A digital marketing campaign without a content strategist is like a galleon without a navigator. And unless you want to become the marketing equivalent of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, you best get yourself a qualified strategist.

Great strategists don’t grow on trees, however, and a poor one could put you on a collision course with digital marketing disaster. The right strategist for your team will have a certain set of skills – skills that help you create the most impactful digital content possible.

What does a content strategist do?

To find a fantastic strategist, you need to first have a good sense of what their role entails and what tasks and responsibilities will fall under their purview.

Broadly speaking, they are the ones who create an overarching plan of attack for your digital marketing efforts. That means analyzing your target audience, breaking them down into distinct demographics and personas, determining what their business and career goals are, identifying their biggest pain points and how your messaging should address that.

And that’s just for starters.

Content strategists measure performance analytics, assessing how successful your content is, flagging tactics that aren’t providing results and bringing new direction to the table when needed.

In some cases, strategists may even have a hand in content development, establishing brand guidelines for style and tone or laying out a detailed multi-pronged creative strategy.

The sheer scope of the role dictates that only the best of the best will be up to the task. A great  strategist won’t just be a jack of all trades – they’ll be a master of them too. In particular, these five skills will make or break a strategist:

content strategist

1. Deep understanding of your audience

If your strategist doesn’t get your audience and what drives them, they will never be able to put together an effective content plan. Understanding your target audience starts with having a solid comprehension of their specific market and industry. A healthcare professional has much different pressing concerns than someone in the financial services or retail field. Ideally, your candidate will either have a background in these industries or experience creating content strategies geared toward them.

For that reason, as Brafton content marketing whiz Christina Mowry noted, knowing your target audience like the back of your hand is absolutely essential to devising a clear, effective content strategy.

“Understanding who the audience is, where they are and what their pain points are is essential to creating content and distribution that actually finds them and connects with them,” says Christina. “When you can answer those questions, you can craft a strategy that you can communicate across all stakeholder teams so they can execute the strategy with a clear idea of who they’re talking to.”

The thing is, even with an extensive background in a particular industry, a good CMS knows that understanding your audience is an ongoing pursuit. Things – and people – change, and you have to stay on your toes to account for new channels, industry drivers, pain points and audience goals.

Even seasoned marketers can become complacent or lose sight of who exactly their audience is and what matters most to them. When that happens, we start referring to people almost exclusively as “users,” stripping away any sense of humanity and obfuscating the person behind the screen.

Although it’s pretty much impossible – for now, at least – to create distinct user profiles for every single individual site visitor or user, strategists need to break down their target audiences into different demographics. From there, they can break those groups down into even more granular segments and reveal how each one reacts to variations in brand messaging.

“I’m always surprised when marketers don’t see the value of creating in-depth personas,” Christina says. “Oftentimes, persona development disproves previous hypotheses about a target audience and can actually open a business’s eyes to a world of opportunity and campaign ideas.”

A big part of that process is diving into Google Analytics and other digital marketing platforms to verify that current strategies are gaining traction with your target audience, and if not, determining where execution gaps exist.

Christina’s time-tested process looks a little like this:

  • Step 1: Understand the path users are taking before conversion.
  • Step 2: Understand what pages cause users to leave the site most often.
  • Step 3: Review what phrases users are searching for – especially questions.
  • Step 4: Ask: “Do the questions and keywords users are searching for indicate that they are familiar with your solution/product, or are they still very much in the discovery phase where they’re primarily talking about their pain points?’”

2. An eye for analytics

Data should drive just about every aspect of your content strategy, and as the leader of your digital marketing efforts, your content strategist needs to have an analytical mind. A great strategist never feels more at home than when sitting in front of Google Analytics, pulling out different segments and running content audits.

As Brafton’s own analytics pro Sonny Sharp explains, data needs to be the driving force behind every decision made around your content strategy.

“In order to provide in-depth strategy directions, we have to be familiar with what the data is telling us to do,” Sonny says.

To give you just a taste of the different ways that data informs content strategies, consider these all-important questions a CMS needs to constantly be asking:

  • What are people consuming?
  • What are people NOT consuming?
  • What types of content are assisting in the path toward an actual conversion or purchasing decision?

Check their Google Analytics Qualifications

How do you gauge how analytics-proficient a candidate is? A Google Analytics certification is a good indicator that they’re at the very least familiar with the ins and outs of that all-important platform.

All in all, a CMS can expect to spend anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of a given workday actively sifting through metrics in Google Analytics. Truthfully, you never really step away from the software, and in most cases, strategists leave their G.A. window open all day long whether they need to quickly glance at something or take a deep dive into the data pool.

And as Sonny explained, the frequency of those in-depth, sitewide performance assessments can range anywhere from every couple of weeks to every month or quarter. It really depends on the scope of the content strategy. A strategy that’s heavy on the paid search elements demands that strategists run reports on an almost daily basis, whereas they can spread things out a little more with a top-of-funnel, organic blog strategy.

Of course, Google Analytics is so ubiquitous that the idea of a content strategist without a G.A. certification is kind of like a nuclear physicist without a Ph.D. It raises a lot of questions – and even more red flags.

Go beyond Google Analytics

A G.A.-certified candidate could be a one-trick pony. Sonny notes that being a well-rounded strategist with expertise spanning different channels is essential to providing maximum value either in an in-house capacity or agency setting.

“A lot of our clients come to us because they have a need for a strengthened organic strategy, but we have to remember there are other very important channels to be active on in order to have a high-performing, holistic strategy,” Sonny says.

If you really want to find those number-crunching, analytics obsessives, you have to dig a little deeper past Google Analytics proficiency and consider platforms like Google AdWords, Google DoubleClick and AdRoll. That’s to say nothing of the many popular social media platforms out there like Twitter and LinkedIn.

Beyond that, how comfortable are they with other tools like Moz, SEMrush, MarketMuse, Brightedge, SearchMetrics and BuzzSumo? If those names elicit nothing but a blank stare and gaping maw, that’s a good sign the person standing in front of you is not the strategist you’ve been waiting for.

“The bottom line is that data should dictate all decisions that we make for content strategy,” Sonny says. “Without data, we are operating in a vacuum with a nebulous strategy.”

3. Run content audits like nobody’s business

Data drives the creation of content strategies, but it also needs to continue guiding your efforts once your initial round of blogs, infographics, nurture emails, eBooks and any other material is completed. Content audits are a core responsibility of any strategist, and they should be run frequently to get a good idea of where your execution gaps are both from broad campaign view and at a deep level.

It might be tempting to wash your hands of content as soon as it goes live, but that’s just not how it works in the content marketing game. Think of your website as a living, breathing entity that’s constantly evolving. And those changes, as innocuous as they may appear, could negatively impact your search ranking.

A broken link, for example, could knock your ranking down a peg, even when you have no control over it. If a page you externally linked to gets taken down a week, a month or a year down the line, Google will ding you for it. That’s why it’s so important that strategists routinely check that everything is up to snuff at consistent intervals.

Anatomy of a good content audit

Brafton’s resident content auditing expert, Justin Goldstein, recommends running content audits at least once a month if your site is regularly updated.

“Google is constantly crawling your site, and although one ding may not make a huge difference, simple errors can snowball pretty quickly,” Justin says.

What kinds of issues should your CMS be looking for? In Justin’s experience, duplicates – especially duplicate title tags – are some of the most common issues picked up during content audits. Often these emerge at deeper levels within the site map, where the differences between subpages become more subtle and difficult to distinguish in 50 or 60 characters.

While that may not seem like such a huge deal, it can make things very difficult for Google’s crawlers to parse through what an individual page actually covers. That confusion results in a lower search ranking.

Other issues to keep an eye on are duplicate meta descriptions and a lack of internal links leading back to relevant site pages. A good strategist will run a comprehensive content audit to dive into the deepest regions of your site that don’t normally get a lot of attention.

“Most times, the problems aren’t popping up on your main pages, but in the little nooks and crannies you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about,” says Justin.

In addition, strategists need to go back to older content and refresh them to account for recent changes in SEO best practices, reflect industry updates or just fine-tune the messaging to better appeal to your target audience. This is the internet we’re talking about here: Nothing ever dies.

Tools like MarketMuse can be extremely helpful in this regard, assessing how engaging a given piece of content is and predicting how impactful it will be with its intended audience.

4. A hungry mind

There’s one thing you can count on in the digital marketing world: Change is constant. Whether it’s new SEO updates, shifts in brand messaging or new audience opportunities, things move pretty fast in content marketing. And as Champaign, Illinois’ own REO Speedwagon once said, “You’ve got to roll with the changes.”

The best strategists are those who are never satisfied with their results and are always on the hunt for some piece of insight that will push their digital marketing efforts further.

Sometimes that means pushing clients out of their own complacency. As Brafton Senior Director of Content Marketing Colin Campbell tells it, it’s not all that unusual to run into instances where your client is satisfied with the results of your content marketing strategy, but you know you can do more.

“That marketing manager may be happy, but someone higher up the totem pole – their CEO, board of directors, whoever – is going to take a hard look at where their marketing dollars are being spent, and demand a certain level of tangible return on that investment.”

Having those kinds of difficult conversations with clients, especially when things are going well, is an important aspect of being a good strategist. You can’t settle for just “good enough” when greater digital marketing rewards are attainable with a little course correction.

Good strategists always have their eyes on the future, looking for the latest in SEO and content  marketing trends. They consume content marketing think pieces and industry news on a daily basis. When they’re riding the train into the office, they’re browsing their phones for bits of wisdom from marketing gurus and the latest updates in SEO.

However, Colin cautions that strategists should never take everything they read at face value. You can’t believe everything you read, especially regarding SEO shortcuts and digital marketing “hacks,” and part of being an expert strategist is parsing through the B.S. and finding the real pearls of wisdom out there.

To that end, Colin has three major pieces of advice when it comes to following industry trends and incorporating supposed best practices into your own strategies:

  1. After reading something online, stop and form your own opinion on the topic at hand. How much of it actually rings true and can be applied on a day-to-day basis?
  2. Just as important as identifying the top industry thought leaders is recognizing who you should tune out. Consciously curate out the people who tend to make a lot of noise but don’t really say anything. How do you make that distinction and cull only the best of the best? It’s easy: Whose knowledge and advice do you actually use in your work? There’s your answer, right there.
  3. Does the information provided gel with your marketing philosophy? “It’s not just about what you know, but how interconnected it is,” Colin says. “You can’t say ‘content marketing is all about putting the users first’ and then turn around and build a strategy solely around trying to game Google’s algorithms.”

Ultimately, self-examination is often what sets the best strategists apart from the rest of the pack.

“You can’t be an expert without taking a hard look at your own beliefs about content marketing and weeding out the hypocrisies,” says Colin.

When it comes to building out your strategist skill set, Colin recommends looking at platforms outside of the immediate content marketing sphere, like Pardot, Marketo or Google AdWords. Having an appreciation for fields like email automation and paid search provides some much needed context for successful strategists – most importantly, that simply publishing good content isn’t enough. You have to get it out into the world so people actually see it and engage with it.

Final thoughts

Content strategists should always have their eyes on the future, taking stock of big changes on the horizon and making plans to account for new developments before they take effect. They’re not worried about the impact voice search will have on their digital marketing efforts because they’ve been planning for that for months, if not years.

Your strategist needs to have a thirst for knowledge and a passion for all things digital marketing. It’s definitely not a job for the faint of heart, but if you come across a candidate with the chops for it, don’t let them get away. The insight and expertise they provide, as demonstrated by our four resident strategists cited here, is essential to creating and maintaining successful digital marketing campaigns.

Jeff Keleher is a writer and editor at Brafton. A man of simple tastes, he enjoys playing guitar, playing video games and playing with his dog - sometimes all at once. He still hasn't gotten over Illinois' loss in the 2005 NCAA National Championship game, and he probably never will.