Content Strategy has quietly become one of the fastest growing fields in the communication and technology industries. But that doesn’t mean it’s widely understood.
“What surprised me about the role was how few people knew about it, given it’s potential for impact,” explains Ian Magwire, instructor of Comm Lead’s popular Multi-Platform Content Strategy course. “I tell students that one of the first challenges they’ll face is getting really good at educating others about what it is that they do. In essence, they have to develop a content strategy for themselves as content strategists.”
Magwire has spent his career solving “big hairy user experience problems” as a UX design lead, content strategy manager, and senior copywriter for companies including Expedia and Groupon. “I studied English and Creative Writing in school, which helped me as I learned on the job and got better at creating empathetic experiences for users,” he says. Currently, Magwire works as a content strategist at Facebook, focusing on crafting the ideal user experience for the News Feed.
As defined by Magwire, content strategy begins with UX design; the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving its usability and the pleasure people experience when interacting with it. “My ultimate goal is to build a product that works for everyone; it has to be accessible, understandable, and delightful,” Magwire says.
Content strategists work within the boundaries of a website or other digital platform to determine how people move through different experiences. They then determine what content, functionality, and language will create the best experience, for as many people, as possible. “You have to put people first,” Magwire insists. “You have to bake empathy into everything.”
Through the practical application of the core and advanced skills they learn during his class, Magwire’s Communication Leadership course is intended to give students exactly what they need to ace interviews for content strategy jobs. These skills include (but are not limited to) mobile responsive design, the ability to analyze a product’s accessibility and web performance, knowledge on developing a centralized style guide, and how to partner with product design teams.
In a project that spans the full 10-weeks of the course, students are separated into groups of four and tasked with providing a content strategy for a brand’s website or other aspect of their digital presence. Clients of the class include Mary’s Place, Stepping Stones Therapy Network, the Seattle Latino Film Festival, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, and other service-oriented organizations.
These partnerships give students an opportunity to have a significant impact on a community in need. For example, an analysis of visitors to the Mary’s Place website revealed a subset of users whose needs were going unmet: those who used smart phones to search for shelters. In response, the student-team suggested that the organization re-prioritize the information on its homepage to make it more accessible to those seeking temporary lodgings. In this way, Mary’s Place could better assist these users, in addition to their donors and community partners.
“Content strategists are the ones in the room who have to stand up for the users,” Magwire explains. “They are the gatekeepers of empathy, the ones who ask ‘have you considered how this [product] connects real people?’”
To reflect the reality of content strategy work, each student group participated in a “showback” during the penultimate class of the quarter. They presented drafts of their slide decks, which they created as compelling narratives to drive their assigned organizations to improve their digital properties.
After their initial presentation, the team of students working for Stepping Stones Therapy Network team said that they found the experience to be very helpful. Throughout, classmates advised each other on how to best prioritize their client suggestions. By going through this process, students reported that they were better able to condense their lengthy website audits into actionable takeaways, based on what was the most impactful for their clients.
Magwire says that this kind of positive feedback from students makes teaching the course most rewarding. He points to one session focused on accessibility that was led by inclusion expert Kat Holmes. A developer of Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit, Holmes extolled the importance of content strategists developing empathy through first-hand experience, reminding students that there’s no such thing as an average human being. After that class, Magwire says one of the students came to talk with him about his newly-inspired desire to focus his career on accessibility. “That was pretty cool,” he says, smiling at the memory.
Despite, or rather because of, the lack of broad understanding of content strategy, Magwire insists that there are many doors open to communicators. “There are great opportunities for content strategists to take the lead and make this role what they want it to be,” he says. “My own experiences have taught me that organizations are very open to supporting these new ideas and rewarding the enthusiasm of their teams. I tell students, ‘don’t be afraid, and just go for it!’”