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In Which We Go on Hiatus for a Spell

by Kristina Halvorson on November 26th, 2012

You may have noticed that our beloved blog hasn’t been particularly active lately. It’s no secret that we’re super busy working with our terrific clients, and as a result, our resources are a bit limited at the moment.

So, the Brain Traffic blog is going to take a little break.

But wait!

Fear not. We wouldn’t leave you hanging! Although we’re on hiatus here, we’re ramping up the posts on Confabevents.com. You’ll enjoy posts from some of the most exciting voices in content strategy, both new folks and established leaders. In fact, this week kicks off our first guest post, from none other than Sally Bagshaw:

How to Future-Proof Our Authors

Searching for new contractors: strategists, IAs, project managers, and writers

Back to the busy part. We’re getting a whole lot of calls these days from companies who tell us, “This time, we want to do this right: we want to start our project with content strategy.” (To which we often reply, “WOO-HOO!”)

So we need some help! If you’re a content lover working for yourself, and if you have experience working on large-scale content strategy engagements, we’d love to hear from you.

Apply to be a Brain Traffic contractor

Keep in touch

The blog may be on hiatus for now, but we aren’t disappearing. You can always follow us on Twitter at @braintraffic and @confabevents to watch for articles, photos of cheetahs, and other content shenanigans.

Finally: if you’re thinking about starting up a new content strategy initiative within your company, please contact us today. We’d love to learn more.

Stay in touch!

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Posted in Uncategorized

Confab Goes to London!

by Kristina Halvorson on October 3rd, 2012

Based on Confab: The Content Strategy Conference’s sellout 2011 debut and an even earlier sellout 2012 event, we here at Brain Traffic have come to an important conclusion: Confab is in danger of outgrowing the continent.

The world loves content strategy
If you’ve attended Confab here in Minneapolis, you know that it’s already an international event. Speakers and attendees travel from around the globe to hear each other’s brilliant new ideas—or to exchange lessons learned the hard way. Apparently hungry content strategists are willing to travel any distance for top-notch presentations, stimulating networking opportunities, and excessive dessert.

The thing is, Minneapolis is REALLY FAR AWAY from the Eastern Hemisphere. So in 2013, we’re bringing Confab across the pond, adding a second conference to our roster with Confab London on March 25-27.

What can you expect from Confab London?
Smart, fun people. Delicious food. And, of course, some of the best and brightest minds in our field, onstage and up close. You’ll see a few familiar faces that have graced our Confab stages in the past, as well as several exciting new voices from many different countries. Please check out our full speaker lineup, but here’s a glimpse of who you’ll find:

sally bagshaw

Sally Bagshaw

Content Strategist & Copywriter, Snappy Sentences

Future-Proofing Authors: The New Rules of Writing for the Web

leisa reichelt

Leisa Reichelt

Author, A Practical Guide to Strategic User Experience

A Practical Guide to Strategic User Experience

sarah richards

Sarah Richards

Content Design Lead, Government Digital Service

Revolutionising Government Content

For our debut London event, we’re thrilled to be partnering with Together London’s Jonathan Kahn (who assures us people don’t attend Confab simply for the cake).

Register soon!

Are you SO EXCITED? Yes! You are! Be sure to register by 26 October for the early-bird discount. And stay tuned to Confab Events on Twitter and Facebook for updates and announcements.

See you in London!

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Posted in Uncategorized

From the Archive: Brain Traffic Lands the Quad

by Melissa Rach on July 5th, 2012

Happy (belated) Fourth of July! On holidays, Brain Traffic celebrates by reposting a favorite blog from our archive. Since our minds are back on the Olympics, we thought this blog post from March 2011 was appropriate this week. And we’ve updated the design of our “quad” with new colors, adding yet another thrill to the make-your-own-medal craft project at the bottom of the post.

At the last Winter Olympics, figure skater Evan Lysacek won the gold medal without a quad jump, much to the chagrin of the Russian favorite, Evgeni “The-KGB-stole-Steve-Perry’s-mullet-for-me” Plushenko.

Afterwards, Evgeni glowered and ranted. He briefly stood on the gold medal platform at the medals ceremony. His official website declared him the “platinum” medal winner. He made it clear that you need a quad to compete. Vladimir Putin agreed.

I don’t know about you, but we at Brain Traffic got the message. I mean, seriously, Evgeni and Vladimir are not guys you want mad at you. So, we got to work.

The Content Strategy Quad

As of today, the Brain Traffic team has been landing its own quad regularly for more than a year. But our quad isn’t an ice-skating feat—it’s an infographic describing the critical components we consider in every content strategy.

Brain Traffic Content Strategy Quad

What It All Means

At the center is the core content strategy, the central idea for using content to achieve an organization's business goals. To achieve that strategy most effectively, we look at four closely related components (the four areas of the quad):

Content-focused components

  1. Substance—What kind of content do we need (topics, types, sources, etc.), and what messages does content need to communicate to our audience? 
  2. Structure—How is content prioritized, organized, formatted, and displayed? (Structure can include communication planning, IA, metadata, data modeling, linking strategies, etc.)  

People-focused components

  1. Workflow—What processes, tools, and human resources are required for content initiatives to launch successfully and maintain ongoing quality?
  2. Governance—How are key decisions about content and content strategy made? How are changes initiated and communicated?

So Far, It's Getting High Marks

Our quad will probably never be discussed by Dick Button and Scott Hamilton, but over the past year it has received consistently high marks from clients and seminar attendees. The quad helps people quickly understand the complexity of content strategy and puts their content challenges into perspective.

Bonus quad-related craft project

Want to look like a content strategy Olympian? Here’s how:

  1. Print this page
  2. Cut out the quad
  3. Poke a hole in the middle
  4. Put it on a string around your neck

Presto, you’re just like Evgeni.

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Posted in Uncategorized

SEO and the Dirty White Lie About Content Strategy

by Kristina Halvorson on January 11th, 2011

Last month, just before the holidays, an article appeared on the enormously popular Top Rank Online Marketing Blog.

The article is called “Content Strategy and the Dirty White Lie About SEO.”

Its author, renowned SEO expert Lee Odden (CEO, TopRank Online Marketing), asserts that content strategists have “inherent biases” against SEO as a valid practice, and that “most consultants” (read: content strategists) lack “holistic perspectives.” He writes that, if you-the-client listen to content strategists—specifically, those who recommend “slicing website content in half") for the sake of having less content—you will often end up with recommendations that are “a gross disservice to clients.”

Here’s context:

The reality is, that the “less is more” argument with content strategy works great when you don’t have to worry about where the traffic to the great content will come from.  This is part of the “dirty lie about SEO”:  That great content attracts its own audience and that SEO ruins content.

I really struggled with whether or not to write a response to this post. It’s full of generalizations and misinformation. For example, to say that content strategy as a discipline unilaterally teaches that “great content attracts its own audience and that SEO ruins content” is, well, weird.

But, if you know me, you know how I go off the rails when an industry thought leader writes something that marginalizes or misrepresents content strategy.

In reality, if you, the online marketing professional, are committed to doing great work—work that’s results-oriented, measurable, sustainable, and well-integrated with the rest of your organization’s content initiatives—then the content strategist should be your best friend.

What does a good content strategist really care about?

A content strategist’s primary role in any project or organization is to create and maintain a “holistic perspective” of current and future content states.

A content strategist knows that, in the research and discovery phase of projects that involve marketing content, current marketing initiatives—including SEO, social media, and the like—must be considered prior to making recommendations.

A content strategist counts on content audits to understand content location, ownership, and purpose (e.g., “raise visibility in search results") prior to making recommendations.

In fact, there’s a section of my book (p.72-73) called “Search Engine Optimization: The Missing Link.” (Ironically, it follows a section called “Source Content: You Have to Start Somewhere,” which encourages readers to make the most of the content they already have, not slice it in half). In it, I write,

If there are SEO or other search-related efforts underway, be sure to capture them in your analysis document. They’ll play an important role in informing your content strategy recommendations.


But, yeah. Some content strategists think SEO is dumb.

I should say here that I can’t argue with all of Lee’s comments regarding content strategists: I, myself, know many CSes who are suspicious and, yes, even dismissive of SEO as an important part of content planning and creation—let alone as an actual practice. These folks either have had bad experiences with bad SEO practitioners, or they loathe the kind of content that is so keyword-packed it’s unreadable. (Good SEO practitioners loathe that, too.)

However. That reality does not warrant Lee’s accusation that content strategists don’t recognize “the importance of attracting readers to the content and being accountable to the marketing performance of that content.” It’s simply not true.

Whether the content strategy is focusing on marketing content, internal communications, in-the-cloud content, or any other kind of content, our work is driven by business results, every time. If it’s not, then it’s not content strategy; it’s a pointless exercise in content planning and execution, no matter where you sit in an organization.

Debate is good, except when it’s bad.

The generalizations Lee makes about content strategists in his post are only serving to set fire to the bridge content strategists are working so hard to build between themselves and marketers (and UXers, and technologists, and so on). His post ends up being a rallying cry for SEO, social media, and content marketing professionals to ban together and defeat the content strategists who are spreading “dirty white lies” about their professions.

Listen. We don’t need to live in separate clubhouses with our own secret handshakes, here. I think everyone agrees that doing better business online is our shared goal, no matter who you are or how you’re contributing. And just as the “best content marketers [Lee] knows” are capable of incorporating SEO best practices within a content strategy, all smart content strategists are not just capable but committed to collaborating with those content marketers to ensure their shared efforts are well-integrated and successful.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: debating the question, “What matters more, SEO/social media/UX/IT/content strategy/etc.?” is a stupid waste of time. Instead, let’s ask, “How can we collaborate across our practices to make our businesses more successful, to make the Web a better place for our customers?”

Those answers will help inform actual work. Because it’s the results of that work that matters most of all.

Talk back to me.

What are your experiences collaborating across disciplines? If you were successful, why? If not, what would you have changed? (No generalizations, attacks, or condescension, please.)

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Posted in Content Strategy, Uncategorized

Why I Wrote Content Strategy FOR THE WEB

by Kristina Halvorson on November 11th, 2010

There’s an increasingly loud debate happening around content strategy. Many people, including people I very much admire, are seriously frustrated that much of the current conversation focuses strictly on Web content.

Their position is that content strategy—in order to actually have any positive, long-term effect on an organization—must consider multiple types of content across multichannel platforms, and that the Web is only a part of that ecosystem. Some context:

Now, of course content doesn’t begin and end on a website. If an organization only pays attention to the problem of content at the Web project level, they’re failing to deal with their actual “content ecosystem.” Social media. Marketing. Technology. Internal communications. Technical communications. Media. Do you know a company where these roles are even remotely aligned on how to create, deliver, and govern their organization’s content? Because I sure don’t.

So. If I believe all this, then why did I write a book that has helped make “content strategy” synonymous with “Web content”?

The answer is pretty simple: Because it was a good place to start.

Every time people ask me what I do, this is how I respond: “You know how, on your company’s website, most of the information is hard to find, or inconsistent, or totally irrelevant, or just really bad?”

And, every single time, they say, “Oh, yes, it is. It’s so embarrassing. I’m so frustrated that no one is fixing it.”

Then I tell them that’s what I do: I help fix bad content. And they say, “Oh, wow, I wish my boss would call you. You must be REALLY BUSY.”

Now, imagine if I responded like this: “You know how, in your company, the content lifecycle is totally undefined and ignored, and content is constantly getting produced in silos, and no one is fully accountable for all the messy stuff that goes along with it, and the problem is just getting worse because no one gets that content requires strategic consideration and dedicated resources?”

This person would likely fake an incoming call so they can run far, far away from me.

This is pretty much the reaction our clients and colleagues have been having for years. The latter explanation, while possibly more accurate about the scope of content strategy, freaks people out. It turns content into a hot potato. It's not working.

My publisher initially wanted me to call my book The Content Strategy Handbook. But I didn’t think that was a good idea, as I didn’t know the first thing about how to architect an all-things-considered content strategy. What I knew was how to create a strategic plan for creating, delivering, and governing content for websites. So that’s why I called it Content Strategy for the Web: to cover my ass.

Well, that’s part of the reason. I also knew that pointing to Web content as a big problem was something people would relate to, if not at first then fairly quickly.

Just like the way I describe my work, the phrase "content strategy for the Web” allowed me to introduce the practice as a solution to an immediate and unrelenting pain point so many of us share. I could explain content strategy’s basic principles using constraints (website vs. company-wide content lifecycle) that make it seem achievable.

I also knew from experience that focusing first on Web content strategy often ends up being a very sensible, non-scary starting point for the much larger discussion that inevitably arises: “This isn’t just about our website. This is about the way content moves throughout our organization and the way we manage our content assets.”

Here's the deal. I never had any illusions about writing The End-all-be-all Content Strategy Bible. I’m not the person to do that. What I had was an very big desire to get the conversation rolling. In order to do that, I had to convince my reader of a few very basic points:

  • Content isn’t copywriting.
  • Content is very, very complicated.
  • Content requires strategic consideration.
  • Content requires care and feeding.
  • Content is a critical business asset.

Nowhere are these truths more evident than on a website.

So. That’s why I wrote about Web content. And that’s why I’ll keep writing and talking about Web content.

As for the argument that content strategy can’t be discussed as something that’s “just for the Web,” I firmly disagree. Content strategy can be practiced as a Web-focused discipline, and with terrific results. In fact, I’ve built an entire business around it.

And, yes! We’re REALLY BUSY.


Follow Kristina on Twitter

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Posted in Content Strategy, Uncategorized

Announcing Confab: The Content Strategy Conference

by Kristina Halvorson on October 28th, 2010

You’re invited to join us May 9-10, 2011 in Minneapolis, Minnesota for two full days of content strategy ideas, insights, and inspiration.

We have a name. We have a logo. We have a roster full of extraordinary speakers.

We are very, very excited. And—if we’re to believe the emails, phone calls, and tweets we’re constantly getting—so are you.

After hundreds of conversations with professionals all over the world about content strategy—what it is, why it matters, what it can do for our companies and careers—the folks at Brain Traffic decided it was time to get all of you under one roof.

Here’s the thing: you’re a diverse crowd. You come from a variety of backgrounds. You come at content a hundred different ways. You have divergent perspectives. You have insights that other people need to hear.

Marketing. User experience. Social media. Technical communications. Content management. Editing and writing. Media planning. If you work in content, your time has come. Content strategy is hot, and it’s only getting hotter.

What’s great is that content strategy gives us the opportunity—the responsibility, even—to get to know our fellow content professionals, no matter what their role within our organizations. We need to work together if we’re going to help our companies and clients realize that content is a business asset worthy of strategic planning and consideration.

We also need to throw a few parties for ourselves. As one recent Content Strategy Meetup attendant said, “I’ve never met so many cool people in one place at once.” Multiply that times a few hundred, and you’ve got Confab.

If you design, plan, create, publish, or care for content, then this is your conference. Whether you’re a content strategy convert or curious about where to start, there are plenty of sessions you won’t want to miss. You’ll walk away from Confab full of ideas and opportunities for both your company and your career.

Oh, we’re so glad you asked.

We’ve gathered a diverse crowd of the brightest minds we know in the world of content professionals. Some names you’ll recognize. Some you won’t. But every single speaker is on our “A-List” of people you want to hear from. Here are just a few of our 32 confirmed speakers…

  • Scott Abel, Content Wrangler
  • Margot Bloomstein, Appropriate, Inc.
  • Sarah Cancilla, Facebook
  • Blake Eskin, The New Yorker
  • Ann Handley, author, Content Rules/CCO, MarketingProfs
  • Erin Kissane, author, The Elements of Content Strategy
  • Valeria Maltoni, Conversation Agent
  • Karen McGrane, bond art + science
  • Joe Pulizzi, author, Get Content, Get Customers/CEO, Junta 42
  • Ginny Redish, author, Letting Go of the Words
  • Ann Rockley, author, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy

The Confab 2011 website—and early-bird registration!—will launch the week of November 15. Details on pricing and sponsorship packages will be announced at that time.

For now, you can…

Stay tuned. More content strategy goodness is yet to come!

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Posted in Uncategorized

Content Strategy Can Help. Literally.

by Christine Benson on October 21st, 2010

You’d be hard-pressed to find a reputable e-commerce site without some sort of help/support link in the header. But how many times have you clicked on a help link and found NOTHING helpful?  How did that happen? Everyone agreed that a help section was needed. They all knew the customers were going to go there.

But there was still a disconnect between putting the help link on the page and actually planning for that content. Determining what content should be there, how it should be organized, who will create it, and how it will be maintained are all central to the practice of content strategy.

For the sake of keeping this post short, I’ll assume that the product copy is already planned for.  If you’re creating an e-commerce site and you haven’t done that, you’ve got some serious content problems that a blog post probably can’t solve. Moving on …

Interface design is about the numbers. Great design supports the majority of interactions the customer comes to do. User testing uncovers error scenarios for those interactions. Then interface improvements are made to eliminate or mitigate the scenarios.

But there are exceptions. Sometimes people have questions or need additional support. An interface that tries to provide a solution for every exception usually results in something messy and less useable.

I’ve personally witnessed user testing where these outlier scenarios were uncovered. The facilitator asks, “Where would you go to answer that question?” 99% of the time the answer was “I’d use the help link.” Awesome, problem solved. The user found the help link. Test over.

But wait … What’s actually in that help section?

If you find yourself staring at a blank or non-helpful help section, here are a few tips to get your content back on track:

Identify the needs
Do new site users have the same questions as existing users? Are they in the middle of a task or looking for general information? Is this something that can be answered online or will they need to call customer service?  Answering these types of questions will help determine what content to include and how to prioritize it.

Make a plan to create the content
Someone needs to write the content. That someone will need source material. Make friends with the user experience and customer service people. As the front lines to the customers, they can identify what questions are being asked and the frequency of those questions. They can also explain the process needed to resolve the customer’s issue.

After the content is written, it’ll need to go through proofing, revisions, publishing, and other processes and checkpoints. Never forget that creating content is about more than writing.

Set style guidelines
How your content “speaks” should be in line with your brand, but a help page should not sound like a marketing promotion. Here’s a real life scenario: say you ask someone for directions and they start by telling you about their wonderful city or apologizing that you’re lost. You’d likely be impatient at best. Don’t do that. Answer the question directly and succinctly. Then be done with it.

Feed and care for your help section
Content is never done. Out-of-date content is not only embarrassing, but damaging to your brand. Your customer came to you for support, and your content didn’t deliver.

If you’re making enhancements to your site functionality, include a plan to review the help content. Things like changes to store policies or new product lines can also require updates to the help section. Determine a regular audit schedule to check for accuracy and information gaps (remember that part about making friends with the customer service reps?), then make sure the content gets updated.

And if you’re still stuck, call us. We’d love to help.

(Image: "Help" by Flickr user LiminalMike (CC: by-nc-sa 2.0))

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Posted in Uncategorized

You Have Problems.

by Kristina Halvorson on October 11th, 2010

Web content problems, that is.

How do I know this? Because 99% of companies do.

In fact, I'm going to bet that you have one or more of these problems:

  • You have great ideas for awesome content…but you're not sure how to create and sustain it.
  • You have a fabulous new website design…that breaks as soon as you start uploading content to it.
  • You thought someone else would be creating the content…except, funny, they thought YOU were creating it.
  • You're wearing your underpants on the outside…wait, what?

I know. It hurts. But I have good news: there's a cure. Web content strategy offers a long-term, sustainable fix to these problems and more. And wait! I have even better news! Brain Traffic content strategist Meghan Casey wrote a terrific article that shows you how!

Meghan's article, 4 Web project problems content strategy can solve, kicks off an entire week of content strategy articles on the terrific UX online mag, Johnny Holland. We like it. We think you will, too. Enjoy!

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Posted in Content Strategy, Project Management, Uncategorized

RSS in the Olden Days

by Angie Halama on October 1st, 2010

Hand-written headlines in a newspaper office window.

(Click image to enlarge.)

Before CNN scrolling news headlines. Before aggregators. Before Tweetdeck.

Way back in 1940 the Brockton Enterprise newspaper was providing a handmade news feed to passersby on the street: by posting headlines in its office windows.

I spotted this picture in a blog post of vintage color photos. I had no idea that newspapers had ever done this, and I don’t know whether it was a common practice. But what a great strategy for selling papers: entice people with the headlines so that they want to read more.

It makes me wonder how often they updated their “feed.” Every time the daily edition was released? As soon as a story broke? Did people purposely visit, or “subscribe” to, this corner to find out what was going on in the world?

Oh, and who was the lucky one hand-printing all those headlines and pasting them up in the window? Clicking “publish” never seemed easier.   

The method may be old-fashioned, but the strategy is as modern as, well, today’s headlines.

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Posted in Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, User Experience

Is Paper.li Good News, or Bad News, for Content?

by Angie King on September 15th, 2010

A recent Brain Traffic Twitter exchange with @dmnguys introduced me to the world of Paper.li. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out whether I like the service or not. One thing’s for sure: it’s no substitute for curation.

According to their website, Paper.li is an online service that “organizes links shared on Twitter into an easy to read newspaper-style format.”  You can create these “newspapers” to aggregate content for Twitter users, lists, or hashtags. Paper.li automatically generates these feeds into a homepage that emulates the feel of a traditional newspaper’s website.

As Mathew Ingram writes on Gigaom.com, Paper.li is “a great way to catch up on interesting links my network has found — especially if I have been away from Twitter during the day and am wondering what I have missed.”

I’ve only been using Paper.li for a couple short days, but I can already agree that this is the main benefit of a service like this. Other things I like about Paper.li:

  • View by topic—If you want to see things only related to Technology, you can do that without paging through your full Twitter feed.
  • View by media—Gives you a snapshot view of videos and photos, without clicking a link first.
  • Create multiple newspapers—You can create up to 10 “newspapers” to follow the people, hashtags, and lists you’re most interested in.
  • No follow required—You can follow any Twitter list on Paper.li without actually following it from your Twitter account.

This list is meatier than the “What I like” list. Sorry, Paper.li.

Daily Tweets, without context—If you want to share your Paper.li site on your personal Twitter stream, you can click the “Promote It” link below the masthead. This requires you to sign up for daily promotional Tweets, and won’t let you do a one-time promotion of your page. Sure, you can go in and “manage” the papers you are promoting to turn off the daily Tweets—but that’s a bit laborious.

Additionally, Paper.li Daily Tweets provide absolutely no context for the content that appears on your Paper.li page. This absence of context is exactly what drew me to Paper.li in the first place.

Here’s the @BrainTraffic  / @dmnguys exchange that inspired this post:

The fact that the Paper.li daily gets “no input from us” doesn’t bother @dmnguys. Automatic generation of a Tweet absolves them from providing context. But as a user and an indirect subject of their Twitter stream, the Paper.li Daily Tweet ended up confusing instead of enlightening me.

Without the proper context around the “featured” Twitter handles and why they are being featured, the Daily Tweet doesn’t provide any value to followers. At least, not in my book.

Not all “stories” translate—Paper.li attempts to replicate the first paragraph of the links shared by your Twitter community. This lead-in doesn’t always translate well, so you end up reading a bunch of nonsense until you click the link. For instance, Kristina posted a link to some favorite articles the other day.

Her Tweet said:

Paper.li translated her Tweet as follows:

Um … WTF?

Not customizable—Because Paper.li automatically generates the sections of my daily “newspaper,” I have no say in what appears as my lead story. Also, I can’t hide or rearrange any of the topical sections.

No central dashboard—I created two Paper.li dailies, but am unable to access them without a direct URL. I expected Paper.li to keep a list of my previously created “newspapers” somewhere, especially after I’m logged in to the site. (In case you’re curious, the two papers I created are: Angie King Daily and contentstrategy Daily.)

Granted, nobody said it WAS curation. But my experience with Paper.li just proves the importance of curation over aggregation.  Without an editorial eye overseeing the publication of my Paper.li page, the content loses value. I actually prefer just paging through my Twitter stream over trying to make sense of the no-context, automatically generated list of junk that displays on my Paper.li page.

But I can’t blame Paper.li for trying to meet a need. It just wasn’t MY need. Probably because I’m not a robot.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, User Experience, Web Content