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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

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

The Days of Content and Cake, They Quickly Approach

by Clinton Forry

Confab logo

Back in October, we announced that we were putting together a conference. Not just any conference. Confab: The Content Strategy Conference. [Cue the “O Fortuna” music.]

Now, Confab is less than three months away!

So, what’s up?

  • Spots are going fast: only 50 tickets remain! Get that seat next to your smart peers and pals: Register now!
  • There are still open spots in C.C. Chapman’s and Ann Handley’s Content Rules workshop. (Unfortunately, the Brain Traffic workshop has already sold out.)
  • Speaker and session details are now posted on the Confab site. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out now. We have to keep pinching ourselves to make sure that a schedule this awesome is not just a dream.
  • Confab presenters are writing great Confab blog posts.  Ahava Leibtag & Aaron Watkins and Rahel Bailie contributed the first two, and there are more on the way.
  • People are excited. They’ve RSVPed on LinkedIn and Facebook. They’ve tweeted about it. And, they’ve told us in person!

Confab is shaping up to be the most exciting content-related event of the year. In these few remaining months, we’ll have more announcements about ways to participate, both in–person and far away. So, if you haven’t already, follow @Confab2011 on Twitter and sign up for our email newsletter. You won’t miss a Confab-related thing.

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Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy

Content Strategy Is Not User Experience

by Erin Kissane

"I'll show you weird markings."

Every couple of weeks, one of my colleagues in the content strategy community wigs out a little bit about marketing people co-opting “our” terms and processes for their own (presumably nefarious) ends.

As a content strategist who comes from the world formerly known as “web design” (and now mostly called “user experience”), I’ve felt sympathetic twitches when I see these complaints. Not out of territorialism, necessarily, but I, too, dislike seeing the whole sweep of content strategy work reduced to “content = customer acquisition!” After all, we’ve fought to have content strategy recognized as a core component of user experience work.

So it was with this bias that I sat down, a few months back, to write a book. And one of the first things I had to work out was what I really meant by “content strategy”—and why I felt it didn’t rightfully belong to the folks with “social media marketing” in their Twitter bios. Along the way, I discovered something slightly upsetting, which is that content strategy doesn’t really belong to user experience, either.

Bear with me, UXers. You can put the diagram down for a second.

What We Talk About When We Talk About …

The thing is, marketing people talk about CS and mean “content strategy as it applies to selling things, building brands, and providing customer service in ways that make people want to buy more things.” A lot of this sort of content strategy revolves around distribution channels, messages, branding, and sometimes, editorial workflow. User-centered design principles may or may not be involved.

Enterprise content strategy people, on the other hand—the people working with data and DITA and knowledge management systems—talk about CS and mean data modeling, technical workflow, documentation, planning for content reuse, and content management, often on a very large scale. Their attention to customer service and support tends to be about increasing efficiency, reducing redundant effort, and achieving consistency. Again, user-centered design principles may be involved, but are unlikely to be a primary focus.

When people from the media world talk about CS, they tend to mean discussions of business models, distribution channels,  and the development of content as a product, with secondary focus on marketing and customer service (unless they’re all Paul Ford). User-centered design principles may come up, but they’re far from the center of the conversation, which doesn’t usually get into the details of user experience.

And content people who come from or work in the UX world say content strategy and mean bits of all of the above, but with user-centered design at the core of the work. Product design becomes feature design; messaging and branding become content goals and style guides; data modeling becomes content templates and page tables.

But this sort of content strategy isn’t the One True CS. And even when we do it within user experience projects, content strategy doesn’t fit neatly within the usual boundaries of UX. Content strategy must often precede true UX work, as when it involves the organizational communication planning that must happen before a web design project can begin.

And, of course, all that messy editorial planning and workflow stuff tends to continue long after interface design and front-end development are complete. No other part of a UX project necessarily involves the implementation of long-term organizational practices (unless you expand “UX” to the IT resources that support systems over time, which is a stretch).

The Marmot Wars

You might think of each of these separate kinds of content strategy work as gophers, or maybe marmots. Each tunneling toward a cherished meadow as quickly as its wee marmot paws can manage, until, suddenly, it pops out into the open air—only to discover STRANGE OUTSIDER MARMOTS WITH WEIRD MARKINGS stumbling out of their own holes and blinking in the sun. And then you get the posturing and barking and little finger-snapping marmot West Side Story dances, and it’s all very tiring and no one gets a snack.

My point is not that the marmot-meadow is big enough for everyone, though it mostly is. The differing models of CS do sometimes come into competition, especially when clients aren’t quite sure what they need. User science people will probably never get along with the folks on the ad-world end of the marketing continuum, and editorial nerds will probably continue to underestimate the value of data wonks (and vice-versa).

But, we should nevertheless recognize that content strategy is a big, big world. It’s not just that we all have different specializations and approaches, though that’s true. Content strategy is a big ol’ loosely connected network of practices, and it doesn’t belong to any of us any more than graphic design belongs to advertising or project management to aerospace engineering.

I’ve met more than a few real, actual marmots, and let me tell you—we’re smarter than they are. So let’s give the rodenty turf wars a rest and try talking about content strategy in ways that admit the possibility of other useful kinds of CS work.    

One Love

There’s value in looking beyond our industry-specific tunnels and expanding our own capabilities to include some of those other kinds of CS, so we have more to offer our clients when they need it. That’s one of the reasons I’m stupidly excited about Confab.

The fact that so many of the sharpest minds from the far reaches of Big Tent Content Strategy are all going to be in one place—and I don’t just mean as speakers, either—can only mean good things for the curious content specialist.

With rapid growth comes weird pressures and the potential for irrational infighting, and we are definitely in a spell of rapid growth. We need a gathering of the tribes. And I daresay we could use a big party, while we’re at it.

So I hope to see you there—or around, online—whether you come from social media marketing or the geekiest depths of the data-wrangling world, WEIRD MARKINGS and all.

("Gopher" image via Flickr user Fil.Al (cc: by 2.0))

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Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy, User Experience, Web Content

Content: The LP

by Melissa Rach

Gang of Four's new album cover for "Content"

Oh yeah. Gang of Four recently released an album called “Content.”  We *assume* content strategy inspired the influential 1970s post-punk band to record its first new material in a zillion years. (Way to stay hip, guys! )

It’s obvious how each track is related to content strategy, just by reading the song titles. Below, we’ve listed the actual track titles, followed by what the Brain Traffic team expects from each song. Feel free to add your ideas to our list.

  1. She Said—An ode to a fantastic stakeholder interview.
  2. You Don’t Have To Be Mad—A blistering punk-inspired rant directed at people who leave unnecessarily nasty comments in user-generated content features.   
  3. Who Am I?—A little ditty describing a project with 26 distinct user profiles.
  4. I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face—A haunting ballad that laments, “Why is that creepy photo of the CEO all over the place? I can’t forget his lonely face.”
  5. You’ll Never Pay For The Farm—A song about a content strategist who loves tractor content a little too much (based on a true story).
  6. I Party All The Time—A reggae-inspired crowd-pleaser about social media (a.k.a. “the fun stuff”).
  7. A Fruitfly In The Beehive—A dance number illustrating how even one piece of overlooked, outdated content on an otherwise good website can ruin a user’s experience forevah.
  8. It Was Never Gonna Turn Out Too Good—A remorse-filled dirge describing a project where they forgot content strategy … until it was too late.
  9. Do As I Say—Powerful anthem with the chorus, “These governance tools and guidelines give me permission to boss you. Uh-huh, uh-huh, they so do.”
  10. I Can See From Far Away—A love song dedicated to good IA: “From every page on your site, I can tell where the content I want is gonna be. Tawes.”
  11. CSA (Exclusive Bonus Track)—Content Strategy Awesomeness.  ‘Nuf said.

Now, we’ll have to listen to the album to see if we’re right.  Bet we’re close. 

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic, Content Strategy

I Content Strategize, Therefore I Am

by Melissa Rach

Descartes: Drunken Fart

With all of the focus on content strategy recently, discussions about the definition of the word “content” have erupted into a philosophical debate that would make Kant, Descartes, and Heidegger proud. Some people say “everything is content.” Others say “there’s no such thing as content.” And then there are the hundreds of well-argued definitions in between.  

It was all fun and games, until reality hit

While philosophical debates can be super fun (René Descartes was a drunken fart, Immanuel Kant was a real pissant, etc.), they can make day-to-day project work confusing. If content is everything, where does content strategy begin and end? And, if content is nothing, why does it seem to be so important to businesses?

We admit it. We Brain Traffickers lean philosophically toward the “content is everything” camp.  But, we realized early on that content strategy projects require a simple, flexible, and limiting definition of content that everyone on a project team can align on.

At first, finding the right way to corral content was a struggle. Things finally clicked when we started differentiating between content and content-related elements we call “content facilitators.”  (Apologies to people who are called content facilitators. We’re stealing your job title until we think of something else.)

So, what is “content”?

Content isn’t always a confusing word. When you talk about offline channels, such as books or presentations, content is a pretty easy concept to define.

Consider this: What is the content of an average biology textbook? If you’re like most people, you’d probably say something like, “It’s about biology: cells, animals, plants, and stuff.” And, if you happen to have a biology textbook, you could grab it and look at the (ahem) “table of contents” to get more specific details.

Although other communication channels are often more complex, the basic concept remains the same. The content is the meat—it’s what the user came to read, learn, see, or experience. From the business perspective, the content is the critical information the book, site, etc., was created to contain or communicate. (Think contents, not content.)

And, what are “content facilitators”?

Every communication channel has content facilitators—informational elements that exist to help people find, use, and understand the content. The real confusion about content started with the advent of the web, where the line between content and content facilitators started to blur.

Our biology book has several facilitators, such as a table of contents, an index, a bio of the author, and an unnecessarily large picture of a dewy grasshopper on the front cover. All of these things are helpful (even the grasshopper provides context), but they’re not the reason most people buy the book.  In fact, they’re really optional.        

Online, however, facilitators—such as navigation, metadata, taxonomy, brand imagery, help text, etc.—are mission critical. The content is unusable and unrecognizable without them.

Let’s face it. With a few exceptions (you know who you are), people don’t go online to see metadata. But they’d be awfully screwed without it. Metadata generally doesn’t fit our definition of content, but it sure as heck needs to be considered during the content strategy process.

Philosophically speaking …

Establishing working definitions for content and content facilitators has made a big difference in our content strategy practice. Although both are extremely important in any content strategy, distinguishing between the two makes it easier for us to communicate project goals, set priorities, and work with partners.   

As an added bonus, clients like it. They have an easier time communicating internally, and because our definition of content isn’t limited by format (text, pictures, data, etc.), topic, or channel, Brain Traffic is better able to adapt our work to every client’s specific situation.

But, we still love an etymology debate (we’re wordnerds, after all). Give us a few drinks and we’re happy to wax philosophical about it. Just like Heidegger, that boozy beggar who could think you under the table.

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Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy, Web Content

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

Three Months in Paris

by Erin Anderson

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


I rest my case.

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Posted in Around the Office, Brain Traffic