Kristina Halvorson – A Content Strategy Roadmap

Sean Carmichael

March 20th, 2013

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Kristina Halvorson

A beautiful design means little if it’s not useful. Content is the key to making it useful. From the outset of the design process, you must consider the content for the site. Members of the design and development teams should work alongside the content strategist to ensure the right content is delivered with the right message.

Kristina Halvorson, founder and president of Brain Traffic, is the author of Content Strategy for the Web. In her virtual seminar, A Content Strategy Roadmap, she laid out necessary tools and processes so that your audience is met with timely, appropriate content. During the live seminar, the audience asked a lot of questions of Kristina. She joins Adam Churchill to answer some of those in this podcast.

  • For a content audit of a large site, is it ok to audit just a sample of pages?
  • How can you convince stakeholders which content is truly valuable?
  • Are there ways to deal with highly resistant stakeholders?
  • When making a sample set of a content audit, how do you make sure you don’t lose long term maintenance of the pages?
  • What tools are available for creating editorial calendars?

Recorded: February, 2013
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: Welcome, everyone, to another edition of the SpoolCast. Recently, Kristina Halvorson presented a wonderful virtual seminar called “A Content Strategy Roadmap.” In it, she walked us through a typical website project to demonstrate how, why, where, and when a content strategy happens. Best of all, she showed us how you can do it in your organization, too.

Hey, Kristina. Thanks for joining us again.

Kristina Halvorson: Hi, Adam. It’s my pleasure.

Adam: For those that weren’t with us for your seminar, can you give us an overview of what you talked about?

Kristina: I sure can. When people talk about content strategy, they tend to blow it up into this huge — it is. It’s a huge, complex process that has a lot of moving pieces. What I really tried to do in this seminar was focus on the basics of how to introduce content strategy and the content planning process into a relatively standard, waterfall web design process.

What we did in this seminar was, essentially, really lay out the core processes and tools that are required to make sure that your content ends up being the right content, in the right place, at the right time, to your audience, with everything from messaging to content prioritization on the page to voice and tone.

We learned how to do a content audit and what that spreadsheet should look like and how to make it as useful and usable as possible to all the people that are going to be referring to that throughout the design and development process. It really does break it down step-by-step.

I also worked to show very carefully how the different roles on a website design and development team will work with and interface with your content strategist. Really, what we called it in the presentation is more of the content wrangler, the person with whom the buck stops when it comes to the content, from the very beginning of the process all the way through launch and maintenance.

Adam: In the section where we were talking about auditing, we had a bunch of folks in the audience that were cringing because they’ve got really big sites with lots of pages and lots of information. Jonah sums it up in his question. In the case of larger sites — and he quantifies that as 100 pages or more — is a sampling of the pages OK rather than actually auditing every existing page?

Kristina: That is a great question, although I will say that my definition of a large site really is going to be anything beyond, I don’t know, 1,200, 1,500 pages. In the instance of, let’s take this 100-page site, depending on the kind of content that is in there, I do strongly recommend auditing — at least having an inventory of each page of that website.

Let me just clarify real quickly. When I talk about a content inventory, essentially what I’m talking about is a spreadsheet that just lists out all of the different pieces of content that we’re responsible for in our project teams or within the areas of our organization, where it is really just listing out the URL, the page title, potentially the page topic, and other kind of quantitative information, like when was this published, when was the last time it was touched, et cetera. When I’m talking about inventorying the content, that’s what I’m talking about.

When we’re discussing auditing the content, that is typically where we get into some more qualitative attributes, like readability, relevance to audience, things that are going to require human or editorial input.

Having said that, a site of 100 pages is really something that I think we can tackle, not just from a quantitative perspective but also from that qualitative. Now, when you get up into the 1,000, 2,000, 10,000, hundreds of thousands of pages, that sample audit is something that really will come in to be very, very useful.

I almost never recommend tackling, “We’ve got 100,000 pages. Let’s figure out how we’re going to audit this thing.” You’ve got to really prioritize top areas of content to look at, which can be based on audience interest or relevance, the content that you really need to be presenting in order to help meet your business objectives.

A really good example is if you’ve got a support section and you’re trying to drive down call quantity to customer service or to your support team, how can we take a look at that section and identify which areas we need to look at or we need to audit for best results.

So, all that said — I’m coming back around to the question, I swear. [laughs] All that said, in order to identify which parts of your content to audit, you need to identify the attributes you’re looking to get at. If you look at your business objectives — and again, let’s take the case of “We want to drive down call volume.” Well, obviously, to our support team, there are a couple of different areas that you’ll want to audit.

Probably the home page and the key landing pages throughout the product sections that people may be going to looking for that information, figuring out how you’re greeting them on the support and so on.

Those are your key landing or your way-finding pages. And then, in terms of pulling out a sample set, in this instance, identify what those templates are and then maybe pull 10 to 15 different content samples from each of those templates to really take a look at.

To summarize, we want to have what are your business objectives, who are the audiences that you need to impact or have an effect on that will help to achieve those business objectives from an activity standpoint, and then what core areas of content are they interacting with that are making or breaking the success of those objectives.

I wish it were like, “B. Always go with B.” But it’s not. It’s a complicated question, and a great question.

Adam: Somebody that owns the content, right? They’re working with lots of other folks that want their little pieces added. How do you help your sponsors understand exactly which contents are important and what’s truly necessary for the people that are using those pages? How do you get them to understand that what they’re asking for is trivial content and something they just want to have there rather than something that’s truly useful? How do you get over that hurdle?

Kristina: Another great question. Interestingly, a lot of the clients that we’re working with, this is one of the key problems that they have and why their websites are the way they are now, is that they’ve just been saying yes to everyone because there haven’t been any guidelines or benchmarks or rules when it comes to publishing content on the site or sites or elsewhere.

Really, there are a couple of core tools that we try to introduce or develop, the first of which is really trying to create, whether you want to focus on user personas or user stories, anything that would really help your internal audiences or your sponsors or your content stakeholders, owners, et cetera, understand, “Look, here’s what we know our audiences want.”

“Here’s what we know they need. Here’s what we know they are reacting to.” So that you have that hard data and user research to really be able to give it to them to provide some context to the content, the outcomes they’re really asking for or looking for.

I think that so much of our content is created and published based on assumptions of what it is we think we know about our audiences or what we think our audiences want. Any sort of tool that can be easily referenced or rolled out or made available to the content creators and requesters is really important.

Another way to do it, I think, having some sort of messaging hierarchy that exists throughout a website or an area of the website where we can begin to map back the content that people are requesting to our priority messages, whether it is throughout a section or per page, and helping them to see whether or not that content is going to actually expand upon or ladder back up to that message.

Or if it’s just something off in left field that’s nice to have, that’s, “Just in case somebody wants it, we’ll throw it out there.”

Adam: Related, Kristina, what about tips for people that are working with highly resistant stakeholders?

Kristina: Oh, yes. [laughs] This is one of the things when the content strategy conversation really started to take shape that quickly became apparent and that I think, as a web writer, I was always frustrated by, which is that so much of what we end up with for content has so little to do with anything other than personalities of our internal stakeholders or preferences or agendas or the politics.

It’s just incredible how our website is like a hotbed for political and personal strife. When you are dealing with highly resistant stakeholders, it becomes a sales process. That’s where every single person involved in the design at that process becomes a consultant, because you have to be able to identify, why is this person resistant?

What is this person afraid of? What is this person upset about? Why are they upset about it? What has happened in the past that has caused this person to push back so much on any level of change? Are they seeing guidelines as restrictions? Why are they seeing that? It becomes a lot more, at that point. Corey Vilhauer of Blend Interactive has done a really terrific job of writing about empathy in the design process.

I think maybe his work is geared more towards audience, having empathy for your audience. But in my mind, so much of the content process is learning how to empathize with resistant stakeholders in particular so that you can reach some sort of an agreement with them about, “I understand that these are what your needs are.

Now, we understand where those needs are coming from. Let’s talk about how we can align those with what we know are our user expectations and their needs so that we can get the work done and make sure that everybody is successful in this.”

It’s incredible. That can boil down to a short little paragraph on a home page, or what the subhead says on a landing page, for example. But, again, it’s making sure that people feel heard and making sure that you’re communicating clearly the context from which you are approaching the problem that will help move you forward in that conversation. Just sticking them with, “This is what the rule is,” that’s just going to put you backwards.

Adam: Laura asks a question back to the audit process and what that leaves you with. When you’re making that sample set of content audit, how do you make sure that you don’t lose long term maintenance of the pages? By maintenance, she’s talking about making sure that everything on the site is necessary, updated, and, probably most important, owned.

Kristina: In that instance, I probably would introduce… Well, let’s back up. Why is the sample audit being conducted in the first place? That is the core question there. What is it that we’re hoping to accomplish with that? Typically, in that instance, we’re looking at qualitative attributes. We’re looking at readability. We’re looking at audience relevance.

We’re looking at timeliness, to see whether or not it’s still on-brand. We’re looking at page structure. We’re looking at inconsistencies across different types of content. That’s typically, when we’re doing a sample audit, what we’re trying to get at and demonstrate in terms of the current state of the site as a whole.

When we’re talking about making sure that we have an eye on and are capturing and wrangling all of the content on the site, that becomes more of a management or, to her point, a maintenance issue. And then, in that instance, I would probably introduce more of a rolling inventory, which Lou Rosenfeld wrote about on a blog post quite some time ago.

That has been successful for many clients that I know in terms of really understanding the landscape of the site or the larger ecosystem of the website or websites that they are responsible for. And then, on a calendar, whether it’s a 6, 12, 18-month basis, really divvying up — “We are constantly going to be auditing the content on this site, checking for these specific attributes.”

Mark McCormick, who’s with Wells Fargo out in San Francisco, likened it to painting the Golden Gate Bridge, where you start at one end and you paint it section by section, and then as soon as you’re done with it, you start all over again. In that instance, if you are worrying about keeping track of all the content on your site, I would really recommend setting up some kind of an ongoing, rolling inventory like that.

Adam: One of the things that our audience is always after is the resources that our experts use. What type of editorial calendar tools do you use or recommend?

Kristina: I have yet to see anything more powerful than a simple Excel spreadsheet or Microsoft Project. I think that you can use tools like Basecamp and just set up alerts and tasks for people to manage. I will say that trying to get any kind of an automated editorial calendar, where people just seed the guidelines and deliver their stuff and it goes up and it goes live, you do have to have a person attached to it.

Think about how magazines have run for centuries at this point. There is an editorial calendar. Whether it exists in a spreadsheet or a Word doc or anything else, you’ve got to have somebody who is overseeing that and mapping the content development and ensuring that everybody’s upholding their end of the bargain.

Adam: Very cool. Thanks for circling back with us. Really appreciate it.

Kristina: Yeah, absolutely. I hope that this has been useful.

Adam: Time with you always is, so thank you.

Kristina: Oh, go on.

Adam: [laughs] To our audience, thanks for listening and for your support of the virtual seminar program.

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