Our job Q&A series continues with Elizabeth McGuane, a freelance content strategist based in London. Formerly a journalist, she has become a respected expert in the field of content strategy and regularly speaks at digital and design conferences. She’s worked with organisations both large (DigitasLBi, FleishmanHillard, the British Council) and small (Futuregov, Offset). Read on to discover what life as a freelance content strategist is like – what the practical day-to-day work involves, pros and cons, career development, rates of pay and more.
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What is your job title?
I’m an independent content strategist but I don’t obsess over the title. I work in a variety of ways and under many interesting hats: some long-term retainers, some mid-term (say, six-month) projects, and some short-term sessions of a few days or weeks. I work with startups, big agencies, small agencies and non-digital companies that care about content and design.
What does a typical day involve?
Depending on the client and the day, I might be helping out on pitches, auditing and analysing language and structure, editing content, delving into analytics, running workshops, setting up working practices and production cycles, devising year-long content production plans, doing business process analysis to figure out what clients should do next, mapping out user research (or just arguing with people that it should be done).
What qualifications/background do you need for content strategy?
I would never say one single background was the right one – the sensible content strategist aims to see things from more than one point of view. My background was books and newspapers, mashed through the sieve of my first digital job, which was very Web-build-focused. Most good strategists have more than ‘just’ a marketing or technical or information architecture background. We all benefit from seeing and being able to articulate the connections between format, content and process.
What’s your biggest challenge?
That when people ask for ‘content strategy’ I have very little way of knowing what they want right away. It’s the beginning of a process of psychoanalysis that often doesn’t end. But that’s OK: I like asking questions. It’s just frustrating that the term is now so conflated with marketing in many people’s minds. I’ve defended the term, in my time, and still ally myself with it, because sometimes labels are as much about community than anything else.
What is the best bit about being a content strategist?
The field is still growing, still changing, still yet to be solidified and defined, and that’s a good thing to me. It’s the best reflection of the digital world we’re living in: one that’s always evolving, one that rejects attempts to define it once and for all.
Any advice for someone trying to break into the field?
That the things that frustrate you about your work are things you can change (and they’re also often things only you can change), and you should work on them and don’t let anyone make you feel that you don’t have the knowledge or skills to make a start: new perspectives are always necessary. But I also wish I knew that I couldn’t change everything. Sometimes the reasons things don’t work are because of human politics not technology.
What’s the rate of pay?
It varies widely. And sadly, consultancy and business strategy work usually pays more than the small, interesting product-focused projects I enjoy. I’d say £450 is a minimum London day rate but that could be significantly higher for an experienced senior content strategist.
Is there job mobility and security?
It feels secure to me. In terms of the market right now, there seems to be a lot of work at on long-term contracts with big blue-chip clients. There’s a lot of consulting work at a senior level, too. But if you want the interesting, unusual contracts, they come in all shapes and sizes, and I’m lucky enough to be flexible enough right now to go after them.
What about training and development options?
There is, as far as I know, no official college course specifically on content strategy, and that’s probably a good thing for now.
As I said, it’s about bringing different perspectives to the table: the content strategist will (like other UX practitioners) benefit from learning about many of the disciplines that explore what it means to relate to the world as a human, including library science, literature, languages, linguistics, psychology, etc.
Right now I’m reading Leah Buley’s The User Experience Team of One, and it’s great. Margot Bloomstein is also a great, practical writer on messaging and the more brand-focused ends of content strategy.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
If you want to have an existential crisis, try setting up your own business. I feel like I’ve already had a couple of careers, and I wouldn’t presume to know what Future Me will want to do. But I hope it won’t be doing big global-to-local website redesigns that don’t take into account internal human factors (eg, how a company actually works). I hope and will do my best to ensure that content work becomes more agile and fluid, and more an integrated part of how products and services are built, instead of an afterthought. Coincidentally, ‘Afterthought’ is the name of my content strategy emo-punk band.
Do you have a motto or guiding principle when you work?
I wanted to call my business ‘Content for Use’, and I’m sort of sorry I didn’t. Content must above all things be useful, even if its primary use is entertainment. Also, if it’s useful, someone’s ipso facto using it. We forget that too often. We don’t think about audience except as a sort of passive persona, not a real person. Basically, my motto is: ‘Be useful, and use your common sense’.