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Why I Am a Content Strategist

On Being a T-Shaped Marketer


Content strategy still feels like the new kid on the block in marketing to a lot of people. But when you look at titles with words like UX, CRO, technologist, and so on, “content strategy” feels warm and approachable, like a backyard bonfire in October. We know what those two words together mean: a high-level, longer-term plan for content.

The beauty of content strategy is that content strategists aren’t born; they’re developed. And as I meet more and more CS peers, no two stories of development are exactly alike. Briefly, and for what it’s worth, here’s mine:

Learning Systems

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English, with a writing emphasis, and an interdisciplinary minor. While my professors and peers were amazing, I left college a little confused and with no job prospects. I refused to believe teacher or secretary was the only role I was cut out for, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure how to make “writer” into a title that earned a livable salary.

So I worked as a hostess at a gorgeous Southern restaurant for three years, learning software and behavior systems that were previously foreign to me. I picked up side work at a dingy used bookstore called Grumpy’s, learning ancient cashiering, inventorying, and filing systems. And I taught myself how to freelance my writing — learning the hard way about contracts and choosing clients and keeping records.

I was eventually offered an entry level position at a local marketing agency, and I took it (because five figures, duh!). I wrote ad copy for two years until someone handed me Kristina Halvorson’s book, “Content Strategy for the Web.”

Systems on Systems

If you know me, I’m an introverted writer/reader who’s really good at making new people feel at ease and pretty good at making dinner. Kristina’s book provided a new system, one that brought order to all these words I was releasing into the world. And it proved that my career didn’t end at copywriting (which was good, because if you’ve ever written the same thing 100 times, about 11 different ways, you know what a soul-suck that can be).

I realized I had a choice: I could stay in the fragile world of words I’d built around myself, or I could continue to step out and learn new things. As my college degree and post-college jobs reflect, I subscribe to Huxley’s approach: “Try to learn something about everything, and everything about something.”

I was completely out of my depth in the ad agency, but I learned very quickly that asking the right questions gets you answers, and being honest about what you don’t know makes you friends. I spent time with the devs (they were the least scary to approach, believe it or not), asking how code turned static images into websites. I knew nothing, and they were incredibly eager to teach me.

I took a similar approach with each of our departments, slowly making friends and learning about websites, strategy, design, campaigns, compliance, RFPs, you name it. I even spent time watching the account managers balance client demands and pious creatives.

Learn, But Do

Within a few years, I was pretty well-versed in how an ad agency runs, but if you had dropped me in a marketing company, I would have floundered. As my network expanded outside the agency, I started to get glimpses of things like Google Analytics, Screaming Frog, and more tools than I ever knew existed.

At this point, my job at the ad agency was starting to broaden also: they were losing people and not filling the open positions; I was co-opted to work for two separate teams; I was put under a new, brash manager who taught me a lot about hard work and the right solution. I realized that I could no longer be the sponge — I had to start implementing the things I knew were right.

My team started planning, researching, and calendaring blog posts. We had no SEO, so we did it ourselves. We had few writing resources, so we did it ourselves. We had no social media team, so we did it ourselves.

Then Sell What You Know

When the opportunity to move West came up, I seized it. But Chattanooga is a bubble — I was sure the things I had learned and felt confident in weren’t as valuable outside of the Scenic City. And a successful content strategy for one agency’s blog doesn’t carry much weight.

Still. I couldn’t be a copywriter forever. It wasn’t in my DNA. I needed a position where I could keep learning and keep implementing without a lot of repetition. So I looked only for content strategy jobs.

The interview process was nerve-wracking: I was speaking to experts in their industry, about things they already knew, trying to prove my own knowledge (and if felt like my worth). But even though I couldn’t code/design/crawl/scrape, I underestimated the value of comprehending a system. The interviews and job offer at Clearlink reinforced how valuable my time learning had been: I was incredibly strong in content strategy, but I saw clearly how it relied on business goals and SEO to define the design and user experience that would be conveyed to dev. Not to mention the opportunities for testing and remarketing once something was live and the hundred ways to get eyeballs on your site.

T-Shaped Marketers

Moz recently partnered with Fractl to report on the Inbound Marketing Economy. One brief paragraph caught my attention:

While there may be a lot of specialists out there, perhaps recruiters are struggling to fill marketing roles due to a lack of generalists or even a lack of specialists with surface-level knowledge of other areas of digital marketing (also known as a T-shaped marketer).

A graphic created by Moz has the headline The T-Shaped Web Marketer. The horizontal axis has labels from left to right that say Email PPC Display Video HTML UX SEO Social Communications Blogging Content. There is a broad vertical axis colored deep purple; it's aligned under the label for SEO and in the purple is a list of lots of in-depth SEO skills. Around the purple column are the words 'a wide breadth of basic knowledge across many overlapping disciplines.' And next to the purple column, big purple text and an arrow pointing down says, 'Deep knowledge, experience, and ability in one (or a few) fields.'
Rand says things so simply...

And we see this lack of specialization every day in people’s resumes. They’ll drop SEO and social media marketing and content marketing and analytics into their CV, but when you get them in a room, they can’t explain a keyword strategy or Facebook ad targeting or details of these so-called skills they listed. They’ve only opened GA once or twice — there’s no deep knowledge.

I’m afraid we’re losing honesty.

When I applied at Clearlink, my resume was so content-heavy, anyone that saw it would have thought that I knew nothing else. But my resume was honest — it said I was an English major, freelance writer, ad copywriter, and blog manager. It only listed my deep skills, not buzzwords about other marketing verticals: my work showed that I understood broader applications. And then the interviews confirmed it.

I’m afraid we’re losing honesty, and that relationships are next.

Don’t sacrifice curiosity for which job is whose, and where the lines end. Don’t be afraid to ask humble (ignorant) questions of each other, and keep your thoughts to yourself for a bit. Don’t miss the chance to be part of a really neat relationship. I still talk to the devs in Chattanooga that taught me what HTML means and why paralax was cool, but a fad — they’re my friends.

It’s the self-aware that will exceed: find your specialty, and never stop learning, but don’t be afraid to rely on the specialties and strengths of those around you. Our new VP said it just this morning: If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.

The key to all of this is honesty: say what you know, and admit what you don’t. Then stop talking, and learn what the experts around you have to share.

**Why the picture of aspens? Aspens are the largest known organism on the planet. From aboveground, they appear to be groups of individuals, but belowground, they share the same root system. They live and die together, they change colors in a single night together — they each are strong and unique, but they are intimately tied to the success of their peers.


Previously published on Medium.

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