At Online Marketing Summit (OMS) in San Diego, I met Liza Tewell, online editor for REI.com. As a native Seattleite, I’ve always been impressed with the organization. I asked if she would be open to an interview, and she said yes. Below is the complete interview with Liza.

How did you end up as Online Editor for REI.com, one of the more unusual and coveted Internet jobs available today?

I came to REI.com from Nordstrom.com, where I worked as an editor and writer for both the website and their direct mail catalogs, a program begun by Dan Nordstrom. (Dan later stepped into the leadership position at Outdoor Research – a brand carried by REI – after their CEO, Ron Gregg, died in an avalanche while skiing in British Columbia in 2003.) Prior to Nordstrom I had been an editor at Eddie Bauer, where I had landed after finishing my masters degree in professional writing at USC. I forwent law school in favor of some crazy idea that I’d be a novelist or Hollywood screenwriter, but as I’d been involved in commercial photography prior to grad school, advertising was a softer landing, and probably did a better job of paying the bills. While at Eddie Bauer I was extremely fortunate to be mentored by John Kime, Eddie’s original copywriter. John had been a reconnaissance photographer in P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs during WWII and was a font of great stories, which he used to illustrate lessons in copywriting. Not surprisingly, many of the writers, designers and other colleagues I worked with at Eddie Bauer are still there or are now with Nordstrom or REI. We’re all still close and have periodic get-togethers, regardless of where we may now work.

What are your primary responsibilities as REI.com Online Editor?

Currently my specific areas of focus include editorial SEO/NSO support across our three sites (REI.com, REI-OUTLET.com and REI-Adventures.com) as well as promoting the SEO education of content providers throughout REI. I also help to concept and provide editorial content and enhancements for our REI.com and Novara.com homepages, as well as for various individual projects and seasonal events.
Additionally, we are having fun knocking down silos, collaborating strategically and sharing knowledge cross-divisionally – especially in the area of Search – with our partners in Marketing, Public Affairs and Brand Creative.

What types of skills have you found most valuable in your position?

Perhaps their passion for the language (sometimes bordering on zealotry) has always been the primary thread that keeps writer-types coming back for more. And through Search, my love for words and language has found a new dimension. It’s not unlike being a scientist – words in the Web environment are very much alive, and that environment is constantly morphing. There is always something new to discover. It’s like CSI-SEO. Search is a great place for people who love to solve puzzles. I think my background with commercial photography has helped me to appreciate how text works with layout and design as an integral part of the customer-facing, visual experience. I’m also keen on mechanical things, especially cars, which probably explains some of my fascination with the technology itself of online marketing.

Is REI.com as cool a place to work as we all might imagine? What makes it such a great place?

Boy, where to start? REI really is a cool place to spend every day. The retail REI stores themselves are essentially big, fun playgrounds. I work at the REI headquarters campus which is about 20 minutes south of downtown Seattle. There’s no shortage of trees, flowers and green grass, and there’s also a dog play area on campus. During the day you can go for a run, play basketball, join a bike ride, take a yoga class or work out in the gym. Some even manage to hit the slopes at lunchtime. A block away is a designated wetland and park which is great for bird watching. We have a beautiful view of Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately, we’re also in the direct path of a lahar, if that should ever happen.What really sets REI apart, though, is how the work/life balance has been redefined. It’s not the old see-saw model of equilibrium, but a totally integrated way of living. Through work and play and volunteering, we embrace the nurturing of the outdoors for the benefit of enjoying the time we have now and making the world a better place for the future. That holds true for the outdoor gear and clothing we offer as well. Not only do we concept, design and create our REI and Novara brand products, we believe in all the items we sell, and use them ourselves. Above all, our collective heart is, and always has been, very much in the right place.

What are some of the content initiatives you are most excited about looking forward?

Our Information Architecture team has dedicated outstanding resources to the areas of Taxonomy, Natural Search, Data Architecture, etc. Their wealth of experience is enabling us to realize that our potential is, in fact, unlimited when it comes to helping visitors find quality content, whether it be how-to articles, videos, outdoor opportunities, or the gear and clothing we offer. REI is has always embraced content quality – REI was created in the belief that we have a lot to offer those who come to REI not just for outdoor gear and clothing, but for the help and expertise they may need or want to enjoy the outdoors. We’re exploring new ways to not only leverage that content, but to continue creating content that’s worthy of our visitors’ trust.

What role does search engine optimization (SEO) play in your online content strategy?

Through robust and integrated in-house Search strategies, we’re working hard to stay on the leading edge of Search as we support our social media and community, video, digital marketing, SEM, print and in-store opportunities, Public Affairs, external-search NSO and internal search, to name just a few of the areas that are feeling the love.  SEO is here to stay at REI thanks to our in-house teams. However, we also understand that the very nature of Search makes it a community. It really does “take a village” in other words. Those involved at REI are visionaries who ‘get it’ and understand the importance of sharing search learnings both throughout REI and with our colleagues outside of REI. It’s the concept of link-sharing applied to the Search process: they’ll come back, and they’ll bring friends.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring in-house online content editors?

I think any advice I might be able to offer would depend on from where those editors were coming, philosophically speaking. Writers coming from a print advertising background may require a different kind of education to set them up for success in the online environment. On the flip side, technical writers might more easily grasp the mechanics of the process but would benefit with advice tailored to enhancing their grasp of the nuances of the language. Content providers who come from the world of journalism may need to go through a sort of grieving process where they let go of some traditional writing techniques and embrace new ways to appease search engines without alienating human visitors.

Any thoughts regarding the future role of search engine or social media marketing for content-centric e-retailers like REI.com?

I often share a quote from my friend, Thanh Nguyen, Usability Director at BusinessOnLine, “If they can’t find it, it doesn’t exist.” I like to add that “it” means content worth finding.

Any parting thoughts about the role content plays today, particularly for e-retailers?

Every. Word. Matters.