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Content Strategists Are Not Copywriters (But Sometimes They Have to Be)

What comes first, the content or the strategy? While content strategy and copywriting overlaps, tackling both at once can get messy. To stay organized and set yourself up for success, develop a workflow, practice effective internal communication, and set goals.

Most organizations are still learning what content strategy is. If you’re a content strategist, it’s likely that a large portion of your team probably thinks of you as “the writer.” It’s possible that some days, when your hair is especially messy, you even think of yourself as “the writer.” If you’re running content strategy solo without a team of copywriters to back you up, that doesn’t help matters much either. Whether you like it or not, you have to be the writer and the content strategist.

But separating the writing and content strategy processes is essential to doing either job well because they are two completely different tasks that require separate skill sets. But if we can partition our brains just a bit, it is possible to excel at both

Why Thinking About Content Strategy as a Writer Means Bad Content Strategy

Copywriting is granular. Content Strategy is holistic. Copywriting is the execution of ideas — content strategy is their organization and measurement. Last month I wrote The Poetry of SEO, in which I decried the current state of SEO content, and presented my case for a passionate and creative approach to producing SEO-oriented copy. That was certainly the copywriter in me talking. I was focused primarily on the ground-level execution of ideas: particularly the innovation in approaches to writing all of the metadata that often gets neglected.

The fact is, keeping content strategy a formal process sets you up to write copy that is unique, unified, and effective — even if it’s just you doing the writing. When we begin to internalize the content strategy process and take the complexity and necessity of its steps for granted, we lose a great deal of its effectiveness.

What Bad Content Strategy Looks Like

I got my start in content strategy as a doe-eyed intern at a nonprofit organization that I admire. I was showing up every day and working really hard, so they hired me to write all of the copy and manage content development for their site redesign. I couldn’t have been happier.

But I quickly realized as I began to populate the bare-bones dev site with content that my job was going to be much more than just writing. I was going to have to start thinking about how we wanted users to encounter and interact with the site, and how we were going to meet the organization’s goals without compromising user experience. It became clear that writing copy was just going to be the façade to a much larger job. I called it copywriting and project management, because I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to identify it as content strategy.

Looking back, I did a terrible job. The site turned out great. The copy was fantastic. We won a few awards. Everybody was happy. But the fact is that I wasted time and money being disorganized. I implemented content without planning for it, which meant I had to continually change pages as I began to understand their place and purpose on the site. I didn’t set up measurement plans. And I wasted money making last-minute changes on the site as I realized that the organization’s goals weren’t being met by the content I had originally planned.

But I got the job done, and it was a learning experience. I realized that what I was trying to do was tackle content strategy as a writer, because that was the way I was used to approaching projects. I used the content I wrote to determine my strategy, rather than using the strategy I devised (or in this case, didn’t devise) to determine the content I wrote.

Content Strategy’s Grey Area

In the introduction to the second edition of Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, Facebook content strategist Sarah Cancilla talks about her early days in the organization:

“Soon after I started at Facebook, I discovered that most of my new coworkers thought ‘content strategist’ was a highfalutin term for ‘copy editor.’ They filled my inbox with questions like, ‘Is there a better word for this?’ and ‘Should the period go inside or outside the quotation mark?’”

In an organization without a developed content strategy team or process, this is usually the first thing that happens. And it’s natural. All of a sudden, someone joins on that gets paid to give a damn about where the period goes. So people naturally gravitate towards that person with their itemized list of grammar questions and “quick copy changes.” This is a good sign, because it means everyone in the company at least has a vested interest in the image their company projects with its content. It’s a great start, but it’s still not content strategy.

Content strategists ultimately need to accept this as part of the job. I certainly have. The solitary content strategist will generally be saddled with a great deal of copywriting and editorial work right off the bat from all corners of the company. In a perfect world, all of the strategies that content strategists implement are executed by a copywriter. But there’s the rub – the content strategist is the copywriter. So how do we make that two jobs again?

While you’re waiting for the funds to roll in for your company to hire a dedicated copywriter, you can get both jobs done simultaneously without compromising the quality of either element. There is a workflow process, which I’ll share with you in a moment, but the first step is actually a change in mentality: You have to start thinking of yourself as a department, rather than one person with way too much to do.

The One-Person Content Strategy/Copywriting Plan

Here are some steps you can take right away to bring some sanity back to your content strategy process.

Develop a Workflow that Works

Developing a formal workflow is a great way to organize a team, and understand everyone’s specific role in creating content. When it’s just you creating content, the same principle applies. But instead of organizing by person, organize by task. Use a program like Gliffy to lay out a visualization that helps you create internal departments for yourself. Break every task into an assessment element, and an implementation element. Thinking and doing. Strategizing and Writing.

Create Internal Deliverables

It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one that’s going to see it, writing out a formal copy brief, content audit, or content strategy document will keep you organized when it comes to actually creating content. Once you’ve internalized the content strategy process, it’s easy to start doing it in your head—but this is a mistake. You can bypass crucial elements of your strategy if you’re not using formal documents. Plus, getting into the habit of actually writing out your content strategy is a good habit to be in when your team does hire that copywriter or junior content strategist, because your workflow will already be in place.

When you’re working on internal projects (say, a site redesign) there’s also a temptation to write directly into the CMS without maintaining a copy deck. This is another mistake. While it may be easier to implement everything directly, being able to look at your keywords, page title, metadata, social metadata, and page copy in a glance can help you spot places where your copy is either weak or not properly optimized.

These are the essential documents for any content strategy project:

• Content Strategy Document
• Copy Brief
• Content Audit
• Copy Deck

Classify Your Tasks

Using a project management program like Trello, classify all of your tasks as either ‘content strategy’ or ‘writing.’ If you happen to have any other responsibilities in your role (say, ‘janitorial duties’) classify those as well to help keep you organized. That way when you’re approaching a task you know which sombrero you’re wearing.

Additionally, you can organize your day based on the job-type. For instance, I like to get all of my writing done really early in the morning when I’m delirious enough to be creative. I prefer to do high-level content strategy work in the afternoon and evening, when I feel sober and rational. When I can trust myself to make good decisions for my client’s business. Everybody’s process is different, but the key to maintaining proper balance is to have a fixed process in the first place.

Communicate Content Strategy

Since you’re the weird new content person in your office, it will help to communicate to all of your coworkers what your job actually entails. If you have time to handle one-off editorial requests, talk about it. If you don’t (and I’m guessing you don’t), consider creating a detailed style guide with common questions that pop up. Creating an internal style guide was the one thing I did right in my first content strategy gig.

Consider also creating platonic ideals of certain content pieces that your coworkers can use as models when creating content: i.e. the perfect outreach email, the perfect case study, the perfect white paper, the perfect event promotion blog post. But also remember that they’re not actually perfect, and ask your coworkers for feedback.

Stay Accountable

It’s up to you to stay organized. Whether or not the above suggestions work for you, the one given is that you need a system if you’re going to manage and assess a large amount of content while also creating all of it yourself. You can’t blame the copywriter for not understanding your ideas, and you can’t blame the content strategist for not clearly defining the parameters of a piece of content. That’s all on you buddy. Time to step it up.

Do you have a hybrid content strategy/copywriting role? How do you manage to keep both jobs separate? Let us know in the comments section.