This is a Someone Who Knows post by Anna Spargo-Ryan.
When people ask me what I do, my answer is dependent on who they might be. Do they look like a writer? Do they look like a business owner? Do they look like a board game player?
I do think of myself as a writer, for the mere fact that people often pay me to write things. But unless the person asking the question is literally writing a book while asking, my answer will be “digital strategist”. Which is funny mostly because I’m not even entirely sure what I mean.
I started out as a web developer in 2001, when we used frames and modems made noises. I spent years building websites, because it was the only skill I thought I had, and everyone knew that there was no money to be made in being a writer. I became one of those frustrated creative types - making ends meet as a developer, but harbouring secret thoughts of fleeing to Paris and writing poetry on a sidewalk.
At that stage, “digital strategy” wasn’t really a thing. People built functional websites that would provide information in the least ugly way (which often turned out to be the most ugly way). I was lucky enough to work on a few projects with large problem-solving components, but other than that, there wasn’t a creative moment in my day. Not a whistle. Not a skerrick. I started adding secret pictures of dinosaurs to administration panels for my own delight.
But then! social media. People were on the internet and they were having conversations in real time, which was like email except awesomer. I was immediately captivated.
For a while, no one realised it could be a “job”. Social media was a place where people went to tell people what they were having for lunch and find out which Sex and the City character they were. It was some time before brands decided to leverage those people, to get all up in their spaces and convince them to buy things.
I was working as a government front-end developer (which is essentially the most devastating kind of dronery there is) when I got my first job in social media. I had been studying marketing and English, and writing terribrilliant things on my blog to satisfy my creative side, but social media was the first thing in ages that had made my heart pound. It was new and difficult to measure and no one knew exactly what it was all about, but I grabbed that job and hugged it like a newborn because here, finally, was a way to combine my technical background with what I believed was a knack for language.
What I do these days is work with different kinds of organisations to leverage digital. I’m not a stunt marketer or a saturation marketer; I like the relationship side of digital. Social media is a place where people talk to each other about their passions and their fears and their lives, and I don’t believe in charging in there and beating them over the head with advertising messaging.
Being a digital strategist means that I help organisations (and I work with everyone from tiny online businesses to huge universities) find the best ways to use digital. I’m the person who stands in a board room and shouts things like: “This isn’t about just having a Facebook page!” and “The website does not comply with usability standards!” and “Are there any more sandwiches!”
This isn’t a job application (I don’t think?) so I won’t bore you with specifics, but since starting in this space I’ve posted on Facebook from inside Formula 1’s pit lane, done live tweeting sessions with Dr Karl Kennedy on Ramsay Street, and been paid actual money to talk about how to use Alex Jesaulenko in a Vine clip. Digital strategy is in every way the perfect combination of technical and writing backgrounds.
Now I write every day. Being bananas in the writing is actively encouraged. It’s literally my job to have thoughts about that man who impersonated Jack Nicholson on that cooking show. I am contractually obliged to think creatively, write good sentences and use my technical skills for innovation, instead of making forms. And I learn things every day, too. Not just things about digital - which is obviously ever-changing and can be difficult to keep up with - but also about people, and the way they speak to each other, and the way they engage and interact and advocate for things. So actually, maybe, possibly, it’s really just an excuse to listen.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is a freelance digital strategist and writer, based in Melbourne.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.