amazing place to interact with tons of Content Strategists. Join by filling out the application.

Also, refer to my post, “8 Content Strategists you should follow.”

Step 3: Attend a Content Strategy conference or meetup

There’s nothing like networking with seasoned Content Strategists in person. You can ask questions and hear varying points of view. That’s one reason conferences are so helpful!

The premier Content Strategy conference family is Confab Events, and since you’re new to the field, I recommend you start with Confab Central, which is held in Minneapolis every year (usually May or June).

Levar Burton keynotes Confab Central in June of 2017.

Levar Burton keynotes Confab Central in June of 2017.

If you’re more interested in how Content Strategy can fit into the landscape of technical communication, LavaCon is a great choice.

There are a host of other conferences, which Shelly Bowen has helpfully compiled in her blog post, “2017 content strategy conferences: which ones are best?

But what if you don’t work for an organization that can afford to send you to a conference? Hillary Marsh has some great advice: try to volunteer! If you can make your way to the conference city and onto the volunteer list, you’ll typically get free admission. Plus, you’ll get a lot of facetime with the folks who’ve pioneered the discipline.

You should also see whether there’s a Content Strategy Meetup near you!

Step 4: Take a Content Strategy course

If you’re like me, you learn best when a little structure’s involved.

Today, there are a handful of Content Strategy courses you can take. Most are in person; oddly, there are few online courses in Content Strategy (mine being the main exception I’m aware of). Sure, Google turns up lots of results, but most courses have to do with Content Marketing; if you’re looking for product- or UX-focused Content Strategy, pickings are slimmer. Fortunately the options that I have found are pretty good!

In-person Content Strategy courses

  • Nielsen Norman Group, Content Strategy. London, UK. Part of NNG’s UX Conference London. Cost: £539-749.

  • FH Joanneum, Content Strategy Master’s Program. Graz, Austria. Get a Master of Arts in Social Sciences with a specialization in Content Strategy! This is a well regarded program with experienced instructors.

Remote Content Strategy courses

  • Coursera, Content Strategy for Professionals. Like most online courses, this has a tactical and Content Marketing bent. Still, if you’re interested in how brand and storytelling intersect, you may pick up some useful nuggets. Cost: $49/month (complete specialization takes 16 weeks).

  • Melanie Seibert, Become a Content Strategist. My free 7-day email course.

  • Melanie Seibert, Getting Started with Content Strategy. My 6-week, in-depth video course that features hands-on exercises and a private Facebook group for discussions. Cost: $247.

  • Bentley University, Content Strategy course. As part of their User Experience Center, Bentley offers remote or in-person (Boston) access to their 2-day Content Strategy course. I took it and found it offered some really helpful guidance. Cost: $1,250.

  • Content Science Academy, Intro to Content Strategy. This course is part of Colleen Jones’s Content Science Academy, which also offers courses in Content Marketing, Content Design, Brand Storytelling, Content Analytics, and more. Cost: $99.

At this point, you should be applying what you’re learning about Content Strategy in some way. (Small steps are great at first!) That goes whether you have a full-time job or not.

For example, if you took my free email course Become a Content Strategist, I gave you specific, actionable steps you can take to start looking at any website’s content strategically.

This is going to be a crucial run-up to the next step.

Step 5: Start a blog

“Who, me?”

Yes, you. You may be new, but you have a unique perspective that others will be interested to hear.

I got my first Content Strategist job as a direct result of my blog. As in, my boss told me, “Your blog is the main reason I hired you.” That’s because a blog shows how you think, and that you’re excited and passionate about your field. Employers like to see both those things.

Setting up a blog these days is simpler and cheaper than ever. Plus, you don’t need to know how to design or code to get started.

Not sure what to write about? Here are some thought-starters:

  • Book review — Read one of the books I mentioned in this post (or something else!) and share your thoughts.

  • Your story — Who are you and what do you do? Share why you became interested in Content Strategy.

  • Critique a website’s (or app’s) content — Be careful with this one; it’s easy to be a little harsh in the beginning, before you know just how difficult it is to do content well. (I speak from experience.) But it is possible—and informative to others—to diplomatically share examples of well done (or poorly done) content.

  • Thoughts on a trend — What’s trending in your industry? Or with Content Strategy in general? If you have thoughts to share, go for it!

  • Thank a mentor — Is there someone you know, whether in person or online, who helped you in your career? What did they do well? What can the rest of us learn from them?

Here are some low-cost blog hosting options you should consider:

WordPress is a great platform for starting a blog.

WordPress is a great platform for starting
a blog.

  • Wordpress

  • Squarespace

  • Medium — Note that Medium doesn’t let you host your own domain (like mysite.com). It’s still helpful for getting eyeballs on your posts. Think of it as more of a combination blogging site and social network.

The community of Content Strategists is very welcoming and supportive. Join us!

Step 6: Look at Content Strategist jobs

Perhaps you can introduce Content Strategy in your current job, and take on a new role for your current employer. If so, that’s great!

On the other hand, maybe your employer just doesn’t buy into the value of Content Strategy, no matter how you pitch it. If that’s the case, and you know you want to do Content Strategy, it’s time to start looking.

To be fair, you could have started this step second or third, but after you’ve started a blog is a great time to start interview for jobs.

The social networks I mentioned above are GREAT resources for Content Strategy jobs. In addition, you can try these general-purpose job sites if you’re in the U.S.:

  • Indeed — Job listings galore.

  • LinkedIn — Lots of job listings, plus you can see who you know at the company.

  • Glassdoor — Gives you the inside dirt on how employers stack up in terms of culture, interviewing, and pay.

Step 7: Keep learning!

There are TONS more resources for going deeper in just about any subfield of Content Strategy that interests you. For that, I highly recommend Jonathon Colman’s Epic List of Content Strategy Resources. I didn’t start off with it because I didn’t want to scare you. It’s huge!

Vinish Garg has also been doing a great job of posting super-useful information on Medium. Check out his Content Conversations.

The Content Strategy Alliance offers a mentorship program, as well as tons of examples of actual deliverables.

Did I miss anything? Have any questions I didn’t answer? Comment and let me know!