Exploring the landscape – part 1 of 3 about content roles and skills

Exploring the content landscape

In this 3-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

Talking about working in the field of content is a bit of a minefield. You can ask what someone does, but their job title, job description, or even self-perception may not match your mental model. You’re a “content evangelist”, you say? Why, how … interesting! And that means you – here you pause, hoping for some clarity into what a content evangelist job might actually entail – promote content, or do you do the copywriting as well?

Whatever the outcome of such awkward discussions, you can be sure of one thing: the answer you think you’ll get is likely to be something different from what you thought it would be. As a seasoned content strategist, I can look at the job boards on any given day and easily spot a dozen content strategy jobs whose descriptions that bear no resemblance to each other, let alone to what I’d describe as content strategy. I imagine it’s the same experience for many of the other content-related areas of expertise in the industry.

The maze of content roles, skills and titles

For example, what is the difference between a copywriter and a digital content developer? In my mind, copy is the editorial side of content – it’s what a content consumer reads, whether that is on paper or on a web page – so a copywriter is the creator of that copy. In the digital space, copy needs to be accompanied by an extra component: metadata.

Without proper metadata to help the copy to be found in search, without well-crafted search result titles and descriptions to entice content consumers to click through to your copy, the task of content creation is not complete. Digital content means not only taking care of the editorial side but also the metadata that makes copy into content.

When looking for digital content managers, is it common to ask for this expertise, or do the hiring agents even know that this is “a thing”, a very important thing, in fact?

Marketing v technical content – how things used to work

There used to be 2 general buckets into which most business content fell.

Persuasive content – that is, content meant to entice readers to buy, or at least to enter the sales funnel – was created by marketing or advertising departments.

Enabling content – that is, content that enabled readers to complete tasks – was created by technical communicators (guidance writers in the UK), or instructional designers, when that content involved training. Sometimes enabling content was created by subject matter experts in the departments themselves, for example, HR policies and procedures.

Changes to the business content landscape

The business content landscape became large and varied, as the genres of content used in business has multiplied. We now have more buckets: persuasive, enabling, social, and content that I will call entertainment content. It’s not the same genre as television shows or films, but corporate-produced content such as corporate YouTube videos created to entertain. Each of these genres has multiple sub-genres, and some genres that defy categorisation – for example, is edutainment education or entertainment or marketing?

Shifts in terminology

Complicating this is the way that terminology shifts. Whether it is a human need to “claim and name” or a tendency to ignore history, it makes for some comical confusion around names.

For example, in the early days of the web, there was a transition from creating independent help files (not so affectionately called “help as tumour”) to embedding bits of the help directly in the interface. This became known as embedded assistance. That term is still in use, and academic programs teach methods and best practices for developing and maintaining embedded assistance.

As online interaction became more ubiquitous, the vernacular became “UI strings” or “string tables”, depending on how advanced the software developers were in cooperating with writers to store the content.

Developers who didn’t understand the pain of edits or translation would hardcode UI strings, whereas those had been through the pain of a translation cycle or two quickly learned to put the embedded assistance into a table.

Later, as start-ups decided they couldn’t afford trained technical communicators, responsibility for UI strings shifted to marketing or UX staff, who did this off the sides of their desk. As these companies grew, this type of work became a job in itself, and has been rebranded as UX writing.

Not only has the name changed, but the writing itself is now more brand-focused. To technical communicators with several decades of experience behind them, the work seems to be focused more on copy than content, and more on delight than comprehension. To those who have never heard of embedded assistance, they are creating their own best practices as they go along.

So, what’s next?

How is a person supposed to make sense of the content landscape? In the next instalment, I’ll discuss some of the differences in jobs, both geographically and in core competencies, that make this such an interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, landscape to navigate.

Read the rest of the series

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