Richard Sheffield: Get your first job in content strategy

If you’re a web-savvy technical author and you’re looking to move your career in a new and exciting direction, content strategy might be the right step for you. In his book The Web Content Strategist’s Bible, Richard Sheffield outlines his own progress from technical writer to content strategist, and what you need to know to do it, too! Richard has kindly given permission to reprint excerpts from his book here. Thank you, Richard. If you are interested in pursuing a career in content strategy, I highly suggest you buy Richard’s book.

RichardSheffieldIf you are convinced that Web content strategy is something you would like to try, the goal is probably closer than you think. If you have any kind of writing background, you are more than half the way there. You probably understand a lot about the writing process and have some useful experience. But the most important advice I can give you regarding your job search is:

Don’t believe everything you read in Web content strategist’s job descriptions!

Three-quarters of the “requirements” listed are probably “nice to have” but not essential, or are just standard boiler plate. Every company wants a “self-starter” who can “work well without supervision”. Don’t worry too much about the long list of qualifications cited. Go ahead and apply anyway. A well-written and designed resume may be all it takes to get your foot in the door.

Follow these steps to get ready to start looking for a job as a Web content strategist:

  1. Look at how you describe your previous work in your résumé. Your previous job titles are very important. The first thing a résumé reviewer looks at is your previous experience. You need to emphasise any Web experience, preferably in the position title. For instance, if you did any writing and editing for anything that ended up on the Web, break that out and list your title as Web Writer. If you edited the work of others, list this on a separate line as Web Editor. Don’t make things up, but be sure to play up any work you have done for a Web audience.
  2. Most résumés are stored digitally these days so they can be searched. To help potential clients find you, make sure you use the magic words listed below. If you have done anything like tracking writing work with a spreadsheet, call it out and refer to the document as a “matrix”. This has a special meaning in the Web design and development world. These are the words for which clients are searching when looking for Web content strategy help. Use as many of them as you can, even if they only appear in the description of the kind of job you are seeking:
    • Web content
    • Content Strategist
    • Web
    • Internet
    • Content Matrix
    • Content Management
    • WCMS
  3. Craft a strong cover letter, again using as many of the magic words listed above as possible and calling out any applicable experience. I’m always amazed at how many applicants fail to take a few minutes to write a simple, targeted cover letter.
  4. Develop a few good samples of your work. It’s very important to have a sample of a content matrix in your portfolio. So if you have never built one before, create something to use as a sample. If you are applying for a job with a specific company, look at its existing website and create a basic matrix for a small part of the site. A trick that has worked for me is to look at the source code for each Web page (in Internet Explorer, select the View menu, then select Source) and look in the first few lines of code for something that might be the unique identifier for that page and list it in your matrix. This is just one thing that will set you apart from other candidates. Don’t worry too much about making up a content matrix, you are just showing the potential client that you understand the idea.
  5. Create a simple branding scheme to tie all of your documents together visually. This is a huge step that most people miss. Think about your audience: these are creative design and communications people. They care about how things look and design consistency. You want to be able to sit down across a desk from an interviewer and hand them a folder containing a cover letter, a résumé, a list of references (if you have them) and samples that have the same design and appearance. You don’t have to go overboard here, but just find one or two little design elements and use them consistently across all your documents. I was quite successful doing something as simple as making the first letter of my name red and using brackets creatively here and there. You don’t have to do much because almost no one else will go to the trouble.
  6. Build PDF files out of all of these documents so they can be quickly and easily emailed or uploaded.
  7. Save an unformatted, text-only version of your résumé to be used on the major job websites like Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com. This version should have no formatting besides carriage returns to make sure things line up correctly. Don’t rush through this version. The text-only, online version of your resume is usually a recruiter’s first exposure to you and you attention to detail. If you are sloppy with this document, they will assume that all your work is equally sloppy and pass you by.

An added bonus would be to have all of your documentation and samples available online in a website, but only go this far if you are already comfortable building and designing websites. It’s not necessary, will take too much time if you are learning, and could do more harm than good if it is poorly designed and built.

Finding Web content strategist jobs

You should target three groups when looking for Web content strategist jobs:

  • Large corporations
  • Web design studios
  • Technical and marketing contracting companies

When just starting out, a good place to concentrate is the third category – companies that provide short-term workers on contract. These companies already have the connections to companies in your area and have access to many jobs that are never posted on any job board.

Find these companies by looking online and by looking at job ads posted on the big job websites like Monster and CareerBuilder. Many of the listings will be placed by contracting companies who will be happy to have your résumé in the database. Contact these companies directly and let them know you are seeking contract work as a Web writer/editor or a Web content strategist. They probably don’t know what that means, but if your résumé has the right keywords, it will come up when they are searching for résumé to send to their clients.

If you get contacted by a contracting company to go on an interview with a client, be sure to bring along your package of nicely designed and formatted samples. What the client gets from the contracting company will be pretty basic and unattractive. Be sure to leave a nice copy of your work with the client following your interview.

Once you have contacted contracting companies in your area, start working on any Web design studios in your area or nearby cities. Again, the easiest way to work for these companies is to start off on contract. Look them up on the Web and see if you can find a name and address. Send them a nice cover letter introducing yourself as a local Web writer/editor and content strategist. Web design studios often hire these people on contract for a specific project as they usually don’t have enough work to keep a staff of Web writers and strategists around as full-time employees.

You may have to take a job or two as a Web writer to build up your portfolio and experience, but eventually a content strategist job will come along. Once you get your foot in the door with a couple of clients, you will probably have all the work you can handle.

The right attitude

Here is a final word or two about attitude. Once you get an interview and are sitting across the table from an interviewer, a good, positive attitude will get you further than you might think. If someone has taken the time to call you in to meet, the company is probably already satisfied with your qualifications. Now the project manager just wants to meet you and see how you might fit in with the project team.

Here are a few things that impress me when I am interviewing Web content strategist candidates:

  • You really want this particular job and want to do this particular kind of work. Few things will turn me off faster than someone who just wants any job in the Web field. I want to hire someone who really wants to work in the Web content area. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to train someone new, so a manager wants to hire someone who would be willing to stick around if the opportunity presents itself and there is a good fit with the team. The manager is probably not going to tell you this during the interview, but the thought is there.
  • You are confident in your ability to learn. Learning a new website and new content management system is always a challenge. Experience has shown most hiring managers that a large percentage of writers do not have the technical aptitude to pick it up and be successful. Without being cocky, show the manager that you are confident that you will be able to learn whatever is needed.
  • You don’t apologise or belittle your background. If you have weak areas or missing qualifications, don’t bring them up unless the hiring manager asks about them. If asked, just highlight your positive experience, explain your understanding of the area in question, and be confident that it won’t be a problem.

The jobs are there

I see new job openings all the time and more projects are using a content strategist as part of the core team. As with any career field, persistence and networking pay off. If there is an interactive marketing organisation in your area, join and go to the events. Meet people, get your name out there, and the work will come. It’s a fun, creative and exciting career field with a lot of potential growth. If you want it, it’s certainly there for the taking.

Richard Sheffield, extract reproduced with permission from The Web Content Strategist’s Bible. Copyright © 2009, published by Cluefox Publishing.

Content strategy in Europe

Are you based in Europe? Are you looking for a content strategist or seeking content strategy jobs? Firehead is the leading recruiter for content strategists in Europe, as well as a major resource for information on the field. Check out the Content Strategy section on the sidebar for further help and information, and we look forward to hearing from both content strategy candidates and those with positions to fill.

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