Confab Central: forward progress

It’s been just over 72 hours since Gerry McGovern wrapped up his keynote at Confab, thus drawing to a close the 2015 edition of the one of the best content strategy conferences of the year. I’ve spent a large part of this long weekend sleeping, because let’s face it: going to sessions all day and stretching your mind into new and productive ways of thinking about your work is tiring, not to mention the fact that I burned through days’ worth of energy sweating through my dress while I waited for my turn at the lightning talks.

Attendees often talk about keeping the glow of a conference alive so as to keep the momentum going at work. That’s true for me as well, but my biggest takeaway from Confab is something a bit more hairy. I found myself drawn to the talks that dealt with being better at advocating for our work and improving our industry. As a field, we have definitely moved from simply defining content strategy and toward “defining ourselves,” as Margot Bloomstein put it so eloquently in her talk.

I’m thinking about Laura Creekmore, who told us plainly to get over ourselves as “artists” and learn to quantify the value of our work. Or Ronnell Smith, who bravely described the moments when he was fired for defending precursors of content strategy to the C-suite. Or Anne Lamott (ANNE LAMOTT!), who reminded us why we became writers (and how to get back to it). And the aforementioned Bloomstein, who argued that we improve our industry as a whole if we define our own specialties and boost those of others.

“If you used to write…get back to it!” –Anne Lamott (!) #confabmn #verklempt

A photo posted by @katiekeen on

I think of my own journey in putting together my lightning talk and discovering how much my current role has changed. It made me more than a little nostalgic, because I know that I’m dealing with larger challenges now, and although I’m down for solving them, there is no simple solution.

But then, I think of the great conversations I had at lunch, or at the snack bar, or during a 5:30 a.m. taxi ride to the airport. I think of the strong group of colleagues I have right here in Boston, and the tacos and karaoke we’ll be sharing in the near future. (Not tacos and karaoke together, but—actually, that’s a great idea.) Finally, I think of Jonathon Colman’s opening keynote, reminding us that in the face of wicked ambiguity, “we solve problems together, or not at all.”

Finding our spirit from inside a giant snowdrift

snow15This week, the Floridian in me finally gave out, as the last glimmer of my typical snow day giddiness faded into working-from-home grumpiness and delayed-commute incredulity.

I gazed out my windows with contempt as snowstorm #2 dumped another 12-18″ on the two feet already on the ground, thinking about slushy sidewalks outside and important appointments looming on the calendar. The kid who was born in Pennsylvania during a blizzard, who used to wait to hear her father utter those precious words, “want to build a snow fort?” was done, DONE.

But Tuesday, in spite of a 30-minute MBTA jaunt stretched into a 90-minute odyssey through the city, I was startled by small, sweet moments that surface, even as we trudge along:

  • The shock of seeing the Charles River cloaked in white as my bus bursts across the Harvard bridge in an acceleration of speed
  • The steadying hand of a stranger on a slippery crosswalk
  • The temporary spectacle of seeing familiar sights transformed by huge piles of snow, reaching ever higher into the cold sky

Why type when a :) does the trick?

This month marks the one-year mark for my mother and her first iPhone. She reluctantly joined the smartphone ranks when her full-keyboard cellphone, which we chose together because she’s a “serious texter,” gave out.  The person at the cell phone store got Mom up and running on her blue iPhone 5c, but she saved her real questions for my sister and I, who would be home soon for Thanksgiving.

Sure enough, shortly after we’d unpacked our suitcases, Mom called us back to her bedroom, where her iPhone was charging. As I focused on having Mom learn by doing, patiently instructing her on how to text a picture or compose a new email, my sister practically grabbed the iPhone out of our hands. “Wait, you are going to love this.”

She tapped through menus too quickly for my mother to follow. “There,” my sister said. “Now you have a keyboard full of smiley faces.” I rolled my eyes.

It turns out that turning my mom onto emojis is pretty much the best thing to happen to any communication, anywhere. The woman who has always loved to send a well-timed greeting card now has a whole new avenue on which she expresses herself, and she basically has been off to the races ever since that fateful day in November.

When ever I need some cheering up, I scroll through our text history and review her various ways of “just checking in.”

For instance, if I’m about to take a long plane ride:


Or if we’re reading the same sad book:IMG_3864.PNG

Or if I’m home with the fluIMG_3865.PNG


Mom has managed to find an emoji for every occasion. She digs up the ones I never knew existed (,) and has co-opted others (,) as per personal brand. And, as far as I know, she has never used the .

So, Mom: !

Old friends, new again

It seems like only yesterday that I was a student abroad in London, but in reality, it’s been almost half a lifetime ago, or “[mumble]-teen years,” as I told my colleagues last week during a work trip to the United Kingdom. A few of us decided to stay through the weekend in a London townhouse, and as I pored over the Google map of nearest tube stops and landmarks, a flood of memories roared back.


Going away to study in a city seemingly so far from home means a lot of things to a still-impressionable 20-year-old: adjusting to a new culture, drinking legally, making new friends while wondering how those tenuous relationships back home were doing. Still, nothing stands out in my mind more than my 20th century art class, which rotated from classroom to museum every other week. Our most-visited spot was the Tate Gallery, which I adored for its location, a deliciously long Thames walk from home. I remember spending hours there on assignment, standing before a piece like The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, pen poised over paper, trying to articulate…something.

20-years-old means being thrilled by the anti-establishment nature of Dadaism or Surrealism, but it’s still a coming of age with art. In a nearby Tate gallery, Chris Ofili was still just one of four candidates for the Turner Prize, and as our art instructors poignantly asked us how the “shit” added a layer of meaning to his work, we had to stifle our giggles.

Still, even when I didn’t have an assignment, I would come back to the Tate to visit my old friends. The Rothko room. Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Max Ernst’s Celebes. Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, which I sheepishly told my art teacher that I remembered from a high school visit (“ah, Pre-Raphaelite!” she informed me enthusiastically).

Tate Modern

Since my semester abroad, a lot has changed in London, and the world. The Tate itself moved its modern art collection to a new venue, which is not even so new now. I was eager to check it out, and anxious about whether my old friends would be on display, or lost in the new space. After wandering the four floors and into the crowded Surrealist room, I was relieved to see a familiar face (face? or is it an egg? or maybe an elephant?) again.

A renewed appreciation for motherhood

Today, for Mother’s Day, my mother will unwrap a present that transparently shows how hastily I threw it together and rushed it to the post office. It’s wrapped in the sorry-looking brownish tissue paper that was easily on hand at home, accompanied by a blank greeting card because my local CVS card selection was too picked over, with just the “for step mother” and “from grandson” cards remaining. My mother is a woman who likes a good card and gift wrap; this is hardly the gift she deserves.

Luckily, the contents aren’t so bad: items from my recent trip to Austin to visit my dear friend Sara, who became a mother herself about 21 months ago. Our time together was paced by her toddler’s schedule, a regimen that I quickly learned to appreciate for its regular snack intervals.

But I also was reminded of something else that of course is obvious to parents everywhere: raising a child is hard work. It can be isolating, and tiring. Sara and her husband Adam are pros already, and in Sara’s tireless patience and unbreakable sweetness during the long stretches between nap time and Adam’s return from work, I saw something distinct and familiar: my own mother, when I was her tiny companion while the rest of the world seemed to melt away.

In spite of her busy schedule as a mom and music teacher, Sara, whom I call “singer-songwriter Sara” when talking about her with others, has managed to record a new album, released just last month. Fittingly, it’s a collection of lullabies inspired by her son.

As Mother’s Day approached and I began to stress over finding the perfect gift for the Mom who Has Everything, I realized the best gift was right there in Austin, fresh from Sara’s recording studio. I might have failed in the greeting card aisle, but hopefully this postcard from Austin shares my sentiment.


Content strategy and content marketing walk into a bar…

There has been a lot of talk lately about the difference between content strategy and content marketing. A lot. Well-mannered missives have been fired by my colleagues in both fields, and perhaps the most prominent event thus far has been Kristina Halvorson’s SXSW talk, Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk.

Around the time that Kristina was taking the stage in Austin, I was beginning my stint as a contributor to our company blog, wondering what I was getting myself into as the debate heated up in blog posts and on message boards. The post I was working on at the time wasn’t exactly Pulitzer material. What would my fellow content strategists think? Or for that matter, my friends from my past life as a journalist? Most importantly, what did it mean for my future as a writer?

I kept thinking back to that scene in Season 3 of Girls, when Hannah is talking to her fellow GQ “advertorial” writers about how they wound up there.

Was I having a Hannah Horvath moment of my own? After all, I get free snacks, too.

I don’t loose sleep over my writing career, because I’ve found fulfillment in the transition to content strategy. But here’s the thing: when you’re in-house, it’s a different landscape when it comes to content. Many of my company’s content marketing practices were well established long before they hired me as their first-ever content strategist. But, I’ve cheerfully championed the pillars of content strategy that we were missing, like a style guide and messaging standards. Meanwhile, my colleagues have zeroed in on my writing experience—that thing I was willing to cast aside for the sake of moving forward—as a thing to value.

Over time, I have played up the “expert writer” card and managed to establish myself as an editorial guide on whom my coworkers can rely for sound feedback without judgment. And, I’m pleased to say that the overall quality of our content has improved.

A consultant would move on to another client at this point, meanwhile my role has grown to include product marketing, with a strong emphasis on customer experience. My work has gotten even more interesting, and I can be very, very busy.

That means that, wearing my editor’s cap, I can’t be a gatekeeper through which all content flows—that was never intended to be my role—but I can be a resource for my coworkers, be it an extra set of eyes, or the ace in a hole to write a monthly blog post.

We’re not going to catch every typo, and I won’t be adding each and every one of my posts to my clips, but that’s not the point. I’ve learned that ours is a whip-smart content marketing team with larger, well-thought-out goals, and they are moving toward them with or without me. But, let’s be honest: they’re my goals, too, because we all want the company to thrive.

The best thing I can do for our team is support them and offer up the tools from my experience to help them succeed. I would think this excludes them from the same category as the companies that Kristina was lampooning in her slides, but someone wants to call our content marketing team “drunk,” fine. I’m buying their next round.

My Sundance 2014, by the numbers

Seat with reserved signI’ve long given up on aspiring to be famous, or at least movie-star famous. I decided some time ago that it was better to aspire to be an expert in my field—at best, a talking head in a well-done documentary. When packing for my trip to the Sundance Film Festival (a well-deserved birthday present for my sister), I tried to bring the best of my chic-yet-warm clothing, but who was I kidding; no one was there to see me.

However, a funny thing happens when you’re in a place that’s crawling with movie stars: everyone thinks you could be a movie star. I’ve never had so many people look me right in the eye, searching for something familiar, while I did the same with them. Celebrities really are just like us!

Speaking of celebrities, I saw 23 that I could confirm. Herewith, the rest of my Sundance, by the numbers:
Films we saw: 12
Of those, films that included:

Anna Kendrick: 3 (Happy Christmas, Life After Beth, The Voices)
Paul Reiser: 2 (Life After Beth, Whiplash)
Teyonah Parris: 2 (Dear White People, They Came Together)
Bill Hader: 2 (The Skeleton Twins, They Came Together)

Max Greenfield
Max Greenfield takes a seat in our row while Michael Showalter takes off his coat. Around this point, I started to lose my marbles.

None of these people were among the 23 movie stars that we saw. However, as the VIPs began to file in for David Wain’s They Came Together, we spotted Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, and Michael Showalter. Then I heard a slight gasp in the crowd, and I turned to see Nick Offerman and Megan Melally. At this point, I might have lost the cool facade I had been holding up throughout the festival. “Are all of these people in this movie?” I squealed to my sister.

Post-screening Q&As with the director: 11
Blurry pictures that I took during Q&As: 17
Meals skipped to see a screening: 4
Energy bars consumed between the two of us: 10
Dinners at Jake Gyllenhaal’s Silver restaurant: 1
Films co-starring Maggie Gyllenhaal: 1 (Frank)

View from 120M ski jump
The view from the 120 meter jump, which is much more terrifying in person than on TV.

Needing a break from screenings, we also made it to Park City’s Olympic Park, site of several events during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Sochi-bound Olympians we saw on the tour: 2 (Lindsey Van and Taylor Fletcher)
Silver medalists: 1 (Brett Camerota, aka our tour guide)
Runs we took down the 15-turn bobsled run: 0
White-knuckle trips we took down 1-80 to Salt Lake City, which our airport shuttle driver claimed was just as big of a drop: 1

Most importantly, my sister and I got to do something we most enjoy while together, and that’s see a good movie, with good snacks and good company. And if that company also includes Ariana Huffington and William H. Macy, then so be it.

Number of times we considered ourselves very lucky: Too many to count

“Where are my panties?” and other questions raised by these sentient, connected times

Recently, I bought underwear from a certain online retailer, despite the fact that their models look nothing like me, and that they insisted on referring to my items as “panties.” I congratulated myself for saving time on a purchase at once mundane and personal. Plus, no one on the #1 bus needs to see me traveling home with a ridiculous hot-pink shopping bag that screams “I just bought panties—er, underwear!” Really.

As with most online merchants, this one sent me an email when my purchase shipped, and I eagerly subscribed to updates from USPS to find out when my delicate package would arrive. (I’m not saying I needed to do laundry, but I’m not not saying that, either.)

Tracking updates
Something is wrong here.

I observed with satisfaction as the parcel departed Ohio, made its way to New Jersey, and then landed in Boston. However, on the next update, it was back in Ohio. I started to worry.

Had they gotten the order wrong? Had there been a recall? I checked my order while at work, cringing as my “panties” came up on screen next to what I confirmed was the correct address. I checked the tracking status again and again as my order seemed to hover in limbo, unchanged over two weekdays.

This is the consequence of living in an era of knowing. At this very moment, without getting up, I can find out if there is a taxi nearby, whether the restaurant down the street has a table for two, or if the library has my book club’s next selection on its shelves. I can deposit a check and learn when the next bus is coming to the stop at the bottom of my street. I know so much already, and that doesn’t even count all of the babies’ first steps, Golden Globe outtakes, and George Takei updates that my friends are sharing on social media right now.

Sometimes, I find myself nearly paralyzed with knowing. I once nearly missed my stop on the subway because I was too busy comparing the pickup times on the three ride-service apps on my phone. I am confounded by the “real-time” MBTA signs claiming that a train is arriving, and yet it’s nowhere in sight. Should I walk instead? Grab a cab because the weather app tells me that it’s sleeting?

I wonder if, by knowing, we are all accelerating towards an era of disproportional impatience, where instant gratification can’t come fast enough. We only half joke when there isn’t an “app for that,” even when we’re talking about something preposterous, because we know it’s only a matter of time before there is.

Finally, my special delivery took a turn back toward Boston. When I saw that it was processing at my local post office, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’ll never know why my underwear took a detour back to Ohio, and I’m not sure I want to know, either.

On content, clients and communication

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Katie Cohen, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

This year, a lot of very smart people have said a lot of very thoughtful, considered things about feelings.

In fact, if you look back at 2013 and its articles, conferences, and social media conversations you can easily see a common theme emerge. Essays on vulnerability, advice on how to improve empathy, and ways to become more human have filled our feeds. We have all opened up about the challenges, frustrations and realities of working in this field and the web industry in general.

As a content strategy consultant, I’ve watched this discussion with interest. We are lucky that we are in one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever encountered. We are all here to help each other out; we have definitely found ‘our people’. It’s a generous and warm spirit and a refreshing change to the traditional tech world I’ve lived in.

But I have to admit there has been some conflict in my mind about how this relates to the work we do. Certainly, admitting we all have flaws and to be honest and open about them can help form a strong layer of trust with the people we work with.

On the other hand, clients look to us as (hopefully well-paid) consultants who come in to their organisation and help them out. To be their rock, a solid foundation of experience and knowledge who will guide them through stormy seas. Being tentative, having self-doubt or seeming lost ourselves can erode their confidence in our ability to do our job.

I don’t have the answer to this conundrum. But I do have some thought about content, clients and communication.

Content IS personal

We may be able to reduce content down to a single line item in a spreadsheet, but at some point someone spent the time writing that copy. From the words that have been lovingly crafted into a story, to the practical task-based instructional content that’s very helpful but will be forgotten by a reader if it serves its purpose, someone still spent the time writing it. Don’t come in like a bulldozer and trample that work without any acknowledgement of their effort.

Content IS complex

Clients know they have a problem. Usually they realise their content is bad, really bad. Hey, that’s why they have hired a content strategist in the first place! But content issues are often the result of an underlying people problem—whether it be under-resourcing, conflicting priorities, or the wrong skills set. Navigating through this as a consultant tests your listening skills, your negotiation skills, and in many instances makes you the shoulder to cry on, the confidant.

Content IS change

And change is hard. Again, as a consultant we must be the ones to stay strong when the project is imploding because their internal processes are grinding content approvals to a halt. Even when we may not have the perfect answer ourselves, we need to display the confidence that we can tackle the problem head on.

I’m not saying we can’t admit our failures or show weakness, or ask for help. We can. And we should. Empathy and communication are core skills for a content strategist, and I think we should be more open about the hardships and challenges that we face. We can all learn from this.

But it’s a balancing act.

If content is personal, complex and rooted in change—well then it’s going to be emotional as well. How we deal with this, and communicate to our clients, will set us apart as a profession.

Hey, can you spare a pie?

When my mom talks about planning a holiday menu, she starts with dessert. I’m not kidding; she really plans a meal around what she serves last, and for Thanksgiving, she spends a lot of time thinking about pie. A lot.

Cohen family pumpkin pie, with chocolate pecan in foreground.

We might spend part of a phone call or two discussing the finer points of choosing pumpkin cheesecake over pumpkin walnut, or whether we can coerce our good family friend to bring an apple pie (because Mom doesn’t do double crusts, and neither do I). This year, we’ve been doubly out of our minds with the second night of Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving—Thanksgivukkah! I half expect Mom’s menagerie of turkeys to undergo a costume change halfway through.

Really, though, I’m just thankful to be having this conversation with my mother, and to be able to come home to Florida to celebrate with her, my dad, and my sister. We’re lucky to have each other and plenty of food on the table.

For others, the holidays can mean loneliness, stress from financial difficulty, and fear of to bear a cold winter while dealing with a serious illness. For all of these reasons, and on behalf of my family, I’m a Community Servings Pie in the Sky seller this year.

Boston-area friends can buy an actual pie to pick up on November 27, but anyone can donate a pie on behalf of a Community Servings client. The cost of a pie covers lunches and dinners for a person in need for an entire week. Now that’s a pie worthy of Thanksgiving.