Why content strategy is no miracle cure

Penicillin, central heating, Spanx… could be termed ‘miracle cures’ (okay, so some antibiotics don’t work as well these days, but I’m wrestling with analogies here – cut me some slack). What I mean is that once they’re applied their impact is almost instantaneous and evident. I live in a world which is warmer and where I suffer less strep throat thanks to two of my analogies.

If you want to know more about Spanx, consider why actresses strutting their stuff down the Oscar red carpet never wobble or bulge. Ever.

But content strategy isn’t Spanx. For a start, it isn’t one thing. It is a lot of expertise housed within the brain of a person demonstrating content strategising abilities and which includes “established disciplines – such as communications and editorial planning, marketing, content and author development, with new disciplines such as digital workflow planning and management, auditing and behavioural insight, social media and traffic analysis”.

The preceding bit is within inverted commas because I’m quoting from the content strategy course that CDA runs through emarketeers and where the emphasis is very much on skills development. » Web content strategy training course: Maintain control of content planning for online projects

We can also define CS as a range of solutions, supported by tools and methodologies. CS is Spanx, personal trainers, Botox, dieting, cosmetic surgery, gatric bands, cunningly cut designer gowns,  make up artistry… plus other stuff that Hollywood celebrities will go to the grave without revealing. Miracle cure it isn’t. It takes time. It’s painstaking. It’s more than just contouring underwear.

image shows website in corset going down red carpet while onlooker says "If you set aside the discovery work, data analysis, UX, taxonomy and brand work, the training, the TOV, style guidance, and the content management approach, this website’s transformation has been nothing short of miraculous "

Yet there is an assumption from clients that content strategy might cure content ills in an out of the box way. Just slip the website, say, into its figure-defining support and it can strut its online stuff down the red carpet, ready to pick up an Oscar or two from an adoring user base.

If anything, CS has more in common with a good personal trainer who will figure out why your content is unfit. A good personal trainer will devise diet plans (what goes in) and excercise regimens (outputs). He or she will get to the bottom (so to speak) of your bagel dependency and adapt your programme as you get more fit – or fail to. It is an ongoing and evolving process. The bulk of the work is going on inside.

Okay, where I am headed with all this…

Well, part of me is questioning whether we are in danger of defining CS as Spanx sometimes? Are we guilty of allowing clients to think they can buy (and we can price) this stuff in a box? Do we name it too often as if it were a single thing? Do we appear to promise it as a miracle cure rather than a fitness programme? Take two pairs of Spanx and see me in the morning?

When I run the web content strategy training course I am constantly considering how movers and shakers within orgnisations conduct themselves and get thesmelves and their proposals taken seriously. A Finance Director wouldn’t define is skill set as finance directing. So, if I’m not a content strategist – what am I? Answers on a postcard please…

part of web page from emarkteers site which promotes the courseWeb content strategy training course

There are places left on the July 18 content strategy course in London. » If you’d like to book a place you can do so here

Why the Spanx analogy Anne?

I was at an awards evening in London a little while ago and was in conversation with two fellow content strategists, when the miraculousness of Spanx and ordering them online was revealed to me, forever linking CS and Spanx in my head. You know who you are…




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

A good website is like a good Christmas tree…

A good website is like a good Christmas tree…  ‘Ah’ I hear you say, here comes the tenuous festive metaphor. Not so, you cynical lot, but a seasonally-apt reminder that good websites are predicated on structure, not tinsel and baubles.

And notice that I say ‘good’ website, not ‘great’ website, or ‘fantastic’ website. ‘Tis the season to be hyperbolic but pursuit of the online ‘wow’ factor has caused many a website project to crash and burn.

Your ambition should be a good website. Something that will last – and accumulate value over time, like a good Bordeaux. (Okay! Trees, wine… to many metaphors already.)

So let’s get back to that Christmas tree…

The reference to websites and Christmas trees actually came up in a meeting where we were discussing the structure of a large site and considering the dynamics involved when finalising the Information Architecture. On the one hand, there’s the user, who wants to get in, do the thing they want to do and get out again. They don’t want to hunt for anything (maybe a bit of light foraging) or translate company-speak. Then there are company structures, business configurations and hierarchies… Maybe a little internal politics?

Add to this a layer of reluctance, or exhaustion, from people who find themselves in some way responsible for the content or its creation. Yet another conversation about the top level navigation, deeper structure and labelling rationale? Yeesh!

So, how much does it really matter? You buy your Christmas tree – any size and shape will do – and then you cover it with lovely decorations and lights that wink and glitter at users. How much does the underlying shape matter once all that stuff is covering it?

Okay people, here’s the deal: a website is for life, not just for Christmas. It has to serve you well and grow as your organisation grows. Overlong or stunted branches can cause the whole thing to topple. You can stuff a fairy on the top but if the tree’s got too many branches or too few, if it leans to one side or has a kink in the trunk – you’re screwed.

And, if the structure is poor, there is even more temptation to layer the whole construction with even more tinsel and shiny bits. Lots and lots of ornaments (or pages and the odd bit of Flash) may distract from the underlying problem – a rubbish shape.

So whatever stage your at with your current web project – whether you’re starting new, or going in for a little pruning – take a step back and look at that structure. Is it strong and straight? Does it make sense? Is it pleasing to the eye? Is there room for other branches to grow? Growth is the final metaphorical twist in this seasonal story…

You can buy a Christmas tree that haa no roots. It’s designed with built in obsolescence. After Christmas you chuck  it out. Next year, you get a new one. But a good Christmas  tree / website needs to be nurtured and should be bought to last. It needs soil and water (or content and creativity). It needs looking after.

So go for straight and strong with roots. Merry Christmas.

And take it away Bing!

10 really good reasons (no, honestly) for postponing what you could do today about your website content

Walk around client offices and marketing seem to have a spring in their step. Even the guys in IT are whistling ‘1000 Points of Hate’ by Anthrax (this is a good sign). But… Well, there’s always a but, isn’t there?

Just sometimes I hear those sit on your hands excuses in some quarters. They may get trotted out just before you press the big fat ‘Go’ button, after all the discovery, auditing, interviewing, planning, workshopping etc has gone on. And, of course, they’re always really, really, really good excuses reasons for not doing something. They’re so good, in fact, that I thought I’d list them here.

1. ‘We can’t start the web project until we’ve…”

This is an excellent reason for not doing something. It’s worth making a real effiort to find another piece of work that requires time / budget and which can be positioned in the way of the proposed web project. Particularly if that proposed web project might take your organisation outside of its comfort zone.

2. “All this background and planning work is fantastic. But we need to spend some time considering the next step.”

Okay, if used in moderation this is fine, valuable even. But, to quote Dionne Warwick: “Weeks turn into years – how quick they pass.” Of course, it makes perfect sense to see any web project as a single, HUGE project that can’t be broken down into sections. It’s a much better idea to think about things really slowly and lose all the forward momentum. With a bit of luck all the prep work will be out of date and useless.

3. “We’re currently advertising for a Head of Interactive Experiential Human Interfacing and all projects are on hold until we appoint and they have a chance to review everything.”

Maybe it’s just me but didn’t you know you were planning to get a new Head of IEH before we started working on this project?

4. “We want to carry out your recommendations but we haven’t got sufficient resources.”

Maybe it’s just me but didn’t you know there were resource issues before we started working on this project?

5. “Thank you so much for all the time and effort workshopping taxonomy, Information Architecture and topic headings but we don’t want to change the current site navigation.”

Yup. That makes perfect sense.

6.  “Rather than make some changes now we’ve decided to wait until we can afford a totally new website in a year or so.”

We totally agree. Your site users will be quite willing to wait and it shouldn’t impact on sales or your brand one jot.

7. “You seem to be suggesting that there should be collective responsibility for content creation and maintenance and we can’t just leave the job to… Our people just don’t have the skills or the time.”

Of course you can give people skills, processes and methodologies that help create the time (efficiencies) and also impart a collective shared enthusiasm for the power and benefits of web-based communication. But heck, I’m just messing with your head.

8. “The chairman’s wife does a little creative writing and we’ve asked her to look at the website.”

Okay, I only heard this one used once and that was several year’s back. But it’s still a corker.

9. “We haven’t got the money to do everything we want so we’re not going to do anything”.

Do you want me to pop the toys back in your pram now?

10. “This is David. He’s working as an intern with us over the next six weeks and will handle most of the implementation.”

Hi David. How many pairs of hands have you got?

Are you a warden or a prisoner online?

stanford cartoon

The Stanford Prison Experiment looked at what happened psychologically when you placed some people in positions of power and other’s in positions of vulnerability (wardens and prisoners). Irrespective of their previous internal moral ‘clock’ – how would they behave?

The simulation carried out by Stanford University in the summer of 1971 was ended prematurely because of the impact it had on its university participants. Those students who were given the role of prison guards showed themselves capable of brutality. The students consigned to prisoner roles became stressed and depressed (as if their confinement were real).

Stanford, and the earlier Milgram experiment conducted at Yale University, opened up interesting questions, not just about the deeper, darker side of human nature but how we behave when we assume a role, or are put into a certain situation. As psychology professor Phil Zimbardo, who led the Stanford research team, puts it: “Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behaviour, more so that we recognize or acknowledge.”

Okay, now the digital communication segue…

While I’m not suggesting that digital content ‘controllers’ will ever resort to beatings and electric shocks, there is often a divide between those who police the content and those who do not. These schisms can exist between online content commissioners / editors and content producers / authors. Or between active members of the content team and ‘the rest’. The rest being anybody in an organisation that doesn’t take an active role in web, email, digital messaging strategy, development and delivery. It can also exist between on and offline teams (marketing, editorial, brand…).

The Stanford experiment didn’t end prematurely because the research team had learnt everything there was to know, but because they became alarmed at how quickly the abuse of roles and situations occurred.

So in any situation where there is authority and lack of authority there is the opportunity for abuse.

I can’t make over entire organisational hierarchies on the basis of the above premise, but I can suggest discreet changes to the way online content oligarchies are handled. That may seem a small change but just think about the influence your online content has on your brand and therefore on how wider audiences perceive your organisation. Plus online is relatively young and still relatively fluid. In-house content processes are not set in stone. Change them while you still can.

Where to start?

Who are the content controllers and what power do they have? A healthy content process has checks and balances in place reflecting different content steers. This shouldn’t be a cumbersome process but a light matrix approach to ensure that core organisational values, the needs of marketing and sales, corporate information, plus the rigours of online execution and presentation are held in balance.

When changes are made to online process and / or presentation – a new website, extensions to email campaigns etc – who is consulted (and who isn’t)? It’s hard for people to be all fired up about the company website if the only time they’re consulted about it is retrospectively: “Oh, the new website launches in 3 weeks. We need your new page content ASAP. Did you not get the email?)

How do you regularly test the water in terms of existing content processes and how they are viewed internally? Zimbardo points out that at some stage there is a shift from what’s reasonable to what isn’t. How would you know if this shift happened within your organisation’s digital content process?

If existing online content processes and manifestations aren’t working, do people (outside any content claque) feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t working’ or ‘our new website is rubbish’? If the emperor is in the buff you need to know quickly. Online is everybody’s business.

Checks and balances

A qualitative content audit can throw up weaknesses is existing systems. It needs to be carried out by an external team (but this could involve different departments or areas of online activity critiquing each other’s work).

Content should be reviewed against organisational values and Tone of Voice, online ambition and audiences. You may want to read an earlier post on personas (I’ve popped the link at the bottom of this post). I’ll work up a personality for any site I’m reviewing (as if it was a flesh and blood member of the team). If your website sat at the next desk, would you share your sandwiches with it?

I also came up with this acronym. I think you should be answering ‘yes’ to 6 out of 9 points.

1. Can a wide range of people within your organisation suggest a digital change and / or refinement and know someone will take notice?

2. Have they got a clear idea about who to approach if something isn’t working right – broken website links, poorly coded emails, spelling mistakes online… (or know where to find out)?

3. Are new digital projects only embarked upon after a well-rounded opinion-seeking process and shared collective understanding?

4. Little digital errors (page not found, spelling errors, broken links…) rarely happen.

5. Large digital errors (website down, email campaigns producing little or no response…) rarely happen.

6. Everyone takes an interest in what rour company is doing digitally, even if they’re not actively involved.

7. No faction, department, skillset, business unit, or organisational activity feels excluded (frozen out).

8. Guards need walls. Are the processes and decisions made about how your brand is communicated online done in clear view?

9. Eyes (2), ears (2) mouth (1). Is your organisation watching and listening to what’s been done and said online rather than simply talking about it. You should watch and listen more than you speak.

Internal link

>> More about personas

>> The 7 ages of content maturity table (towards the end of this post)

Find out more about the Stanford and Milgram experiments (I’ll open these links in a new window):

>> Stanford Prison experiment website

>> The Stanley Milgram Experiment