Editorial note, March 2022: I wrote this essay at the beginning of my freelance journey in May 2019, when a non-compete agreement prevented me from marketing myself as a content strategist. At the time, digital content operations were still rooted in MS Word attachments and in-person reviews. No one called themselves creators, and I was still helping clients understand the purpose of Zoom.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation of content operations and most companies cobbled together online workflows on their own.
My freelance business, my clients' needs and my newsletter has evolved significantly. These days I focus on:
- Website redesigns with a focus on content migration
- Audience-first content strategy and information architecture for web & email
- Content performance analytics for long- and short-term growth
- Ethical data collection & understanding algorithms as SEO, UX and cookieless advertising evolves in the 2020s
- Selection of content management systems (CMS) and content community software
I no longer work much on pure marketing initiatives, and I've more or less abandoned marketing automation and personalization projects because they rarely improve performance and mostly serve to annoy audiences.
And this essay, along with my definition of content technologist, is in the revision queue.
For the latest on new projects, content strategy advice and tool reviews:
In one sentence: A content technologist helps businesses and individuals understand the tools and services they need to create, manage, distribute and evaluate their content in the digital marketplace.
The marketing and publishing technology universe comprises thousands of tools. A good portion of them are dedicated to content creation, evaluation, management, distribution, publishing, analytics, personalization and automation. As of 2019, businesses spend nearly 30% of their marketing budgets on these tools — more than on the salaries of the teams who dig into the toolboxes every day.1 A content technologist ensures that investment in the content marketing tool stack is effective and making processes more efficient.
As anyone who has used marketing software knows, every new tool requires onboarding and understanding. Some tools are more intuitive; novices can open them and use them immediately. Others have deeply powerful capabilities designed for experts. Think of the wide continuum between the toddler doodling on MS Paint and a seasoned professional manipulating images with Adobe Photoshop. Multiply that by several thousand and you’ll begin to understand the breadth of software available for content production and management as we move toward 2020.
As software developers and marketers keep innovating, the content technology universe keeps growing. As a content technologist, I think of the landscape as the end credits of Buckaroo Banzai (embedded below).2 The original professional content software is Microsoft Word,3 represented in this analogy by Buckaroo in the bowtie leading the pack. The towhead in the open shirt is Google Docs, the cowboy is an easy-to-use CMS like WordPress, and suddenly all these other dudes join the pack; they’re Evernote and Sitecore and Mailchimp and Hubspot and Spredfast and hey! It’s token woman Ellen Barkin as Buzzsumo. Suddenly there is a whole pack and they are all moving indistinguishably from each other as one. Then they move off-screen and you’re not entirely sure what you just watched, but you know they all have their own unique characteristics and Shakespearean flaws.
Unfortunately, your budget only allows you to hire three of them for your content tech dream team. A content technologist can help you pick which three are worth the investment.
When should I hire a content technologist?
Here are a few use cases:
- You’ve been using the same marketing automation/ESP/CMS for more than five years and you want to find out if there’s anything new on the market.
- You have been using a standard web analytics system (Google or Adobe), but you want to know if there are new ways to understand how your content marketing is performing and contributing to the bottom line.
- A few team members really want you to try a slick new project management system, but you suspect the change may over-engineer processes that are already working.
- You work at an agency and are adding a new capability to your business — SEO or ABM or marketing automation or the like — and you want to know which tool you should invest in.
- You’re going nuts manually managing content version control, and you want to find something to manage your assets and workflow.
- Your VP ended up on the end of a drip campaign of an AI personalization content marketing tool you’ve never heard of before, and she wants you to look into whether it’s worth it.
- You saw some cool new tech at a conference, and you want to know whether the tool in practice matches the promise of the presentation.
- You are about to develop a content-related software from scratch — hats off to you! — and you want to know whether it’s worth your developers’ time and energy.
How does content technology differ from marketing operations or martech?
I focus specifically on content-adjacent technologies — everything in orange in the MarTech 5000 infographic (along with some of those in CRM, data and project management). These include but are not limited to content creation tools, CMS, email service providers, content analytics, SEO, marketing automation, content calendar and management tools, on-page optimization and other CRO tools, interactive content production, digital asset management (DAM), social media distribution and measurement, content-specific AI and more.
My entire career has centered on publishing content online and bringing people to it. As an editor and a content leader, I’m aware of how the needs of your content marketers and creative teams differ from those in IT and the rest of marketing. My goal with every client is to help all of these teams speak to each other and find the tools that can help everyone succeed.
I do not work with paid media distribution, DSPs or measurement tools outside of native content distribution networks. I also am not likely to help you find a replacement for Adobe Creative Suite in the near future (unless you have a tip for me).
Why can't my organization just figure all this out for ourselves?
You can! However, marketing and content teams don’t always have the resources to properly vet their tools. (Hint: a tool is only as good as the people who use it.)
More than once I’ve seen organizations purchasing expensive and promising tools, then spend the bare minimum of time training their teams, expecting that contemporary technology doesn’t actually need people to make it work. The tool only confuses teams, who don’t know why they are spending effort conquering this challenge — often because they aren’t sure what problem it was supposed to solve in the first place. The organization inevitably abandons the tool after no one has used it well, wasting money and time across the board.
I’ve also worked with tools that promised the world and the most amazing features… but the features made it to the software months or years down the line. (Or, in some cases, they never made it at all.) I vet all tools I recommend to clients for viability, helping my clients choose technologies that will still be in business in a few years — and that have a reputation for delivering on what they promise.
I can help your organization answer the question Ali G. once famously posed: