Rahel Bailie’s anatomy of a content strategist

Following our birthday callout for guest bloggers, we’re like big kids at a birthday party because Firehead’s first poster is one of the world’s leading content strategists. Rahel Anne Bailie has gone from a background in technical communication and UX to head up Intentional Design, which applies content strategy to commerce. Here she talks about the anatomy of this emerging profession and how you can apply your particular skills.

rahel_bailie“Content strategy is like talking about doctors…’
Content strategy is a relatively new profession, and a big profession. Within it are numerous fields of practice. To use an analogy, talking about content strategy is a like talking about doctors. Doctors range from neurologists to podiatrists, and all body parts in between, but they all started with the basics of anatomy, whether  their specialties ended up being gerontology or pediatrics, psychiatry or orthopedic surgery.

Similarly, content strategy starts with practitioners who understand content at an elemental level that other professions rarely consider. They understand the potential of content in ways that others overlook. They understand how content connects to other content, how the development and delivery of content affects, and is affected by, practices connected to the profession, and how content connects to content consumers.

‘…except there are no set qualifications
Where the analogy differs is that our understanding comes, not from a common educational background of some school of content anatomy, but from a wide range of professions. There is no Bachelor of Content Strategy, with a Masters of [your specialty goes here]. Rather, practitioners are already accomplished with their specialties, and stretch their skills to embrace ideas beyond the confines of their existing practice areas.

Aptitude counts
Given that content strategy is still developing as a field, there is no defined skill set – yet. There are certain commonalities – you only have to look at the various job postings to determine what the flavour of the month is – which thankfully don’t focus on knowledge of particular software programs or technology platforms.

The profession is coming of age in an era where, increasingly, organisations “hire for aptitude and train for skills.” After all, the music is not in the violin, but the musician whose training overlays a strong aptitude – a gift – to bring music to life.

Build on your specialty
How does this apply to content strategy? I would contend that a content strategist is more than simply a smart writer or a smart technologist. True, a content strategist should have a range of skills that spans the particular practice area. A content strategist in a PR agency will require different skills than one focusing on user assistance. Both content strategists will have a common baseline knowledge of content – content development and editing, for example, but the specialties will be significantly different.

Add big-picture thinking
More importantly, content strategists should be big-picture thinkers. They need to have enough conceptual smarts to understand how content could better flow through a given system to exploit the content to its fullest potential.

They need to understand, theoretically and practically, which types of techniques or technologies will deliver content to meet various, sometimes competing, business needs. They will have an understanding of the interrelationships between people, processes, and technology. They will have system awareness and knowledge of implementation best practices, and understand content migration techniques, content standards, and how to balance these tensions when developing a content strategy.

Take the long view
These qualifications may seem like a tall order, but in reality, it’s not much different from the demands made of management consultants. Content strategy isn’t for everyone; it’s for the subset of content practitioners who, over the years, developed a long view and know how to implement it.

Rahel Anne Bailie, 2010

Want to know how to explain content strategy to an employer, hire a content strategist or conduct your own career transition to content strategy?  Rahel has expanded this post into a four-part series over on the Intentional Design blog:


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