9 Ways to Tell if a Content Strategist is Worth Bringing Aboard

DockQuick…what do you think of when you hear the term “content strategy”? Truth is, if you asked 10 people what it meant, you’d probably get 10 different answers coming from 10 different lenses and 10 different agendas. Frankly there’s so much smoke around the term now that the pile-on is in full effect, we hesitate to even use it.

That doesn’t mean brands don’t need clarity around their production and use of content though, because boy they really do. We hear so much about how critically important content is, but that’s not true. Using the right content in the right way…that’s what is critically important. But how do you make sure a content strategist is the real deal and can actually help you?

1. You can talk to a client who says they brought value
No, that client’s situation won’t be the same as yours, and maybe they used the strategist to execute on a very specific problem, but they will be able to tell you if the person walked in the door knowing their stuff, was an outstanding listener, took the time to understand the challenge, and delivered a solid plan. They might be able to share results, or they might have to admit the company failed on its part to follow through with the strategist’s plan (it happens). But you’ll at least know how professional and worthwhile the engagement was.

All the planning, strategy and tech in the world will get you straight to nowhere unless you have people who know how to entertain and inform.

2. They’ve made stuff before that was a “hit”
You lay down on an operating table and the surgeon comes in. You ask, “How many spleens have you removed doc?” And she answers, “Well, none really, but I’ve read a lot of blogs about it and I’ve been to a whole lot of spleen conferences.” Get where I’m going with this? All the strategy, planning and tech in the world will get you straight to nowhere unless you have people who know how to entertain and inform, who’ve proven they can attract, hold, build, and captivate audiences.

3. They’ll tell you up front what they don’t know
One of my favorite consultants came in to the company where I was working at the time holding a legal pad. He said, “I’ve written down everything I know for sure about what we’re getting into here” and slid it across the table. It was blank. Yes, they should walk in the door knowing their stuff, but what they should not do is assume or presume. Your content strategist should be a partner in the truest sense of the word, meaning they must intimately grasp your unique situation before getting prescriptive (or showing off). None of us know everything, and there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” Do you want an honest partner or one that’s really good at juking you out?

4. They’ll include tech stack, testing and analytics in the conversation
Taking that honesty about what a content strategist does and doesn’t know to the next step, there’s no way a strategist can be the deepest of experts in all the disciplines involved in content marketing, marketing automation, account based marketing, influence marketing, social media marketing, content production, etc. etc. etc. There are simply too many of them, so put your unicorn dreams out to pasture. What the right content strategist will do, however, is have a solid working knowledge, include the challenges each discipline brings and not try to eliminate them from the conversation. If deeper expertise is needed, the strategist will align the right resources.

If you hear them pivoting their entire business model based on what you say during your initial meeting, proceed with caution.

5. They won’t be the “we do that too” guys
Like everybody else, content strategists should have a passion for what they’re out there doing. If I tell a hot dog vendor that what I really want is spaghetti, and he says, “Oh…uh, yeah, I got that too!” then runs 3 blocks, orders take-out spaghetti and brings it back to me, does he really know spaghetti? Am I getting the best spaghetti? (Terrible example – no hot dog vendor I know would run 3 blocks). Good strategists should already have a fair idea of how they can best be of help. If you hear them pivoting their entire business model based on what you say during your initial meeting, proceed with caution.

6. They won’t take your business if you aren’t committed to content
You’ve got to have some respect for vendors who are willing to walk away from a deal. When it’s personally and professionally important for content strategists to know that they’re being effective and productive, their joie de vivre gets put at great risk when they take on clients that really just want to go around in circles about content. Joe Pulizzi’s overarching theme at the most recent Content Marketing World was about just that, this ongoing desire to “noodle” with content without truly committing long enough to reap its benefits. Good content strategists need to see full execution and results.

7. They’ll wrestle you tooth and nail to satisfy the target
Just like the best companies are customer-centric, the best content strategists are obsessive about the audience. Remember, the good ones are tested entertainers and journalists, so they aren’t happy unless they’re seeing “applause” in the form of engagement or calls to action being acted on. They live to address prospect questions with great content. Nothing embarrasses them more than interrupting the wrong users with irrelevant messages. Oh wait, there is one thing that does; company-focused, self-serving, force-it-down-their-throats messaging designed to please some internal stakeholder.

It’s important to them that your delighted content consumers translate into new customers, retained customers, or expanded revenue.

8. They care about ROI and your bottom line
I can think of no other occupation than brand content strategist that demands the total fusion of artist and corporate wonk with more of a straight face. Your ideal content strategist (if you can get them) loves coming up with ideas for content and producing that content and putting it out there on the digital stage. They love putting on the show, and as soon as they’re done putting on one show, they’re ready to put on another. But they also want that content to accomplish something. It’s not art for art’s sake. It’s important to them that your delighted content consumers translate into new customers, retained customers, or expanded revenue. They need applause from the client as much as they need it from the public.

9. They’ll go kumbaya with sales and marketing departments
The thought-leadership glitterati are abuzz about how sales and marketing departments must work more closely together than ever before. They’re right. The days of both being able to sit in their respective silos and throw darts at each other (marketing isn’t delivering the right leads, sales isn’t acting on what marketing is pulling in) are waning. Marketing is now being held accountable for revenue and thinking more about deeper parts of the funnel. This means content strategy, traditionally a function of marketing, is assuming a new role that umbrellas marketing and sales. In other words, the two must align under one content strategy or you’ll have cylinders misfiring and a badly tuned engine that leaves the driver, the customer, on the side of the road scratching their heads. The best content strategists shine when both sales and marketing are at the table.

Armed with these little litmus tests, hopefully you’ll be able to more confidently bring on the content strategy guidance needed to produce and leverage content your users will value, and that will wiggle that bottom line. It’d be a shame to operate in content chaos one week longer.

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