Podcast: Kristina Halvorson on Content Strategy

In the three months since we launched our new podcast, Taking Note, we’ve already viewed New Year’s resolutions in a new way, hung out with tech industry celebrities, and explored “radical candor” as a key to leadership.

For Episode 4, we get down to some core principles.

Listen now:

Length: 38 minutes
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Whether we’re talking about our personal lives or our work, real progress requires us to ask some difficult questions: What do we want? What’s it all about?

Beat Bühlmann, head of Evernote’s office in Zürich, Switzerland, challenges us to do just that with his “Swiss PDP Approach” to personal development. Beat’s system, refined over ten years, goes beyond standard ideas of work/life balance to get to the center of who we are as individuals. “It’s like building a house,” he says. “You cannot start with the roof. You have to start with the foundation, and in terms of development, the foundation is you. Who are you? What are your values?”

For content strategist Kristina Halvorson, asking big questions at the beginning is also the key to success. As one of the leading voices in the content field for nearly a decade, she’s seen companies from tech giants to dog food producers succeed or fail online as a result of how well they understand their customers and how well the content of their websites meets real needs. About her company, Brain Traffic, she says: “99 out of 100 people that we talk to, they don’t know what their audiences want to do on their website. It’s shocking. Because if you just dive into ‘what do we want people to do on our site?’ you are going at it backward.”

Highlights of our conversation with Kristina Halvorson are transcribed below. To hear the complete interview and subscribe to future episodes of “Taking Note,” head over to iTunes, SoundCloud, or Google Play.

Content Strategist Kristina Halvorson

What is content strategy?

This question. If I never had to answer this question again I would be so happy. My definition has been evolving along with everybody else’s. And I just, I hate answering the question because I feel like there are a lot of different answers and none of them are necessarily right or wrong. The way that we talk about content strategy when a client comes to us, basically they come to us with problems: “Our content is a disaster.” Or, “We are launching a project with a new website and we want to do it right. We want to think about the content, we don’t want to necessarily start with the mood boards or whatever.”

So the way that we frame it up is: we are going to work with you to identify business goals that the website can have an impact on. We are going to work with you to identify what—and I am getting to the definition, I promise!—what your users want to do and find out once they hit your website. And so when I’m talking about content strategy 90% of the time I am talking about website content strategy and that is the strategic framework that guides planning for the creation, the structure, and the ongoing maintenance of content that your audience cares about, wants, and needs.

A lot of people conflate the concepts of content strategy and content marketing. And a lot of us are asked to do both, wear both of those hats. Content marketing as I see it is more about the application of the content strategy, whereas the content strategy might be about asking those deep questions. What do we do and why? And how do we structure it and maintain it, as you said? But then the marketing is more about, okay if we know what it is that we do and why and how we manage it, what do we do with that?

Oh for sure and you know I have done battle with content marketing for years because I felt like it was taking us so many steps backward. Because the call, the siren call of content marketing was ‘get content and you’ll get customers.’ More content equals more eyeballs and builds trust and engagement. And so what I saw—what I think a lot of us saw—were just companies going “Yes, content” and syndicating and churning out all this crap that nobody cared about. And their websites would remain broken. And that’s where people wanted to actually interact with them and get stuff done.

And it made me nuts to be called in to a dog food company or a plumbing company and these people like “We’re going to double down on content for our marketing.” And again it would just come back to, how do you know that this is what people want or need? Have you talked to them? How can you differentiate from your competitors in the field or are you just trying to keep up with the Joneses? Then that rolled back to these strategy questions.

Where do you think is the best place for somebody who just wants to start? Where do you go?

You go to your users. I own a little company called Brain Traffic. And we are small, there’s only 10 of us. Which is great because we get to be a little picky about the projects that come our way, but 99 out of 100 people that we talk to, they don’t know what their audiences want to do on their website. It’s shocking.

One of my big career gurus, Gerry McGovern, has been yelling about this and tearing his hair out about this literally since 1994. He still writes blog posts about this every Sunday. Same topic. So if you want to start somewhere, take a breath and talk to your users. Go read Louis Rosenfeld’s book Search Analytics for Your Site, find out what people are searching for, go talk to Gerry McGovern and get his Top Tasks methodology. Because if you just dive into—and I see this over and over and over again—what do we want people to do on our site? You are going at it backward.

If you put your user first, your business is going to be successful.

You’ve got to understand—I clearly have a few feelings about this—you’ve got to understand first of all, what you want your website to accomplish for your business and then you’ve got to understand your user expectation and needs. And you know that is a basic tenet of user experience design. If you put your user first, your business is going to be successful. So being able to consider that, marry those, synthesize that information, and then make decisions about content priorities, information architecture, content requirements, voice and tone, all of that stuff. You don’t want to do any of that until you’ve got those key things in place.

You also founded the Confab content strategy conference. The first time I went to that, I thought it was going to be a bunch of people from Silicon Valley companies. And what really struck me was seeing people from all kinds of organizations.

Everybody’s got the same fundamental challenges when it comes to content. And we can talk that language with any organization and what we have found with Confab is that people come together and they all are kind of speaking the same language, they share the same pain points, and they’re looking for the same kinds of answers. And you know that is something that we really like to talk about too, is that you are going to learn from these speakers, but you’re also going to learn from your colleagues who are there at the conference.

What’s really interesting is that the industry has changed so much and so rapidly, even just over the last two years as the idea of designing content for products, and now AI conversation design… It is a complicated thing to keep up with that with programming. The original vision for Confab was, “okay, UX designers and copywriters and corporate communicators and marketers and CMS wonks—let’s all come together under this big tent and learn each other’s language.” Because there hadn’t really been that opportunity before, you know?

Go learn the language of your colleagues. That degree of collaboration is what’s required for really great content.

That still is our vision, but now those conversations are taking place more and more in organizations. And what we’re finding is that people want to go deep. […] The speakers that we bring through the door to these conferences are the most articulate, thoughtful, funny people. And it’s hard for people to choose which sessions to go to. What I just always encourage people is, go learn the language of your colleagues. Yes, you want to take away tools but also go learn what’s on your colleagues’ minds because that degree of collaboration is what’s required for really great content.

How do you like to organize your work? This is something that fascinates us here.

I actually really enjoy using Evernote.


I seriously used to organize all of my client notes, and thinking, and attachments, and documentation in my inbox. Like I had a folder for every client and I would just dump all of the communication into the folder. I still cannot believe I functioned like that, and it was for a very long time.

At Brain Traffic—I feel like I’m giving a plug for Evernote, maybe I am—but all of our business development correspondence happens in Evernote. All of our stakeholder interviews and initial discovery and analysis happens in Evernote. We all share different notebooks and folders. I write a lot of my talks in bed in the dark while I’m laying awake at night and can’t fall asleep, and then it’s just like my brain starts going. So I have a very intimate relationship with Evernote where I will just open it up on my phone and dictate into it at like 11 o’clock at night and that is how—I swear to God—that is how a lot of my talk material gets developed out of my brain.

You can hear the complete interview and subscribe to future episodes of “Taking Note” at iTunes, SoundCloud, or Google Play

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