Read as REI experience architect Jonathon Colman talks about his career.  You can find Jonathon on Google+, Slideshare, his blog, and on his Twitter in the sidebar of this interview.   

What do you do for a living?jdc_headshot_800

I’m the Principal Experience Architect for REI, a multi-channel outdoor gear and apparel retailer in the United States. You can find me on my blog, Twitter @jcolman, Google+, and on Slideshare.

How would you describe what you do?

As a content strategist, I work as part of a great, dynamic, cross-functional team help make REI’s web content work better for our customers, which in turn supports our business.

It’s part of a virtuous circle: the more we can support our customers and help them meet their goals, the more they’ll support us, which helps us support them even more.

What does your work entail?

My role involves a mix of business planning and analysis, content strategy, and information architecture.

This means that I help our organization to understand that content is a core business asset that is just as important as the gear we sell, our stores, our staff, and our systems.

It also means that focus on content as an experience (not just as text), and play the role of advocating for better content experiences that match up with what our users need while also supporting the needs of our business.

…if you truly love the experience of producing, managing, and consuming information — not to mention working with the people and systems that make that information work — then content strategy could be in your future…

  • What does “better” mean in this context? It means content experiences that are:
  • Right for the user, meaning they are useful and usable
  • More thoroughly structured to be device-independent (e.g., mobile-ready)
  • Connected to similar and related content experiences in ways that make sense for the user
  • Consistent with our other online and off-line information
  • Future-proofed and Single-sourced
  • Discoverable, findable, and shareable through browsing, searching, and other means of wayfinding.
  • That means that I work with an orchestra of internal/external systems, workflows, people, publishing venues, and delivery channels in order to make them play in harmony for REI and our customers.

What’s a typical work week like?

Ha, when you’re a content strategist, there’s nothing typical about any work week.

In a given week, I spend my time:

  • Doing content inventories and audits
  • Discovering new content issues and challenges
  • Looking at our competition and analyzing gaps between ours and theirs
  • Reviewing taxonomies
  • Figuring out how to manage all sorts of information from products to URLs to multimedia
  • Helping to set and maintain content standards
  • Bringing in other experts (information architects, SEOs and other marketers, IT professionals, etc.) to help solve problems
  • Talking with vendors about tools and services
  • Analyzing performance of work accomplished and tracking baselines for work yet to be done
  • Building business cases

And a plethora of other tasks. I lean on my colleagues a lot for their help, which is why I really appreciate the REI culture, which encourages team work.

How did you get started?

I’ve only been performing in this role since July of 2012, so I’m still getting started!

Prior to that, I was the in-house SEO at REI for three and a half years, during which I showed much interest (and was mentored) in user experience and information architecture disciplines.

Additionally, I entered the University of Washington’s Information School in the fall of 2011, where I further built up my skills and experience information architecture as part of their master’s degree program in information management.

I also help organize the Seattle IA/UX and Content Strategy Meetups along with our local Social Media Club.
This gives me the opportunity to talk and work with with local professionals and experts in several fields of practice. Everyone’s generally open and willing to share their knowledge and experiences. This is also a great way to build your network and knowledge about related disciplines, both of which can help you set (and reach!) your future career goals.

In-person events not your thing? Many content strategists and information architects are active on Twitter, LinkedIn, Slideshare and other social networks!

What do you like about what you do?

As I mentioned above, there is no typical work week. There’s always new problems to solve, new mysteries to analyze, new things to learn, and new tools to use.

What do you dislike?

We can never work as fast as we want to nor do as much for customers as we’d like to. But we try to do as much as we can in the time that we have.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

REI pays me a regular salary along with great benefits, such as health care, retirement savings, profit-sharing, and what can only be described as “Insanely Great” discount on the gear and clothing sold by REI and the various brands that we carry in our stores.

How much do you make?

I’m no where near being part of the 1%, but I do all right. REI has a generous profit-sharing program, so during a successful year, staff can be paid quite a bit more than our base salaries. This is great for our team because it incentivizes us to work hard to help the business reach (and surpass!) its goals. And that translates into better experiences for our customers.

Glassdoor has published a survey of content strategist salaries, but note that there’s not a lot of participants (currently only 28 data points).

How much money did/do you make starting out?

My first job out of school, I made $40K/year as a technical writer for IBM. I was very lucky to make that much in my first job. These were 1997 dollars, mind you, back when you could get a gallon of gas for just $1.

I interned with IBM for six months while I was in college, which helped me to easily land the full-time job after I graduated. I worked with great discipline as an intern, established a reputation for excellence, and tried as hard as I could to be easy to manage. I think that last point went a long way toward IBM asking me to come back after I finished school.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Content strategy is an interesting field, in that it requires at least some knowledge (if not formal education and experience) in all sorts of information-based disciplines. Many content strategists have backgrounds in writing and editing, but just as many (if not more) are designers, developers, technologists, or information managers.

Richard Ingram, a content strategist in the UK, has put together a great visualization of the various approaches to content strategy that shows all the different sorts of skills that can help you become a great content strategist.

What is most challenging about what you do?

It’s all new to me, new to my organization, and a relatively new field in general. Content strategy for the web didn’t really take off as a formal discipline until 2009, making it much, much newer than, say, information architecture, user experience design, or even SEO!

What is most rewarding?

Working as part of a great team and accomplishing things that have an impact on real people. We all look at customer feedback every single day and it feels good to play a role in solving their problems and making things better for them.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Are you anal-retentive about how you organize your music or books at home? What about your e-mail inbox or computer desktop? Do you live in Excel and love bending Google Analytics to your will?

If so, you might just be a great candidate for information science. And if you truly love the experience of producing, managing, and consuming information — not to mention working with the people and systems that make that information work — then content strategy could be in your future, too!

You can get started by reading the books and following the blogs on this epic list of content strategy resources.

How much time off do you get/take?

I get three weeks of paid vacation a year.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Two common misunderstandings about content strategy are:

  • It’s all about text
  • It’s the same as content marketing

Kristina Halvorson of the Brain Traffic agency defines content strategy as a discipline that “plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”

To me, that obviously involves a lot more than just text. It’s about business analysis and planning, content creation (yes, text, but also design and development – content as experience), content management and publishing systems, and the user experience for both business users and end-users or consumers of content.

Content strategy is not at all the same as content marketing, which involves creating, promoting, sharing content while influencing others to do the same in support of a core business goal, such as generating traffic and sales.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Right now, it’s hard to look beyond my deliverables for next week! But broadly, I’m trying to build progress toward REI’s mission: to inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

Through great content, systems, workflows, information structures all paired with a great understanding of what our customers need from us, we’ll get there!

Beyond REI, I want to finish up my graduate school program and see if I can take on a larger role in the SEO, information architecture, and content strategy communities. I’d like to work with other professionals to forge stronger links between these disciplines in order to make the web work better for everyone.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

I’ve taken a lot of turns and journeys off the path on the road to this new position at REI. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa for two years. I worked in nonprofits focusing on environmental conservation for nearly a decade.

At one point in the past, I was so introverted that I forced myself to join an improv group so that I could learn better ways to interact with people. By practicing hard and watching other people, I’ve taught myself how to become a better public speaker. Now I get to talk about SEO, content strategy and information architecture in front of thousands of people every year. I’ve spoken at conferences throughout the US as well as in Canada, Australia, and most recently in South Africa.

My point is that these journeys off the path aren’t distractions from your career. They’re not one-offs or throwaways or something you should avoid.

In a way, they’re the only things that really matter.