Future Practice Interview: Kristina Halvorson

April 7, 2009 4:58 AM

As part of our Future Practice webinar series, we're interviewing presenters to give you a preview of what they'll cover. Next up is Brain Traffic's Kristina Halvorson on content strategy.

Her webinar Content Strategy for Websites takes place on April 23, 2009, 1-2pm EST. Use code RMWBNR for a 20% discount off your ticket purchase.

Lou Rosenfeld: Kristina, thanks for talking with us today. Let's jump right in: what is content strategy?

Kristina Halvorson: Content strategy plans for the creation, delivery, and maintenance of content. I typically talk about content strategy for the Web.

This field of practice is unique from print (or campaign-based) communications strategy in that, once the content's out there, it's "alive"—it's being indexed, bookmarked, re-posted, commented upon, mashed up—so up-front planning and governance becomes that much more important. What are you going to deliver online? Why? For whom? By whom? What will it look like, how will it sound?

Recently, I interviewed Mark McCormick, Senior Vice President, Customer Experience at Wells Fargo. Mark defines content strategy the way a journalist approaches an investigative piece: "Content strategy asks what, where, when, why, how, and how much content." I think that's another terrific way to look at the practice.

Lou Rosenfeld: How is it different from content management?

Kristina Halvorson: Content management typically focuses on the "how" of content delivery and, sometimes, maintenance. If you take a look at what people within the content management communities are discussing, you'll mostly find conversations about taxonomies and technologies. How are we structuring the content for publication and reuse? Which systems are best suited to manage our content assets?

The primary difference in this traditional approach is that it focuses on content as packets of information to be managed, rather than a strategic asset that can make or break our user experience. There's lots of focus on automating content management, which, to me, is counter-productive. I'm much more interested in finding out how we can better involve human beings in planning for and maintaining content; persuasive, meaningful content necessarily requires editorial oversight, and that means involving people with points of view.

Lou Rosenfeld: When is it important to practice? Why?

Kristina Halvorson: So much pain and suffering would be alleviated if we would just assign an individual ownership of the content planning and creation processes at the beginning of a project lifecycle.

The most obvious and common downfall of ignoring (or glossing over) content strategy is that, when it comes time to "go get the content," projects fall apart. Clients aren't prepared for the enormity and complexity of gathering, creating, reviewing, and tagging content. Agencies are asking traditional copywriters to fill in the "lorem ipsum" on wireframes that hold little context or meaning for the writer.

The other common challenge is that many organizations still consider content as something that's created, launched, and complete. Of course, that's no longer the case. Web content requires care and feeding. It can be measured, reworked, redeployed. It needs human-powered ownership and oversight for a lifetime, not just pre-launch.

Lou Rosenfeld: How does content strategy relate to user experience design? Does it lead to a better experience?

Kristina Halvorson: Oftentimes, the person responsible for identifying content requirements (for example, the information architect) isn't ultimately responsible for content creation and maintenance. That means they're viewing the content through a completely different lens than the content owners.

If it's an IA, they're coming at the content from a taxonomy and structural standpoint. "How can I categorize these topics in a meaningful way? How should this page template be structured to provide flexibility within the CMS?"

These are important questions, but they simply can't be considered out of context from other critical content-related issues: How much content is there now? How much will there be? Is the content mapping back to strategic business objectives and user tasks? What is the messaging strategy and hierarchy throughout the user experience?

For content to be valuable to a user, it must be useful, usable, and enjoyable. Content strategy considers the "meat" of the content and, based on what we know about user needs and top tasks, creates guidelines to help steer content creators towards successful outcomes.

One other note, here: It's so easy, when brainstorming content requirements, to list a whole lot of "nice to haves" on our whiteboard or spreadsheet. This approach ends up hurting UX in two ways. First, we don't realistically consider available resources prior to the "design/create" phase: What do we have, what do we need, how long will it take, and how much will it cost? Second, we skip the all-important step of mapping content types and features to agreed-upon strategic objectives and user goals.

Lou Rosenfeld: How did you get involved with content strategy?

Kristina Halvorson: I started writing for websites in 1997. I was a freelance copywriter for a few years before I decided to specifically focus on writing for the web in 2002. I ended up backing into content strategy after getting handed one too many site maps that obviously hadn't considered the "why" or "how much" of the content.

Lou Rosenfeld: How would you describe the state of content strategy practice today?

Kristina Halvorson: When I first put "interactive content strategist" on my business card in 2002, I thought I'd made up the title. It wasn't until December, 2007 that I first saw someone else use the phrase "content strategy," when Rachel Lovinger's article appeared in Boxes and Arrows. I've since learned that people have been practicing content strategy since the late '90s.

A List Apart dedicated their December 2008 issue to content strategy, which provided tremendous visibility to the practice. In just a few short months, there's been a sharp increase in the number of companies, agencies, and practitioners who are talking about and looking for information about content strategy. That's exciting stuff!

The good news is that there are huge bodies of knowledge that just need to be tapped into and shared. With the help of several other content strategists and UX leaders, I'm working hard to facilitate that sharing throughout the UX community. The Content Strategy Consortium (held in March 2009 at the IA Summit) was a terrific first step. Practitioners are launching blogs, posting slides, holding meet-ups... the community is growing rapidly. The question right now is if and how we'll organize to better facilitate conversation and knowledge share. I'm sure it will happen, as soon as someone finds the time!

Lou Rosenfeld: What are the really tough problems that content strategy is hoping to solve (but may not have yet)?

Kristina Halvorson: I'd say that one of the biggest, hairiest questions I'm getting asked is how to plan for and govern user-generated content. I'm very impressed by the work Maggie Fox of the Social Media Group is doing in this arena. She presented a case study with Ford's Scott Monty at the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco called "Letting Go of Your Content." It provided some hard data about creating a content strategy that allows users to take your content and run with it (under Creative Commons licensing). Really exciting stuff.

The second tough question on the table is whether content strategists should be preparing for the semantic web. I'll say right now that my content strategy expertise is not in hardcore metadata strategy—I call out Rachel Lovinger for that! But how content strategy can and should be informing the quest towards intelligent content is an area of discussion that's ripe for presentations, panels, and documentation.

Finally, there's a huge paradigm shift that still needs to occur within most agencies and organizations towards treating content like a business asset and not an afterthought. Jeff MacIntyre has a very smart, common-sense approach to helping companies understand their identities as publishers—which, we all are, aren't we? User experience managers need to explore ways in which content strategy can help establish (or, at least, contribute to) editorial standards and policies that deeply consider our users' needs.

Lou Rosenfeld: What are the biggest opportunities content strategy presents to agencies? Corporations? End users?

Kristina Halvorson: Figuring out how to engage all the content "players" throughout an organization—marketing, technology, the business, creative—as strategic partners in a clearly-defined, well-governed content process can result in more streamlined content creation and management, a more persuasive and meaningful end product, and decreased liability and exposure online.

Lou Rosenfeld: Thanks very much Kristina; you've opened my eyes to content strategy, and I'm looking forward to learning more from your webinar!