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An Interview with Julie Vollenweider

In Minnesota we are blessed with a ton of talented, forward thinking agencies and Brain Traffic tops them all. Much like Plaudit Design, Brain Traffic's services help clients use content to support business objectives that meet user goals. Content Strategy plans for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content. Brain Traffic is the leader in Content Strategy with published books and articles, panelists , keynote speakers and are lauded as the “ patron saint of content strategy .”

We consistently hear that writing good content is harder than most clients think. We figured we would spend some time with Brain Traffic to give you some tips, information about trends and how to get started approaching your content strategically.

How did you get into Content Strategy? What were you doing before joining the Brain Traffic team?

My background is primarily from a copy perspective. I started working at a large advertising agency doing events, PR, sponsorships and other non-traditional advertising stuff. Then I moved to a smaller shop working as an account executive and did everything from business development to writing to client services.

Next, I found my passion in writing work as the editor for the Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association (now called Meet Minneapolis). This is where I met Kristina [Halvorson, Brain Traffic founder]. We hired her to come in and do a web writing training.

Sticking with my editorial role, I moved to Ameriprise Financial and focused on online content work. This is where I began to do “content strategy,” but nobody had labeled it as such.

This background gave me holistic exposure to what's going on from user experience, business schools and how everything connects. Many of my Brain Traffic team members have the same type of story: Well rounded and content focused backgrounds. Our team members have qualifications that span library science, information architecture, design, usability, writing, editing and a heck of a lot more.

What is Content Strategy?

The most simple way that we break it down is that Content Strategy is using content to achieve your business goals. That's the high level place that we start but there are a lot of different facets that we shape to individual companies. At it's core its using content for your business goal.

How do I know I need Content Strategy? Are their certain issues that arise through a process that lead me to reevaluate my content in a strategic approach?

There are really a variety of reasons that happen to come to this realization. There is some degree of complexity. A reaction could be "Oh my god we have so much content what do we do to this?!" to "We have too many people responsible for too many things. How do we even know who's supposed to do what?". A lot of clients say two things:

  1. I have no idea what content we even have or who is responsible for it.
  2. It should be better but I'm not sure what I should do.

( Interviewer Note: For more notes on examples for complexity check out Brain Traffic's blog article on Conquering Complex Projects .)

What's the best way to get started?

We have a methodology that we use and we talk about this on our blog. We first break down the content components [what the content is and how it gets prioritized and organized] and then the people components [how content moves through the organization and how decisions are made].

Our process is highly customized in that we will scale it, and then figure out what's happening currently and make recommendations for what to do next. Our core content strategy has four main parts (which we affectionately call “The Quad”):

  1. Substance – Raw information.
  2. Structure – How it's organized, prioritized and accessed.
  3. Workflow – The people, the processes and the steps. Who does what and then when in the process. Creating it, publishing it, and figuring out how to handle it.
  4. Governance – Ensuring ongoing relevance. What do you need in place so that over time [the content] continues to do what it's needed to do. Like an editorial board or a style guide to ensure consistency across the board.

In looking at these components we can give some recommendations for where to go next.

( Interviewer Note: For more details check out Brain Traffic's blog article on The Four Main Components .)

What are some of your favorite projects? What types of projects are a good fit for Brain Traffic?

Our favorite projects at Brain Traffic are those with the most complexities. Complexities can include amount of content, amount of people involved in the content process (creating it, publishing it, approving it, requesting it, etc), highly customized content, modular content (published to many locations and platforms), and content in multiple languages/countries.

These global projects come with unique considerations. Another example is a client who has hundreds of thousands of content assets. Complexity is what we get really excited about.

From a project level as long as the complexity is there and the people are eager and willing to share information is what leads to a great recipe for success. Another ingredient for success is empowerment! Empowerment is needed to implement content strategy, take charge of content and enforce standards. Project success is really a perspective kind of a thing.

At Plaudit Design we LOVE content! We tell people that we can plan a site so it's intuitive, we can design a site so it looks great, we can develop a site so it works but without content it's just a pretty site. From our own perspective we put a lot of focus on how our new site flows: Homepage to Portfolio to About Us and finally to our Contact Us page. Site analytics has shown us that content throughout pages like "About Us" is just as important as our homepage.

The good news is that more and more people are coming to this realization. People don't devote a ton of energy to content strategy yet (although some do!), but across the board we are seeing that people are really interested in "about us" type of content. In our experience people will definitely spend time with your content so long as it's useful, usable and relevant. Good content doesn't have to be on the homepage or “once click away.” People come to your site to figure out who you are just as much as the come to your site to figure out what you do .

Where do you see the industry headed in the next five years?

Hmm.. you know I think there are a few things that are going to happen:

  1. Awareness and attention to content will continue to grow. A lot of people are still in the awareness stage of Content Strategy. People are just figuring out that content is just as important as design, user experience and more! A well-designed site might get you so far, but if you don't have quality content to complement the design then you've still got a ways to go.
  2. In terms of the actual work, I would anticipate that more and more people will experiment with Content Strategy using their own internal resources. If this switches our work as a vendor may shift from “getting them up and running” to “taking content strategy to the next level.”

What changes have you seen in the last 12 months?

We're seeing people in general being hungry for content. More and more people are trying to get a solid handle for what content they have. We are seeing more conversations about how clients are auditing. It's a great first step to figure out what they even have. The Internet has shown us that there is so much published content and people don't have a plan to deal with their legacy content.

Any advice for people looking to start a blog?

Well a question to ask yourself is if you need a blog with constantly changing content, or is your content Evergreen in nature. Evergreen content means that you can have content that doesn't need ton of time devoted to it because it will always hold true. Let's say you're a company that produces a widget that hasn't changed over the last 100 years which means things will stay the same. But very few companies can live with evergreen content because mission shifts, news is coming out, new products are created. This all requires work.

If a blog is a good fit for your needs then:

  1. Be thoughtful about what you want to put out there before you start.
  2. Discussions about what's realistic as to what can be made. If you don't have the time or people to keep up with the blog it it's going to be a problem.
  3. Make sure you have a plan in place that makes the blog workable. You need to scale the content or bring in more people in to help.
  4. If the goal is to increase sales then make sure the voice always come back to the goal. The blog's goal needs to guide all decisions around the blog.
  5. You need consistency in place. Make sure you have a guideline as to what angle you will approach things from.

Do you give different approaches for clients with different budgets? How big does a company need to use Brain Traffic effectively?

There is a lot of scalability. The general approach to looking at the four components is going to hold true. But if you have a lower budget we may focus on one of those instead of the whole quad. There's no "you're too small" for content strategy.

For More Info...

Brain Traffic's blog is an awesome resource because it is filled with amazing, rich and actionable content. Brain Traffic lists a four step process for starting a strategic approach to tackle your content:

  1. Analyze and Align - "This is when we dig into our clients’ content ecosystem to determine what content they have, where it comes from, who’s involved in creating, publishing, and maintaining it, what challenges they encounter, etc."
  2. Define the Strategic Intent - "This phase is when we home in on the central ideas for how the content strategy will help our clients meet their business goals. The output typically addresses implications for the four components of content strategy: substance, structure, workflow, and governance."
  3. Specify the substance, structure, workflow, and governance - "During this phase, we detail how the content strategy comes to life. Again, the outputs depend on several factors, but can include things like content evaluation criteria, topics maps, site maps, wireframes and templates, workflow diagrams, a governance model … you get the idea."
  4. Implement the Strategy - "We don’t always help clients with this phase, but when we do it starts with a plan for getting things done and the tools necessary to do so. Depending on our role, outputs might include page tables or outlines, web copy, metadata and taxonomy schemas, and migration spreadsheets."

See for more details.

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