Being a lone wolf content strategist can be…lonely. Hell, content strategy can be lonely even as part of a content team. I know, because I’ve been there. Like many content strategists, I started by carving out a role for myself and my content work. Even when I was finally able to build a dedicated content team at the next job, we had to fight tooth and nail for resources, budget, priority. That’s why it tweaks my heartstrings when I continue to hear from content strategists in the Content + UX Slack group I host, who feel like short-order cooks turning out copy strings piece by piece, with no input on how orders are expedited or the menu is planned.
Sometimes they’re the lone content strategist overshadowed by a larger design team. Or they’re part of a small, brand new content team within a larger product organization. Too often, they struggle to find their place at the product table. In the words (and emoji) of one: “We’re struggling to get beyond ‘oh you guys just add in the copy at the end’ 🙄.” In my last role, I had the good fortune of having a wonderful program manager on my team to help me advocate, but not everyone has that luxury. So for those who are struggling, here is my (edited and expanded) response.
Why don’t they understand why content strategy matters?
When the content strategist is pulled into a project for copywriting at the last minute—after all the strategy decisions have been made and the design decisions are locked—there may be several potential issues at play.
Organizational politics have left people fighting for prioritization.
Organizations with unhealthy culture breed all sorts of bad behavior, and a death grip on product ownership is one of them. If risk or failure is shunned like the plague, or if someone feels their ideas are frequently dismissed, then collaboration can feel threatening. So people keep their work close to the vest and tightly control who they engage with and when. This leads to important roles and processes being shut out, at the expense of everyone (including content strategy and, ultimately, the product).
Poor organizational strategy has left people fighting for prioritization.
Same effect, different cause. When an organization doesn’t know how to identify and align workflows, important steps fall by the wayside. Often, processes are so chaotic that no one even realizes something as critical as foundational content strategy is missing—they’re too busy putting out the next fire to see the big picture.
The organization doesn’t even understand what content strategy is.
But…but…they’ve hired a content strategist, surely they must get it! Maybe. (And don’t call me Shirley.) That doesn’t mean they know how to integrate that role into a larger workflow. Never assume that just because a role exists, an organization knows how to implement it effectively. In my case, the brilliant woman who originally hired me onto the software UX team at GoPro knew full well that the team needed a content strategist—but no one else had caught up to us yet. Luckily, this is probably the easiest situation to fix, because it’s the one we have the most control over.
Introducing content strategy is a long game
I’m an impatient person by nature and Vanessa, GoPro’s Director of Software UX at the time, had to regularly remind me that people take time to catch up. She encouraged me to play the long game. It a pretty good learning curve for me, someone so used to working autonomously and getting shit done. But this shit takes time.
That means you need to completely change your perspective when a designer drops some high-fidelity mock-ups on your desk and says, “we need copy tomorrow so Engineering can get started.” This isn’t always the best time to respond with “but what we really need to do is make this drop-down a checklist, and why the hell are we asking the user for this personal information before they even know what they’re signing up for?” (Not that I’ve ever said anything even remotely like this. Nope, never.)
When people come to you for last-minute help, start taking mental notes instead. Rather than angrily poke holes in design decisions that have already been made and may be costly to change midstream, ask them to explain the thinking behind those decisions. Find out if there’s room to revisit the screen or flow once there are some user metrics to measure how effective the design is.
For a while, you’ll find yourself asking a lot of the same questions about the designs you’re working with:
- What’s the user’s context when entering this flow?
- How did we determine that this piece of information should come first?
- Why did we choose video over text to deliver this piece of information?
Document these questions as you scramble to fix UX issues with copy (keeping your curses to yourself), and then share those questions—on paper—with your designers. Do not tell them “next time, make sure you’ve answered these questions.” Instead, suggest that perhaps the two of you can choose a small design project in the future where you can pilot answering these questions before wireframing starts. Plant the seed. Play the long game.
Understand other teams’ workflows
Remember when I said that organizations with unhealthy culture breed all sorts of bad behavior? Well, it’s up to us to subvert dysfunctional office culture. If people are going to include you in their process, they need to trust you. You can’t waltz in, explain how awesome your work is, and expect anyone to give a shit. You have to first care about their work. You have to shut up and listen. Ask questions. Get to know someone’s particular workflow, or a team’s. This will allow you to identify where in their process you should be pulled in.
Don’t just stick to your designers. Find out how product managers decide to prioritize different features. Have an engineer walk you through their process for managing copy strings in the codebase. People generally like it when someone takes an interest in their work; when done authentically and without judgment, simply listening is one of your best tools for building relationships.
The “authentically and without judgment” thing is really important: while your ultimate purpose might be to find a way to insinuate yourself into their process, you have to first understand their motivations, the constraints they face every day, and their personal working style. You cannot truly understand these things unless you suspend your own needs for the time being.
Find your content strategy allies
As you listen to others and understand their own processes (and the motivations behind them), you’ll quickly discover there are some natural intersections between their work and yours. You’ll also learn who is predisposed to recognizing those intersections and grasping your value.
Because you cannot do this alone. This is what’s so powerful about software design in general, and content strategy in particular — and UX, and engineering, and product management: it’s an interdependent set of functions. So find a designer (or product manager, or engineer) ally. If you can make progress with one team member, they can talk your work up to others. They can advocate for you when they don’t see you in a meeting you should be in. They can provide case studies you can share to demonstrate your value to other teams.
As you’re building these relationships, be on the lookout for influencers. Find out who puts the project kickoff meetings on the calendar, for example. Get to know them, and ask if you can be invited to the next kickoff meeting so you can have early context and help identify any content issues before things get too far. If they’re hesitant to invite you, ask them to send you a meeting recap; they’ll almost always find it easier to just invite you, rather than take the extra time for a write-up. It may take persistence to get on the invite list consistently, but keep trying.
As you build those relationships, you’ll begin to see a snowball effect.
Make the content strategy work visible
The reality is, you will eventually have to talk about your work and tell your story. Try hosting a brown bag session (also called a “lunch and learn” for those feeling more specific), to share out about the different kinds of work you do. Bonus points if you can appropriate budget to provide the lunch (I won’t hold my breath). Remember to frame your work in a way that colleagues understand how it makes their job easier. Or host short workshops on content modeling or interface writing for designers who want to improve their UX content skills.
If you really hate public speaking, practice with your content team (or a couple of work buddies, if you’re a lone wolf), says Aaron Burgess, Content Design Director of HomeAway. In a recent conversation in the Content + UX Slack group, he suggested “[running] a workshop for your immediate team on a subject that’s near and dear to you, but not necessarily in the remit of the UX designers you work with.” Not only will it get you comfortable framing and positioning your work, it “can help to clarify the differences between your art and theirs, while demonstrating how your team brings value to the work UX designers do.”
There are endless ways to make your content strategy work visible. The trick is to tailor it to the realities of your particular workplace dynamics. Crib a note from GoPro’s design researchers, for example, who sent out newsletter summaries of the tests they were running, key research takeaways from completed studies, and other relevant news.
Or leverage existing tools, like Slack. Before leaving GoPro, I set up a SlackBot to automatically reply when someone mentioned any of several content-related keywords. The SlackBot would post a rule from our app content guidelines, serving as a reminder to everyone in the channel that we actually had guidelines.
Make yourself easy to work with
When people are busy and juggling priorities, they’ll inevitably follow the path of least resistance. It’s unrealistic to expect designers or product managers to detour out of their way to meet your needs before their own. So you need to put yourself on their path with a big flashing sign. And maybe donuts.
Sara Border, UX Copywriter at Cisco, gets practical here. “Get a solid copy process going; get it visualized for everyone to see exactly where you fit in, how copy requests work, what information you need from the requester, what turnaround times will be, etc.” Do the same for the content strategy work. When non-content folks can clearly visualize how the strategy work leads into the copy work, they start to understand the value of reaching out early.
And all of a sudden, there I was at the project’s beginning instead of the end.
One of the most valuable collaborative tools at GoPro were my Content Office Hours. I kept a standing one-hour meeting on my calendar every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; literally anyone could sign up and ask me anything content-related. I rarely spent three hours a week in these meetings, though; even with several team members signing up each week, they typically needed only 15- or 30-minute sessions, and the slots were distributed so I often got some time back each hour. I created a dead-easy sign-up form using the tools the team was already comfortable with. It included both a WebEx link for remote team members and a conference room (the same link and room every time) for those of us in the office. The consistency helped people remember my availability. Seriously: every little thing you can do to make things easier helps.
When I started Content Office Hours, people didn’t just start showing up, however. At first, they continued to grab me in the hallway or email me their work for review. I’d simply ask them to sign up for a slot at the next office hour, never more than a day or two away. Over time, I was able to educate UX designers in these one-on-one sessions about how content strategy supported the work they were showing me. Importantly, I could also ask them what was next on their plate; almost always they would pull out early stage work to show me. And all of a sudden, there I was at the project’s beginning instead of the end.
Celebrate your work
Flying solo as a content strategist surrounded by designers, engineers, and product managers is challenging. It can be incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. Design is just sexier to people than words and audits and spreadsheets. But it doesn’t have to be.
You owe it to yourself to celebrate the work you do well. Celebrate those moments when your audit of a particular user flow helped the design team identify trouble spots worth fixing. And do it publicly. At your next team meeting, give a shout-out to your designer colleagues who pull you in early to map user flows. Show your colleagues what successful content strategy looks like.
It’s not easy to play the long game. It takes patience to lay the foundation of collaborative working relationships across an organization. But as your work gains visibility and people see others benefiting from working with you, small wins will become bigger wins.
One day you’ll look at your calendar, and it will be filled with kickoff meetings and strategy sessions and brainstorms. You will realize that your colleagues find you so valuable that they’ll barely let you get up from the damn table long enough for a pee break. You should celebrate that win, too.
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