Content strategy jobs survey results part 5 – can’t get the staff!

multiple red stamps of 'rejected'We’re coming to the end of posting the results from our Content Strategy Hiring Trends Survey*. Our penultimate – and epic – post raises issues employers are currently having when they recruit content strategists.

We asked:  Have you faced any particular content strategy recruitment/hiring issues? What problems have you experienced with your content talent?

More than half (57%) of our survey respondents had experienced problems when hiring, or trying to hire, a content strategist. Their issues break down into two main areas:

  1. Employers can’t find people with the full set of content strategy skills and experience level for the job.
  2. Employers can’t find content strategists due to access issues – location, industry needs or other more general recruitment issues.

So let’s dig into our respondents’ responses a little further.

Skills/experience shortage

1. Hands vs brains

“People who claim to be content strategists couldn’t strategize their way out of a box.”

In Firehead’s mid-survey post highlighting this issue, Scott Abel of content strategy consultancy The Content Wrangler revealed in the comments that this was his survey quote. Several other commenters agreed with his thoughts and suggested why it may be the case that strategy skills and big picture-thinking are missing.

Content strategist Kris Mausser, for example, said: “I think the reason for this is that many of the tools that make up a content strategist’s arsenal (content inventory, audits, modelling, messaging, etc) are all tactical in nature. None of them focus on the bigger strategy. For many, this is a micro look at the bigger picture. The problem then arises when they don’t have the experience or background to connect the dots between what the tactical is telling them, and what the broader organizational objectives are requiring of them to consider.”

Mark Baker also commented: “It is not reasonable to expect strategic thinking from someone who does not have a strategic vantage point. It is not the fault of the individual content strategist, therefore, that they do not occupy a position from which it is possible to form or execute a strategic vision.”

Since that post, more survey responses have been added to this effect, such as one respondent who said their their key issue was hiring someone with “the ability to be both detailed AND see the wider strategic view. We have worked with people who are great at really finely detailed audits but can’t make judgement calls about what’s most important.”

The strategy element is paramount – and you can’t get this if you don’t have a global view of the organisation, as Rahel Bailie and Noz Urbina point out so articulately in their new book Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits.  A global view of the organisation means working across all of the silos – and breaking them down.

One of the ways to address this is to book in an external consultant for the project – at least to set it up – as they can be introduced to the organisation in a way that those working within it just can’t see.

2. Text-centric wannabes

“Too many content strategists are simply focused only on text. They have little experience in the ways of analysis of other types of content, eg, video.”

“Lots of copywriters think they are content strategists, and they are not. A lot of people think you only have to love to write to become a content strategist, but this is completely irrelevant.”

The message from these two respondents is clear for jobseekers: content is not just copy so ignore gathering experience with other media at your peril.

At Firehead, we receive CVs every day from people who have ‘polished up’ their profile by calling themselves content strategists. This is the new buzzword – especially in the tech comm community because the perception is that content strategy pays more money (which is does for those with the right skills and experience – see our post on how much content strategy pays).

But just because you can write, or have even managed several large organisation writing projects, does not make you a content strategist. It’s not your fault that tech comm, for example, is traditionally a silo within an organisation – it’s a traditional model that most of us have inherited – but a strategist can come in and see where work is being needlessly duplicated or even contradictory.

This is not to say that writing skills aren’t important. You may not have to do the hands-on writing work in content strategy work – except for the report deliverables – but you do need the ability to recognise copy problems and analyse where textual content isn’t performing.

As another survey respondent said: “We have hired content strategists that weren’t very good writers in the past. We now give them a writing test before we interview them.”

Summary: writing skill ≠ content strategy but writing = important content strategy skill.

3. All theory and no practice

“People calling themselves content strategists or CS ‘advocates’ who have only come across content strategy online, in a book or in talks.”

This survey respondent continued: “People who are very good at dispensing theories on putting CS into organisations but have no practical experience of this and the politics involved. Any idiot can tell you what the ideal world would be. Unfortunately real content strategists have to deal with the real world.”

Amen to this one. Content strategy makes perfect sense when you read about it in a book or hear about an approach at a conference but it can often get messy in application, especially in larger organisations where content production and strategy is often siloed or politics get in the way of strategy sign-offs. This is where experience is invaluable.

4. Not agency material

“Lack of familiarity/comfort with the pace and requirements of agency life.”

“Finding people with the right mix of editorial and agency/client-facing skills.”

With 30% of survey respondents coming from a marketing or digital communications agency, it’s not surprising that this issue was raised. Not every hire is a good fit for agency life.

Agency work can be fast-paced with tight turnaround times and even tighter budgets. You should be prepared to pick up the pace, work under constant pressure and hop between multiple clients, platforms and pitch work. That said, there’s no better place to get breadth of experience – if you can stand the heat.

5. Tech-shy or stuck in a single discipline

“We wanted people with solid writing skills, plus some other technical skill, such as indexing, Plain Language, structured content, web development, library sciences, procedural writing, plus the ability to pull content apart and rework it to meet the overall vision.”

Lack of technical know-how is a common complaint in content strategy (and tech comm) but tech skills are in demand and definitely gain a premium when it comes to hiring – as shown in our previous post on the skills that boost content strategy pay.

But it’s not just tech that’s missing. It could equally be that techie types don’t have the project/people management skills or content analysis experience to easily step up to the tasks of content strategy work. It goes both ways.

Another respondent also experienced a skills gap:

“Lack of multiple competencies: IA, SEO, marketing, technical writing. Lack of knowledge of Internet as a medium.”

We think this issue ties in with the ‘text-centric’ and strategy skills point. Many content workers are attracted to content strategy because it seems to build so well onto their individual experience and skills but, as employers are asking for much more in their hires, you’ll need to have an understanding of all the competencies that feed into content strategy – or risk not rounding out your consultancy work fully.

Remember, content strategy is not about content itself, it is about improving the performance of content – in any number of ways.

Access to talent

Going beyond the tickbox of specific skills/experience, the second area where our survey respondents experienced hiring problems was in a more general lack of available talent.

6. Affordability

“Talented people tend to take high salaries offered by major companies instead of looking to develop their skills in smaller, more creative environments where they are likely to be given more responsibility and affect products more directly.”

Yes, it is hard to attract great content strategy talent – especially if your budget is tight. (Aside: we launched the Firehead Bitesize service as a way to address this problem and the needs of clients with smaller budgets.) But it’s not all about the money, it’s also about access…

7. Availability

In an evolving field that is still setting out its standards and still frequently using word-of-mouth when it comes to hiring, a simple lack of available talent, due to location or sector specialism, was noted in the following survey feedback:

“It’s very hard to find good, talented motivated people who get it.”

“Matching availability of great freelancers with client contracts.”

“A dearth of content strategists on the freelance market in [our city].”

“ Access to SME freelance content producers in areas like pharma would be helpful.”

Many of these issues will resolve as the field grows and develops, and incoming practitioners build on their experience. We also add (obviously) that using a specialist recruiter is another way to solve access problems and connect with appropriately vetted talent.

8. Advertising

Getting the job in front of the right people and with the correct job requirements attached to facilitate relevant responses was a major issue – as shown by this lengthy response:

“Recruitment is a big issue.  First, I have to argue with my boss over the job posting. Because she doesn’t understand what IA is, she thinks it’s something the project managers should do. Once I convince her that, yes, we have to be more specific than ‘oversees content’ in our description, the recruiter wants to post on – because my post says HTLM5 and Dice is where the techy people hang out. Fine, we can post to Dice, but I want it to go a broader audience. We settle at Dice and Monster, with me doing tons of legwork to email everyone I know, post in every professional organization’s job board I can find and asking for a link to the posting that I can tweet. The link the recruiter gives goes to a job board of his agency, where my opening isn’t even listed. And all of this is before I get to go through the stack of applicants that are woefully unskilled. (I’m talking interview comments such as ‘Sure, I’ve re-used content. I’ve done a lot of copy and pasting in my day’ and ‘I applied for this job because this office is close to my house. My job now doing the same thing is too far. Plus, I heard you had a gym.’ You can help by keeping me from stabbing myself in the eye.”

As niche recruiters, as opposed to the general recruiters referred to here, we think the quote above shows a pretty typical internal recruitment process for a large organisation. As you can see, there’s a lot of wasted time, trouble and expense – and all of this outside of the poor hirer’s job description.

But, especially as content strategy is a new field, and there is still low awareness from clients, we hear about this jumbled mess all too often. Worse still, it usually produces disappointing results. Generalist agencies will not help solve the recruitment problem because they don’t understand the specifics of the digital communications field.

More results to come: in our final results post, we reveal the processes, methods and trends that hirers said had saved them time and money.

* Our online survey questionnaire was disseminated via the Firehead blog and social networks inviting anyone in a position to hire in content strategy work, from HR managers to department heads. The survey remained open from 1 March to 1 August 2012. We also contacted a number of recruiters on Firehead’s client list as part of the exercise. The 30 respondent hirers came from a range of countries and backgrounds. Further results will be shared here on the Firehead blog. Firehead is a leading recruiter in digital communications and is based in Europe.


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