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Show Me the Content Strategy!

by Julie Vollenweider

Hi, Brain Traffic. Before we continue, can you send me an example content strategy?

It’s quite common for me to hear this question during preliminary conversations for project work. Despite being a regular request, it’s not an easy one to answer, for three main reasons:

  • Differences in vocabulary (how you define certain terms)
  • Specifics unique to your needs and project
  • Key drivers for why you want to see a sample

Content strategy document samples

With content strategy, there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach.

Although this is a complex question to address, it’s not impossible. Here’s how it breaks down …


As an emerging discipline, “content strategy” can mean different things to different people. At Brain Traffic, our view of content strategy includes four main components—substance, structure, workflow, and governance. We call it the quad.

However, not everyone thinks about content strategy in these terms. For example, to some, content strategy means editorial components like an editorial calendar or a content style guide. To others, content strategy means cataloguing and organizing content. And the list goes on …

That’s why before sharing samples, it’s important to align expectations for content strategy, including:

  • What comprises your definition?
  • What’s your ideal approach? (If you don’t know, here’s our suggested methodology.)
  • What are your desired deliverables and outcomes?


In addition to differences in content strategy vocabulary, your content needs, opportunities, circumstances, and resources are unique—every content strategy project is different.

Because we embrace each project’s unique attributes, our work at Brain Traffic is highly customized. That’s why our work doesn’t yield a “standard” content strategy deliverable that can easily translate as a sample. What we created for Client X isn’t necessarily going to be a meaningful illustration of how we can help you with your content.

So, the next step in our conversation is to talk about your unique situation, including:

  • A brief description of your proposed content strategy project
  • What you hope content strategy will achieve for your organization
  • Timing and budget requirements


Finally, it’s important to get a sense for why you are asking to see an example content strategy. Do you need to:

  • Prove to your organization that you need content strategy?
  • Vet our experience solving issues or uncovering opportunities similar to yours?
  • See the level of detail we’ll include in our deliverable(s)?

The driver for your request may be more effectively demonstrated with a customized presentation of Brain Traffic’s capabilities and methodology, relevant case studies of our previous work, a conversation with one of our current clients, annotated excerpts from a related deliverable, a combination of all the previous items, or something else entirely.

The moral of the story is that we’d love to help you out! In order to do that most successfully, we’ll need to have an exploratory conversation to confirm your request, get a sense for your potential project, and understand how we can get you the most important information.

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Posted in Content Strategy

And That’s a Wrap: 2011 By the Numbers

by Julie Vollenweider

Looking back on 2011, it’s been quite an exciting ride. Here’s a look at what happened this year …

Brain Traffic:

Starting tomorrow, Brain Traffic is taking some time off to celebrate an incredible year with family and friends. Our office closes for the holidays on December 23, and will reopen on Tuesday, January 3. Here’s to a very happy, healthy, and hilarious 2012!

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Posted in Brain Traffic

Shared Values: Football and Content Strategy

by Julie Vollenweider

It’s football season. Beer. Cheese. Cheers. Friendly taunting. Ridiculous head apparel.

Oh. That’s not football season for you? Let me explain with this picture of my desk:

Go green and gold!

Rather than launch into an explanation about why being from Wisconsin requires a love for football of the Lambeau variety, I’d simply like to acknowledge that it’s difficult for me to understand why everyone doesn’t emulate (and love) the Packers.

HEAR ME OUT. I have legitimate reasons. I recently happened upon this list of Packer Values, and couldn’t help but notice the similarities between my favorite football team and my place of employment.

I have no illusions that these values are shared exclusively between the Packers of Green Bay and Brain Traffic of Minneapolis, but here’s how they match up for us …

Packer Value: Teamwork—trust, work ethic, communication

Life at Brain Traffic: We’re constantly working to refine and improve the ways in which we collaborate. We make adjustments to how we staff projects. We brainstorm in small groups. We facilitate workshops with our clients and work hard to ensure everyone is aligned. And recently, we all took a cooking class, split into small teams, and collectively prepared an amazing lunch.

Packer Value: Excellence—competitive, professionalism, preparedness, superior service, focus

Life at Brain Traffic: While we might not have 13 world championships under our belt (yet), we strive to ingrain excellence in all that we do. We foster a healthy competition with one another by sharing new ideas and holding each person accountable. Our team includes renowned authors, sought-after speakers, and some of the leading content strategy practitioners in the country. We are passionate about getting rave reviews from our clients.

Packer Value: Unique small-town identity—tradition, community

Life at Brain Traffic: Minneapolis isn’t a small town (the Metrodome is home to the Minnesota Vikings), but Brain Traffic, as an organization, has some similarities to the small-town vibe. Despite being one of the largest collectives of content strategists, we are a firm of 20. Our size enables us to stay ultra-focused on what we do best, and it requires us to be nimble and smart in our work. We’re a close-knit community of consultants who believe in and live by the values in this post.

Packer Value: Integrity—honesty, sincerity, confidentiality, loyalty

Life at Brain Traffic: From project intake to completion, we strive for straight talk. We do one thing exceptionally well and we won’t pretend otherwise. If we’re not the right fit for a prospective client, we do our best to identify this as soon as possible, and refer a better-matched resource when we can.

Packer Value: Mutual respect

Life at Brain Traffic: In our work with clients, we are polite and patient, and we promise reality-based recommendations. Our internal team doesn’t include a “B team,” and we respect that all staffers are always on their A+ game. We love to discuss and share ideas with our peer community, too.

Packer Value: Commitment

Life at Brain Traffic: We believe in getting measurable and meaningful results from and through content strategy. We advocate for and try to advance the discipline of content strategy. And we are dedicated to contributing to and learning from the content strategy community’s collective knowledge base.

Packer Value: Fun!

Life at Brain Traffic: The Packers have the Lambeau Leap. We have cake, hilarious people, and wacky adventures.

So there you have it. Whether you’re settling in with a big pile of nachos on Sunday afternoon or tackling an enormous content audit, let the Packer Values be your guide. That means you, too, Vikings fans.

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Posted in Brain Traffic

Content and the Technology of Today

by Julie Vollenweider

If they made a rotary version of the cell phone, I would probably have it. If Twitter and Facebook fell off the face of the earth forever, I honestly wouldn’t mind. I still own an epic collection of audio cassette tapes. And I recently received an e-reader as a gift from my dear sister.

If you believe the e-reader is now being used primarily as a coaster, follow this link.

If you believe that the e-reader is now outfitted with a smart leather cover and is in heavy rotation, go here.


Julie and the Technology of Today

Embracing technology to consume content

Welcome to a world where I love my e-reader. Due to my general technology aversion, this is shocking but true. Speaking of technology (and the long-awaited point of this post), I recently read an interesting article in The New York Times discussing how technology over the centuries has directly correlated to how we read.

Many people (especially marketers) are already quite familiar with how people read differently online—but I really appreciated the reminder of what kind of magnitude these types of technology changes can have on our culture. My prediction is that regardless of how devices for consuming content may advance, some of the same principles we practice in content strategy will hold true. For example, content should always be useful and usable, no matter what format it’s presented in.

Consider the device or medium and how it’s used by content consumers. Let’s take the ancient scroll example from The New York Times article. If you’re publishing a cookbook, will your consumers really want to try and keep the edges of a paper scroll flat to read the recipe while they measure flour for cupcakes? Probably not. So in the future, recipe companies should really think twice about whether it will be a good idea to publish content in whatever new formats may be available.

I like to use my e-reader for leisurely reading of articles, essays, and books. If I wanted to read something for business, make notes on it, and highlight sections to go back for reference—I would not chose the e-reader. For folks producing content, this will always be a key consideration.

Functionality requires you to plan for content. With my new e-reader, it’s very easy to search (like on a computer), it has a page-like presentation (similar to a printed book), and even a Technology Idiot (me) can figure out how to use it. With these functional attributes, there are corresponding content considerations such as:

  • Detailed metadata that allows content to be searchable
  • Content presentation style guidelines that indicate the start of a new chapter, footnotes, what kind of imagery will render well electronically, etc.
  • Clear instructional copy that makes the device easy to figure out and use

All of these content needs have to be considered hand-in-hand with functionality development—particularly, who will be responsible for creating the content to meet these needs.

This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. I’m excited to think about what kinds of changes technology will have on content strategy over time. Now if you will excuse me, I have some e-book shopping to do.

Why can’t everything just be mimeographed?

While I’d like to call you a big jerk for not believing in me—I can’t really blame you. It was surprising to me. Who would have ever thought that a Luddite could have a total love affair with an electronic book? Apparently, one very intelligent Little Sis Vollenweider.

Now, if you weren’t a linear reader (aka cheater) like me and didn’t always read all possible scenarios in the Choose Your Own Adventure books, I would highly recommend you go back and read a great article that I found on how evolving technology, from the scroll to the e-reader, has changed the way we read.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Let’s Get Typical! Common Content Strategy Scenarios and Results

by Julie Vollenweider

When I speak with folks about possible content strategy projects, it usually doesn’t take too long for the “Tell me about a typical project” topic to come up. In a consulting environment, most people understand that this is a tricky request—especially if it’s our first conversation.

What is decidedly easier for me to address—and relevant to the “typical project” question—are the common scenarios in which people are prompted to consider content strategy and what organizations hope to (and do!) achieve with content strategy efforts.

So c’mon—let’s channel Olivia Newton-John and get typical! (Confession: I was going to link to her “Physical” video, but I watched it for the first time in years and got too uncomfortable. No wonder my parents wouldn’t let me watch early MTV. Look it up and re-watch at your own risk.)


OMG! Change!

Something has changed, or is about to change at my organization.

  • We are in the process of transitioning to a new content management system. Now would be a great time to clean up our content so we don’t have to migrate ‘junk’ to the new platform.
  • We’ve reorganized. Now, it’s not exactly clear how our new teams are supposed to work together to create, publish, and maintain content.
  • I just took a new position and content is on my plate. Now, it’s really difficult for me to take care of my day-to-day editorial updates and be smart about planning for the future.
  • Our analytics and/or user research is showing us that our consumers aren’t finding/getting what they need. Now would be a great time to turn that around and impact our quarterly numbers.

Woah! Complexity!

My organization realized the complexity of our content.

  • We have and/or produce a LOT of content … in seven different languages.
  • There are a ton of people involved in requesting, creating, publishing, and maintaining our content (e.g., CMS users, geographic regional teams, product teams, etc.).
  • Many different audiences interact with our content—and they have varying needs, objectives, and expectations.

I want that!


If everything goes according to plan, with content strategy we will have …

  • An actionable, achievable plan to prepare for, develop, or implement a content strategy. We’ll be able to take this plan, execute it, and evolve it over time.
  • Quality content that meets user needs and achieves business objectives. Quality means it’s relevant, accurate, consistent, clear, purposeful, and generally awesome.
  • Clarity on:
    • What kinds of content is needed (topics, types, sources, etc.) and what message(s) content needs to communicate to our audience(s).
    • How content is prioritized, organized, formatted, and displayed.
    • What processes, tools, and human resources are required for content initiatives to launch successfully and be maintained over time.
    • How key decisions about content and content strategy are made—including how those changes are initiated and communicated.



  • Progress is made (which sets the stage for saving or making money). Sometimes, having an external (neutral) expert come in to talk about content strategy is all it takes to move things forward. For organizations that are set up to implement content strategy, but have no time or resources available to actually develop the overall strategy—getting the plan is the necessary push. In any scenario, this resulting progress is usually the stuff that makes the day-to-day content team happiest.
  • Money is saved. Yes. It’s true. Content strategy work can help companies save money. For example, a content strategy effort might examine and evaluate content that is licensed. If any of this purchased content is duplicative, or doesn’t meet criteria for the user and business—that’s an opportunity to save money by discontinuing the license for irrelevant content. Or, in an organization that uses a blend of online and telephone support for products, having a clearly defined strategy for the information best served online can help reduce call volume (and therefore operating expenses). These are the kinds of results that senior leaders really care about.
  • Time is spent efficiently (and more money is saved). When there is a clear understanding of who does what to which content and when, everyone involved in content processes can be more efficient. Consider this—a product manager wants to feature details on a new product on the company website. She spends time locating the company editorial style guide, and agonizes over the wording for the new web content. She then spends time tracking down who might be able to help with this request (via a manager, IT, or marketing). This is time the product manager could be using to do what she does best—improving the product. Additionally, this is time spent doing the work someone else is already paid to do—the website editor, who can create and publish the content in a quarter of the time the product manager spent. A solid content workflow strategy can uncover and improve a situation like this. Frankly, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t get excited about this type of result.
  • Consumers are satisfied (and money is made). Offering content that’s relevant, easily found, and used for its intended purpose goes a long way toward audience satisfaction. Satisfied content consumers are the ones that contribute to your goals as an organization. They buy your widget. They donate money. They subscribe to your service. They recommend you to friends. Happy customers always equal happy business stakeholders. Everybody wins!

Even though there are unique circumstances at almost any organization, there are definitely some universal themes for content strategy needs and outcomes. These themes are about as “typical” as it gets when it comes to our project work at Brain Traffic.

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Posted in Content Strategy

15 Things You Don’t Know About Erik Westra

by Julie Vollenweider

Whew. Now that we’ve completed our hosting duties for Confab: The Content Strategy Conference, it’s time to meet one of the key bearded players behind the event.

Second in our 15-things-you-don’t-know-about-a-spotlight-shy-staff-member series, here’s a look at Erik Westra, manager of media and events at Brain Traffic.

Erik Westra

(photo by Sean "@tubes" Tubridy)

1.  I’m allergic to gluten. Which tends to be quite challenging in the cake-centric culture of Brain Traffic. Or when mired in week-long extensive cake negotiations with the Confab venue.

2.  The Midwest has been “home” my whole life, with stints in five cities across Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

3.  Refining (and drinking) the perfect cocktail—especially the simple classics—is one of my favorite activities.

Mmm Sazerac
Mmm. Sazerac. (photo by _6ft5, cc licensed.)

4.  I’m just a bit OCD, which is actually quite handy for event planning.

5.  My first job was at a record store.

6.  I’ve stuck with music throughout my career with posts at two amazing clubs—First Avenue (Minneapolis) and the Empty Bottle (Chicago):

The Empty Bottle

The Empty Bottle. (photo by allert, cc licensed)

7.  On the last day of Confab, I found out that one of our volunteers had been calling Clinton Forry “Clifton” for the entire event.

8.  My background is in journalism, and I’ve run two music and art magazines—First Avenue’s Foundation, and Ladies & Gentlemen.

Ladies & Gentleman, Issue No. 2 (with accompanying LP)

9.  I collect records. My LP collection numbers in the 1000s. And no, I am not a hoarder.

10.  There’s a tattoo of a 45 rpm record adapter on my forearm.

11.  One trite-but-true tidbit I’ve picked up in life is: Fake it ’til you make it.

12.  Having been a designer, and now working with content strategists every day, I’ve learned that both roles tend to approach projects in a similar fashion.

13.  My cat’s name is Dignan. His namesake is a character from the movie Bottle Rocket. Like his namesake, he has a lot of energy and enthusiasm for really stupid ideas.

Digs the cat
Diggs just loves cozy, porcelain spaces.

14.  When I have some down time, I tend to spend a lot of time on these sites:

15.  Speaking of baseball … I’m attempting to visit every ballpark in America. I’m sitting around 60%. My current top three? AT&T Park in San Francisco, Target Field here in Minneapolis, and Safeco Field in Seattle.

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Posted in Around the Office

15 Things You Don’t Know About Angie Halama

by Julie Vollenweider

It’s no secret that the Brain Traffic team includes top industry authors and speakers. What is less known (until you work with us), is that the Brain Traffic team also includes a crew of incredibly talented folks that make our content strategy world go ’round.

So, I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if more people got to know the spotlight-shy Brain Traffickers? Wouldn’t it be great if we could do it in a way similar to 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me?”

And then I answered myself (like I do) with a great big, “YES THAT WOULD RULE.”

First up is Angie Halama, project manager extraordinaire. Here are 15 things you don’t know about her:

1. The best cake is always chocolate. Always.

2. I’m the only Minnesotan who isn’t sick of winter yet.

3. Back in 2002, I used RoboHelp to re-do all my employer’s help content. Because I was the only one who wanted to.

4. Has anyone else worked on RoboHelp?

5. One of my recent favorites is peppermint tea. Almost as good as caffeine.

Peppermint Tea Box Image

 6. A former coworker once gave me the nickname Tenacious A.

7. Project management has fostered my appreciation of spreadsheets. 

8. I will never choose chopsticks over a fork.

Fork vs Chopstick

9. I came to Brain Traffic more than three years ago as a writer, when there were only four employees total. We now have 19.

10. Trees are one of my all-time favorites.

11. I am very bad at Monopoly.

12. In my former copyediting days, I got to indulge my love of dictionaries.

Dictionary image

13. My earliest workplaces include two libraries and one bookstore.

14. I know a lot of recipes using sauerkraut.

15. One of my first jobs was telemarketing. I did it for a week, made four sales, and set a record. Seriously.

("place setting" image from Flickr user paul goyette (cc: by-nc-sa 2.0))

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic

In the Year Two-Thousaaaaand (and 10)

by Julie Vollenweider

Resisting the urge to do a year-end review of all things Brain Traffic is just too great. Facts, figures, and fun. Here’s a look at what happened this year …

Brain Traffic:

  • Posted 411 tweets – our most actively tweeted month was March
  • Wrote 51 blog posts – including this one
  • Completed 36 projects
  • Waved goodbye to Kristina 22 times as she headed out to speaking gigs
  • Enjoyed no less than 12 office cakes – including the one celebrating the 242nd time we fired Meghan

  • Collectively visited 10 different states and 10 different countries for project work and speaking engagements
  • Organized 9 CS Meetups (and when I say “we”, I actually mean Meghan Casey)
  • Hired 7 amazing people to join our team
  • Ordered 5 space heaters to keep us toasty in our sometimes drafty, yet beautifully restored office in the Bank’s building
  • Posed with our 3 favorite office cardboard cut-outs

  • Congratulated 2 staffers on 2 adorable new babies
  • Announced 1 sensational conference that we’re putting on in 2011
  • Survived with only 1 pair of Hulk gloves

Any way we look at it – it’s been a great year. Brain Traffic is taking some time off to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. Our office closes December 24 and will reopen on Monday, January 3. Here’s to a very happy, healthy, and hilarious 2011!

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic

You’re Smart. We’re Smart. Let’s Do Some Content Strategy.

by Julie Vollenweider

When it’s time to blog, I focus on one of two things:  (1) something that entertains me or (2) a common question I hear when talking with organizations about collaborating on a content strategy project.

And you know what? Now is no time to try and change a creature of habit.  Here’s the latest in my Q&A series.

What experience does Brain Traffic have in [fill-in-the-blank] industry?

I can appreciate where this question is coming from – clients have a desire to speak the same language. From our perspective, having worked in a specific industry can certainly help – but it isn’t a requirement for a successful content strategy effort.

Our team has experience across a wide range of industries, including consumer goods, education, health care, non-profit, pharmaceuticals, retail, and more. We don’t focus on any one particular industry or market.

Why not?

Because our business model is to stay focused on what we’re good at – Brain Traffic expertly helps people effectively use content to achieve their business goals.

We count on our clients to do the same and bring their unique industry insight to the project. With both of us bringing our expertise – regardless of what previous experience we have in your industry, or what previous experience you have in ours – the result can be a smash success.

Other consultancies will work to specialize in a few industries and tout that experience as a great reason to work together. And this is where Brain Traffic has a different opinion. Instead of focusing on knowing the same things as our clients, we hope to bring something different to the relationship – our leadership in content strategy – blending client expertise with our own.

Yeah, but how does that really work?

It’s simple. We do a Vulcan Mind Meld.

A mind meld needed for Content Strategy? Like Spock? Nope.

Well, not exactly. But close.

The first thing we do for any project is to dig into the existing content assets and ecosystems. We immerse ourselves in the current situation and opportunity. We ask thoughtful questions that may not be as obvious to someone living and breathing a particular topic every single day. It’s during this rigorous discovery phase that we gather the important knowledge on which to base our content strategy recommendations.

Is everyone comfortable with this approach? Nope. Does it work for our clients? Absolutely.


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Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy, Web Content

You’re hired: Outsourcing content work

by Julie Vollenweider

Recently, someone asked if I could help him understand when it makes sense to outsource content work vs. handle it with an internal team.

At first, this question surprised me – it’s not one I hear often. Or ever, for that matter. But it got me thinking that perhaps it is asked (or silently considered) more than I realize.

Before diving into the details – here are some familiar situations that prompt the question: Who is going to do this content work?
•    We have a giant pile of messy content.
•    Nobody really “owns” our content, so everyone avoids it.
•    We have content all over the place, and none of it is consistent when it comes to voice, tone, style or message.
•    Our content isn’t useful, usable, relevant, or accurate.
•    We are thinking about implementing a new content management solution.

OK. Yep. You have content work to be done. Now what? There are two common scenarios when it comes to the content requests we get:
•    We have/are building an internal team that will take care of our content. Can you teach us some best practices and/or help us get started?
•    There’s nobody/no time to take care of our content. Can you do it for us?


A shameless, yet good-humored, plug

Of course, it really wouldn’t hurt to consider hiring a content strategy consultancy (preferably based in Minneapolis) either way – to jumpstart your effort or to just take care of it. Content professionals (like the awesome staff at Brain Traffic) are standing by to help answer questions, develop a plan, increase confidence and dole out general content happiness.

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Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy, Resources