Kristin Hillery is an editor who understands the power of words. But more than that, her secret sauce is that she understands how to connect with people. As editor-at-large at InVision, she has figured out how to bring people together, get great work out of both writers and non-writers, and encourage her audience and team.
InVision is a fast-growing tech company, and its content has a loyal audience of more than 2 million readers. Kristin describes the moment she knew she wanted the job: “During one of my interviews, someone explained, ‘Our blog is for the design community. We want it to be a genuinely valuable resource and a platform for people to share what they’re working on.’ At that point I knew InVision valued content and realized how important it was. They just got it: Good content is good for business.”
“I’ve always looked at our blog as a publication, keeping in mind that we’re serving our readers. It exists to teach, inspire and entertain. Everything we publish has to meet their high expectations.”
Keep reading for Kristin’s advice about working with contributors, understanding your audience, overcoming networking fears, designing a great site, editing non-writers and building a modern content team.
Working with Contributors
When you started at InVision your role was managing contributors. What have you learned about running a site that’s fueled by contributors’ work?
One of the coolest things about Inside Design is that the majority of our posts are written by our readers. Anyone is welcome to pitch a story idea on any topic they’d like, so because they have that creative freedom, I think we’re always able to publish stories on subjects that are on designers’ minds — everything from design systems to workplace attire, to red flags to watch out for when you’re working with a new freelance client.
Back when I was the managing editor, I’d suggest people pick a topic they were truly excited about. Something they’d be able to give a 10-minute lightning talk about during a conference, or something they’d explain to a colleague over a beer after work. I’d also ask them to think about what they want to be known for in the field. Sharing your work on the blog results in people seeing you as an expert on whatever topic you wrote about.
What was your contributor strategy? How did you start getting interesting content by interesting people?
When I first started, I’d email InVision users to introduce myself and ask if they’d be interested in sharing something on the blog. Every single person said yes.
I also spent time every day reading Medium and other design blogs, and I’d contact writers whose work impressed me to see if they’d be willing to either let us publish their post or write something completely new, or both. And they always said yes, too.
It took about two years, but eventually we started getting people writing to us asking how they could contribute. These days, we put out a call for contributors every few months, but for the most part it’s designers writing to us to pitch story ideas.
Connecting with Your Audience
InVision is known for coming up with topics that really resonate. What have you learned about planning editorial content for your audience?
You’ve got to get to know your audience. Whoever you’re writing to, keep in mind that they are not just what they do. For example, designers don’t just design. They’re human beings. They might be in between jobs and having a tough time getting work. Or maybe they just started their dream job but they’re struggling with impostor syndrome. Maybe they’re figuring out how to balance work and parenting. Hey, maybe they just binge-watched all of Game of Thrones and want to see some GIFs inspired by it. There’s just so much more that we’re all dealing with at work and in our personal lives, and it affects everything we do.
A couple of years ago we published a piece by Shayna Hodkin, a fantastic writer, editor, and human who recently took over as our managing editor, called "Freelancing With Depression.” We had a lot of readers write in and say things like, “I'm going through this and it’s so helpful to know others are too,” and “I can't believe that InVision published a post about depression.” But of course we did, because that's related to your work, right? We're all human.
How do you learn more about what your audience wants?
You’ve got to spend as much time with them as possible. I go to conferences, meetups, and InVision events like the Design Leadership Forum dinners all the time for this reason. If it sounds too difficult for you to do this, you have to ask yourself if you’re in the right role — you should be really, really excited by any chance to get to know your readers so you can serve them better. Ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to open up to people.
The best thing about getting out there and meeting your audience: I can almost guarantee you’ll walk away with new friends. There are several people I’ve met at conferences like Epicurrence and Creative South that I talk to on a regular basis and feel so thankful to call friends.
What's your conference strategy? Let's say you go to a conference by yourself. How do you make sure that you meet people and have those conversations? Because I know sometimes that can be hard for people.
Growing up, my family moved to a new city every couple of years, so I was the new kid many, many times. I have to admit that even now that I’m an adult, entering a room full of complete strangers gives me a little bit of that same sinking feeling I had when I’d walk into a new school for the first time. It feels like everybody already knows someone, and you may as well just go eat your Lunchables in the library by yourself.
But that’s not at all the case! At conferences, everyone there is looking to meet new people, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind. If you do have that let’s-take-these-Lunchables-to-the-library feeling, hold up and take a moment to scan the room for someone who looks lost. There's always going to be someone alone who's nervously sipping a drink and staring at their phone, so don’t be afraid to walk over and strike up a conversation.
Related to striking up a conversation: Something I thought was really cool at Creative South, and I’ve since noticed it at a lot of other design events, is that people wear enamel pins and use those as icebreakers or to just help people get to know them. I wound up talking to someone at Creative South for a long time because she was wearing a Tayne pin from Tim and Eric.
User Experience and Design
Your team just completely relaunched the InVision Blog as Inside Design. Tell me about that decision.
I’m so proud of Inside Design. It was a huge team effort — lots and lots of folks worked countless hours on it for several months, and we put a ton of thought into the design. The InVision Blog had grown from being “just a blog” to a design publication, and we wanted to update it to reflect that.
This was also a chance to improve the experience, and I think we knocked it out of the park. Before, the InVision Blog had no search functionality and just showed posts in order from most recent to oldest. We had several readers write in over the last few years to say they were opening each post in a new tab and reading them in order. Now there’s a search function, which makes it really easy to find what you’re looking for. The main page has a featured post spot, along with prominent spaces for videos and featured writers. I love that we give such a big spot to writers—we wanted to elevate them and make them feel really special, and we also redesigned author pages and made it so the author’s name and photo are much more prominent at the top of each post.
I've seen more and more writers include “Inside Design contributing writer” in their Twitter bios or on LinkedIn. It means so much that people do that.
There are also some unexpected details on Inside Design that I love. My favorite is our 404 page. We asked several designers to create custom 404-themed illustrations, and our 404 page shows a different one each time you land on it. I love that we took something that could have easily just said “Page not found” and turned it into a moment of delight.
What are some of the most important skills for editors to have?
Soft skills are so important. You’ve got to be friendly, have a good sense of humor, and be able to think quickly — because we all know that things inevitably, at some point, will go wrong. Putting people at ease and making them feel comfortable is a big one. Often, it can be really nerve-wracking for writers to submit something to a publication. If you hit them with harsh feedback or do something to make them feel embarrassed, they may never want to write again. And that’s a terrible thing to do to someone.
When I work with non-writers, which is pretty often, I have the attitude that they have incredibly smart, wonderful things to say, but they may need my help to get their writing to where it needs to be.
What other skills do you think are important for content marketers?
I don’t think it’s enough to just be a writer or editor anymore. You almost need to be a mix of writer, editor, designer, marketer, and even salesperson. For example, if you’re managing a publication, the work doesn’t end once you hit “publish” on a post. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to grow your audience and keep your existing audience coming back. You probably also need to have an eye for design and photography so you can curate gorgeous images to go along with each post.
Attention to detail is also towards the top of my list. Caring about the small stuff, like whether you put a space before and after an em-dash, using sentence case or title case for headlines, etc. All that should be taken seriously.
After that: curiosity and passion. About your readers, about the subjects you cover, about how writing and editing are evolving right now. It really is an exciting time to be in this field. I think there’s a ton of opportunity to experiment with what we do — and, honestly, to just have fun with it.
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