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Is Content Strategy the new Project Management?

“Content is everything from copy, of course, to text, images, icons, logos, audio, video… absolutely anything that goes into the digital world.”
- Sandi Wassmer, inclusive technologist

If content is “everything,” does that mean a content strategist should “own” a project? Should UX designers, developers, information architects, and user researchers work for the content strategist? Most people will tell you absolutely not. The content strategist is merely another member of the team, the consultant who takes the designs and the IA and creates that editorial calendar for everyone to ignore.

But what if we stop looking at content strategy as a piece of the puzzle? Instead, let’s consider the ramifications of viewing content strategists as strategists, responsible for the bigger picture and longterm strategy of the project.

Project Management and Longterm Strategy

Photo Credit: illuminaut via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: illuminaut via Compfight cc

As a former project manager, I at one time felt that my purpose was to organize chaos. Herd cats. Keep the creativity scheduled. Take notes for brilliant minds. In short, I acted as an assistant or breathing Siri for the people with the “real ideas.” Or, as Monster.com lists the typical project management job purpose, my job was to “accomplish project objectives by planning and evaluating project activities.”

After two years as a project manager in a UX agency, I had learned enough about UX design that I had some opinions of my own. Much as Mad Men’s Joan learned enough about advertising to be excellent at script review and ad placement, I was now taking notes during design meetings and personally evaluating (and occasionally improving) the longterm viability of our UX recommendations. But whereas Joan lived in the 1960s, when women were generally not considered for job advancement, I had other options.

At roughly the same time, in 2011, 25% of middle management jobs were eliminated.  A year later, 3 clients told our agency they didn’t want to pay for “unnecessary” project management. My official title changed accordingly, from “project manager” to “project manager/UX consultant” or sometimes “project manager/content strategist.” I was still responsible for “accomplishing project objectives by planning and evaluating project activities.” So what changed?

Why Eliminate Project Management?

I believe project management lost traction beginning in 2011 as a result of the move from waterfall to agile methodology, and more recently as a result of the shift from pixel perfect to responsive design.

In a traditional waterfall methodology, the project manager maintains the schedule and client communications, while the designers complete rounds of pixel perfect photoshop mockups that represent the functionality and visual design. However, in agile methodology, “lead developers” are responsible for determining the sprint schedules and maintaining the big picture focus, and the role of the project manager becomes redundant. As agile moved into the design world, lead designers or creative directors took on the role of leading scrums, assigning tasks, and keeping the team connected to one another. The only job left to the project manager was “client management.” In large companies, this was a task already managed by “account managers,” and in small companies clients were generally in contact with the “project lead” – a designer or developer who was particularly adept at client communication.

Now, as more teams focus on responsive design, the designers and developers are (by necessity) communicating multiple times per day, as early as the first round of designs – or first prototype. They are far less likely to require a project manager maintaining communications. Instead, the project manager is merely double checking that they have notes of their conversations. In essence, the project manager has become an archivist, valuable in case of a client/developer miscommunication, but otherwise nonessential.

What’s it got to do with Content Strategy?

I mentioned that my title was adapted to “project management/content strategist.” What I didn’t mention was how easy the “switch” was. To begin, there are a number of adaptable skills between project management and content strategy:

  • Both project managers and content strategists tend to come from creative backgrounds, but need to have solid organizational skills.
  • Both project managers and content strategists will excel with strong communication skills – particularly writing skills.
  • Both project managers and content strategists are responsible for maintaining the overall project objectives.

As a project manager, I had strong writing and communication skills. I had experience overseeing all elements of a project, and I had a solid understanding of UX strategy. I had a lot to learn in the content strategy realm, but time and again I was struck by the common sense of content strategy. I learned about governance and data visualization, information architecture and editorial calendars and content creation, and I was able to pick it up quickly because it fit nicely into my PM understanding of a project lifecycle.

Content Strategists as Project Managers

“It’s cyclical. You start with what you want to do, what you’re planning, looking at your content, deciding what you want to do, what you want your strategy to be. And by the time you’re finished and you’ve looked at it, you’ve monitored it, you’ve measured it, you’ve evaluated it, you start again.” -Sandi Wassmer

The most difficult thing for companies new to content strategy to grasp is: where does this fit into my project lifecycle? Content can’t merely fit in at the end, after the Lorem Ipsum has sat in the mockups and prototypes. Content can’t work in a silo, while developers and designers focus on responsive designs. Content strategists have a view of the big picture, and they need to work hand in hand with designers to determine where and how the content lives, and how it will best be communicated to the audience to create a positive, user-centric, brand-faithful experience.

Content strategy is a huge job, and I am loathe to make it even broader. But this may be a matter of calling a spade a spade. Content strategists need to get into projects on the ground floor. We may still need archivists to maintain notes on communications, but our content strategists are every bit as vital as lead designers to connecting small details to the big picture.

So what do you think? Is content strategy the new project management?

Inspired by Sandi Wassmer’s talk on content strategy from a marketing perspective.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, where she helps healthcare, finance, and educational organizations communicate with their audiences. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

9 Comments

  1. Like so many things in design and development, I’d say that “It Depends.” A content strategist may be able to manage projects of certain size/ complexity while still accomplishing the primary role of the project’s content strategist. At a certain point, however, project management and content strategy both become full-time jobs. Even within agile/ scrum you sometimes have a project manager whose job it is to coordinate the efforts of multiple scrum teams throughout an organization.

  2. I like the way you think – and organization/scheduling is definitely not every team’s strong point. Unfortunately, in the “lean lean lean!” approach of many teams, project managers are seen as a redundancy, which is what leads me to wonder if the “strategic” viewpoint of a content strategist might serve the purpose of the PM.

  3. I’ve been pushing the point of view that Content Strategists and Project Managers are besties in my blogging and role as a conference speaker this past year. This is mostly because I also saw the strategic overlap and was relieved (as someone who’s been a project manager in the web business for ten years) that content strategists are showing up and shouldering the load on this desperately needed discipline over the last few years.

    However, if the question is which is ultimately more important, to me, the answer is neither. There are literally dozens of individually described roles associated with building successful digital experiences but budgets rarely, if ever, support dozens of individual professionals on the team.

    Someone must make decisions about the content, design the pages, write the code, migrate the content, watch the timeline, have painful discussions about scope, test the functionality, sign people’s checks, etc., etc., etc. Whether it is a UXA who also does content strategy and project management, a project manager who also does development and testing, or a content strategist who can also monitors scope, schedule, and budget…At the end of the day, doesn’t really matter much to me so long as the jobs get done right.

  4. Wow, did this resonate with me! My team recently completed a website redesign and new CMS implementation. When the project started, I was handling the project management details. We’ve just completed the first phase and my title has officially changed to “Web Content Strategist.” So much of the work is related.

  5. I was very wary of this from the title…But you won me over! You have a very interesting take on how Project Management is changing. I can’t say I have seen the same downgrading of PMs myself, but I don’t doubt it is happening in some agile environments, as you mentioned.
    As a Content Strategist, I am always happy to have someone argue about content coming in earlier. And I do see PMs getting into some content strategist planning. It’s all good as long as the right skills are there.

  6. There’ve been many, many times as a technical writer/content strategist that I’ve felt like the only one seeing the big picture and bringing different parties into a room to get “on the same page.” So, a lot of what you say resonates with me. That said, I love having a good project manager to take care of “accomplishing project objectives by planning and evaluating project activities” so that I don’t get bogged down.

  7. Thought provoking post, but not sure it moves us in a productive direction or starts from a realistic set of assumptions. A good project manager IMO is a systems thinker that can understand how all the moving parts fit together, be a problem solver, and have some depth of expertise in specific areas. Sure, a content strategist could take on PM responsibilities for certain type of projects, especially those with dedicated resources all focused on solving something specific. Does that same content strategist oversee the 7 other projects happening, support the QA efforts and manage all internal and external moving parts and vendors? Does that leave enough time for the depth of content work necessary? There isn’t a one size fits all solution here depending on team makeup. The bigger challenge is using the construct of a project to define roles and responsibilities as we all know your website (or your content strategy) is not a project. At our agency we treat project management as a discrete discipline and have senior enough folks that can go deep in specific areas where needed. Reducing the role of the PM to what you describe undermines the real value of the discipline which I think is a big reason so many complex projects run amuck.

  8. We need to transcend the project mentality, since a website isn’t just a series of web projects. Also, a website is much more than content, even if content plays a central role. As mentioned in the comments above, it partially depends on the size of the team as to how specialized everyone gets. That said, I argue that we should look at a web presence as a *product* that needs to be kept at high quality over the long haul, so we need product management for digital. I’m writing a book on the topic now, so stay tuned!

  9. When I worked at a digital agency not so long ago, the PM and I (or another content strategist) were joined at the hip for the first phase of the project (i.e. discovery and strategy). We did not have account managers, so the PM filled that role, and for that I was extremely grateful. While I did often feel like I was calling the shots at some points of the project, the PM did a lot of other work that I had neither the time nor inclination to do. Could I have been a PM and content strategist? Yes, and in fact, when needed, I did so. All that being said, I think that it is up to each company to decide on roles and responsibilities of each project team. Sometimes you may not need a PM if the scope is tight enough that the CS (or someone else even) can fill that role.

    As a content strategist, I’ve been able to move smoothly into a web director role, with content people, designers, and developers all working on my team. I think this is a natural progression for me, and probably for many others who have been content strategists for longer than that was a job title. It pays to have writing, communication, organizational, and leadership skills along with a solid understanding of the creative and tech-leaning side of the equation. Because, yes, content is everything.

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