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Doogie Howser, C.S.

by Lee Thomas on May 10th, 2012

Content strategy is a pretty young field. As a result, it gets carded in bars and has trouble renting a car. Occasionally, content strategy looks so young it has to work hard to convince people it deserves to be taken seriously.

Doogie Howser, M.D.

Too young to know what he's doing?

Image courtesy of sharetv.org

Youthful as it may appear, content strategy is descended from a very established family tree with some very old roots. Among content strategy’s respected ancestors: the art of rhetoric.

I know it’s an election year, but bear with me

Over the years, the word “rhetoric” has gotten a bad rap. It stood too close to the political arena for too long and picked up the stench of something manipulative, scheming, and unscrupulous. While it’s true that rhetoric can be defined as “pretentious words” or “insincere or empty language,” those aren’t the only definitions. Rhetoric is also defined as:

  • “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion”1
  • "Instrumental communication" that seeks change by using appeals to affect people’s conduct2

Content strategists do both of those things: We study how content (written, spoken, or otherwise presented) functions “as a means of communication or persuasion.” And we use content as an instrument to effect change. Rhetoric is not only relevant to content strategy, it’s at the heart of the matter3.

The change we seek

With limited exceptions, the companies and organizations that employ content strategists aren’t producing content for the heck of it, or for artistic expression alone. They produce content as a means to achieve specific business goals (or organizational goals). Those goals are expressions of the kind of change they want to see. For example, an organization may want to change:

  • The number of products sold
  • The number of new subscribers or online registrations
  • The number of calls to the support center
  • A brand’s reputation among certain people
  • The level of support for a particular idea
  • The rate of adoption of a particular activity

For desirable changes like these to become a reality, people’s behavior must change. They need to buy, sign up, believe, participate, donate, take action, or otherwise behave in ways they don’t right now. As content strategists, we aim to shape an organization’s content so that it will influence audiences to behave in those beneficial ways. In so doing, we practice what Aristotle, father or rhetoric, called "the art of discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case." We practice rhetoric.

The rhetorical situation: then and now

“Discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case” means examining the particular situation at hand. This is referred to as the rhetorical situation, and it includes some key components:

  • A rhetor (i.e., a speaker, agent, or originator of the content or communication)
  • An audience
  • An exigence (i.e., a problem, issue, or objective to address)
  • Constraints (anything that limits the options or gets in the way)

Back in Aristotle’s day, a typical situation involved in-person, oral communication. A rhetor gave a speech in an attempt to persuade audience members to believe or behave in a particular way. These speeches contained various arguments and means of persuasion to make a case. In so doing, the rhetor used what he knew of the audience (pretty much other privileged, educated men) to shape the content of his speech in ways he believed would be effective. The rhetorical situation looked something like this:

Rhetorical situation in Aristotle's day

Here in the 21st century, content strategists work within different conditions. Our typical situation looks something like the picture below:

Rhetorical situation in the 21st century

There are some obvious differences between the two illustrations: number of players, makeup of the audience, distance between rhetor and audience, reach and speed of the communication, technology and medium, etc.

But as the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Both situations have a rhetor, an audience, exigencies, and constraints. Both rhetors use what’s known about the audience to craft persuasive content in an attempt to influence behavior and achieve goals.

Out of the Ivory Tower

At this point, at least some of you reading this are thinking, “This is just an academic way of describing what content strategists—and many other communications professionals—do every day. We think about business goals, study target audiences, consider myriad internal and external factors, and strive to craft content that works in a given situation. We do this all the time, day in and day out.”

Exactly. Content strategy isn’t so young after all; it’s built on centuries-old theories about fundamental elements of human communication. That’s useful to today’s content strategists in a number of ways.

For starters, there’s a lot to learn from rhetoric. For example, using logos (logic and reason), ethos (credibility and reputation), and pathos (emotion) as means of persuasion4.

In addition, there’s something powerful and incisive about approaching content strategy work with a rhetorical mindset. It helps cut through the circumstantial to get at more fundamental elements of human communication. Shifting organizational politics, rival projects, new media, limiting tools, incompatible technologies, style choices, fleeting trends, noisy competition, tapped-out resources —these circumstances surround CS projects and bombard the people who work on them. These things are often noisy and demand a lot of attention.

But at the core of content work, a few fundamentals remain: rhetor, audience, exigencies, and constraints. Sharpening the focus on these fundamentals can be very useful when working on a project. This is not to say that the circumstances listed in the above paragraph are unimportant or shouldn’t be addressed; they are real and often must be addressed. But refocusing on the fundamentals of the rhetorical situation tackles the core of the issue and moves the circumstances to the periphery.

This is useful when conversations about an organization’s content get mired in whatever circumstances have recently flared up:

  • “We don’t really know what the audience needs or wants, so let’s just put everything on the site and see what sticks.”
  • “eBooks are hot, we need to publish one.”
  • “The sales team wants to run promotions for the new product suite inside the Help content.”

Looking at the rhetorical situation in each of these cases can provide a useful framework for combatting crazy ideas while simultaneously elevating the good ones. And then help us craft those good ideas into content strategies that are as effective as they can be.

You all look great (for your age)

Content strategy, as we know and describe it today, is changing fast—as demand grows, as media and devices are invented and reinvented, and as the ways people engage content evolve. All this shifting can sometimes make content strategy feel like trying to build a house on sand piles. In the face of that, it’s useful, even reassuring, to remember that this is still human communication, and that there are centuries-old models to describe and think about that endeavor. They still apply today, even if they go by different names.


1 Merriam Webster Dictionary

2 Hauser, Gerard. Introduction to Rhetoric. 1986. Page 45.

3 Others have pointed this out, including Colleen Jones in Clout and Erin Kissane in The Elements of Content Strategy. As well as James Mathewson.

4 By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend throwing these terms around while in a meeting with clients, stakeholders, or project teams. Words like “exigence” aren’t likely to persuade those audiences.

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Posted in Content Strategy

When You Know Your Content Is Bad

by Tenessa Gemelke on May 3rd, 2012

Time and again, we meet people who hang their heads in shame, remorsefully confiding, “I don’t even want you to look at our website.” It’s usually whispered like a guilty confession, as if this one delinquent person is solely responsible for letting down the entire Internet.

Whether you’re in a decision-making position or not, it can be difficult to figure out how to use your powers for good to defeat bad content. Fear not! If you’ve been quietly suffering the knowledge—nay, the CERTAINTY—that your content stinks, here are a few ways to take steps in the right direction.

Quantify “bad”

The danger of writing off a website as “bad” is that making such blanket statements can obscure opportunities. That’s the kind of thinking that results in waiting for the next redesign—which, by the way, has no budget, is not currently on the schedule, and may or may not happen in the next three years. Many of us know from experience that there’s nothing sadder than neglecting your content indefinitely.

Rather than throwing up your hands in despair, see if you can get a handle on the badness:

  • Is all of the content bad, or just some of it? It’s possible that your generalized concern is actually reflected only in a few high-profile areas of the site, such as the help content or the product descriptions in the store. Conducting a qualitative content audit can help you document and narrow in on the biggest problem areas.
  • What are the consequences? Low quality is one thing, but awful user experience spells even more trouble. Take a close look at unclear calls to action, broken purchase paths, and other flawed conversion activities. Be sure you understand how the user’s dissatisfaction relates to your business model.
  • Is it really the content that’s bad? Once you start evaluating the situation, you may discover other problems. Determine whether content is the culprit. Poor functionality or design can cause frustration or distract attention from important content. Try to pinpoint exactly which things aren’t working.

Once you have a good handle on the problems, it’s much easier to convince others to invest in efforts to fix your content.

Make way for better content

As content creation moves forward, find ways to avoid the mistakes of the past. Rally your team to take better care of your content:

  • Clean out the fridge. When people report that their content has gone “bad,” they often mean that—like a forgotten carton of milk—some of it has passed its expiration date. Out-of-date, inaccurate, or irrelevant leftovers languish, unwanted and moldy, enticing nobody. Clear out all of that yucky stuff nobody should be consuming.
  • Step up your style. Sure, your style guide covers the use of trademarks, but does it truly help content creators write well? Rather than simply addressing grammatical rules, develop nuanced style guidelines to describe your company’s voice and tone. Use “less like” and “more like” examples to demonstrate exactly what you want to avoid and achieve.
  • Rethink your roles. Maybe everyone on your team has the best intentions, but it’s not clear who is doing what, or how their tasks fit together. Fill in any gaps in your workflow that contribute to the problems you’ve identified.
  • Allow time for success. High-quality content almost never happens in an accidental rush. Plan for a manageable quantity, and put it on a schedule. Adhere to an editorial calendar that reflects what you’re actually capable of accomplishing rather than a reactive, haphazard plan that sets you up to fail.

So. You’ve figured out what’s wrong, and you’ve figured out what’s right. But there’s one more thing you need to recognize if you’re truly going to reform your wayward content …

Canary on stretcher

Unfortunately, this canary didn’t make it out of the content coal mine.

Image courtesy of erozen

Bravely shut things down

Now is the part where I say that thing you quietly know in your heart of hearts: Not every problem is worth fixing. (Forgive me while I pause for emphasis and resort to all caps.) NOT EVERY PROBLEM IS WORTH FIXING. Go ahead. Print that out and stick it up on your cubicle wall. It’s true that there may be portions of your content that simply need to disappear quietly.

Nobody wants to believe they’ve been working hard on the wrong thing. But the fact is, some content efforts are so time-consuming, costly, and fruitless that there’s no point in continuing them. Maybe it’s an abandoned forum or a newsletter that generates little or no response. Whatever the case, you may need to be the person who says, “Hey, guys? The canary doesn’t look so good.”

Make a new life for yourself

You may identify yourself as someone who has criminally neglected your content, but please accept our forgiveness. You can put the past behind you. You’ve seen the error of your ways. You’ve paid your penance. You’ve turned over a new leaf!

But if you have trouble escaping your life of content crime? Call us. We can help.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Should You Complement Your Intranet With Knowledge From Employees?

by Meghan Casey on April 26th, 2012

Employee intranets have traditionally been owned and managed by technology, communications, or human resources. Today, there’s a trend toward employee intranets being owned by teams responsible for internal knowledge sharing or knowledge management.

That makes a lot of sense, but it also can cause confusion. Words like “knowledge,” “knowledge sharing,” and “content” mean different things to different people. Often, the problem is that people are trying to draw a line between knowledge and content.

That conversation goes everywhere, and then, ultimately, nowhere. Why? Because content and knowledge are not comparable terms. It’s like trying to compare an apple to helium. So, where do we begin?

First, let’s define some things

All too often, we assume people know what we mean when we use certain terms. And that can get us into trouble. So, let me define what I mean when I use the terms knowledge, knowledge sharing, and content.

Knowledge is the state of knowing something. As in:

Meghan knows a lot about "The Outsiders"

Knowledge sharing refers to the act of sharing something you know with others. It happens many ways—hallway conversations, on-the-job training, seminars, etc. Sometimes it’s enabled by technology, like this:

Meghan transfers knowledge to Sean

Content is the documentation of knowledge. It is one way in which knowledge can be tangibly shared or transferred. For example:

Sean's mind is blown by Meghan's knowledge

Enough about The Outsiders. Let’s talk intranets.

The goal of most employee intranets is to transfer knowledge from the business to its employees. That happens with business-to-employee content. Sorta like this:

Employee booking corporate travel

More and more, companies are realizing the importance of enabling employees to share knowledge with each other. That employee-to-employee content can add credibility to business-to-employee content by adding context. It can also provide business benefits, like:

  • Saving human and financial resources, because employees and teams aren’t constantly “reinventing the wheel”
  • Encouraging conversations that lead to new ways of thinking and ideas that influence profitability
  • Supporting employees’ ability to collaborate with each other and draw on each other’s missteps and successes

Intranet content folks typically are responsible for the business-to-employee content on the intranet. That’s why they are the perfect people to take on the strategic integration of existing business-to-employee content with the employee-to-employee content that may exist, or could be identified and curated, throughout the company.

OK, one last example building on the scenario above:

Employee knowledge sharing intranet example

You don’t have to own it all or do it all at once

The task of integrating business-to-employee content with employee-to-employee content might seem pretty daunting, like most every content project. But, also like most every content project, getting people to collaborate and breaking the work into manageable pieces can help.

Ready to get started?

Here are a few possible first steps:

  • Determine which topics covered on your intranet could be bolstered with a perspective from employees
  • Work with your colleagues around the organization to find out who has knowledge and experience related to those topics
  • Pick a couple topics to start with and interview the employees you identified to find out how their knowledge might translate to content
  • Put some ideas together in the form of outlines or sketches and shop them around

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Posted in Content Strategy

Auditing Big Sites Doesn’t Have to Be Taxing

by Christine Anameier on April 19th, 2012

Now that U.S. tax day has come and gone, we can focus our attention on big audits.

Oh wait, not that kind of audit. We’re talking about a qualitative content assessment—the process of analyzing the quality and effectiveness of your website content. This kind of audit can help you make a business case for just about any web project. (And it has nothing to do with the IRS.)

At Brain Traffic, people often ask how we audit big websites—really big websites (anything from 20,000 to millions of pages). Truth be told, auditing these colossal sites is no small feat, but it can be done, and fairly quickly at that. Ready to go?

On your mark …

Before you start any audit—but especially a big site audit—you need to take some time to think through a few things:

  • Define your goals. Think about what you want to accomplish when auditing a big site. You can’t get a complete picture of your million-page site, but you can evaluate the quality of your content overall or within specific sections. You can identify areas for improvement. Or prioritize content projects. Or find content successes that you can build on. It all depends on your business goals.
  • Confirm team size. For a big audit, you’ll probably want help (unless you’re looking for a one-way ticket to Insanityville). Identify who’s available to spend some good chunks of time auditing and find out how much time they have. For maximum efficiency, you’ll want to have people do substantial bursts of auditing—not reviewing a page here and there between other tasks. Ideally, aim to have one audit lead who’ll run things and enough auditors to tackle your audit sample in a reasonable amount of time. We usually estimate that an auditor can handle 5-7 pages an hour. So, for example, if you want to review 5,000 pages, you’ll need six people working full time to get the audit done in a month. Don’t have that many resources? Have more time? Adjust the amount of content or team size accordingly.
  • Think strategically about sampling. Since you can’t look at every page of a big site, you’ll need to choose a sample—a small segment of your content to review. Do you want to look at a specific subset of your content in detail? Or grab a representative sample across the site and extrapolate your findings? Either way, it’s generally best to look at a good cross-section of site “levels”—dig deep, don’t just look at the polished, high-profile top layers. (How large should the sample be? It depends.)
  • Choose your criteria. You’ll also need to decide what aspects of content quality you want to measure. Often we’ll do a mix of web best practices and qualities that are specific to an organization’s unique goals. Is the content readable? Usable? Does it express your brand as you’ve defined it? Is the content appropriate for your primary audience? Distill these ideas into a set of four or five concrete audit factors. Don’t go overboard: eight audit factors times 5,000 pages equals an overwhelmed audit team.

Get set …

Once you’ve answered the big “how, what, and why” questions, it’s time to prepare for the audit logistically.

  • Create a “criteria sheet.” With many auditors on the same project, you need to create a clear, consistent set of criteria they can all share. Set up a criteria reference sheet that lists your audit factors, the rating scale, and some concrete things to look for to arrive at ratings. Have your team keep a copy in sight at all times. It keeps people aligned on standards and helps stave off “audit drift,” where people’s interpretation of audit factors starts to blur over time. (No, it’s not just you—that happens to everybody.)
  • Divide up the work. At some point, you’ll need to decide exactly which pages or pieces of content each member of your team will review. You can do that up front by creating a content inventory that details every page to review, and distributing sections of the inventory to the team. Or you may want to just assign high-level sections and then have individual auditors select pages on the fly within those sections. The upfront method can be speedier, but you may get better results when auditors who are immersed in the content decide which pages are most useful to evaluate.
  • Split the spreadsheets. For most audits, you need to create a spreadsheet to record your results (see picture below). For a big audit, it’ll be especially important to keep things organized. When you have several people working in one file, it’s all too easy to overwrite someone’s work, forget who’s doing what, or wind up with multiple document versions that are hard to consolidate. To avoid confusion, break off individual worksheets for your auditors.

Audit spreadsheet example


And, then the fun begins.

  • Kickoff. Sit down with your team. Outline the expectations—the timeline, how many pages each person will handle, who’s doing what, and the goals. Share any useful background information. Hand out the criteria sheet and go over it in detail. Ask them to voice any questions. There will be questions, and you want to iron out the wrinkles as early as possible—not when you’re three weeks in.
  • Workshop with the team. This is critical for getting everyone aligned. Getting half a dozen people to be consistent with each other—and with themselves, over the course of a month or six weeks—takes ongoing effort. Start off with an early workshop or two where you have people bring in their ratings and compare notes. Or put a page up on the projector and let them have at it en masse. Encourage your auditors to work side-by-side for a while and talk about what they’re finding.
  • Pull it all together. Collect the worksheets and combine them into one master spreadsheet so you can crunch the numbers and discover trends. Ask your team for notes or summaries and meet with them to discuss the patterns they saw in the content.
  • Get the word out. To share your results with others in your organization, put together a report or presentation that covers the most important things you discovered. Identify the biggest content problems—and think about ways they can be addressed. (We usually try to prioritize them to some degree based on how severe a problem is and how easy or difficult it is to address it.) Show examples. And don’t forget to note the content’s strengths as well, so that you can build on them in your future content efforts.

Making improvements to a huge body of content can be a daunting process. Even assessing the current state of the content is no small task. But with good planning and a solid process, you can break it down into manageable pieces and get the solid data you need to get the ball rolling.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Show Me the Content Strategy!

by Julie Vollenweider on April 12th, 2012

Hi, Brain Traffic. Before we continue, can you send me an example content strategy?

It’s quite common for me to hear this question during preliminary conversations for project work. Despite being a regular request, it’s not an easy one to answer, for three main reasons:

  • Differences in vocabulary (how you define certain terms)
  • Specifics unique to your needs and project
  • Key drivers for why you want to see a sample

Content strategy document samples

With content strategy, there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach.

Although this is a complex question to address, it’s not impossible. Here’s how it breaks down …


As an emerging discipline, “content strategy” can mean different things to different people. At Brain Traffic, our view of content strategy includes four main components—substance, structure, workflow, and governance. We call it the quad.

However, not everyone thinks about content strategy in these terms. For example, to some, content strategy means editorial components like an editorial calendar or a content style guide. To others, content strategy means cataloguing and organizing content. And the list goes on …

That’s why before sharing samples, it’s important to align expectations for content strategy, including:

  • What comprises your definition?
  • What’s your ideal approach? (If you don’t know, here’s our suggested methodology.)
  • What are your desired deliverables and outcomes?


In addition to differences in content strategy vocabulary, your content needs, opportunities, circumstances, and resources are unique—every content strategy project is different.

Because we embrace each project’s unique attributes, our work at Brain Traffic is highly customized. That’s why our work doesn’t yield a “standard” content strategy deliverable that can easily translate as a sample. What we created for Client X isn’t necessarily going to be a meaningful illustration of how we can help you with your content.

So, the next step in our conversation is to talk about your unique situation, including:

  • A brief description of your proposed content strategy project
  • What you hope content strategy will achieve for your organization
  • Timing and budget requirements


Finally, it’s important to get a sense for why you are asking to see an example content strategy. Do you need to:

  • Prove to your organization that you need content strategy?
  • Vet our experience solving issues or uncovering opportunities similar to yours?
  • See the level of detail we’ll include in our deliverable(s)?

The driver for your request may be more effectively demonstrated with a customized presentation of Brain Traffic’s capabilities and methodology, relevant case studies of our previous work, a conversation with one of our current clients, annotated excerpts from a related deliverable, a combination of all the previous items, or something else entirely.

The moral of the story is that we’d love to help you out! In order to do that most successfully, we’ll need to have an exploratory conversation to confirm your request, get a sense for your potential project, and understand how we can get you the most important information.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Style Guide Pep Talk: Rah! Rah! Rah!

by Angie Halama on April 5th, 2012

Finally! I just published the latest updates to the internal Brain Traffic editorial style guide—and it took nearly five whole months. Gasp! I’m a content professional! You’d think maintaining a set of guidelines about stuff like grammar and word choice would be at the top of the fun list for a word nerd like me.

But, it’s not.

Like most people responsible for a style guide, I find making updates seems to be a task always languishing at the bottom of my to-do list. After all, updates are rarely urgent. And collecting all those changes, deciding which ones to make … it all seems so exhausting.

Still, a useful style guide is an updated style guide. And, organizations need useful style guides. So, here, especially for you (and a little bit for me), is a pep talk about keeping your style guide in tip-top shape.

Got spirit?

See what can happen when you don’t use a style guide?

(Image courtesy of Above the Law)

Why style guides are awesome

An editorial style guide provides standards for written content, typically on items such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Before we begin, we must first acknowledge the power of a good style guide:

  • It’s key to editorial consistency across your organization’s content (along with a good editor, copyeditor, and/or proofreader who enforces it).
  • It saves you from deciding style items on the fly. So when conversations flare-up over whether “email” should have a hyphen, you can simply respond, “Our style guide says no hyphen.” End of discussion. (Or, suggest dissenters submit a proposed change for the next style guide update—more on that later.)
  • It’s essential in helping new writers and content creators get familiar with your organization’s writing style. For the same reason, freelancers and contractors will adore you—we’re talking putting your picture up in their locker—for having an updated style guide.

What to put in your style guide

The first step to defining your internal, or “house,” style guide, is to choose your preferred external style source. This is going to answer the bulk of your users’ style questions. Old favorites are The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. However, we use the incredible and amazing Yahoo! Style Guide. It’s specifically written for digital communications and includes great info like writing clear user-interface text and coding basics.

With your external style guide defined, your house style guide only needs to cover:

  • Style preferences that differ from the external style guide
    • Example: “Internet” has an initial cap per the Yahoo! Style Guide, but our house style uses “internet.”
  • Style items or topics that aren’t covered in the external style guide
    • Example: The Yahoo! Style Guide doesn’t include a preferred spelling for “wireframes,” so we’ve defined it as one word.
  • Items that people ask about frequently or often get tripped up by (meaning, it’s a frequent question or issue for more than just one person)
    • Example: We just added an entry on when to hyphenate a compound modifier.
    • Note: You don’t need to fully define these rules if they're explained well elsewhere. Our guide has some brief rules on hyphenating compound modifiers and then a link to an external site with more in-depth guidelines.

Consider adding these “guiding criteria” to your style guide so everyone understands what’s included in the guide. These criteria are essential to helping you evaluate proposed changes and updates.

You’ll also want to define clear sections of the style guide for different types of information. Common divisions include:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Terms (preferred spellings and usages)
  • Numbers
  • Capitalization

Other topics you could include:

  • Trademarks, and when to use them
  • Tone and voice guidelines
  • Web-specific items (for example, how to indicate a required field on a form)

To keep your style guide as simple as possible (both for users to use and you to update), only include topics or sections that your users really need. Think “need to have,” not “nice to have.”

Define the updating process

Here’s the first rule of updating your style guide: Do it as little as possible. Yep, I’m serious. It can be a lot of work. Besides, frequent updates can be hard for users to keep up with. At Brain Traffic, we aim for once a year.

Next, you need a style guide committee who will decide on changes and updates. Everyone on our style guide committee loves words, writing, and appreciates a good style rule—which makes them perfect. That said, keep your committee small, maybe five people at the most. Because wrangling lots of opinions about lots of changes is, well, an awful lot.

It’s also important to create an easy process for users to submit proposed changes. Our style guide is a wiki, so users can post their comments/questions/challenges in the document. At the start of an update cycle, I put these in a spreadsheet along with any other changes I’ve been collecting. Whatever your method, make sure your users know how to submit a proposed change—this can go directly in your style guide, too.

After you’ve collected these changes, get the committee together to decide what changes to make. There will be lots of opinions, and even lively discussions. But remember this:

  • Use your “guiding criteria” to evaluate every proposed change.
  • Consider the impact of the change. If you add a hyphen to “email,” how often does it already show up in your content hyphen-less? How much work will it be to change this across your organization and your communication channels—and is it worth it?

Announce the style guide changes to your users after you’ve updated the guide. This is essential. How will they know “e-mail” now has a hyphen if you don’t tell them?

The Keeper of the Style Guide

To keep the process running smoothly, you need one lucky soul to be the Keeper of the Style Guide. This person is in charge of everything:

  • Getting the update cycle started
  • Collecting the changes and getting the committee to discuss and decide on them
  • Making the actual changes to the style guide—or making sure the changes are made
  • Communicating the changes to all of your style guide users

Remember, the Keeper of the Style Guide gets to wield the Power of Style over a multitude of users. Exciting, yes? So: Go! Fight! Win! Let the style-guide updating begin!

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Posted in Web Writing

An Intro to Metadata and Taxonomies

by Christine Benson on March 29th, 2012

As the structured/adaptive content conversation progresses, metadata and taxonomies will also become more and more important. To participate in the conversation, you don’t need to know everything—but you do need to understand the essential foundations so you can ask the right questions.

For the record, I’m no expert. At the end of the post, I’ve listed a series of resources from some super-smart people who are.

The goal of this post is to provide an introduction to the concepts, so you can get a general understanding and feel comfortable digging into more information.

Now, this conversation gets big in a hurry—but don’t be intimidated. These terms have been around much longer than the Web, and can be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In the hopes of making this post a bit more approachable, I’m going to fast-forward through the structured content conversation with the diagram below.

Structured content graphic

Simple enough, right? I’ll be skipping past why and how to break your content up into components, and instead focus on how metadata and taxonomies get applied to content components.

Metadata first

The information provided in metadata makes the content findable and understandable to either a human or a computer. There are lots of definitions out there, but when it comes to metadata, I look to Rachel Lovinger, the metadata guru. She defines metadata as “information about the content that provides structure, context, and meaning.”

There are three main types of metadata:

  • Structural: Defines the metadata elements that need to be collected; labels like title, author, date created, subject, purpose, etc. Defining these structural elements is typically based on a mix of organizational and system needs, along with standard schemas like Dublin Core.
  • Administrative: Often created automatically when content is entered into the CMS, these values are used to manage the content. Administrative metadata includes things like date created or author. They can sometimes include sub-elements about rights-management or preservation.
  • Descriptive: These values describe aspects specific to each content component, like title, subject, audience, and/or purpose.

Some of each of the three types of metadata is likely to be used on a typical piece of content, but how and when they get defined is very different. The structural metadata gets identified as part of your system requirements. Administrative and descriptive metadata are identified during the creation or curation of specific content. If you think of it like a form, the structural metadata supports which information needs to be collected (fields on the page), and the descriptive and administrative metadata provide the values for those form fields.

Here’s how they work together:

Metadata example

Taxonomy, shmaxonomy

The term taxonomy gets applied across a range of contexts. In the biology world, it means grouping organisms into hierarchical groups (e.g., kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species).

The web/digital world typically applies it to any kind of structure that organizes information. Information science people sometimes say “controlled vocabularies” instead of taxonomies. Regardless of the term, the underlying goals are to create some level of consistency and control over the information used to describe a content component, and clarify relationships between them.

Common types include:

  • Term list: A standardized list of terms created to insure consistent tagging and indexing. Think of it as a list of “preferred language.” Term lists typically provide a series of metadata values to pick from for elements like format or content type.
  • Hierarchies: Often called a “taxonomy,” a hierarchy defines the structural framework used to classify terms into parent/child or broad-to-narrow relationships. Hierarchies are specifically used to support layered groups of information and not simply for the convenience of creating groupings—although each level of a hierarchy is commonly referred to as a “category.”
  • Thesauri: A thesaurus translates conceptual relationships between the content, often made naturally by humans, into something a computer can understand. Thesauri typically address three types of relationships: equivalent (synonyms), hierarchical (broad-to-narrow terms), and/or associative (related terms).

Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah

At its simplest, a taxonomy organizes information, and metadata describes it. For the taxonomy to be able to organize the information, terms need to be stored as metadata. It all works together to make the content findable, recognizable, and useful.

An example:

Metadata and taxonomy example

Not every site needs every one of these things, but this diagram illustrates how these elements can feed into each other and how they help display content to the user.

What’s next?

Admittedly, I’ve over-simplified these concepts to make them easier to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about metadata, taxonomies, and structured content, there’s no end to the list of resources out there.

Here are a few to get you started:

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Posted in Web Content

No-pout Routes: Ways to Do Content Strategy on a Budget

by Melissa Rach on March 22nd, 2012

Maybe you’re a small organization. Or maybe you’re trying to introduce content strategy to a large one. Either way, getting the budget for a full-fledged content strategy can be a challenge. But never fear, just because you don’t have a lot of budget doesn’t mean you have to stand around looking like our friend, Eel Poutface.

Eel poutface

You can make a lot of progress by starting slow and getting a few quick wins. Here are a few ways Brain Traffic helps clients with limited budgets get some content strategy satisfaction.

Audits & diagnostics

It’s often said, “knowing is half the battle.” Audits and diagnostics are the quickest way to get to know your content and content processes inside out. During these projects, you take a thorough look at your content and/or content processes, in order to:

  • Understand the scale and scope of your content or resource expenditures
  • Identify risks and opportunities
  • Make the business case for further content strategy work
  • Prioritize future content projects

When you’re done with audit and diagnostic work, you’ll be able to back up your opinions about content with real examples and stats. Persuasive tangible data, like this:

Content audit graphic

There are a wide variety of ways you can do audit and diagnostic projects, but the two most popular requests we receive are:

  • Qualitative content audit—A content audit (sometimes called an inventory) is a traditional way to kick off content strategy efforts. During an audit, you’ll go through your content, piece-by-piece, with a fine-tooth comb. A qualitative assessment is an audit that helps you understand the quality of the content you have. You can measure your content against industry best practices, competitive benchmarks, strategic business objectives, or all of the above. You can look at all of your content or just do a sample. At the end of the audit, you’ll have a thorough understanding of what content you have and what state it’s in.
  • Content organization diagnostic evaluation (CODE)—You’re probably familiar with financial auditors who review a business’ financial processes and records. A CODE works the same way, but it’s focused on content and has no threat of reporting you to the IRS. In fact, it’s not scary at all. Basically, a third-party content expert (or team of experts) takes a good, hard look at your content ecosystem—they examine your content, your content workflow, the user’s needs, competitive strategies, industry trends, and more. Whether you do a comprehensive CODE (which takes several weeks) or an accelerated workshop version, you’ll wind up with a better understanding of your pain points—what causes them and how to eliminate them. And, you’ll likely discover new areas of competitive advantage to boot. Bonus!

Quick-start strategies

If content strategy is new to your organization, another terrific option is to start with a small, contained content strategy project. That way you can:

  • Introduce your organization to content strategy concepts
  • Get measurement data to prove your case
  • Show concrete results—with your own content

If your project goes well, you can share the results with anyone and everyone. It’s much easier to get a bigger budget next time, when you can prove past victories—no matter how small. Again, here are a few of the most popular budget-friendly services Brain Traffic offers:

  • Strategy sprint—A strategy sprint is a two-day, facilitated workshop where you, your key content stakeholders, and Brain Traffic team members sit in a room and go through the content strategy process at a super-human pace. (Think Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, without Ty Pennington or his megaphone.) At the end, you get a preliminary content strategy (accompanied by a long list of assumptions and to-dos). If you’re a medium or large organization, a sprint can be a perfect way to jumpstart a larger conversation about content strategy. If you are a small organization OR have a really small project, you can take the strategy and run with it.
  • Strategy pilot—You can also do a full-scale content strategy for a small segment of your content. In her blog post, “The Inside Job,” Brain Traffic’s Christine Benson advises: “Find low visibility content with high potential. People often have strong opinions about the home page and main section pages. These content hot spots can be difficult starting points until you have some success stories to back you up. Look for things that have high potential for customer engagement, but usually get ignored. Support content like help sections, customer service pages, or error messages are good candidates.”

Awareness initiatives

If you have absolutely no budget for content projects right now, don’t be discouraged. No matter what, keep building your case for content strategy, slowly but surely.

Keep engaging your colleagues in content strategy conversations:

  • Do brown bag lunches to discuss what content strategy is, and how it could help your organization
  • Forward relevant blog posts or pass around your copy of Content Strategy for the Web
  • Or, contact us to have a Brain Traffic strategist do an hour-long webinar about content strategy for your team

And, get involved with the content strategy community:

Keep at it, and be patient. It’ll be worth it.

OR, you could just pout it out

Of course, if you’d rather not take any action AT ALL, you can try to pout it out. At Brain Traffic, we don’t have any experience with that method, but who knows, it might work. Maybe the people at the Eelpout Festival can give you some pointers.

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Posted in Content Strategy

The Early Signs of Future Content Strategists

by Emily Folstad on March 15th, 2012

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.

Picture of Julie V.

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.

Snow Owl Safari Card

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 and her art supplies

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 meets Darth Vader

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.

Tough negotiators

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.”

Picture of Emily F.

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.

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Posted in Brain Traffic

Workflow That Works

by Christine Benson on March 6th, 2012

How many great ideas never get implemented or maintained because nobody ever bothered to figure out who would do the work? Or work was assigned to someone, but no one ever looked at the tasks that person was already doing?

Out of the four components of content strategy, substance and structure seem to grab the majority of the conversation. Known as the “content” components, they define what kinds of content are needed and how to prioritize and organize them.

But if content is a business asset, then workflow is what brings that asset to market. Imagine launching a new product without considering the cost of production, manufacturing resources, quality control, distribution, etc. Unfortunately, many organizations design websites and communication plans without considering the resources necessary to support them.

Now, I’m not trying to crush anyone’s dreams. I’m all for vision and aspirations. But you need to create a real plan for how you’re going to get there. Here are a couple of places to start.

There’s more work than you think

A friend of mine used to say, “Everyone’s the star of their own movie.” I have witnessed this to be true 95% of the time for anyone dedicated to a project. Since it’s their main focus, it’s hard to remember that it may not be everyone else’s.

It’s easy to underestimate how many other things people have to do, and the toll that takes on getting things done. Here’s a simple tool for getting to the bottom of how someone’s time is actually being spent.

Write down EVERYTHING you’re responsible for getting done in an average week. Assign percentages to those tasks. You only get 100%.

Workflow piechart

Once you have those percentages, map them to hours. As a default, use 40 hours.


Creating/editing content 55% 22
Project meetings 10% 8
Submitting requests 5% 2
Reviewing content 8% 3+
Communication plans 2% <1
Reviewing requests 5% 2
Random requests 5% 2
Personal development 5% 2
Non-content organizational needs 5% 2


This chart shows how much time a person actually has. It facilitates conversations about what tasks might need to shift or go away to get something done. Sure, a request for a single page may not take that long. But it’s essential to understand how that request fits into the overall process and flow of tasks for all the people involved.

Take writing, for example

Often, time estimated for writers is relative to the time given to the designers. Here’s the problem with that: designers create templates, writers create individual, specific pages. Certainly, it can take longer to get the visual design done and approved than it can to create a page of content. But one template might account for 300 pages. Make sure you’ve got an accurate page count before you fully commit to a schedule.

Next, you need to create an accurate, time-per-page estimate. Is the source content identified? Does the writer need to edit existing content or write from scratch? How familiar is she with the subject matter? Knowing the answers to these questions is critical to creating an accurate time-per-page estimate.

Once you’ve got a page count and determined the time needed to create a page, the estimating is easy:

Number of pages x Time to create a page = Total estimate

For example, let’s say 300 pages x 30 min. average per page = 150 hours. That’s almost a month of a single writer working full time, with no interruptions. That might work if your writer is a freelancer. But if they’re on staff, they probably have a few other things to take care of. Which leads me to my next point …

Of course, there’s more than writing

Oh, by the way, content isn’t done once it’s written. There are reviews. And revisions. And then more reviews. Reviews always take longer than people think. Determine who needs to look at the content—however many people that may be. Find out if one group needs to review and revise before it goes to another level, to avoid conflicting feedback (seriously, this happens ALL THE TIME).

After that, there’s publishing, QA, etc. I’m sure you get the point. Basically, it’s more math and accounting for ALL the steps. But don’t skip it. If you do, your schedule will quickly get off track.

Effective workflow = power to the people

Let’s face it. Estimating all of these tasks isn’t just about getting work done. There’s lots of work getting done every day without it. The goal of workflow is to get work done efficiently. (Read: get rid of “fire-drill” mode.) When one group skips planning, everyone else has to drop what they were doing to quickly complete the request.

By all means, there are circumstances important enough to the business that require everyone to drop what they’re doing and switch gears. But using this as the daily mode of operation makes people feel unappreciated and overworked. It also takes away the ability to efficiently balance the variety of tasks someone has to get done in a day.

It can all be avoided with a little planning up front. Take the time to communicate your needs and expectations. Your content will thank you for it.

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Posted in Content Strategy