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But what do businesses do about content that’s no longer current?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

Twitter – this summer's chart topper?

birdie-song-cartoon

Does anyone remember The Birdie Song? The original version was released in the 1960s,  but in the 1980s a UK band called The Tweets got to No. 2 in the charts with an instrumental version accompanied by a silly dance. I use the term ‘dance’ loosely. In the same way that you might describe a bacon double cheese burger with chilli sauce, caper mayo and a side order of onion rings as ‘nutritious’.

Both the Birdie melody and footwork burned itself into a collective global psyche. (As a special treat I have included a link the Indonesian version by Warkop, who built a whole comedy routine around it, at the end of this post.) Huge numbers of people hated The Birdie Song but a frightening and equal number are compelled to hum the first few bars under their breadth in moments of crisis. Go to a wedding and sooner or later Aunty Ethel and your strange cousin will loosen their clothing and start teaching the moves to anyone who dares come within striking distance of the dance floor. By 9.30 the same evening every inch of available floorspace is given over to synchronised chicken dancing.

All of which brings me to the subject of this post: Twitter.

Okay, at first glance this may seem like a gratuitous segue based on a tenuous ornithological resonance. But Twitter and The Birdie Song connect on a much deeper level. People get very hot under the collar about this particular branch of social media (as they did with The Birdie Song). It’s a love it or loathe it kind of thing. For every Aunty Ethel desperate to teach you the Twitter moves there’s an Uncle Alfred spitting tacks about collective navel gazing.

Until a couple of weeks ago I was in Auncle Alfred’s camp. I had bigger social media fish to fry. I was interested in ‘communities’, ‘platforms’, you know, ‘big stuff’. So what if Stephen Fry could describe dolphins undulating in 140 characters or less. Twitter was witter. I took words seriously.

But if you’re going to get under the skin of social media you can’t leave anything out. I sidled up on Twitter, the same way I approached Wasabi mustard and pickled ginger when I first discovered sushi. You had to poke at the condiments just to prove you knew what you were doing. Take a little dip, decide you don’t like it (can’t see what it adds) and then get back to the raw fish and soy sauce. (Okay, a serious amount of mixed metaphors going on here, but keep up with me.)

But Twitter is a very interesting phenomenon. There are layers to it. Dismiss it as geeks meet airheads at your peril. Like The Birdie Song, its predicated on some simple basic steps. First the question: What are you doing? and then the answer: as brief as you can make it. You can teach someone The Birdie Song dance in about 10 minutes. You can start to Twitter in a similar amount of time.

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Twitter is the first pure-blood content progeny of the online age. It is adapted for skimming and dwell times that you can count in nano-seconds. Even the line length is perfect for screen reading, although whether that’s by design or luck, I don’t know.

Websites, although they’re getting better and better, are still caught up in their offline heritage. Websites may embrace interactive media, real-time chat and online transactional interfaces, but every now and then they drop their aitches and start sounding like printed brochures. Blogging has shifted control more firmly into the hands of users but they’re still predicated on offline values. Phenomena such as Facebook, bebo and YouTube have further societised the internet; but they are, simply, highly accessible online manifestations of yearbooks, youth clubs and the weirder hinterlands of televisual entertainment respectively.

Twitter is an online baby. For a start, your ‘standing’  on Twitter has everything to do with how many people follow your Tweets (posts). You can’t throw money at it in order to get noticed. And people only seem to follow what engages them. There’s no brand loyalty here. I’ve come across big business Twitters with 2 followers, while mums in Maryland can number followers in thousands.

Secondly, you’re only as good as your last Tweet. And if you last Tweet was more than a few hours ago, chances are it has already been submerged by newer, fresher perspectives. Twitter has taken internet ‘currency’ to a new level. When people visit the internet they want to find information that is relevant now. Yesterday’s news is so very, very yesterday. That doesn’t mean there’s no room on the internet for historic / archive content (if presented usefully) but there’s no excuse for not being up to date, as well, particularly as publishing to web is being made easier by a plethora of content management systems.

And like The Birdie Song, Twitter is all about collective impact. It doesn’t matter that Aunty Ethel is always half a beat behind the rest of the dancers, or that your strange cousin has added a couple of unique moves to the bit where you all turn round; Twitter is a collective. It’s thousands of voices threading in and out of each other on a single platform.

Twitter also exposes the associative nature of internet information connectivity. Thanks to hyperlinking, the internet mimics and facilitates the human brain (associative thought), allowing us to move from one piece of information to another, propelled by what we’re thinking of doing. It’s this hyperlinking that allows us to get from, say, checking the cost of flights to Malaga this summer to  tracking down the right kind of rice for a great paella recipe.

Twitter is highly associative. My experience is that although each Twitter post is officially provoked by the question: ‘What are you doing?’ often the question people choose to answer is ‘What I’m thinking about’ or ‘What has got me thinking.’ Twitterers point to other Twitterers’ Tweets, a signficant number of which are crafted around a stimulating thought, or which act as signposts to useful information on other websites. (Tiny URLs and Twitter – a marriage made in heaven.)

All of which has got me thinking – what next? I’m no Darwin scholar but it seems like every time there’s an evolutionary leap it spawns a period of extrordinary fertility. Get the structure right and Mother Nature pops out a huge number of permutations. Then it’s just down to the survival of the fittest.

I’m sure they’ll be Twitter derivatives but the big question is what else can evolve around user value, equal access, immediacy, succinctness, ease of publication, associative linking and associative thinking? Answers in 140 characters… or more.

The CDA Lab Rats on Twitter

Dongkrak Antik by Warkob (The Birdie Song)