Interview with Kristina Halvorson
By Scott Abel | STC Associate Fellow
In this installment of “Meet the Change Agents,” I interview content strategy maven Kristina Halvorson. We discuss the changing content strategy landscape, what those changes mean for the future of the discipline, and the role of professional product content producers, including technical communicators.
SA: It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over a decade since you published the first edition of your seminal book, Content Strategy for the Web. Some unofficial content industry historians have described the publication of that book as a tipping point in the recognition of content strategy as a business discipline. Back then, you called it an “introduction to the emerging practice of content strategy.” How did the success of that book impact you?
KH: It was certainly life-changing. When it was published, I had two young kids, I was recently divorced, and I was running a business, so stuff was chaotic. Then the book came out, and suddenly I was “internet-famous.” Mostly, I think the timing of the book was right. People in our field were just really tired of filling up their beautiful websites with terrible content, and this little red book gave them a good story to tell about why content needs strategy. I took full advantage of all the attention over the next few years, not only because it gave me the opportunity to yammer on about the importance of the practice, but also because I found myself in a position to lift up all the other, smarter, people doing the work.
SA: Although you are well-known in the field of content strategy, for those readers who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about yourself and the work you do?
KH: I own a content strategy consulting and events business called Brain Traffic. These days, my work is mostly about going on-site with teams to help set strategic priorities for their content initiatives. I also host The Content Strategy Podcast, which is really just an excuse for me to personally learn from extraordinarily smart people. Although I don’t speak at conferences as often as I used to, I still show up at events to make noise about content strategy; it turns out that I will never, ever be done making the case for it. I’m also the mom of two smart, kindhearted kids, although can I just say that trying to raise kids in 2020 is crazypants? What is even happening in the world right now? Send help.
SA: I’ve had the privilege of attending your successful conference, Confab, held each year in Minneapolis. You’ve hosted several topic-specific versions of the event in the past (for higher education, for example), and I’ve heard that you’ve recently announced your plans to host a new event focusing on the needs of product content strategists, content designers, and UX writers. Can you tell us about this event and what our readers can expect should they attend?
KH: Absolutely! This conference has been in the works for a couple of years, and we finally felt like the time was right to launch it. It’s called Button [held online, 21–23 October]. The topics will be more narrowly focused than at Confab, which is really about the wider world of content strategy. If you lead or work on product teams, this event is going to dive deep into your world of unique content practices and principles. As for what to expect, I can say with 100% confidence that people can expect absolute excellence. We received nearly 200 talk submissions—which is unheard of for a first-time event—and the quality of the proposals is astounding. And we’re really committed to ensuring event production is up to Confab standards!
SA: Content strategy is an evolving discipline aimed at addressing the rapidly changing needs of businesses and the content consumers they serve. What significant changes have you noticed in the content strategy arena over the past decade?
KH: This is the part of the interview when I want to ask you the same question, because there are far too many changes for one person to cover all of them! I mean, obviously, the biggest change has been mobile, but it’s also difficult to remember when that wasn’t even a thing (for example, when I wrote Content Strategy for the Web). Even just rereading that sentence makes me think, “well, duh.” Also, the job title “content strategist” is now pretty much ubiquitous in larger organizations and in agencies—although what they mean by “content strategist” is another conversation. I think we have seen the content marketing hype machine start to falter—and I mention this in the context of content strategy in the hopes that marketing will start to loosen its stranglehold on “content” as somehow proprietary to their field. I am still waiting for content engineering to be widely recognized as a critical part of the discipline. And I wish I could say I’ve noticed most organizations maturing in their content practices—but, alas, this is not the case.
SA: What assumptions did you have at the beginning of your content strategy adventure that did not hold true over time? What caused you to adjust your views?
KH: When you’re young, you think, “Well, this is so obvious that all I need to do is just explain it to people and then they’ll do it.” This, of course, is not correct. I really did believe that, after a time, the need for content strategy in every form—projects, teams, technology, the enterprise—would become a given in every organization. I definitely did not expect to still be making the case for it in 2020. That said, at this point, I am less interested in getting wholesale buy-in for “content strategy” and more interested in getting organizations to realize that stellar content across the customer experience isn’t optional. It’s a long game, and it requires full-on business transformation—unless, of course, you built content strategy into your business DNA right from the start, like so many product companies have. If leadership doesn’t get that content is more than just a customer acquisition strategy, you’ll need to settle for tactical, siloed content activities (and technologies) for the foreseeable future.
SA: For the purposes of this interview, I decided to leverage the power of the crowd to create a list of questions to ask you. The first question comes from Mike Petroff, senior product manager at Harvard Business Publishing, who asks, “What’s your pithy one-liner describing the job of content strategist to a layperson?”
KH: Well, this is what I tell people who ask me on airplanes: “You know how, when you’re online and you’re trying to get something done, and whatever content you’re coming across isn’t what you need, or it’s confusing, or it’s just bad? We fix that.”
The response I get is usually, “Give me your card immediately; you just described our website/app/CMS/everything.” It’s sort of like telling people you’re a doctor, and then they start complaining about their symptoms. The other one-liner that sometimes works is, “I help get you the right content in the right place at the right time.” But I find speaking to people’s pain is usually more effective.
SA: Content strategist Debra Kahn wants to know if you can “provide any tips for overcoming resistance by content developers to the notion of content strategy.”
KH: Well, once again, the key is to understand where they’re hurting, and how content strategy can help. Are they overworked because they don’t have any constraints or standards to help set priorities? Are they under pressure to demonstrate bottom-line results and need something to connect their day-to-day activities with business goals or user needs? Can you demonstrate how even some basic content strategy tools (an inventory, a short style guide, a simple content model) can streamline their work? Just telling people that content strategy is “the right thing to do” never works. You have to connect its benefits directly to some specific problem they have personally.
SA: While you’re providing tips, Vanessa Vavra-Laughlin, global content solutions manager for American Airlines, wants your advice on how to encourage content leaders from various departments inside an organization to work together. She asks, “What are your top tips for content leaders aside from the obvious ‘learn to play well together’?”
KH: I always start with whatever strategic imperatives have been handed down from on high that year. Whatever departmental goals exist somehow ladder up—or should, anyhow—to those priorities. With solid situational analysis, you can usually find an opportunity for content strategy to help connect the dots across those departmental goals. Maybe it’s improving end-to-end customer experience. Maybe it’s finding ways to consolidate or reallocate resources. Maybe it’s simply removing points of friction in cross-departmental collaboration. The other thing that’s key is to make sure everyone feels heard when you’re trying to get people to work together. If you just walk into the room and say, “Yes, hello, here are your new content rules,” people are going to revolt. You have to bring everyone along for the ride. I’m a big proponent of team workshops in the content strategy process—early and often.
SA: Vanessa also asks for help understanding the problematic challenges associated with understanding content strategy terminology. She has noticed that information developers are using terms like intelligent content, structured content, and other jargon that many knowledge workers don’t fully grasp. One of the terms she’d like your help understanding is “content design.” In your view, what do we mean by content design, and who are content designers?
KH: Sarah Richards (Content Design London) popularized the term “content design” to describe a user-centered approach for doing content analysis, requirements, and creation. Her wonderful book Content Design explains that process. However, the larger content strategy community has really taken up “content design” to mean a field of practice which encompasses the roles and activities required to determine content requirements and guidelines that meet user needs. (I should clarify that content design as a “thing” should only be considered after the encompassing content strategy has been established—for example, purpose, audience, standards, messaging—and that UX writing is the manifestation of content design.) Don’t @ me. [You can look up this expression on the Urban Dictionary website.—Ed.]
SA: Julie Travia, product content strategy lead, Northwestern Mutual, asks, “How can UX writers help designers understand the value of including writers in ideation sessions? In other words, how do I help our designers to better understand the value of cross-
discipline collaboration versus ‘you do the words’ and ‘we handle the design?’”
KH: Two things. First, when was the last time you had your designers sit in on any user testing that included real words in the interface? Watching users struggle with tasks and comprehension because of poor writing can be really eye-opening for designers, because—guess what?— those users are paying zero attention to the design. Second, if you can, give one of your feature teams the luxury of a fully allocated UX writer. After a few sprints, ask them to share their work with other teams, maybe in a lunch-and-learn setting. I’m confident the designers will be full-on converts and talk about how lucky they are to have their very own UX writer. I know this might be tough—in my experience, one UX writer is often spread out across several teams—but in the most competitive product companies (Shopify, Slack, Facebook, Netflix, Google, Airbnb . . . I could go on), content designers and UX writers are everywhere, and they’re as valued as any other product team member.
SA: Content operations expert and STC Fellow Rahel Bailie often makes the case for understanding the difference between strategy and tactics. While strategy is the planning phase critical to successfully producing content—especially at scale—tactics are required to implement content strategy. Anna Schlegel, global product operations and strategy executive at NetApp, asks a tactical operations question about the best time to get rid of outdated content. Specifically, Schlegel asks, “After you map your personas and customer journeys, can you start decommissioning websites and architectures that are no longer needed?”
KH: My immediate reaction to this question is, “Ooooo, tell me more!” Unfortunately, without doing a situational analysis, I can’t really provide a straightforward answer, simply because every organization’s content ecosystem is unique. I can’t say, “Decommission away!” without knowing how things are connected, or even why they exist in the first place. What I suggest is this: Before you make any changes to one-off websites or sections, make sure you have a sense of the whole. What are you working toward and why? What does your current content ecosystem look like? Then—assuming you have created your core content strategy, and you have a full understanding of user needs and expectations specifically regarding content requirements—you can start a rolling content audit to determine your “keep, kill, update, or combine” content. (I just made those four options up—you can obviously choose your own.)
SA: Customer support manager Geoffrey Sperl would like to know what you think the role of content—and the humans who have traditionally created it—is in a world powered by automation and artificial intelligence. When you peer into your crystal ball, what do you see on the horizon?
KH: I truly believe that one of my greatest strengths is this: When I don’t know the answer to something, I say, “I don’t know!” And I don’t. I’m a strategist and a storyteller; I have never been great at predicting the future. I also have a lot to learn about AI, and by “a lot,” I mean “everything.” So, Geoffrey, please ask me this again in a year, and I promise to have at least an idea . . . or two.
SA: You have a great post pinned to your Twitter account that reads: “PSA for everyone who doesn’t work with content: Content is way more complicated than you think it is.” What prompted you to write that?
KH: If you want to see a content professional’s head pop off their shoulders, say, “What is the big deal—isn’t content just words? Anyone can write.” Unfortunately, this is still the general perspective amongst, well, almost everyone who isn’t us. I feel like one of the best ways to get through to people how important it is that we invest our time and resources in getting content right is to scare them straight, and to make lists and lists of questions that should be answered before a single content request is ever made. We should demonstrate the connections between the people, processes, technology, and content products that exist everywhere. It’s a mess! A glorious mess.
SA: If you could provide a single piece of advice for technical communication professionals hoping to advance their career in the uncharted waters before us, what would that advice be?
KH: I guess it would be the same advice I give anyone who wants to advance their career: Ask brave questions, learn to listen, read every day, be hungry, and be humble. The worst thing you can do right now is roll your eyes and say, “I’ve been talking about this for years; this is nothing new.” Things are evolving at lightning speed, so don’t pretend you know everything. It will hold you back.
SA: If you could ask a question of yourself (in this interview) that I haven’t asked you already, what question would you have me ask of you—and what would your answer be?
KH: “Kristina, who do you think the coolest person in content strategy is?” Oh, it’s definitely Scott Abel. Have you met that guy? He’s aces.
Brain Traffic. n.d. Accessed 5 August 2020. https://www.braintraffic.com.
Halvorson, Kristina. 2010. Content Strategy for the Web. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
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