Interview with a… Content Strategist

Destry Wion is well-known in content strategy circles as an independent content strategist and one of the founders of the Content Strategy Forum, the first-ever content strategy conference. He’s from Seattle, USA, and now works out of Strasbourg, France. Here he talks about having to adapt in the fast-changing world of digital communications and offers some advice for those wanting to break into content strategy and how to push the business case for it.

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Destry WionWhat is your job title?

That’s a hard question. I tailor my services around content, communication, and workflows, and how technology plays into that. ‘Content strategist’ probably makes the most sense, but that’s not quite right either because I pull from various UX disciplines.

What does the content strategy side involve?

Right now I’m focused on helping organisations with their web publishing processes. Most organisations don’t see their websites as publishing channels, and there is often a huge divide between where they are and where they should be to run their websites more successfully. Initial talks with clients are usually spurred by the idea of doing a website ‘redesign’ which then leads to deeper discussions about content and processes.

One constant in my work is that I always contract for a phase of discovery work first. It’s a great way to negotiate projects, because usually clients that are on board with discovery work are on board for the long haul. When discovery work is done, I hand over artifacts, report on actionable findings (including a next-steps estimate), and the client pays me for that phase.

They’re free to use that information on their own, give it to another contractor, or keep working with me on the next stage. I’ve found that clients like and appreciate this phased process of billing, and especially when it’s concerned with work they didn’t think they needed.

What does your daily work involve?

Client work comes first when it’s happening but my day-to-day involves other activities too, which help keep me from sitting idle or burning out on the same thing. For example,  I’m a co-founder of the Content Strategy Forum and still keep a lot of behind-the-scenes communication going around that event. I’m also the creator of the Content Strategy Community on Google+, which is growing rapidly but constructively. I’m editor-in-chief for TXP Magazine, a web periodical. And I recently finished guest-lecturing for a semester at the University of Strasbourg on Web Content Strategy for masters students on the CAWEB programme.

Of course, I have my own project ideas, and tinker with my site, Wion.com. Time is the enemy!

How did you get into content strategy?

I actually started out in marine science. One day – while knee-deep in slimy biomass on the deck of a ship tossed by 20-foot swells in the middle of the Bering Sea – I realised I might want to reevaluate my future. When a webmaster position opened up at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC), where I worked, I applied and got the job.

It was domino effect from that point on. I got smarter about web standards and protocols, and I acquired a lot of other content-related responsibility along the way. Three years later I earned a Masters in Technical Communication with an emphasis in user-centred design in new media. Once you have a user-focused perspective, it applies to everything you do.

What is the biggest challenge in your work?

Location! I’ve lived in Strasbourg for about the last nine years. Strasbourg is not a digital hotspot. Sure, it has a few highlights, but overall things haven’t kicked into gear here yet, especially as it concerns content. There are probably just two establishments in Strasbourg that have heard the words ‘content strategy’ spoken – or ‘stratégie de contenu’, as it is now in French – so the digital practice is old school: lots of silos, waterfall processes, IT-driven, etc. In a word, frustrating.

And the best bit..?

I like doing the initial discovery work. Digging into the background, artifacts, processes, content, and people to learn what makes things tick and where problems exist. The step after that – convincing them of those problems and how to address them – is a lot harder.

What is the rate of pay?

In Europe the variation is wide from country to country, and even within a country such as France. For example, freelancers (whatever their focus) in Paris are doing better than in smaller cities like Strasbourg. But I generally scope a project based on a daily rate of 600 euros. In my opinion, that’s low for strategy work, but high for ‘grunt work’ such as content auditing. Because I’m by myself, I’m typically doing a mix of both ‘head’ (strategy) and ‘hands’ (creation) work. Pricing that can be tricky.

Even 600 euros is high for most European clients. But they don’t initially grasp how much work and time is involved, and that’s part of the challenge of initial talks around doing thorough strategy work. The phased billing I talked about earlier is a good way to get a foot in the door.

Is there job mobility and security?

From the standpoint of content strategy, yes – it is a growing field. But, like in Strasbourg, it’s a fashion, if you will, that hasn’t arrived yet. That goes for most of the world too. Opportunities will grow when the practice catches on outside of North America and the major cities. It’s just going to take time. But people (and companies) who position themselves with content strategy now will have the advantage when things pick up.

How can content professionals push the case for content strategy?

If you’re an independent, you need to be making yourself visible and do advocacy work. Be a champion for your field. Give lightning talks in your area. Start a local Meetup group. Get out there and get noticed. Make connections and do collaborative things.

If you’re in-house already but strategy is still a shaky thing, follow the top communities (like our G+ community) and ask lots of questions, attend conferences, read the latest books, etc. Fold the things you learn back into your job, however you can. Go small at first. Establish allies in your office, across the company and up the chain. Little wins lead to bigger and bigger victories.

And get ready for the inevitable change management. A company only gets better at doing strategy work when it makes changes around it – often hard changes. Anyone who can facilitate change will be hero-worthy in the end.

What advice would you give to someone trying to break into content strategy?

First of all, really ask yourself how much of a people person you are. Are you a good speaker? Can you ask hard questions with empathy and sell ideas with conviction? Strategy work requires a lot of face time, whether one-on-one or addressing an audience, so you’ve got to be fine with engaging people where they are.

You also need to be pretty aware about a lot of digital things (systems, software, protocols, formats, lingo around it all), and be open to making changes as a situation demands it. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.

Lastly, for younger people, try to get as much experience as you can from different situations. Make working in a fast-paced agency part of that experience-building, regardless of what the position is. It will facilitate your progress and entry into the strategy world. After that you can decide what to do next: stay there, go in-house, become independent, help a start-up, join the Peace Corps…

What’s your next career step?

If you asked my wife, I’d be looking for a senior strategy position in a big organisation, and that probably wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I do have an affinity for doing more narrative type work online, whether through web magazine publishing, media mash-ups, or something else. Creative freedom, form fitting function, and all that. Honestly, if I can keep doing interesting things, make a living from it, and enjoy myself, I’ll be happy.

More immediately, the Wions are about to move to Brazil where I’ll be starting from scratch, literally, beginning with language (again). How would a CS Forum Brazil sound to people?

Destry Wion is a user-focused and content-concerned individual from the Pacific Northwest of the USA. He currently lives and works out of Strasbourg, France. He keeps occupied between the peaks with writing and editing, coordinating things, and his children. His website is wion.com, but you can find him all over, except here and there.