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Sorting through the digital debris

by Christine Anameier

As I sit here sniffling and coughing, I’m thinking, how can I get rid of this cold?

Let’s ask Google!

“How to Cure a Cold” is at eHow.com. The author, ranked as an “Authority,” advises me to inhale a lot of steam and avoid dairy products. Her credentials? “I have an English degree and love to write for fun, but I’ve never made a profit yet!” 

“How to Cure a Common Cold Naturally” also appears on eHow.com. This piece advises me to wash my hands a lot: “Studies show by doing this step once you have a cold will shorten the cold’s duration.” Drink water, drink green tea, rest, exercise (?), cut out sugar, add garlic tablets … Huh. The author’s background? Apparently she’s a freelance writer and certified Pilates instructor.

Another “How to Cure the Common Cold,” anonymously written, counsels me to become an infectious-disease expert and secure a massive research grant. There’s a raging flame war in the comments section, but the article got 2 stars out of 5 in their ratings system … so somebody liked it.

 “Cure for Common Colds” is brought to you by essortment.com. They list the symptoms of the common cold and observe that a cold lasts from 2-7 days “depending upon the virility of the strain.” (Oh my.) They admit, “there is no real fast cure for this condition,” recommend a bunch of OTC meds, and end with a butt-covering admonition to “contact your doctor.”

“How to Get Rid of a Cold Without Using Medications” on wikiHow.com says:

    • Don’t take medications.
    • “Keep your resting area clean and sanitary.”
    • Suck on zinc lozenges.
    • Take regular baths… 



    • ezinearticles.com recommends hypnosis
    • associatedcontent.com says “cut all dairy out of your diet”
    • bukisa.com (tagline: “Share your Knowledge, Earn Money”) says to put peroxide on a Q-tip and stick it up my nose
    • answers.yahoo.com provides off-the-cuff remarks from random people with no credentials whatsoever

All is not lost
If I know where to look, there’s reputable, scientifically supported advice out there. Luckily, I’ve heard of the Mayo Clinic (where an actual doctor neatly debunks the anti-dairy angle). I know I can trust WebMD or the Merck Manual. Otherwise, I might be wondering how to tell the reliable information from the opinions of random passersby.

Turn on your BS detector
I’ve started ignoring all search results pointing to eHow.com and its ilk.

A simple guideline: If the whole idea behind the site is “We know all sorts of stuff about everything,” beware. (Except for Wikipedia, which has enough critical mass to make its own rules much the way Amazon does.)

The content farms have learned to game the system, and dubious content is clogging up the works. If you do internet research and don’t know any better, you can wind up relying on content that’s based on somebody’s vague recollections or urban legends. Come on, Google. Find a way to make expert-written content float to the top. Otherwise, using your search engine will be the equivalent of polling the checkout line at the supermarket.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing

Members vs. guests: how to label users on authenticated sites

by Angie King

Recently, Brain Traffic Twitter friend Taj Moore (@tajmo) asked us for some advice about copy for authenticated websites, or websites that require registration in order to log in for firewalled content and/or functions.

Taj wanted to know our thoughts on what to call members vs. non-members, and logged in members vs. non-logged in members.
Taj’s question inspired quite the philosophical discussion around here. And by “philosophical discussion,” I mean: “really long email chain.”
We like Amazon’s approach to labeling members.
In short, we side with Amazon’s way of doing things. But, as it is with anything of value, it was the ride that mattered. Here’s how we came to our conclusion.
Are there terms to diff. bw member logged in and member not logged in? "Guest" not useful bc conflates w/ non-member.
…Or another tack: how about a word for guest/visitor who is not a member?
…b.c. I am leaning toward "logged-in," "logged-out," & "non-member" but thought you might have better insight.
Kristina: Let’s discuss. Who wants to go first?
Katie D.: Just call everyone Earthlings. We’re all just people, after all.
Christine A.: Is he asking about a user-facing label? I’d question whether there is any value in showing those terms to users.
I like Amazon’s approach. They use a cookie to identify users who have accounts, and ask them to log in only when they do something significant like go to their shopping cart. 
Amazon doesn’t tell people they’re logged in, logged out, non-member, etc. They just put the person’s name up there if the cookie is in place, or show a generic login link if it isn’t. They don’t need users to keep track of their own status.
If he’s asking about what the developers/UX people/etc should call it, it doesn’t much matter as long as they’re consistent and the labels identify clearly defined roles.
Elizabeth (her email passing Christine’s on the information superhighway from NYC):
I’d say, the first question is, how are these terms going to be used? Are they internal or user facing?
If they’re meant to be user-facing, they don’t really seem necessary. If the user is logged in to the site, you’d address them by name. If they’re not logged in, you’d probably call them a guest. If they’re a member who isn’t logged in, you can’t really know that. Not sure why it’d be necessary to label each separately, unless he’s talking about terms to be used internally …
Angie K.: Whoa. It’s like Elizabeth and Christine A. had a cross-country mind meld.
Elizabeth:  We’re Vulcans!
Twitter says…
Address logged in members by name. Everyone else, guest. Internally, use whatever labels you like. Just be consistent, please!
Yeah, we heart Amazon. But nobody’s perfect.
When not logged in, Amazon covers all of the bases—member, non-member, logged in, or not logged in. Check it out:
  • Hello—greets the user, whether a member or not.
  • Sign in—invites members to log on.
  • Start here—gives non-members the opportunity to create an account.
When you’re logged in, Amazon greets you by name and gives you the option to log off. Nice.
However, when I used our company’s login to do some office supply shopping the other day, “Not Brain?” had me giggling for hours.

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Posted in Around the Office, Content Strategy, User Experience, Web Writing

Behold, the mighty hive

by Kristina Halvorson

 Happy New Year!

(My New Year’s resolution was not to resolve anything this year. So far, I’m doing great.)
Say, I’ve gotten several requests for the "hive" diagram I use in presentations. It’s a simple, visual example of how web project team roles interact with one another.
This is it:
 skillset org_webprojectroles
(click to see full-sized image)
I found the diagram on Skillset.org back in ’08, but apparently they’ve pulled it down since then. So, as my gift to you, here it is. Wield it within your organizations at will.

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

Don’t gamble with automatic feedback copy

by Angie King

As a writer or a content strategist, it’s your job to advocate for useful, useable, and on-brand web content. Like it or not, that responsibility includes unsexy stuff like error messages, functional copy, and automatic feedback copy.  

Like most users, I never thought twice about automatic feedback copy until I ran into some bad examples of it. But since my experience on StratosphereHotel.com, I’ve done a lot of thinking about it.
What is automatic feedback copy?
Automatic feedback copy—also known as “automatic validation copy” or “real-time inline help”—is content that displays immediately after a user interacts with online content. It’s meant to guide the user’s actions to help them complete a task.
For example, it’s the “invalid email” message you get when you forget the “@domainname.com” part of your email address.
When automatic feedback copy goes awry
I recently signed up for email alerts from the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas, where I planned to stay. Filling out the contact form should have been a quick, easy task. Instead, I spent minutes struggling to understand their automatic feedback copy:


(click to see full-sized image)

 What makes it bad automatic feedback copy?

They may seem harmless, but “Good Email” and “33 is perfect!” interrupt instead of support the user experience.
Here’s why. The copy:
  • Doesn’t fit tone of the site
  • Doesn’t move the user toward a goal
  • May alarm the user 
Using the wrong tone
Automatic feedback copy can be sassy—as long as it matches the site’s overall tone. A departure in tone makes for an inconsistent—and therefore unprofessional—website.
Missing the user goal
“Good email” is probably the Stratosphere’s way of saying “valid email address.” But what’s the point of patting your user on the back for their data entry skills?
“33 is perfect!” is equally problematic. I’m not sure the message is the appropriate response for age verification. A “thank you” or simply removing the default message—“You must be 21 to sign up”—would suffice.
Alarming the user
For many users, red font screams: Caution! Danger! Error! But instead of a warning, the red text gave me a compliment. “Good Email” just didn’t make sense to me in that context.
Why automatic feedback copy matters
Like every piece of content on your website, automatic feedback copy is an extension of your brand. Be mindful of how your online brand reflects—or detracts—from the brick-and-mortar customer experience.
If our rooms hadn’t already been booked, I may have reconsidered staying at the Stratosphere. But in contrast to a frustrating online encounter, my in-person experience at the hotel was more satisfying than busting a blackjack dealer. I’m glad I took the gamble. 


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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Web Writing

“Hand-Crafted Content” vs. the Machine: Betting on the People

by Kristina Halvorson

 I just finished reading Michael Arrington’s "The End of Hand-Crafted Content " (also published elsewhere as "AOL’s New Fast-Food-Content Strategy Means the End of Journalism You Actually Enjoy").

How. Depressing.

Since reading Wired‘s apocalyptic article,  "The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model," I’ve certainly spent plenty of time bitching about the lowering of our already low standards for web content.

Here’s a summary of how mass-produced content works: 

Pieces [(content to be created)] aren’t dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

Then, the assignment is posted to a ginormous database; it’s accepted by a freelancer somewhere, who then throws something together as quickly as possible because he’s only getting paid, like, four dollars to create it. (Want to know what the best vodka in the world is? A random bartender from a random bar in Florida KNOWS THE ANSWER!) (Uh, you’ll have to sit through the ad first.)

So, in one fell swoop, Demand Media—and now AOL—are both flooding the search engines with awful, terrible content and gleefully commodifying the work of writers, videographers, editors, and other media professionals around the world.

I hate them. Oooooo, how I hate them.

But, you know what?

McDonald’s didn’t put La Belle Vie out of business.

Does McDonald’s make more money than La Belle Vie? Of course they do. They’re freakin’ McDonalds. But La Belle Vie is running a very fine, profitable business, thank you very much, turning out exquisite French food that makes me want to weep with joy. (Even their cocktail menu is extraordinary.) (No, I do NOT say that about every cocktail menu.)

You don’t have to eat at La Belle Vie to appreciate the metaphor. Not everybody wants McDonald’s, and nobody wants McDonald’s all the time. People go out of their way to find what will satisfy, even delight, their appetites. 

AOL and Demand Media (and dozens more competitors, I’m sure) are anathema to pretty much anyone who wants an even slightly obscure question answered online. But in the long run, I’m betting on people, not algorithms. Just because I clicked on your stupid video doesn’t mean I can’t use my back button.

p.s. Google, get on this.   


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

A little label love goes a long way

by Christine Benson

I’m currently seven months pregnant. Rather than developing nesting tendencies and actually cleaning my home, I have developed an addiction to reading craft blogs.

On many of these blogs, I’ve noticed the trend of labeling the comments section with something more customized than the standard "comments."
Here are a couple of examples:

not talking to myself


It’s a great combination of being human and still being useful. This small change demonstrates an individual’s voice, but also clearly communicates the goal of the section.
I also thought it was a great example of how content (rather than design) can show brand and personality. These are blogs that are built on standard templates, but with this one little change, I suddenly felt a connection to a human on the other end.
Added bonus? People seemed to comment on these blogs more than the ones simply labeled "comments" or "leave a reply".
Many companies are locked into template designs that they feel constrained by, resulting in lamentations about being unable to add a lifestyle image or change a font. These projects are often time-consuming and expensive. Neither of those terms are popular, especially in the current economic climate.
So, when half of the room is screaming for a redesign while the other half is screaming back about time and budget, consider focusing on how the content can improve your site.

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

Email Etiquette: You are what you send.

by Elizabeth Saloka

Ever send a super clever, funny, smart email, and then re-read it and realize you sound like a jerk? Or bat-dip crazy? Or full of yourself?

It’s not your fault! It’s email’s fault.

 Email is a tricky medium, because:
1. It’s crude.
In person, you convey information through:
1. Words
2. Vocal intonations
3. Facial expressions
4. Body language
5. Visual aids (e.g., PowerPoint slides)
6. Vibes (according to hippies)
Over email you convey info through:
1. Words
Communicating through email is like painting with one big, fat brush. Rendering subtleties—such as sarcasm and self-deprecation—is a tough, messy, and often impossible task.
2. It’s easy.
Sending a birthday card is a full-blown process. You go to the store. Rifle through a bunch of cards. Buy one. Think out what you want to write. Grab a pen. Find a flat surface. Then, finally, put pen to paper.
Email’s free. And easy—just type and hit send. Because it carries no cost and requires little thought, people often don’t put much care into their emails. It shows.
 Writing clear, courteous emails ain’t rocket science. Just stick with these three common sense tips:
1. Keep it simple, silly. The fewer—and less fancy—words you use, the less likely you’ll be to confuse (or, worse, offend) your recipient. Avoid sarcasm, irony, metaphor, obscure references—all the fun stuff that gets you in trouble. Need an example? Okay.
Instead of saying:
“Thad, you broke a leg—and two arms! You’ve got the charisma of a young Ronald Reagan.”
“Thad, you did a really great job.”
See? Not as creative. But less chance of confusing/offending/creeping out the recipient.
2. Listen to your gut.
You know when you read something you’ve just written, and it doesn’t sit quite right? Listen to that feeling. Remember, once you hit “send” you can’t take it back. So what’s the rush? Go grab a pretzel stick from the office kitchen. Take a walk. Whatever. Any excuse to get away from your words for a few minutes.
When you return, you might be surprised by how quickly you pinpoint what’s off. “Gee, maybe I shouldn’t tell the client he reminds me of Larry King … ”
3. Ask, “Why?”
Before sending any email, ask yourself why you’re sending it. Or, better yet, ask what your recipient will get out of it. Will it inform, amuse, or reassure them? If you can’t think of even one little ol’ benefit, you probably don’t need to send it.
Remember, too, email isn’t always the answer. Would your recipient prefer a text message or phone call? Or—gasp!—a face-to-face chat? Why labor over an email to a coworker when you could quick pop over to their desk?
Finally, word to the wise: Sending YouTube videos over five minutes long is just bad form.
Seriously, people. Nothing’s that funny.


So now you know how to stop yourself from writing bad emails. But what if you’ve already sent one? You have two options:

  • Say sorry.

When to say sorry:
Your coworker or boss says in very definite terms, “Wow, you’re a jerk.”


What to say:

“Wow, I’m a real jerk. I meant to be <funny/sarcastic/goofy/whatever> and I totally flubbed up. Please forgive me, yo!”

  • Say nothing.
When to say nothing:
Your aunt or friend seems put off, but doesn’t actually say so.
What to say:
Nothing. Let it blow over. Just make sure you take care with future emails. Chances are, in a few weeks, things will be just fine. What you don’t want to do is cram your foot any deeper into your mouth.
 Feels good, doesn’t it? You want to test your skills right now, don’t you? Well, what are you waiting for? Go!

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Posted in Resources, Web Content, Web Writing

Communicate clearly with online customers

by Erin Anderson

Writing error messages and instructional text isn’t exactly a sexy undertaking. Which is part of the reason it often gets left to the last minute.

Here’s an example of why that’s a really bad idea. I recently encountered this screen while reviewing my domain name renewal information (click on the image to enlarge):

Communicate clearly

I spent about two minutes here (which was about a minute and 45 seconds too long) trying to decipher the phrase “Bad username and/or password.” Because although I definitely had an account with the company, I couldn’t recall whether I’d previously activated my online customer service profile.

So I wasn’t clear on whether A) this was the place to create a username/password for that account and my entry wasn’t strong enough, or B) the username/password I entered simply didn’t match what I’d used to create the account.

Furthermore, I couldn’t tell whether the culprit was my username or my password, thanks to the clear-as-mud “and/or.”

Your users don’t notice your content unless it’s not working.
When you don’t take the time to carefully craft these seemingly dull and insignificant pieces of content, you end up with vague instructions and dead-end words like “bad.” And before long, you’ve got customers like me who are ready to jump ship. 

On the other hand, when this kind of supporting copy is carefully planned for and constructed, it disappears completely into the experience. Your users don’t even notice it’s there. And that’s a good thing.

Remember: Your users expect perfection online. Or close to it, anyway. Why? Because nobody’s there in person or on the phone to guide them as questions arise. Which means your content has to anticipate those questions and provide answers at every turn. Make sure you’re always one step ahead with clear, actionable copy.

So, make your content work harder.
If this all sounds like a big job, well, it is. Writers agonize over stuff like error messages, links, and headlines every day. Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for writing killer instructional copy. Finding the right words depends on factors such as your audience, your business goals, your user needs, and your brand voice.

If you don’t have access to the kinds of metrics or processes that provide concrete insights, you can still cover many of your bases by asking yourself: 

    • What questions does our current copy raise as users are trying to complete a particular task?

    • What are the implications of changing this word or deleting this phrase?

    • In how many different ways could this message be interpreted?

    • How can we minimize ambiguity?

    • How can we simplify or streamline?

    • Would a graphic be more helpful here than a word or sentence? 

Even without tangible data to back up your changes, you’ll catch many of those careless copy oversights that frustrate your users and undermine business goals.


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

Rupert Murdoch vs. the “Content Kleptomaniacs” and “Plagiarists” (See: Google)

by Kristina Halvorson

There’s a big fuss being made over the fact that Mr. Rupert Murdoch has said that his media empire will "probably remove our sites from Google’s index."

How DARE he hide his content behind the iron curtain of non-indexing?

Murdoch isn’t stupid. (Old and confused, yes. Stupid? Not so much.) He’s talking about making a seriously bold move, here, in the interest of keeping his empire from crumbling. So why are people freaking out?

It’s JUST WRONG. Right?
When the religion of the Web is that you can find anything you want, from anywhere, at any time, Murdoch’s plan is straight-up blasphemous.

With this in mind, our faithful interviewer asked, "One of the key, underlying principles of the Internet is that anyone from anywhere in the world can access information freely. Wouldn’t this change mean people have to afford it?"

Murdoch replied, "They’re already paying for newspapers. And anyone can afford a newspaper, they’re the cheapest things in the world. Electronically, it will be even cheaper."

(This cracks me up, because, of course, the majority of the world’s population either can’t afford newspapers or simply don’t have access to them …  at least, newspapers that offer unbiased, quality reporting.)

Here’s what Rupert thinks you should do.
Generally, Murdoch wants you to know that his content is actually Quality Content because he employs real reporters, real writers, and real editors who offer experienced, insightful points of view. Which, of course, is true. However, this argument also implies that people shouldn’t go looking for "quality content" on search engines. No, no. You should go straight to an established publisher’s website.

Unfortunately, the internets don’t care so much about the "should"s. There’s a reason Google gets about a bajillion times more traffic than every publication website in the world … combined.

More than anything else, Murdoch is counting on his current readership’s loyalty to his brands. He admits, though, that he’s not sure what that’s going to look like in five, ten, twenty years… which means that this ends up looking more like a Hail Mary pass than anything else.

Rupert, dear, you can’t kill search.
Online readers typically know what they’re looking for, and they want the fastest way to get it. They want to be educated or entertained. They want their questions answered, their lives made easier. They have the Google or Yahoo! or MSN toolbar built into their browsers. They’re going to use it.

Murdoch doesn’t seem to get this, or care. The rest of the world, of course, does. Including you. You’ve been obsessed with SEO and page rankings for years. You don’t have the option of breaking up with Google.

However, you also shouldn’t be so obsessed with Google that you neglect to remember this all-important fact: getting your content indexed by the search engines isn’t enough to win eyeballs that matter. Just because your users can find your content doesn’t mean you’ve won your battle.

Content first. Google second.
Here’s where you can take a page from our friend Rupert and start placing significant value on content people will care about. Editorial oversight. Quality research. Quality writing. These things actually do matter. They inspire trust and motivate action.

Getting to quality content is worth your organization’s investment: time, budget, people. Because once your readers arrive from Google, they’ll either like what they see and stick around for a bit, or lunge for the back button.

Remember, people: If you have a website, you’re a publisher. If you participate in social media, you’re a publisher. If you create emails, help text, product descriptions … you’re a publisher.

You may not be selling content, but your content is selling you. Google won’t solve your problems. Of course, ignoring Google won’t, either …  sorry, Rupert.

I just have to add this little gem: In the interview, Murdoch says that public broadcasting should be of the highest quality, which commercial broadcasting can’t afford to be. Then he tells us that " most of the stuff [public broadcasting does] is stolen from the newspapers now. And we’ll be suing them for copyright. They’ll have to spend a lot more money paying a lot more reporters when they can’t steal from newspapers."

Old. Confused. Sigh.

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

Be your own content expert

by Amy Wallace

Whether you’re a writer, editor or content strategist, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how to effectively reach your audience. Maybe you pore over personas and case studies for inspiration. But there’s probably one resource you’re not considering—you! As a web user, you can be your own content expert.

Think about it. You know what an effective user experience feels like when you come across it: An instantly identifiable objective. Clean, concise copy. Benefits front-and-center. Easy navigation and clear task instructions.

Sure, style guides and success metrics are important tools for creating better content. But as a web writer and editor, I’ve learned that considering my own user experience every step of the way is one of the best strategies for success.

Here are some tips for developing your inner content expert.

Change your perception of web writing
We all hear a lot about the differences between print writing and web writing. Overall, web writing has to be more concise—scannable, task-driven, presented in bulleted lists, etc.—than print copy.

On the surface those differences seem pretty straightforward. I mean, when it comes down to it, good writing is good writing, right?

Not exactly. Web writing is a whole other animal. It needs to work in harmony with the design and information architecture to create a seamless user experience. It needs to help people DO something. And once you recognize that, you might need to change your approach to creating content.

How? By answering this one simple—but very important—question:

Is this something I’d want to read?

In other words, if I landed on this web page and read the copy, would it hold my attention? Would I get the information I need to complete my task? It may sound like common sense, but this approach can make a huge difference in the quality of your web content. Trust me.

White space is your friend
You’ve most likely visited a website filled with paragraph after paragraph of copy. And you’ve most likely zoned out, stopped reading, and maybe even left the site. I know I have.

Keep this in mind when you’re creating your content. If you can, see how it looks in a design mock-up. How dense do those paragraphs appear? Does the copy length seem intimidating and time-consuming? Would you read it if you were trying to complete a task in the midst of juggling a million other things, as your users likely are?

If not, start slashin’. Create some white space. Web users want to find what they need as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next task. They don’t want to spend a lot of time sifting through unnecessary copy to find the information they really need.

Remember, attention spans are short. Make sure your content keeps readers engaged.

Say something that matters
Concise copy alone isn’t enough. Bulleted lists don’t guarantee good web content. You still need to make sure the limited words on the page actually help users do what they came to do or learn what they came to learn. We’re talking product or service benefits, clear instructional copy, user-friendly navigation nomenclature, etc.

When you’re trying to complete a task or order a product, you want the most direct path possible to making it happen. And that path can’t be cluttered with mission statements or "why we’re great" language—unless it supports what you’re trying to do. Does this content help you make a purchase decision? Complete your task?

Great web content is about so much more than just brevity. It’s about choosing the right words (and sometimes showing rather than telling with good design) to support an effective user experience that will keep people coming back for more.

Keep this in mind when creating your own content. It’s not about the story you want to tell—it’s about what the user wants to know. Talk to them, not at them.

Now get out there and create some killer web content. You’re the expert, after all.


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