Here at Brain Traffic, we’re often asked what skills content strategists share. Content strategists come from lots of different backgrounds, but they usually seem to have a few traits in common. After polling the Brain Traffic team, we realized that many of these traits were evident not just from the beginning of our careers, but from the beginning of our lives.
If you think you’ve got a budding content strategist on your hands, look for these early signs:
Always has their nose buried in a book
Is a writer who is published early
Thinks learning and listening is fun
Starts pretend and real businesses
Makes well-reasoned arguments
Need proof? Read on. But beware: MAJOR nerd alert.
Book worms and proud of it
First and foremost, we spent a lot of time reading––from an early age. It makes sense that content strategists start out as consumers of content.
We loved books. We were rewarded for reading (remember Book It?). Many of us fondly recall the excitement of elementary school book order sheets. We started book clubs. We even set goals for our reading.
For Julie Vollenweider, starting middle school meant a new challenge—reading only non-fiction (which resulted in a fascination with mobsters). Erin Kissane determinedly read one non-fiction book (she got hooked on military history) for every novel she consumed. Melissa Rach eagerly awaited the arrival of the bookmobile instead of the ice cream truck.
Julie V.'s early affinity for reading (and fashion) holds true today.
A refrain commonly heard from our parents was shared by Chris Barrington-Davis—“Get your nose out of that book!” We read so much that many of us were grounded from reading. But Erin K. was so miserable without reading that her parents quickly took pity and reversed the punishment.
And if we were teased for being bookworms? Angie Halama had a standard reply: “Why, thank you.”
Published young authors
All that reading led to writing, creating, and publishing content. Even if our first attempts were, in retrospect, comical, many of us were published before sixth grade. Melissa R. won a contest at age 9 with a poem called “Take a Ride on a Unicorn’s Back.” I was the proud second-grade author of the play “The Little Heart.” Julie V. was the founder, publisher, and editor of The Fourth Grade Flamingo.
An excerpt from Melissa R.’s award-winning 4th grade poem:
Take a ride on a unicorn’s back.
Then go climb a rainbow and slide back down again.
A minute will be like an hour.
Your fun will never end in rainbow land!!!!!
Learning (and listening) for the fun of it
Our learning didn’t end with the written word. We actively sought out opportunities to feed our curiosity with extra learning.
When I was in 4th grade, I signed up for summer school because I thought it would be fun. On the first day, I realized it was for kids who had trouble learning, not for the kids who wanted to learn more. Meghan Casey repeatedly attended summer school to free up her regular schedule for independent literature study.
In addition to reading, we discovered that listening was a great way to learn, too. Emily Wiebel didn’t speak much between the ages of 2-8, preferring instead to listen. Meghan C. was known as an objective consultant whose phone rang off the hook with friends calling for advice.
The joy of organization
There’s more! Our nerdiness did not stop at reading and writing. For a good time, we organized. Animals, crayons, and—shocker—books.
Many of us shared an early fascination with these animal index cards. Erin K. spent days reading, filing, and refiling them. Christine Benson was obsessed with studying dog breeds.
Erik Westra was fascinated with a certain mammal book. He used index cards and a recipe box to “record the key facts and interesting information about each mammal, and file them in whichever order interested me at any given time (average weight, gestation period, continent of origin, etc.).”
Beth Johnson was a self-described “hardcore crayon enthusiast.” She spent more time finding new ways to organize the crayons than actually coloring with them (neons, shimmers, classics). Christine B. “invented” new rainbows: “Two favorites were an Easter rainbow with pastels, and another one with all jewel tones.”
Beth J. and her organized art supplies
And yes, not only did we read books—we also organized them. Tenessa Gemelke recommended improvements to the school library shelving organization. Angie H.’s first job was at a local library, where she found shelving books to be relaxing. Erin K. was often mistaken as a librarian, because she knew the Dewey decimal system inside and out, and would answer questions from patrons.
The exception: a designer in a sea of content strategists
But not all of us shared a love of organization. Sean Tubridy, lone designer here at Brain Traffic, “stuck all the labels on my Star Wars carrying case without even considering the figures that I owned or where they would fit. Thus, to this day, almost nothing is properly labeled, Yoda rattles around in a huge compartment, and Chewbacca is folded up and jammed into a slot half his size.” He concludes that “I was never destined to be a content strategist.” Fortunately, he’s a great designer.
Sean T. meets Darth Vader, circa 1978
Play office leads to real office
With all that reading, writing, learning, and organizing, was there any time left to play? Of course there was—time to play office! Many of us had pretend and real businesses from an early age, getting a jump on the business smarts we would need later on.
Chris B.-D. played office and school. She made up the stories and the rules, and directed her playmates, making sure that everyone had fun. (Anyone else sense a project manager in the making?) Julie V. made imaginary business presentations to imaginary clients. She now regularly presents Brain Traffic to potential clients.
Some of our offices were more than imaginary—we had real life businesses. Beth J. started her own business making and selling jewelry in 5th grade, until her operation was shut down for exploitation of the younger kids. I had multiple crafts businesses, constantly tweaking my product line to find what would sell best. Melissa R. helped her parents flip houses, learning prioritization skills she now uses daily in her work.
Resoundingly, many staffers learned early how to make well-reasoned arguments for things they cared about. Christine B.’s father was a lawyer and lobbyist who loved logic and debate, and required that she construct arguments and find supporting research for any request.
When Beth J. realized she was being paid $3 an hour less than her siblings for similar work, she made a presentation to her father requesting a raise, and got it. In the 7th grade, Tenessa G. urged her parents to quit smoking by preparing “a lengthy report that detailed the risks to their health, the financial losses, the social and emotional effects on their children, and even the cosmetic damages to the house.” In a similar effort, at age 3, Erin K. wrapped her mom’s cigarettes in Mr. Yuk poison control stickers, which actually got her mom to quit.
And if we didn’t get our way? My favorite childhood phrase was “give me 37 good reasons why not.”
The author displays an attitude.
Our poor parents.
After all the stories came in, we marveled at the similarities. We knew Brain Traffic was a special place, but we didn’t, exactly, know how much we all had in common.
So, we admit it. We’re overachievers who like to read, write, learn, organize, do business, and argue. Some people would call that nerdy. We’re okay with that.
As Tenessa G. said, “I’m so glad we all found each other.”
What’s your story?
What were some of the early signs that content strategy would be in your future? Please add your stories to the comments.
I’m remodeling my house. So, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Craigslist looking for materials, appliances, and furniture. A while back, I ran across this ad for a microwave:
You might notice the unfortunate photo included in the upper left. When I first saw it, I did a double-take, forgetting all about my task at hand (looking for a microwave). I immediately passed it along to as many people as I could via email, Twitter, and Facebook, wondering what the ad was really selling. Here’s what I imagine happened:
Late one night, after knocking back a few beers and knocking down a few walls, guy decides to try and make a few bucks selling his old microwave.
In his zeal to get back to renovation, guy quickly creates and publishes a Craigslist ad, accidently including a photo that was supposed to be, ahem, private.
Lady friend’s derriere is available for all the world to see.
And what happened as a result? Best case scenario, dude receives many snarky emails in response to his “ad” and quickly takes it down, hopefully never letting lady friend in on the mistake. Worst case, lady friend gets word of her assets on display, which leads to a vicious argument over his general carelessness, which then leads to a messy break up and a half-finished kitchen.
When you’re selling more than microwaves
Now imagine this same scenario applied to a corporation’s website:
XYZ product has changed and the website needs to be updated ASAP.
The one person who knows how to update the website accidently uploads IMG_4055, the unfortunate photo shown above, instead of IMG_4505.
This web publisher, who works on the website in her “spare” time, has a pressing emergency in her real job, and doesn’t check the photo after publishing.
With no formal review and publishing process in place, the mistaken photo goes live, unnoticed by the corporation.
The result? By the time the corporation finally becomes aware of the situation and removes the photo, customers have posted the link on Facebook, Twitter, and online forums, along with snide commentary and jokes. The brand reputation is damaged. Sales for the product are down. The web publisher quits. And now no one knows how to update the website, so the company invests in a brand new CMS.
Avoid Internet infamy
In both cases, just a little bit of extra thought could have protected someone’s blunder from worldwide exposure. Dude could have benefitted from asking his lady friend to review the ad before publishing. And the corporation could have benefitted from formalizing roles, responsibilities, and workflow processes to ensure that content is given the time and attention it deserves.
While this is a made-up scenario, examples like the above do, unfortunately, happen in real life. For example, one major retailer who shall remain nameless posted an illicit drug for sale for $25.25 plus shipping, available in 4–8 weeks. While the company eventually took it down, Google has a longer memory.
Let’s do ourselves, our organizations—and our significant others—a favor and cover our assets with content strategy.
No matter how many good ideas are strategized and agreed upon for a website’s content, somebody has to take responsibility for that content. Otherwise, just like an abandoned home where the owners have up and left, it will very likely fail from the get-go or fall into disrepair after its debut. Content ownership is important.
But assigning ownership isn’t enough. Owners need to be excited about the benefits and purpose of the content, understand their responsibilities, and commit the time it takes to make great content. You need content owners who care.
Just like a beautiful, functional home requires an owner who cares, so does great content. So how do you get content owners invested in making great content?
CARING FOR YOUR HOME
I own my house. Which means that here in Minneapolis, I shovel my sidewalks in the winter. I fix the furnace when it breaks. I plant flowers in the spring. I take time to care for my home.
But not everybody cares so much about their home. The house on the left shows all the signs of neglect. It’s weather-beaten, faded, and falling apart. Whoever owns it certainly doesn’t care much about it—and it shows.
House in need of care (left), house in good care (right).
CARING FOR YOUR CONTENT
Just like the house with weathered siding and an unstable foundation, content without a caring owner is easy to spot:
Content in need of care
No clear purpose
Too much or not enough information
Dead-end; no clear next steps
Boring; overly complex or simple
Inaccurate or outdated
Content in good care
Serves a business or user need
Appropriate length and format
Grammatically accurate; tone and voice are consistent and reflect the brand
THE BENEFITS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF CONTENT OWNERSHIP
Content ownership has its benefits—useful, usable, purposeful content. And just like home maintenance, content ownership requires dedication and time commitment from owners:
Save or make money (operational efficiencies, profits)
Bolster reputation or mission
Achieve business or user goals or results
Define the purpose for content
Be involved with creating content
Keep content up to date as things change
Review content over time to make sure it’s still serving its purpose
GETTING CONTENT OWNERS ON BOARD
Caring for online content can be a thankless job. So how can you get content owners excited? The best way is to show them why it matters and give them the tools and information they need to do it well.
Make content ownership a measurable, written part of job responsibilities. By tying the content responsibilities to work goals and performance, you give content owners a personal stake. You also give content owners a realistic understanding of responsibilities and expectations—including expected time allocation.
Tie content to business goals, results, objectives, or purposes.
Identify content owners who are already invested in achieving the desired business and user outcomes.
Tell owners why they specifically were chosen, and what special skills or knowledge they bring.
Ask owners to help identify the purpose and benefits of the content.
Get owners excited about the benefits the content can provide, even if they are indirect.
Get your organization excited about the benefits of great content. Find an executive sponsor who champions and supports the importance of content within your organization.
Give content owners the tools they need to create and care for compelling content—which may include writers, designers, photographers, style guides, tipsheets, training on best practices, regular reports, user research, analytics, etc. Tailor your approach to the skills and experience of your content owners.
Check in with your content owners on a regular basis—don’t let them let content linger.
Don’t be afraid to retire content if it has no clear benefit or owner.
When content owners are invested in the success of their content, they make the difference between content that is just so-so and exceptional content that exceeds business and user expectations. What’s worked for your organization? How have you gotten content owners excited? Have a story, or something to add? Please share it in the comments.
("Disrepair" image on left by Flickr user Throwingbull (cc: by 2.0) )
At Brain Traffic, we’re all about asking tough (yet perfectly sensible) questions of our clients. “It’s great that you want to post a news feed on your home page!” we might say. “You’ve got someone assigned to making sure it stays up to date and accurate, right?” And so on.
There’s a reason why we ask these questions. Because it’s not just irritating for web users to find stale content online. Sometimes it can mean the difference between a successful family vacation and a wasted afternoon …
Recently, my husband and I headed to Iowa with my parents for a cousin’s wedding. My Dad proposed we stop at a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on the way back.
Three hours out of the way later, we arrived to a closed gate. The sign read: “Will open Memorial Day weekend.”
This had to be a mistake! The Iowa Department of Natural Resources website told us tours start May 1. We called the house. Sure enough, opening hours had been changed, but the website had not been updated.
We got back in the car, turned around and headed home. This little mishap meant I spent SIX (6) EXTRA HOURS IN THE CAR WITH MY PARENTS.
Website owners, please make sure your content is accurate. Take the time to think about where it’s coming from, who will update it (and how often), whether you have the resources available to support it, why it’s being included in the first place, and how it will help your users accomplish their goals.
You might not hear or see your users, but we’re out there, trusting you’ve put some smart thinking behind the words we see on our screen. Don’t let us down.
The house I never got to see – Cedar Rock, the Walter residence, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.