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When You Know Your Content Is Bad

by Tenessa Gemelke

Time and again, we meet people who hang their heads in shame, remorsefully confiding, “I don’t even want you to look at our website.” It’s usually whispered like a guilty confession, as if this one delinquent person is solely responsible for letting down the entire Internet.

Whether you’re in a decision-making position or not, it can be difficult to figure out how to use your powers for good to defeat bad content. Fear not! If you’ve been quietly suffering the knowledge—nay, the CERTAINTY—that your content stinks, here are a few ways to take steps in the right direction.

Quantify “bad”

The danger of writing off a website as “bad” is that making such blanket statements can obscure opportunities. That’s the kind of thinking that results in waiting for the next redesign—which, by the way, has no budget, is not currently on the schedule, and may or may not happen in the next three years. Many of us know from experience that there’s nothing sadder than neglecting your content indefinitely.

Rather than throwing up your hands in despair, see if you can get a handle on the badness:

  • Is all of the content bad, or just some of it? It’s possible that your generalized concern is actually reflected only in a few high-profile areas of the site, such as the help content or the product descriptions in the store. Conducting a qualitative content audit can help you document and narrow in on the biggest problem areas.
  • What are the consequences? Low quality is one thing, but awful user experience spells even more trouble. Take a close look at unclear calls to action, broken purchase paths, and other flawed conversion activities. Be sure you understand how the user’s dissatisfaction relates to your business model.
  • Is it really the content that’s bad? Once you start evaluating the situation, you may discover other problems. Determine whether content is the culprit. Poor functionality or design can cause frustration or distract attention from important content. Try to pinpoint exactly which things aren’t working.

Once you have a good handle on the problems, it’s much easier to convince others to invest in efforts to fix your content.

Make way for better content

As content creation moves forward, find ways to avoid the mistakes of the past. Rally your team to take better care of your content:

  • Clean out the fridge. When people report that their content has gone “bad,” they often mean that—like a forgotten carton of milk—some of it has passed its expiration date. Out-of-date, inaccurate, or irrelevant leftovers languish, unwanted and moldy, enticing nobody. Clear out all of that yucky stuff nobody should be consuming.
  • Step up your style. Sure, your style guide covers the use of trademarks, but does it truly help content creators write well? Rather than simply addressing grammatical rules, develop nuanced style guidelines to describe your company’s voice and tone. Use “less like” and “more like” examples to demonstrate exactly what you want to avoid and achieve.
  • Rethink your roles. Maybe everyone on your team has the best intentions, but it’s not clear who is doing what, or how their tasks fit together. Fill in any gaps in your workflow that contribute to the problems you’ve identified.
  • Allow time for success. High-quality content almost never happens in an accidental rush. Plan for a manageable quantity, and put it on a schedule. Adhere to an editorial calendar that reflects what you’re actually capable of accomplishing rather than a reactive, haphazard plan that sets you up to fail.

So. You’ve figured out what’s wrong, and you’ve figured out what’s right. But there’s one more thing you need to recognize if you’re truly going to reform your wayward content …

Canary on stretcher

Unfortunately, this canary didn’t make it out of the content coal mine.

Image courtesy of erozen

Bravely shut things down

Now is the part where I say that thing you quietly know in your heart of hearts: Not every problem is worth fixing. (Forgive me while I pause for emphasis and resort to all caps.) NOT EVERY PROBLEM IS WORTH FIXING. Go ahead. Print that out and stick it up on your cubicle wall. It’s true that there may be portions of your content that simply need to disappear quietly.

Nobody wants to believe they’ve been working hard on the wrong thing. But the fact is, some content efforts are so time-consuming, costly, and fruitless that there’s no point in continuing them. Maybe it’s an abandoned forum or a newsletter that generates little or no response. Whatever the case, you may need to be the person who says, “Hey, guys? The canary doesn’t look so good.”

Make a new life for yourself

You may identify yourself as someone who has criminally neglected your content, but please accept our forgiveness. You can put the past behind you. You’ve seen the error of your ways. You’ve paid your penance. You’ve turned over a new leaf!

But if you have trouble escaping your life of content crime? Call us. We can help.

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Posted in Content Strategy

How Nonprofits Can Profit From Content Strategy

by Tenessa Gemelke

Before coming to Brain Traffic, I was managing a publishing department at a nonprofit called Search Institute, an organization that conducts research about children and teenagers. In fact, that’s where I was working when someone in our office building named Kristina Halvorson asked if she could use our Wi-Fi temporarily. In exchange, she’d offer us a workshop about something called “content strategy.”

You can probably see where this is headed.

As we listened to the introductory speech about tying user-centered content to the business model, I saw several of my colleagues nodding in agreement. I returned to my desk thinking, “Eureka! We’ve found it!”

Content strategy money bag

And then? Reality set in:

  • “We don’t have the resources for that.”
  • “Everyone is too busy to take on anything new.”
  • “It sounds like a great idea, but we need to focus on our funded projects.”

Most of these comments are pretty typical when people initially feel overwhelmed by content strategy. But I continued having conversations until I came to some unique conclusions: In our nonprofit setting, the business model was a moving target. Funding came and went. Sometimes there were multiyear, multimillion-dollar grants, and other times we survived from small project to small project. With all of this uncertainty, it was difficult to land on a single strategy—much less to deploy the people and hours needed to implement it.

You’ve gotta start somewhere

I’d love to tell you that an anonymous donor gave us a big bag of unrestricted content strategy money, but that didn’t happen. Our dreams of best practices gave way to best efforts. Although we couldn’t afford to restructure and rewrite all of our content, we soon discovered that a little bit of alignment and analysis can go a long way.

If you’re in the content trenches at a nonprofit organization, here are a few places to focus your limited resources:

  • Document what you have and what’s working. If at all possible, conduct a content inventory or a more in-depth qualitative audit, exploring whether you’re getting results. How popular are your PDFs? Are people following social media posts back to your blog? And where is all of this content coming from? It’s important to know who’s creating what and if all of that hard work is paying off. You might be surprised to discover that a funny e-card got more traction than a free white paper.
  • Spend time on workflow. Nonprofit organizations attract people who (a) believe passionately in what they do and (b) want to help. Unfortunately, this puts your content creators at risk of getting spread too thin or duplicating each other’s efforts. At Search Institute, a brief study of our newsletters revealed that four individuals were creating four different newsletters for only two audiences. Consolidating resources and introducing a unified editorial calendar resulted in less work and higher quality.
  • Know your audiences. You might have a mentoring program that serves underprivileged kids in rural communities, but those kids probably aren’t checking out your website. So, who is? Are corporate funders investigating your credibility? Are volunteers looking for logistical information? You need to understand who is using your content, and for what purpose. Even if you can’t afford a full-scale user research study, a few phone calls, an in-house brainstorming session, or an online survey can help you start to collect this information.
  • Pay attention to your business model. Some nonprofits get so caught up in providing free information and services that they neglect the audiences who are footing the bill for their good work. Are you dependent on individual donations? If so, make it easy to donate (and receive receipts!) online. Do corporate sponsors distribute internal copies of your annual report? Offer a printer-friendly version. Do other organizations purchase your materials or services with grant money? Give them links and tools that make it easier to obtain that funding.

    You don’t have to beat people over the head with donation requests. Simply remember that meeting users’ needs for information is ideal, but meeting users’ needs when they are TRYING TO GIVE YOU MONEY is essential.

  • Use your money wisely. At Search Institute, we had big dreams of overhauling our website, but we simply never had enough general operating expenses to get it done. Funders had their own agendas, and promoting the nonprofit itself was not a high priority for them. But we did obtain money to create a new website for parents. That provided an opportunity to invest in branding and user testing—two big-ticket items that really mattered to funding partners who cared about having their logo on a reputable site. This work provided a lot of the messaging and nomenclature that informed the larger strategy for the parenting site.

Keep hope alive

It’s discouraging to list all of the things you can’t accomplish, so … don’t! Get started in whatever small way you can. Celebrate every victory. Document the value content strategy has provided—both internally and to your supporters. And, who knows? Maybe that magical anonymous donor will show up with the cartoonish money bag someday.

Have you used content strategy in a nonprofit setting? What tips can you share with the rest of us?

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Posted in Content Strategy

What Not to Wear: A Tale of Content Strategy

by Tenessa Gemelke

Working at Brain Traffic is excessively wonderful. This place is teeming with entertaining geniuses. The cake flows freely. We work really hard, but sometimes we stop to watch old-school commercials or an amazing hand dance. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a workplace.

I am a Brain Traffic content strategist through and through, but I have just one problem: For a bunch of nerds, my colleagues are unreasonably fashionable. I am in the company of Fluevogs and well-groomed eyebrows.

Tenessa, before her makeover

Tenessa "before." And yes, that is a Hypercolor T-shirt.

I tried to up my game when I started working here in January. I wore necklaces! I wore unstained shirts! I didn’t wear novelty socks every day! And I somehow managed to stifle my penchant for 70s polyester and bedazzled sweaters. My wardrobe was drab, but I thought I was flying under the radar.

I wasn’t. My friend Alison contacted the authorities. She nominated me for What Not to Wear.

The role I was born to play

For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it’s a reality show starring Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, two hilarious fashion experts who intervene to stop society’s worst violators. Before the show’s producers select people, they need to know how seriously the candidate needs help. Brain Traffic’s own Julie Vollenweider conspired with Alison, my husband, and a few of my coworkers to get me to the Mall of America for a "client meeting," where a nice young gentleman casually asked me to participate in this interview:


Obviously, the situation was dire.

Some people who end up on the show feel hurt or offended, but I had zero qualms. I had always selected clothes that made me laugh, so I was perfectly comfortable with the idea that my attire might make someone else laugh. It just hadn’t occurred to me that “someone else” might one day include, erm, EVERYONE WHO WATCHES A VERY POPULAR TELEVISION SHOW. (Fortunately, my stage fright didn’t set in until well after taping the show.)

Soon, I would be on my way to New York to receive professional help with my style problems.

Now, when you find yourself suddenly making an hour-long television appearance, it’s easy to lose your grip. I spent several days simply feeling stunned. But as the trip drew nearer, I realized I had to snap out of it. So I asked myself, “What would a content strategist do in this situation?”

She’d develop a strategy. THAT’S WHAT.

Content strategy to the rescue

Meghan Casey had already written a lovely blog post about using content strategy to evaluate clothing, but this was different. I wasn’t just auditing and analyzing the contents of my wardrobe. This was a full-on makeover. What I needed was a core strategy.

Before I flew across the country and placed my fashion fate in the hands of experts, I wanted to be sure I had identified a long-term direction for my wardrobe. I considered my personal priorities (“business goals,” if you will) and how others would feel about my appearance (i.e., user needs). These were some of the issues I wanted to address:

  • Looking like a respectable member of the Brain Traffic team
  • Showing my personality
  • Not running to the dry cleaner every week
  • Staying warm in the Minnesota winters

I tried to articulate these concerns in a way that my project sponsors (Stacy and Clinton) might appreciate. When I stepped off the plane at La Guardia, I was armed with my core strategy:

Tenessa has a practical, cross-seasonal wardrobe that communicates confidence and professionalism with a spirit of fun.

Did the strategy work? Does my new style match my personality? And most importantly, what happened to the full-length, purple party dress from my Twitter avatar? You’ll just have to watch the show* and find out!

*The episode is scheduled to air Tuesday night, December 13, at 9:00 EST/8:00 CST on TLC.

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Posted in Around the Office

Confab 2012 is Officially Open for Business

by Tenessa Gemelke

Let's get straight to the point, here. Confab: The Content Strategy Conference 2012 is officially open for business.

We’re returning to beautiful Minneapolis, MN on May 14–16, 2012, and early bird registrations are in full swing. Seriously, if you wanted, you could stop reading THIS SECOND and go register (but be sure to come back, because we have a handful of other things to tell you).

For starters, we’ve confirmed yet another lineup of amazing speakers from all over the world to share their insights and expertise. (A few folks will even be making their first-ever trip to the United States … that’s how much they want to hang out with you.) And more are still to come!

If you haven't had the opportunity to visit our beautiful new Confab2012.com site, we think you'll love it. It's got everything you need to know about the conference, including a full speaker list, descriptions of our four (FOUR!!) full day workshop offerings, and complete venue info. Did we mention it's beautiful?

While you're there, be sure to sign up for the Confab mailing list, and follow us on the tweetscape. We've got all kinds of announcements and exciting things to discuss with you. So check it out and get yourself registered. We can’t wait to see you in May!

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Posted in Brain Traffic

Capturing That Back-to-School Feeling

by Tenessa Gemelke

If you’re like me, the first week of September has an antsy, eager feeling. Students in the United States are resuming their studies. Classrooms are filling. Textbooks are glossy. Pencils are sharp. As I imagine a distant school bell beckoning me, I realize that there’s something very appealing about the psychology of a fresh start.

Going Back to School

One thing I’ve learned about content strategists is that we are voracious learners. We hunger for ideas, data, and problem-solving skills. We love to work hard for knowledge. We are eternal students. But unfortunately, we’re grownups, living life on the 12-month calendar of client projects and deadlines. Sure, we go to conferences occasionally, but we no longer have the fun of a whole new cycle of learning.

While helping my kids prepare for the first day of school, I spent some time thinking about the moments that used to make my heart flutter. Although many of those memories seem far from the adult workplace, I see plenty of relevant parallels, especially in the field of content strategy. So how might we manufacture the excitement of a new school year?

Buy shiny new supplies.

My father taught me that nothing in the world is full of more possibilities than a blank sheet of paper. As you fold open a new notebook in your hands, you open a correspondingly crisp page in your mind.

We work online so much, but tactile tools trigger our creativity in different ways. Try a highlighter color you’ve never used. Buy an excellent pen. Switch up your notebooks to use lines, grid lines, and no lines. Let these instruments bring fresh energy to your next project.

Bravely face your teacher.

Teachers loom larger than life in childhood. Before we even get to know them, we swap heard-it-from-an-older-sibling-or-that-one-kid-on-the-bus nuggets of information, trying to piece together a profile from reputation. Is he nice? Is she strict? I heard Ms. Kissane asks hard questions, but she’s really funny.

Our teachers in the content strategy community can be just as intimidating. This scary-smart, prolific crowd can make you feel like the dumbest kid who ever tried to learn long division. But, like all good teachers, the best content strategists share your curiosity and welcome your inquiries. Raise your proverbial hand and speak up! Comment on blog posts. Ask questions on Twitter. Active learning can only happen when you engage with your instructors.

Make new friends.

Is there anything scarier than opening your Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox next to somebody new? It may be more comfortable to stick with familiar people, but budding friendships offer different kinds of support and perspective—two things that matter just as much in the office as they once did on the playground.

Do you have a colleague you don’t know very well? Invite her to lunch, or ask for her feedback on a document you’ve created. You don’t have to become best pals with everyone, but try to forge at least one new connection. You never know which acquaintances will become valued project partners down the road.

Report back to your parents.

This may sound like the goofiest bit of advice, but how often do you talk to your parents about your work? You are a product of their upbringing, and they can offer insights nobody else can. After all, they watched you develop your first problem-solving skills. If they are supportive (or simply vain), they’ll love hearing about your accomplishments. They may also give a rousing pep talk when things go badly.

My mom has no idea what content strategy is, and she and I don’t always get along well, but I’m often amazed by her ability to draw a parallel between my daily life and some trait I developed at the age of four. Even if you aren’t close to your parents, they may reflect things back in a way that makes you think differently. And if they’re really awful, you can always run to your bedroom and slam the door.

Beginning a Year to Remember

Take this moment to reset your internal calendar. Although there’s something a little dorky about pretending you’re a bright-eyed student on the first day of class, it’s helpful to look at your work through fresh eyes. And it’s always fun to show off your new Lisa Frank pencil pouch.

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Posted in Content Strategy

When Words Fail

by Tenessa Gemelke

People who work with content are often word nerds, and we love to guffaw at poor word choices. In fact, the Brain Traffic staff recently had a good laugh when we nearly recommended “killer headings” in the style guide for … a hospital. Oops.

The truth is, word choice can make or break your content. Take this example: last year, I edited a book by a researcher who studies youth development. His goal was to inspire adults to reach out and offer more emotional support to children and teenagers. He saw it as a civic duty—a series of individual acts that could transform our society. This was his working title:

A Citizen’s Guide to Touching Kids

You can probably see why the title made me wince. While he meant “touching kids” in the Hallmark sense, I knew readers might associate the phrase with child predators. I removed what I perceived to be the offending words and sent the manuscript out for review, asking reviewers what they thought of his new working title:

A Citizen’s Guide to Changing Kids’ Lives

As it turned out, we had missed another negative association. Reviewers raised questions such as, “Are you saying I have to be a legal citizen to have a positive influence on kids?” and “Do you want people to think about immigration problems when they read this title?”

The word citizen was loaded with meaning we hadn’t intended. We had dodged one landmine but stepped squarely on another. Just as the book wasn’t about pedophiles, it wasn’t exactly about citizenship, either. So we changed the title again:

Parent, Teacher, Mentor, Friend: How Every Adult Can Change Kids’ Lives

A few little words had almost sabotaged the author’s intentions by distracting the audience. Through careful word choice, we ultimately reached a much stronger title—one that better communicates who the book is for and what it is about.

Readers bring their own context

As content creators, it’s our job to choose words carefully, and many of us like to think we’re pretty good at anticipating user needs. But once we’ve established what readers want, it’s just as important to filter our content for the little things that may drive them away.

I recently worked on content aimed at patients considering weight-loss surgery. I learned through interviews that this audience is very sensitive. They’ve spent years feeling trapped or possibly embarrassed by their obesity, but their condition is often caused by factors beyond their control. They need information they can trust, and they are deeply afraid of being ridiculed. Bearing this sensitivity in mind, I cringed when I found this description in the source material:

After surgery, you’ll attend classes to support your continued growth.

The copywriter meant emotional growth, of course. At first I chuckled at the gaffe, but I quickly realized that the double meaning could come across as an inconsiderate joke. When I sat down to write new copy, I found myself making similar mistakes. Previously harmless phrases such as “a huge decision” and “a wide range of options” were now complicated by what I knew about my audience.

These may seem like minor infractions, but the last thing you want is a reader who resents you and therefore doesn’t hear your message. Much more than a simple matter of political correctness, these blunders can cost you your audience.

Say what you mean—and nothing else

As you review new or existing content, examine it for unintended meaning. Carefully screen for the following:

  • Don’t hurt or anger the reader. Sometimes straightforward text can be littered with unforeseen insults. As I learned with my weight-loss audience, some phrases trigger emotional responses. Try not to give your reader a reason to stop reading.
  • Avoid sexual innuendo. It can be embarrassing to point out sexy language among colleagues, but someone has to keep her mind in the gutter. Respectfully see to it that nobody uses the word “bone” without plenty of clear context.
  • Make sure everyone is in on the joke. Sometimes it’s okay to be clever. Just make sure it’s on purpose. “Killer headings” aren’t helpful when they kill your message. If your verbal twists appear to be accidental, your reader may think you’re stupid—or worse, that you think they’re stupid.

Creating clear, user-centered content requires a delicate balance between your intended message and the reader’s context. If you don’t walk the line carefully, you might stumble or tip over. And what’s the double meaning in that last sentence? If I don’t revise it, you might think I’m implying that content strategists are often drunk.

(Dutch Wonderland Blunder photo by  Mr. Jay Yohe. (CC))

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Posted in Web Writing

How to Board a Moving Train

by Tenessa Gemelke

“My feelings toward your company can only be described as a crush.” The first line of my cover letter to Brain Traffic was more of a confession than a compelling reason to hire me. I had been happy at my last job, but I had also spent several years getting more and more excited about content strategy. I was ready to take the leap. Even if you’re not a doe-eyed fangirl like me, you may be reading this and other blogs because you’re hearing the insistent whistle of content strategy’s steam engine, and you want in.

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance

Content strategy may seem far from your current career, but it might be closer than you realize. As Erin Kissane points out in The Elements of Content Strategy, we arrive at this work along different tracks, bearing different skills. I came from an enterprise publishing background. Others enter through marketing or information architecture. With such varied origins, how do newbies get started? How can you find a handhold and climb aboard?

Kristina Halvorson, American Hobo

Kristina Halvorson, American Hobo

We can take a few cues from the archetype of the American hobo. Living life on the rails, he kept his wits about him and looked for work wherever he could find it. Here’s the advice he might give to a wannabe content strategist:

  • Remember your bindle. What are the most valuable things you already know and carry with you? Content strategy is a hodgepodge of editorial instinct, business sense, and compassion. The strengths you already possess will help you succeed, so keep them tied securely in your pack.
  • Get a running start. To board a moving train, you need to sprint to gain speed. In the case of content strategy, that means educating yourself as quickly as possible while launching forward. Read voraciously. Follow content strategists on Twitter. Find out if there’s a meetup near you.
  • Share the beans. You will meet all kinds of interesting characters as you ride the rails. Stakeholders. SEO experts. Curators. Employ campfire etiquette and graciously exchange tasty morsels with everyone you meet.
  • Don’t wait for an invitation. You don’t need a ticket—or a particular job title—to begin the journey. Wherever you work, you can begin using The Quad and other content strategy principles to shape your projects. If you know this is the route for you, find a way to hop onboard.

You may feel vulnerable as you consider a leap from the safety of a familiar job into something that is still being defined. But that risk pays off when you realize, “I’m doing it! I’m on my way! I am on a magical locomotive bound for Contentville!” (At this point it’s important to note that no hoboes were harmed in the shameless manipulation of this train metaphor.)

Ready, Set, JUMP!

You may feel as if you’re on the sidelines, but you don’t have to sit there and wave sadly at the caboose. There has never been a more exciting time to board the speeding bullet that is content strategy. Organizations are recognizing the value of investing in high-quality content. Thought leaders are refining the philosophy while strategists refine the practice. Confab is next week! There are countless ways to turn your content strategy crush into a serious relationship. And? Brain Traffic is hiring. If you’re at Confab, visit the Brain Traffic booth to learn more.

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy