My Secret Santa Gift to James, the Content Man

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

I don’t know James. I’ve never met him but this is my Christmas gift to him.

A blog post.

I was excited to receive an invitation by the Secret Santa Blog to write a post for this man of mystery so I wondered, who is James Callan?

Who is this man of mystery? This man who says he is good with words and handy on a quiz team?


So let’s see what I can find out about him from his blog posts. I know that:

  • He works in the IT industry
  • He works with web content
  • He lives in a city that I’d love to visit one day
  • He is in a polyamorous relationship with print and internet but especially attracted to editing and oh…
  • He hates grammar Nazis.

That is a nice list of great qualities for a man I don’t know but you know he has taught me a couple of things already.

  • He has given me an idea to create my own portfolio challenges on things I’m working on and blog about them
  • He has also taught me that there’s a widget for Meetup that I can put into my own blog! (Who would have thought!)

So mystery man James from Seatle, Washington USA thank you for teaching me these things but I have one itsy bitsy tiny request from you….


So with that, I wish you and your family a merry Christmas and a wonderful new year from the mystery Melbourne lady (that’s Melbourne, Australia).


There are two main reasons why I don’t write as much as I should, or as much as people ask me to:

  1. I’m pretty sure no one wants to hear what I have to say.
  2. What I think of saying isn’t interesting to people who say they want to hear more from me.

(OK, three: I’m also lazy.)

Neither of those first two things may be true. Very kind and smart people ask me to write more, in fact, so I’m pretty certain that, in theory, they’d like to hear more.

That’s where the second point comes in: I feel like I’d be letting those people down by writing the things I’m most interested in and comfortable with.

This one is harder for me to shake. It’s also a dumb reason to avoid writing anything. But here we are, my dumb brain and me, more comfortable writing about why it’s tough to write than about other stuff.

Here are some topics I’ve been mulling over. I present them not so people can vote on them, but just to put them out for myself and debunk my own notion that I’ve got nothing to say:

  • How to use your copy style guide to improve user experience
  • How writing trivia questions for drunk people made me a better web writer
  • What Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi taught me about mastering a trade
  • Online user surveys suck. Let’s make them better. (I’m looking at you, ForeSee.)
  • How to write good trivia questions and quizzes (multiple articles, probably)
  • What to expect the first time you go to pub quiz
  • What I learned working for a universally loathed website
  • My year doing content strategy in an Agile environment
  • How to solve a trivia question
  • How to write good trivia questions (multiple posts, probably)
  • What web content people can learn from TV showrunners
  • What content people can learn from Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic
  • Love letters to people who produce great content (Criterion being #1)
  • Analysis of QuizUp’s content and why they’re a solid but unexciting quiz game
  • Reviews of trivia games, apps, and sites (multiple posts)

I’m blanking on more but I’m sure the notions are lurking there somewhere.

You’ll notice that I’m torn between writing about explicit work stuff (which, I’ll be honest, seems necessary but uninspiring) and things focused on trivia, which I think about a lot but is a side gig. (But if someone wants me to run their quiz game editorial & content side, let me know.)

Which is why I have two active blogs, neither of which is updated as often as it should be:, and Quiz Quiz Bang Bang.

(I also do a daily trivia question email, so in fact I am writing something, but it’s purely for pleasure.)

This isn’t much of a grand conclusion, but: I feel a tug of war between my active interests in a niche, and my desire to contribute to a “mainstream” content strategy community. Throw in my desire to watch movies and TV shows and read books and comics and also comment on them on a third blog, and I feel like I spread myself too thin and trip myself up, yet I don’t want to cut any of them.

So there. (I’m not asking you to solve this for me.)

Labelize Me: Confrontational information

The other day, I mentioned on Twitter that I ended up voting against requiring labels on genetically modified food because the initiative in question required that they be on the front of the box.

I also called it “fearmongering,” a loaded word, but one that I chose on purpose.

Sarah Schact, one of the people I was replying to, asked great followup questions:

Really? Labels and transparency into fear-mongering? How do you react to grams of cholesterol on nutrition labels? They are required to print it on the nutrition label. Why would front versus back matter in terms of “fear-mongering?”

Although I replied on Twitter, it got me thinking about the distinction between making information available, which I’m all in favor of, and making information confrontational, which I’m generally opposed to.

Let’s start with the specific example of labeling genetically modified foods.

I confess up front: I don’t care about this issue. I would not use a label, wherever it appeared on the package. If adding jellyfish DNA made carrots more appealing for my kids, I say chomp chomp.

Regardless, given how many people want that info, I’m OK (if unenthusiastic, in this instance) with putting that on the box. I don’t keep kosher, but I’m happy manufacturers use the kosher label. (Not legally required, I realize.) I’m not allergic to peanuts, but I’m happy that food manufacturers are required to put “made with peanuts” on the nutritional label.

Requiring information of interest to consumers to be on the box, legible, not camouflaged among the fine print — that’s a good thing. That’s transparency. That’s useful labeling. That is making information available.

Requiring that info to appear on the front of the box, however, moves into making information confrontational . That’s how we treat, for example, warning labels on cigarette packages, or parental advisory stickers on music. The information not just findable. We do everything we can to make sure that you can’t achieve your goal without seeing this information first.

(The front of the package, of course, is also where companies themselves put information they think will help the product sell. These are the chocolate chip Eggos. This syrup has no high fructose corn syrup. I don’t claim the territory as it exists is particularly high-minded — it’s a brander’s playground.)

I would not be in favor of requiring “produced in a facility that also processes nuts” on the front of the box.

Making information confrontational is aggressive, not neutral. People who don’t care about that information are rarely thankful for it.

Are you excited to see the unskippable anti-piracy message before watching a movie? Do you love the popup that asks you to sign up for the newsletter and insists on being dismissed before you go anywhere else on the site?

Aggression can be justified. Those cigarette warnings are blunt, scientifically proven facts that have saved lives. They’re like seat belts — maybe annoying, but there’s an argument for requiring them.

But generally, people think their cause is worth being aggressive, but get annoyed when other causes get in their face. Tipper Gore and her cohorts were genuinely concerned about lyrics, which didn’t make rebellious rock fans any happier. The movie industry really wants you to think twice about pirating those movies, which doesn’t keep me from cursing at the anti-piracy warning.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, people who support mandatory pre-abortion counseling believe that it’s a force for good. Those of us who think it’s an offensive waste of time at best are not mollified by their intent.

For some people, if the cause is just, it’s not enough for the information they deem important to be available. You should have to swat it out of your face if you want to ignore it.

Sticking information on the front of the box is designed to make you care about the issue. Putting information in the existing nutritional info, a spot where interested consumers know to look, is genuine information transparency.

Context matters.

Whether or not you think GMO labeling should be required, I’m unclear why that information should be more prominent and less ignorable than information such as calorie count, the presence of common allergens, or the list of ingredients.

If I were morally outraged by genetically modified food, or even concerned, maybe I’d have voted the other way anyway. (Probably not proudly, but with a “better than nothing” attitude.)

But I’m not. I’m not excited about voting Monsanto’s way, but that was more appealing than supporting, however mildly, an effort to stigmatize some kinds of food.

What killed QRANK? One suspect: Content trouble.

Yesterday, the best trivia app for iOS stopped publishing their daily quiz. After a three-year run, Ricochet Labs pulled the plug on QRANK.

As of now, there are almost 400 comments on QRANK’s Facebook page. Fans are unhappy that QRANK is ending. And many want to know why.

I have no insider knowledge, but I know content and I know trivia. And I suspect QRANK’s doom was spelled out in two of their key promises:

QRANK: New trivia every day! On iPhone & Facebook. Play against your friends. Free! Won't cost a dime!


• New trivia every day!

• Free! Won’t cost a dime!

Here’s the key point: Producing an endless stream of content will never stop costing you money. If you’re not covering that expense, you’re doomed.

Let’s break it down further.

QRANK published at least one quiz a day. Each quiz was made up of 20 questions, though players could only answer 15.

Writing 20 good, solid trivia questions every day is a lot of work. In QRANK’s format, you have to pick a topic, figure out an entertaining way to write it, make sure it’s factually accurate, come up with three plausible alternate answers, and add a followup detail that shows up after the player answers the question. A good writer could probably average 10 minutes per question.

So: 20 questions, 10 minutes each, gives us 200 minutes. Call it three hours to be generous. Call it four hours if it’s a tough day.

You can crowdsource, and QRANK did. I probably had between 20 and 40 questions published in the game over the past couple of years. But someone still needs to decide which submissions to use, edit them, and enter them into the game.

Every day. All year.

So you’re probably paying someone to do that work. (Please don’t let someone do that for free.) A three-quarter-time writer and editor (every day! weekends included!) who specializes in trivia — and an app that costs nothing to download to your iPhone or play on Facebook.

No revenue coming in for the app. And really, if it cost 99¢, or even $4.99, that initial fee is not paying for an endless supply of trivia questions. Good content costs money.

Especially with trivia questions. Because you can only ask a trivia question once. There’s no replay value. Once you’ve established that someone knows Lady Gaga took her stage name from a Queen song, it’s no good trying to ask about that same fact again.

Also, QRANK based a lot of their trivia on current events, which is a topic with a short half life. You might rememember that some bees were making blue honey if you read it two days ago, but come next month, that’s a brutal piece of info to expect people to recall. Next year? Forget about it, unless you really craft a clever question that doesn’t rely on pure recall. Again: Good writing costs.

QRANK tried parnerships and sponsorships and advertising. For a while, they worked with Kirkus Review and The New Yorker, and I assume that brought some revenue. They also tried in-game ads, which I remember loathing at the time — I never hated Thor as much as when the preview was running between playing and finding out my final score — and eventually QRANK gave that up. Whether that was because of player feedback or poor performance, I don’t know, but it’s become clear overall that mobile ads are not a bonanza for anyone.

QRANK was the best trivia app for iOS, but there were signs over the past few months that the writing was on the wall. A major update a while ago introduced hints from Twitter. They were faithfully updated for a few months, then stopped appearing. Copyediting, which had never been perfect, got notably lackluster. The variety of quizzes dwindled to just the one daily game (though the app optimistically referred to other “channels” with more quizzes, which remained unfilled). The questions lost some snap.

In June, I (perhaps unkindly) called them out on that on Twitter, and they didn’t exactly deny their problems:

I kept playing. But fewer and fewer people were playing along. At the game’s height, I’d compete against up to 8 “friends,” but the last few months it’s almost never been more than 2. Many days, I was the only person I knew playing the game. (One post on Facebook revealed that m_faustus, who I remembered as a regular contributor, had started writing all the questions a few months ago. I’d guess QRANK got a few extra months of life thanks to one person’s enthusiasm.)

None of which takes away from QRANK’s achievement. I’ve played other apps, but none of them combined good design, strong game mechanics, and quality content as effectively as QRANK, even as it declined.

Game designers who want to tackle trivia should read it as a big flashing warning sign, though: Good content is expensive. And a trivia game lives or dies on good content. Bad questions, uninteresting questions, rote questions, wrong answers, incorrect info — they’ll kill you, no matter how good the tech side of things is.

What’s the answer? Two major ideas come to mind:

1. Subscriptions. Come up with the platform, and get people to subscribe to the questions. 99¢ a week shouldn’t be unreasonable, though I know people would complain.

2. Contained games. Whether or not you charge for the app up front, load it with a finite set of questions. Once people play through them all, the game is done. It’s like Trivial Pursuit: Once you’ve played through a set of cards, you need to buy more.

Content doesn’t need to come first.

But content does need to be there from the beginning.

"El numero uno" by Iván Cabrera.

Content vs. web-design-elements-that-aren’t-content is not a chicken and the egg argument. It’s not about evolution. It’s about genetics.

Which came first, your mother’s genes or your father’s genes? Silly question. You need them both in order to be you.

Same with content and the other elements of web design: Content is a vital part of web design. Design, by all means, from the content out. Don’t shuffle content to the end of the design process.

(Content first vs. content from the beginning: Is it semantics? Maybe. But it matters. I’ve seen a number of people who interpret “content first” as “you need final copy before the designer can start working,” which is wrong. And claiming firsties is the kind of behavior you expect from blog commenters, not web professionals.)

Content needs to be there from the beginning. But it doesn’t need to come first.

Dear Confab: Thanks for the wings!

Monday night I stepped out of the party at Bar Lurcat to call my daughter and say goodnight. The first thing she asked me: “Daddy, are you making lots of new friends?”

Which is exactly what I was doing. And exactly the best words to describe it. Still from It's a Wonderful Life

Confab was a joy to attend. It was well-run, interesting, educational, and stuffed tighter than a card catalog with brainy people sharing useful wisdom. The least impressive session I attended* would’ve been a highlight many other places.

So what did I learn? Three big lessons, though I don’t think they’re probably typical.

1) I know more than I think I do.

Here’s something that surprised me: I was inspired by all of the presenters, but I was not awed by them. (Not all of them all the time, anyway.) I came away from several sessions realizing that I know stuff like that, and I could probably work on doing a better job of sharing that knowledge. (Could? Should.)

Continue reading

SVC Workshop: Content Strategy for the Web bibliography

Hey, there, everyone who was in my content strategy workshop. Sorry this was late. But it should be thorough! (Complete deck is at the end.)

Recommended books

Three I strongly recommend:

  • Content Strategy for the Web, by Kristina Halvorson
  • The Elements of Content Strategy, by Erin Kissane
  • Clout, by Leen Jones

There are more books you can get, but start with this three, and I recommend reading them in this order.

Links from within the presentation

Continue reading

Nice hint text, LinkedIn

While recommending someone on LinkedIn, I noticed (not for the first time) that they do a nice job with the hint text in the Written Recommendation field on their form.

Write a recommendation hint text from LinkedInWhat’s cool?

1) It’s helpful but not essential. The description of what you’re supposed to put in the box is appropriately left outside the box, so it doesn’t disappear when you start typing.

2) It uses your recommendee’s name.

3) It’s clearly labeled “Example” and grayed out to reduce confusion with real, pre-entered text.

What could be cooler? It’d be sweet if the example changed based on the relationship you select–right now, “Dom is a detail-oriented manager” whether you reported to Dom, he reported to you, or it’s a different relationship altogether.

Sweet, but not essential. Nice microcopy, LinkedIn.

Panel Discussion: Ask the Content Strategist [video]

On September 8, I hosted a panel I’d been plotting since founding the Content Strategy Seattle group last October: Ask the Content Strategist.

My idea: Get a group of professional content strategists together and let people ask them questions. It worked great, and here’s the video to prove it.

Watch live streaming video from contentseattle at

The participants: Ariel van Spronsen of POPVanessa Casavant of AdoptUsKidsPatty Campbell of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Tiffani Jones Brown of Second and Park and Things That Are Brown. (Scott Pierce provided invaluable behind the scenes techie magic. I moderated.)

Questions included:

  • What are the differences between a content strategist and a writer or journalist?
  • How do you differentiate between a content sitemap and a IA sitemap? More broadly: Now that we’ve covered the differences between a content strategist and a writer, what are the differences between a content strategist and an information architect?
  • What’s the most effective way to explain the importance of content strategy to a team who doesn’t understand why site architecture would come before design?
  • Is workflow analysis always a part of content strategy, or is there a way around it?
  • What’s the ideal interaction or workflow between content strategy and search engine optimization (SEO)?
  • Knowing that content is king, a call to action is imperative, and the company or website will fail without a good content strategy, when do you throw in the towel?

Many thanks to all four panelists, and to the Watercooler for the venue.

And don’t miss next month’s meetup: Margot Bloomstein talks about Waking Up in Seattle: You’re the one that they want.