My first six months in marketing as a content strategist

I joined a marketing team for the first time around six months ago. I trained as a journalist and have worked for government agencies ever since - the civil service, local government and the health service.

I had some misconceptions about what working in marketing would be like. This is my (highly subjective) take on what I’ve learnt about marketing and where I think content strategists and marketers can help one another.

A note about content strategy

I’m using the term ‘content strategist’ rather loosely here. I’ve been hired as an editor and most of my work is about planning rather than out-and-out strategy. But I’m a content strategist at heart, and my values have been heavily shaped by the content strategy community.

When I say ‘content strategists’ here, I mean anyone who worships at the Church of Halvorson, regardless of their job title.

What I thought marketing was

I used to think marketing was about:

  • presenting products and services in the best possible light
  • creating taglines and hooks
  • in-house creatives writing copy
  • style over substance.

I associated marketing with the tangible outputs I saw and had a poor understanding of all the work marketers do behind the scenes. I’m sure that sounds familiar to anyone working with content (which is another poorly-understood discipline).

What marketing really is

I’ve learnt a lot about the work marketers do in my first six months. My department is made up of:

  • a research and analytics team
  • strategists and people who develop customer value propositions
  • project managers
  • customer relationship managers who plan direct communications
  • marketing communications executives who deliver each campaign
  • print and fulfillment staff
  • people responsible for processes and implementation of new products
  • a digital marketing team that handles web content, social media, pay-per-click, affiliate marketing, online media and email marketing
  • product managers with a close link to product teams and subject matter experts
  • a sponsorship team
  • a partnership team that manages relationships with third parties we work with.
  • B2B marketers.

There are probably more people and roles that I’m not aware of yet – I’m still learning.

Perhaps the biggest difference between my perception and reality was how much the marketing team guides what the business does. It’s clear that the services the company offers and strategic direction it takes are heavily shaped by the marketers’ reading of current market conditions. Marketers are far more than  salespeople or spin doctors.

One other surprise for me was that most of the creative execution – the copy, taglines and look and feel – for campaigns is created by agencies under the guidance of the marcomms team. My image of marketing staff banging out copy at their desk has proved wide of the mark.

In my limited experience, the marketer’s role is about steering the ship, cajoling and shepherding, watching the horizon and analysing performance.

What content strategists can learn from marketing

Marketers know the need to deeply understand the landscape they operate in, identify their target audience and develop propositions that will resonate.

In my experience there’s good and bad practice when it comes to research and analysis in content work. It’s common for content to be planned, written and published without ever validating assumptions about the target audience, their interests and capabilities.

Anyone working with content could learn from marketers’ rigour in understanding the market they’re trying to reach.

Measuring and analysing results is second nature for marketers, and content professionals can lag behind. Again, good practice is certainly out there but my experience is that setting clear goals, measuring performance and iterating accordingly is still done patchily on the web.

None of this will be new to a good content strategy advocate. My only point is that research, measurement and analysis are not yet core parts of most organisations’ content initiatives.

What marketers can learn from content strategy

Marketers tend to live from one campaign to the next, and that worked fine with traditional media. With their growing interest in social media and content marketing, the cracks are starting to show.

I think content strategists can help to bring a longer-term view of what it takes to create and maintain great content,  communicate consistently and help teams collaborate.

Content strategists can help marketers develop workflows that give content the time and attention it deserves from the right people – not treat it as an afterthought.

We can establish governance that means content is cared for and consistent across channels, from campaign to campaign, and aligns with the rest of the business.

Content strategists can bring editorial guidance. We know a good story and we know how to tell it. Marketers excel at knowing their market – we can help them turn that expertise into appropriate, useful content that engages their audience.

Finally, we can advise marketers on what’s new in the world of content. That doesn’t mean enthusiastically jumping on the latest new thing; sometimes we serve our colleagues best by introducing a note of caution. Your plumbing supplies company is probably not the next Buzzfeed…


Marketers go where the people are, and the people are online. Content marketing and social media are firmly in their sights but the way many marketers approach web content has caused some teeth-grinding in the content strategy community.

If you’re a content strategist it’s time to accept that marketing isn’t going to go away. It’s increasingly going to share a space with us. Marketers are trying to reach a pre-determined audience with a specific message and encourage them to take an action. That’s not so different from how any communications professional works.

Here’s how I see it. Content strategists can tut about how marketers don’t understand ‘our’ patch, or we can work with them to create great content that will delight their users, meet their business goals and be sustainable over time with the resources they have. In turn, content professionals can learn from marketers’ expert knowledge of their audience and products.  Sound good to you too?

How to measure digital work

Summary: Many organisations don’t know how to measure the work of their digital staff, but we can shape how our roles are seen and incentivised.

The genesis for this post came from a quote from
Karen McGrane’s brilliant plenary at IA Summit 2013.

I guarantee you, right now, for most of your organization, one of the key roots for the problem is that you have incentive systems, you have reward systems, that are set up to encourage people to not create great products and services.

That rings true for me. When I was looking for a new job earlier this year I had an interview with an international bank for a content editor role. I had planned to ask how they would measure whether my work was creating great experience for their users, but I stopped myself. From the way the hiring manager spoke about the role I could tell user experience wasn’t even on her radar.

The rest of this post makes a few assumptions – I’m talking mainly about people at the content coalface in large organisations where the digital presence is not the product the organisation was built around. That’s most organisations!

This is a hard problem

I realise how hard this is to get right. How do you isolate the impact of one person’s work within a large organisation and its online presence?

Digital work is a team effort, and even the best team operates in circumstances outside their control. Politics, the economy, and industry competition can all have an impact on your content’s performance .

If it’s true that organisations have a problem creating the right incentives for their digital workers, what could we do to fix it?

What most organisations value

When I think back on how my performance has been measured in the past, I was able to get by so long as I was:

  • meeting deadlines
  • showing initiative
  • helping out
  • not making egregious errors.

Those things are important, but they’re hardly a rallying cry for great work.

Why are most organisations bad at measuring digital work?

Every organisation is different, but it’s possible to observe trends for why large organisations have trouble measuring and incentivise their staff.

Deadlines and numbers are easy to measure. Digital work has plenty of tangible outputs that are easy to measure. Did the new site launch on time? How many blog posts have you written this month? How many Twitter followers do we have?

Alone, none of these metrics tell us much about whether our work is meeting users’ needs and our business goals, but they’re easily measurable.

Organisations don’t understand digital. Not all of them, of course. But the digital revolution has forced organisations into a space that is new (for everyone) and different from anything they’ve had to deal with before. Many organisations don’t know how what they should be getting from their digital teams, so they don’t know how to measure success. More on that later.

The digital team is measured the same way as everyone else. Large organisations often use a heavily scripted and templated system when appraising their staff’s work – think performance reviews and personal development plans.  A standardised approach forces managers to measure their staff against rigid criteria that don’t suit digital work.

Your boss’s bonus doesn’t depend on a great user experience. This is another Karen McGrane nugget. Even if your boss understands digital, they may report to someone who wants numbers and ticked boxes. Your incentives will almost certainly be influenced by your manager’s incentives.

Start to shift the discussion

Know what you’re being hired to do. As a digital worker it’s in your interest that your work is measured and incentivised properly. The only way that’s going to happen is if you and your managers understand what you’re there to do.

It starts with your own understanding of your role. There really is no substitute for reading and listening widely to people who do the same kind of work, or the kind of work you aspire to do. When you find yourself writing a blog post about incentives at 11.30pm on a Friday night (hi!) you’ll know you’re on the right track. Either that or you’ve gone over to the dark side.

It’s part of your job to help your manager (and everyone else you work with) understand what you’re there to do.

Question what you’re being asked to do. Is it in the best interests of your employers? To answer that question you have to have a down-cold understanding of how your work helps users meet their goals. The two are linked! Who would have thought?

You were hired for your expertise. You won’t always know best, but don’t be afraid to push back if you’re being asked to do something that isn’t in the organisation’s best interests.

Read Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro. It’s probably the best education you could get in how to handle yourself as a design professional (and hey, content strategists are designers in my book. And Mike’s).

Manage your manager. Sometimes even the people who hired you don’t have a good idea of what to expect from you. There’s a good chance that you have a better, more nuanced understanding of your specialism than your manager does.

Be respectful, be willing to take on board their point of view, but don’t be passive. Clearly set out where you see yourself adding the most value and using your skills and experience most effectively. A good manager knows that fulfilled staff do better work.

Even if your manager is a poor developer of talent you can help them start to shift their understanding of your role. You won’t always be successful, but you owe it to yourself to try.

Don’t be put of if you don’t get tangible benefits straight away. If you get in the habit of tying your work to the benefits it has for users and the organisation you’ll do better work, be more satisfied and get more respect. That will stand you in good stead later, even if it doesn’t help now.

Fight for the right incentives. In some organisations, appraisals are an exercise in box-ticking. Often they’re one more paperwork-heavy task on your manager’s plate. You may even help them by taking an active role in framing how your work can be measured.

You are more powerful than you think. Confidently assert how you see your role and how it should be measured. A good manager will at least give you a fair hearing.

Build great case studies. If you feel your work isn’t being measured and incentivised properly, try setting up a small project of your own and use its success to show the benefit of working differently.

For example, internal content can be a great sandbox for trying out a new tone of voice, editorial workflow or audit schedule. Small wins build momentum for bolder changes.

Keep a log of the work you do to build a better user experience. Attach a pound/dollar amount to the work you’ve done to save money or bring more in. Which shouldn’t be difficult because you know that any content work should be in direct service of a tangible goal. Even in non-profits, your time and that of your colleagues comes at a cost that can be tracked and measured.

Your manger’s blinkered view of your role could be down to a lack of understanding, but it’s hard to argue with tangible success stories.

Better incentives for digital workers

So far I’ve talked a lot of smack about organisations setting the wrong incentives for their digital workers. So how do you set the right ones?

Now that you and your manager understand what your role is, it’s time to agree how to measure your effectiveness.

Identify the pain points. Is your organisation lacking a consistent voice and messaging across channels? Show how that’s hurting the business, set up a style guide, carry out a qualitative audit and show how your revised content performs better against those pre-defined goals you’ve been so careful to set up. (For the love of god, know what your content is there to achieve.)

Make sure that you can identify problem areas, agree a strategy, execute on it, measure the result and explain the impact of your work.

Meet your users. This is the key to setting incentives for you to meet your users’ needs. I’d like to see every digital worker sit in on usability testing with real users and identify problems they could help to fix.

Measure the whole of your job. Great content is just the final link in the chain. What do you need to do to get there? This is the number one blind spot organisations have about their content workers.

Make sure the work you do engaging with your colleagues and users, identifying pain points, making plans and measuring your work is as much a part of your performance goals as the content you produce.

Iterate. Treat your professional development like you’d treat the content you work on. Set targets, try to execute on them, take stock and re-evaluate. You probably won’t nail it straight away.

Measuring your effectiveness shouldn’t be a punitive process. If you tried something and it didn’t work, show what you learned from the failure and how you’ll use that knowledge to take a more educated stab at it next time. Everyone gets things wrong – it’s how you respond that counts.

Recognise that there are always negative incentives. It’s common for pay and bonuses to be tied to performance. Even with the best metrics, that creates an incentive for you to downplay your weaknesses and talk up your strengths. Which is not the most productive situation to find yourself in if your goal is genuine professional development.

I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer to this one. I wouldn’t criticise you for arguing for the best possible rating in your annual review if your salary increase depends on it. But just be aware of the dynamics at play.

We need to explain why plain language is important

Summary: Content strategy means radical change. We risk losing users’ trust if we don’t explain our reasons for doing things differently.

Writers love plain language.

Actually, let me modify that: writers whose aim is to communicate a message clearly love plain language. There are other kinds of writing that are closer to art than pure communication, but let’s set them aside for now.

For most of us working online, writing in the simplest possible form that conveys the information we’re trying to get across is almost a default, a given.

The plain language problem?

Hold on though. We can’t ignore the years – the generations – where plain language has been anything but normal in the public sphere.

The Government Digital Service has been doing great work to improve and simplify government communication. GDS’s head of content design, Sarah Richards, posted this on Twitter recently:

Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to communicate online. To paraphrase Sarah, we do the hard work to make it simple for our users.

That’s well and good and right, but it can lead to a problem. It’s a problem that’s common to a lot of disciplines. We jump straight into a solution and don’t spend time explaining the reasons for it.

Kind of ironic if you’re a content strategist who spends their days telling organisations not to do just that.

Overcoming a lifetime of bad communication

As we grow up we gather a sense of what officialdom sounds like. It’s not pretty. It’s jumbled and it’s over-complicated. It’s stupid in the name of trying to sound clever.

Most people never question it. They internalise it. That doesn’t make us better than those people – they just have different priorities. It’s not their job to care about this stuff, let alone change it.

Well-meaning organisations try to hitch a ride on this broken wagon, aping the language that other ‘authoritative’ organisations use. Which leads to this kind of thing.

…I carefully remove jargon from a client’s copy, and I get a note: “It doesn’t sound professional anymore.” – Diary of a Content Strategist

Do the right thing, but explain why

For people who don’t work as writers, editors or content strategists, simple language can be jarring when it appears in unexpected places.

Sarah’s question is a useful reminder that unless we’re transparent about the reasons for doing things differently we could lose users’ trust, even as we try to act in their best interests.

Editorially’s blog post about their simple terms of service is a good example. They’re preaching to the converted, maybe, but it’s a start.

One day this kind of thing will be the norm. It’s on us to make it a smooth transition.

I’ve used plain language as an example here to make a bigger point. Content strategy is revolutionary. We can lose sight of that fact but it’s worth remembering.

The work we’re doing involves radical shifts in methods and mentality compared to what has gone before. It’s good work and it has to be done, but it only works when we bring users and colleagues along for the ride.

Let’s never stop explaining why.

Why you shouldn’t dictate to your web team

Summary: A skilled web professional does more than turn requests into pixels, but it’s our responsibility to help clients understand the value we can add.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently. One of my favourite series is Let’s Make Mistakes, hosted by Mike Monteiro and Leah Reich. They talk a lot about web design in the widest sense: listening to a client expressing a need and creating a product that fulfils that need.

The podcast has prompted me to write about something that I see a lot of and that I find troubling.

Often a client will approach a web team with a solution rather than a problem.

Thinking through a problem and proposing solutions is something we’re encouraged to do in the workplace to ease the burden on our colleagues. But developing a website is not a simple task, and the right approach is not something anyone can know up front.

One of the most important parts of a designer or content strategist’s job is to guide the client in the best direction for their organisation and users, after carefully considering the situation and asking a lot of questions.

Expecting web professionals to carry out a detailed brief to the letter is dated, at best. We have more to offer than our tools.

Why it happens

Why does this misunderstanding of our roles keep happening? I think there is responsibility on both sides.

Clients may think, “I can write, and I know what looks good, so I know just what is needed. How hard can it be?”.

They are likely to be under pressure to get the job done, and may feel out of their depth and try to cover up by micro-managing. Maybe they worry about the team’s ability to do a good job, or they simply underestimate what goes into developing websites.

As web designers – and I include content specialists –  we have a responsibility to help clients understand our processes and the reasons behind our decisions. We have to help them see why one solution is better than another.

In other words, we have to sell our work. It is as much a part of the job as the more tangible elements like writing copy or creating an interface.

If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job. It’s hard to blame clients for being too prescriptive if we don’t act as counsellors as well as doers.

In some cases, micromanaging happens because we let it happen. Equally, if you’re on the client side it’s important to recognise the value that web professionals can add to your project. Don’t treat them like pixel monkeys. Trust them, respect them, and let them add the value they’re being paid to add.

The perils of designing with real content

Summary: In my clamour to get real content into design mockups I accidentally derailed the design process. Words are powerful – that’s why they may have to take  a back seat when the focus has to be on design.

I sat down all jazzed to write about using loreum ipsum in design mockups and Karen McGrane beat me to it. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

In response to anti-ipsum sentiment, she wrote:

How about this: build in appropriate intersections and checkpoints between design and content. Accept that it’s sometimes okay to focus just on the content or just on the design.

I’ve been on the sharp end of this issue – that is, whether it’s OK to use fake text when showing clients early drafts of your development work.

I’ve been to a few content strategy events where speakers have evangelised using real content from an early stage of the development process. It’s easy to get behind this argument. You’re building something around the content, right?

The days of developers making blank containers for us to come along later and drop content into are slowly dying out. So why would you use stupid text that doesn’t mean anything when showing your work to a client?

My bad experience with real content

I found out why about a month ago when a front end developer and I showed clients a mockup of a landing page we had worked on together. Throughout the project we had used informal working titles to refer to each section of content: the flowcharts, the chunks, the search. We were talking about what each bit of content was, not what it was for.

That’s fine if it stays in-house, but I wanted to be sure users had meaningful, useful labels and descriptions to help them navigate.  So – with the developer’s agreement – I wrote really solid navigation text. I did keyword research to find out what terms people favoured and looked at similar sites to see how they handled the same problems.

Doing it this way meant close collaboration with the developer. We agreed there were four main sections, with some need for an introduction and some extra links in a side panel. Writing my copy short enough to fit in the four main panels was a challenge, but at the end I was happy with the result.

When everything was finished and looking good we had a conference call with the project sponsors to see what they thought. My front end developer colleague wanted to hear what they thought of the colour, the prioritisation of information, the overall layout. In other words, the visual design. I wanted to know if they had any notes about the wording.

The call did not go well. We spent almost no time talking about any of the design elements and almost all of it listening to the clients’ concerns about some words they didn’t like. It was useful for me, but the developer was no further forward with his designs.

In hindsight I think we did the right things with good intentions. We were right to design around the content, and I was right to scrap the working titles and describe every section in useful terms.

But we slipped up by presenting two major new pieces of work together. The clients honed in on the wording they hated and the design discussion didn’t happen. What we should have done was design around the content and write the new descriptions, but switch them for lorem ipsum before getting the clients’ signoff on the design elements. The arguments about wording could have come next.

I think that would be the right order, because the names I had chosen were tightly constrained by the available space. There was no point in me agreeing great wording with the clients only to find it was hopelessly long and wouldn’t fit in any kind of useful design.

Words are powerful

Karen McGrane nails it with this observation:

Lorem Ipsum doesn’t exist because people think the content is meaningless window dressing, only there to be decorated by designers who can’t be bothered to read. Lorem Ipsum exists because words are powerful. If you fill up your page with draft copy about your client’s business, they will read it. They will comment on it. They will be inexorably drawn to it. Presented the wrong way, draft copy can send your design review off the rails.

That’s the hole I fell down.

In the rush to get content taken seriously enough, early enough, we sometimes risk underplaying the role of our development colleagues. We don’t like being told that the content is not that important or not worthy of analysis on its own. What designers and developers do is important and we should afford them the same courtesy.

My colleague needed the clients’ feedback, and the best way to get it at that stage would have been for my content to take a back seat. It’s about showing the right information at the right time. As content strategists that’s something we should be good at.