Flash versus substance

My new friend Kristina Halvorson, CEO/founder of Brain Traffic and author of the the highly regarded Content Strategy for the Web came by today for an IRL conversation about web content.

Given that many companies are now coming to realize that their thousands of web pages, dozens of microsites, multiple blogs and numerous social accounts actually have to be organized, maintained, governed and monetized, content strategy is rapidly becoming the new black.  At least in the digital space.

Brain Traffic has a pretty straight-forward, hard-to-argue-with approach to content strategy.  You put up nothing if it isn’t useful, usable, purposeful, productive and profitable. That means even those really cool, award-winning, flash-based micro sites have no real reason for being if they don’t satisfy the above criteria.

Don’t get me wrong, I like shiny metal objects on my bookshelf as much as the next person.  But let’s face it, if you’ve ever installed a tool like SEO Book and taken a look at the traffic and ranking for some of those sites, it’s obvious the only people visiting them are people in the advertising business. Not customers. Not prospects. Not users.

Me with Kristina Halvorson and Appropriate Inc's Margot Bloomstein after a scintillating round table discussion about content strategy for the web

Kristina urges us to focus on four areas:  substance, structure, workflow and governance — all of them guided by a core strategy. I must say the choice of the word substance rather than copy, or content or information is, in and of itself, a fresh way to think about what a brand does online. Too often we focus on what we want to say. We put up content for no other reason than we can; cheaper storage space, faster servers and better search engines (not to mention YouTube, Twitter and Facebook) all invite us to populate the web with endless bits.

Substance implies meaning, utility, and purpose. It’s less about what we can publish and more about the value our readers and users get from the words, videos and images that define us online, whether that value derives from information, advice or pure unadulterated entertainment.

So before you ever get to the IA, wireframes and overall eco system (structure), before you figure out who does what to whom and when (workflow), before you set up all your approval procedures and assign responsibility for maintenance and fixing those broken links (governance), ask yourself:  Got substance?

Teresa Basich
Teresa Basich


Great and poignant post. I'm a huge fan of Kristina's (and her team's) work, and love the new weight the word "substance" has been given in this context.

We regularly struggle in the quality vs. quantity battle, but I urge people to spend some time cutting down, and focus on creating real substance. It's easy to forget that we need time to think through to the end of our content, to make sure that it actually touches pain points, solves problems, and teaches, and that process includes choosing the right message supported by the right words. Take that time -- substance over numbers.

Thanks for this. Glad to see content strategy is really starting to take hold.



Teresa Basich
Content Marketing Manager
.-= Teresa Basich´s last blog ..Managing Customer Expectations in the Age of Real-Time Response =-.

Jeremy Morris
Jeremy Morris

I wondered how long it would be before you two came across each other :) Kristina is a pioneer in the content strategy space. Some of us believe this is what real digital strategy looks like although sadly you won't find much of this kind of thinking in 'thought-leadership' pieces like the Razorfish Outlook report.
.-= Jeremy Morris´s last blog ..Brands Are Dead. Reputation Is King =-.

Kristina Halvorson
Kristina Halvorson

Edward, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights about our talk yesterday.

I wanted to give credit where credit's due, here: Brain Traffic's Melissa Rach is the one who, just recently, landed on the word "substance" to talk about the WHAT and WHY of our content. As you say, it's the perfect word, especially when put in the context of Flash! (love it)

Thank you for being such an amazing advocate for content strategy. I'm so impressed by the work you're doing at Mullen, and I look forward to our future conversations!

Sara Williams
Sara Williams

Some very sound advice here.

Your final paragraph proposes a radical shift to the way a lot of people and organisations do business. Digital communication often seems to be flash-driven, with a substance chaser (one that never really fits, so the whole thing often ends up hanging together in a way that's slightly akimbo). This whole icing-before-cake thing has been going on for far too long. Indeed, it is time for a rethink of the importance of substance.

One thought on going too far the other way: let's not lose out on interestingness. Content that is useful, usable, purposeful, productive and profitable is likely to get my attention because I need to engage with it. But content that is interesting or even a little bit magic will get my attention because I WANT to engage with it.

I take your and Halvorson's points entirely -- in fact, I'm about to tweet this article and then nag my colleagues to read it -- but I guess I don't quite see flash and substance as complete binaries. Still, as a planner and writer of content, I was thrilled to read this post. Way to to preach the gospel, Mr Boches.
.-= Sara Williams´s last blog ..saradotdub: Book Fact of the Day: This year, more than 2.5 million books will be shipped with the wrong covers #omgfacts (via @albinoriotman) =-.

Howie G
Howie G

This actually goes for everything we do online. Substance is important. Its why people read this blog. Its why people and brands keep followers/fans vs lose them. Or engage with then vs talking at them. And your right with storage and bandwidth so cheap its easy to just use it for no reason other than it is there.

I myself sadly am a dichotomy. I am a too wordy minimalist. LOL

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I am going to write the word Substance and stick in on my wall in my office facing me when I work.


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