What I mean by that is -- I've had this post in my head for a long time, but I couldn't think of a way to write it without alienating a lot of people. I might still alienate a few here, but I think I found a productive way to say what I've been thinking about for a while now -- that there are some problems with the "content strategist" title, and it can lead to problems for companies and content marketers alike.
What's between "content creator" and "director"?
That's what's at the heart of this "content strategist" rant for me. Content marketing, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty new. We haven't figured out clear career paths yet. There's no agreed-upon growth pattern for people in the field. All we know is that, at the most basic level, you gotta have someone writing.
And that's what we've done. A lot of companies have hired writers to create content for them. But what happens when a few years down the road they've grown their skills beyond just writing, and into marketing?
In this new industry of ours, it's not all that clear. I mean, they're not just churning out content, nor are they ready for a higher-level management position. So what do we do? A lot of companies have wisely created this title of the "content strategist."
But what do you actually do?
Because there's very little frame of reference to draw from for this new role, some people -- new content strategists and their bosses alike -- have taken this to mean a whole lot of strategy, and nothing else. I've interviewed a lot of content strategists that haven't picked up the proverbial pen in a year or more. When asked what they'd like out of a content strategist role, it centers a lot on "white boarding," "ideation sessions," and "creative meetings."
The thing is, there isn't a dearth of ideas with professional content marketers. Most content marketers also understand the larger company goals and how content can be used strategically to help achieve those goals. They're also typically self-educating, quick-moving, and very much on top of industry trends.
In short: Great content marketers are naturally strategic people. Great content marketers want to create great content, not sit in a room and ... strategize.
But wait, you work with content strategists.
That's right, I do! My LinkedIn profile even sports the title "content strategist." I'm not ranting against the existence of content strategists. I'm ranting against a perception of the job that could start to taint the title. Or, more dangerously for businesses just dipping their toe in the digital waters, the fact that content marketing's still a new industry in the grand scheme of things -- which means people are defining the job in the terms that they like because there's no yardstick against which to measure the job description.
Additionally, in the larger corporate marketplace, "strategy" can often imply that you've worked your way up a corporate food chain to the point that you're too important to do real work. You're a creative genius, so smart that you're paid just to pontificate. Your genius can't be wasted on execution! Call in the minions to execute my vision!
To that end, sporting the strategist title is like a badge of honor. And it should be. You should be proud that you have enough experience and context to draw from to know how to form a smart strategy about something -- in this case, content. But the content marketing field simply doesn't need someone to sit around and strategize all the time. It needs people who are inherently strategic and carry that strategic frame-of-mind with them while they create things. Content marketing changes too fast to be able to rest on your strategic laurels, anyway -- if you don't stay in the game, practicing and creating all the time, the information off of which you base your strategy will be moot in a couple years.
The best content strategists I've seen -- "best" being defined as the value they drive for their organization based on revenue-driving metrics -- do not sit around and strategize all day. They do actual work. Like, all the time. They write and design and lay out and research and interview and, yes, they also strategize sometimes.
So it's not that we don't need content strategists in the content marketing world. It's that we don't need content strategists that lean on the strategy part more than then content part. The best content strategists I know are the ones that aren't just churning out content, nor are they just strategizing -- they do both, at the same time, all the time.
If you're hiring a content strategist for your company, be cautious of the white boarding and ideating content strategists out there. Look for the candidates that want to do real work, and be strategic while doing it.
Originally published Aug 18, 2014 6:00:00 AM, updated August 27 2017