Halden Ingwersen

Hello yenizens!

I hope you had a restful weekend, perhaps one where you were able to catch up on some really necessary to-dos! My family took this weekend to really put a serious “dent” into our moving boxes that still aren’t fully-unpacked from our move south out of the city just a few months ago. Yikes, it feels like forever ago… 🤔

Let’s make this one a good one folks!

To infinity & community,

— john

Halden was one the first person that I sent an email to when I was thinking of who to ping for these types of interview-ish style posts — I have enjoyed reading her work over at Indie Hackers where she’s the Managing Editor.

It was immediately clear to me that she was deeply interested in understanding people and then drawing out the stories that tell us the journey of how they got from there to here.

With that, let’s get to know Halden a bit more, shall we? For starters, you can find Halden Ingwersen on her “very lazy wordpress” and “lazier Twitter” and when I asked her for a one-liner she shared:

I market content and make strange games. 

See?! I told you, so cool. Let’s jump in:

You’ve been a writer, researcher, TEDx presenter, game designer, and social media expert… how have you thought about your career and how have you decided what to work on and when and why?

The honest answer is that I haven’t thought about my “career” all that hard. What I’ve thought about it doing the best job I could at whatever I was doing at the time.

Sometimes that meant tracking down primary historical sources with Facebook, other times it meant studying everything I could find about how to do email marketing, and sometimes it’s been teaching myself Javascript just to take a joke way too far. Whatever it is I’m doing, I try to completely devote myself to it and do the best job I can at it.

The happy side effect of this has been becoming very good at a few niche things, and some of those things (like content marketing in the tech world) are in demand.

The fact that some of the things I’m very good at because of a rabbit-hole type of focus and study have made me hireable is just lucky.

Where does content find its home in your career path and story? how does this intersect with community?

I stumbled into content marketing through sheer luck. When I was graduating college, a professor of mine introduced me to an alum from my college who just happened to work for a company where I wanted to live (DC at the time), and that company happened to be hiring.

I’d never even heard of content marketing before I met said alum for coffee, but I knew I could write, and that was all I really needed. By that point I’d already presented on my original historical research in my TEDx (it was about the history of American Sideshow – yes, like a circus sideshow), and was simply assuming I’d work for a year before getting my Masters in history.

As it turned out, taking home a paycheck was a lot more fun than homework, so I just stuck with content marketing, especially once I developed my skills and really got good at it.

At the same time that I was learning how to do content marketing, I was holding down my first staff position at a live action game. I learned about content (SEO, writing, software, clicks, and comments) and managing a community (happy players, disgruntled players, player conflicts, privacy, and moderation) at the same time, and it was a pretty brutal sink-or-swim situation in both cases.

Connecting one type of lesson to the other was just the natural result of having both on my mind at the time.

What are some of the better ways to build community through content?

I’m of the opinion that it’s nearly impossible to make a community without some sort of content. Humans love stories. We care about stories. We bond through stories.

If you don’t have a story to tell, it’s going to be really hard to create an emotional connection between what you do and your audience, and without an emotional connection you’re not going to have a community.

Something I’ve learned is that you can take the most clinical things and craft stories around them by thinking deeply and developing empathy for your audience.

Take my first job, for instance, where I was writing listicles about applicant tracking software. That’s… pretty damn dry. But if you can put yourself in the mindset of someone who is buying that software for their small business, it’s easier to craft a narrative.

Maybe they’re a little techy, but overwhelmed with options. Maybe they’re sick of articles talking down and assuming they don’t know anything, but also don’t know all the expert jargon. So you can write something a little light on the lingo, something tongue-in-cheek that says:

I know you’d rather skip right to the part where you’ve already hired the best choice. So here, this is going to be the easiest guide you’ve read today so we can get you to that point faster. You got this!

Now you’ve taken this boring topic and found a way to generate enough emotion about it that it’ll come through to the reader, and that’s how you get in their minds as a place that cares, so the next time they need software for something, they’re coming right to your site, and they’re telling other people to use your site when they want to find software.

That’s making fans, that’s building a community.

Of course, it’s a lot easier when the content is easy to care about and creates an emotional connection all by itself. Games do that. All you have to do to make a community around a game is give them a space to exist all together and then moderate it a little.

If more tech could find a way to make their products so good and so story-driven that they’re basically gamified, my job would be the easiest thing in the world.

You spent a bit of time in the video game industry in your career — what can community builders learn from that industry and what should we avoid (e.g. bad behaviors)?

Quick clarification: I do make some “video games” but I would consider them art games before I’d say I’m in the video game industry.

The games industry I am a part of is the live action industry, where I’ve designed several games and been on the staff of several others. That being said, if you want to know what the live action bad behaviours are like, just take all the bad stereotypes about video gamers and extrapolate them.

Games make their own community. And that’s very cool! But the same reason they form so easily (deep emotional connection to the content) is the same thing that makes them hard to moderate. Everyone cares so much, and in some cases they think that they care more than anyone else, therefore their voice, their opinion, their input is more important than anyone else’s.

If you’re lucky enough to be creating content that helps develop these strong feelings, you need to stay one step ahead of your own community. Be ready to moderate the comments as soon as new content drops.

Be ready to fend off the extremes, both positive and negative.

But don’t be afraid to be human while you do that. Involve yourself with your content’s community. Chat with them all the time, not just when something goes very wrong or very right.

Talk about the everyday stuff, too. If you act like a faceless monolith, your community will treat you that way. If you give your presence a name and a face they’ll respond like you’re a person. You’re not the product, you’re Jean and you like avocados and Netflix and you overuse emojis.

And if you make a mistake (tech crashes, a new rollout bombs, your language alienated your audience), be human enough to own up to it, apologize, and ask your community how you can do better next time. Then do it.

And all that is much easier to do when they already have that interpersonal rapport with you!

If you knew what you know now about how you’ve built and developed your career, would you have intentionally done it that way or not? differently?

I think that there are a few things I’d have done differently. As so many others have, I’ve gotten caught up in some very toxic work environments while trying to find my footing, as well as some environments that weren’t inherently bad, just bad for me.

But that said, even if I was pretty miserable at the time, I’ve ended up in a really wonderful place with both sides of my career. And even if there is no butterfly effect making that happen, I absolutely learned so much more about myself on the other side of those rough experiences.

One of those lessons is actually something that I see again and again while running the interviews at Indie Hackers: Know your worth, then charge for it.

Who is one person who inspired you greatly while building your career? who pushed you the hardest?

I can’t answer that with just one person, at the risk of sounding like a celeb at their first awards show. I still owe a lot to that alum who got me into content marketing, Rachel Burger.

She was a mentor for the first few years of my career, and made more calls and wrote more letters for me than I care to admit! She now runs a website about life extension, which is wild to me.

One of my best friends is an extremely innovative live game designer named Ericka Skirpan, and I’ve told her more than once that I want to be her when I grow up. In both cases, they’re huge inspirations as brilliant women in very male-dominated areas, and both have always been there for me when I’ve needed to scream my frustrations into the void.

My fiance, Lex, is absolutely my biggest fan and cheerleader, and has been the one to help me back up every time something’s knocked me down for the last six years.

What is one of the best stories that doesn’t get told enough?

In both content and games, I’m sick to death of “edge.” I’m sick to death of gloom and doom and dark/morbid/twisted retellings.

At a job I once had, I was explicitly encouraged to write to scare my reader. I was encouraged to use scare tactics, frighting data, and alarmist language. All for the simple reason that fear makes sales.

If you’re scared of your business failing, of being hacked, of missing an opportunity, you’re more likely to panic-buy things you may not actually need. This is ridiculous to me. At best it’s embarrassing because you look like a child shouting, “Boo!” At worst, it’s predatory to jeopardize the long-term business health of the users you’re claiming to want to help.

I’m tired of the idea that only a sad story has meaning, that only the worst outcomes are worth discussing. Sure, depressing Russian novels are literary classics. But so are Beatrix Potter stories. Give me a happy ending. Give me some hope. With words or data, for a game or for a business, tell me a story where the beauty comes from joy, not just from suffering.

I have a New York Times subscription for when I want to suffer.

Peter Thiel Question: What important truth do most people disagree with you on?

There is absolutely no reason for any person to hoard more resources than they need while others go with basic needs unmet. To choose personal gain over helping your fellow humans when you have the ability to assist is inherently immoral. It’s our greatest challenge as people to find the best ways to support those around us.

Who should I deep-dive with next?

I’m biased, but I work with some very cool people. Chat with Rosie Sherry if you want to hear someone much smarter than I tell you how to craft a community.

And Channing Allen enlightens me about programming, psychology, and the craft of writing on a weekly basis.

Finally, Rachel Burger, who I mentioned above, could probably tell you some insane things about the technology of life extension.