How to become a content manager
If you want to become a content manager, you’ll probably need to know where being a content writer stops and being a content manager starts. A content writer will do the writing of the content. Putting the words and images together, along with any SEO. A content manager will say where that content goes, how it is to be reused across platforms, makes sure all the links work and monitor how well it works as a piece of marketing.
There’s lots more to being a content manager, like website management, newsletters, seeing the bigger picture but that’s the general gist of it.
It’s a good job to have because you get to see content through its full cycle, write, edit and, if you specialise in membership platforms as I do, then you get to see some wonderful apps and solve lots of problems.
Skills you need to be a content manager
First of all, you do need to have good content writing skills for content management. Chances are you’ll start as a content writer and then get used to a content management system and see ways of making your work, work harder.
You’ll also need to be good at managing websites. Often complex ones with e-commerce or memberships. And you’ll need to have a good head for data analysis. The trick here is to really love a spreadsheet.
Then you’ll have good project management skills. This is why I think some VAs will make really great content managers. They are super organised and can keep a team of people on track. Definitely a content manager skillset there.
You’ll also need editing skills. I said to a client this week, who sent my work off to an editor for a second read, that I would never have the ego to assume that I can write without the need of an edit.
Content writer skills
The basis of a good content manager will need excellent content writing skills. If you fancy finding out how being a content writer differs from a copywriter, check this out here.
At the heart of understanding what makes good content is understanding the audience. I’ve always thought that journalism training is a solid basis for content writing. You get used to tight deadlines and justifying why the article needs to exist — why the audience will want to read it. And you get good at eeking out the right information to tell the story.
As Rin Hamburgh, owner of copywriting agency, Rin Hamburgh & Co, explains:
“Being a journalist trains you to do a number of things. First, you’re always thinking about your reader. What interests them, what do they need to know, what will entertain them? You haven’t got a sale agenda. Second, you become an expert at spotting the hook. What’s the one core message or take away that each piece of content is trying to communicate? And finally, you know how to draw the right information from people. This is vital for the briefing stage of a content project, especially if you’re working with complex of technical subjects.
“That said, to be a good content creator you have to have additional skills. Unlike in journalism, where reading the copy is the end goal, as a content marketer you need to drive business results. Which means there’s a lot more strategic thinking to be done, you need to drive some sort of action and be able to deliver a return on investment.”
There is nothing worse than producing work for the sake of it. And if you can’t justify why it exists on your (or your client’s) website, then do you really need it?
The best content happens when you edit. Having good editing skills is probably more important than writing something great in the first place.
Being able to turn a piece of work into something of beauty is a real challenge. I’ll admit that my most nerve-wracking work is editing the writing of other copywriters. They are great writers and its an absolute honour to go through and edit their work.
Likewise, I like to get someone else to edit my work.
No one, not even Giles Coren, should think they are above having a good editor look over their work. And editing is a partnership — one that is often hidden and silent.
Now, I love editing work. It’s a bit like writing a review of a truly crap band. You can get the knives out and cut away. You are seeing the work from a totally different, outside perspective because when you write, you become too close to it.
I always find it interesting the people who get emotionally attached to their writing. Mostly because I try not to do that. I write for a job and so I have to treat it as such. It’s not personal, those words have work to do. And if another word can come along and do it better, then so be it.
You get word-blind after a while and a good editor can see what your work should be.
My job used to be called a website manager. Uploading the content, making it look pretty and checking there are no dead links. Basic website housekeeping.
Then websites became more complex. The skills needed to manage an e-commerce site are different to those you need for a membership site. I’d say learn them all but really get into one or two software services that you can specialise in.
I’m a huge fan of the power and flexibility of Access Ally. I do manage many other membership software for clients but over the years have enjoyed understanding the potential of Access Ally.
The same applies to the content management system. Pretty much all of my clients are on WordPress. But notably not all of them. And every developer has their preferred plug-ins. Always something new to learn and you can’t know everything that’s out there.
I got into website management because I used WordPress a lot in my twenties. Then I got curious about how sites were built and so gave that a go. From there, I worked out what I liked doing and what I thought someone else could do better.
Experimenting is important. Break your own site first and then you’ll understand your limitations.
Fun story — I wiped all CSS code off someone’s site because the ‘quick fix’ had worked on my own and I didn’t think I needed to paste the original code into a text file.
After 30 minutes of wanting to vomit, I called in an expert. Between us, we figured out there was an extra ; in the code. It wasn’t technically my fault that the site broke that day — but I didn’t help. And I learned a valuable website management lesson.
All was fixed and the client never knew a thing.
It would be nice to think that content management was all creating words and videos. Doing the fun stuff. But it isn’t.
It’s a lot of sitting in Google Analytics and Search Console. It’s pouring over data and spreadsheets then making plans as the result of that data. Or tweaking your strategy as a result of that data.
Content management absolutely should be data-driven. Else how do you know if what you are producing needs to exist in the first place?
You need to know what is working, what is driving traffic and sales, to do more of that good stuff. Otherwise, it’s a bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks.
I had a conversation with a copywriting agency the other week about things we wished we’d known when going freelance. The whole account management side was completely new to me and is to a lot of freelancers.
Here’s what usually happens. You sit and write content for a company. The freelancer swans in once a week does a bit of work and then disappears again. Their time is their own and they are probably getting paid a bit more than you. So you think, ‘I can do that’.
Then the reality bites you on the butt.
Instead of having one boss, you now have several that you need to keep happy. And as luck would have it, all of their deadlines land on the same day. That day you’d planned to do something fun and special for yourself.
There are so many moving parts to content management that you are also effectively a project manager. You need to time what goes out and when to get the right message across and build trust for an end product that needs to be solved.
You might be managing people who do the social media, newsletter, and blogs so you’ll need to keep all of that tied together. Or you might be doing some or all of those things yourself.
Then there’ll be an emergency or a plug-in has done something funky to the website. Or some dickhead content writer has wiped all the CSS off the site trying to do something way above their pay grade.
You’ve got deadlines and clients all on different project management systems.
If you’re not organised, you will fall flat on your arse here.
You may be a great writer or data analyst but it all falls apart if you haven’t got the organisational skills of a top-class VA to project manage everyone and everything.
A content manager needs to be good at managing the content through its whole life span and that means social media. Now, I don’t do so much social media management any more. Sure I do Facebook and Google Ads, and I’ve got my own social feeds that I occasionally take a look at but social media management isn’t necessarily what gets me out of bed on a morning.
I have people to do the socials for me. People who are much better at it than me and take the time to learn all the new developments and strategies.
Social media management is not content management. But… if you are going to be a good content manager then you need to know how your content is going to be used on social media platforms and when. You are the person who ties it all together.
So, you might want to offer this as a bolt-on service if you want to keep those skills topped up. Or you might want to work with someone else who does this, guide them and maybe sort out all the microcopy.
I prefer the latter. Seeing the content through its whole lifespan, making sure it’s working at its hardest but not getting into the nitty-gritty of the socials.
How this might work is I write a blog. Then I take that blog and cut it up into four or five posts. I create some graphics and then I send it on to the social media manager. I might even have the content calendar that shows how that blog is broken down over the week and for what ends.
Chances are I will direct what the calls to action are on the posts but there my job will finish until it’s time to track the analytics.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t do social media at all. I do still do that and I quite like the challenge of a new social media account. Recently, I did a sprint on a new brand account and added 200 followers in a couple of weeks. It felt good. But then I passed on the strategy to the person who would be handling it from that point — and that felt better.
Strategy and overview
As a content manager, you will need to create and manage the overarching strategy of what’s being produced. You’ll need to know what’s happening and when then keep tabs on progress so you can tweak as you go.
How this might look
Let’s take a podcast series as an example. You might get the raw audio and need to add in the intros and outro (or outsource this to a podcast editor). You will have set a timetable for when it needs to be live. You’ll have created the transcript, put together the show notes, uploaded it to the podcast host and got it ready to go live on the website.
Then you’ll have sent the social media plan to the social media person, the key points and aims for the newsletter to the newsletter person (unless that’s you), you might even do some snippets and videos to help promote the podcast. Oh, and you’ll no doubt be coming up with innovative ways to get people to review and rate the podcast.
And then next week you start with the next episode and so forth. But come the end of the month, you’ll look at those analytics and see which episode attracted the most traffic and leads. You’ll adapt your strategy for the next month accordingly. You’ll do more of what works and less of what does not.
And if asked by the client, you’ll know your stats and facts because you are so immersed in it and what’s going on.
Leadership and communication
One of the most surprising things about being a content manager is how much you need to lead a team, even if it’s a virtual team. While you may do all of the job yourself, you will still need to liaise with clients and anyone on their team who relies on or supports your work.
For example, your client may have a VA who does part of the project management. I work with lots of my clients VAs to set deadlines and who generally do a brilliant job of keeping everything on track.
Or you might have a couple of marketing people in the team. One of the most common ways in which I work with a group is on new websites. There could be a branding person, a developer, and a designer. Plus the client, their VA and a couple of other stakeholders.
It might be tempting to sit back and let others do the leading or set the agenda for the communication but if you are going to be managing this website after the build, then you need to make sure your voice is the one that’s sharing the knowledge and best practise.
A brand person cares that everything remains on brand. And that there’s no messing outside of the guidelines. The developer will want to site that works fast. And a designer, a site that looks pretty. Your client will want the best value for money.
Whereas you will be wanting a website that works for all these things, plus usability, SEO, content design, and is future-proofed in case something should happen to you and your client is spinning the website plates until they get another content manager.
The key to working with others is always good communication. I make sure I have regular check-ins with clients. Often on a weekly basis, sometimes less frequent depending on the work. This stops things drifting and makes you good at your job.
Communicating with a remote team is a skill. It wasn’t until the first lockdown that I realised some people struggled with how they were going to do things when no one was in the office. Given that when I worked in an office, most people would email rather than walk over to talk to me, I found this a little surprising.
I’m a phone-person. And I like other phone people. Those who think it’s easier and clearer to go through something in a call and then send a round up of actions at the end.
I also like apps like Slack that keep things out of my emails. Although there are times when I wonder why I have twenty different channels of communication depending on the team.
And if you have a team who are unfamiliar with an app that you know works, help them get their heads around it to use it. They’ll thank you for being so supportive and it will make everyone more productive in the long run.
How to become a content manager
So these are all the skills you need to be a content manager, but how do you actually become one? I can tell you how I became a content manager but that might not be the path that you take. Although there are some things I think every content manager should do before they slap on the job title.
1. Start by uploading your own work
Want to get into the nitty-gritty of websites? Build your own and start by writing about something that interests you. Then you can test and play around in your own space. Find the things that work and that don’t.
2. Do some training
I did a degree in Journalism. The stuff I learned over those few years taught me a lot about writing for an audience and story structure. Plus the basic stuff you need online (although there was less online writing back then) such as headlines, stand firsts and pull quotes.
3. Write lots and ask for more responsibility
If you are already writing blogs for clients then this is a great start. Next stop is to ask to upload the blog onto the site yourself. This is the best way to start interacting with websites and playing with how the copy looks on the front end.
4. Get nerdy
If you’ve already got your own site, start getting nerdy with the stats and everything that it can do. Again, test apps and plugins. I started managing membership sites because a client was stuck with a problem and I managed to solve it. Then I could advise others who have the same software in what to do.
5. Start small and work upwards
Yep, like your old school careers advisor, you’re going to need to start from the bottom and work your way up. By the time you’ve noodled around on your own site, you are going to know a lot more than other people. Show what you can do rather than tell people. Show how you put together a content management strategy and execute it. It’s okay to model on your own site.
And that’s it. I think it’s the best job in the world. Full of different things happening every day, problems to solve, data to analyse and writing to do.