Web world, just you wait!
October 6, 2011 7:13 PM   Subscribe

How do I become a content strategist? How do I self-train? What do I need to know? How do I find clients, or better yet, an employer?

My professional background includes more than a decade of writing and editing for book publishers and academic presses. I've also studied foreign languages, linguistics, rhetoric. So I know a lot about text, but thus far I've been applying this knowledge to the products of a swiftly shrinking industry. I need to flip careers. FAST.

Naturally, tech beckons.

And caveats emerge. For example, I have barely any samples from all my time in publishing. In the beginning, this was because publishers gave tests, or had me perform sample work directly on their materials. After I got good at it, however, people quit asking. So good references, but few samples. Also, no interest in blogging or tweeting, the modern method of getting noticed. (Is this going to hurt me?) No interest in programming either, and I don't know Visio or Photoshop. (Is this going to hurt me?) And, finally, no money to go to strategy conferences, or to school for professional training.

Still, I soldier on. This is what I've done to make myself more appealing:

- I've joined a local usability group and recently participated in an hour-long critique of a website in need of updating. That was extremely useful--and interesting; I'm good at things like usability analysis!--but they only meet monthly, so it will be a while yet before their next rendez-vous.

- I've joined content strategy meet-ups in the city closest to mine, but they will not be convening for a while yet, either.

- I have considered approaching two or three very small businesses and offering to write/edit their webpages for free, assuming that's kosher. (Whaddya think? I'm talking about companies so small they would never dream of hiring anyone to do it for them.)

- I've done extensive online reading about content strategy: Its journalistic ethos, its brevity, etc. and the main tenets are no different than they were in book publishing, so I don't think it would be hard for me to master this part at all.

Now for my questions:

1. Just how much experience (counted in months?, years?, projects?) do I need before hanging out a freelance shingle?

2. Am I missing any skills, critical or otherwise?

3. Where can I find samples of content strategy resumes?

4. How do I learn enough Web terminology to sound professional? (Does this matter?)

5. What's the breakdown in responsibilities between content strategists and copywriters? Is it only larger companies that employ both? And am I correct in thinking that copywriters are more responsible for page hits, etc., than content strategists?

6. Where can I find jobs? I see no listings in any conventional source (craigslist.com, indeed.com. I've tried looking on twitterjobs, etc. but have only ever happened upon placement service ads, asking for five years experience.)

7. And if I am offered a job, how much does one typically charge for this work?

8. What other steps should I take?

9. Is there ONE must-have reference book for the field?

10. Finally, I'm correct in thinking this is a major growth specialty, right?

posted by Violet Blue to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Someone to whom you're pitching your services is going to want to know "what is a content strategist and what can one do for me?" I don't see that focus in your list of questions.

Focus on how you can sell your services. What problem are you going to solve for a client?

If I owned a business and you were pitching your services to me, I'd want to know what problem you're going to solve for me, what your solution is, why I should go with you rather than the guy down the street, and why it would be a mistake not to hire you.
posted by dfriedman at 7:43 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best thing to do is to start out as a copywriter for a boutique online marketing company. It's not easy, as large marketing firms tend to purchase content from online marketplaces where the writers are paid very little, and for smaller firms it can be difficult to find a firm that truly understands SEO and truly values quality (I work as a content strategist for such a firm).

"Content strategist" is also kind of a trendy term. You could also call yourself an "online marketing copywriter" or "inbound marketing specialist".

Fundamentally, writing is labour-intensive, and is not scalable. There's also a low barrier to entry - anyone can do it. The best thing to do is to master a number of online marketing "practices", and manage a team.

The basics of content strategy would be understanding what's happening in the world of Google. The real advantage online marketing has versus traditional tactics is that the ROI is measurable, and metrics are typically defined by how well the client website performs in Google Search (there's a whole different realm of practices for paid Search that are intimately connected with organic search).

There's also things like how to use social media to drive traffic to the site; how to create valuable content that people want to read (so-called "inbound marketing"), how to create calls to action, and how to optimize a page for conversion.

There's also keyword research to think about, linkbuilding (we've given up on directory listings and article marketing, and are focusing more on PR to get those juicy links), and stuff like that.

But fundamentally, as I've said, it's all about providing measurable results.

I don't quite know how to break into the market - I got lucky, and managed to sign up with a company poised for growth, and I learn on the job.

Also, not a lot of marketing companies really understand content or SEO - if you're going to be a content strategist, you might as well work for the best.

My advice is to find somebody you want to work with. Look for a small agency that values quality. It's going to take a while, I would say. The best way to start out is to see if an agency needs any help writing content for their clients. Content can include web copy, blog posts, landing pages, and white papers.

Don't stick to your geographic area. Do some research, pick up the phone, and talk to people. If you do this, I can guarantee you will find work. But it will take time.

Feel free to MeMail me for more info.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:09 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think your idea of going around and offering content to small businesses is a reasonable one, but even more reasonable would be to get paid for somewhat more general web strategy services that don't involve programming or design. Set a modest hourly rate, and define a very short list of tasks you can easily do to improve a mom & pop shop's web presence:
  • Review their information architecture and plan a better way to present it
  • Follow Google's recommendations in their SEO starter guide as you revise the site
  • Migrate their salvageable content into a hosted/SaaS CMS service so that neither you nor they have to mess with software installation and maintenance
  • I would recommend DrupalGardens, because it supports so many, many customizations while still generally sheltering you from technical work
  • Develop new content that fits their needs
  • If you know a photographer or graphic designer, you might consider offering their services as part of your package as well
  • Set up Google Apps for the client's domain so that they can eventually manage accounts for analytics, calendars, Youtube, etc. from one place
  • Set up Google Analytics for them and use what you learn from Google Conversion University to help figure out how to improve their traffic pattern
  • Pick a very short list of other SaaS services to specialize in (one CRM you like that integrates with their Google Apps domain, one e-commerce solution you like that integrates with DrupalGardens, etc.) and set them up as needed
  • Do whatever is appropriate for Google Places for Business these days
  • Set up their Facebook page
That's a full package of services you can master with maybe two weeks of study and experimentation. The key really is to specialize and offer just one good set of solutions you believe in and know well enough to sell others on it. Specializing in a type of business you offer your services to also makes sense (therapists? doctors? not necessarily a group you can connect to already, though it would help). Consider this list of questions to be sure you understand your clients and the project you've agreed to. And set up a way to invoice them for your work every month.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:54 PM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Most people working at digital agencies, including the people who hire content strategists, wouldn't admit that they aren't entirely confident they know what a content strategist does. (I know this, in particular, because the content strategist at the digital agency where i work is constantly being asked to do copy writing, even though she has no copy writing experience. Although the person she replaced started as a copy writer, and did a lot of that. And the content strategist at my last agency started as technical writer, and then an information architect, and then became a content strategist.) What i'm trying to say is this: it's a confusing role that people don't entirely understand, even when they work directly alongside one.

And my advice to you this: use that confusion to your advantage. Look for job descriptions for content strategists, but also for usablity experts or information architects, or for copy writers, and apply for them. And mould your experience to the role when you apply, and highlight your interest in content strategy as a way you can add value to that content-strategy-adjacent role. And then even if that role doesn't have Content Strategist as the title, you'll do it for a couple of years, and so then you'll have content strategy experience, and can apply directly for those roles.

(A lot of these jobs are fuzzy and have sideway angles into them. I'm a digital strategist who started as researcher then a 'consumer insight specialist' then a strategist. My coworker started as an information architect and applied lots of strategic thinking and became a strategist. My other coworker was an account manager who did lots of strategic planning and became a strategist. Be like us. Edge in sideways!)
posted by Kololo at 9:59 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Most people working at digital agencies, including the people who hire content strategists, wouldn't admit that they aren't entirely confident they know what a content strategist does.

God, this is so true.

My recommendation is to focus on agencies that specialize in the online marketing side, rather than design and web development. Both have a lot of overhead, and web development can be very complicated, so agencies tend to spend a lot of time thinking about it, and neglect the content side.

If you try to identify agencies that just focus on inbound marketing, content, and lead generation (maybe they partner with creatives and web devs on projects) you may be happier.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:38 PM on October 8, 2011

I just stumbled across this question a tad late, but am compelled to share my answer for a couple of reasons - one, a project I was commissioned to do in 2006 blossomed into being paid a retainer to manage content strategy for the new site until a certain amount of traffic was achieved and it was only after the fact that I came to realize the whole project was all about content driven marketing and awareness strategy and two, in today's world I don't know if not being interested in blogging/twitter et al allows for a comprehensive understanding of how content strategy can work in a dynamic environment.

If the goal is to increase readership and traffic to a site, one of the best ways to gain experience in that is to create one's own or (as I lucked into) have an opportunity to do so where each tweak and change allows one to see the changes in traffic - type, quality and clickthroughs - over a period of time.

Imho, I recommend starting a simple site - even if you choose not to blog, blogging applications allow for a wide variety of free ways to tweak and manage content as well track it. Test your work - as you learn it and follow much of valuable advice given here - against a topic area or niche subject matter you have chosen - it could be as simple as Tumblr (I recently tested a subject area where traffic - not including spam - grew from zero in Jan to Dec by over 2000 followers and an invitation in Nov to be listed in Tumblr's curated topic section by simply organic means like content/tagging alone, no publicity to the url)

This will also provide you with a relevant sample for your portfolio that can be pointed to - if I were to ever require to demonstrate my content strategy skills, I have the traffic data from the Feb to Oct 2006 project where I was able to take visibility from 100,000 unique visitors a month to over a million with a relevant increase in revenue.

Ultimately, those small firms to whom you offer your services require relevant and appropriate traffic to their sites and keeping track from teh beginning will provide value in the long run to both you and your clients.
posted by infini at 2:01 AM on December 12, 2011

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