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

iPad – well guys, what do we think?

Some say it’s a “game changer” and the lab rats love the way they can change apps by walking over the screen with their little paws. Well.. what do you think?

» Local council denies iPad but is considering taking tablets

» iWork on iPad

» iPad gets UK launch timing

» Here’s what Mary Lennighan has to say on Total Telecom

» Stephen Fry on the iPad

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Twitter – this summer's chart topper?


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)

Have websites had their day?

I can feel the morning getting away from me. A train beckons and I can’t be late for that meeting. But I AM running late and I haven’t done half the things on my list: my Facebook pages are still woefully incomplete, I need to load a new image on the blog (yep, this one) and I’ve only just signed up to Twitter. Who, for heavan’s sake, has got time for a proper job?

Social media is rather like the really good looking person standing next to French windows at a party. You’re immediately attracted but you’re cautious of going up an introducing yourself in case you sound like a sad prat (tell me it’s not just me who feels like that).

Some of us have embraced sites like Facebook as if they were long lost credit cards. Others of us are sidling up, still figuring out what it is we’re going to say. Businesses, in particular, are trying to get the measure of social media and have the hugest potential to look embarrassing if they get it wrong.

None the less, embrace it they must, or be left on the sofa while everybody else is gathered round the beautiful person standing by the French windows and laughing like drains.

There’s are numerous reasons why businesses should do this: some of which I’ll go into in more detail when I don’t have a train to catch, but the most critical is that all this social energy is definitely reaching cirtical mass. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 (hardly the home of cool) was plugging its Twitter url this morning. I’m currently involved in a project where it is becoming increasingly obvious that the website is going to be the least important component online.

Perhaps the headline: ‘Have websites had their day?’ is overly provacative, but I feel the platform morphing from one based on technology to one based on social energy.

More anon.