Content Strategy, a definition

That white goose black sheep knows how to position itself.

That white goose black sheep knows how to position itself.

When I introduce myself at networking events as a content strategist and copywriter, people usually ask me about the writing that I do but not the strategy. A few days ago, I was surprised to meet a fellow content strategist who asked me the question I'd been waiting for: what is content strategy?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, content is information made available by a website or other electronic medium. For instance, this blog post is considered content. Strategy, meanwhile, is the art of planning and directing. Keeping these definitions in mind, I've concluded that content strategy includes the following:

  • planning the information to be presented (the content itself, i.e. the words that make up the paragraphs of a website, blog post, etc.)
  • planning the execution of content (the context/schedule, i.e. Monday Emailing, Tuesday Tweet, Wednesday Blog, Thursday LinkedIn, Friday Facebook)
  • directing the presentation of content (the design, i.e. the amount of white space, the use of headings, format)

Wikipedia's definition mirrors the above: "Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content--written or other media." The entry cites other useful definitions taken from the mouths of established content strategists.

When I first started this biz, I expected freelance writing to mostly involve typing away on my laptop, reading sources, interviewing clients, and typing some more. I soon realized, however, that writing isn't enough. I could write a marvelous blog post, hand it over to my client, and it might never see the light of day. If you want people to read your writing, you need to handle it strategically--you need to plan how it will appear on a screen and when it will appear on a screen. You need to make sure you're covering SEO and basic human elements, like humor and voice. Obviously, the most important thing is to make sure the quality of the content is mind-blowingly good, but content without strategy is no better than a letter lost to the bottom of your junk drawer.

Next time I introduce myself at a networking event as a content strategist, this is what I will say: "There may be plenty of people who know how to write a decent sentence, but there aren't many people who know how to create stuff that actually gets noticed."

Break the Rules: How to Help Your Business Stand Out

Today I gave a presentation at a Chicago Women Entrepreneur Network (CWEN) event. Here's the spiel I shared:

The outfit I like to wear when giving presentations.

The outfit I like to wear when giving presentations.

I started The Magma Lab after I took an internship at a presentation design company. I learned that some businesses succeed more than others only because they are different--they stand out, people notice them, word spreads, and business grows. I guess it's pretty obvious. Think of Apple--iPhones and iPads weren't new technology, but Apple marketed them differently and it caught people's attention. You don’t even have to be great--just different. Think of Lady Gaga--she's not the most talented singer in the world; she's known because she's unusual.

With a business, though, how can you be different? It’s likely that you’re doing the same thing some other company is doing, offering the same product another company offers... Or maybe you do offer something unique, in which case you want to make sure your customers or investors understand that thing that sets you apart. If you want to get noticed, there’s something you should get comfortable with...

Breaking the rules. Part of the reason I love being a freelancer is that there’s no one getting angry at me for breaking the rules. That’s my job: to help you break the rules because breaking the rules helps you stand out. Innovation requires taking a look around for rules that you can intentionally break. That doesn't mean you need to break all the rules--just the bad ones.

Bad Rule #1: Look/sound/feel corporate. How are you supposed to stand out without showcasing your own voice or personality? How are going to get noticed if you hide the things that make you who you are? I help people communicate their stories and voice so that others notice and appreciate them for who they are. It's not very easy to capture your own voice, and sometimes we need help figuring out what really makes us different.

Bad Rule #2: Focus on your customers. What you offer shouldn’t be what everybody wants. It should be what some people want and it should be what you want to offer. If you want to stand out, be specific and focus on what matters to you. You should know why you’re doing what you’re doing; the right people for you will follow.

Bad Rule #3: Trust tradition. Tried and true will only get you so far. If humans evolve and change is inevitable, it’s time to let go of the status quo. Yes, change is hard. So is succeeding. Nothing amazing ever came from playing it safe.

If you are ready to break rules and want to learn what rules you should break, I invite you to come talk to me and grab one of my business cards. We can have fun breaking bad things together.

Lessons from My Quests: Level 1 Freelancer

The original Guild Wars. Good times. #pyromancer

The original Guild Wars. Good times. #pyromancer

As a sometimes MMORPG gamer, I like to imagine my experience bar filling up as I complete projects and develop my skills. Here are some of the lessons I've learned thus far as a budding freelancer.

1. The fake it till you make it method works if you consciously fortify your confidence. As Henry Ford once said, "If you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." There are countless resources available (sometimes for free, like this one!) that can help you feel more confident in the skills you want to claim. After landing my first client and getting down to the work of presentation development (chartered territory, thankfully), I found myself doubting my abilities nearly every step of the way. How dumb did I sound on that call? Did I quote too low? Am I doing good work? Instead of asking questions that you cannot answer, ask only, "Is this something I want to do? Yes?" Then do it and read up on how to do it better until your work is awesome and you feel awesome.

2. Keep it simple. You can apply this clichéd philosophy to pretty much everything in life. In regards to business, keeping things "simple" (or simplified to their lowest common denominators) improves almost every situation: phone calls, emails, meetings, contracts, content, design, style, money, intent. Keep it simple, sister. 

3. It's okay when your customer disagrees with you. Although I think I know some things about writing and design (cue the Socratic paradox), sometimes customers aren't going to be on board with my opinion no matter what. Part of me feels compelled to insist on a particular recommendation that I know will serve them best. But my clients' perspectives will not always jive with mine, and that's okay. While I may not subscribe to "the customer is always right," I do subscribe to, "the customer deserves to be happy." When a client wants to do something that contradicts my sensibilities, I state my case and move on.

This is Pepper, my cat who hates everyone except people who hate cats.

This is Pepper, my cat who hates everyone except people who hate cats.

4. Being yourself pays off. It's true that your personality can be a big part of what you offer, especially if you're going to be in constant communication with your clients. Being yourself will attract people more like you, and working with people more like you motivates you to be more productive, and therefore happy. I know it sounds fluffy, but authenticity is the best tool for building a solid reputation and doing good work. People can sense inauthenticity like cats can sense allergic friends; it's a good thing to get over whatever's keeping you from being yourself.

5. Say yes. Don't lose an opportunity to insecurity or fear. My first three freelance projects could have gotten away from me had I not been ready to embrace the unexpected. Client #1: a business veteran; I needed to exert my authority or risk weakening my credibility/my client's trust. Client #2: proposed I do a project that I had never done before. Client #3: had turned down my initial proposal, but then came back to me later. 

Soon I expect to have a lot more to share about networking experiences. Until then, I'll keep making my way to Level 2.