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Lounging with the lords of lorem ipsum: What I learned spending 72 hours in Minneapolis with 600 ‘content strategists’

MinnPost illustration by Kelsey King
“Content” is a product of the internet, which was designed by computer engineers and not by writers.

There were two lounges at Confab, the Extrovert Lounge and the Introvert Lounge. The Extrovert Lounge had board games spread among half a dozen tables, such as Scattergories, and Apples to Apples, and Pandemic — whatever that is. The Introvert Lounge offered only a single jigsaw puzzle. And though I never saw anyone working on it, the puzzle came together from one day to the next, as if by invisible hands: a lone, grumpy cat.

The lounges were in back-to-back meeting rooms at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Minneapolis, where Confab — an annual conference about “content strategy” — drew more than 600 people in late May. Content strategy is the work of a “content strategist,” a job that didn’t exist before the Obama presidency and is now ubiquitous. There are content strategists at 3M and General Mills and Best Buy, at banks and universities and museums. In 2010, there were only 763 people on LinkedIn with the title “content strategist.” Today, there are more than 25,000.

Content strategists, like so many digital-era workers, are often refugees from the analog world. During the three-day Confab, I met a former journalist who had spent 10 years at newspapers in Hawaii and Colorado — “I still have PTSD,” she told me — and now works in content strategy for a California agricultural credit company that lends to farmers and ranchers. When wildfires recently approached her community, “I had to tell myself to stay in the house,” she said, and not rush out to write about them. It was no longer her job.

I met a young woman who studied archaeology and hoped to become a primatologist and now designs “content” for an association of medical providers in Waterloo, Iowa. She was at Confab with a coworker, a young man who had gone to graduate school for poetry and now crafts content: mostly emails. He feels he can elevate the material with his ear for the sound of words.

I was in the Extrovert Lounge one morning when a tall, thin woman in glasses sat down at my table and asked if I’d ever played Pandemic. She allowed that she was “not even an extrovert,” but there was simply no more room among the introverts.

She writes for Adobe, the San Francisco-based software company, mostly about fonts, and for years she had considered herself a copywriter. Working for a big corporation, with so many people involved in your job, you’re “always trying to define your space,” she said, and being known as a copywriter helped with that. Everyone understood what it meant.

But then something strange happened. “People started calling me a content strategist,” she told me. “So I’m trying to figure out what that means.”

‘A terrible term’

“Content” is a product of the internet, which was designed by computer engineers and not by writers. They created a grid of boxes where stuff was supposed to go, and they didn’t necessarily care what. Words and pictures. Lorem ipsum. Content.

“Content is king,” Bill Gates wrote in 1996, when he envisioned the major content creators of the analog era — newspapers and magazines and television producers — simply switching to the digital medium of the internet and charging for it. “Content,” he wrote, “is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the internet.”

He was wrong. Publishers and broadcasters are on the internet, of course, but the real money is being made by others, at their expense. Between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue fell from about $60 billion to about $20 billion, wiping out 50 years of gains. By contrast, Facebook made $40 billion in ads last year alone. And because social media is where companies now want to be seen, they need something for you to see. Words and pictures. Content.

Kristina Halvorson remembers the first time she encountered the concept of content strategy, in a magazine article in 2007. She had a theater degree from St. Olaf College, and had spent a couple years working for the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis while selling cell phones on the side. Then she got into copywriting, especially writing for the Web, and by 2007 she had a few other copywriters working with her in Minneapolis at an agency she called Brain Traffic. But mostly their writing was an afterthought, solicited once a website was already designed “and now it was time to fill in the copy, replace the lorem ipsum,” she told me. “We wrote a lot of websites I had no desire to put in my portfolio.”

Kristina Halvorson
Confab
Kristina Halvorson

Content strategy changed all that. Here was something, she told her coworkers, that could add value to their services, that they could charge for. To have a strategy for all that copy, tying it back to a company’s objectives and goals and mission and values. Halvorson literally wrote the book on content strategy for the Web, in 2009, after discovering that many companies’ websites were a mess and she had the only viable rationale for cleaning them up.

Halvorson is now the doyenne of content strategy, with a working definition that hasn’t changed much over the years: “Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” She speaks at conferences around the world, and hosts her own: Confab. Brain Traffic has put on the conference since 2011.

But with the rise of content strategy has come an objection to the phrase itself, mostly from writers. That it is insultingly generic. Emphasizing the container over, well, the contents. Halvorson insists this argument fizzled early on. Maybe. But as recently as May, two weeks before Confab, a marketing industry website called The Drum published an opinion piece by John Long, a creative director at the venerable Ogilvy & Mather ad agency, titled “‘Content’ is a terrible term. Please stop using it.” (He argued the word was “absurdly vague,” and made professional creative work — be it advertising or short films or podcasts — seem like “disposable stuff that appears by happenstance, like plaque or lint.”)

Halvorson, for a wordsmith, is surprisingly incurious about this word. “Yes, it’s information,” she says of content, “but it’s more than that. It needs to be designed and structured and consumed. Content’s the word we have to work with.”

“I’m not much of a semantics person,” she says. “Pick a word and get the work done.”

Where gorgeous prose doesn’t belong

I was at the first Confab, in 2011, when one of the featured speakers was the first editor of newyorker.com, the website of the New Yorker magazine. Much of his talk was about cajoling the magazine’s staff writers, accustomed to writing 10,000-word pieces about baseball or beans, to write short, topical blog posts for the Web, when none of them really wanted to.

I was a senior editor at the time for Minnesota Monthly, which faced a declining future in print. And my long-suffering editor, observing the sea of bright young things at Confab, listening with their laptops open, was optimistic about this content strategy business. They basically do what we do, he told me. This could be your next career if you wanted.

In fact, it is my next career. I left the magazine in 2013, after 18 years in journalism, and now my title is “brand narrator” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I write blog stories, podcasts, in-depth labels — anything that gives voice to the museum. I serve on the content team, I work with a content strategist, and I follow a content calendar. I am, in the digital parlance, a content creator.

It can feel like journalism and sometimes like copywriting, but it never feels like what I used to do. Because what I used to do now seems naive: to write as though nothing mattered but my own instincts, about what’s funny or curious or important, as if I were writing to a friend. The digital world doesn’t permit such a cloistered view of writing. We know who likes it and who shares it. The curtain has been lifted, and now we write with an audience looking over our shoulder.

The New Yorker isn’t discussed at Confab anymore. This year there were sessions on crafting a voice for bots and designing empathetic algorithms. You could learn to write error messages that don’t offend and push notifications that don’t push too hard.

You could learn to write more inclusive, more compassionate, more authentic content, mostly through collaborative, iterative, user-tested processes. You could learn that “Two heads are better: the benefits of pair writing” and that “We’re better and stronger when we work together.” You could learn, from a woman named Biz Sanford, content strategist at Shopify, that writing is “a core element of a well-designed user interface.”

The solitary act of writing for pleasure, it seems, died in a garret while we were all checking Facebook. “Long, gorgeous prose,” a speaker advised, “doesn’t belong on the Web.”

In fact, it’s forbidden. As Katherine Spivey, the plain language enforcer for the United States government, explained at Confab, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires writing in any public space in America to be simple and clear. And because the Web is considered a public space, it must be as straightforward as the restroom signage at Yellowstone National Park. “It’s the law,” Spivey said.

A business gets messy

This isn’t what Bill Gates anticipated. But if the shift from one medium to another hasn’t been seamless, if something has been lost in the process, it’s not because of computer engineers or the government or even content strategists. It’s because of us, the users.

We decided the Web was a place to buy things, to make our lives easier, to avoid dealing with people. And now, by and large, that’s what it has become. Content is transactional.

But writing for consumers has turned out to be messier than writing for readers. Creativity can lead to misunderstanding, which can lead to lost revenue. A 10 percent decline in users completing a transaction online, because the new content was less understood, can translate to millions of dollars.

The stakes are higher now, and so the stakeholders — from Web developers to middle managers — want in on the writing. Every scrap of copy, almost every word, is pored over. Peer-reviewed. Steering-committeed. User-tested. Run through literacy applications to ensure it’s as clear and straightforward as possible. As a copywriter at Confab recalled, when the money became real, stakeholders became anxious, and “The days of just doing whatever we wanted were over.”

Most of the questions directed at Confab speakers by content strategists were about defending their writing to stakeholders. And they were told to fight back with data, with research. But sometimes, they were told, there was only so much you could do. If copy has already been run through legal or been user-tested, you might have to accept it. “In the real world,” a speaker noted, “things get messy.”

In a book called “Letting Go of the Words,” available in the Confab gift shop, you could learn to write not what you want but what works. A form of mindfulness, of surrender, for anyone struggling against the content current.

It might also help if we called content what it generally is: advertising. Which reminds me of another job I briefly held, as a freelance copywriter at an ad agency, in 2000. It was the height of the dot-com boom, when every company wanted a website for the first time, and agencies like the one I worked for in Minneapolis were more than happy to help. They called it information architecture, a new term that allowed the agency to charge enough to fill up the walls with fine art, throw a blow-out party every Christmas, and take all the agency employees on a cruise each winter. But it was advertising, putting companies in front of potential customers, just like it is now.

Sometimes the best strategies are the ones we already know. The Adobe copywriter turned content strategist said she fields more questions now about communications, from managers who are suddenly self-conscious that they’re not being strategic enough, that they should be thinking outside the box, of social-media campaigns or storytelling initiatives.

And she’s not always sure what to say. Because nothing has really changed. Words are words, and overthinking them doesn’t change their meaning. “Sometimes being direct is the best way,” she said. “I’m like, you could just send an email.”

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Comments (4)

Very nice writing, Tim!

Great creative cohesive narrative... er, content.

I might be a malcontent

Good article! It's exactly right in describing the insulting label of "content," whatever's available to fill the space, for the creative, investigative or persuasive work of a writer or artist. The term has bothered me since it came along, so I've made fun of it. I guess I was a content generator and processor in my 37 years at the Star Tribune, producing or refining body text, headlines, captions, photographs, correction mea culpas, and freelance advertising copy on the side.

I'm incapable of handling Twitter, with its character limit. Facebook readers probably roll their eyes and pass up my long posts, because I like to flesh out my thoughts. Well, it's satisfying for me, anyway.

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