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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.

Hummingbird

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.

 

Moving image as a business tool and a corporate value

I was lucky enough to work with the University of Sussex recently and helped organise a discussion about television values and ideology.

The topic might sound a little highbrow but it addresses some of the fundamental issues around the use and abuse of a powerful medium – whether you’re:

  • bloggers looking to introduce a little video into your mix
  • commercial television companies seeking the next X Factor
  • charities trying to tap into public consciousness
  • commercial organisations looking to oil the wheels of doing business
  • or audiences looking to be entertained, or informed (or a bit of both).

It got me thinking…

Say the word “television” and I initially think of the traditional box in the living room but this is way too old school. The ‘vision’ bit is fairly self explanatory. ‘Tele’ comes from the Greek for ‘far’ or ‘distant’. I had to look that last bit up, but I’m glad I did.

Looked at this way, television is a more apt catch all term than video or audio-visual when it comes to describing the many ways moving images are now delivered into our personal living rooms: that bit of tech space we surround ourselves with as we navigate the world.

If I watch a YouTube video on my smartphone to keep boredom at bay on a train journey, or dip into a Ted Talk on my computer, instead of getting on with some real work, it is, to all intents and purposes, tele-vision. It just so happens that traditional television, delivered and consumed in a linear fashion, accounts for the bulk of it. But the lessons learned can be applied much more widely.

The presentations that formed part of the University of Sussex event covered a huge range of material from how the traveller community has been framed by a Big Fat prefix that modulates our perceptions of their culture and values – some fantastic work done by the event’s organiser Roberta Piazza, Senior Lecturer in English Language – through to Clive Jones, Chairman, Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), and his thought provoking insights on how a disaster appeal must also have televisual appeal if it is to tap into mass market heart strings and purse strings.

You can download a full list of speakers and topics at the end of this blog.

Images as part of the giving process

Mother nature doing her worst under the baleful gaze of the camera can focus attention in a way that aid workers working discreetly in politically fraught environments cannot.

Identify an aid worker by showing them on television one day and one faction or another might take a shot at them the next. Nonetheless, the giving public evaluate available images as part of the giving process. It is a transaction. I receive an image that triggers a response that provokes me to give. Quid pro quo.

Of course, not all of us are looking at this from academic or charitable perspectives. But any organisation considering moving images needs to think about both value and ideology.

Value first. Why use images and is there additional value in images that move?

There is significant research that indicates that images can have a powerful impact. They can aid charitable giving and foster trust in commerce. The images need to make sense.  Whether you’re selling a cause or a product they need need to work and not just take up space (attention and real estate) – show after as well as before, particularly in the case of charitable campaigns.

Givers need to know how money will be spent and be shown images that support this. In the commercial world, potential purchasers respond positively to images of past customers in receipt of their purchases.

But what about images that move? The value of movement has long been recognised. Laws of public decency used to pivot around this point, making nudity legal when static but more desirable when in motion.

But what got me excited was some research I came across under the title ‘At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence’ (Lombard and Ditton, 2006), which indicates that virtual reality simulators, video conferencing, home theatre and HD TV provide users with an illusion that: ‘a mediated experience is not mediated’.

In effect, the more like reality it is the more we take it at face value and believe what we see. Moving images are more lifelike. The more like life then the greater these images may play in helping us store information, retreive it and and make decisions based upon it. Moving images also create a degree of harmonised experience shared by watchers. Powerful things all.

Now to ideology. That’s a tricky area.

In a commercial sense this has to be the system of ideas and principles that underpin use. In terms of an organisation looking to use moving images this would seem to cover not just having an ephemeral vision but practical strategy governing that use and budget and goals that can be as ambitious as you like, but have to be evaluated against actual performance (who came, who saw, who bought/gave). Moving images are sexy but that’s not a good enough reason for using them.

If I have an issue with regular TV it’s that as the images have become more real the values and ideology that underpin them become less so. So-called reality TV shows are now no more that poorly rehearsed dramas.

If there’s a fly on the wall it’s only because the documentary-style footage on often smells distinctly fishy.

Finally, to this paradigm I add the concept of self. If as an organisation you plan to use moving image you are also up against not only your competitors and peers but the global audience of individuals who both record moving images and upload them through social media. Welcome to the world of ME-TV. And the subject of my next blog.

Archive

Values and ideology in TV discourse: A one-day interdisciplinary colloquium on recent research, University of Sussex – School of English, Friday, November 22nd 2013. Speakers and topics: Values and ideology in TV discourse

Steampunk digital

I’m currently working on a website project for a charity operating in Asia with what might reasonably be described as a shoestring budget.

The strategy for the work is predicated on making the most of all the ‘established’ freeware and open source options available and bringing them together with a little ingenuity.

Underpinning it all is a content strategy designed to build a strong digital footprint, which will: raise their profile, optimise revenues and seek to level the playing field between the organisation in question and the charity behemoths with bigger budgets and significantly more resources. Watch this space.

But the project has also got me thinking about how the technical design and build aspects of projects are specified and implemented within highly refined and defined processes, while content is often (and still) and afterthought; created on the hoof at the point of need and cobbled together from existing collateral, which was itself created for entirely another purpose and delivery mechanism.

What would happen if we flipped the model above, introduced a little steampunk to our technical specification and, instead and as a rule, applied far more rigour, process and resource to the content?

Welcome to steampunk digital…

steam punk digital showing an old fashion steam engine hooked up to modern computer devicesIt you’re not familiar with steampunk, it started out as a literary genre that blended science fiction with Victorian ingenuity and their fondness for embellishment. For those of you who can remember that far back, I’d cite the 1999 movie Wild Wild West, with Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, as a visual reference.

Steampunk isn’t afraid of a little make do and mend. It likes to show what’s going on under the bonnet (hood and head). It is intelligent design with a little bit of Jules Verne imagination. Experience tells me that all projects come with finite energy resource. If too much goes into the technical side there is so much less for the content side of things. All aspects of a project require a full head of steam.

My Top 5 Tips for Steampunk Digital…

Figure 1 Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of free stuff out there. Plus, no matter how unique you think your project is somebody will have tackled something like it before. Researching tools, software, competitors and comparators thoroughly can save time, money and red faces.

 

Figure 2 Apportion time and energy – not just budget. If you think solely in terms of money you start ascribing cheap v. expensive values to things which should not be viewed in those terms. On so many projects the content creation is seen as expensive in pounds and pence terms because organisations think it’s just about writing stuff.

 

Figure 3 Think ‘elegance’ and ‘finesse’ but only after you’ve thought ‘usefulness’ and ‘clarity’. Oh so clever apps, widgets, Flash modules, social media gizmos… only work if they assist the user and are grounded in a clear business case.

 

Figure 4 If you don’t know where the bonnet (hood) release is – don’t buy the car. I have ‘walked around’ content management systems where the only thing populating the meta data fields are tumble weed and lost opportunities. If you can’t see how it works you won’t use it properly. Good steampunk is predicated on understanding and being able to use something (and fix or adapt it).

 

Figure 5 The greatest steam engines ever designed do not work without steam and content is steam. Don’t build it if you can’t be bothered to fuel it (and keep it fueled0. It is a constant stream of content that delivers your website, email programme, social media campaign, etc, etc, to the audiences you want to reach and gets them where they want to go.

Why good organisations make bad digital decisions

Do people leave their digital brains at home when they go to work?

Okay, I can hear the muttering from here. All you digital experts telling me to get back in my box. Fair enough.

But my audience for this particular question isn’t content strategists and web content creators; or usability consultants, taxonomists, web designers and builders, social media gurus or other email experts from various disciplines.

It’s you Mr.Businessman, Mr.Organisational Head Honcho. It’s the c-suite and serried ranks of senior managers, budget holders and strategic decision makers. Pardon my temerity – but you need to be told.

What I’m thinking about at the moment is why there seems to be a disconnect, to me at least, between the digital confidence levels and decision making capabilities we exhibit as individuals and those we deploy collectively at the office. I’m thinking specifically about digital decisions – that new company website, that social media initiative, app idea, or new mobile campaign…

In our personal lives the vast majority of us embrace digital change. We transition from book to Kindle, desk top to tablet, and from a real to virtual shopping basket… confident in our abilities as consumers of digital content and purchasers of its technologies.

It’s less about smart phones and more about smart, highly adaptive people.

But while our consumer selves are constantly evolving and making confident decisions, our business selves appear far less confident when it comes to making digital choices. The result is organisations can make poor, or slow-paced decisions in what is a fast-paced and constantly changing digital world.

Yet the same people who are out in the high street buying mobile phones, downloading apps and arranging their social lives using Facebook are sitting behind desks in offices where millions can be spent poorly.

How come, if…

  • 79% of the UK population use the internet – 20% more than 5 years ago
  • 67% of the population use a social networking site daily – 37% more than 4 years ago
  • 44% use a smart phone – 14% more than 1 year ago

That…

  • 21% of online projects fail to meet stakeholder requirements
  • 25% of online projects fail or are severely curtailed due to poor planning
  • 30% of online projects are delivered late or over budget

How come?

What doesn’t seem to be the cause is the way collective decision making operates per se. After all, organisations have sophisticated, well-established processes for corporate decision making – from the board room down through (or up through) line management.

In ‘ye old days’, one argument might have been that people were often promoted beyond their competencies: to get them out of the way, or because promotion was their due; having worked through X number of roles and Y number of years. So called ‘Buggins’ turn’. This has become less and less likely as organisations become sharper and more demanding and the environments within which they operate become more competitive. With the exception of the odd highly placed banker, few businesses can afford to employ Buggins these days.

But there is some question that while business experience may admirably equip someone to take on more and more senior roles, they won’t necessarily have or even care about digital experience. We’ve previously discussed the fact that online engagement is not a boardroom or director level topic in The dawn of digital governance and Content is king – sort of.

So the skillsets that equip us to choose this smartphone or Like that viral campaign don’t get to shine in a business setting. Of course there will be digitally savvy marketeers and excellent creative agencies – but they work for the big bucks decision makers. And what they say and who they say it to may be motivated (or modified) by career advancement or career survival. There seems to be inhibition when it comes to talking about digital decisions in a rigorous, strategic and top level way. Sod the governance. Just get that new website up. Certainly sir.

So, what do we do about it?

To deal with this bit I started to think of other examples when organisations have changed in order to allow a new form of excellence to shine through. The one I had just finished reading about (thanks Amanda) was the PepsiCo academy approach to building skills within its global finance workforce.

The result was the PepsiCo Finance University, an academy-based learning model. Instead of traditional enterprise learning for the finance function, with the emphasis on division-specific, on-the-job experience and individualized coaching, the university packages scalable, online offerings organised into “colleges”.

The case study is highlight in an Accenture article – High Performance. Delivered. The article states: “One of the most distinguishing features of the university is its focus on applying course learning to real business issues. Groups come together, in person or virtually, to talk about problems facing the business and they work to solve local business challenges.”

I also tried to think of organisations that practiced some form of digital inclusion.

When it came to digital good practice (and by ‘good’ I mean ‘good enough to prove the point I wanted to make’) the one that actually came to mind was the UK government  and a project that is, on the face of it, demonstrating the complete opposite of the point I want to make.

There the digital team wield a power that the rest of us can only wonder at. In part this seems to reflect the celebrity and ‘pull’ of the government’s Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.

But the team work to clearly articulated and communicated principles and have the ability to override head honchos and subject matter experts as required in order to deliver simple, well thought out, user-centre digital content. Take a look at their beta site

But the more I thought about it the more I decided that the stronger the core digital team the more likely you are to create an environment that encourages strong digital opinions throughout an organisation. If you want to argue with a strong digital team you need to speak with confidence and from experience. The PepsiCo example is also about creating the right environment.

Another example I’ve come across recently involves schools and the question of mobile use by pupils. While banning phones from the classroom may seem  like the solution, some of the brightest educational establishments have been looking about ‘above the desk’ policies. Bringing the phone and its functionality into the lesson,  to enable internet search for example.

Another factor?

Another factor may be the nature of personal skill development. If we train as an accountant it is a business self decision. We go into the work place equipped with a skill we are expected and determined to use. But when our personal self learns a skill it’s less likely to be shown off in the workplace. Okay, there are few opportunities to use your golf swing in the office, but your digital skillsets and understanding? That’s a different matter.

Back in 1785 a Frenchman called Condorcet come up with his “jury theorem” that groups were more likely to be right than wrong and the bigger the group the more likely to be right it was. This theorem is consistently proven to be correct. But there is a qualification where members of a group are denied enough right information. The group is more likely to be wrong than right and that wrongness increases as the size of the group increases. It makes you think doesn’t it?