Archive for the ‘Brain Traffic’ Category
Confab: The Content Strategy Conference 2012 came to a close yesterday. Once again, it was inspiring and amazing and incredibly fun. Thanks a million to those who joined us.
Kristina and Erik wrap up Confab 2012
Image © Sean Tubridy
Though the conference is over, the memories live on …
Confab is returning to Minneapolis June 3–5, 2013. We sold out nearly five months in advance this year, so you’ll want to get your tickets early! We’ll announce when registration opens later this fall.
Don’t miss out in 2013! Get on the Confab email list.
Posted in Brain Traffic
Here at Brain Traffic, we’re often asked what skills content strategists share. Content strategists come from lots of different backgrounds, but they usually seem to have a few traits in common. After polling the Brain Traffic team, we realized that many of these traits were evident not just from the beginning of our careers, but from the beginning of our lives.
If you think you’ve got a budding content strategist on your hands, look for these early signs:
- Always has their nose buried in a book
- Is a writer who is published early
- Thinks learning and listening is fun
- Loves organizing
- Starts pretend and real businesses
- Makes well-reasoned arguments
Need proof? Read on. But beware: MAJOR nerd alert.
Book worms and proud of it
First and foremost, we spent a lot of time reading––from an early age. It makes sense that content strategists start out as consumers of content.
We loved books. We were rewarded for reading (remember Book It?). Many of us fondly recall the excitement of elementary school book order sheets. We started book clubs. We even set goals for our reading.
For Julie Vollenweider, starting middle school meant a new challenge—reading only non-fiction (which resulted in a fascination with mobsters). Erin Kissane determinedly read one non-fiction book (she got hooked on military history) for every novel she consumed. Melissa Rach eagerly awaited the arrival of the bookmobile instead of the ice cream truck.
Julie V.'s early affinity for reading (and fashion) holds true today.
A refrain commonly heard from our parents was shared by Chris Barrington-Davis—“Get your nose out of that book!” We read so much that many of us were grounded from reading. But Erin K. was so miserable without reading that her parents quickly took pity and reversed the punishment.
And if we were teased for being bookworms? Angie Halama had a standard reply: “Why, thank you.”
Published young authors
All that reading led to writing, creating, and publishing content. Even if our first attempts were, in retrospect, comical, many of us were published before sixth grade. Melissa R. won a contest at age 9 with a poem called “Take a Ride on a Unicorn’s Back.” I was the proud second-grade author of the play “The Little Heart.” Julie V. was the founder, publisher, and editor of The Fourth Grade Flamingo.
An excerpt from Melissa R.’s award-winning 4th grade poem:
Take a ride on a unicorn’s back.
Then go climb a rainbow and slide back down again.
A minute will be like an hour.
Your fun will never end in rainbow land!!!!!
Learning (and listening) for the fun of it
Our learning didn’t end with the written word. We actively sought out opportunities to feed our curiosity with extra learning.
When I was in 4th grade, I signed up for summer school because I thought it would be fun. On the first day, I realized it was for kids who had trouble learning, not for the kids who wanted to learn more. Meghan Casey repeatedly attended summer school to free up her regular schedule for independent literature study.
In addition to reading, we discovered that listening was a great way to learn, too. Emily Wiebel didn’t speak much between the ages of 2-8, preferring instead to listen. Meghan C. was known as an objective consultant whose phone rang off the hook with friends calling for advice.
The joy of organization
There’s more! Our nerdiness did not stop at reading and writing. For a good time, we organized. Animals, crayons, and—shocker—books.
Many of us shared an early fascination with these animal index cards. Erin K. spent days reading, filing, and refiling them. Christine Benson was obsessed with studying dog breeds.
Remember these? Courtesy of Atlas Picture Cards.
Erik Westra was fascinated with a certain mammal book. He used index cards and a recipe box to “record the key facts and interesting information about each mammal, and file them in whichever order interested me at any given time (average weight, gestation period, continent of origin, etc.).”
Beth Johnson was a self-described “hardcore crayon enthusiast.” She spent more time finding new ways to organize the crayons than actually coloring with them (neons, shimmers, classics). Christine B. “invented” new rainbows: “Two favorites were an Easter rainbow with pastels, and another one with all jewel tones.”
Beth J. and her organized art supplies
And yes, not only did we read books—we also organized them. Tenessa Gemelke recommended improvements to the school library shelving organization. Angie H.’s first job was at a local library, where she found shelving books to be relaxing. Erin K. was often mistaken as a librarian, because she knew the Dewey decimal system inside and out, and would answer questions from patrons.
The exception: a designer in a sea of content strategists
But not all of us shared a love of organization. Sean Tubridy, lone designer here at Brain Traffic, “stuck all the labels on my Star Wars carrying case without even considering the figures that I owned or where they would fit. Thus, to this day, almost nothing is properly labeled, Yoda rattles around in a huge compartment, and Chewbacca is folded up and jammed into a slot half his size.” He concludes that “I was never destined to be a content strategist.” Fortunately, he’s a great designer.
Sean T. meets Darth Vader, circa 1978
Play office leads to real office
With all that reading, writing, learning, and organizing, was there any time left to play? Of course there was—time to play office! Many of us had pretend and real businesses from an early age, getting a jump on the business smarts we would need later on.
Chris B.-D. played office and school. She made up the stories and the rules, and directed her playmates, making sure that everyone had fun. (Anyone else sense a project manager in the making?) Julie V. made imaginary business presentations to imaginary clients. She now regularly presents Brain Traffic to potential clients.
Some of our offices were more than imaginary—we had real life businesses. Beth J. started her own business making and selling jewelry in 5th grade, until her operation was shut down for exploitation of the younger kids. I had multiple crafts businesses, constantly tweaking my product line to find what would sell best. Melissa R. helped her parents flip houses, learning prioritization skills she now uses daily in her work.
Resoundingly, many staffers learned early how to make well-reasoned arguments for things they cared about. Christine B.’s father was a lawyer and lobbyist who loved logic and debate, and required that she construct arguments and find supporting research for any request.
When Beth J. realized she was being paid $3 an hour less than her siblings for similar work, she made a presentation to her father requesting a raise, and got it. In the 7th grade, Tenessa G. urged her parents to quit smoking by preparing “a lengthy report that detailed the risks to their health, the financial losses, the social and emotional effects on their children, and even the cosmetic damages to the house.” In a similar effort, at age 3, Erin K. wrapped her mom’s cigarettes in Mr. Yuk poison control stickers, which actually got her mom to quit.
And if we didn’t get our way? My favorite childhood phrase was “give me 37 good reasons why not.”
The author displays an attitude.
Our poor parents.
A special bunch
After all the stories came in, we marveled at the similarities. We knew Brain Traffic was a special place, but we didn’t, exactly, know how much we all had in common.
So, we admit it. We’re overachievers who like to read, write, learn, organize, do business, and argue. Some people would call that nerdy. We’re okay with that.
As Tenessa G. said, “I’m so glad we all found each other.”
What’s your story?
What were some of the early signs that content strategy would be in your future? Please add your stories to the comments.
Posted in Brain Traffic
Looking back on 2011, it’s been quite an exciting ride. Here’s a look at what happened this year …
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!
Posted in Brain Traffic
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!
Posted in Brain Traffic
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:
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.
Posted in Brain Traffic
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.
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:
Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic
“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
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.
Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy
Tonight, I’m headed to my first official “slumber party” in quite some time. My daughter and I are bunking with all the aunties, cousins, and grannies in anticipation of the royal wedding coverage—which starts at a painfully early 3:00 a.m. for us.
I know. It’s wrong on so many levels—there’s the anti-monarchy angle, the feminist issues, and it’s at 3-freakin’-a.m. But, my preschool daughter loves princesses and brides, and I’m a sucker for feel-good pageantry. So, we’ll be there, bleary-eyed in our jammies, celebrating Wills and Kate with toasts of the multigrain-with-butter variety.
Kate: “What? I’m on the BT blog? Now I’m really famous.” The official portrait photographs for the engagement of Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton. (Copyright 2010 Mario Testino).
Saving the monarchy, sponsoring a content strategy project … it’s all the same
However, unlike watching Charles and Diana’s wedding when I was a kid, this time I understand that it’s not all fun and fairytales. I can almost feel the pressure on Kate Middleton from Minnesota. No doubt she’s getting exactly what she wants, but STILL. As if getting married wasn’t stressful enough, she’s a “commoner” expected to save the British monarchy (in fashionable, but not too extravagant, frocks).
Odd as it may seem, sponsors of corporate content strategy projects are often under a similar type of pressure. Obviously, they don’t have 130 billion people commenting on their fashion choices, but, like Kate, many are knowingly:
- Committing themselves to a new role with increased responsibility and prominence
- Tackling a huge, “mission critical” initiative, where related past efforts have had marginal success (if any)
- Working in a fast-paced, technically-enhanced environment that their predecessors never knew and contemporaries don’t always understand
- Facing political minefields and public scrutiny
With all that stress, why do they do it? I’d guess both Kate and the project sponsors would say it’s because there’s an exciting opportunity, there’s something they love about it, and they believe they can do it. Additionally, if it all goes well, the benefits for their organizations (not to mention themselves) will be great.
Help your project sponsors be royally successful
As content strategists, we have to be content experts, but we also need to be strategists. Part of the role of a strategist is to help each project sponsor navigate his or her environment. It’s a nice thing to do, and it’ll make the strategy a lot more successful.
So, take a cue from the royal couple’s advisors. When appropriate, don’t be afraid to help your project sponsor:
- Be prepared and confident. The future Princess of Wales has a lot to learn, fast. She’s apparently taking lessons in a variety of topics: royal etiquette, dealing with the press, and even the Welsh language. Pob lwc! (That’s “good luck” in Welsh. She’ll need it.)
Good strategists ensure project sponsors are similarly prepared. Be sure your project sponsor is armed with knowledge about content strategy best practices, processes, and theories. That way, they can participate fully in project work and talk confidently about content strategy to other stakeholders when necessary.
- Earn trust from organization leadership. Just last week the Queen gave her official, written consent to the wedding of Prince William and “our trusty and well-beloved Catherine Elizabeth Middleton.” Trusty? Nice work, Kate. I’m guessing the Queen never said that about Fergie.
Helping your sponsor earn the trust of the CEO, CMO, or similar stakeholders is critical to strategy buy-in and implementation. Whether it’s creating talking points for your sponsor, giving a presentation, or facilitating a workshop, do what it takes to get leadership on board.
- Keep stakeholders informed, and interested. The PR wizards from Clarence House have done an excellent job of releasing information about the royal wedding at regular intervals. These timely updates throughout out the wedding preparations have kept everyone apprised of progress and kept them interested.
Once the project is underway, make sure your sponsor has regular progress updates to keep stakeholders interested and involved.
- Get alignment before action. Kate and William were engaged for several weeks before it was announced to the public. That time gave the families and royal advisors a chance to get on the same page, coordinate activities, and come across as a unified, believable front.
There’s nothing worse than 11th-hour political controversy—it derails the project and makes your sponsor’s job a nightmare. So, when it’s time to make big announcements around your strategy (introducing the strategic plan, launching strategy implementation, etc.), plan a few days in your schedule to ensure all of the key members of the project and leadership teams are aligned in advance.
And then they lived happily ever after
Take some time to understand each project sponsor’s stress points and alleviate what you can. When project sponsors (and their teams) have a positive project experience, there’s a significantly better chance that strategic recommendations will be approved and implemented. And that’s a happy ending for everybody.
As for William and Kate, I hope they have a happy ending, too. I wish them “longyfarchiadau” (that’s “congratulations” in Welsh). I’d also like to tell them: mae fy hofrenfad yn llawn llyswennod (“my hovercraft is full of eels”). Apparently, it’s a common Welsh phrase.
Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy, Project Management
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.
Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy
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
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.
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.
Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy