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“Content Strategy Has a Huge Impact”: An Interview With Pinterest’s Tiffani Jones Brown

Tiffani Jones Brown is Pinterest’s head of content strategy. She and her team are responsible for the voice, tone, user interface copy, grammar conventions, and pinner education on the site. Before Pinterest, she was a content strategist at Facebook and co-runner of design agency Things That Are Brown. Tiffani has a master’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two cats.

Tell us about yourself and the content strategy team at Pinterest.

Sure. I’m Tiffani, and I lead the writing team at Pinterest. We’re a group of 5: me, Mac Geidt, Sadia Latifi, Evany Thomas, and Kim O’Rourke.

Our team’s job is to help people feel good when they use Pinterest. We try to make Pinterest-the-product feel clear and delightful, and Pinterest-the-brand feel authentic and relatable.

The first way we do this is by defining The Pinterest Voice. The second is through content strategy proper, which means everything from creating workflows for our translators, to training other teams at Pinterest how to write in our voice, to coming up with ideas for brand campaigns. The third, and probably most important, is through writing itself. We write or edit nearly everything you see on Pinterest, as well as all our marketing, branding and business-facing stuff.

How did you get involved writing for technology companies? It seems like a different world from editorial.

Totally. I imagine people think of them as separate because “editorial” seems literary, whereas “tech” seems techy.

To me, though, they seem really related. Like writers who work at a publishers or magazines, writers who work at tech companies are responsible for coming up with ideas that interest readers, and communicating those ideas in a way that interests readers.

Tech writing gets a bad rep because, historically, tech companies haven’t been great at communicating. I think that’s changing, though—more and more startups are investing in high-quality editorial and writing. My team hopes that eventually, Pinterest will be as fun to read (and use of course!) as a good magazine.

Why is content strategy important to Pinterest, especially at a relatively early time for the company?

Good writing and content strategy makes products, and the marketing of those products, much better. When we do our jobs well, the things we launch are easier and more fun to use. We’ve seen how changing copy can positively impact sign-ups, engagement and sentiment.

Content strategy has a huge impact on our brand, too. When we’re thoughtful about the things we say—when we know what we want to say, to who, and how—Pinterest feels more trustworthy. More like a friend than a robotic corporation.

How would you describe the Pinterest “voice”? Where is that voice heard?

We describe our voice as clear, conversational and honest (the basics) and warm, playful and delightful (the good stuff). We have a style guide and voice guide that add lots of detail and concrete examples, like what each voice characteristic means.

Under each of these, we have lots of examples, pictures of celebs who represent each one, and tips to help people really “get it.” The point is to take something that’s inherently subjective and make it feel a little more concrete.

Above all, though, we want our voice to be appropriate. We want to speak in the same voice across all our channels, but modulate our tone based on the pinner’s experience. I think a big part of our (and designers’) jobs is to just have good social skills. Sometimes that means being playful, sometimes it means being straightforward, and sometimes it means saying nothing at all.

What is your approach to team-building? How have you positioned your group?

We’re 5 writers, and we work on the creative team, along with product designers, brand designers and researchers.

We sit and work super closely with each other, but each writer owns a different part of Pinterest. Mac does marketing, community and brand; Sadia works on business, developer and internationalization stuff; Kim works on our team content strategy, ops, legal and training; Evany works on growth and web stuff; I do creative directiony things, team management and mobile; we all write for web and mobile.

One of the firsts things I look for when I hire is writing skills—can they communicate clearly? Delightfully? Do they have a creative streak? The second thing I look for is personality. We work closely with almost every team at Pinterest, so it’s really important that our writers be low-ego, curious and fun to work with. After that, I look for web and mobile experience. Do they understand basic interaction design? Graphic design principles? Have they done content strategy proper? I’ve found that great writers are usually able to pick up content strategy techniques quickly.

How do you measure success? How can you tell when your copy is working?

Right now we do basic A/B testing, keep up with our research team’s work, listen to what pinners say in comments and feedback (our community team actually sends out a big report after every launch, to help us understand what pinners are confused), and do lots of gut checks with people across the company. Testing strings of copy is simple, but measuring the effect of a “voice” is much more difficult. Right now we’re working on a robust Voice Measurement Plan™, which will hopefully help us get clearer about the effect of our work.

Why is user education important? Does it have a real impact on the product?

We don’t have all the numbers on pinner education, but we know that the way we design and write this stuff has a huge impact on whether and how people understand Pinterest. A while back we tested 4 or 5 variations of a get started flow, for example, and we noticed a big difference in how people adopted certain features based on our copy. We still have a lot of room to grow, though, and we’re working really closely with our research, design and growth teams to think what “the Pinterest way” of educating pinners looks like.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in building out a content strategy for Pinterest?

One thing I’ve learned is how awesome it is to work for a company whose co-founders support the work you do—Evan and Ben really care about communicating well (whether it’s through design or writing), so my team has a certain amount of “lift” beneath us.

Still, though, building a discipline at a startup is hard work. You have to be strategic, and think not just about shipping great products, but also about creating the conditions under which great products can happen. This means being clear about what you’re trying to do, articulating your team’s mission, getting everyone in the company on board with that mission, understanding when you’re not doing a great job of expressing yourself, and looking outside your own discipline to tie what you’re doing to the company’s bottom line. And you need to be really flexible.

I’ve also learned that for me, inspiring people is more effective than “managing” or “evangelizing” them. If I can get people all over Pinterest to understand why communicating well matters we all feel happier when we work together, and things get done more quickly.

What’s next for content strategy at Pinterest?

Well for one, we’re having a baby! (I’m due in a few weeks). Aside from that, we’re gonna keep refining our voice, figuring out how to prioritize our work, and really push our internationalization, brand and “content measurement” strategy. It’s quite a big chunk, but I’m really excited for our team to just experiment, learn from what we do, and keep getting better.

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