To become a content strategist, there are several skills to master beyond content creation. Content strategists must be adept when it comes to tasks such as organization, multi-tasking, analyzing and interpreting data, and solid writing skills. However, the best content strategists also have solid interpersonal skills… and a few superpowers.
In a world saturated by digital everything, it’s safe to say we’ve all become content creators. We snap, we post, we go live. The future where more people will post stories to Instagram and Facebook than will read them online or in print is, well, near.
“Content” used to fall into more predictable buckets making it easier to strategize around, but in a world fueled by social media, plotting content strategy is anything but an evergreen art form best left to the spread-sheet loving suits in account management.
Yes, the content strategy roadmap is paved with more directions than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. But in a fluid situation that morphs in complexity by the day (sometimes with a dog-year effect), we have to ask: How has the role of content strategist changed and who’s best to fill these shoes? After all, what qualifies content as a “success” can be hard to define… and predict. Especially at a time when the reactions to what brands put out there can itself be called content. The memes. The retweets. The things of trolls. Try strategizing what’s completely outside of your control and I’ll introduce you to an exercise in abject futility.
Marketing and communications are poised for new superheroes to emerge in the ever-changing world of content strategy:
- Who’s best equipped to help these products, clients and brands land with impact, in unforeseen ways?
- Do they come from media and marketing as presumed?
- Or could they hail from other creative fields and/or possibly even industries you wouldn’t expect?
All good questions. And exactly why we picked you to read this story.
There’s an argument to be made that these people should come from the creative side of the business versus the account side. The writers, the editors, the producers. The people who understand design, UX, how to create and have digital savvy to boot.
In a world where bulls**t meters are at an all-time high, attention is more divided than ever, while patience and tolerance for things not of interest are at an all-time low. So it takes an experienced litmus to understand what consumers want to see; what they gravitate to; and what draws them in to lead the charge around how content gets created, deployed and promoted. The more seasoned and savvy this new content strategist is at knowing what audiences respond to, the better chance they’ll avoid the mistakes others make.
Authentic interaction, transparency and social impact are being demanded like never before in the content game. Not just by millennials and the early comers of Gen Z, but by the bottom lines of big brands searching for meaning in an ever-crowded media landscape, as they constantly jockey for attention during “feeding time.” (Note: That’s what I call it when people scroll through their social feeds gravitating to the *brightest* messages like moths to flames.)
So, who’s best positioned to answer the call of the new content strategist?
And what superpowers will they need to succeed?
Here are six content strategist skills you need to flex your superpowers:
1. Understanding what makes content GREAT*
(Note: I’m fully aware “great” is a subjective word, but for the purposes of this argument, I’m defining it by content that has impactfully moved a brand forward, went viral and/or lead to spikes in sales, strong social buzz and meaningful engagement. Three holy grails.)
Crushing the content strategy game isn’t just about assembling the right stakeholders in a room with a whiteboard and a marker to elicit great ideas. I mean that’s always an option, but it helps to know the greatest hits in the content world and to possess the ability to see content through the eyes of the audience that will consume it. This requires not just being a student and possessing a strong litmus over what’s worked well in the past, but to also understand that what resonated yesterday may not resonate tomorrow. In fact, it probably has less of a chance of performing by virtue of the fact that something similar’s been done.
Another key trait is understanding the moment. The culture. The political atmosphere. And what has the best chance at working… now. Take Wieden + Kennedy’s push for Nike to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of its 30-year anniversary campaign. It took a bit of balls to risk alienating a decent chunk of the country by using the former NFL quarterback as the centerpiece of this campaign. As a result, they inspired boycotts throughout the social media world and the real one. But they also showed the power of taking a stance. A strong content strategy play that lead to online sales shooting up for Nike 31% in the week after campaign dropped.
Whether you’re a fan of the campaign or not, you have to marvel at the chutzpah it took to execute it and understand why this emotionally charged moment in our society presented an opportunity to do something meaningful, despite alienating the NFL and some of its fans. This move was from a new playbook and much different than the time Nationwide insurance scared the hell out of America during Super Bowl 49 showing a kid talking about his imminent death. A content strategy that, well, backfired.
2. Storytelling with laser-sharp understanding
If there’s anything that the cultural impact of the aforementioned Nike campaign taught us, it’s that the legion of people taking in content in 2019 don’t want to be sold to, they want to be told to. With meaning. In video form. Tomorrow’s content strategists understand this and will sacrifice nothing in search for the best idea to earn the country and world’s attention. To do this, it couldn’t hurt to be well-versed in how to tell a great story. (Are you listening, freelance writers?) What will make it stand out, to be embraced? What won’t feel like an outright ad that nobody wants to see, or worse, could blow up in their faces? (See Nationwide.)
The more storytelling chops you have, the better off you’ll be. If you can walk the walk creatively and understand the nuances of how to tell a brand and/or product’s story intelligently, you’re ahead of the game as a content strategist. A couple of my favorite content pieces of all-time are this New York Times branded piece for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and this Human Limits episode about Wim Hof for Uproxx, which I wrote the accompanying article for. Both tell stories that are about things that could help improve humanity — without being overt ads. Great content strategy plays that involve not just producing content, but having a deep understanding about what could resonate at the time and pay off attention with fascinating or amazing stories.
3. Possessing great digital/social media savvy
You’ve all heard the saying, If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, there’s an argument to be made that in the era of social media, they don’t.
Content strategy often begins and ends with what works across social media channels. I only mention it because if you know how to make great content, but don’t have a savvy way to promote it, there are some who would ask, why even bother?
I am one of those people.
Other than knowing how to establish social goals, understanding how to tailor content specifically for each platform and staying accountable by tracking/measuring what’s working (reach, sentiment, organic vs. paid likes, etc.), any content strategist worth their weight in Internet gold will bake in social as a crucial component to the content strategy to spur on engagement.
But who’s best qualified candidate to do that? Someone who stares at spreadsheets all day with a B.A. in marketing? Or a creative, who’s actually concepted and/or curated social media campaigns for brands with proven results? Chances are it’s the latter, no offense to the former. Meaning? The next big wave of content strategists might just be social media managers or even influencers in their former lives. It could feasibly happen if/when the influencer gold rush dies down and people need to find honest work.
4. Developing big picture X-ray vision
In a world where people tend to specialize, it takes skill to know how to be a generalist as well; one who can see straight through a problem and solve it from all sides. It’s a quality that not all have, but would behoove you to work on if you want to thrive at what has become of content strategy in the year 2018 (and beyond). Working together collaboratively, in a consensus-building nature is a skill set that producers have adopted to thrive in an increasingly entrepreneur-friendly world. So freelancers should master that.
There are only wins when you can understand how to tackle a problem from all sides: creatively, strategically, philosophically. Sure, you can be a dictator. But that’s a recipe for disaster. And a short-term gig.
If you’re a writer, or editor, or producer looking to sharpen their content strategy skills, understand that adopting a holistic viewpoint and seeing things from all perspectives is where you will thrive. Having the passion, compassion and empathy to see and feel things from the multitude of perspectives can lift a project from good to brilliant — if not save it. Don’t agree? Where were the compassionate content strategists when Kendall Jenner decided that Pepsi could cure our country’s racial divide with soda?
5. Tackling large problems in a single brainstorm
Throughout the course of any ideation or brainstorm, there are bound to be moments when ideas either gain steam or fizzle out. As a content strategist, it’s your job to keep things positive, on point and to be an idea fluffer skilled at keeping things at peek stimulation before the energy/enthusiasm in the room drifts to last night’s episode of Walking Dead, effectively killing your meeting.
It’s quite possible that as a content creator, you’re way more comfortable as an occasional contributor to that conversation, versus being the leader of it. And that’s okay because every key stakeholder has a role in the success of a campaign. But if you want to morph your skills into that of a top-notch content strategist, you’ll need to know how to stand in front of a whiteboard and small-to-large group of people and elevate good ideas above the mediocre ones, staying on point by addressing challenges brought up in real-time while bringing it back to the creative brief… or whatever this meeting’s raison d’être was in the first place.
Additionally, so much of what gets created and executed upon right now is driven by data and analytics, so you’ll also want to develop a keen understanding of how to digest data, interpret it and set realistic goal posts in place in order to define/determine:
1) What’s working
2) What’s not, and…
3) How to pivot accordingly.
The days of throwing a bunch of s**t against a wall to see what sticks has died a slow, gruesome death.
A quick moment to bow our heads.
6. Being unafraid to challenge status quo
When it comes to ultimately building your content roadmap, it will be tempting to get caught up with “popular” decision-making and travel a familiar road of what’s succeeded in the past. But, the best content strategists are wary of rehashing what’s been done. Your job will be to challenge any norms and to be unafraid to define a new approach — all the while recognizing that sometimes the things that take off the fastest are the things that feel the freshest to the millions of people who opt to consume it.
Oftentimes, there’s not a blueprint for what this is. People’s minds have a way of playing it safe if there’s a successful case study to point to because it’s easier to sell through. At times, that might be okay. But it’s the people who get uber-pumped to craft new creative approaches (writers, editors, producers) and ultimately turn them into phenomenal executions that command the most respect. The degree of difficulty behind thousands of Kobe Bryant jump shots over a career never qualified as “good shots” in the conventional sense of the basketball word. But without him having taken them, we would’ve never been privy to shots like these.
The best content strategists take difficult shots. So if you’re ever in the position to delegate these tasks, encourage your team to do the same. Chances are if you come from a creative background versus a non-creative one, you’ll start off in a more deferential place because your teams know you’ve been there before. Steer the conversation, but don’t dictate it. And always advocate the good ideas of others. If your whole agenda is to push through your own ideas, you could lose all credibility in the room. And fast.
The more encouragement and support you give the team to be who they are in the pursuit of creating great content, the better off everyone will be.
Now, go be the superhero.
If you’re interested in content strategist skills, you might also like these posts:
- Content Strategy Services: Are They Worth the Cost?
- The Content Strategy Terms You Need to Know
- How to Develop a Content Strategy: 25 Questions to Ask First