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