When I finished graduate school for journalism in 2009, I was bound and determined to be a shoe-leather reporter. I saw myself, notebook in hand, getting the stories that mattered. At that point, I’d been a correspondent for a metro newspaper for five years, and only saw opportunity ahead. Move over, Lois Lane!
But like many industries, journalism wasn’t sure how to transition to the digital world. Meanwhile, I was struggling to stay afloat on a meager print newsperson’s salary and long, grueling hours, all while also balancing a part-time job as an adjunct instructor at a local college. I decided to give my life some balance and move my writing experience into a more stable profession with growth ahead: Copywriting and website development.
And I loved it.
I loved thinking strategically, learning about what users expect, and watching the digital trends transform year to year. Eventually, I ended up where I am today as a content strategist for a local healthcare marketing agency.
As I think back to what brought me here, I realized the following:
They don’t teach this school.
But when I look back at my journalism-turned-marketing career, there’s no way I could have prepared for this. Content strategy isn’t something they teach in high school or colleges — though maybe soon it will be. At the time, the best I learned was desktop publishing, which is an outdated term these days. Library science might be the closest thing to my current expertise.
Many of us working in the digital space realize that we have to stay one step ahead of the trends. Whether it’s knowing what algorithm shift Google is about to make, to understanding common audiences on multiple digital devices, we essentially teach ourselves what we know.
I’m at a place where I feel I can provide some insight based on my experience, so here are a few tips if you’re beginning your career as a content strategist.
#1: Follow the pros in the field
The best thing about social media is the ability to connect. And fortunately, some really great, funny, innovative content strategists are all over Twitter and LinkedIn. Many of them share blogs, tips, and other great reads that can give you a wealth of knowledge on new topics and approaches.
Here are a few of my favorite Twitter feeds:
These organizations and wizard strategists have so much to share. They’re also responsive and often happy to answer any questions you have.
And if you haven’t already, build a LinkedIn profile. Your friends might roll their eyes, but the truth is, the people in the digital industry hang out there. There are content strategy groups, self-authored bloggers, and more that can grow your experience.
#2: Devour all things content strategy, content marketing, and beyond.
Read about content strategy. Write about content strategy. Share content strategy. Devour it. While you’re following your favorite content strategists and content strategy and marketing experts, get your hands on some great books, such as:
- Content Strategy for the Web (Second Edition) by Kristina Halvorson
- Whiteboard Friday with Rand Fishkin @ Moz
- Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern
- Epic Content Marketing by Joe Pulizzi
- Chief Content Officer magazine (free subscription from Content Marketing Institute!)
Don’t forget the blogs, too. Contently, HubSpot, Moz, and yes — Medium! — are just a few high-traffic places to get daily and weekly blog posts, videos and more. I love Nielsen-Norman Group’s weekly emails with videos and articles about recent user experience studies. Many of these organizations have webinars, too, and if you have the time you should absolutely register. It’s worth the knowledge share!
#3: Bookmark what you dig the most.
As you start getting more blogs in your inbox, you may get overwhelmed by the number of them coming in. Every article headline feels like something you have to read to get better at your job — and believe me, many of them do help you get better at your job.
But let’s be honest: You probably don’t have time to read every blog that floats along. Join the party! We’re all in this same boat.
To help my own hyper-organized brain feel like I can handle it all, I keep folders for my bookmarks in my browser’s bookmarks bar. I have them strategized for things like Search & Keywords, Content Writing, Content Marketing, Voice Search, and more. As new blogs come into my email, I save the links to read later when I have time.
You wouldn’t believe how handy this is for me. If I’m ever in a downtime moment, or curious about how to handle something, I consult my folders. I also have a folder specifically for Web Studies, so I can refer to things in the healthcare industry (my jam), like the state of online health care from Pew Research in 2013.
#4: Put it all out on the table and ask questions
I’m going to leave it that broad. Ask questions. Ask your colleagues. If you’re working with a designer, ask him or her. If you’re working directly with a client group, ask them all. Ask them whatever you don’t know, or what you need clarification on to finish your next deliverable.
I’ve never felt stupid asking a question to a client, and as the adage goes, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. And talk to your stakeholders, too!
If I’m feeling stuck on building a site navigation or content recommendations, I’m not afraid to reach out to my clients and ask them the questions that will solve my problems. I ask things like:
- Who’s the intended audience? Who are you ideally trying to reach?
- What’s the goal of this page? Do you want users to do X, Y, or Z?
- How could I best deliver this to you? Do you have additional stakeholders who need to be involved in these decisions?
- Do you have stakeholders in the organization who want to weigh in on this project, and if so, can I reach out to them?
I always make sure my clients and colleagues know that I’m only trying to get the right information to return the right answer, and they are more than happy to share their side of the story or connect me with others who can weigh in on decisions.
At the same time, I’m never reluctant to pull up a chair to a designer or colleague to make sure we’re answering questions and user experiences together. Content doesn’t exist without design, and design doesn’t exist without content. Be friends with your designers — you make a great team.
#5: Start your own website
You read that right. Start your own website. Buy a domain if you want, or just start a WordPress blog. Make a home for your portfolio, for your own blog, or for a simple CV.
You may be asking why — why would you create a website if you’re not selling a product or service?
But that’s where you’re wrong: You’re selling you. More importantly, a website gives you a chance to get experienced with things like Google Analytics, Tag Manger, keyword tools and more. You’ll get to stretch your legs with a blog on a topic of your choice (say…content strategy!) and share it to build your professional profiles.
While you’re at it, here’s a great article on how to create a knockout online portfolio.
Starting your own website is extremely rewarding and a great way to learn. You can iterate, test navigation approaches, share your posts, and connect with others for feedback. It’s also a great way to showcase your experience.
Bonus tip: Trust yourself
This is less of a tip and more of a rule. You know more than you think you do. Why? Because you’re a web user, too. When it comes to navigation, content, etc., you know what works and what doesn’t, because as a consumer, you’ve surely turned your back on poorly designed or structured website.
Approach every content strategy opportunity, client, or deliverable like a first-time visitor. You’ll be amazed at how your own intimate knowledge and experience as a web user can help shape better recommendations for content and navigation in the future.
This post originally appeared at my personal blog: erintiesman.weebly.com.