Kristina Halvorson: CS Forum podcast episode 6

Listen to the latest podcast from our series featuring CS Forum speakers. This week, Kristina Halvorson talks to Jonathan about empowerment, opportunity, responsibility, and the relationship between content strategy and cake.

In the sixth episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Kristina Halvorson, one of our invited speakers.

“How can we not take it upon ourselves to connect with others and to have a larger group conversation about [content strategy]? That’s where we’re going to learn the most.”

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This is episode 6 of the CS Forum podcast. I’m Jonathan Kahn, and today I’m talking to Kristina Halvorson, who’s one of our invited speakers at the Content Strategy Forum 2011 in London.

The Forum is from the 5th to the 7th of September in central London. That’s three days of presentations, workshops, and parties. We’re featuring 39 speakers from 11 countries. Early bird rates are still available. Find out more at and register using code PODCAST06 by the 3 May for an additional £50 discount.

Jonathan: I’m talking to Kristina Halvorson. Kristina is founder and CEO of Brain Traffic, a leading content strategy consultancy based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She wrote the article “The Discipline of Content Strategy” for A List Apart Magazine which challenged the web industry to take responsibility for content, followed by the discipline’s defining book “Content Strategy for the Web.” She founded Confab, the Content Strategy Conference in Minneapolis. She hosts the content talks podcast at 5by5 Studios and she speaks at conferences around the world including Web 2.0 Expo, An Event Apart, The Future of Web Design and Webstock, just to name a few. And Kristina was a keynote speaker at CS Forum 2010 in Paris. And she will be moderating a panel of experts to close CS Forum 2011 in London. So you get your questions ready.

So, Kristina, thank you so much for joining me today.

Kristina Halvorson: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Jonathan: I have a question for you. Since you’ve written your book, “Content Strategy for the Web,” have you seen any promising changes in organizations in the way that they deal with content?

Kristina: Well, let’s just dive in.

Jonathan: Yep, straight in.

Kristina: Yeah, right. I guess the short answer is yes, definitely. And I don’t know, I always hesitate to say, “…and my book brought them about.” I am grateful that people think that my book started a conversation about content strategy which frankly was it’s entire intent. So yeah the short answer is yes, definitely. And I think that what we have seen is, I guess I can speak from two vantage points. One from owning a content strategy consultancy and two from being a speaker and being able to attend all these conferences and engage in conversations with the attendees. And maybe I’ll start there. So what’s been great about attending these conferences as a speaker over the last, it really only has been about two years that I’ve been speaking about content strategy, is that the questions are becoming more advanced, more quickly.

Where it is clear to me that people are for the first time within their organizations becoming empowered to make strategic decisions about content, where for so long the people who were responsible for, or who owns the content were just continually in reaction to other initiatives like a website redesign or a social media campaign or we’ve got to get this content ready for mobile.

Where now they are really being tasked with OK, step back, look at our content assets across the organization. And let’s start making some smart decisions about how we want those assets to actually work for our business. So yes, I am seeing people becoming empowered and I think that that is probably the most important shift that we can hope for this early in the conversation.

And I would say, the second piece at Brain Traffic what we are seeing now more than we ever had before especially with just over the last 12 months, is people calling saying, “I understand what this is. I understand what a content strategy can do for my business. Let’s go, let’s get started.” Where before our educational process with potential clients could take weeks or even months.

Jonathan: Sure. So I am just picking up on what you said about being empowered. Who is empowering these people to suddenly make strategic decisions? Is it that people just deciding to take up the torch and say, “OK. I care. Let’s start making changes.” Or are their bosses telling them that this is a problem. Where is their empowerment coming from?

Kristina: Well, I think that when I say “empowerment” I do mean people being given budget, being given purchasing power, being given the power to sign off on certain initiatives. I still think that it’s a rare thing. I think that the organizations who are saying,“You, make content important, make content strategy part of the fabric of how we do business here.” Those organizations are so few and far between, but you are seeing their efforts and those results really taking shape and having impact on their business both online and across every other device you can think of.

So who is doing that? I would say that the decision makers are simply taking more notice. And so I don’t know necessarily if CEOs and CMOs are something like, “Oh my God, content is the answer to all of our problems.” But definitely folks on their teams are starting to wake up to the need for more strategic consideration of content.

Jonathan: So one of the things that we always seem to come up in conversation here in Europe is people say, “Well, we’ve heard about Kristina Halvorson and people in America and they seem to really get content strategy. But I don’t think it’s really happening here.” And I think it’s this sort of selection mistake that because the few people who are noisy on Twitter or the Internet or whatever seem to talking about it, that means all of America is completely au fait with content strategy. So if somebody like that is listening today and they are saying, “Oh these people that Kristina is talking to, they have been empowered, that’s not me.” What are the ways that would work for those people or could work for someone like that?

Kristina: As you were saying that I was just remembering probably my favorite Twitter comment from when I was doing my panel discussion at South by Southwest. Some guy posted, “I think I am my company’s website editor in chief. But I don’t have any budget, I don’t have any power, and I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing for the business.” So how can they begin to seek out those organizations or work for them or work with them? I think that an easy thing to do is if you see a job posting or anything with a position that looks interesting, go and identify whether or not content looks like it has been cared for at all, over the last couple of years.

I think it’s simple to just making a job enquiry and having an initial informational interview with someone really being able to assess out very, very quickly whether or not they believe that content has inherent value for their organization and for the user experience. Or if it something where they are just like, our content is a mess, and we got to clean it up just for the sake of cleaning it up.

Jonathan: So it is like people should be shopping around for gigs and trying to find places where changes could be made in a way that would be positive?

Kristina: Yeah and I think that something— I often hear people saying, “Oh it just seems like a great opportunity. There is so much opportunity. There is so much work that can be done.” And I think that’s great but make sure that you are not just looking at the assets. Make sure that you are really engaging in conversation with the people who are going to be controlling your budget and helping you to prioritize your time, because those are the folks ultimately that are going to be able to sort of shape the success of your initiatives, how much leeway they are going to give you, where are their priorities and so on.

Jonathan: Cool. So I want to talk a little bit with you about the user experience because I am interested to know how this thing called “user experience design” interacts with this thing called “content strategy” and where you see the linkage. So I know that in the back of your book, at the end of your book you say, “Push user experience design off the pedestal.” Now what does that mean?

Kristina: Well, I think that that statement was probably far more relevant in 2009 when the book was released because user experience design as a whole did not consider content part of their domain. So the people that I worked with everyday, the larger community that I was a part of at the time— Wait, let me rephrase that. The community as it stood at the time, my community was, every conference I went to, the focus was everywhere except content. And this blew my mind as a writer at the time because content was what always ended up blowing up the user experience.

And so I think that that statement was meant more to say,“User experience, the way that we define it today, is not encompassing the full user experience. It’s not doing the job it needs to do. So let’s push the idea of UX as we define it off the pedestal and let’s redefine a new kind of user experience that involves us taking responsibility for content quality.”

Jonathan: Right, right. I always thought that discussion of user experience without content was almost like a denial thing where it is so overwhelming and difficult that we just pretend it doesn’t exist and we can just do the interactions and not worry about content. So maybe what you are saying is that that denial is going away slowly.

Kristina: Yeah, it did well I think a couple of things. I think that there are millions of user experience designers I am sure who have been fighting for better content forever. But there are only so many times that you can make the case for, you know: “OK. Client, here is what you need to do within the next six weeks. And here is why it’s important.” And then the six weeks rolls around and you still have no content. There are only so many times you can say that before you are just like, “You know what, it’s your deal, I obviously don’t have any say over this.” But I think to your point too, getting good content isn’t just about creating wire frames or a good style guide. It involves understanding the inner workings of an organization and how content moves throughout that organization.

And that is often something that our UX team simply haven’t had purview to. And so yes, it has been easy for us to say, “OK, that’s it, that’s your deal.” But you cannot design a good user experience with bad content. You simply can’t. And so I think that that has been the denial that we have all subscribed to for so long, which is that: “Yeah, we can do this. Our UX design can be so great that it can overcome the crap content that we are going pour into it.”

Jonathan: Yeah, which is fantastic that that’s actually starting to be part of the conversation.

Kristina: Well, and I think a big piece of that is that for the first time our community is going, “What do you mean that there is a framework to a way in which to discuss and address this?” And, “My God, there are people out there that actually want to take on this messy work, people who understand the value of the work that I do and who can speak my language?” And this has just been amazing. And I think the other piece of it is that we’ve had this sort of ongoing continuing realization across all these different industries where people are like, “Oh my gosh, I am a content strategist, I never realized it, I never had a word for the work that I do. And now I can talk about it in terms of like an actual valid role.”

Jonathan: Yeah, well and the other way to look at that is for the many people it’s like: “Oh my goodness, here is the gap,” which is I think how I came to this. “Oh here is the gap, here is where I seem to be flailing, or I have been for this many years.” So that’s the other way. It’s not that already I’ve done it, but oh maybe I could do it, and maybe that will stop the things hurting so much. So you came to the Content Strategy Applied conference in London earlier this year. And one of the things you said in your speech was that you are not a pioneer or a guru, but you are a story teller. So can you explain what that means and why that might be relevant to other people who are interested in advocating for content strategy?

Kristina: Yup, that is a great question. I was actually just thinking about this earlier this morning, because tonight at the Minneapolis Content Strategy Meetup, Seth Early is visiting. Seth has been doing work in content management and in making content more usable and treating it as an asset within organizations for, like, 20 years. That’s a pioneer. That’s a guru. The work that he does makes me want to crawl under my desk and hide. It is so extraordinary. And also weep a little bit, because it’s so extraordinary and so complex. And folks like Ann Rockley and Joe Gollner — these are folks who have just been wrestling this beast for 15, 20 years.

That’s not the work that I do. I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I mean, yes, I can have a conversation about how to strategically approach and use content in ways that are going to have a meaningful positive impact on your business and also create meaning for your user. But I’m certainly not the first person to talk about this, and I’m certainly not the smartest person to be able to do this work. I have worked very, very hard to ensure that the people who are smart at this are given a spotlight, or a platform, or recognition in a way in which to share that story.

I build communities. I love building communities. I love throwing parties. See Confab. I think that a big part of what I was able to contribute to the rise of the content strategy conversation was simply being able to talk about the pain and suffering that is caused when you don’t consider content strategically, in a way that resonated with people. If I have to say what I have contributed to this, that’s really what I would suggest has been the biggest thing.

Jonathan: In terms of stories, you gave away your best stories in this talk, but where does story telling fit into the role of an advocate for content strategy in an organization?

Kristina: I think that you can say, “Look at this page of content. It’s bad. Isn’t this bad?” Or, “Look at these error messages that are coming up. They’re bad.” That’s fine, but that is an objective statement. That’s a qualitative assessment. Your business owners aren’t going to care. Like, “So? I have other places to spend my money. Users will be able to deal. It’s not so bad that it’s broken.” To really be able to step back and take a much larger look at the shambles your content is in and the money it’s costing you and the pain and suffering it’s causing your users, and to be able to frame that up in a way that immediately connects with and is meaningful to the people you’re speaking with, basically that sells to their pain whether it’s as business owners or as consumers of content themselves, that is what is going to begin to frame up and advance your agenda for content strategy. That’s what I have found to be successful and effective.

Jonathan: Fantastic. One other thing that you said in this talk was that it’s impossible to demonstrate strategic thinking. So my question for you is: People are always asking for case studies. So if you can’t actually demonstrate strategic thinking, what is the role of case studies?

Kristina: That’s a great question. I think another thing that I will say is when I wrote the book, there weren’t any case studies. Even content strategy, like, selling it as a service was even relatively new at Brain Traffic. That was a big problem in the book, which I’ll actually talk about towards the end of our conversation. But now there are case studies coming out of our ears. That’s another reason I wanted to do Confab. We’ve got half a dozen, eight, of those case studies being presented. Content strategy applied was that as well. I think that being able to get up and say, “Here was my theory. Here is the core strategy that I believed would make a difference.” And then being able to walk through the implementation of that strategy. Ultimately that’s really what people are looking for is implementation and results.

I think that in your case study you’ve got to start with and hammer in, and hammer throughout, the understanding that none of this implementation would have made sense, or worked, or been measurable without answering those core questions, those core objectives. Why do we want to do this? What is it going to deliver for our users? How do we know that’s what our users want? What is it that our business needs? How is our business strategy informing this?

So simply even by demonstrating, or articulating, the questions that you asked in order to get to that core strategy, I think that then being able to show how that played out, that’s what a case study is going to do for the discipline.

Jonathan: Fantastic. So you mentioned Confab. Confab is coming up in just over two weeks. When you announced it you wrote that content strategy gives us the opportunity, the responsibility even, to get to know our fellow content professionals no matter what their role within our organizations. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Kristina: Possibly the most exciting that I have watched happen over the last couple of years has been the growth of this community, of people who have been doing work with content, have cared about content, who have bemoaned the state of content within their organizations, who are sick and tire of projects imploding because of content — seeing those people begin to find each other over Twitter, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, at Content Strategy Meetups throughout the world at this point. What’s happening of course — well, maybe not of course — but what’s happening is that people are sharing knowledge. They’re beginning collaborate. They’re beginning to create businesses and consulting practices. Facebook is building this incredible content strategy practice basically by hiring all of the people that I want to hire. Facebook, you’re on notice.

Again, I’ll go back to that word framework. The content strategy discussion has created a framework in which we can all begin to share and exchange this knowledge in a way that we understand and are connected by our shared principles, which I think Erin Kissane does such an extraordinary job of laying out in her book “The Elements of Content Strategy.” That I think is the opportunity that I talk about.

When I talk about a responsibility, I think that what I am saying there more than anything is that if you take this seriously, if you want to learn more, if you’re curious about it, if you’re passionate about it, if you want to advocate the discipline, if you want to represent and advocate the discipline and the practice within your own organization, then you have a responsibility to reach out to other people who are doing this and talk to them and find out what they’re doing.

Yes, you can passively consume information online. But ultimately the discipline, while it’s been around for a while, is still young. We’re still exploring different ways to talk about it, and to practice it, and new deliverables are coming up, and so on. How can we not take it upon ourselves to connect with others and to have a larger group conversation about this? That’s where we’re going to learn the most.

Jonathan: I’ve got two more questions for you. You’re going to be moderating the closing panel at CS Forum in London. Now, September is a little way off, so I’m not going to ask you what you what you’re going to be talking about. But if you were doing a panel today, what are the hot topics that you would want to talk about today in content strategy?

Kristina: What I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — and actually this may carry over to September — is that it seems to me that every month some new challenge or some new idea or some new initiative is brought to light, whether it’s an article— The articles posted on A List Apart today, Cameron’s article and then the folks from Arc90 and Behavior, they are talking about putting content in the hands of the audience, period. These concepts are literally blowing my mind. Then I think about the work that Ann Rockley and her team have been doing around intelligent content for so long. I think about what we’re seeing with our clients in regard to, you know — with site search analytics, for example, like making site search an actual good experience. I’m all over the map with this, because there are so many things.

But what I keep thinking about is, My god, we’re all racing as quickly as we can to stay on top of all this stuff. The thing is so many of our organizations don’t even have Web 1.0 figured out. That is the ugly truth that none of us wants to talk about, especially the people who are shaping the conversations out in the world.

That, I guess, is really what I am interested in. How can we help our clients and our organizations balance that tension between trying to clean up, or trying to at least create some sort of stable foundation — which is what should have happened or what we wished would have happened during Web 1.0 — while continually remaining agile enough to address and embrace all of these new opportunities and challenges that are being fired at us constantly and daily?

Jonathan: Wow, that’s a big challenge.

Kristina: I’ll have the answer to that in 48 hours.

Jonathan: You’ll have that worked out.

Kristina: Yeah, I’ll have that figured out.

Jonathan: My final question for you today is: One of the topics that always seems to come up in relation to Brain Traffic and also Confab, your conference, is cake. What’s the link between cake and content strategy?

Kristina: You know, Jonathan, that is an excellent question and one that I’ve sort of been reflecting deeply upon over the last several months. I think that the foundation of that connection, what we can point to is probably the frosting, which I myself prefer a good butter cream. But really if I had to name one connection, it would probably be frosting. Also, do not eat the last piece of cake, or I will be upset.

Jonathan: You think it’s yours.

Kristina: It’s always mine.

Jonathan: It always comes out at the end of the podcast, doesn’t it? Kristina, thank you so much for your time today, for joining us on this podcast.

Kristina: You’re welcome, Jonathan. It was my pleasure.

Jonathan: I can’t wait to come to Confab in a very short period of time and to have you here in London for the CS Forum.

Kristina: It is a happy, happy time for content strategy. I’m thrilled.

That was episode 6 of the CS Forum podcast, featuring Kristina Halvorson. You can subscribe to future episodes at Don’t forget to register for the conference by the 3 May, using code PODCAST06 to save £50 on the early bird rate.