Content Strategy Expert

I belong to an interesting, developing field, and I'm trying to define where I fit into it. I thought it might be interesting to write about how I got here, and to think about where I'm going in my career.

I'd always thought (in college and grad school) that I was on my way to becoming an academic. And while I still teach a couple of online writing classes at the local community college because I enjoy the work, academia is no longer where I locate myself. I am definitely neck-deep in content strategy and user experience.

In spite of finding success in this career and feeling confident that I'm as good as anyone at what I do, I don't feel like I have as much "expertise" in the area as I do as an English instructor. The discipline is so new that there isn't a book or an association or a field of study in the same way. I do not doubt that I could go to any business that is putting content on the web (or thinking of putting content on the web) and make it better. I have less to say, though, about the discipline, and I wish I had more. I've read a handful of books about content strategy, and I find that they tend to be general and lack the kind of substance that I'm longing to express, and I am trying to figure out why. What is it about this discipline that is so difficult to conceptualize?

When I began my career as a professional writer, I was in print. And print was dying. The magazine that I worked for had seen declining subscriptions for several years. The position was low-paying, part-time, and afforded no benefits. I had a Master's degree and the student loans to show for it, but I was thrilled to be writing for a living.

It was in this first gig that I got my first taste of writing for the web. I worked for a tattoo magazine syndicate, which was very exciting because my husband is a tattoo artist. He was breaking into the industry at the same time that I was breaking into my own career, and the overlap in our work gave us something fun to share. I was also able to introduce him to some of the most interesting artists in the industry, so it was a good time for everyone.

The guy who created the magazine syndicate had gotten his start in the publishing business working for Larry Flynt, and he had the skeezy creds to show for it. One of his side ventures was a dildo business. (Can't wait to see what kinds of interesting search queries land folks on this post in my analytics reports. Sorry to dissappoint, dildo hunters!) He'd started slanging the dildos through a catalog, but in the time I was working for him, he was taking the business online and using the resources he'd pegged for the tattoo magazine to do the dirty work. I got my first taste of SEO, web forms, and the differences between online and print copy crafting custom descriptions for some of the finest dildos sold on the internet in 2005.

And after that magazine crashed and burned, I found a new gig writing for a small web design firm. I still hadn't heard the term "content strategist," and I wouldn't for a few more years...but essentially, I was doing content strategy. The designers kept getting stuck in the process of building websites when it came time to get the content from their clients. Clients would provide nothing, and when they finally did come up with something, it would be a handful of brochures. There were some great designers at that little firm, but none of them were skilled in writing, and they realized that they needed a wordsmith on the team. I came on board, and had some success helping them carry projects through to completion much more quickly.

I also got more experienced with other aspects of content strategy, since the owner of the company asked me to help him with some blog posts. He'd give me an idea and some research material, and I'd read about the state of the web, design, and the burgeoning discipline of usability until I had something coherent to say for his blog posts. I'd type them up for him, send them along, and he'd publish them in his name. I tried to find the old blog to link to my baby attempts at writing about web content and what it means to create it, but it's gone now. One day, I'll visit the internet archive to dig them up. (Update! I found the link! See Baby Strategist Joy Talking About the Internet!)

The owner also paid for me to become Google Adwords Certified, and I managed a few Adwords accounts for his clients. Those credentials probably helped me to land my next (first?) "real" job writing for the web.

That company crashed after about of year of my working there, and I did some freelance projects, a bit more work for a print newspaper, and continued teaching writing at the local community college. Gradually, the balance of freelance work I'd get was shifting from print to the web, and eventually, I landed a full time job at Lowe's corporate headquarters working for

It was at Lowe's that I heard the term "content strategy" for the first time, after years of being engaged in the work. After a few years at Lowe's, I've made a transition to Ally Financial, where the emphasis on user experience and content strategy is a vital part of the company's core values. Because Ally Bank only exists online, user experience is everything. In this gig, I am learning more about the user experience side of projects while collaborating with internet architects and interaction designers on a massive design project. I've learned as much in these few months at Ally as in my entire career up until this point, but, I still don't know how to abstract content strategy principles I can articulate in the way I would as an academic talking about how to teach or how to write.

Perhaps it's because the principles that you use as a content strategist are deeply ingrained with the specific content in question. I can't abstract a process for doing content strategy the "right" way because every project is different. And, the climate is constantly changing. When I first started working at Lowe's, we hardly thought of mobile. After a year or so, though, as the iPad broke and unleashed a torrent of tablets on the market, mobile was what was hot, and mobile-friendly content became the new goal.

Maybe content strategy is a discipline where the experts know that they don't know it all. Our best practice is to remain flexible, to stay engaged with other doing the discipline, and to keep tackling the next project with fresh eyes.

I know I'd like to be contributing to the conversation, though. So stay tuned.


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