How to Hire a Content Strategist
Trying to find just the right candidate for your content strategy job? Learn what to look for, where to recruit, and how to screen for success.
So, you need to hire a content strategist. What fun! I can say from experience that hiring content strategists is a blast. It is also ... excruciating. With over 17 million Google results for “content strategist jobs,” and search queries increasing steadily over the past five years, the competition for great talent has never been higher.
But never fear: Our team at Brain Traffic has been hiring content strategists for nearly 20 years, and we’ve learned a thing or two about how to find the right folks for the job.
Write a better job description
While it’s always important to be clear in what you need from a prospective candidate, content strategy is frequently plagued by mistaken assumptions. Here are a few frequent missteps:
- Your organization isn’t familiar with or ready for content strategy, and they are just renaming a different job. There is nothing wrong with wanting a writer who thinks strategically, or looking for an editorial project manager, or wanting a content-focused person on your UX team. But slapping the label “content strategist” on a more specific need is only setting you up for heartache. Be as straightforward as possible when you label and define the role for which you are hiring.
- Your organization already LOVES content strategy, but what you actually need is something else. If you are lucky enough to work in a place that truly values this approach to strategic communication, you may have inadvertently developed a blind spot. Do you really need a content strategist? It’s possible that what you really need is an analytics expert, a customer service lead, or a social media strategist. Be introspective about what you already have and what is missing.
- You haven’t yet determined the level of expertise you need. Think about where this person will sit within your larger team. Do you need somebody to create meticulous and monotonous spreadsheets? Then hire an inexperienced person with the moxy and curiosity to do it in style. Do you need a fighter who can persuade leadership to move in a new direction? That may require a more seasoned peer. Remember, a job description is an invitation, and you want to welcome exactly the right candidates.
- You haven’t yet determined the level of expertise you can afford. I hate to break it to you, but a salary of $50,000 is not going to attract a senior strategist. Do your research here and be sure you are ready with a salary window that makes sense for the role you are filling.
- You think content strategists are actual superheroes who will save you from all of your problems. Heyyyyyyyy, friend. I see you! While it’s true that great content strategists are the kind of tough, savvy compadres you want as colleagues and bridesmaids and organ donors, even these mythical beings have limits. If your job description aims for the moon, you may not recruit the stars. If you write an unrealistic set of criteria, you are inviting people to embellish, overpromise, and eventually fail. Set reasonable, attainable expectations, and you are more likely to hear from people who can help you achieve great work.
Once you’ve fully evaluated what you need from the position, create a job description that communicates all of the following:
- A clear understanding of daily, weekly, monthly, and annual expectations
- A list of specific tasks you’ll be asking this person to perform
- A sense of the personality of your workplace
- Enticing reasons a person should want to apply
It takes time to write a great job description, but it’s time well spent. You’ll be saving yourself even more time and heartache by attracting exactly the right people for your job.
Cast a wide net
Once you have a rock-solid job description, it’s time to seek great applicants. Although content strategy as A Thing™ now exists, you may not get very far posting a typical local classified notice. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to broaden your search for the ideal applicant.
- Find groups where content strategists are already paying attention. There are active content strategy groups on Slack, Facebook, and LinkedIn. In addition to reaching those people who already care about content strategy, you’ll be reaching people who know people. This is the best way to attract ideal candidates.
- Revisit memory lane. Remember when you used to work in publishing, or marketing, or library science? Well, just as you’ve moved on to the wide world of content strategy, some of those associates may now be working in digital communication. Hit up your faves for applications and word-of-mouth recommendations.
- Go remote. If your company culture allows for remote working, take your classified listing to the places where content strategists are more concentrated. Markets like Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and others have lots of bright folks doing good work. (So does Minneapolis, but BACK OFF WE CALL DIBS.)
- Flex your local network. If you really need an in-house person, get creative about putting the word out in your community. Look for nearby meetups, lunch-and-learn events, and other professional development organizations. And be sure to forward that link to your sister-in-law with the corporate job.
Screen candidates with precision
Once you have all of those applications in hand, think about what matters to your workplace. I’ve screened hundreds of folks over the years, and here are some worthwhile practices that have helped me narrow the pool:
- Start with a “blind” read. When you do your first pass on résumés or applications, remove all identifying information to ensure that you’re looking for specific content strategy skills and experience, rather than affinity or familiarity. An unbiased screening will surface the best candidates.
- Scan for strengths. After you’ve thrown down the gauntlet on what you expect from a content strategist, start drafting criteria for yourself. What, exactly, are you seeking in an ideal candidate? Are you looking for a trusted partner who will quickly back your agenda? Or maybe you need an unflappable content creator to be a liaison with stakeholders? You might find that it’s worthwhile to create categories for specific strengths, and organize incoming résumés into piles, so you can compare and contrast your applicants.
- Think expansively. Is your content team operating from more of a journalistic perspective, a marketing perspective, or a UX perspective? If you could pluck a candidate from any other employer, which one would you pick, and why? Does it really matter where a person attended college? When you consider the bigger picture, questions like these can help you determine which educational backgrounds, work experiences, and skill sets will be the best match for you.
- Test skills—within reason. Sometimes, it’s hard to know how a candidate will perform without actually asking them to perform. However, giving assignments that take hours to complete will unfairly burden the applicants who have constraints on their time or money. (A single mom can’t afford to hire a babysitter while she completes a three-hour content audit.) Be judicious and strategic when you ask applicants to demonstrate their expertise. Rather than wasting their time with complicated deliverables, ask applicants to respond to a fictitious email, or invite them to describe what they would change about a sample spreadsheet. Be clear about the fact that you don’t want or expect folks to spend too much time on this portion. You can still learn a lot about their work style without wasting their time.
- Involve your whole team. The reality of most content strategy work is that it involves a LOT of personalities. While it may not be realistic to conduct interviews with your entire team, thoughtfully inviting folks to review materials makes the job more sustainable for the person coming in. Invite key staff to sit in on interviews, or welcome interview questions from the folks who don’t have time to attend.
Write targeted interview questions
Egad. We all know the standard recipes: “What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Please stop and ask what you and your team ACTUALLY needs to know about incoming candidates—and what they need to know about you. It can be wise to do at least one phone interview and one in-person interview. Here are some sample questions I’ve found particularly useful in hiring content strategists:
- Describe one content project or accomplishment that went really well for you.
- Describe one content project that didn’t go well for you.
- What’s one company you think does content strategy well? What do you think they do right?
- How would you describe your ideal day of work as a content strategist?
- What will be your biggest learning curve in this particular job?
- How do you track and measure success in your content strategy work?
- How do you manage changing expectations or deadlines?
Bad interview questions are like bad analytics: They have you measuring the wrong things. Hiring a content strategist means you need targeted questions that will help both of you get at the heart of what the job requires, and what the candidate brings to the table.
Be wise about deciding, communicating, and inviting
After all of the effort that you’ve put into the process, don’t take a hardline approach after the interviews. Talk with HR and the rest of your staff about how you are deliberating and extending your invitation. Make the invitation process as transparent as the rest of the effort.
Once you know you have the right candidate, extend the most genuine invitation possible. Of course it’s not appropriate to keep others in the loop on salary negotiations, but tell both the applicant and the rest of the team about the status and excitement level whenever appropriate. People genuinely want to get excited about working together.
As for the negotiation itself, be ready with answers to detailed questions about benefits, time off, daily schedules, and your salary window. Some good numbers to know, according to Glassdoor:
- The average national salary for content strategists in the United States is $72,742*
- The average salary for a content strategist just starting out (0–1 years of experience) is $54,733*
- The average salary for a seasoned content strategist (15+ years of experience) is $106,582*
* As of November, 2019
Now, there are LOTS of factors that could put your salary somewhere different from these numbers. The cost of living varies widely from place to place, and employee benefits and workplace culture can make a huge difference in the value of a position. Be prepared to articulate exactly what your offer includes.
Go forth and hire!
There is nothing more daunting than a stack of 200 résumés—but it’s all worthwhile when you find just the right person. And you know what else? Content strategy people are the best people! If you play your cards right, you might even be hiring one of your new favorite humans.
Tenessa Gemelke is the director of education and events at Brain Traffic. She runs the show at Confab an annual content strategy conference that happens in Minneapolis each spring. Tenessa is always looking for ways for folks to share knowledge and support each other’s work in content strategy and user experience. When she is not hosting educational events, she is probably eating cheese.