Our industry is at a bit of a chicken-and-egg moment. The content strategy community is thriving and attracting more participants. More people, more community. This is good: we nurture interest, enthusiasm, and improvement as we come together in conferences and other events. We grow as individuals while we grow as a community.
“This field is growing so fast, new people are joining all the time, and many of them are bringing new perspectives,” says Rachel Lovinger, an experience director and content strategist at Razorfish and one of the field’s early pioneers. “If you don’t get out there and talk with new people, hear fresh voices, you run the risk of going into an echo chamber. No one can afford to sit back and say ‘I know what this is’ and operate from that immovable position.”
Outside the echo chamber is a continuum of interaction that spans Twitter, local meetups, and larger conferences. (Other social media, such as the comments on Slideshare, offer useful but more limited opportunities for engagement.) I’ve gained a lot from interaction in those channels—and I think you can too.
So… let’s meet the neighbors! Let’s grow from (and with) our community, because it’s such a terrific thing to look around and see content strategists have a community. We are a community.
So where’s everyone coming from? More people are pursuing careers in content strategy, building on experience in copywriting, design, library science, and other fields. Today, graduating students see mentors in the industry and recognize it as a viable career path. As of this writing, more than 3700 people in the US alone self-identify on Linkedin as content strategists—and it’s not just here. Italy? 49 content strategists. Australia? 85 content strategists. Content audits are starting to rival the TimTam Slam as a much-envied export.
(I won’t address people who chase keywords in their resumes, or rebrand themselves to change titles without changing their work. I don’t need to: our numbers are plenty strong with legitimate active practitioners.)
Holding up a mirror
Numbers are great, but where’s the community? Let’s look locally first, shall we? We come together in meetups— all around the world, Auckland to Zurich. Those opportunities for face-to-face engagement let us sift through ideas, share challenges and best practices, and have more of those I’m not the only one! epiphanies.
Those moments are becoming less common. That’s a good thing. In 2010, I spoke at SXSW in a small content strategy track. I addressed problems we used to see so frequently: content didn’t support organizational goals and broke design templates. It was inconsistent and late to the game. The cure for all that? Content strategy.
After I finished speaking, the 600-person strong audience presented questions and comments. A few came up again and again:
I didn’t know there were other people like me!
I’ve been doing this more and more lately—but I didn’t know there was a name for it!
I’m the only one in my company who does this, who cares about it—but now I see I’m not the only one!
You’re not the only one. And there’s strength in numbers.
Hail Twitter, or Yay! History!
The strength of community requires two things: participants and connection. There are no communities of one; we need others. Individuals working in isolation, even when their numbers are great, also cannot benefit from community; we need to interact. Twitter became popular just as content strategy practitioners were beginning to amass and reach out in search of each other.
On November 20, 2008, I received this direct message from Kristina Halvorson:
You and I need to talk. Can we? Week of 12/1?
At that point, I’d been working as a content strategist for about 8 years. That included a couple of years in the deep end, on Sapient’s dotcom-era content strategy team, and a few more in which I swam back and forth between contracting and consultancies. I formalized new processes for content audits, figured out how to sell them internally and externally, and had the same conversations over and over.
Here’s how content strategy can help.
This is the work that it entails.
Here’s how the rest of the creative team can benefit.
Here’s how your users will benefit.
I had those conversations with project managers, account managers, and potential clients. Rarely, though, did I get to have those conversations with other people who did what I did. So I didn’t know if it was common, and I didn’t have anyone to give me feedback and constructive criticism.
On March 1, 2009, I received this DM from Keri Maijala:
Hi Margot, I found you via Kristina Halvorson’s Twitter. I was on the prowl for other content strategists. Thanks for the follow! – Keri
(Remember when we talked about a someone’s “Twitter?” Oh, 2009, you were fun. Oasis was still a band, and the world didn’t yet know that we’d have to endure an Olympic rendition of Wonderwall at the closing ceremonies.)
That month, Kristina hosted the inaugural Content Strategy Consortium. 20-odd practicing content strategists, from organizations and agencies large and small, came together in Memphis before the Information Architecture Summit. Finally, conversations with people who did what I did! Our goal: discuss what we do when we say we practice content strategy. Discuss a definition of the work and the scope of activities and deliverables. And connect with like-minded individuals.
Twitter made those connections more common and easy: you could search “content strategy” or just check the lists others had compiled. I was in the habit of reaching out to every new follower with a DM: Thank you, and just curious: how did you find me? That’s how I connected with Keri, a content strategy consultant in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, in real life
Keri and I have since discussed content strategy and more—in Memphis, then London, and most recently Minneapolis. We’ve debated what works, collaborated on a pitch, and improved what we do and how we do it by coming together on Twitter, via Skype, and at conferences. That’s where it all comes to life. Case studies and commiseration alike help us improve what we do.
“Conferences allow me to renew old relationships, build new ones with people I haven’t yet discovered via social media, and have the types of conversations that professionals won’t put out there on the intertubes,” shared Katherine Gray, a content strategist in Portland and the co-founder of the Portland Content Strategy Meetup. “Social media helps you keep up with what’s happening in the world, but conferences help you keep up with what’s really happening,” she added.
“Going to conferences and meeting people face-to-face is the fastest way to find out what other people in this field are doing, what they’re interested in, how they’re solving problems, and what needs they have yet to figure out,” said Rachel. “It’s a chance to both learn more and serve the community better.” She won’t say it, but going to a conference can also be a chance to connect with Rachel, and soak in some of that curiosity, wisdom, and altruism. Not a bad deal.
Twitter and local meetups may help us connect, but bigger events and conferences give us much more. Immersion with fellow practitioners affords us more ideas to engage the audiences we serve and a broader network to tap for feedback and ideas.
Good conferences offer terrific presentations and case studies. At the great conferences, these bleed over into hallway conversations and discussion over dinner. Sometimes, the debate and Q&A continues weeks later over Skype. When I need to say hey, have you done this before? How did you implement that? I reach out to the friends I’ve met in Austin, Essen, New York, and beyond. Last year, I stole insight and hard-earned lessons from practitioners at Facebook, MailChimp, Dell, Longform, Team Detroit, and NPR.
“For someone who is relatively isolated from other industry experts, it’s hugely important to sit face-to-face with colleagues,” said Corey Vilhauer, a user experience strategist with Blend Interactive in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As you can imagine, South Dakota isn’t quite a hotbed of content strategy, so Corey taps into the community a little further afield. (Further? Try Cape Town, South Africa, in October!)
So, facetime. We like it, we need it. Here are some of the places I’m looking forward to finding it this fall:
- PhillyCHI, September 18
- CS Forum, October 24 – 26. Join me for a workshop and get 10% off with the discount code CHEETAHS
I’ll be adding to that list with more news for London and Washington DC soon. Yay for pretending frequent flier miles negate jet lag! That’s a slice of what I’m looking forward to—and I really, really hope to see you there!