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





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…




Online marketing comms – rules tighten. Let the seller beware

From March 1, any communication on your website that sets out to tell users about goods, services, opportunities, freebies… but where the primary or ultimate  aim is to sell something, will be regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The ASA is the UK’s independent advertising watchdog, responsible for controlling marketing communications in all media in the UK. (They work with statutory partners such as Trading Standards, the Office of Fair Trading and the communications regulator Ofcom.)

The March 1 changes cover the marketing communications of all organisations operating from the UK on their own websites and in other non-paid for space online under their control eg Facebook.

The ASA talks about copy a great deal in its guidance but their remit could easily extend to any type of content, for example a home page video or a viral campaign on YouTube.


The ASA’s extended remit may come as a surprise to a lot of organisations (the ASA’s own cross-media advertising campaign was only launched at the weekend). As always the big question is who’ll get their knuckles slapped first, for what and how hard?

The ASA’s punitive powers already include obliging broadcasters to comply with ASA rulings but  it’s also brought in some new sanctions from March 1 including “an enhanced” name and shame policy. And paid-for search advertising that links to non-compliant marketing communications may be removed with the agreement of the search engines.

It’s also important to keep in mind that marketing content that falls under the scope of the ASA’s remit may not necessarily include a price or seek an immediate financial transaction. Let the seller beware.

The change falls under the scope of UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (the Committee of Advertising Practice / CAP) Code.

CAP decided to extend the digital remit of the ASA in response to formal recommendations from a cross-section of UK industry, including the Internet Advertising Bureau. Nick Stringer, director of regulatory affairs for the IAB stresses that self-regulation must maintain pace with today’s fast-moving digital environment and changing consumer behaviour. “The ASA’s extended digital media remit aims to protect internet users and enhance their trust, as well as industry and political confidence, in the medium.”

What’s covered:

  • advertisers’ own marketing messages on their own websites, regardless of sector, type of businesses or size of organisation
  • marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under the advertiser’s control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

What’s not covered:

  • classified private advertisements
  • press releases and other public relations material
  • editorial content
  • political advertisements
  • corporate reports and investor relations.

User generated content?

ASA points out that generated content (UGC) that has been adopted and incorporated within an organisation’s own marketing communications could be covered. This will be considered on a case by case basis.

For example: “ASA is likely to take a very different view of a consumer’s positive comment that has been posted, by the website owner, in a prominent way on the front page of its website, than if that same comment appeared within the context of a consumer message board moderated for harmful and offensive language or images only”.

How to make sure you comply

CAP is offering guidance and courses. The IAB has also including some useful FAQs on its website. From a content strategy (CS) perspective the key thing is to make sure that all your content is fit for purpose and doesn’t fall shy of any regulation.

While the March 1 changes are the latest, many websites fall short of what’s required elsewhere – for example Part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act which covers access and came into force back in 2004. Ringing any bells? It means your website must be accessible to blind and disabled users and this should be influencing everything from colour choices to meta data.

Content audits and the use of copydecks are just two of the CS tools where regulatory or legislative requirements could be captured and verified. Even without the weight of law, large organisations need to be running tight ships – eg who wrote it, when, who signed it off? Clearly defined and maintained internal content creation processes are a must. And let’s not forget content training that not only improves content creation skills but raises general organisational awareness of why all content, on’ and offline is so important.

Apart from anything else, if you can demonstrate you did your best to comply with this law or that regulation, the punitive response maybe be less harsh than in organisations where content is chaos rather than king.

Useful links

» More about the CAP guidance
» IAB Extending the digital media remit of the Advertising Standards Authority FAQs PDF

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?

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?


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