Kristina Halvorson on Content Strategy for the Web

Kristina Halvorson is the founder and president of Brain Traffic, a nationally-renowned agency specializing in content strategy and writing for websites. She regularly speaks to audiences around the world about how to deliver useful and usable content online. In this interview Kristina discusses her new book “Content Strategy for the Web“, the prevalence of short form content and the three biggest online content mistakes and how to avoid them.

Editor’s Note: Kristina will be taking part in a panel discussion “The Long and Short of It” chaired by Liz Danzico at The Future of Web Design New York on November 16-17 2009. Conference passes are still available, buy your ticket online now.

For those who may not have come across the term, what is “content strategy” and what is its relation to web design?

Content strategy for the Web plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of content online. Basically, its tools and processes help you get your content right the first time – for your business and your users -and keep it awesome over time.

Web design is critically important for shaping users’ perceptions of your brand, products, and services. However, they don’t come to your website for its great design; they come for the content. Design and content have to work together to ensure one is complementing the other… so they’re working together to provide a satisfying, enjoyable experience for your users. Content strategy ensures that dialogue is taking place on an ongoing basis. If you’re not designing for the right content, your user experience suffers. Which means your company does, too.

Your book “Content Strategy for the Web” has recently hit the shelves, what can readers expect from it?

I wrote “Content Strategy for the Web” to spark an industry-wide conversation about the importance of content as a business asset, and how we can work together as practitioners to fix our crappy content. Generally speaking, content is a shared pain point across all web disciplines. It’s late. It’s formatted incorrectly. It’s poorly-written, out of context, not audience-focused, out-of-date, incorrect, inconsistent. I could go on. And on. So, the book is really meant for all web professionals, not just content folks. It articulates the problem, provides an overview of web content strategy as a viable practice, and walks the reader through the phases and processes.

The book is short (200 pages), and it’s written in a really conversational voice. Both choices were on purpose. People see content as super boring, which is why we’ve all made it somebody else’s problem for so long. I wanted to make it fun and easy for people to learn about web content strategy and how they can start applying it immediately to their existing project processes.

Content seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Is blogging dead?

I should note first off that Liz Danzico is moderating a panel about this (that I’m participating in) on Tuesday 17th November  at the “Future of Web Design New York“. So we’ll argue about this onstage. Heh.

On the one hand, yes. Short-form copy seems to be far more prevalent online than long-form copy. People are more and more comfortable throwing out ideas or observations on a one-off basis, rather than beginning (or participating in) conversations rather than trying to be the end-all, be-all source of information and insight to their audiences.

On the other hand, you can’t just consider user-generated content in this context. I make my living from consulting with organizations who are dealing with content about their products and services. Is long-form copy useful in many instances? Yes. Of course. Does it need to be formatted in a way that readers can scan it for the most important messages and information? Absolutely. So don’t confuse “long-form” with “unwieldy, long-ass pages no one wants to read.”

Is blogging dead? Nah. People still have plenty to say, and there’s not enough room on Twitter to say it all. Amazing conversations happen in blog post comments, as well. It’s still an extraordinarily viable medium.

What are the three biggest “web content” mistakes and how can we avoid them?

MISTAKE 1: Many organizations think that, once their content is live, they’re done with it. It’s launched. Finis. No way. You have to consider and plan for your content’s lifecycle: research, strategy, creation, delivery, measurement, maintenance, archival. If you don’t, your content will quickly either a) die on the vine, or b) become so massive and unwieldy that it’s not useful to anyone.

HOW TO AVOID: Before you publish, ask a content strategist to help answer these questions:

  • What content do we have now?
  • What content have we agreed we need?
  • Who’s going to create that content?
  • Who’s going to review and approve it?
  • How often will it be reviewed and updated?
  • When and why will it be changed?

MISTAKE 2: Web professionals also tend to see content as “just copywriting,” which means they don’t allocate nearly enough time for realistically dealing with it. If you’re a web writer, copywriting is only a part of your job. You have to audit source materials – including current web content. Inventory content requirements in both IA and technical documentation. Create your content so it adheres to web writing best practices (readability, structure, voice/tone, and so on). You have to deftly include keywords and craft awesome metadata so people can find your content.

HOW TO AVOID: Engage a content strategist at the beginning of every project so s/he can make an achievable content plan that takes reality into consideration. Reality is always good.

MISTAKE 3: Most web project teams think content is something that’s informed by project strategy… but truly, it can sometimes be the other way around. You can’t just assume your content requirements (as defined early in the process) will just magically be met. There are dozens of factors that have serious impact on content, both externally (competitors, user research, governmental regulations) and internally (resources, skill sets, restrictions and requirements, politics, ever-changing requests). If you don’t consider those factors in your research and analysis phases, they’re going to come back and make your life a living hell. Which everyone can relate to.

HOW TO AVOID: Get a content strategist to take responsibility for that research and analysis. Are you seeing a pattern?

What do you think is the Future of Web Design?

I think we’ll see a return to flashy “enter our site” splash pages, as well as the widespread use of animated .gifs. Oh, and black. Lots and lots of black.

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Comments

0 comments on “Kristina Halvorson on Content Strategy for the Web

  1. There’s enough in this article to keep me busy for a couple of weeks. I’ve never heard of a “content strategist” before, but it explains a fair bit of what I’m currently doing.

    The challenge is that once the “Publish” button gets pushed, going back over existing content is boring. And I would guess it’s probably difficult to justify such time on the bottom line. How do you measure return?

  2. Ace to have some content-related action on Think Vitamin.

    I work as a copywriter, but that covers wireframing, usability and accessibility recommendations too. Often clients don’t really think about the content. Or if they do, they don’t think about it long term.

    I may have to point them here in the future for some gentle persuasion.

    • Hey Iain,

      What do u think about doing usability testing of a website on paper with a bunch of testers doing it on a computer?

  3. I am really looking forward to the panel at FOWD NYC!
    However, it’s interesting how virtually all (?) content problems can be resolved by “asking / consultig / getting a content strategist”. I think a lot of problems can be solved by a common sense approach. The biggest issue is indeed a very simpleone – that people forget about the content once the website / app has launched. ANY time spent on rewieving it can make wonders.

  4. Hey great interview. I find that the biggest challenge in any web design project is keeping a stream of fresh (and good) content going.

    But it is also important to get the most out of your content once it is published by using good web design for emphasizing good (popular) articles on your home page and formatting articles so they are easily readable and shared.

  5. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get my website looking the way I wanted it to when I first started. Once that was sorted I knew I could just leave it alone and just worry about putting excellent content onto my website.

    As you said in your article: ‘However, they don’t come to your website for its great design; they come for the content.’ – Content is key, and that is what I am concentrating on :)

  6. My point is: what if you can’t afford (or there’s none available in your own country) a Content Strategist?
    I believe that none of my clientes ever thought possible for such a job to exist! Everybody always thinks that they can manage it and do it themselves!

    I think Kristina is probably one of the persons that are further ahead in what the web is right now.

  7. The article is quite sound, but its not revolutionary. Its just applying (essentially relearning) the old fashioned disciplines for the delivery of major software projects. Each time there is a new ‘paradigm shift’ in the delivery of software projects all the boring disciplines are forgotten then reinvented. Content strategy relates back to the old ideas of data analysis, modelling and management. The data is more complex as is the usage, but the principles are the same.