GatherContent interview: Kristina Halvorson

GatherContent interview: Kristina Halvorson

4 minute read

GatherContent interview: Kristina Halvorson

4 minute read

Kristina Halvorson

CEO and Founder, Brain Traffic

GatherContent interview: Kristina Halvorson

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent
Kristina Halvorson is the CEO and founder of Brain Traffic, the coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, the founder of Confab Events, and the host of The Content Strategy Podcast. Kristina is a content strategy expert, leader and educator. I spoke to Kristina the current state of content strategy and content operations, common content challenges, working better together, the inaugural Button Conf and more.

What are your thoughts on the current state of play with content strategy? Are things more complex now compared to when you wrote Content Strategy for the Web?

I have turned myself inside out over this for years, because Content Strategy for the Web is about content for websites and the companies that make them. It was 2009, so things were more straightforward. I mean, don’t get me wrong—things were still extraordinarily complex, which is why everybody kept blowing off content, and of course this is still a problem. I don't want to underplay that at all. 

But. What we are seeing now is that a lot of the companies who are really leading the pack in content strategy, content design, and UX writing are organisations that were born over the last 10 to 15 years when the internet existed. Many of those organisations were like, "Right, okay, you’ve got to insert a content person as part of the early team.” Anna Pickard at Slack, Sarah Cancilla at Facebook and Amy Thibodeau at Shopify are classic examples of that. These are people who came in early, established the disciplines, the disciplines exploded and now it's just taken for granted within those organisations, that content is important.

Part of what is complicated now, is that we have a million other companies who either are under leadership who came up prior to the internet or who still believe that technology is going to fix everything, or they just see content as a thing that is an output, so what is the problem, put together the plan. Leadership is only having glimpses of, "Oh, this is all interconnected." 

With that in mind, how do you think content is developing with other disciplines?

I'm very interested in how the practice of content in all its different forms is evolving and how we are seeing just extreme and extraordinary specialisation throughout these different disciplines. What I'm seeing is that content practices or rules are falling into four areas of specialisation; content marketing, content in the user experience, which you can call content design, content engineering, and then content operations. And so I think that there are still content strategists out there, that are doing a little bit of all those things.

In terms of talking about it as content strategy, in my mind a content strategist is someone who understands and has an eye on how all those different pieces are playing together and is helping to prioritise initiatives and sets those guidelines and policies, and make sure that they are sort of followed. I would consider content strategy is still the through line between all of those things. 

Connecting all of these areas, skills, disciplines is a challenge, especially as for larger organisations. We’ve been talking more about content operations at GatherContent and really thinking about what that means in terms of  automation, systematising, scaling and ultimately, a unified experience.

That is something that I talk to clients about a lot right now, because what I am really digging into is how organisations who deliver really superior customer experience bring content into the mix. In the conversation on customer experience, we talk about the people component, we talk about product and service, we talk about technology, but no one has really focused on the role that content plays in a 360 degree customer experience. The conversation becomes grounded in operations and setting strategy. So I wonder if it's more that strategy is the guiding force and the through line, and that operations is the bedrock upon which it all sits.

When we first started to really talk about content operations a common response was, "so it's replacing content strategy." And we said, "No, you still need your strategy. You still need to know what you say and who to and where and how etc." We framed it as content strategy then content operations and then content delivery. But it's not always that linear and it's different for everybody.

Right. The reason it's so different is because organisations sit at different levels of the maturity model and it looks completely different in every single one of them. I like Rahel Bailie's maturity model of reactive, tactical, integrated, managed, strategic. You can't go from stage one (reactive) to stage five (strategic), with one platform or with one big hire of 20 people.

You have to step through each of the stages and it's painful and hard. It takes really solid leadership, and that’s lacking in a lot of organisations, especially from CMOs. Some of them get it and it's usually the organisations where a chief operating officer is able to take the organisation's customer centric values and really operationalise them. It's a rare thing.

Regardless of the size of the organisations you work with, is there a more common content challenge that comes up time and time again?

There is a challenge with getting at and identifying the core issues, really boiling down what the challenges are and then prioritising initiatives that build upon each other. Any content strategist will tell you horror stories about this, I will tell you this story.

I had a major telecom company call us to say, "Hey, we are in the process of starting to look at all of our web properties and we need to consolidate them and our leadership team wants to just hire the whole thing out to a design agency. We know that there is way more involved with content strategy, that we should be starting before we call in any outside partners. We'd like to hire you to do a massive audit of all these websites, we know we have at least 200,000 pages. Can you help us?" And I said, "Can I talk to you on the phone for half an hour?" And I got them on a video call and I said, "I want to show you something." And I pulled up a deck that the same company had sent to us eight years ago outlining exactly the same request.

And they almost wept, but I just said, "We have talked for years at Brain Traffic about the idea that creating a content audit can help build a business case, but leadership does not care about your content audit. They don't care about content strategy and you need to stop talking about content strategy to leadership, because they do not care." I said, "The only way that you are going to get their attention, is if you can align and give us some kind of a proposal, that is going to deliver bottom line results to an initiative that they are leading."

So I asked, "What is the number one thing right now that is on leadership's mind?" And they didn't even blink, they said, "Oh, it's offloading calls from the call center." And I was like, "You realise this is the dream case for any content strategists, trying to come up with numbers and demonstrate efficiencies and content?" And I said, "What you need to do, is you need to take your help center and film eight people trying to find stuff and take that to leadership. That is going to get you money for content strategy, but don't even say it. Just tell them we need to fix this content and we're going to need X number of dollars to do it and we've got the people internally to do it and here's how long it's going to take."

That is the number one thing I’ve started to tell people, "Do not say the words content strategy, if your organisation is at a level one or two on that maturity scale, don't even bother."

Do you have any advice on how people can work better together around shared goals for content?

I think everybody is looking for the magic bullet to break down silos. A great person to talk to about this as Amanda Costello, because Amanda Costello at the University of Minnesota, was able to get the word out about the kind of work that she was doing by having conversations with people. Literally, by taking them out to coffee or sitting down with them at their computers so they can talk her through some of their complications or challenges..

I wrote a post a little while ago around developing a community of practice throughout an organisation, where I had somebody tell me one time at Adobe, that they found out that there was a whole other team of content strategists that they didn't know existed, but they didn't do anything related to what they’re doing as a content strategist. It’s literally just ongoing networking and conversation and identifying shared goals and finding small ways in which you can collaborate or tell a different story or come up with a little pilot effort.

I recently talked to an organisation where three women who sit in completely different areas of the organisation somehow found each other and have been having happy hours. They did a half day working session in somebody's kitchen on a Saturday, to come up with a proposal for leadership, about how they can formalise a working relationship to develop and establish content standards across these three different business units. Nobody asked them to do that, they just did it, so that's the bottom-up way.

The top-down way is, you require a leader who sees how the different moving pieces connect, how and where the dots should connect and start to, because moving people around rarely works. I mean, large organisations are constantly reorganising, that's not the problem. The problem is that they don't have any routines or rituals in which people are continually getting together to share knowledge, share best practices, set priorities, brush aside the croft and move forward together.

It's sort of forehead slapping and simple, but you know what's hard? Is that it always, always, always is going to require leadership sign off.

Something different now. The first ever Button Conference is happening this October online everywhere. What's the event about?

We’re so excited about the first-ever Button! The program will focus on product content strategy, content design, and UX writing—so it’ll be a much more specialised event than Confab, which is really all about the wider world of content strategy.

Why is now the right time to start a conference with this focus?

The team at Brain Traffic participates in various content-focused communities both on- and offline, and in those conversations (as well as in requests from Confab attendees) we’ve really seen that people are hungry for thought leadership in this field of practice. There’s a lot of great writing out there, the Content + UX Slack workspace, scattered podcasts, and so on, but there really hasn’t been a place for folks to gather in person to share war stories and best practices. 

For those looking to submit talk proposals at future events, what makes a good conference talk proposal?

Far and away the best talk proposals we see are very specific, whether the topic is higher-level strategy or very tactical, front-lines stuff. We want to know why this talk matters, what the concrete takeaways will be, and whether the talk is appropriate for our specific audience. A little humor always helps. And whatever you do, do not include the phrase “content is king.” 

What are your thoughts on the current state of play with content strategy? Are things more complex now compared to when you wrote Content Strategy for the Web?

I have turned myself inside out over this for years, because Content Strategy for the Web is about content for websites and the companies that make them. It was 2009, so things were more straightforward. I mean, don’t get me wrong—things were still extraordinarily complex, which is why everybody kept blowing off content, and of course this is still a problem. I don't want to underplay that at all. 

But. What we are seeing now is that a lot of the companies who are really leading the pack in content strategy, content design, and UX writing are organisations that were born over the last 10 to 15 years when the internet existed. Many of those organisations were like, "Right, okay, you’ve got to insert a content person as part of the early team.” Anna Pickard at Slack, Sarah Cancilla at Facebook and Amy Thibodeau at Shopify are classic examples of that. These are people who came in early, established the disciplines, the disciplines exploded and now it's just taken for granted within those organisations, that content is important.

Part of what is complicated now, is that we have a million other companies who either are under leadership who came up prior to the internet or who still believe that technology is going to fix everything, or they just see content as a thing that is an output, so what is the problem, put together the plan. Leadership is only having glimpses of, "Oh, this is all interconnected." 

With that in mind, how do you think content is developing with other disciplines?

I'm very interested in how the practice of content in all its different forms is evolving and how we are seeing just extreme and extraordinary specialisation throughout these different disciplines. What I'm seeing is that content practices or rules are falling into four areas of specialisation; content marketing, content in the user experience, which you can call content design, content engineering, and then content operations. And so I think that there are still content strategists out there, that are doing a little bit of all those things.

In terms of talking about it as content strategy, in my mind a content strategist is someone who understands and has an eye on how all those different pieces are playing together and is helping to prioritise initiatives and sets those guidelines and policies, and make sure that they are sort of followed. I would consider content strategy is still the through line between all of those things. 

Connecting all of these areas, skills, disciplines is a challenge, especially as for larger organisations. We’ve been talking more about content operations at GatherContent and really thinking about what that means in terms of  automation, systematising, scaling and ultimately, a unified experience.

That is something that I talk to clients about a lot right now, because what I am really digging into is how organisations who deliver really superior customer experience bring content into the mix. In the conversation on customer experience, we talk about the people component, we talk about product and service, we talk about technology, but no one has really focused on the role that content plays in a 360 degree customer experience. The conversation becomes grounded in operations and setting strategy. So I wonder if it's more that strategy is the guiding force and the through line, and that operations is the bedrock upon which it all sits.

When we first started to really talk about content operations a common response was, "so it's replacing content strategy." And we said, "No, you still need your strategy. You still need to know what you say and who to and where and how etc." We framed it as content strategy then content operations and then content delivery. But it's not always that linear and it's different for everybody.

Right. The reason it's so different is because organisations sit at different levels of the maturity model and it looks completely different in every single one of them. I like Rahel Bailie's maturity model of reactive, tactical, integrated, managed, strategic. You can't go from stage one (reactive) to stage five (strategic), with one platform or with one big hire of 20 people.

You have to step through each of the stages and it's painful and hard. It takes really solid leadership, and that’s lacking in a lot of organisations, especially from CMOs. Some of them get it and it's usually the organisations where a chief operating officer is able to take the organisation's customer centric values and really operationalise them. It's a rare thing.

Regardless of the size of the organisations you work with, is there a more common content challenge that comes up time and time again?

There is a challenge with getting at and identifying the core issues, really boiling down what the challenges are and then prioritising initiatives that build upon each other. Any content strategist will tell you horror stories about this, I will tell you this story.

I had a major telecom company call us to say, "Hey, we are in the process of starting to look at all of our web properties and we need to consolidate them and our leadership team wants to just hire the whole thing out to a design agency. We know that there is way more involved with content strategy, that we should be starting before we call in any outside partners. We'd like to hire you to do a massive audit of all these websites, we know we have at least 200,000 pages. Can you help us?" And I said, "Can I talk to you on the phone for half an hour?" And I got them on a video call and I said, "I want to show you something." And I pulled up a deck that the same company had sent to us eight years ago outlining exactly the same request.

And they almost wept, but I just said, "We have talked for years at Brain Traffic about the idea that creating a content audit can help build a business case, but leadership does not care about your content audit. They don't care about content strategy and you need to stop talking about content strategy to leadership, because they do not care." I said, "The only way that you are going to get their attention, is if you can align and give us some kind of a proposal, that is going to deliver bottom line results to an initiative that they are leading."

So I asked, "What is the number one thing right now that is on leadership's mind?" And they didn't even blink, they said, "Oh, it's offloading calls from the call center." And I was like, "You realise this is the dream case for any content strategists, trying to come up with numbers and demonstrate efficiencies and content?" And I said, "What you need to do, is you need to take your help center and film eight people trying to find stuff and take that to leadership. That is going to get you money for content strategy, but don't even say it. Just tell them we need to fix this content and we're going to need X number of dollars to do it and we've got the people internally to do it and here's how long it's going to take."

That is the number one thing I’ve started to tell people, "Do not say the words content strategy, if your organisation is at a level one or two on that maturity scale, don't even bother."

Do you have any advice on how people can work better together around shared goals for content?

I think everybody is looking for the magic bullet to break down silos. A great person to talk to about this as Amanda Costello, because Amanda Costello at the University of Minnesota, was able to get the word out about the kind of work that she was doing by having conversations with people. Literally, by taking them out to coffee or sitting down with them at their computers so they can talk her through some of their complications or challenges..

I wrote a post a little while ago around developing a community of practice throughout an organisation, where I had somebody tell me one time at Adobe, that they found out that there was a whole other team of content strategists that they didn't know existed, but they didn't do anything related to what they’re doing as a content strategist. It’s literally just ongoing networking and conversation and identifying shared goals and finding small ways in which you can collaborate or tell a different story or come up with a little pilot effort.

I recently talked to an organisation where three women who sit in completely different areas of the organisation somehow found each other and have been having happy hours. They did a half day working session in somebody's kitchen on a Saturday, to come up with a proposal for leadership, about how they can formalise a working relationship to develop and establish content standards across these three different business units. Nobody asked them to do that, they just did it, so that's the bottom-up way.

The top-down way is, you require a leader who sees how the different moving pieces connect, how and where the dots should connect and start to, because moving people around rarely works. I mean, large organisations are constantly reorganising, that's not the problem. The problem is that they don't have any routines or rituals in which people are continually getting together to share knowledge, share best practices, set priorities, brush aside the croft and move forward together.

It's sort of forehead slapping and simple, but you know what's hard? Is that it always, always, always is going to require leadership sign off.

Something different now. The first ever Button Conference is happening this October online everywhere. What's the event about?

We’re so excited about the first-ever Button! The program will focus on product content strategy, content design, and UX writing—so it’ll be a much more specialised event than Confab, which is really all about the wider world of content strategy.

Why is now the right time to start a conference with this focus?

The team at Brain Traffic participates in various content-focused communities both on- and offline, and in those conversations (as well as in requests from Confab attendees) we’ve really seen that people are hungry for thought leadership in this field of practice. There’s a lot of great writing out there, the Content + UX Slack workspace, scattered podcasts, and so on, but there really hasn’t been a place for folks to gather in person to share war stories and best practices. 

For those looking to submit talk proposals at future events, what makes a good conference talk proposal?

Far and away the best talk proposals we see are very specific, whether the topic is higher-level strategy or very tactical, front-lines stuff. We want to know why this talk matters, what the concrete takeaways will be, and whether the talk is appropriate for our specific audience. A little humor always helps. And whatever you do, do not include the phrase “content is king.” 

Kristina Halvorson

CEO and Founder, Brain Traffic

Kristina Halvorson is the CEO and founder of Brain Traffic, the coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, the founder of Confab Events, and the host of The Content Strategy Podcast. In 2020, she is also launching a new conference called Button, an event for people who work with content for digital products.

Kristina lives in St. Paul, MN with her two children, whom she often quotes on Twitter (@halvorson).

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About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is responsible for managing all of the organisation's content output and for their content operations. Rob also works on audience research projects and strategic initiatives to ensure their content meets both business goals and user needs.

He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and has written for industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, UX Matters, UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and content operations at leading industry events or on podcasts.

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