Amanda Hackwith • 4 minutes
Kate Kiefer Lee is on the content and communications team at MailChimp and TinyLetter, and co-author of the book, Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose with Nicole Fenton.
We caught up with Kate to discuss voice and tone and her take on the relationship between marketing and content strategy.
Hey Kate! Thanks for sitting down with us! To start with, can you tell a little about what you’re working on right now?
I work on MailChimp’s content and communications. I’m on the marketing team, but I work across departments on our company’s public and internal communications. Right now, I’m working on a launch plan, rehauling our company style guide, and helping our product team review and revise all of the content in our app. I love working with designers and developers on stuff like that. I also help run TinyLetter, our personal email newsletter service.
How did you first get interested in content strategy and planning for the web?
I studied journalism and worked as an editor at a music and entertainment magazine for several years before leaving for MailChimp in 2010. My interest in copywriting and communications started with a few freelance projects I did on the side.
I use the same basic writing and editing skills as I did during my magazine days, but almost everything else is different. I love working in marketing and communications. I like thinking about strategy, tying content and communications back to business goals, and giving people the information they need. I also like the challenge of marketing in a way that’s honest and human. I work with some of the nicest and most creative people I’ve ever met.
We love hearing about early work! Do you remember one of your first published content projects that you were proud of?
I was MailChimp’s first writer, and I didn’t know where to begin. I started with a content audit because that seemed official-like. It took a few months, and I was so proud when I finished! But then I didn’t use it. Same thing with the first style guide I made for MailChimp: I spent a long time on it, had it beautifully designed, and then turned it into a PDF (I know, I know). It collected dust on my desktop until I made a style guide that people could actually use.
Now, I stop and ask myself some questions before I start a big project: Who is this for? How will it help? What’s the best way to deliver this information? Is this worth my time? And so on.
You recently wrote a book, Nicely Said, with Nicole Fenton. What’s one thing you hope others take away from reading it?
Nicole and I wrote the book we both wish we’d had early in our careers. There are lots of books about the art and practice of writing, but I always wanted a modern and useful guide to writing for the web. I hope the book empowers people to write with confidence. I hope it reminds writers to put themselves in their readers’ shoes. We also included a lot of tips and exercises to help people improve their writing right away.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for improving voice and tone in a company’s content?
One big challenge is when companies won’t devote resources to voice and tone work because the results are not measurable. You can’t measure things like happiness, loyalty, and confidence, but they have so much value.
Another challenge is when businesses choose quantity over quality when it comes to content. More isn’t always better. When writers are measured by the amount of posts they can crank out in a day, they don’t have time to refine their writing or stop and ask important questions like “Why does this matter?” and “What exactly do people need to know in this situation?”
There’s been a lot said about the differences between content strategy and content marketing in our industry, and we’ve seen the rise of ‘brand journalism,’ ‘brand newsrooms’ and the ilk. What’s your take on it?
I’ve never really understood the content strategy vs. content marketing debate. Content strategy is one thing and marketing is another. Of course there’s overlap, and both of them overlap with disciplines like web writing, editing, information architecture, communications, user experience design, brand strategy, and more. But marketing is not strategy; it needs a strategy.
As for brand journalism, I’m still not convinced those two words should be combined. The goals of journalism and marketing are different, the strategies are different, and the business models are different. Journalism-shaped marketing is still marketing. We can learn a lot from editorial writing, and journalists can bring so much to our industry (most of the writers on MailChimp’s marketing team have backgrounds in journalism!). Brands can do original content well, but I think we should call it what it is: marketing, PR, or advertising.
Advice time. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your younger self when it comes to your career in making things for the web?
Early in my career, I used to worry too much about the rules and the formality of writing. I wanted everything to be perfect, so I overwrote. I wish someone had said to me: “Don’t worry so much about the rules. Just say what you mean, and say it nicely.”
How can our readers hear more from you?
I love to hear from fellow writers! You can find me on Twitter (@katekiefer) or through my website.