Digital domination – don’t leave it to the powers that be

77 twitterA couple of years ago I came across a very scarey phrase in a United Nation’s document about digital governance. It spoke about ‘controlling the internet’.

Now, on one level, the powers that be are only interested in controlling something if it is powerful, so hat’s off to the internet and in particular, the self-publishing and social communicating it has enabled. But ‘boo’ to any big cheese or brass hat that wants to control it.

Where the internet gets its power

The internet is as powerful as it is because of the egalitarian nature of its access. Countries who attempt to restrict access to the internet are inevitably repressive regimes. Okay, so some of us (individuals and organisations) are still learning how to conduct ourselves in this massively liberating space, but I’m sure it was the same for cavemen when they first saw flames lick around dry tinder. Something that game changing; well, you’re bound to get burned in the early days.

Which is why I currently have misgivings about the army’s revelation that it’s setting up a special unit skilled in non-lethal warfare and where recruits will need to be adept with social media and its use. On the face of its, no bad thing. It’s obvious that if you’re going to win hearts and minds and keep boots off the ground, the major battle grounds will be virtual and psychological.

“shaping behaviour through the use of dynamic narratives”.

But what disturbed me was tucked away in the announcement. It’s the bit where Chief of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter speaks about “shaping behaviour through the use of dynamic narratives”. Now, don’t get me wrong. On one level all of us involved in content strategy have such an ambition. Create the right story. Engage the right audience. Shape a space that delivers the desired action.

You win customers – not wars – in 140 characters

But when the Chief of the Army says it I get a little spooked. The reality is that commercial organisations have spent decades, possible centuries, learning the marketing and communications skills that allow them to engages audiences and working within evolving guidelines and regulatory bodies, in terms of what they can and cannot say.

I’m not sure that the army, no matter how carefully it recruits to the new 77th Bridgade, has those skills. General Carter has an impressive military career. Appointed to post towards the end of last year he is keen to persuade civilians and politicians that the army has a place and deserves a secure budget line.

But miliary experience of content strategy is grounded in war time experience and the Cholmondley Warner school of public service announcements. The only area where it has progressed, in my opinion, is in recruitment, where its use of commercial agencies and the more clear cut customer conversion dynamic have created creditable, well executed marteting messages.

Boots on, on in, the internet?

My worry is that the boots on the internet will still be controlled by a generation of senior military personnel who are not socially mediate and view the interweb as something of a threat; roamed be terrorists, anarchists and young people. Watch their space.

Why Rembrandt knows more about monetising content than the Premier League

On consecutive pages of my favourite newspaper there were recently two stories that for me, at least, flagged up the conundrum (wrapped in a contradiction) faced by content owners; both in terms of how they control and how they monitise.

On page 7 of the paper there was a story from the National Gallery in London , which had lifted its ban on photography. Want a selfie with Rembrandt aged 63 – knock yourself out.

The gallery’s reasoning was that it couldn’t distinguish between visitors using their smartphones (and the gallery’s free wifi) to find out a little more about Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, born in the Netherlands in 1606 and whose self portrait at the age of 63 was one of his last works) and those taking a crafty snap to post on Facebook.

Turn to page 8 in the same newspaper and there’s a story about the Premier League warning footy fans not to post smartphone videos of goals online. Obviously they don’t forsee their staff facing a problem telling the difference between the goal posters and someone simply texting a mate: “Our centre forward is a w**ker – get the beers in”. (To be fair, they are also clamping down on goals recorded from televised footage and then posted onlien, as well as developing a range of technologies to spot this type of copyright infringement.)


You can see where the Premier League is coming from. They make billions from selling the rights to such footage. Why should Sky or BT Sport part with ridiculous amounts of money (you can tell I’m not a footbal fan) if fans can share the highlights on Vine for free?

But the National Gallery must face a similar challenge, surely? Copyrighted images of priceless artworks are what keep galleries like the National running. If big business stops buying the rights to such images – “we want to use Rembrandt aged 63 as the cornerstone for a new male grooming ad campaign” – and visitors no longer pick up postcards and posters in the gallery shop, because they’re content with the picture they’ve have on their iPhone 5, the revenue loss is significant… catastrophic.

  • So, which approach is the right one?
  • The answer could be neither.
  • Both are husbanding content in a very traditional way.


The National Gallery made a judgement call based on resource (staff and best use of their time). It’s also a decision that brings it into line with other major galleries, such as the Tate (or, as I would put it, the National’s competitors).

The Premier League has made a decision based on its existing revenue model, relationships with its big spenders and the very human reaction to losing one’s grip on something, which is to grip tighter.

Both stories demonstrate how the ways in which people engage with an experience – a priceless art work, or a vital goal in injury time – have expanded.

The old master selfie and the six second loop of video uploaded to the Vine sharing platform are natural extensions of the National Gallery shop postcard, or the commiserative post-defeat pint.

Where next?

The BIG question is how do, or should, you monetise? On the face of it what you have is more opportunities to make less money.

Somebody recently gave me a copy of The Curve by Nicolas Lovell, a fantastic book that looks to make sense of the rapidly expanding opportunities to publish (and share) things digitally; audiences reluctance to pay anything for them and the need for those who own and control content to make money from it.

Much of his argument focuses on the need to harness the digital content landscape, not as an opportunity to make money (in the first instance) but to build relationships. Not the tweety, creaky relationships that evaporate in an instant but a bridge of two-way dialogue, trust, mutual respect and reward between the creator/curator and audience.

It is from the more robust platform that the process of identifying both what might be paid for at what price and who within this broader audience might pay what for it begins. I know, it’s a complicated sentence. Let’s put it into a bell curve.
  1. Get to know and engage with your audience really, really well.
  2. Look at what you have to sell digitally and how you might find exclusive elements within it worth paying top dollar for.
  3. Find the segments within your broad audience that will pay these top dollars.

It is both very simple and extremely difficult but Lovell has some impressive case studies.

And let’s take a leaf out of Rembrandt’s book. He may not have had a Vine account but he knew a thing or two about building relationships with patrons, which he did extremely successfully in the early part of his career (bar the odd cock up). He also used apprentices to produce lower priced copies and etchings.

What seems to be missing from both the National Gallery and the Premier League approach is serious (plus thoughtful and fresh) consideration of the mass market audience. (Well, you could argue that staff no longer telling gallery visitors to put their phones away removes a small source of irritation from the visitor experience perspective, but I don’t believe that was a major driver).

What it really smacks of is a desperate desire to keep the current model running smoothly. I think Rembrandt would be disappointed.

Content strategy – your future is calling

Time was digital content was a modest little thing – some lines of text, a few hyperlinks, a picture or two… We spoke in terms of email, websites and ‘above the fold’. SEO was a dark art and the big guns in the boardroom concerned themselves with turnover and market share.

But times, as they say, are a changing…

mobileIt’s hard to put your finger on when digital content first required a strategy; an overarching and constantly updated battle plan (and battle planner), that ensured all content was effective, current and measured in a way that delivered defined success objectives and attracted attention at director level.

Certainly the growth in digital content types and deployment opportunities (including the exponential growth of rich media and social media) were critical.

More types of content deployed in more ways.

  • Once forlorn items such as sign up forms for long forgotten initiatives and email programmes, conceived when the ark ran aground, were given intense scrutiny, alongside increasing awareness that their structure and vocabulary could revitalise their use.
  • Plus, managers and directors found themselves measured and an incentivised in ways that allowed the vast array of online data capture and analysis to be used as almighty carrots and sticks.
  • Tactical and consecutive approaches: first we’ll build the website, then we’ll start an email programme, then we’ll ‘get a Facebook’… had to be replaced by strategic, concomitant and integrated programmes predicated on customer behaviours and business results.

Those involved in husbanding digital content raised their game or found themselves marginalised from both the key decisions and key meetings.

Content strategy as a path to the boardroom

There was also a generational thing at play. The baby Boomers grew up and… grew old. Many relinquished their hold on old style IT gladly. Generation X got to grips with the digital revolution but it’s Generation Y that’s figured out that content strategy, and digital content strategy specifically, can help pave their way to the top.

GenYers, aka Millennials, children of Baby Boomers, younger siblings of GenXers and born somewhere between 1978 and 1995, are a totally different workplace breed.

They’re ambitious and want their rewards fast. To get both, they need to be strategic – not tactical. Careers are being forged by saying the right, insightful stuff to the right person, not by remaining hidden behind a computer screen, bashing out the copy for the new social media push, or loading witty bons mots on to TweetDeck. So content strategy grew up – and it’s still growing.

But it’s also getting smaller… and flatter… and altogether more interesting:

  • PC, laptop, notebook (briefly)
  • smartphone, tablet, app, gesture, touch
  • welcome to the new world.
The new revolution – and the power that comes with it

At the beginning of this article I mentioned when digital content first required a strategy, but that revolution is liable to look like the small coup in a teacup compared to what’s happening now.

It’s not just the nature of hand held devices and their touch and gesture interfaces, or the fact that users and their behaviours segue through multiple contexts during a single day:

  • smartphone in the commuter crush, catching up on work emails
  • office and PC (now loaded with OS 8.1) but with a lunchtime mobile sidebar in the park to check Tinder and order the groceries
  • followed by wine and sofa watching view on demand telly (at least two shows on the go) via a TV screen/tablet combo.

It’s the fact that we’re increasingly integrating devices seamlessly into our lifestyles.

Time was, content strategists focussed on delivery mechanism. Now, it’s all about receptivity.

And it’s also about ambition.

Not only are your customers going hand held, but so is the board, senior management, HR, your line manager. They’re interfacing with digital in a way that they never have previously.

Boards are dishing out tablets like sherry and dispensing with paper. Digital KPIs are a critical part of the business plan. And GenY is closing its collective fist round the keys of the (his ‘n’ hers) executive toilet.

Your future is coming – and it’s getting small and more powerful by the minute.

We’ll discuss at least some of this in the revamped content strategy course I’m delivering for eMarketeers

Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and… Jessica Rabbit

I don’t know how much you remember about the the 1988 live action and animation blockbuster, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? One of the lead characters was a sultry cartoon femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit, voiced by actress Kathleen Turner. Curves in all the right places, as the used to say in cheap detective novels.

Jessica, on the other hand, resented the way people made assumptions based on her contours. “I’m not bad,” she breathes… “I’m just drawn this way.” Which brings me on to my first metaphor (well, you must have known there was one coming).

It’s the same with attractive content. In digital terms content can only be truly attractive if it draws both people and machines but until relatively recently content has been drawn to be more appealing to machines. This was hugely important. In digital terms Google’s views were to search what Mr.Disney’s were to animated cartoons. We tended to accentuate our content contours to make it more appealing that way.

“I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known.” Walt Disney

Google grows up

But things have changed… are changing. And that’s because the Google algorithm is growing up. Stand by for metaphor number two.

You can get terribly bogged down in how the Google algorithm has changed over the years. But what it boils down to is something that is becoming infinitely more human and nuanced.

Imagine building a robot that was extremely intelligent but socially naive. Now imagine teaching that robot how to become more and more human.

That’s what I think is happening to the Google algorithm. We’re currently somewhere between spotty teenager and young adult – a rough grasp of the principles but still a little awkward in certain situations. But give it time.

So… what does it mean for content?

When you’re talking to a robot or even  a very young child, you keep things simple. If you wanted early Google to pay attention you spoke in in simple terms. Early search optimisation was employed simple formulas. Multiples and key words and phrases in given densities etc.

But, slowly, the quality of content, its usefulness and its freshness began to take the high ground. The algorithm and its iterations started to grapple with this.

Just as growing up is not a simple process so the algorithm caused havoc along the way and people lost as much sleep over trying to understand what it was up to as the average parent does trying to understand the chaotic mumbling and random actions of their offspring’s puberty.

Hummingbird, the latest algorithmic interation may seem to be all about speed but to me and my metaphors it seems to be as much about a young adult paying more attention to the other people in the room and their needs (context and consequence). It’s more… outward facing and helpful. It listens to and can understand more complex (more human) questions.

I know all the search specialists are currently rolling their eyes and sticking pins into wax effigies of Jessica Rabbit as they read this but stick with me. I’m certainly not attempting to undermine the role that SEO plays but I think that we all have to brush up some of our more intuitive skills when it comes to content creation.

In essence, what does this involve?

Intuitive and attractive content

Well, I think the emphasis is on answering questions, showing people ‘how to’ and using marketing research, not just keyword research, to create information-rich content. It’s about keeping it relevant and keeping it conversational.

The good news is that what’s good for people is increasingly good for machines. Just in the same way that teenagers don’t respond if your patronise them so the Google algorithm is getting better at spotting whether the tone of your content is genuine or not.

The other great advantage with all this is that individual skill sets – search, content creation, strategy, technical communication and expertise… can work synergistically and in better balance.

In my head, this is how it all looks…

There have been three major phases to the Google algorithm since about 2011 and they were called Panda, Penguin and most recently Hummingbird.

Just like child development, each one of these contained a host of changes but broadly speaking, Panda was what I now describe as the initial growth spurt out of late childhood and covered the obvious stuff such as sites with really weak, cynical content. Good bloggers who updated regularly suddenly found Google was paying more attention.

Over the various iterations of this algorithm the major thing for me was the increasing emphasis on quality over quantity. It’s a bit like pre-teens discovering and enjoying food experiences outside of a box of Pringles.

Which brings me to the later iterations of Panda and Google’s pre-teens proper. Just like a pre-teen gets better at reading people ( tone of voice, attitude etc) so the algorithm just became better at reading websites and capable of simple value judgments such as detecting trustworthiness and absence of bias. It started to set more store by what other people thought (user feedback). The updates themselves seem to become more thoughtful and phased.

The algorithm’s teens take us to Penguin. This was a huge period of change. Not always very attractive (remember teen spots and smelly feet), but it took Google a long way.

The algorithm started to look up to certain types of website (beyond peer reinforcement) and recognised the authority good website content could command.

Google also learned that different communities had different voices and being helpful was a good thing and didn’t mean you were a dweeb. Link quality became ever more important.


Finally we come to Hummingbird, which I’m still getting my head around. The obvious change here is, in theory, how it allows people to search in a more human way eg “What would you like for supper?” as opposed to “Eats chips for tea, yes?”

It also gave some helpful advice to content owners about how to refresh older but nonetheless valuable content (not only what is being said but the authority of the person saying it) and the deeper reading users are willing to embrace as part of deeper engagement. This is being referred to as content greening.

Of course the algorithm’s journey into adulthood is not without it’s backward steps. The news that Google is encrypting searches in such a way that sites will not be able to use key word data to track visitors, is an example of this.

To me that’s a bit like a young adult putting Do Not Enter sign on their bedroom door. The evolving Google wants a bit more privacy. Where it goes next… you tell me?

In terms of what we do with all this, I’m placing increasing emphasis on content confidence and building training and workshops around allowing people to create content more intuitively and only then check it against things like analytics.

So with clients I’m talking in terms of cross-organisation content engagement workshops, language exchange workshops, content confidence builders, virtual water cooler opportunities (where people can easily trade insights across demarcations) and talent scouting for content champions and new voices outside of the traditional marketing, content strategy and search skill sets.

Attractive content, for me, is all about answering questions, showing people ‘how to’, market research (not just keyword research). It’s all about information-rich, evergreen content, as well as good descriptions and titles. The tone is of the real world and very conversational.

But, unlike Jessica Rabbit, you can draw your own conclusions.

congility-logo-147x50This post is based on a webinar which took place on March 12 in advance of Congility 2014.

Congility 2014, 18 June Workshops, 19-20 June Conference, Gatwick, UK

Change the language, change the culture

There’s an English expression about letting the tail wag the dog. The inference is something lesser being allowed to influence something more substantial to a too great degree. Small things should not overly influence big things.

Within organisations there is sensible context for this. Sometimes silos can have a profound and unhealthy influence on organisational direction, ambition and culture. In such cases the tail may be controlled by strong personalities who wield power and influence. Or the dog is is in the hands of a hierarchy content to let things carry on much the way they have always done.

I have found such tail and dog dynamics at board and senior management team level, all the way down to (but not always including) the shop floor. IT was one area where, traditionally, such a dynamic might be found.

Take a scenario where the IT head honcho has been in post some time, running a small and similarly long-serviced team. Collectively they hold the IT infrastructure together and little has changed over the years. Everybody else is petrified that one or all of the IT inner sanctum will leave and the system will come crashing down. Tails traditionally wagged dogs using fear and mystery. If I don’t understand what’s going on how can I fix or change things?

Not all tail wagging is bad

Tails should sometimes wag dogs. Sometimes dogs have had their day for far too long. Dogs who refuse to be taught new tricks.

Enter the semantic tail…

Language is often indicative of organisational culture. It can have a practical role to play. I first began to study this in earnest when I was working within the National Health Service.

Language silos could be highly efficient – a surgeon and consultant discussing a patient in precise technicality, unhindered by soothing rhetoric or ‘layman’s terms’. This procedure would achieve this outcome with this likelihood of success or complications. No need to gussy it up for the patient.

But it could also be used to make something major seem less so. There was an over fondness for using words like ‘challenge’ to describe a ‘problem’, for example.

I became very interested in how risks (and risks are always part of organisational activity) are described. On the one hand, like the surgeon and consultant, the semantics of risk could be precise and used to discuss what could go wrong, its likelihood and consequence, in no nonsense terms. It could also, sometimes, make something very major seem very everyday and less consequential. The description of risk became formulaic.

I began to discern the same patterns in the financial sector and in those organisations who operations could have profound impact on the environment – such as in the chemical and petroleum industries. Here it was less about formula and more about trivialising, in much the same way as frequent transatlantic flyers might call the Atlantic Ocean ‘the pond’.

Language and in particular preferred vocabularies within any organisation could exert subtle but profound influences on how an organisation regarded itself and those that interacted with it – employees, customers, wider communities…

Habla customer?

A more obvious but nonetheless disturbing manifestation is within those organisations that like to bandy their internal terminology around wider audiences. You know the sort of thing; website navigation that uses the same business unit descriptors as appear in the annual report and accounts, even though these descriptions bare little if any resemblance to the terms a customer might use.

Why call a spade a spade when you can call it an an earth moving implementation device? Internal business unit/activity names can reflect budget lines, organisational history, even business hubris but not always the basics – customer need and understanding, or usefulness.

But what I’ve also noticed and been lucky to play some part in, more than once, is the shifting of organisational attitude and attainment by shifting the language.

On it’s own it’s a tough call but it can help kick start change.

It can be as simple using the word spade… or ‘problem’ more often, or asking more specific questions in meetings, such as “Who is going to do this?” rather than “How are we going to approach this?”

Sometimes there’s a need to bring several languages together. Sales terminology needs to be mapped back to product development and then rationalised with support/after sales services. Sometimes shareholderese has to be demoted from first language status. Sometimes language needs to be braver, less… apologetic.

Often there is a need to go out and listen to customers and port some of that language back into the organisation. I recently spent several days dealing with a call centre over a mobile phone issue and whomever developed their scripts deserved to hear some very specific Anglo Saxon and Norse terms from my own vocabulary.

I stress was some higher authority I wanted to get at. It was very obvious that the call centre staff had been rehearsed in responses that they also found difficult and artificial. Which is why I made the point earlier about: ‘all the way down to (but not always including) the shop floor’. Often, when you get to the shop floor, you hear things the way they are. Shovel makers do not mince their words. And a spade is exactly what it should be.