Searching for the needle in the Content Strategy haystack

Recently I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to recruit a Content Strategist to head up a new content function within our company*. Prompted by Lisa Moore of WriteByte I wanted to share my experiences – and some of the frustrations too.

Eager readers of my less-than-frequent blog will know that I have a pretty strong argument with content strategists on the whole. But that doesn’t mean I don’t value the thrust of what is being proposed; as Francois Jordaan put it: “it’s an unsolved problem”. Amen to that.

I thought by going out into the market with a prestigious and fairly well paid Head of Content role, I might lay to rest some of my prejudices. Specifically: that content strategy is just a repackaging of IA and writing skills designed to encourage a new generation of marketing clients to extend short arms into deep pockets.

Here’s what I found:

There are very few content strategists out there who have actually done content strategy client-side. This was a worry. I have an acute understanding of the difference between agency-land and life in the corporate world having spent a good 10 years earlier in my career pitching, bitching and switching. Would agency people – with their dynamic, magnetic personalities – have the stamina, resilience and most of all patience to see things through, even when things feel like pushing water uphill? Sadly amongst maybe half of the people I talked to, I didn’t get a sense of the leadership, resilience and influencing skills that would be required of the role.

There are lots of writers and PR people pretending they know content strategy. If you’re a professional writer or journalist of some sort, clearly the web is a big opportunity. Moreover perhaps as time goes on, if you’re a writer or journalist without online experience, your credentials are going to start to look a bit primeval. There was certainly an air amongst some of the people I met and spoke to of, er, well I ought not to call it desperation.  ‘Wide-eyed enthusiasm’ mixed with a confusion over ‘online strategy’, perhaps?

I heard lots about writing for SEO, writing for PR, writing because most people can’t write (true!), and writing for volume with short deadlines. I heard very little about writing to support a customer process, writing to differentiate a product or writing to clinch a sale. The journos I spoke to knew writing; you’d expect that. But many didn’t know how to uncover the user’s requirements for content, validate them with real people, and prioritise them with business stakeholders. To me, that’s quite a bit of the ‘strategy’ in content strategy.

In my ideal world, a Head of Content would also be dangerous enough to “do technology”. Not to get hands dirty with MySQL and PHP, but to understand the technology environment for implementing content strategy. Yes that means CMSes, but not one CMS in particular. It does mean flagging up the technical obstacles one might face when migrating to a new CMS, and identifying the business requirements one might easily overlook having not had that experience before. Fortunately I did speak to some what I would (disparagingly!) call “techies”, there were very few who could mix it with IT as well as business folks, though.

My final finding was about the content itself. I heard LOTS about social media. About ENGAGEMENT. That it takes professional writers to inspire and motivate an audience. I guess I accept quite a bit of that. Nevertheless my own experience managing a small (yet perfectly formed) Social Media team is that passion for the product and for its customers is probably more important than verbal dexterity and grammatical correctness. I’d bet those skills are most likely already available in your company. It really shouldn’t take the appointment of a senior manager to find them and encourage their development. Social media shouldn’t be the preserve of content people per se, it should be tightly woven into the everyday operations of all the customer-facing people in your organisation. And some of the ones that aren’t customer facing too.

So. A long way to go yet with Content Strategy. Perhaps I was asking for too much from one person? Technical, creative and management/leadership skills all mixed together was the requirement, and really only one or two people hit the sweet spot. Unfortunately other events in-house overtook me somewhat, and my search has been, at best, delayed.

We will get there, but we’re going to start small and develop internally first.

* Note: You’d be correct in thinking the role hasn’t been filled, but no it’s not open at the moment. Unfortunately due to some internal wrangling I’ve had to put it on hold. With any luck this should change in the new year. Keep an eye on my Twitter feed if you’re interested…

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