Interview with Kristina Halvorson

Debbie Hemley By Debbie Hemley  |  Feb. 24, 2012

Content strategy has increasingly become a part of the web design conversation and in large part due to Kristina Halvorson, who has become a noted content advocate and activist.

Kristina is the founder and president of Brain Traffic, an agency specializing in content strategy and writing for the web, author of the groundbreaking book, Content Strategy for the Web, and a frequent speaker at web design conferences worldwide. Over the past months, she and co-author, Melissa Rach, have been hard at work on the second edition of the book which is due out on New Riders in February 2012.

Kristina took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about the evolving world of content strategy.

We thank Kristina for this insightful interview and invite WDD readers to join in the content strategy conversation.

In your article, “Content Strategy and UX: A Modern Love Story,” you wrote, “What’s important is that we [content strategists and UX strategists]  are all are able to talk about shared principles; this is where the foundation for our collaboration truly lies.”  What is your prescription for how content strategists and UX strategists should work together?

Content planning needs to be a part of the mindset of the web project and we need to start thinking about content from day one. We need to ask the right questions: what content do we need, what content do we have already, where does it live, who owns it, and who’s going to take care of it?

Design has to match the content, and content has to match the design. Content will define design choices and designers have been asking for the right content all along. There’s the messaging component—what are users showing up for, what are they looking for? We need to prioritize the content elements so we stay on brand, up-to-date, and have a shared language between content and design.


The second edition of your book, Content Strategy for the Web is due out shortly. What are the major differences you’ve seen in content strategy from the publication of the first edition to the second?

I can’t begin to express the ways in which the content strategy conversation has exploded in the past couple of years. At Brain Traffic we learn from the conversations every day and over time have advocated for the practice of creating a content strategy.

In the second edition of the book we pulled a lot of content that is no longer relevant and added a number of case studies and much more detail. We fleshed-out the strategy and created a new model. Melissa Rach, vice president of content strategy at Brain Traffic, co-authored the book with me and added many of our methodologies.


A few weeks ago you observed (and tweeted), “Google search results of ‘content strategy’ increased 156% in 2011 over 2010. Results for ‘content marketing’ increased 875%. Discuss.”  What do you make about these increases and the differentiation between these two terms? Why in your opinion is content marketing gaining over content strategy?

Content Marketing is a term made popular by Joe Pulizzi and Ann Handley, and my ongoing concern about content is that you can’t create it without strategy. Content marketing is a tactic and when content is not considered strategically, for example. who it’s for, is it being delivered to the right people, how are we positioning it—
we need to have a conversation about what do we need to do to accomplish not just the substance, but the front-end, back-end, workflow, governance, policies and guidelines of content.

With regard to getting content right—any organization where you have a good browsing experience, what you see in the search results, social media, and you’re able to understand who the organization is, and are able to see that they’re up-to-date and relevant.

Landing pages often get a lot of attention but sometimes everything else behind it is in need of work. I compare it to a house that is falling down—you can add lots of coats of paint but eventually you need to deal with the structural needs.


Have updates and shares on social networking sites changed content strategy? If yes, how so? And is this a good or bad thing in your opinion?

Content strategy whether it’s social media or mobile is a channel. It’s largely experience-driven and functional. We need to ask what are the tools we’re using and ask questions such as can we re-use content in another context, what is the voice and tone, and can we make it consistent? Content strategy needs to flex and grow with the way it impacts our lives.


What are the most critical skills that a content strategist should have?

A content strategist needs to be able to ask good questions, and be a good listener. They need to be a communicator through the discovery and planning process and look at the substance and workflow—the core content strategy. They also need to be mediators, editorial managers and understand the elements of user experiences.


What initially brought you to work with websites? What keeps you there?

I started out as a copywriter in print and catalogs. In 2002, I saw what the web industry was about and immediately loved the people in the field, the conferences, and web designers.

I started writing for the web and looking at usability testing and the way users were interacting. It was through my own love for the medium. I’m passionate about it. As a copywriter I became frustrated with the content process and the first edition of the book evolved as a project-based perspective on what I saw that needed to be changed.


You have a blog and Twitter profile for Brain Traffic. What was it about these platforms that makes them good choices to communicate about your company’s work and perspectives in the field?

The company started in 2004 but we didn’t have our blog until 2009; the decision was intentional. We couldn’t sustain it in the beginning. We take the opportunity very seriously as a way to interact with other people. In addition to the posts, we take comments very seriously and are excited to have such a good audience.

On Twitter, both @BrainTraffic and @halvorson, we curate content, pointing people to other posts, events, and pushing content strategy forward.


At one point in time we heard a lot about Web 2.0. And in the past year or so we’ve heard a lot about responsive web design. What do you think are the topics that we’ll be focusing on more in 2012 and beyond?

I think we’ll still be hearing about HTML5 and responsive design. And we’ll be hearing about new ways to deliver content cross-platform and via new technologies.

We’ll continue to evolve the processes and create a common framework for how everyone can work with the copywriter from day one, for example. tech comm, marketing, UX, and business strategists.


What metrics should businesses be looking at to make sure that their web design and content is as effective as it can be?

There’s really no one thing, it depends on what you’re trying to do. Businesses need to look at engagement through sales and conversion, and all industries need to look at user satisfaction.


How do you approach content strategy at Brain Traffic? What are some of your best practices you’d be willing to share?

We’re kicking off a project at Brain Traffic now for updating our website.  It hasn’t been updated in a while and initially we were going to try and take some short-cuts. We thought we could do it in six weeks but we quickly saw that we needed to know what internal resources were available.

We’re now starting at the beginning. We assigned a content strategist, writers, and are tapping into the experience of current clients, looking at user comments, and asking—what do we need and how are we going to find it?


Do you use a content management system at Brain Traffic or ones you recommend for clients?

No, we work with people to identify needs, what they need to do, and what skill sets are needed for a solid user experience. As Karen McGrane said, “Content management systems are the enterprise software that UX forgot.”


Has content strategy become a part of your web design process? Is your team talking about content on day one of a new project? What will need to happen to make that possible?