What’s important when developing a content strategy team? Content Director Katie McKenna of Portent shares her suggestions on how to start, build, or continue a successful content team.
I’ve spent the last two years managing the content strategy team at a digital marketing agency. I spent a lot of time learning how to manage people (the learning never ends, by the way), plus examining our service offerings and how we did our work. When I inherited the team, we had zero processes written down, and everyone went about their work differently.
It was equal parts beauty and chaos. We were doing excellent client work; we just needed more structure. I knew that having more systems in place would allow us to increase efficiency and produce higher-caliber work without hampering creativity.
During this period, I learned a lot about what’s important when developing a content strategy team. In sharing my advice, I hope you leave with some ideas on how to start or continue to build your team.
Among the most crucial aspects of building your team is hiring the right content experts and determining how they should spend their time. Below are seven ways that will help you make those decisions.
Research is the first step that I’m outlining, but it should be continuous. Digital marketing moves fast, and you’ll need to as well.
It’s essential not to get too caught up in what everyone else is doing, but you should make sure your team isn’t lacking any critical skills. For example, if you know that content audits are fundamental to any content team, your team should know how to conduct one.
One of the best and fastest ways to do this kind of research is by looking at content strategist job descriptions. Reviewing job descriptions helps you figure out what skill sets your team members need. Although the job descriptions will differ, you will likely notice some common themes. Make a list of those skills and figure out what experience your team is missing or what you’d like them to focus on for growth.
The descriptions and job titles will vary, so make sure that you search for other titles, such as content specialist, content marketer, or UX content strategist.
When you need to hire a new strategist, this research will ensure that you’re recruiting the right people. We once put a Marketing Manager job posting on our website that wasn’t getting the right people in the door, only to realize later that we needed a Content Marketing Manager.
Another way to figure out where your team should focus is by researching your competitors. Are they offering content ecosystem mapping and you’re not? Did your biggest competitor redo their navigation and your company’s navigation needs a total overhaul? Perhaps it’s time for your content team to focus on that.
If the person who previously ran the content team is no longer at your company, or if the team is brand new, you should talk to people outside of your organization. Conferences and meetups can be a great place to meet fellow content team managers or individual contributors that sit on a content team.
If even hearing the word “networking” is enough to make you tell your boss that “you think you might be coming down with something,” don’t write it off yet! As a former networking-avoider, I can honestly say that it doesn’t leave you feeling drained.
Try going to meetups or conferences that interest you. And don’t have expectations of getting something specific out of it; it’ll feel more natural that way.
If you still can’t bring yourself to go to these events, try searching for content managers on LinkedIn. Send them a message and ask them to hop on a call with you. Or if they’re local, to grab a cup of coffee. If your message is genuine, you’ll get people to respond.
Once you meet, you can ask them questions about topics such as the makeup of their team or what their team meetings look like.
In addition to going out and meeting new people, I love getting inspiration from newsletters and books.
Two books that I recommend, Radical Candor and Principles, aren’t content-specific. Instead, they are about leadership and management. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott gives readers a framework to create a culture of feedback, and as a result, lead and inspire their teams. In Principles, Ray Dalio offers hundreds of practical lessons that leaders can use to approach challenges and build successful teams.
Newsletters are another way to get daily or weekly inspiration in your inbox. Two of my favorites are The Bent and The Daily Carnage.
The Bent was started for “new managers who feel alone,” but even a manager with 10+ years of experience will still appreciate the advice in it. The Daily Carnage will keep you up to date on all things digital marketing and tech so that you can stay savvy and abreast of trends in the industry.
Even if you have a subscription to the best tools and you go to all the meetups in your city, your team won’t function without the right people. Building a content team isn’t about you; it’s about the people on your team and how you lead them.
Depending on how many content strategists you need to hire, you’ll want to look for people with varying skill sets so that you have a well-rounded team. For example, if you have three content strategists who have deep SEO knowledge, you may consider hiring a UX-focused content strategist next.
For more advice on how to hire content strategists, read Ashley Walton’s article, “How to Hire Content Strategists.”
Among the most important lessons to learn as a manager is that you can’t—and shouldn’t—be the person who does everything. If you can’t let go of control, you’ll end up becoming a micromanager whose team flounders while you’re out of the office. That’s not fun for you, your boss, or your vacation plans.
If you have a larger team, you should find someone to whom you can work closely and delegate. This person can help you with larger internal team projects, sales, and training. They should want the team to succeed as much as you do and have a proven track record of accountability. And you should trust and like working with them.
Delegating will cause you to accomplish more; it will also help prepare someone to potentially manage the team in the future. That way, you’ll know that you can leave what you’ve built in good hands and things will keep humming along!
Once you have your team established and know what areas of expertise your team will focus on, you can start thinking about things such as documentation, cross-team collaboration, and experimentation.
Collaboration is vital if you’re going to build a successful team. If you consistently get in a room and work through problems together, you’ll have better ideas. You’ll also reap the rewards of having an invested team. If they see their work turn into tangible, positive change for your organization, they’ll be more likely to stick around.
I have a weekly 1:1 with every person on my team and bi-weekly team meetings. Both of these spaces allow me to have in-depth conversations with them. In these meetings, I get their input on what’s going well and what needs improvement. I then take that information and turn it into my to-do list.
However, holding 1:1s is not enough; they have to be meaningful.
I once managed a person whom I struggled to read. In our 1:1s, I would often start off with a broad question such as, “How is everything going this week?” With other direct reports, this kind of question was my way of leading us into an in-depth discussion where I would ask more pointed questions. With other people, this worked well, but with this particular person, I would get a one-word answer.
“How are things going this week?”
“How is the training with Sam?”
“What else do you want to explore during your training with Sam?”
“I can’t really think of anything.”
I’m someone that typically connects easily with others, so you can imagine how badly I desired to bridge the gap between us. But I couldn’t get past the wall.
I realized that I couldn’t take the same approach to every 1:1 and that their one-word answers were a sign that they were disengaged. I had to get out of my comfort zone and ask some uncomfortable questions to get a better understanding of what was going on with them.
Do you know that sales saying from the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross, “Always be closing”? For my team, the saying is, “Always be documenting.”
Learn from my past mistakes; it’s best to document the first time you go through the process. If you don’t, it will take you more time later. And the quickest way to have frustrated team members is not to have processes written down.
I once managed someone who was very secretive about their work. They specialized in a particular area of content strategy and wanted to be the only one at the agency who knew how to do that work. I didn’t like or agree with this philosophy, but I let this person do their own thing for fear of losing them.
They ended up leaving anyway, and I was left without any documentation of their processes. And the next person I hired to replace them, who I also didn’t want to lose, was annoyed that we didn’t have consistent documentation or processes.
It’s also important to take this one step further. When you’re done documenting the process, you should share it with other relevant teams at your organization. I recommend marking the document with a “Last Updated” date, so you know when it’s time to refresh it.
Once you’ve built all of the documentation, you’ll want to find the best place to house it. At Portent, we use Tettra. If people have a question that the documentation answers, direct them to it. Remember, there’s no point in creating it if no one is using it.
Not enough change is stagnation, but too much change is pandemonium. Keep iterating while sticking to the core of what you do. When you do make changes, be intentional about the reason why. You don’t want to create new ideas and processes constantly or your team will never master and get efficient at specific tasks and projects.
Building a content strategy team is challenging. I can almost guarantee that it will take longer than you think to see progress, but when you do, it will be extremely satisfying. And if you’re patient, passionate, and care about the individuals on your team, you will build a subculture of people who enjoy coming to work.
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Published on 09/19/2019 by Katie McKenna.
As the Director of Content at Portent, Katie McKenna is fanatically dedicated to growing the knowledge of her team and the clients she advises on content strategy. She’s led countless workshops both internally and externally, and her work has been published on sites like SpinSucks, Web Flow, and Women in Digital. She’s passionate about building connections and community in the content industry and is equally happy wielding a library card or an ice axe, depending on the adventure.