2014: The Year in Content

Rachel Lovinger   December 23, 2014


 In 2014, familiar content surfaced in exciting new forms. Photo via Cross-stitch ninja

The year is almost over, and Jake Keyes and I thought it would be a good time for us to take part in the year-end tradition of looking back at some of the interesting trends we observed in 2014. This year we’ve seen some old media reinventing itself, and a lot of new media taking on some of the traits of its more established cousins. It’s a fascinating time to be in this field.

Hashtags Got Serious

Last year Facebook joined Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Vine in supporting the use of hashtags for tagging and finding content. So now we can #selfie and #LOL in even more of our networks. But this year we saw the rise of hashtags to create and spread several important national conversations. #YesAllWomen, #Ferguson and #ICantBreathe allowed people all over the country (and the world) to share their thoughts on the impact of these events, and also became a critical part of the way these stories were discussed in traditional news media.

Newspapers Doubled Down on Interactive Storytelling

At the end of last year, on December 20th, The New York Times published an interactive map of U.S. dialects. In just a few weeks it became the paper’s most visited piece of content of the year. If 2013 was the breakout year for interactive journalism, 2014 marked the year that it became a staple of the industry. There were dozens of excellent examples: The Times had pieces like its map of baseball fandom and a chart of political views by birth year. The Washington Post used a digital format to highlight findings in the CIA interrogation report and to look at how Ebola spreads. This trend has not been without controversy. At The New Republic, a push toward interactive storytelling and digital media was part of Chris Hughes’s vision for the magazine, a vision which led most of the magazines writers and editors to quit. It is clear that well-made interactive stories draw readers, and spread quickly on social media. Time will tell how far their adoption spreads beyond the largest news outlets.

Delivery Platforms Became Content Channels

If you stream digital TV shows or movies, you probably get most of it from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon (assuming you’re getting it legally). In the past few years, Netflx, Hulu & Amazon have also been trying their hands at making original serial programming. This year Amazon had a breakout hit in Transparent, while Netflix has made the biggest commitment to original programming, announcing scads of new series coming in 2015, as well as returning seasons for their current hits House of Cards and Orange is the New Black (not to mention more original episodes of Arrested Development). Other digital channels, such as Yahoo! Screen and Crackle, are also looking to make a dent in this forum, but without the pre-established audiences of their competitors, they’ve got some catching up to do.

Amateur Creators Went Pro

At the same time, over on the UGC channels where we’ve always had the possibility of breakout celebrities, popular creators started to emerge as bonafide media personalities. This year, YouTube promoted their stars’ channels with traditional billboard and TV ads. In New York City, we even saw their faces plastered across subway cars. Meanwhile, Twitch has helped turn E-Sports into a full-blown phenomena, with the rise of popular content-creator/e-athletes, national championship competitions, and coverage in both video game and traditional news media.

Blog Neglect Continued to Spread

I started the year with a post on how to attack “Blog Slump”, but we failed to take our own advice and we only managed to publish a dozen posts this year. But when I was doing research for that piece in January, I discovered that we’re not alone – many of the most outspoken and prominent voices in Content Strategy had been neglecting their blogs as well. I’m not too bothered by it, since I think this is a sign that maybe we’ve moved past the easy “Content Strategy 101” discussions. Plus, a lot of those voices are still expressing themselves, just in more distributed places.

But Podcasts Are Having a Renaissance

In a landscape with so many sources of streaming video, the idea of listening to podcasts might seem like pushing your TV off the media center to replace it with an old radio. But podcasting has continuously provided an outlet for smart comedians, scientists, film aficionados, designers and countless other professionals and amateurs with something to share. And as podcasts like Serial and Welcome to Night Vale proved, it’s also a place for episodic storytelling. In fact, this year, there are so many lists of great podcasts, someone could make a “Top 10 Lists of Best Podcasts” List.

And of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give honorable mention to The LEGO Movie, one of the most fun movies of the year, and quite possibly the most successful example of branded content of all-time. What content trends did you get excited about this year?

Book Review: Nicely Said

Jake Keyes   October 2, 2014

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose, a new manual of style, not only provides a process for creating good web writing, but makes a philosophical case for why writers need to set a higher standard for digital content. The book’s authors are Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. Fenton, an independent writer, has had a range of work experience in digital, from small design studios to such major operations as Facebook and Apple. Kiefer Lee is a writer at MailChimp, where she created the famous MailChimp style guide

Nicely Said is a friendly read, with a conversational style. It’s full of case studies from prominent digital writers, like Margot Bloomstein and Etsy’s Randy J. Hunt, and it features plenty of tactics ready for daily use, like “mission statement madlibs” and sample deliverables. At first glance, the book presents itself as a manual for relative beginners. The authors’ goal is “to unravel the mysteries of the writing process and help [writers] create useful and meaningful web content.” For many of us the ‘mystery’ of web content has probably long faded, and the rigorous preparation methods laid out in the next chapters may seem like a rare luxury. (Reader interviews, mission statement documents, and content success metrics, for example, seem like solid ideas, but oftentimes in practice these fall away given an aggressive project schedule. In other words, we end up just writing the damn thing.)

But in its later sections, as the book builds it case, the chapters turn to the serious business of creating written experiences.

UX for the Written Word

One of the central concepts of Nicely Said is to include empathy in your writing process — to inhabit the mind of your audience. There is a strong parallel here between writing and UX design. “Think about the situation your readers are in,” they write. “What did they come here for?” This is exactly the kind of get-in-your-users’-heads empathy that makes for good UX, and probably a good starting point for cross over between writing and design disciplines. For whatever reason, sometimes it seems ok to be dense, jargon-y, or ungenerous in writing. When it comes to creating content that embodies a brand, it’s especially important to have the kind of empathy that Nicely Said is insisting upon.

I especially like the authors’ approach to user flows. This is a process I’ve done many times informally, and I think would be beneficial for many projects. “Take an inventory of the flows on your site. Write down the most important actions people can take. Choose one flow to start with….Go through the flow, step by step, and make notes about the language you see…” In other words, put together a UX-style user flow, with an eye for the words along the way.

Showing your Work(flow)

A second, indirect use of the book is equally important: it’s helpful not just for doing written work, but for explaining it to clients and team members. This will be especially useful to people trying to establish editorial teams, pitch new business, or deal with a skeptical account manager.

The book goes into useful detail about the many writing and editorial roles that are necessary for a healthy content operation, gives an easy to understand vocabulary for the writing process, and generally demystifies what goes on in a writers’ head. It can be difficult to explain why good writing takes time, and in Nicely Said we’re given a capable set of tools for explaining and quantifying the people and steps involved.

What Makes Writing Good

Nicely Said is basically a style manual, but it’s also a kind of a manifesto. It addresses some of the most important threats facing modern writing – the simultaneous pressures of corporate-speak on the one side, and link bait on the other – which push the written word to a point where it loses its authenticity.

So what can writers do to fight back? We talk all the time about the best experience for our “users”, and really we should treat readers with the same amount of care. Good writing is honest and approachable. To hold yourself to these standards, the authors recommend a few simple questions. “is it useful / is it true / is it nice?”

This book isn’t just about how to write for websites. It’s a manual that will move UX practitioners toward good writing practices, and writers toward user-focused design thinking.

How savvy retailers use educational content

Melanie Seibert   September 8, 2014

 Oh, the things you can learn online. Photo via Kate Bolin

Ecommerce is tough business. On one hand, you’ve got behemoths like Walmart using its massive scale to lower prices, and Amazon improving shipping options every day. On the other hand, high-end subscription services like Stitch Fix and Birchbox offer new combinations of expert advice, convenience, and no-risk product trials.

The constantly changing competitive landscape makes it tough to compete on price, shipping, and even service. What’s a retailer to do?

Enter content strategy

Content is one area in which every retailer can compete. Having a retail niche and a perspective that sets you apart give you a competitive advantage. The next step is to craft a content strategy to help you deliver that perspective to potential customers at the right times, in the right ways.

I’ve noticed one particular content type that many retailers are using to differentiate from the competition: educational content. It encompasses everything from do-it-yourself tutorials to technical primers to video demos. This content teaches the customer to use a product in new or better ways.

And it’s interesting to see how retailers are integrating educational content into the shopping process.

Here are 4 examples of smart ecommerce companies setting themselves apart by providing great educational content.

1. Crutchfield

For over 10 years, this venerable electronics retailer has offered learning articles answering questions like, “what is Wi-Fi?” and “what type of car stereo should I buy?”

Crutchfield’s method of integrating DIY and informative information into its online store (via its Crutchfield Labs microsite) isn’t technologically earth-shattering. But what is impressive is the sheer quantity and quality of the articles they offer. From videos that show you how to set up a whole-house audio system to in-depth technical discussions, Crutchfield’s content helps prepare customers to purchase, and earns their trust and loyalty.

(Disclaimer: I used to work for Crutchfield. But I’m pretty sure their content is objectively awesome.)

2. Wool and the Gang

If you love to knit, Wool and the Gang was made for you. Cleverly combining community with commerce, this site offers video lessons on knitting, and sells its wares in the form of ready-made project kits.

But it’s not exclusively for knitters. Each product offers two options:

  1. If you’re a knitter, select “Knit your own” to choose the items you need for your project. Already have knitting needles? Just add the wool to your cart.
  2. Just want a sweater? Select “Made by the Gang” to get your item pre-made by a dyed-in-the-wool artisan.

This unusual approach to selling works to engage everyone from non-knitters who just want to buy beautiful clothes, to knitting beginners looking for instruction, to veterans looking for new inspiration and projects.

The beautiful ultra-hip visuals and passionate vibe differentiate WATG as a unique shopping experience. Its educational videos and do-it-yourself-friendly product listings add even more inspirational flavor to the site.

3. Brit + Co

Speaking of passionate crafters, Brit + Co describes itself as “an online media and e-commerce platform that provides tools to teach, inspire, and enable creativity among women and girls.”

Powered by a strong “maker” ethos, Brit + Co prioritizes learning over selling, even unabashedly linking from its projects to other retailers’ sites. Its own “SHOP” section is the last item in its navigation.

While this may look like a risky move for a retailer, it’s clear that Brit + Co sees itself as more than that. It’s a cause, and one that’s likely to inspire devoted fans who don’t mind hunting for cool treasures in its unique online shop.

4. Vat19

While genius ecommerce sites like Dollar Shave Club, Groupon, and Woot! have famously taken retail copywriting to new levels of creativity and humor, Vat19 adds another element: the comic-yet-informative video product demo. For an example, see the Bandit Guns Rubber Band Shotgun description and video.

Not only are Vat19’s videos funny, they actually show you how to get the most out of their unusual products.

Make education part of your strategy

So how can your ecommerce site use educational content to compete? Of course, it depends on your industry.

If you sell a traditional product—thimbles, for example—find new applications for them. An effective tactic could be as simple as creating a photo-heavy blog post series explaining new and exciting ways to integrate thimbles into one’s home décor.

If, on the other hand, you sell a highly technical product, your customers (especially newer ones) probably have questions about how to use it. Listen to them. Create a plan for educating them with concise yet informative content, whether it’s text, audio, or video.

But no matter what you sell, integrating educational content into your ecommerce website differentiates you from your competition, engaging and rewarding loyal customers and attracting new audiences. When you help your fans develop new skills or use your products better, it gives them more to love about your store. And that’s a project that’s well worth your time and effort.

Making friends with the 404 page

Melanie Seibert   May 2, 2014

 On the web, we can do better than a blank billboard. Photo via id iom

Wouldn’t it be great if everything online went right all the time? You click a link and it takes you exactly where you wanted to go. You find that recipe in a timely manner. You renew your driver’s license (or sign up for a class, or order shoes for your niece) lickety-split, no problems.

It’s a nice thought.

In fact, our real life online too often deviates from our utopian ideal of the digital experience. Servers go down. Cryptographic protocols get hacked. Files move and can’t be found.

As a content strategist, at least you can improve one of those scenarios.

The venerable HTTP code 404 error page (some usability experts have gone so far as calling it the “dreaded” 404 error page—but we won’t go that far) has its roots in the beginnings of the web. And while we won’t provide a full history lesson here (you can find that on Wikipedia), let’s just say we’ve all run into it.

If you’re in charge of content for a website, befriending your 404 page is important. It can turn an otherwise unsatisfactory user experience into an okay—or even delightful—one. I know this may be tough for some of us to accept—me included. But a 404 is not the end of the world.

I’ve searched around for the best tips on creating 404 pages, and compiled them here, along with a couple of my own.

An ounce of prevention

First, take precautions. Do everything you can to prevent the visitor from seeing a 404 in the first place. Maybe it’s my background in ecommerce, where every bounce represents cold, hard cash, but the idea of showing an interested visitor a 404 page gives me chills.

Specifically, when you remove pages from your site (and we know you do, because you’re big on maintaining that content!), set up a 301 redirect to send traffic where you want it to go. Is there a new version of the page? Did you retire a product and want to show your visitors the newer, shinier version? Don’t make them hunt for it. HTTP code 301 lets you send them there. If you want to learn more, The Moz Blog offers a good explanation of 301 rewrites and redirects.

If there is no replacement file—it hasn’t been moved, it’s gone for good—don’t redirect your 404 page itself. For example, don’t send the visitor to the homepage instead of a 404 page. That will just confuse them. (“Does the homepage have the widget I was searching for?” they may think. “Or did I just get redirected?”) Send the requesting server, which will include search engine spiders, a 404 error code, so they know the old page is gone and stop sending traffic to it.

Also, be sure to style the 404 page like the rest of your site. You might as well, right? As Dummies.com notes, it keeps the visitor from getting confused about where they are.

Copy “do’s” and “do not do’s”

You’ve set up your redirects. Now that your visitor won’t get the 404 page unless she has an honest-to-goodness missing file on her hands, several sources can provide us some useful instruction on how to break the news.

A good 404 page says, “Yep, something’s wrong. You figured it out. Our bad.” And then it gives the visitor a way to find something of use. The principles here (courtesy of Jakob Nielsen) are:

  • Be polite—don’t blame the visitor. An apology is a nice touch. (“We’re sorry.”)
  • Explain what happened in simple language. (“The page you’re looking for doesn’t exist anymore.”)
  • Tell them what to do next. (“Check out our homepage or browse our selection of widgets.”)

Next steps

Speaking of links, I found lots of recommendations for which ones to include on your 404 page.

You may not need all of these, but in the interests of giving you a comprehensive view, here are the links and page elements recommended by Nielsen and others:

  • Homepage link
  • Site search box
  • List of the most popular categories or pages, with links
  • Sitemap link
  • Contact Us page link

One really helpful set of links that I like to see on 404 pages is a list of suggested resources. You can see this in action on the website for Rackspace Hosting—try to navigate to rackspace.com/reindeer and note the friendly suggestions it returns.

You can achieve this effect on your site either by embedding a Google site search in the page, or using the (hilariously named) mod_speling Apache web server module for Linux servers. If you’re clever with programming, I’m sure there are other ways to accomplish this feat as well.

As an aside: I personally prefer to err on the side of fewer links. I don’t see any point in having a homepage link on your 404 page, if your logo at the top left of your site links to home (as it should). Same with the search box, assuming it’s taken up residence on the top right of the screen. But feel free to test these elements, and adopt what works best for your visitors.

The nice-to-haves

One good piece of advice from Google is to provide your visitor a way to report the broken link. This could manifest itself as a link to a form the visitor can fill out. That way, the visitor has a way to communicate the problem to you, which might reduce his frustration. And you become aware of, and fix, the problem. Win-win.

We talked about styling the 404 page to fit your site design, but what about more creative visual design touches? Several web publications have curated lists of fun, cute, and clever 404 pages. Here are a few, if you’re looking for inspiration:

You can also find dozens more inspiring examples, free for the Googling.

Just remember that, although cute and clever may score you bonus points with your peers in the digital industry, your first responsibility is to your visitor. So make sure you give her all the information she needs before you unleash your creativity. Otherwise you run the risk of frustrating her, turning your adorable design into an irritant.

How do you like to customize your 404 pages? Are there any important pieces of content I left out? Comment and let me know!

The Next Generation of Content Strategists

Rachel Lovinger   March 6, 2014

Casey, Sarah & Julie: The First Recipients of the Facebook Content Strategy Fellowship. Photo via Casey Capachi

The field of content strategy has been growing continuously for several years now. Many of the newcomers are people who recently discovered that there’s this practice called “content strategy” and they realize that they’ve already been doing this kind of work for a while, they just didn’t know it by that name. Some of the newcomers are people who have been laboring in an adjacent field – editors, marketers, librarians, producers – seeking to deepen their involvement with content by expanding into a new practice.

But what about the freshly-minted digital natives, well-schooled and ready to enter the workforce? Anyone who has tried to hire content strategists or who’s interested in seeing this practice grow has wondered how new fledgling content strategists will be drawn to the field. What are they studying? What are they working on? How will they hear about content strategy? How will we recognize them when we meet them? In short, how will we find them and how will they find us? Last year the content strategy team at Facebook decided to take a more active approach. In February they announced the first Facebook Content Strategy Fellowship, in conjunction with Confab, hosted by Brain Traffic in Minneapolis. The idea was that Facebook would select promising students in a related discipline and give them an all-expenses paid trip to the content strategy conference. They defined “related discipline” pretty loosely, in the hopes of bringing in people who were just discovering content strategy, or perhaps hadn’t even discovered it yet.

Facebook Fellows, First Class

In 2013 the fellowship was awarded to three worthy individuals: Sarah Adler, Casey Capachi, and Julie Patterson. Before the fellowship, only Julie had heard of content strategy. Casey and Sarah had been studying and working in journalism, multimedia, and digital design when they learned of the fellowship, but hadn’t known about CS as a practice. I spoke to all three of them during the conference, and there was a lot that they were excited about. But that was in the midst of all the elegant typography, delicious cakes and open sharing of feelings. I checked in with them recently to see what stuck with them. Here’s what they had to say about the experience, eight months later.

Sarah Adler (@saraheadler)

“Confab came at the perfect time for me. Within the few months after Confab, I graduated from college and started working to expand a food publication I co-founded in undergrad called Spoon University (@spoonuniversity). At Northwestern, we had a staff of 100 students on photography, editorial, marketing and video teams. By the end of 2013, we had over 600 students on staffs on 20 campuses across the country. It was impossible for my partner and I to have as much control over the details as we had had at Northwestern, and we needed a way to articulate and implement a vision in an extraordinarily decentralized content production system.

“The lessons that I learned at Confab about developing a content strategy and articulating that strategy to others ended up being instrumental as Mackenzie [Barth] and I tried to maintain quality content across all of the chapters of our publication. Some of the speakers (especially Tiffani Brown‘s presentation about developing and implementing content strategy at Pinterest) served as the basis for Spoon’s Secret Sauce guide, which is our online orientation program designed to teach student members everything they need to know to start and work at a Spoon University chapter.”

Sarah continues to expand her startup. She estimates they’ll be on 30 campuses by the end of the month.

Julie Patterson (@JulieWithAnE):

“Winning the fellowship and getting to attend Confab was very surreal. Whenever I would tell people about it in the weeks leading up to the conference, I described it as feeling like a ‘tech Cinderella’ – Facebook whisked me from my ordinary life and gave me this incredible opportunity, so I was determined to take advantage of it. Before Confab I was pursuing internship opportunities in user experience design, so the conference was a great opportunity to explore a new side of that dimension that had previously been unknown to me, and to work content strategy into my own understanding of experience design. I wasn’t the only UXer at the conference, but there were many other diverse backgrounds represented, including journalism, higher education, commerce, and of course technology companies and social networks.

“I realized that content strategy meant something slightly different to all of these people, and that’s when I kind of learned to let go of the need for a hard and fast, universal definition of content strategy or UX. It’s about what it means to you, and the community is excellent for sharing best practices, problem-solving, and mentoring. I came away from Confab feeling like I understood more about the content strategy practice, but the most pivotal takeaway for me was learning to accept ambiguity. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself, or how you do what you do. What matters is the end result and how effectively it meets the needs of the agency and its users.”

Since Confab last year, Julie did an internship at Facebook, and is now doing one at Discovery before she joins the Facebook team full time in July.

Casey Capachi (@caseycapachi):

“The Facebook Content Strategy fellowship gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be introduced to the content strategy community. So much of the work I do now on the web for PostTV (The Washington Post’s video department) falls into the realm of content strategy and I am forever thankful that I had the opportunity to attend Confab Minneapolis.

“I actually had Confab flashbacks when we were in a meeting for the redesign of our Super Bowl ads page, which is a viewer favorite every year and we wanted to update it with new ways for people to rate the commercials. We talked about the landing page design, what language to use and we did it all with developers, designers and editorial folks all in the same room. I’m very proud of the experience we were able to provide viewers when they landed on the interactive – not only could they watch the ads but they could rate them on how funny and memorable they were and give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It was just the kind of collaboration I know Confabbers would have endorsed.” Casey is now a video and web producer at The Washington Post. She reports, shoots and edits video, and leads their social video presence on Instagram, Vine, and YouTube.

Facebook Fellowship, Round 2

Facebook has just announced  another round of the fellowship program. The fellowship will again be awarded for Confab Central. The deadline for applying will be March 21, 2014, with fellows announced in early April. More details are available at contentstrategyfellowship.com. And the veterans have some advice to share for anyone who might be interested. Sarah: “To any students considering applying to the fellowship, I’d tell them to go for it. I had no idea how important the fellowship would be for me professionally. I didn’t even know what content strategy was before I applied”. Julie: “My advice for potential applicants – and I can’t stress this enough – is to just APPLY. If you’re on the fence, get off the fence and just do it. It wasn’t until I learned that I was a finalist and was doing research to prepare for my interview that I realized what content strategy was and how perfect it really was for me, as someone interested in design and usability with an affinity for words and an obsession with grammar and syntax. It was a big revelation for me, and one that really changed the course of my professional life.” Casey: “My advice for fellows would be to have fun reading as much about content strategy as possible. The content strategy community is fantastic about sharing their knowledge online whether through their company websites, personal blogs, social media profiles, or SlideShare. I went through the current and past Confab speakers lists to seek out the people and topics I wanted to learn more about to make the most out of the experience. Confab is unlike any other conference you’ve ever attended: Be prepared to be delighted throughout the day whether it’s following the witty banter on the conference hashtag or tasting the incredible food!” Sarah Cancilla, the Facebook content strategist who founded this program, adds, “It’s becoming clear to us that there’s a vast amount of raw content strategy talent among the college population. It’s an honor for us to be able to welcome some of these students into the content strategy community and then follow them as their careers unfold.” So, if you know someone who you think would make a great content strategist (whether they know about it or not!), give them a nudge in the right direction. We’d love to see them in Minneapolis this coming May.

SXSW 2014 Q&A: Rachel Lovinger

Jake Keyes   March 4, 2014


The Breakout: In our final Q&A before SXSW, we talk to Razorfish’s own Rachel Lovinger, a content strategy director in our New York City office. Rachel is co-leading a content modeling workshop at SXSW this year, along with Cleve Gibbon, CTO at Cognifide. (The workshop has filled up already, but you can still put your name on the waiting list.) In this interview, we attempt to stick to the topic of content modeling. But of course food and film come up as well. Enjoy SXSW!

Scatter/Gather: The content model is a unique thing, somewhere between a deliverable and a useful tool. From your perspective, who is it really for, and whose work should it inform and influence? Beyond just listing out content types, what do you feel is the content model’s role?

Rachel: Over the years, I’ve definitely come to view the content model more as a tool than a deliverable. It’s documentation that helps me express design intentions as an implementable plan for structured content. So, first I use it to conduct conversations with UX designers, to validate and sometimes push back on design decisions. It allows me to say, “I looked at what you designed and broke it down like this. Is that what you had in mind?” It helps clarify places where decisions haven’t been made yet, or where decisions have been made that might not be in the best interests of the content creators. For example, I’ve seen designs where every page had completely different size images, for no good reason. I can point to the content model and say, “There are 15 different image configurations. Can we standardize them?” Then the designs would be updated.

Then I take the same model and discuss it with the developers and our functional analysts. We go through each item and say, “What’s the best way to accomplish this in the content management system we’re using?” Sometimes they recommend changes. Sometimes those changes will also require slight changes to the designs. Sometimes it’s fine, and the model becomes a blueprint for setting up the CMS.

It’s an iterative process, which is part of the reason I don’t really think of it as a deliverable. Calling something a “deliverable” implies that at some point it’s finished. But the content model continues to evolve for the entire time we’re developing the CMS. Then, even when it’s done, we often use the model as a basis to develop training materials for content producers.

S/G: On a related note, in your 2012 article Content Modelling: A Master Skill (A List Apart), you observed that stakeholders are usually not interested in reviewing a content model, and when they do look at one they have “little to say about it.” Have you seen this begin to change at all in the past year and a half? As clients begin to understand the need for modular and reusable content, do you foresee a content model becoming a specifically sought-after deliverable for web development projects?

Rachel: Clients are definitely more cognizant of the need for structured content, modular content, and reusable content, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to review a giant spreadsheet. Sometimes it’s valuable for stakeholders to see the model and know that the work is being done, but if I have specific decisions I need them to make, I prefer to isolate the questions in another form. Content model documentation includes a lot of implementation details, so it would be hard for anyone to focus on just the information they need to react to.

Let’s say there are two possible approaches for a particular content type, and I want the business users to weigh in. I would pull out the relevant details, describe the impact of each approach, and provide some examples. This makes it possible to have a targeted discussion and get the feedback I need to update the model appropriately.

S/G: I understand that you’re kind of a foodie, and Austin has a pretty interesting food scene. What are you planning to eat and drink, when you’re not talking digital?

Rachel: I’d say I’m part foodie, part food-nerd. Austin has some really great restaurants, and a bunch of amazing food trucks. A couple years in a row Foodspotting hosted a Street Food Fest, which was one of my favorite things at SXSW. Definitely worth checking out if they’re doing it again. Even if they don’t, it’s worth wandering around outside the conference and checking out the food trucks. As a one-time resident of New Mexico, I really miss breakfast burritos, which are hard to come by in New York. The Austin equivalent is breakfast tacos, which are close enough to scratch that itch. And having breakfast is really important at SXSW, otherwise you could find yourself at the end of the day suddenly realizing you were too wrapped up in things to eat anything!

S/G: Can you tell us a little bit about Cleve Gibbon (@cleveg), your co-workshop-leader? What perspective will Cleve bring to the table?

Rachel: Cleve is the Chief Marketing Technology Officer of Cognifide. His group does a lot of CMS implementation work, and he really understands the value of having people with a UX or Content Strategy background involved in bridging the gap between information architecture and content management. We met at a content strategy conference a few years ago and got into a very animated discussion about how to encourage greater collaboration between technologists and UX designers.

So we put together this workshop on content modeling. It’s an activity that we both do, out of necessity, to help communicate across disciplines. We thought it would be most effective if we talk about this hybrid activity from our two perspectives – him as a technologist and me as a content strategist. There’s a part at the beginning of the workshop where we both describe how we got into this, and I still find it funny and wonderful that, coming from different directions, we both arrived at a very similar place in the middle.

S/G: What are you excited to see at SXSW this year?

Rachel: I’m really looking forward to seeing the talks by the people we’ve interviewed in this series. I haven’t even finished looking through the Interactive schedule, though. I also hope to catch a few films, including a documentary on Aaron Swartz and a documentary on Dan Harmon. I think the Razorfish social team has some crazy plans in the works too. People should follow @Razorfish and @UseMeLeaveMe during the festival to get more info on what they’re up to. And, of course, I’m looking forward to the breakfast tacos.


Explore the rest of the SXSW 2014 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Phones – by Kris Krug
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Bacone – by Rachel Lovinger

SXSW 2014 Q&A: Bradley Gross

Rachel Lovinger   February 26, 2014


The Breakout: We’re closing in on SXSW! This week we had an interesting chat with attorney Bradley Gross (@bradleygross), about his talk “We All Copy Stuff. But How Close Is Too Close?” As a specialist in technology and IP law, Brad thinks about a lot of issues that are high on the radar for anyone doing content in the digital world. 

Scatter/Gather: Culture has always built upon itself, with some of our most enduring characters and stories repeated over and over in different forms. There were four movies about Hansel & Gretel in 2013. 2013! Can you sum up why copyright issues have become increasingly problematic in the digital age?

Bradley Gross: There has been (and always will be) tension between those who create something original, and those who later try to create something based upon the original works of others.  (To differentiate between the two types of works, I’ll call original works “Original Stuff”; everything that follows later will be called “Derivative Stuff”).

I think the tension has increased significantly in the digital age—but to understand why, you need to look at how things were done in the past.

Historically, it wasn’t particularly easy to create and promote Derivative Stuff.  First, you had to think of a different way of re-telling someone else’s idea.  (That wasn’t the hard part.)  Next, you had to be sufficiently motivated—either financially or emotionally—to find the right tools to put your thoughts into a tangible form.  That meant spending money on lots of scratch pads, or typewriter ribbons, or word processor cartridges—you get the idea.  And time was not on your side—you had to fit your creative endeavors into your daily schedule.  Typewriters weren’t portable.  Scratch pads would get lost.  If you had a spare moment to think creatively, like on a lunch hour or during a break, you probably didn’t have the tools at hand to further develop your concept. And your concept needed to be well-formed at the beginning, because it wasn’t easy to go back and change things once they were written down. Changes to hard copy meant significant delays and costs, and the physical and emotional toll of potentially “starting all over again” was too much for most people to bear.  Finally, you had to work hard to publish and promote your Derivative Stuff to the public.  If a publisher wasn’t interested in publishing and promoting your work, then your career as an author came to a screeching halt.

In the digital age, all things related to the creation and promotion of Derivative Stuff are exponentially easier, faster and cheaper.  Mobile devices allow people to create and expand upon ideas at anytime, anywhere.  It only costs pennies to publish something on a global scale.  All of the traditional filters, such as publishing houses, that used to keep infringing works out off the marketplace (or, at least, confined to local circulation), are routinely circumvented with ease.

All of this has created a situation in which authors of Original Stuff are suddenly faced with two harsh realities: first, there is a lot of ubiquitous Derivative Stuff that borrows too heavily from the authors’ Original Stuff, and second, to the dismay of many authors, copyright law does not protect all facets of the Original Stuff in the way that the authors thought it would.  And THAT is where the tension really begins….

S/G: I believe people should benefit from their creations, but it sometimes seems that by focusing so much on copyright ownership in the short term, we risk preventing our stories from evolving, growing, and gaining a life of their own. Is there a way to approach copyright so that it supports both creators and the growth of culture?

Brad: Theoretically, Copyright Law should do a good job of balancing an author’s right to protect her ideas against subsequent authors’ rights to expand on those ideas and/or create derivative works from those ideas.  The problem, however, is twofold: first, people (especially authors) don’t understand the limitations of Copyright Law, and often assume that it protects far more than it really does.  Second, lawyers are constantly trying to argue for the expansion of the scope of Copyright Law because, candidly, they are financially motivated by their clients who, again, don’t understand Copyright Law.

In addition, the legislature is often requested to expand Copyright Law far beyond its original parameters by large production companies, such as movie studios and global content creation companies.  As a result, the law has, to some extent, evolved into a hodgepodge of ambiguous statutory provisions that have been interpreted differently by federal courts throughout the country.

I think, in moving forward, we need to educate everyone about the fact that Copyright Law was never intended to give anyone a monopoly over the expression of an idea that is relatively unformed, or generic, or incapable of being distinguished from other similar works.  The very recent holding in the Azaria v. Bierko case (which was handed down just last week) emphasizes this point. In that case, the court rejected a defendant’s claim that the actor and brilliant voice impressionist, Hank Azaria, created his “Jim Brockmire” character on a voice impression that the defendant had demonstrated for Azaria several years earlier.  In ruling for Azaria, the court noted that copyright protection extends only to works—or in this case, characters—that have consistent and identifiable traits that make the work unique and identifiable.

S/G: As libraries and digital archives start getting more involved in preserving and sharing digital material, that adds a few twists as well. What kind of issues might they run into with digital? Or how might copyright laws need to adjust to accommodate these kinds of organizations?

Brad: The amount of information being generated is growing exponentially.  Libraries and archives, however, are constrained by physical space.  The only solution to this, short of simply “getting rid of the old and replacing it with the new” is to move to digital archiving.  In doing so, works are made more accessible and transferable.  And to that I say, “Hooray.”  The point of expressing information is, of course, to share that information with others.  (After all, if you publish information without the intention of sharing that information with others, then (i) you simply like to hear yourself talk, and/or (ii) you’re a crazy person—and in either event, you should keep yourself in a padded, isolated room at all times).

In making works more accessible and transferable, there will undoubtedly be a rise in the misuse of those works.  People will copy things that they shouldn’t, and use them in commercial ways that are unauthorized.  But that, as we say in the corporate world, is the “cost of doing business.”  That is a natural consequence of living in an open society that encourages the publication and dissemination of ideas.  You can’t entirely squash—or even significantly squash—the ability to access and transfer works without undermining the very purpose of Copyright Law and reasons why people publish works in the first place.

S/G: Can you tell us about one of the most unusual or unexpected copyright cases you’ve seen?

Brad: Check out my SXSW presentation…you’ll hear about cases that will make you laugh.  Or cry. But here’s a preview: Rob Van Winkle’s (Vanilla Ice’s) peculiar attempt to explain why his hit song, “Ice Ice Baby” did not come close to infringing “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie.  Or how about the lawsuit in which Brownmark Films, the co-owner of a somewhat notorious music video, sued the creators of the show South Park for Eric Cartman’s rendition of “What What ‘In the Butt’?” That, and more, will be discussed….

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?

Brad: Some of the most progressive thinkers in the digital arena will be in attendance.  I’m looking forward to hearing what they think the next big thing will be, and how they think society needs to adapt (or will be forced to adapt) in the future.


Explore the rest of the SXSW 2014 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Phones – by Kris Krug
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Bacone – by Rachel Lovinger

SXSW 2014 Q&A: Austin Kleon

Hawk Thompson   February 19, 2014


The Breakout: For the fourth installment of our SXSW Q&A series, we interviewed New York Times bestselling author Austin Kleon. As one of the keynote speakers for SXSW 2014, Austin will give festival goers the inside scoop about Show Your Work! (his stellar new book) and share ways to think process, not product. And if we’re really lucky, Austin will play his version “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” for us (it’s a long shot, but our fingers are crossed). 

Scatter/Gather: Among many other things, you’re a writer who draws, an artist who steals, a (former) copywriter who codes and a drummer who shreds (insert gratuitous band plug here). How do you bring it all together in ways that makes sense for your work and your fans?

Austin Kleon: I made the gamble early on that I wasn’t going to worry too much about unity in my work. One of the reasons I started out doing everything under my own name is that I wanted to be able to follow all my obsessions, no matter where they led me. One of the things I love about operating as a human being rather than a company is that freedom to switch between things. I grew up idolizing “Renaissance Men” (I suppose “polymath” is a more PC term these days)—guys like Shel Silverstein or David Byrne who were into a bunch of different stuff. The unity, if there is any, comes from the fact that it’s all coming from one person.

Whenever I feel like I’m getting known too well for one particular thing I feel like I want to throw it out and start over. When I put out my first book, Newspaper Blackout, I remember an interviewer basically asking me if I’d Sharpied myself into a corner.

Tossing everything out the window seems like the satisfying artistic move, but it’s also a form of career suicide. So, instead of discarding what’s come before, I like to try to just let one thing lead into the other, and so far that’s worked well. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he said, “You’re in such a cool position: you could do anything next.” And I do feel like that’s sort of true.  I could probably get more fans by just doing one thing and one thing well, but I’d rather have a smaller posse and the freedom to mess around.

One of the artists I’ve put in my family tree, Brion Gysin, was lamenting his career and his marketability, and he said, “You should never do two things. You should hammer one nail all your life, and I didn’t do that; I hammered on a lot of nails like a xylophone.”

I’d rather hammer a lot of nails.

Damn, that was a long answer.

S/G: As a professional author who also happens to be a jack of all trades, you have something in common with content strategists in that we tend to be specialists by trade but generalists by nature. How does content strategy factor into your daily routine (Tumblr tags, topics you tweet about, etc.)? 

Austin: I’m trained as a writer, and to a smaller extent, a librarian, and I feel that both those disciplines have a lot to contribute to content strategy, as I understand it.

My favorite way to think about how I operate online is the “stock and flow” metaphor that writer Robin Sloan has borrowed from economics: your “flow” is the steady stream of stuff: the tweets, the posts, etc.; the “stock” is the more permanent stuff that people find over time, like, say, books or products. What I like to do is constantly turn my flow into stock: a tweet will become a blog post which will become a blog tag which becomes a book chapter. I like to think of Twitter, for example, as my public notebook, but a notebook is only good when you’re writing in it or if you go back and read it every so often. Same goes for Tumblr: it’s like my public research file, but I’m constantly going back to it and turning the posts into something else.

S/G: When Steal Like an Artist came out, it was so relevant to what we do at Razorfish that I gave copies to everyone on our content team in Austin. Show Your Work is largely about about process and transparency — both important topics in content strategy. What do you think content strategists stand to learn from your new book?

Austin: It’s funny, I haven’t told anyone this, but when I was writing it, I thought about Show Your Work! as a content marketing book without the words “content” or “marketing.” (I realize content marketing is not the same as content strategy, but anyways…)

I’ve borrowed a lot from content strategy, notably the idea of a content audit — in early drafts of the book, I had a “process audit,” in which people took a look at their process and made a list of potential content that could come out of it.

But a lot of Show Your Work! came about when I was doing content strategy-type work as a copywriter. All these clients wanted all this schlocked-up stuff, like slick videos and giveaways and boring crap that nobody cared about. I had one client in particular, a grocery store, and I happened to be a very happy customer of theirs and loved their stores, and I remember at one point begging them to just let me go into a store with a Flip camera and interview, like, the meat lady about how to pick a ribeye, or the bag guy about how to best bag your groceries, and the agency and the client just wouldn’t go for it. It was too guerilla or something. But I just thought, “God, you’ve got such great behind-the-scenes potential here, and such knowledgeable employees—why not just show what they’re up to and ask them about what they know?” And that’s really where Show Your Work! began.

S/G: After you keynote SXSWi in March, you’re doing the same at Confab Central in May. How did you end up as the keynote speaker for what is arguably the most influential content strategy conference of the year?

Austin: I’m always surprised that anybody wants me to speak anywhere. A very, very famous musician emailed me last week and said basically, “I just have trouble talking about this stuff without feeling like a schoolmarm.” And that’s what’s easy for me: I think I talk about all this stuff in an accessible way because I still think of myself as a student who is so far from expertise—I’m still figuring it out. C.S. Lewis once said that two schoolboys can teach each other better than a teacher can, because the teacher knows too much—he’s too far from the learner to be able to empathize and communicate. I’m still learning, so it makes me a decent teacher.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?

Austin: I have made peace with the fact that Wes Anderson is not going to make the movies I want him to make, and is going to continue making the movies HE wants to make, much to the benefit of the filmgoing universe. So I can’t wait to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also try to see Jeffrey Tambor whenever he’s here, because his workshop is amazing. And my friend the New Yorker cartoonist Drew Dernavich is coming to town again this year for music, and he’ll probably have some great up-and-coming band to see. (Last year it was Parquet Courts, who wound up being one of my favorites.)

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2014 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Phones – by Kris Krug
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Bacone – by Rachel Lovinger

SXSW 2014 Q&A: Hawk Thompson

Jake Keyes   February 14, 2014


The Breakout: In our latest entry in the SXSW Q&A series, we spoke with Razorfish’s own Hawk Thompson, a senior content strategist in our Austin office. In his upcoming panel, WTF RWD! Agreeing to Disagree, Hawk will square off with some technologists and a fellow content strategist to settle the great debate over responsive web design…Or at the very least to hold an informed discussion about screen sizes, content, and the way we build the web.

Scatter/Gather: Why do people who make websites find it so hard to agree on an approach to responsive/adaptive design? What is it about this particular question that’s hard for us to nail down?

Hawk Thompson: Good question! A big part of it is getting everyone to speak the same language. For example, responsive design and adaptive design are two completely different approaches — responsive changes fluidly to fit screen size, adaptive offers predefined layouts depending on screen size — but people often use these terms interchangeably. When people are unclear about what the approach itself entails, it can be hard for them to nail down the particulars when it comes to implementation.

S/G: …Or maybe that’s the point. It’s a problem that has to exist in a state of flux, to be worked out on a case-by-case basis given the needs (and budget) of a given project. Is there anything wrong with just trusting ourselves to make the right decision for each particular project?

Hawk: Hmmm…yes and no. Those of us who work in the pixel mines every day know our digital world is in a constant state of flux, and that responsive design isn’t necessarily the right solution for every project. That said, we often rule responsive out too soon because of perceived performance issues or other stigma attached to poor implementations we’ve seen in the past. The important thing to keep in mind is that these individual failures don’t mean responsive won’t work in those situations: it simply means we’ve still got a lot to learn about how to implement RWD successfully across a wide range of different types of challenges.

S/G: Can you tell me a little bit about the other speakers on your panel and what perspective they’ll be bringing to the table?

Hawk: Well we’re all about to meet in person for the first time this week, so I can only tell you so much about them until we’ve had a few drinks together. Amanda [Krauss] and I follow each other on Twitter, and judging from the [Texas] Tribune’s beautiful responsive site we both see eye to eye as far as RWD is concerned. Word on the street is that Caryn [Lusinchi] is on a mission to rid the world of digital clutter, which is always a good sign regarding content strategy. And Chris Weigman is a fellow Springbox alum who digs the Ginger Man, so he’s aces in my book.

S/G: It looks like your panel’s debate breaks down pretty cleanly by discipline, with content strategy on one side and technology on the other. So, what other things do content strategists and technologists fight about? Instant messaging clients? iOS vs. Android? Franklin vs. La BBQ?

Hawk: Ha! To be frank, I hadn’t seen that poster until just now. I love Tom [Hudson, Springbox CTO and panel organizer] like a brother, but it seems he’s been teeing up this panel as a heated debate between content strategy and technology since day one. My gut tells me we’ll agree more than we disagree on how to approach responsive. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re all singing Kumbaya over a big plate of Franklin’s fatty brisket by the time the panel’s over.

S/G: What things are you looking forward to seeing and doing at SXSW?

Hawk: All of the things, really. I’ve taken it easy with SXSW over the last few years, and I’m ready to make up for lost time. Mostly looking forward to catching up with lots of friends over beer and barbecue for a few weeks. At SXSWi, I’m particularly excited to see Austin Kleon, Kristina Halvorson and Margot Bloomstein in action. Also curious about the surprises the Razorfish Austin crew has up its sleeve (guessing it involves the pallets that arrived at the office the other day). Not to mention the fact that Rachel Lovinger, Robert Stribley and I have a hot date planned. It’s gonna be one hell of a party, y’all.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2014 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Phones – by Kris Krug
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Bacone – by Rachel Lovinger

SXSW 2014 Q&A: Ben Huh

Rachel Lovinger   February 4, 2014


The Breakout: Next up in our SXSW Q&A series, we spoke with Ben Huh (@benhuh), CEO of the Cheezburger media empire and Co-Founder of Circa, “an online journalism startup which re-imagines the way people will consume news.” We talked about the inspiration behind his session, “The Form Factor is the Message” and the challenges of trying to predict the future. Before the interview, I reminded Huh that we had previously met when he bought a bunch of people dim sum the day after ROFLcon II. That may have been the inspiration for his generous offer at the end.

Scatter/Gather: I found a blog post you wrote in 2005 called “Marshall McLuhan would be proud,” so I gather you’ve been interested in him for a long time. How have McLuhan’s theories influenced your work? 

Ben: That was written well before I even knew of a meme or knew anything about Cheezburger. I was a journalism major in college, so I was already familiar with his theories and the more I spend time doing media, the more I think he was right. My speech at SXSW will be my update on McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.”

If you think about that phrase, it seems almost crazy. But what McLuhan did was look at media as a truly macro scale: human history. As innovation and technology continue to affect human behavior faster and more radically, that perspective of media continues to pay off. It’s not just content that affects people, but the device, form factor, and medium creates a beneficial environment for specific types of content (depending on the device, form factor, and medium). This isn’t as absolute of a statement as medium equals message, but we underestimate, for example, how much the short-form nature of modern communication has given rise to humor and memetic content because it’s one of the most effective means of transmission in that environment.

S/G: One of the things I love about McLuhan is how incredibly accurately he predicted our current relationship to media, without having any concrete notion of the form it would take. It makes me feel optimistic about the value of futurist thinking, even when I suspect that the particulars can’t possibly be predicted. How do you approach thinking about the future of news and journalism?

Ben: The problem with futurists is that they are directionally correct, but specifically wrong. The practical implications are all over the map. The value of McLuhan’s theories isn’t evident unless you look into the past, which makes the entire discussion more academic. I try to look at the now. The present moment and the patterns we see. We make small bets that turn into bigger bets. We iterate. Learn. Then do it again. Betting on the future is not a great business. It’s better to bet on the now.

S/G: What, in your opinion, is holding us back from realizing the future of media?

Ben: Consumer behavior will always lead the business model, but business models incentivize consumers. So it’s important that we keep a level playing-field for ideas and upstarts. That means things like Net Neutrality, and preserving a Free and Open Internet play a huge role in the realization of the future that we as consumers want.

S/G: If there weren’t cats, what would people look at on the Internet?

Ben: Ourselves. In fact, I think staring at cats is in reality a non-threatening, indirect way of people watching online.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?

Ben: I’m looking forward to serendipity. And BBQ. Mostly BBQ. If you’re from Razorfish, come say hello after my talk and I’ll buy you lunch!


Explore the rest of the SXSW 2014 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Phones – by Kris Krug
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Bacone – by Rachel Lovinger

Razorfish Blogs


  • SXSW Interactive

    March 7 – 11, Austin, TX
    Several of our contributors will be speaking this year. If you’re going, say hi to Rachel, Robert, & Hawk.

  • Confab Minneapolis

    May 7-9, Minneapolis, MN
    The original Confab Event. Rachel will be there doing her Content Modelling workshop with Cleve Gibbon. Get details and we’ll see you there!

  • Intelligent Content Conference Life Sciences & Healthcare

    May 8-9, San Francisco, CA
    Call for Presenters, now open:


  • Confab for Nonprofits

    Jun 16, Chicago, IL
    Another new Confab Event! Early Bird pricing until March 7:  http://confabevents.com/events/for-nonprofits

  • Content Strategy Forum

    July 1-3, Frankfurt, Germany
    International Content Strategy workshops & conference: csforum2014.com Call for speakers now open!

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What is this site, exactly?

Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

This blog reflects the views of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of Razorfish.

What is content strategy?

Oooh, the elevator pitch. Here we go: There is content on the web. You love it. Or you do not love it. Either way, it is out there, and it is growing. Content strategy encompasses the discovery, ideation, implementation and maintenance of all types of digital content—links, tags, metadata, video, whatever. Ultimately, we work closely with information architects and creative types to craft delicious, usable web experiences for our clients.

Why "scatter/gather"?

It’s an iterative data clustering operation that’s designed to enable rich browsing capabilities. “Data clustering” seems rather awesome and relevant to our quest, plus we thought the phrase just sounded really cool.

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