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From the Vault

by Erin Anderson on November 23rd, 2011

It’s nearly Thanksgiving here in the U.S., and we’re giving thanks for family, friends, and of course, good content. This week, we’ve dug into our blog archives for an oldie but goodie by Erin Anderson. We think it’s just as relevant today as it was then. So listen up!

Listening: Still the Best Way to Learn Somethin’ New

Originally published on April 10th, 2009, by Erin Anderson

Our most important job here at Brain Traffic isn’t content strategy. It isn’t content creation, or even copywriting …

Nope, it’s good old-fashioned listening.

I mean the kind of listening that demands our active attention and participation. The kind that leaves us with the information we need to recommend truly smart, thoughtful web content solutions. The kind that requires we really focus on YOU.

So whether we’re scoping a project, clarifying user goals, or managing rounds of client feedback, we all hold fast to a few rules for active listening around these parts.*

Keep an open mind.

We may have created content for a dozen healthcare websites over the years. But that doesn’t mean we automatically know the unique challenges your healthcare company faces as you fight to get your new site off the ground.

That's why we mindfully avoid assuming we know where the discussion is going before it gets there. We’ll let you speak for yourself. It’s only polite.

Lead with “open” questions.

Open questions start with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” or “how.” It's straight up Journalism 101. If we're getting yes/no answers from you, it means we’re being lazy reporters. And it means our conversation can only scratch the surface in terms of uncovering your needs and goals.

Get comfy with silence.

If our question to you is met with dead air or a frowny face, we're likely squirming in our ergonomic chairs. It's just human nature. So we count to 10 (in our heads, don’t worry) while you organize your thoughts. Because jumping in to fill that void might prevent you from collecting your ideas and articulating a particularly illuminating response.

Ask the “stupid” questions.

We wouldn't be doing anyone any favors by pretending we have all the answers. And we feel very strongly that the success of your project depends in part on us being bold enough to not take anything for granted. So we make a point to ask at least one “stupid” question in each client meeting.

Being not entirely shameless, however, we do practice some super sneaky tactics:

  • “I know we’ve been talking about this for a while, but could you just clarify one thing for me?”
  • “I’m afraid your users might not understand this fully. Could you take a minute to break it down so I can explain it in very basic terms?”
  • “You'll have to excuse me. This is probably a stupid question, but …”

Our willingness to humble ourselves in that regard seems to really resonate with our clients. Because in many cases, voicing our confusion helps them quickly pinpoint gaps in their content universe.

Be curious.

There we are, asking you our thoughtfully stupid, open questions, and waiting patiently for your equally thoughtful answers. Suddenly it hits us: We know precisely how to solve all your website woes. Nice.

But wait! Now is not the time to share our brilliant plan. We may have an inkling about where your main pain points lie. But we need to know more. Where did these issues originate? How long have they been plaguing your company? Whom do they affect? How exactly would your life be easier if we made them go away?

Now we’re finally getting somewhere together. And as it turns out, we suddenly have an even better plan to share.

*Bonus: These techniques have multiple applications outside the work environment. Try them on your friends! Your in-laws! Your pets!

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Posted in Content Strategy

Three Months in Paris

by Erin Anderson on December 2nd, 2010

Back in early September, I packed my bags, my laptop, and my passport, and boldly headed for one very long on-site client meeting (where “on-site” = Paris).

During my tenure in the City of Macarons, I’ve seen three seasons and a lot of fascinating things. Things I would never have expected. After all, when you’re working on web content with a multinational corporation in a city like Paris, the Everyday is bound to look a bit different from the way it does back in Minneapolis.

For example:

1.    Instead of crossing the Mississippi to get to the office, I make my way over the Seine, near the area where Paris was born a millennium ago. That’s one thousand. Years. In the past.

2.    If you show up in the office earlier than 9 a.m., people look at you suspiciously. They do the same if you leave before 7 p.m.

3.    Lunches (even in the company cafeteria) are lengthy affairs, and those same looks of suspicion have haunted me on occasions when I’ve needed to just grab a baguette and hunker down at my desk.

4.    Then again, my window offers a view of the Eiffel Tower AND Sacre-Coeur. It’s hard to want to move!

5.    Manners are very important. Greeting each of your coworkers is a morning routine nobody dares miss. This pleasant (though time-consuming) ritual happens over espresso, as there’s not a drop of drip to be found anywhere in the city. Not even at Starbucks.

6.    Conference calls sound more like UN summits, and care is taken to make sure the same time zone doesn’t always get stuck with the 1 a.m. dial-in shift.

7.    In Minneapolis, Mother Nature often dictates a work-from-home day in the form of snow/sleet/ice/floods/high winds. In Paris, it's striking public transportation unions. Hard to say which is more powerful …

8.    “Team-building activity” usually means “fancy dinner and wine.” And, you know, it WORKS.

9.     I once accepted a meeting invitation for a working session on a plane. It was on the way to another meeting in Rome, but it required I take a detour on a train through Zurich to get there. (It was a surprisingly productive meeting.)

10.    When things get really intense at work (and oh yes, they do), I can always escape to the Luxembourg Garden. (Or the Loire Valley … just 2.5 hours away!)

 

 


 
In the end, though, it’s usually nicer to focus on our similarities.

 

I rest my case.
 

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic

Content Creation: Quality vs. Quantity (or “A Recipe for Content Deliciousness”)

by Erin Anderson on August 20th, 2010

Last night, I had dinner at one of Brain Traffic’s favorite local restaurants: Brasa Rotisserie. They’re part of a growing number of shops opting for a “limited offerings” approach to dining. That is, they offer a few dishes, and they do them goshdarned well. They use locally-grown, organic ingredients. They slow-cook their meat, and price the dishes reasonably.

I tend to appreciate that less-is-more approach with regard to more than just my dinner. That’s why I shop at my neighborhood co-op instead of the megasupermarket across town. It’s why I like wearing dresses instead of trying to assemble a pants-shirt-belt outfit every day. Life is complicated enough, already, jeez.

The same don’t-bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew, quality-vs.-quantity sensibility factors into many of the recommendations we make to our clients as they undertake the complex task of planning for content on their website.

Your content can’t please all of the people all of the time. (Sorry.)

It’s common for publishers of web properties (large ones, especially) to feel the pressure of becoming all things to all people. After all, different departments within a company have different priorities and different ideas about what the end user really needs.

But without clear rules and a solid decision-making process about what should stay and what should go, the situation can quickly devolve into a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario (ahem).

Pretty soon your users get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information on your site, and they leave feeling frustrated, but still hungry for something substantial. The information they wanted may have been there all along, but it was hiding behind a bunch of stuff they didn’t actually need or care about.

But with a content strategy in place, it can please some of the people most of the time.

So how can you satisfy your users by giving them only useful, usable, information that’s also easy to navigate and search? A strategy is necessary. That’s all there is to it.

Whatever form that strategy takes, it should cover the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys, and hows of everything you serve up. For example:

  • What are your users’ goals?
  • What content do you offer to satisfy those goals?
  • Who makes the content?
  • Who fixes it when it’s broken/outdated?
  • Where is the best place on the site to share the content?
  • Why would your users choose you over another organization?
  • How can you use your site content to build on those competitive differences?
  • How do your users find you when they find you? How long do they stay when they get there? 

If you can’t keep tabs on all your content in these ways, make less of it for a while. Minimize the content elements you can’t easily govern … until you have the resources or the budget to do so.

The key is to set standards your organization can easily support and routinely evaluate.

Most importantly: Set standards (and a schedule!) for evaluating quality. Make a plan for adding/subtracting content elements to reflect current demand while innovating in your area of expertise. (If you’re the bomb at slow-cooking meats, make that your thing. Then whip up a few side dishes to give that carne some context.)

In summary, make sure the content on your site helps your users accomplish a task. Ditch everything that gets in their way. Bam!

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Posted in Content Strategy, User Experience

Communicate clearly with online customers

by Erin Anderson on November 16th, 2009

Writing error messages and instructional text isn’t exactly a sexy undertaking. Which is part of the reason it often gets left to the last minute.

Here’s an example of why that’s a really bad idea. I recently encountered this screen while reviewing my domain name renewal information (click on the image to enlarge):

Communicate clearly

I spent about two minutes here (which was about a minute and 45 seconds too long) trying to decipher the phrase “Bad username and/or password.” Because although I definitely had an account with the company, I couldn’t recall whether I’d previously activated my online customer service profile.

So I wasn’t clear on whether A) this was the place to create a username/password for that account and my entry wasn’t strong enough, or B) the username/password I entered simply didn’t match what I’d used to create the account.

Furthermore, I couldn’t tell whether the culprit was my username or my password, thanks to the clear-as-mud “and/or.”

Your users don’t notice your content unless it’s not working.
When you don’t take the time to carefully craft these seemingly dull and insignificant pieces of content, you end up with vague instructions and dead-end words like “bad.” And before long, you’ve got customers like me who are ready to jump ship. 

On the other hand, when this kind of supporting copy is carefully planned for and constructed, it disappears completely into the experience. Your users don’t even notice it’s there. And that’s a good thing.

Remember: Your users expect perfection online. Or close to it, anyway. Why? Because nobody’s there in person or on the phone to guide them as questions arise. Which means your content has to anticipate those questions and provide answers at every turn. Make sure you’re always one step ahead with clear, actionable copy.

So, make your content work harder.
If this all sounds like a big job, well, it is. Writers agonize over stuff like error messages, links, and headlines every day. Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for writing killer instructional copy. Finding the right words depends on factors such as your audience, your business goals, your user needs, and your brand voice.

If you don’t have access to the kinds of metrics or processes that provide concrete insights, you can still cover many of your bases by asking yourself: 

    • What questions does our current copy raise as users are trying to complete a particular task?

    • What are the implications of changing this word or deleting this phrase?

    • In how many different ways could this message be interpreted?

    • How can we minimize ambiguity?

    • How can we simplify or streamline?

    • Would a graphic be more helpful here than a word or sentence? 

Even without tangible data to back up your changes, you’ll catch many of those careless copy oversights that frustrate your users and undermine business goals.

 

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Posted in Editorial Strategy, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing

You’re so not welcome.

by Erin Anderson on June 1st, 2009

As content strategists and web writers, we frequently face off with the dreaded Welcome copy in project requirements. It seems lots of folks still have difficulty parting ways with this dubious convention. 

You know The Welcome. It looks a little something like this:
fedex6

We get it, we do. It’s important to be friendly and engaging. But here’s a bit about why we consistently recommend against this tactic.

What’s wrong with The Welcome? It’s a waste of your valuable real estate.
The words in this box state the obvious. (And not very compellingly, but that’s not the issue.) Nor do they directly help a user accomplish what she came to do. For example, they don’t actually allow her to print a document. Or help her “take advantage of products”—or whatever. They’re just in the way.

Ironically, The Welcome isn’t even particularly welcoming. It’s kind of awkward, inauthentic, overly formal, and sales-y. It reminds us of the host who overenthusiastically greets you at a party, then proceeds to talk about himself the entire time before abandoning his beleaguered listener go find her own glass of punch.

Gerry McGovern has no love for The Welcome. (And how.)
For some real vitriol on The Welcome, look no further than Gerry McGovern:  

“There is nothing worse on the Web than welcoming people, and telling them about how you’re so delighted to announce the launch of, or about how on your website they will be able to find, or about how it’s now even easier, or about how you’re introducing, launching, or already in an orbit of hot air.”

Yowza.

Welcome is a state of mind—not a statement.
So what’s a poor website to do? You still need to make your user feel welcome.

Fear not. You can. If you follow one simple rule:  Show—don’t tell.  

mint

You’ll notice that nobody’s welcoming anybody here, per se. Rather, the idea permeates every word and image on the page. And I defy anyone to tell me what could be more welcoming than a site that:

    • Promises to be the best way of managing my money—for free (They can help me)

    • Organizes its navigation to mirror the way I naturally approach information (They understand me)

    • Presents high-level benefits (They help me decide whether their service is worth my precious time)

    • Offers a fresh, inspiring take on managing finances (They’re approachable and friendly—and different)

    • Has won the attention of some important people (They know I’m a comparison shopper)

    • Features a bright orange “Get started” button (They clearly show me what I should do next)

Back at the party, Mint.com is the equivalent of the gracious host who waves at you from across the room. He doesn’t waste time telling you how totally welcome you are, or what all you’ll find when you walk through the door. He just smiles warmly, hands you a piece of cake, and asks if you have everything you need.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Web Content, Web Writing

Listening: Still the best way to learn somethin’ new.

by Erin Anderson on April 10th, 2009

Our most important job here at Brain Traffic isn’t information architecture. It isn’t content creation, or even copywriting …

Nope, it’s good old-fashioned listening.

I mean the kind of listening that demands our active attention and participation. The kind that leaves us with the information we need to recommend truly smart, thoughtful web content solutions. The kind that requires we really focus on YOU.

So whether we’re scoping a project, clarifying user goals, or managing rounds of client feedback, we all hold fast to a few rules for active listening around these parts.*

Keep an open mind. 
We may have created content for a dozen healthcare websites over the years. But that doesn’t mean we automatically know the unique challenges your healthcare company faces as you fight to get your new site off the ground. 

That's why we mindfully avoid assuming we know where the discussion is going before it gets there. We’ll let you speak for yourself. It’s only polite.

Lead with “open” questions. 
Open questions start with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” or “how.” It's straight up Journalism 101. If we're getting yes/no answers from you, it means we’re being lazy reporters. And it means our conversation can only scratch the surface in terms of uncovering your needs and goals. 

Get comfy with silence.
If our question to you is met with dead air or a frowny face, we're likely squirming in our ergonomic chairs. It's just human nature. So we count to 10 (in our heads, don’t worry) while you organize your thoughts. Because jumping in to fill that void might prevent you from collecting your ideas and articulating a particularly illuminating response. 

Ask the “stupid” questions. 
We wouldn't be doing anyone any favors by pretending we have all the answers. And we feel very strongly that the success of your project depends in part on us being bold enough to not take anything for granted. So we make a point to ask at least one “stupid” question in each client meeting. 

Being not entirely shameless, however, we do practice some super sneaky tactics: 

  • “I know we’ve been talking about this for a while, but could you just clarify one thing for me?”
  • “I’m afraid your users might not understand this fully. Could you take a minute to break it down so I can explain it in very basic terms?”
  • “You'll have to excuse me. This is probably a stupid question, but…”

Our willingness to humble ourselves in that regard seems to really resonate with our clients. Because in many cases, voicing our confusion helps them quickly pinpoint gaps in their content universe. 

Be curious.
There we are, asking you our thoughtfully stupid, open questions, and waiting patiently for your equally thoughtful answers. Suddenly it hits us: We know precisely how to solve all your website woes. Nice.

But wait! Now is not the time to share our brilliant plan. We may have an inkling about where your main pain points lie. But we need to know more. Where did these issues originate? How long have they been plaguing your company? Whom do they affect? How exactly would your life be easier if we made them go away?   

Now we’re finally getting somewhere together. And as it turns out, we suddenly have an even better plan to share. 

*Bonus: These techniques have multiple applications outside the work environment. Try them on your friends! Your in-laws! Your pets! 

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Posted in User Experience

You say “passive,” I say “aggressive.”

by Erin Anderson on March 6th, 2009

Having recently been dubbed by some of my more outspoken coworkers as the Rose Nylund of Brain Traffic, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to dispel some long-standing myths about White Anglo-Saxon Protestant-raised Midwestern web writers: 
  1. We don’t carry around a copy of Strunk & White and/or a pocket thesaurus in our satchels. (We don’t carry satchels at all—ha!) 
  2. IMHO, we’re perfectly capable of txtng. w00t! 
  3. We’re not a bunch of failed librarians and/or poets and/or designers.
  4. We don’t speak in bullet points. (But we are working on a top-secret technology that will one day allow us to hyperlink live conversations.)
  5. We won’t correct your grammar . . . at least not to your face. 
I’m totally kidding about number five. Because we will correct your grammar! But we’ll be super nice about it. :) :) :) And we’ll absolutely do it to your face. Better yet, we’ll leave a note. Because that’s a super thoughtful thing to do! 

 

For a taste of just how thoughtful we are around here, take a gander at my desk. This homage to passiveaggressivenotes.com was masterminded by a couple of our particularly “creative” (read: smart-alecky) writers. That was soooooo nice of them! 

 

passive-aggressive-notes
phone-note
keyboard-note
cup-note
monitor-note

 

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Posted in Around the Office

Don’t Put the Stagecoach Before the Horse

by Erin Anderson on February 23rd, 2009

I’m certainly not the first—nor will I be the last—to gripe about companies leaping onto the social media bandwagon before they’re good and ready. Before they understand whether blogs, networking applications, or online games actually play nice with their brand and with their audience. 

Wells Fargo, I’m talking to you. 

 

stage-coach-is 

 

I just visited Stagecoach Island, your virtual community. I took my eager avatar snowboarding, then on a quest into outer space. She started saving “shells” to buy her dream home. She even picked up a few real-life financial tips along the way. 

 

I’m all for bringing fiscal responsibility to life for young audiences. These are dubious economic times, and it’s never too early to set a good example. I also get that you’ve probably been told to show a little personality, already. 

 

But. 

 

Stagecoach Island feels to me like the desperate cry of a parent trying to prove he’s still “with it” so his teenager will take him seriously.
 

 

with-it

 

News flash: Kids don’t actually want their parents to be cool. They want them to be real. Also, I’m guessing the audience you’re trying to reach isn’t going to be impressed by a video game run by a bank. But what do I know? 

 

I share this example for a reason. In my mind, Stagecoach Island is a major step in the wrong direction. 

 

On the other hand, you hit a home run for me back in November. I was reluctantly logging in to my dwindling savings account one day, when up popped an oversized shot of your distinguished CEO. His photo accompanied a sobering, yet cautiously optimistic, letter. Times are tight, it said, but we’re all in this together. Stick with us—we won’t let you down. 

 

It was the right message at the right time from a company courageous enough to break the fourth wall and let me know they understood my needs and my fears.

 

Transparency (or illusions thereof) in the corporate world are all the rage these days. But this was something more. It was authenticity. Accountability. I didn’t need a snowboarding avatar—I needed a real person to look me in the eye (as it were) and tell it like it is. 

 

As a champion of candid, no-nonsense content, I have a humble plea: It’s that companies like yours think twice about wooing users with adventures in virtual worlds and focus instead on helping them succeed in this one. Not just with letters from the CEO, but with well-crafted, carefully planned content that educates customers, inspires action, and respects the intelligence of their users.

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Posted in User Experience

Error, error on the wall…

by Erin Anderson on January 6th, 2009

 

 

 

We all make mistakes. When we make them online or while using technology, the consequences are (usually) fairly unremarkable. Too bad the alarmists who write error messages still haven’t gotten the memo.

 

 

As proof, I’d like to share a few recent error message sightings:

PC "formatting" error pop-up
roxio

This little gem occasionally rears its ugly head on my laptop.

To be fair, I am the scourge of technology. But this message gives me no clue as to what I might have done (this time) to warrant an on-screen scolding. Or how I might set things right. 

 

In fact, the only choice I have is to click OK and thereby accept my "general failure." (Again.) I do so with a deep sigh and a heavy heart. And then I move on to render useless another electronic device with my mere presence.

Error icon for a brain pacemaker programming device
pacemaker

This startling illustration, accompanied by an impressive string of gibberish, appears when a neurologist makes a "handling error."

Is it just me, or does it seem unwise to subject a brain surgeon to unnecessary distress over vague and melodramatic messaging? (That’s a rhetorical question.) 

E-commerce message from a forward-thinking fashion retailer
As you can imagine, I sigh (with relief, this time) when an application or website delivers an error message that helps me quickly understand what went wrong and how to fix it. To wit:
select-a-size
Say you’ve finally decided to get that dreamy Anthropologie cowlneck dress. You’re so excited you move to click "Add to Bag" before selecting your size. It can happen to anyone. But does Anthropologie.com spew a generic and incomprehensible 404* at you?  

 

Heavens, no. Their solution is elegant as an embroidery motif cardigan in citron and coriander. "Please select a size," urges the articulate error message. (That wasn’t so difficult, now, was it?)

Here’s why this error message copy (and design) works.

The message:

 

  1.   Lets you know there’s a problem
  2.   Gets specific about what that problem is (you’ve neglected to choose your dress size)
  3.   Tells you in plain language how you can solve the problem (select a size, already!)
  4.   Respects your intelligence by avoiding words like FAILURE, FATAL or ERROR
  5.   Appears in lovely rust-colored text rather than four-alarm red to prevent grade-school exam      flashbacks  
  6.   Uses a no-nonsense period rather than an anxiety-inducing exclamation point 
  7.   Guides you quickly to the next step in the process (and ultimately to retail bliss)

 

 

 

On top of everything, that message materializes when your cursor lands anywhere near "Add to Bag" territory. You never waste a single click. Brilliant.

 

 

Want more? Check out this awesome collection of smartypants 404 messages culled by Italian web designer Francesco Mugnai.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Web Writing