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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.”

“No.”

“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

Is it time to go viral?

Viral campaigns have been front of mind for me recently. I’ve suddenly been struck by how a great idea isn’t always the right idea. There may be a profound difference between what works as a viral campaign and what works for you as a brand / business / organisation – ie the audience that is most likely to engage with a viral and, most importantly, pass it on, aren’t necessarily the ones who are going buy what you sell. And… under those circumstances, is a viral still worth doing and why?

Take the 2001 ‘Proof’ campaign starring Kylie Minogue and which was considered too raunchy for the cinema audiences for whom it was conceived. It’s had more that 350 million hits on YouTube since then.

While conceived as a cinema ad it has proved itself extraordinarily viral. The question is – how many people who’ve watched this on YouTube (and it has now been named the best celebrity viral ad of the decade by online content distributor GoViral) are now wearing Agent Provocateur undies?

I understand that a lot of chaps may have rushed out and bought undies for the women in their lives (one or two may have bought velvet upholstered bucking broncos as well) but is that good enough, given how much a viral campaign of this type costs to create?

Remember, I’m just asking questions at this stage. I’m hoping you’ll have at least some of the answers. The most I’m going to offer up later in this article is opinions.

Okay, now let’s take a look at one of my personal favourites…

These sheep crack me up. There is no day of chaos in the office that cannot be improved by spending a few moments rewatching this one. But the truth is that no matter how many times I look at it I do not feel moved to go out and buy a Samsung LED TV.

According to its creators, the:viral:factory, it has featured on Sky, ITV, ABC, The Sun newspaper and The New York Times… But while demand for LED TVs is set to grow to around 90 million units by 2013 (39% of the total market), Sharp seem to be taking the high ground – in the UK at least. They’re on track to sell around 2 million LED TVs in 2009 and predict a massive 10 million sales in 2010. » Source

With no electric sheep in sight, Sharp are selling successfully. But that doesn’t mean they’re sitting back with their feet up.

As early as July 2008 Sharp  was encouraging younger Hong Kong office workers to send viral messages to their friends through a mini site, ‘Where’s my pixie’, promoting its Aquos TV range. They’d targeted this segment (25-35) because they were predisposed to go online and research prior to making a purchase. The characters in the viral were designed to demonstrate picture quality. And as far back as September 2007 Bob Scaglione, Sharp Consumer Electronics Marketing Group senior VP, announced the launch of its “most aggressive advertising and brand campaign in our history”. Earlier this year Sharp launched (and aggressively advertised) an new generation of Aquos TVs, replacing more expensive models.

Here comes the opinion…

Virals are like diets. Every now and again one comes along that catches the public’s attention and seems to get results. But the fact is that the only true way to lose weight is to burn more calories and consume less calories. A stonking good diet, when it forms part of an overall health and fitness regime (squeezing off that extra 5lbs before Christmas, say), may well make a difference. Used on its own… chances are any benefits will be transitory.

So, what should you ask yourself before getting stuck into a viral campaign?

1. Is it enough to create on simply ‘get the word out’?

2. What succes criteria should you / can you attach to it?

3. Where is the budget coming from (are you paying Peter with Paul’s stash and are other marketing initiatives likely to suffer)?

4. And where does you viral sit both practically and strategically when you look across your entire marketing landscape? (This can include blogging about the viral – so make sure everybody’s out of their silos.)

If the strategic and brand accord is that there’s room in the mix for a good viral – you don’t need Kylie writhing on plum plush to be successful.

A viral can be a picture (including a discount voucher), a simple game, an email, or even a phone message.

Irish internet and phone company Perlico created a ‘quack’ viral. If you rang the company you were given this amongst your options: “Press three to hear a duck quack.” Through word-of-mouth and email, the company received 70,000 extra calls in the campaign’s first three days and added what the company described as “a significant number of new customers”.

Don’t park your brain

It’s all very exciting, but the most important thing at this stage is sanity checking your creative juices using people who are outside the campaign team. I suspect this didn’t happen with the » Burger King Angry-gram

You also need to decide if the target for the viral is the direct target for your business or if the aim some form of ripple influence where the viral recipient influences your ultimate customer group? An example of that approach is »L’Oreal’s ‘Every mum is worth it campaign’ from March this year

You need to be prepared for a number of things, including the viral element becoming dissociated from you and your brand and taking on a life of its own. If you (or your CEO) find loss of control unacceptable – maybe viral isn’t for you.

The other thing you really have to understand is why people share things and accept things from people they don’t necessarily know that well – and not just as this applies to the internet (quaint word, but I still love it).

People do things because they make sense at the time. Online is also disinhibiting, so people will share (and accept) things, including links to raunchy Kylie videos, which they might baulk at sharing face-to-face. So the reason to share a viral must be clear. Its humour must be instant and universal and any essential usefulness immediately obvious.

And Christmas is a great time of year for a viral. Which reminds of the music channel that created a viral of a boy unwrapping a Christmas present. It was a light sabre which he wielded with gay abandon – until he cut grandma’s head off. Ho, ho, ho – or no. no, no? You decide.

Make your website take the personality test

Your website is just like any other member of your team… Okay, they don’t draw salary (in quite the same way) and they don’t turn up at the Christmas party clutching half a bottle of tequila. But they represent your organisation, its products, services, values…

The question is – what type of personality have you got fronting the most important doorway and window onto your organisation’s world and what kind of job are they doing?

Here in the lab we’ve created a personality test for your website. It’s fun and easy to do but it may also reveal some interesting facts about your site and the way it represents your brand.

There are 6 possible types. Is your website an ‘aging’ rock star, ‘Pretty Woman’, the technical genius, the selling dervish, the librarian or the gardener? And what do these personality types reveal about your site?

personality-montageweb

In our PDF you can read more about each type and how these personality traits may represent themselves (and you) online. Oh and it’s totally free as well as fun.

>> The CDA Content Lab website personality test

The 'face' of online delivery

Increasingly organisations understand the importance of creating the right Tone of Voice (ToV) for their communications. That tone needs to be ‘modulated’ for online delivery, where communications must be conversational and reply-focussed. Organisations are beginning to understand even that these days.

But when we converse with people face-to-face so much of what we infer and derive is based on visual cues rather than verbal ones. Online, what’s the equivalent of maintaining eye contact? As well as tone of voice think – the face of delivery.

This came to me this week when Mark Tyrrell, a very talented hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy teacher (I was lucky enough to attend one of his courses a couple of year’s back) Tweeted a New Scientist article about how we’re more likely to think other people are attractive if they’re looking straight at us and smiling.

A study at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, UK, paired nearly identical photos of computer-generated faces, with smiling or disgusted expressions. The pairs only differed in where the irises were pointed: straight at the viewer, or off to the side.

Hundreds of participants then rated the faces for sexual attractiveness, and (what I’d like to focus on) for ‘likeability’. Both men and women found faces looking straight at them to be more attractive and more likeable, even if the faces looked disgusted (though smiling faces were preferred). I think we’ll leave the sexual attractiveness of websites for another day.

I think this face of delivery is very important online because of the conversational and even intimate nature of the communication.

  • We know that a brochure is not an exclusive communication (even if our name is lasered at the top).
  • A letter may be personal but it isn’t (generally) intimate.
  • Online communication is an intimate space because of the way we engage with the delivery system – leaning in to our computer, cradling our Blackberry in the palm of our hand…

Reviewing web content against the above – starting with the visuals

So, online, how do you give your tone of voice eye contact and a smiley face? And, when you’re reviewing web content, what measures might you use to determine the face of your current online delivery?

One place to start might appear to be the visuals you use. Ideally they should be of things and people who ‘connect’ in some way with your business. Be aware of simply purchasing shiny toothed  smiley faces from an image catalogue. There is something about model poses and a trick they use, pointing their eyes at the camera but allowing their gaze to soften. This widens the iris – in theory more attractive – but reduces the intensity of the eye-to-eye engagement.

I’m also very grateful to Richard Sedley at cScape for drawing my attention to a study that looked at how web users attention could be drawn to different parts of the screen by using the eyeline of the person in a photograph. Eg if you wanted somebody to look at a product / product offer, have someone else in the ad’ looking in the direction of the offer.

The question here is: do you want to engage with the user (in which case do you want the eyes on the screen to connect with the eyes of the user), or do you want them to be drawn to a product or service offered on the screen (in which case should the eyes on the screen connect with the product or service)? Something to ponder

But don’t stop with the visuals

But the more I thought about it the more that focusing on the visuals alone seemed to be missing the point. When we port a concept online we have to rework it for the new space. It pays not to be to literal in your interpretation of offline best practice for online. All of which begs the question… what is the ‘face’ of your website and who is it focusing on?

Welcome to my hypothesis…

I reckon the face of your website is your Home page. And in the case of larger sites, you may have several web personalities grouped together, so you might also have ‘faces’ on primary landing pages – such as the start of a big section. I’m a great believer in treating your website with the same respect and governance you would any other member of your organisation, so logic dictates that the Home page is the face. (What do you think?)

So, above and beyond the basics of a good Home page; clear layout, clear and consistent labelling, easy to follow nav, good tone of voice… how do you assess the eye contact?

Here are the basic proportions of a human face:

  • traditional rules of proportion (Disagree? Take it up with Vitruvious) show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three
  • the upper horizontal section ends at mid-forehead
  • the lower at the base of the nose
  • the eyes rest on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.

face

Just for fun I then overlaid these proportions on some web Home pages I liked or solicited from others who didn’t know what I planned to do. I situated the top of each Home page at the forehead line.

cipdv1shellv1xeroxv1philipsv1officemaxv1

What I find interesting is just how much important stuff is going on in the mid-face section, around the eyes . And much of the very practical information – including links, T & Cs etc – lines up with the mouth area.

cipdv2

So, lab rats, where are you going with all this?

Firstly, check out how much interesting stuff is going on in and around the eyes above (about the only exception is Philips).

The lab rats are still working on this one but I strikes us that, in terms of the way you evaluate your web (and particularly, Home) page real estate, you might want to draw a smiley face on your wire frames.

1. Is there something your users can make ‘eye contact’ with – a responding human face, other strong visual, focusing information?

2. Is there a face-like quality to the page? (Keep in mind that faces are not totally symmetrical.)

3. How do you ‘feel’ when you engage with your Home page?

Not only is very engaging information concentrated around important facial elements on our examples above, but this content is written and displayed in a very ‘likeable’ way. I don’t think you should disregard the basics, including the role of the F Pattern.

But… it makes you think.

Useful links – each one takes you away from the lab, so we’ve opened them in new windows for you

>> New Scientist article

>> The eyeline of models

>> The F Pattern

>> The cScape Customer Engagement Unit blog (CDA are CEU members)

>> Mark Tyrrell’s new website – Uncommon Help

Useful links within this blog (we want to keep you here, so they open in the same window)

>> Reply-focussed communication

PS I’d be very interested to hear about the role of ‘eye contact’ and conversational tone in Asia where the rules for appropriate interaction are different.

To draw the human head accurately, first become familiar with the basic proportions. Traditional rules of proportion show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three. The upper horizontal division is roughly at the ‘third eye’ level mid-forehead, the lower at the base of the nose. The eyes sit on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.

Archive as a presentation of your brand

Mad Hatter cartoon

In Alice in Wonderland the Mad Hatter is doomed to live his life at tea time. He and his companions cope by moving round a giant tea table, leaving behind the detritus of their last repast in order to begin again at a new place setting.

I sometimes feel the web is modelled along similar constraints. I ponder the detritus we leave behind in terms of useless links and even more useless pages, while we’re guzzling Darjeeling somewhere else. Like the Mad Hatter we’re doomed to live life in the present tense and there isn’t time to tidy up what’s gone before. Which brings me on to the subject of archiving (‘At last!’ exclaimed Alice).

Some organisations have embraced archiving. But often there’s a clear driver. For example, they have archivable product of intrinsic value. The US Congress digital preservation program, designed to preserve political historic context and the British Library web archive, come to mind. I select these 2 at random and don’t want to get drawn into commenting on their execution. Newspapers and libraries have always archived and are therefore predisposed to do so digitally.

And, within the context of this blog, neither do I want to get into the technical developments that enable archiving. What interests me is why so many of us are Mad Hatters? What’s the mindset that prevents us engaging with archive projects and what are the implications for brands?

Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of how important their online touch points are, not just in terms of sales and information but as an extension of  brand. At CDA we talk about usefulness as the essential online brand attribute. Online, people don’t want marketing messages. They want facts and information, fueled by clear navigation, that allow them to get on an do.

But what do businesses do about content that’s no longer current?

1. The simple answer would seem to be: take it down.

For much material that probably makes perfect sense. If it has no intrinsic value, even as a matter of record, then it can probably go.

But you need to be asking some pertinent questions around this and not acting in haste (because it’s the easiest solution). These questions should exend to considering links that inhabit the pages you are considering taking down – not just out from them but links in from other pages and other sites. Sites that may well belong to other organisations and are therefore are outside of your direct control. (CDA recently undertook a BBC archive project where link evaluation was the critical factor.)

2. Plenty of content can probably be kept digitally but not made available.

I remember being told about a tobacco company that keeps everything on the basis that they don’t know where their next class action is coming from and they can’t afford not to have a record of everything they’ve said and written (web is just a part of that).

3. But there is also a great amount that should be archived in a way that still allows public access.

An easy example is past copies of annual reports and accounts.

But a publicly accessible archive also stands testament to organisational longevity. Even at a subliminal level this is an important brand attribute, particularly in financial services and the public sector.

So, I hear you thinking, we’ll keep all these pages up then? Ah, if only life was that simple. Pour me another cup of Darjeeling and I’ll explain.

The web, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, exists in the here and now. For online users it is forever tea time. They’re looking for content that will allow them to do things now and are evaluating against personal criteria that allow them to make judgements about this in the fastest time possible. A matter of seconds. They expect web content to be current because they are.

Archive pages need to evidence the fact that they are archive in nanoseconds. They also need to evidence that they’re still up there because they’re useful in some way. Obviously a date helps but is it really clear? Explore some of the dustier corners of mega sites and you’ll find all sorts of pages, PDFs, printer friendly versions that seem to exist outside of time and space.

And there is a clear governance issue here. Take the hypothetical case of a health site that over the years has written and commented on various reports relating to diet, including how many eggs we should eat. (I choose eggs because the guidelines seem to go up and down like Topsy. I have no idea what they currently are but I’m healthy and I like omelettes.)

And this health organisation has done some pretty impressive work over the years; collaborated at a government level and the like. To take down the older reports would mean their online presence is diminished. Plus, they are a valueable site for research and student traffic who want to access this past material. Password protecting a whole load of content would be counterproductive in terms of this traffic (having considered this approach thoroughly) and also reflect badly on their brand. They’re a public health organisation.

But say I’m an overweight man in his late 50s with heart and collesterol issues. In an attempt to look after myself I visit this health website and download information about diet. But in my haste I download previous advice on eggs. Six months down the line I’m facing a coronary bypass and there’s a leaflet in the doctor’s waiting room about no win no fee legal advice.

Now I have no idea what the legal argument would be in this case. But up until the end of last year I was Chair of Governance for a small UK NHS organisation so governance and duty of care are things I feel very strongly about. Could something like this never happen? Or is it just a matter of time?

So, I hear you thinking, we’ll take all these pages down then. Ah. Cut me a slice of cake and I’ll explain.

This brings me back to an earlier point. Your past is part of your brand. If you were at a dinner party with someone who refused to talk about anything that happened pre-2008 you’d be a little suspicious. Wouldn’t you?

So archiving has to be about striking a balance. It’s about governance, curation, usefulness and record. If you have sites and pages languishing out there because it’s just too complicated to consider doing something about them, well… have you met my friend the Mad Hatter?

Useful links (that take you to CDA main website pages)

>> How useful is your brand?

>> Brand usefulness – help not hype

>> How people use language to search online

Useful links (you’ll leave the blog and CDA, so we’ll open these in  a new window for you)

>> British Library UK Web Archive

>> US Congress archive program