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?

 

 

 

Why things aren’t black and white any more

Picture of hellbore flower with white and red petals
Hellebore plant – all will become clear later in this blog post…

I have a friend who recently had her garden renovated and decided to treat herself to some new garden furniture.

She started by ordering two big parasols off the internet in ‘black’. The only problem was that when they arrived they weren’t black at all, they were a dark grey.

“Ah yes,” said customer services when she rang to complain, “they’re a really, dark grey. Almost black.” “But not black,” said my friend. She sent them back.

Next she ordered some handmade metal furniture. It was expensive but looked beautiful on the website. She wanted black and while the furniture looked black in the photos, the colour was described on the website as “Hellebore”. My friend sent for a sample – just to be sure.

A small metal sample duly arrived. It was certainly very dark but the sample size and the matt paint finish made it difficult to be 100% sure. “Is it black?” she rang and asked the manufacturer. “Yes,” they said. When the furniture duly arrived it was… dark grey. “It’s our version of black,” said the manufacturer.

So, what’s the moral of this tale?

Picture of Hellbore with white petals
“Our particular shade of Hellebore black is quite unusual”

I’m not going to bore you with what happened next in this particular saga of retail ineptitude and arrogance, but from a content perspective, whether grey is the new black and whether you should call it Hellebore speaks to the heart of the content strategy conundrum for me.

“Conundrum,” I hear you say (okay, you’re not saying it but I’m fond of the odd rhetorical device), “Surely the case for content strategy is unequivocal.” Hmmmm.

Don’t get me wrong. Content strategy is the glue that allows its experienced practitioners, and organisations that listen to them, to make sound, cost effective decisions about content as an integral facet of any business or activity. Content is business. Business is content.

Without content in all its forms – from tweet to transaction process, article to image, video to brochure, app to pack shot – you cannot engage with your audience. Without content it’s like juggling with no hands. Without good content it’s like juggling with skipping ropes. It may draw the attention for a few minutes. But who wants to watch someone drop something repeatedly? Put the ropes down. It’s time to get balls.

Content strategy isn’t an easy option. Sometimes it means you have to unpick stuff that you’re been doing a certain way (and successfully) before you can ‘do’ your content properly. It can be like breaking a leg in order to reset it. But many organisations are happy to limp along rather than go through the pain. Personally, I find it very frustrating. Content strategy is black and white. But most companies still want Hellebore.

Bringing the metaphor back into the room…

From a marketing perspective, having a very, very dark shade of grey that’s not just described in your content as “Very, dark grey” or “Slate grey” or even “Almost black” makes a kind of sense. It’s a point of differentiation. It’s adding an extra layer of glamour. It is not particularly helpful, or useful, but if there are other more helpful and factual texts, perhaps some customer reviews and some good photography, this indulgent sub-routine of hyperbole is tolerable.

Back in the days before the interweb, it may not have mattered quite so much. If I went to a shop I could see products with my own eyes. Hellebore be damned, it’s black.

Product brochures and retail catalogues for any halfway decent brand were usually produced with scrupulous attention to colour accuracy. It saved on returns and refunds. It protected the brand from disgruntled consumers.

So, I ask myself, has something changed (or failed to change) now we’re engaging with products and services online? If organisations don’t pay attention to the basics such as product descriptors and colour accuracy, don’t they run the risk of customers ringing up to raise hellebore?

The accuracy (or lack of it) in online colour rendering is one issue. But it speaks to the bigger picture. It means that an organisation or organisations didn’t think about how the colour might render on a computer, laptop, mobile or tablet screen, or how it may vary  if a potential customer decides to run off a hard copy on their printer?

Did anybody think?

The very expensive garden furniture on the website my friend ordered from was pictured in shades of red, pale blue, black(ish), green and white, described respectively as carmine, salvia, hellebore, hosta and aconite.

In their original and horticultural terms aconite and hellebore are plants that come in various colours. Personally, I’d say that aconite is more likely to be perceived as a darker colour. There are slight witchcraft connotations and when you look online it does seem to turn up as a colour descriptor for dark grey or dark blue (although it can be a bright yellow). Hellebore, as a plant, is commonly a white or greenish white (but it can also be pink and even a blood red).

Is it possible that the words used to describe the colours shown in the pictures got mixed up? As the colours aren’t described in common sense terms, would anybody have known to correct them?

This is more than just a rant about Marketing speak. It opens up a whole other area of content issues (that keep content strategists and their clients awake at night… maybe) – such as content labelling, defining real estate  and its purpose, use of copydecks, meta data matching on text and images, using content systems to ensure the right content is put into the right place both online and offline, understanding context, competitor research, word usage, search implications… And I’m thinking of all of this just because an online retailer of sun umbrellas and a manufacturer of expensive garden furniture can’t lower themselves to use the words: ‘dark’ and ‘grey’.

It could also have been addressed by larger samples, accurate descriptions, meta tagging and a more sympathetic customer service. It could have been addressed by a company simply saying: is Hellebore good enough?

Now, here’s the segue…

I’m speaking at CS Forum London this September. The title of my talk is Content doesn’t just happen. And while the colour of garden tables may not be a nuclear issue, it does speak to the fact that businesses are still not thinking about the basics online or understanding how fundamentally catastrophic this disregard is. And they’re certainly not thinking about their customers (in anything more than cash cow terms).

This thinking has to extend far beyond simply being able to ‘write well for the web’ or the production of ‘web-ready’ content. It means learning how to read audiences and then structuring content that ‘fits’ the context of that audience. It touches everything from technology to what your marketers and product / service developers decide to name your latest offering and the colours it comes in.

Maybe Hellebore is the new black. Maybe juggling with skipping ropes is the next big thing. But I very much doubt it.

» Content Strategy Forum 2011 London Sept 5-7

 

 

 

 

Why does less cost more?

The lab rats and I have been pondering the quality v. quantity question recently. A lot of what we deal with as content strategists seems to rest on a (client?) perception that content is relatively low cost and readily available. Everybody can write, right? (And lots of people can pick up a camera to create moving or still images – which are also content, let us not forget.) The big money is in the code and the technology, the build and the maintenance, even the search and findability aspects of a project.

Sometimes I just drive out into the countryside, find a lonely hillside and howl “WRONG!!!” at the moon. Other times I sit in the office and ponder what we’re really dealing with here in terms of perception / mindset… It’s an interesting ponder.

The congility and Publishing expo logos And as I’m going to be speaking around this subject a little at next week’s Congility @ Publishing Expo in London on March 2 I’ve been pondering more than uusual.
» The lab rats go to Congility @ Publishing Expo

Scarcity and monetary value have long been linked. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t have a platinum bathtub or a 2 carat solitaire diamond ring. But underpinning the scarcity-value proposition is a far more fundamental one – supply and demand…

As soon as demand exceeds supply in the monetary model the price starts to rise. Financial markets are founded (and occasionally founder) on this principle. So there’s an automatic hardwire in our brain that takes us from less to less costs more.

Bloody publishing battles

This has created some bloody battles that started happening long before the internet was a glint in the eye of  Tim Berners-Lee. For example, traditional newspaper publishers have been fighting price and circulation wars for years (I speak as a former journalist and editor). Newspapers compounded things by introducing the more costs less approach, battling for readers by slashing prices and offering newspapers composed of myriad sections, a glossy magazine and a free DVD if you’re lucky.

And then the internet came along and there was even more more. We filled this virtual world with websites, emails, text messages, blogs, social media hubs and all this  information composed of bits and bytes that can now be squeezed onto flash drives, themselves as cheap as chips. The entire Library of Congress could be digitised and secreted in a gnat’s armpit.

cartoon showing two stick figures looking a jewller's window. the window is full of laters of the alphabet and words. one man is saying to the other: I remember when you could buy a whole alphabet and still have enough left over to get a fish and chip supperSo, where does that leave us? Is more always going to be cheap? Does it deserve to be anything else?

Okay, so those were rhetorical questions. What we have to do is get behind the content and feel the value.

Content is a means to an end. Content brings us information, which if configured right, allows us to extrapolate value as knowledge – usefulness, if you will.

We may have lost the ability to value to content intuitively because all we can see is how much of it there is, but we can reconnect with it’s unlying value as a carrier of knowledge.

More is priceless

As a content strategist I know that, far from more containing less value it has given us something priceless. More content has allowed us to experient and ring the changes with content in a way that was not possible when all content was offline and there was less of it (or it took longer to create and was more unweildy once created).

We can flex it and change it, measure it and track it – then change it some more. We can move people seamlessly through journeys that connect across on’ and offline nodes of information (a while since you heard the old ‘node’ term huh?).

We can also think long and hard about how we monetise these journeys. I hate the term ‘paywall’. It’s not the concept I hate, it’s just the idea of a pay wall. It sounds too much like  pain barrier to me. And there’s all sorts of stuff that we’ve yet to grasp effectively. The use of moving images and interactivity, the use of the visual (eg QR codes), hyperlinking and microlinking. Maybe more will never cost as much as it should but we can certainly get better at attaching the right value it.

publishing expo March 1 and 2, Earls Court, LondonYou can find out more about where these thoughts are leading me and the rats in the lab if you come to Congility @ Publishing Expo, Wednesday, March 2, Earls Court 2, London. » Read an outline of my presentation