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





How online audiences are treated – and why?

I was talking to CDA co-founder Clare O’Brienabout her her presentation to the Content Strategy Forum in Paris and how online audiences are treated (and the role of metrics in framing that relationship). That got me thinking (slowly) and the below is the result.

Most people accept that online is not a broadcast media and while we are confronted with harnessingf the power of the many we’re actually having mutiple one-to-one conversations in the deeply personal space that exists between the user and their screen. But at the same time we measure in a very broadcast way. It;’s so easy to become obsessed by search volume and clicks.You here audiences talked about as if they were individuals, but then measured as collectives.

Yet some organisations still don’t appreciate what this means in terms of what they say and why they say it. They can be glib and almost naive in terms of the messages they put out, assuming that tricks and finesses will engage users as if they were magpies drawn to sparkly objects.

And just in the same way that a magpie may be attracted as much by a cheap shiny bead as by a precious ruby, so many organisations have come to assume that cheap content will do.

Oh, I know that certain types of content have a value that’s higher than plastic beads, but this value was often originally ascribed in a traditional space – for example, television advertising, or the exquisite glossy brochures much beloved of the high end car market.

But content that developed in the online world came into being, originally, as an afterthought:

“Hey, Joanne, the new website’s up but there seems to be a problem.”

“What’s that Stan?”

“Well, there seems to be all these white spaces. Looks great though…”

“Where are these white spaces?”

“Kinda in the centre of the screen. And on every web page!”

“We didn’t have white spaces like this in the last brochure that went off to the printers.”


“Well, can’t we do the same thing on the website?”

“Hang on – I’ll check with IT…”

So words flowed on to web pages, in around the lovingly built online spaces. Often the brochure copy was sliced and diced to fit – hey, it had already been paid for, so it was a cheap fix.

online audiences cartoon

Now that’s all fine and dandy, but online isn’t offline. It’s that one-to-one conversation. Plus, people are online to do something. They require useful content that centres on their needs and actions.

Organisations have picked this up but the cheap thing still seems to linger. And words can be bought by the yard to fill websites by the page.  The fact that content doesn’t have to be words and can be a rich and varied mixture of words,  imagery and interactivity, is still being grappled with in the budget configurations that may operate like glorified jam jars (only one of which is labelled ‘website’). Apart from anything else, once you get into all that other stuff – forms, videos etc – the price starts to go up. Plus you need a cohesive content strategy  that oversees communications across on and offline positions and is coupled to processes designed to evolve communication creative that can be atomised, repurposed and applied across multiple platforms…

Of course, strategy and process can help organisations save on costs. But they would have to think about things very differently. It would also redistributed budget load, placing earlier and deeper emphasis on planning and thinking rather the the cost of the final content output. Yes, there are exceptions to this. but not enough to make a rule in my book.

And while audiences are still being measured as collectives, organisations are unlikely to be too uncomfortable with this words-by-the-yard approach.

The dissatisfaction an individual user may experience is obscured by mass metrics in a medium when we can measure everything and know so very little. The metrics, on the other hand, make for great bar charts and PowerPoint presentations. How you analyse these mass metrics but also hear all these lone voices takes up a great deal of CDA’s thinking time and is the driving force behind CUT – the Content Usefulness Toolkit, which we’re currently developing.

So, I thought, will organisations ever value online content as they ought while they’re still grappling to value individual consumers as they deserve to be valued online? How can content be king when we treat web users as the great unwashed? Valuing content is all about valuing individuals and their experiences. Now, that would be more precious than rubies and just as attractive to magpies.

All kinds of useful stuff

» You can access Clare’s Paris presentation here

» Here’s a little more about CUT

Those who can teach

Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious because so often the obvious gets overlooked, particularly in the current climate.

We’re all off looking for the cash cow, the life raft, the new horizon, the thing that’s going to get us through the rough times. If what you’re seeking is the Holy Grail you may miss the paper cup and plastic spoon that are just under your nose. But they’ll help feed you just the same.

Training is a case in point. So many organisations are sitting on their budgets and trying to figure out whether they can spend a little money on a bit of website tinkering, or a pared-to-the-bone email campaign, when what they should be doing is growing their own skill base. If they do it right, they may be surprised to find how much they can do without throwing money at new projects.

Don’t just take my word for it. The European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA), Europe’s main advertising lobbying group,  is launching an initiative aimed at raising skills.

The main thrust seems to be aimed (Can you accurately aim a thrust?) at Central and Eastern Europe, where the skills gap is seen as more pronounced. But EACA International School of Advertising and Communications courses will also dovetail with UK schemes run by the IPA.

But it was the final paragraph of the story about this in a Brand Republic news bulletin that made me all warm and fuzzy inside. I quote:

Gary Leih, the Ogilvy Group UK chief executive and EACA president, said: “We’re very aware of the harsh economic climate facing agencies today, but research and experience has consistently shown that those who invest in training during an economic recession are those best placed not only to survive, but also to recover fastest.”

Well hello Mrs.Obvious and how beautifully you’re stated for us all to see.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking a pop at Gary Leih – far from it. He’s so on the money that I wish I could place a bet on him at Goodwood.

But I suspect the ‘swishing’ sound that keeps me awake at night is the sound of training budgets being slashed along with everything else. What a waste.

The really great thing about training (apart from the fact that your organisation ends up with people with more knowledge and a greater capacity to ‘do’) is the way it meshes with all elements of an organisation’s culture.

It raises self worth and self esteem, it supports a myriad of professional qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD) that, in turn, may be the stepping stones to career advancement. Yes, trained staff may eventually leave you (but that’s what they’re supposed to do). Plus you get a more skilled workforce in the process. People who are trained regularly and who work in organisations where the acquisition of knowledge is encouraged, tend to exhibit greater loyalty. Bring an employee on (grow your own) and the chances are their skills will always be one step ahead of their current pay level but their lifetime earning potential is enhanced. You win. They win. Everybody’s happy.

Having recently stepped down as a non-executive director of a NHS organisation I remain highly envious of the priority given to training and knowedge advancement that can be found in the public sector. I’m now a visiting lecturer in communication for our local medical school; medical and social care professionals appear ravenously hungry for a huge range of communication skills.

Training is organisational yeast. Companies with a culture of training and learning just tend to grow (even when the global economy is, apparently, going to hell in a hand cart). I say ‘apparently’ so I don’t get pilloried for using Armageddon language on my own blog.

Perhaps part of the problem is that people taking the term ‘training’ too literally.

Alot of CDA business activity centres around training. What’s the point of having the lab rats working on stuff and coming up with new ideas if all you do is sit back and feel smug. You have to set a good idea free.

Training can take a mutitude of forms. We often talk about workshops. When we ‘train’ attendees seem to get through an awful lot of colour tape and balls of string (email me and I’ll explain cdacontentlab@webwordsworking.co.uk), because we hate to see people trying to Hoover up knowledge whilst stuck behind desks pushing bits of paper about.

Training can go hand in hand with a project being progressed by taking an approach I like to call Tada! (It’s kind of a fanfare sound if you say it right.) Tada! stands for Train. Apply. Develop. Apply.

We’ve used Tada! to get a massive new website project off the ground, breathe new live into email newsletter programmes, underpin style guides and CMS systems, or just give an overworked, under-resourced marketing department some renewed fizz and enthusiasm (plus some energy conserving processes).

And then it suddenly struck me. We can just be a little iffy about the whole training thing. Consider the phrase: those who can do, those who can’t teach. What an upside down, crazy concept is that? Teaching, training, passing down knowledge… that’s a really serious project and it’s worth throwing money at. Those that can teach. Those that want to survive – learn.

Today is a good day to begin

Let me see… where shall I start? Well the financial services sector is in meltdown. Banks are going to the wall and if Radio 4’s Today programme is right, senior American politicians are on their knees (well, at least one). In the UK everyone is waiting to see how far the fall-out will spread. From sub-prime mortgages to… house prices, supermarket profits, bankruptcy amongst tour operators, the price of vanilla icecream? Throw the rising fuel prices and global political instability into the mix and what have you got? The latest Mad Max movie.

The question is, why write about here? The CDA Content Lab is all about putting online content under the microscope. Why would a recession interest us?

The obvious answer might appear to be money. Sorry to bring up the ‘m’ word but when banks catch cold the whole world sneezes. The good news is that web and email are cost effective channels when you’re marketing spend has just been ripped to shreds by a Finance Director whose got Bradford and Bingley shares in his childrens’ school fees portfolio. Okay, that’s the business side of things dealt with.

But what really rocks our boat is how all this doom and gloom may be influencing the way we communicate and engage with audiences. This is particularly pertinent online where our execution of day to day tasks can be accomplished cheek by jowl with an RSS feed to our desk top announcing the latest crisis. We can dip into Tesco online and find ourselves simultaneously drawn to the BBC for a news fix.

Take a look at the first paragraph of this post and it’s riddled with nuclear, revolutionary and post-apocalyptic analogies. We use analogies to aid comprehension. It allows us to talk about things to people in a way that will allow them to understand, even if they have no direct experience of what’s being discussed. It also straddles the mental space between language and thought. Not only am I giving you terms of reference so you can understand what I’m talking about but you also get a pretty good idea of how I feel about it.

Analogies (along with first cousins metaphor and simile) also allow us to visualise things and that get’s us into really interesting territory where the web is concerned. The web is a very visual medium. Even when we’re reading online and we actually do very little of that. We’re ‘looking’ at web pages as if they were maps rather than documents; designed to take us onto the next leg of our journey, or confirm that we’ve arrived.

When we see something in a new way we tend to store it in a new way. So all this talk of doom and gloom is having a deep semantic influence. Will we notice this in the language we use and the language that’s used to comunicate back to us? Hold that thought?

Of course, we can’t go back and rewrite books and brochures to reflect this. But the internet – that’s a whole different bag. I’ve certainly been reviewing our online communication looking for words that might inadvertently trigger gloom or hesitancy. This blog aside, I’m avoiding all flippant use of the apocalyptic.