Content marketing works (you’re here after all), but producing content without a strategy won’t amount to much. An overarching plan is what allows you and your marketing team to create effective content that generates a response. As far as how to become a content strategist and be the one developing those plans, it takes mastering a number of skills, getting real-world experience and eventually putting together a sparkling content strategy portfolio that highlights your results and wins. Nothing to it, right?
Here’s how to become a content strategist
To get to where you can build strategy, you’ll generally need about 5 years of experience in digital marketing learning the skills that make up the plan — copywriting, editing, marketing campaigns, organizational skills, etc. A bachelor’s degree is typically required, with majors like communications, marketing, journalism and English being common.
1. Note the types of content strategists that exist
In an article for Content Marketing Institute, Ann Rockley neatly divides content strategy roles into two distinct types; front-end and back-end. It honestly makes a lot of sense as there’s both a creative side (front-end) and an analytical side (back-end) to content strategy that requires different skills.
The focus on the front-end is on the content itself. How well it meets the needs of the target audience and user personas, how it aligns with business goals and search engine optimization (SEO) objectives, that it helps the user journey and adds to the user experience. In addition to giving guidance on formats, fonts, layouts, channels and more.
The emphasis on back-end is more technical and data-driven. How the content can be scaled, understanding which types of content visitors want, metadata and developing reusable content. As well as CMS organization and project management.
Despite there being differences in approach and mentality, you’ll never see jobs listed as "front-end content strategist" or "back-end content strategist" as they aren’t technically separate jobs. As a content strategist, the lines between the two are blurred and you’ll be expected to have a deep understanding of both to oversee the creation of engaging content.
The job descriptions however will give you a clue as to what a given company may be looking for.
As even Ann notes,
I talk in terms of "roles" because content strategy today is often handled by people in the role of dedicated content strategist, but content strategy can also be a function within other job titles. You don’t have to be a content strategist to take on strategy-related tasks.
That means that even if you have a front-end focus, for example, you either need to be aware of your back-end weaknesses and lean on others in the company or develop those skills.
While there isn’t a specialized content strategy major you can dive into in college, learning content strategy skills via courses is always an option. This is a particularly good move if you find yourself lacking in one area or another or have any of the aforementioned front-end or back-end weaknesses.
Whether it’s a specific skill like social media marketing, writing or developing user personas, there are courses and certifications for just about everything nowadays. Coursera has nearly 300 courses under "content strategy". HubSpot offers a free all-encompassing course. LinkedIn Learning also has plenty of courses to help you learn content strategy better.
Content strategist training never really ends, even if you’ve been in the job for years, staying on top of trends and continued education are vital for keeping your content marketing strategy up to date.
3. Develop and build on your content strategist skills
So what does a content strategist do? What is a content strategist? We’ve mentioned various content strategy skills already but let’s put the key competencies and skill set in one place.
Writing & Editing
The best laid plans will be wasted if the writing is subpar. Even if your content strategy is video-heavy, you’ll still need the script to be tightly written for it to be engaging and effective. Having superior short-form, long-form and copywriting skills is therefore imperative.
If you’re hiring content creators or bringing on writers and you’re not the writer, you’ll still need to have a strong background in writing skills and a grasp of what makes writing readable and relatable to your audience.
Great content is shaped by the editing process. Typos, grammatical errors and the like will leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Moreover, editing ensures you’re hitting only the notes that make your content sing and isn’t jumping all over the place.
In the end, you need to be involved in the content creation process.
People relate to stories, not facts and figures, because stories are human.
Storytelling is the difference between copy that reads "our resort has a beach" and "tucked away along an untouched stretch of the Adriatic coast, you can sip premium cocktails while taking in sweeping island views from our private beach."
One is a statement of fact, the other is a story you can put yourself into.
Storytelling isn’t solely related to copy though. How you arrange your content on your site tells a story with one page naturally linking a reader to the next. It extends to your campaigns as well; take an email campaign or a sales funnel for example, each piece of content should build off the previous one to tell the story of why you are the solution they’re looking for. It’s also a required skill in creating detailed user personas and customer journeys.
Understanding story when it comes to content creation is essential.
Speaking of campaigns, experience running them makes a big difference in your success in a content strategist role. How can you put together a campaign that meets its goals and hits its targets without having done it before?
Along the career path to content marketing strategist, you’ll want to pick up as much know-how here as possible because this is where the money is made and that’s part of what proves the strategy.
Content planning, development & distribution
What makes content, and by extension campaigns, effective is proper content development and distribution. This is where deep knowledge of business goals and content intertwine and amplify each other.
Start with a content audit to understand what already exists and then go deeper into website content planning.
What makes your audience take action? Is it eBooks, case studies, blogs, templates, emails, white papers, videos or something else entirely? Digital content comes in oh so many forms but once you understand what your target is looking for and what your goals are, you can develop the specific content that inches them closer to purchase…or generates leads or creates brand awareness or whatever else you want your content to do.
Then the question becomes, where do you put the content? Which channels do you distribute it on? If it’s social media platforms, which? How often will you post?
Learning how to put together an editorial calendar, aka content calendar, ensures you’re consistently getting your message out.
Data & analytics
The only way to confirm if your strategy is truly working is to dig into the numbers. This may not be the most glamorous part of the gig but being able to analyze data and metrics is among the important skills you can have.
Because part of what makes a great content strategist is their ability to adapt. Understanding the data allows you to refine, revamp and reconfigure your strategy as necessary to meet the goals of the stakeholders above you and keep your team members working on what matters.
It’s also worth noting that even if your strategy seems to be performing well and getting results, you want to confirm that it’s due to your intended plan so you can confidently replicate it. I.e., maybe you intended conversions to come from email but it’s actually your social posts that are the driver. If you use the same strategy later you’ll have a false impression of what’s going on which could create issues.
Should you even be creating content if it isn’t SEO optimized? Proper keyword research and understanding your target user’s search intent is key to developing the very content that’ll show up when they search for it on their search engine of choice.
Writing on topics and towards keywords that get no traffic isn’t exactly the best use of your team’s time. Incorporate proper SEO planning to make sure you’re getting it right.
Content management systems
The content management system (CMS) is going to be where the vast majority of the content you oversee and develop lives. Needless to say, you need to understand the CMS you’ll be working with (most often WordPress).
This goes beyond navigating the platform and trickles down to having website architecture and sitemap knowledge as well as how to optimize metadata.
Organization & project management
As you’ve likely gathered by now, there are a lot of moving parts to this whole thing and the list of content strategist responsibilities is rather lengthy. That means that a big part of a content strategy career is having next-level planning, organization and project management skills in order to keep everything running smoothly.
As a leader, you’ll also be in charge of putting together a workflow for all involved and ensuring that you’re all using the best content planning tools possible.
4. Get experience
Experience matters and you can probably see why folks tend to need about 5 years of experience before taking on the role.
The best way to get started along the content strategist career path is to just get your hands dirty in the creation of content. That can be through internships, freelancing, transitioning in your current role to something content-related or applying to work at a digital marketing agency.
In terms of average salary, once you make it to the ranks of content strategist, at the entry-level end of the spectrum you’re looking at around $45,000 and over $80,000 once you’ve gotten around 10 years of experience according to Payscale.
5. Create a content strategy portfolio
With experience and a set of skills that’ve been shaped and sharpened in the real world, you can finally put together a content strategist portfolio that tells your story.
You’re not going to be able to land a job that’s so important to a company’s bottom line without being able to prove you’ve got the goods. You’ll want to include various writing and content samples, results from campaigns you’ve overseen or been a part of, the industry or niche you’re in and more.
Content strategist portfolio examples
But what does a content strategist portfolio look like?
A website. Simple as that.
Generally a content strategist will put together a site with explanations and examples of their work set against the objectives that were laid out by the client. It’s also a good call to put together an additional writing sample portfolio for content strategist jobs as that skill will be high on the list of any hiring manager or client.
Kim Gillick aka The Content Strategist does a phenomenal job with her portfolio. With 10+ years of experience, she’s put together a ton of great work for many well-known clients, something you see right when you land on her page.
Her portfolio is set up as a series of case studies, organized by what exactly her role was and labeled by industry, that clearly lay out what was expected of her and then what she accomplished. They’re detailed yet easy to consume and quickly show her ability to get the job done.
Julie’s portfolio has many of the same positives that our previous example had. What’s nice about hers is the way she introduces each sample before you click with quick "What I Did" and "Why It Worked" blurbs.
Another nice touch is that right at the top of the portfolio section she tells you exactly which industries she works in so that you’ll immediately know if your company is a fit or not. A separate testimonials page builds confidence as well.
Leonardo’s portfolio is as straightforward as it gets. You land directly on his UX design/UX writing portfolio where you’re invited to dig into his work. In a similar fashion to our previous two examples, when you check out his samples they’re laid out in the same problem/solution style (hint hint).
A nice addition to his page is a section that’s devoted to how he works, something that helps potential employers get a feel for his workflow. The dedicated copywriting section perfectly highlights his way with words.
Key takeaways on how to be a content strategist
The only way to build an effective strategy is to do as many of the component parts of a strategy as you can. It’s not just about getting your feet wet though, you want much more than a surface-level knowledge of writing, campaigns, project management and the other skills that go into content strategy. Get real immersion in these processes because the more you see and do, the more you deepen the pool of knowledge from which you can pull strategy ideas later.