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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

What You Don’t Know About Brain Traffic

by Christine Benson

Thanks to social media, many of our internal jokes are public information. While firing Meghan and a cake obsession may be well known, there’s more to us than you might have guessed.

1. We take pride in being a bunch of nerds and overachievers.

Every person who works here is driven by a high personal standard for quality. While we come from diverse backgrounds, it’s the one thing everyone has in common (other than an unnatural love of content).

It reminds me of a Family Ties episode where Alex and Mallory compete in a quiz show on TV. Their dad is the host of the show, and the team that wins is from the all-girls Catholic school. After the show, one of the girls comes up to Mr. Keaton and says, “My teacher says my answer about the Crusades was correct.” Mr. Keaton says, “What does it matter, you won?” The girl responds, “Yes, but we want to win by more.” We’re not jerks, we just really want to get things right. We take pride in what we do, not just for our clients, but for ourselves.

2. Most of us are introverts. Big time.

At events, we’re usually the group over in the corner, talking to the same people we see every day. And it’s not because we don’t want to talk to you—we’re just seriously shy (kind of goes hand-in-hand with the whole nerd thing). Feel free to come over and say hi. We’d be happy if you made the first move.

3. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company, even when we’re not working.

Every all-company meeting begins with story time. Some days, this takes up more time than the actual meeting. Also, at least once a year, we throw a party at our office. For ourselves. After many years of company outings, partying at our office was consistently voted the favorite (see #2).

Lots of party food

4. We frequently show up at places dressed like each other.

Seriously. This happens. On accident. All. The. Time. Even with the guys.

Matching outfits

5. Everyone gets a real paper card on their birthday, signed by their coworkers.

The first rule about birthday card signing is we never talk about birthday card signing. The card gets passed around in a folder with a checklist to record who has signed/needs to sign. We all pretend like we don’t know there’s a card in there. Any follow-up communication is handled over email. No words are ever spoken.

6. We have an unusually high number of similar or repeat names on staff.

There are three Christines (luckily one goes by Chris) and a Kristina, two Erins, and two Meghan/Megans. In the past, we also had two Angies and two Katies.

7. There’s an internal backlash against cake.

Cake will always be at the heart of Brain Traffic, but it’s nice to mix things up from time to time. Many of us secretly prefer pie, and in August we had a chip buffet.

8. However, we still have very detailed conversations about cake.

A thank you goes out to Erik Westra for noticing this. We don’t just eat cake; we have in-depth conversations analyzing cake qualities. Various flavors, cake vs. frosting, types of frosting … the list goes on. Even the cake backlash can trigger a good 10-minute conversation.

Want more behind-the-scenes info about Brain Traffic? Check out our other posts from around the office.

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Posted in Around the Office

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

That’s a Wrap!

by Clinton Forry

Well folks, we’ve got our first-ever conference under our belts. Confab: The Content Strategy Conference was a huge success. Many thanks to all of the wonderful speakers, attendees, volunteers, and supporters throughout the webosphere for spreading the content love. We’re very happy. And totally spent.

Erik Westra under a Confab sign

Organizing a conference is EXHAUSTING

We’ll be back to our usual blogging next week. In the meantime, here are some tools to help you relive Confab in all its glory:

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic

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

Communication Tips from Client Services

by Christine Benson

The Brain Traffic VP of Client Services

While a lot of our content strategy work happens at a quiet desk with a Word doc or an Excel spreadsheet, our recommendations would never be realistic or useful without effective client communication and partnership.

Our VP of client services, Julie Vollenweider, is a master at communicating with clients. She has a distinct style that is both professional and personable. She also happens to be our reigning queen of catchphrases.

Working with Julie, I’ve learned a great deal about my own communication style through these phrases. Here are a couple key Julie-isms that have helped me become a better content strategist.

1.     “Spill it Christine.”

What it means: Be direct. When Julie says “Spill it,” it’s a cue that I’ve been avoiding what I really need to say.

How it helps: Be honest and open with the client and start difficult conversations early. Clients frequently ask for “blue sky” ideas that are “without limits.” But, there are real reasons why they have not, or cannot, achieve these dreamy outcomes. Specifically, workflow and governance challenges. The earlier you have those conversations, the sooner everyone can get focused on (and excited about) realistic solutions.

2.     “I’m not sure what you’re telling me.”

What it means: Too many details. If I verbally problem solve, it’s just a rambling list of topics coming out of my mouth as soon as they enter my head. With no order or structure, it’s impossible for her to follow what I’m saying.

How it helps: Details are there to support your main idea. While details are important, they are not the star of the show. Make sure you have a main idea AND SAY IT before you jump into a million little points.

3.     “What can I do?”

What it means: Focus on the information and issues I want her help with. Sometimes it sounds like I’m asking for help, but I’m probably just presenting a bunch of issues that:

- I may or may not want Julie’s help with
- Julie may or may not have the ability to help with

Figuring out what I realistically need from Julie before I go talk to her saves both her time and mine.

How it helps: Make sure supporting information ties back to the recommendations. When dealing with content, there’s no end to the amount of interesting information you’ll find. But, you need to determine what’s not only interesting, but also useful. The client doesn’t need a reference document about everything in their organization related to their content; they need an easy-to-understand plan—focused on the key ideas—that they can actually implement.

4.     “Totes.” “Tawes.” And my personal favorite, “CMB, YATB. HOEDIESWY? YDABTITT!” 

What it means: She makes up words and acronyms. There’s no point pretending that I get them. So I ask. Every time.

How it helps: Never be afraid to ask a question if something doesn’t make sense. Every industry and client organization has an internal language. If you don’t understand what the client is talking about, there’s a good chance their customers won’t either.

For more words of wisdom on managing the client side of content, check out Julie’s blog posts.

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy

A-ha: Content strategists never stop learning

by Meghan Casey

We’re not afraid to admit that none of us at Brain Traffic have all the content strategy answers. With every project, we uncover something new or have a big-ass revelation. So, we thought we’d share some of our recent a-ha moments.

Respect my authoritah

A haiku and commentary by Meghan Casey, Content Strategist

Authoritah needs
To be respected by all
Who care for content

Okay, so maybe this needs some explanation. When I think about the authority aspect of website governance, I typically ask:

•    Who should have central day-to-day authority to make web content decisions? For example, if a content request comes in for an urgent change that just doesn’t fit with the content strategy, who is empowered to say no?
•    Who should be involved in long-term strategic decision making related to web content? For example, which stakeholders should be invited to regular content governance meetings to review the content strategy and plan for content work?

Both of these things are important, of course. But it occurred to me in a meeting with a client the other day that people involved with content creation throughout an organization often have to give authority to colleagues in their own departments.

Let’s say that a product group is responsible for hundreds of pages of content and has appointed one person to do a final review of all product content before it goes live. It’s imperative that everyone in the product group trust that person’s decision-making authority so second-guessing doesn’t lead to bottlenecks in the content process.

Inside search

A lesson in findability by Kristina Halvorson, Founder and CEO

One of my recent a-ha moments was when it really hit me how much of a focus internal site search needs to be when working through content strategies for large, content-rich websites. It'll take a long time to actually implement changes, but if people are going to fix their sites, then users need to be able to find stuff on those sites via intuitive search. AND it's critical to have a solid content strategy that informs structure, workflow, and governance to keep the metadata attributes and taxonomy schemas up to date as things change with the organization and its offerings.

If you want to find out more, get your hands on Lou Rosenfeld’s book on site search analytics when it comes out.

Whistle while you work

A Brain Traffic noob’s tale by Tenessa Gemelke

The work of content strategy is less like a job and more like school. Study. Do your homework. Read all of the assignments. Discuss with peers. Learn from experts. Think hard. Use your whole brain.

Some schoolwork is intellectually stimulating, but some of it is tedious or daunting. It’s always helpful to take the long view and look toward the feeling of achievement you’ll have when you complete each course.

Taking this approach can change the way you think about clients and deliverables. This isn’t just a series of tasks and deadlines. Mastery and understanding of the content are the real reasons we nerds show up each day.

Psychology isn’t just for diagnosing your friends and family

A discovery in three parts by Melissa Rach, VP of Content Strategy

MY DISCOVERY: I have been doing research on what makes content interesting from a psychology standpoint.  A professor named Paul Silva (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) has done some research on it. It’s kind of complicated, but one of his theories is that something needs to be easily comprehensible to capture somebody’s interest, but increasingly complex (in substance, not writing style) to keep somebody’s interest. The theory definitely applies to content organization and linking strategies, but it has implications in a lot of other areas, too.

WHY IT IS COOL: As content strategists, obviously it’s part of our jobs to ensure content is interesting to users. But, much of the work we do is based on instinct and experience. I like finding research that we can use to understand our practice better and vet our ideas.

WHERE YOU CAN LEARN MORE: Exploring the Psychology of Interest.

Share your a-ha moments

We’d love to find out what you’ve learned on-the-job.

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy

Introducing Content Talks

by Kristina Halvorson

Dear readers, I am delighted to announce the launch of my new podcast, Content Talks.

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When Dan Benjamin asked if I'd be interested in doing a podcast for 5by5, I said, "Absolutely not! I hate talking about content strategy!" OK, no, that's not what I said. I accepted on the spot and immediately put together a long, exciting list of smart, interesting people I hoped to interview in the months to come.

Episode 1: Ann Rockley
For my first episode, I'm thrilled to have Ann Rockley as my guest. Ann is the author of the seminal Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, the founder and president of The Rockley Group, and founder of the Intelligent Content Conference.

Ann has been talking about "intelligent content" for over a decade, and it's incredibly inspiring to hear how passionate she is about the topic. She's been a personal hero of mine since her book was published in 2002, and I still get a little fangirl-y when I talk to her.

Interviewing is hard
There's one thing I do want to mention, and it's this: being an effective interviewer is a lot more difficult than it may appear. I've been interviewed countless times over the past two years, and I've gotten pretty good at my spiel. But being on the other side of the virtual table … well, it's a whole different story. I want to thank my first few guests for their patience as I find my interviewer's groove.

What do you think?
Give it a listen. Give me your feedback. This podcast is for you, so work with me to make it the podcast you want it to be!

Thanks for listening …

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy

Today is a Really, Really Big Day

by Kristina Halvorson

Today, Brain Traffic content strategist Erin Kissane’s book, The Elements of Content Strategy, is finally out.

And it is brilliant.

My foreword to the book is excerpted below with permission from the kind folks at A Book Apart. Congratulations to Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, and Mandy Brown for having the vision to make Erin’s book the third in their celebrated A Book Apart series (“brief books for people who make websites”).

Most of all, congratulations, Erin. And thank you, thank you for writing this book.

Buy The Elements of Content Strategy
Read an excerpt of the book on A List Apart

 “As you can see, the scourge is upon us, and we must, every one of us, be prepared to fight.” —Erin Kissane, “Attack of the Zombie Copy”

Content is a hairy, complicated beast. There’s stuff to research, sift through, create, curate, correct, schedule—and that’s before we start to think about publishing. What layout makes the most sense for this content? What organization? What metaschema? What platforms? Never mind post-launch plans, or lack of resources, or stakeholder alignment, or, or…yikes. No wonder we want to hide under the bed.

The content beast does not scare Erin Kissane. In fact, for her entire adult life, she’s been quietly taming it with a firm but gentle hand. As part of her hero’s journey, Kissane has collaborated with countless designers, developers, UXers, marketers, editors, and writers on projects of all sizes. This is good news for you: no matter what role you play, she gets what you do and knows why it’s important. And, because she cares, she wants to help you understand how content strategy can help make your life a little easier—and your end products a little more awesome.

Not that long ago, I wrote an article that called upon readers to “take up the torch for content strategy.” The book you hold in your hands is that torch. So run with it. Hold it high. Be confident in your pursuit of better content. You have The Elements of Content Strategy to light your way.

Come on out from under the bed. We have work to do.

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy

Curation Nation Says Clinton Knows His Stuff

by Kristina Halvorson

Curation Nation, a book by Steven Rosenbaum

I've been enjoying my copy of Steven Rosenbaum's Curation Nation this week. He's, er, curated the opinions and insights of content experts from every corner of the industry, from web folks to social media wonks, from media personalities to prominent publishers.

So there I am, reading along, when suddenly I happily stumble upon a section entitled, "Content Strategists." OMG! I thought to myself. My favorite topic! As I eagerly continued, I suddenly gasped with surprise. There on the page was a reference to "Blogger Clinton Forry" … a Brain Traffic staffer and the guy behind the beloved @wd45 moniker!

And it wasn't just a quick reference. Oh, no. Rosenbaum has clearly drunk the Clinton Kool-Aid. Republished with the author's permission, here's Clinton's perspective on curation, beautifully contextualized by the King of Curation, himself:

Content Strategists
While the emerging curation ecosystem may leave the highbrow and pedigreed museum curation crowd with a furrowed brow, there’s another group who are equally troubled by the rise of human-powered finding and filtering—and that’s the code-centric solutions crowd that has been searching for the holy grail of machine-powered (or crowd-sourced) finding and filtering. This is the aggregation camp. And they too are anxious to see the emerging but noisy curation community replaced by elegant code.

Blogger Clinton Forry has the most cogent distinction I’ve read so far:

  • Aggregation is automated
  • Aggregation collects content based on criteria in the form of metadata or keywords
  • Criteria can be adjusted, but remain static otherwise
  • Follows a preset frequency of publishing [as available, weekly, etc.]

 It isn’t that Forry thinks aggregation isn’t important, it’sthat he thinks it doesn’t do the whole job. It gets you only partway there. He explains “. . . aggregation excludes the important, active, and ongoing editorial approval from the process of gathering content. Aggregation has its place. It is easy to set and forget. It requires considerably less staff resources. With carefully selected criteria and sources, it may actually serve the purpose you seek.” 

Forry is one of the new and growing number of consultants and advisors who call themselves content strategists. These are folks who are hired to make sure that Web sites are built to encourage vibrant content, rather than stale “publish and forget it” content. He defines curation this way:

  • Curation is, in part, a manual task
  • Starts with sources to parse
  • Evaluates content individually based on established editorial criteria
  • Weighs content based on context, current events, branding, sentiment, etc.
  • Publishes approved content on appropriate schedule

So, if you buy the notion that we’re moving from a world of content scarcity to content abundance, and that you—like all of us—are facing content overload that verges on an endless fire hose of data coming at us from the moment we wake until the last time we check our e-mail, texts, voice mail, blog posts, and direct Twitter messages—then curation isn’t just something that may happen, it’s something that has to happen…

… and it starts with a smart content strategy. Nice goin', Mr. Forry.

Want your own glass of Clinton Kool-Aid? Follow him on Twitter at @wd45 and read his own blog, Content-ment.com.

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy