In my last post, I asserted that copywriters are the “perfect people” to help clients with content strategy. Unfortunately, that statement lacks context, ignores the multi-disciplinary nature of content strategy practice, and suggests that copywriters alone can do it all.
Given those issues – and I realize they’re big ones – I’d like to clarify, qualify, and expand upon the copywriters-as-content-strategists perspective I so enthusiastically encouraged on this blog.
I’ll also do so from a freelancer’s point of view. I’m interested in questions like:
- Why should freelance Web copywriters integrate content strategy into their processes?
- What limitations and challenges will they face?
- Which elements of the strategic craft should they emphasize?
Answers to these questions are on the way. But first, here’s a quick crash course on what content strategy is – and what it isn’t.
Content strategists apply traditional management consulting methods to content marketing problems. Contrary to the view of many a content marketer, content strategy isn’t limited to such activities as:
- Preparing an editorial calendar
- Hiring writers
- Hiring Web designers
- Publishing blog posts
- Learning to use a CMS
- Structuring content
While all of the above may very well come into play during the content strategy process, each is of limited value in the absence of an overarching plan. After all, adequate planning could reveal that you never needed CMS training in the first place or that (gasp!) hiring new writers isn’t necessary at this stage of the content lifecycle.
Pinning a precise definition on content strategy isn’t easy, but I think Rachel Anne Bailie does a pretty good job in her presentation, “The Content Strategy Paradox.” According to Rachel, content strategy offers:
[A] repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire [content] lifecycle
Developing a “repeatable system” also helps you achieve optimal value from your content investments. It’s simply the smartest way to solve real business problems via content marketing.
However, the trick – and this is where many a content marketing cheerleader errs – is thinking about content as a process rather than a commodity. Just consider how management consultants approach problems. They’ll usually follow a formula similar to this one:
- Assess the present.
- Determine future goals.
- Analyze the gaps between present realities and future goals.
- Devise a plan to close the gaps.
And all of that needs to happen before an organization takes action on whatever problem it hired the consultant to solve. Apply an approach like this one to content marketing, and you can eliminate such familiar recklessness as publishing heaps of unhelpful or irrelevant content, ignoring standards for content governance, or not knowing who bears responsibility for creating different types of content.
So. Are freelance copywriters the perfect people to steer clients toward a smarter, more beneficial content marketing based on a sound consulting process? Well, yes. Maybe. It all depends on the client’s specific problems and the skill sets best suited to solving them.
Content strategy is multidisciplinary.
While having a brand or marketing “strategy” certainly isn’t a novel idea, content strategy within a digital content marketing framework is a relatively new communications concept. As a field in its infancy, content strategy is evolving as quickly as the technologies that determine how people consume content.
And it impacts more digital professionals with each passing day.
That being the case, it’s imperative to note that copywriters are a mere piece of the content strategy puzzle. Other key players may include UX designers, animators, Web developers, project managers, and subject matter experts. With whom you need to collaborate will depend on the nature of your project as well as your specific branding and business goals.
There are literally hundreds of excellent interactive agencies out there with people on staff to fulfill every conceivable role in the content strategy process. I should know. I’ve collaborated with several of them.
But interactive agencies and freelancers coexist for a reason. They coexist because different clients have more to gain by investing in one or the other. Just as some businesses need Price Waterhouse Coopers, others only need Steve, the CPA next door.
The distinction persists when it comes to content strategy. Some content strategy projects best suit the attention and capability of a freelancer (i.e. a solo consultant) the same way others best suit a large, multi-faceted team of digital professionals.
How copywriters help
As the planning stages of content strategy start to sunset and implementation sits poised upon the horizon, the copywriter will be, more often than not, the first person to apply his or her creative prowess to a sophisticated content program.
Not the designer. Not the Web developer. The copywriter.
But copywriters need not wait until the implementation phase to get involved. As publishing content sans strategy becomes passé (and I believe it will), evolution will render the take-your-order-here’s-your-copy-pay-me copywriter obsolete. That’s why freelancers need to develop project management skills; they need to understand the elements of content strategy; they need to add value beyond the words they’re presumably so good at creating.
Integrating content strategy’s primary tenets into the mix is a fantastic way to deliver that value. Experienced copywriters who take the time to pursue effective continuing education in content strategy will be able to perform tasks like:
- Discovery: All but the most novice copywriters already perform some kind of discovery (e.g. audience profiles, style and tone assessments, etc.), but they should consider building a new dimension to current discovery processes by including things like…
- Content audits: Essential for comprehensive content discovery, assessing an organization’s current content assets can give you a complete picture of their shortcomings and opportunities for improvement. Depending on skills and experience levels, freelancers may be in a great position to perform content audits for service organizations or small-to-medium e-commerce sites.
- Research & analysis: This role may include studying competitors, determining the most appropriate content to fill the gap between current content reality and future content goals, preparing content briefs, and more.
- Standardization: Copywriters can create writing templates, style guides, and additional guidelines to govern not just content creation itself, but how and by whom content is developed and managed.
And what limitations will copywriters face? Oh, just everything that’s done on the design and development side of content strategy. Responsibilities like technology reviews, page design, and, in some cases, technically demanding content audits and content inventories will require expertise beyond the copywriter’s skill set.
Does that mean freelance copywriters should decline every project that will ultimately require technical or design expertise? Not at all. In many cases, copywriters are uniquely positioned to execute the most salient duties of the content strategist. Then, come implementation time, they can write. Then they can refer the client to a design and/or development squad whose approach fits the client’s goals.
They can even work alongside the design team throughout the life of a project. In my experience, turning a project into a collaborative effort among freelancers with different strengths can potentially help everyone because it creates the opportunity to bounce ideas around before applying them.
Just remember that while experienced, knowledgeable copywriters can perform most or all of the content strategy for many projects much of the time, they certainly can’t do all of the content strategy for every project every time.
It’s all a matter of pointing clients to the most effective solution. If experienced copywriters sense that a full-service digital agency would better suit a client’s goals, they should take a pass and refer the client to a group that can help.
After all, being aware of one’s limits is a big part of running a successful consulting practice.
A more valuable process
If we can agree that copywriters – freelance ones included – have a content strategy role to play, what are the practical implications of integrating a strategic consulting process with whatever it is they’re doing now?
Once again (you knew this was coming, right?), it all depends. First, copywriters will have to answer questions like:
- What kind of copywriter am I?
- Do I approach projects from a marketing perspective? As an information architect? A PR spokesperson?
- What are my clients like? What kind of help do they usually need?
Regardless of how the copywriter merges content strategy with existing processes, the transition won’t happen overnight. Procedures, methods, and tools will vary from freelancer to freelancer. What’s more, no copywriter will reach the point – and this can be frustrating – where everything’s “sorted.” They should prepare to learn something new from every project and to make new mistakes every day.
Content strategy, after all, is a new discipline. Most people haven’t heard of it, and many people think it’s something it’s not. As for those who do understand content strategy, even they concede it’s a field still coming in to its own.
How content strategy enters the copywriter’s process is completely up to the copywriter. What matters is whether the new process offers more value to clients than writing alone.
It’s got to. Otherwise, what’s the point?