The dawn of digital governance

When the internet first came along it was a bit like the American gold rush. People were staking their claims on the new ground with nothing more than a flag on a stick and a glint of avarice.

Companies sprang up overnight building websites of enormous cost and complexity. People spooned repurposed brochure content into the accompanying white space. There was money in them thar hills – and not a few error messages.

Over time things calmed down. dot.coms boomed and busted, the cowboys were rode out of town on a rail; the approach to content became more thoughtful.

But not thoughtful enough…

Yes, best practice emerged and organisations maintained (somewhat) as well as built things. Digital professionals also began to measure – everything and anything. The internet was wonderful for measuring – it still is. You can create bar charts that show you loads and tell you nothing. Nonetheless, they look mighty fine in a PowerPoint presentation.

Skill sets began to evolve. Companies slowly began to realise that a new website or email programme wasn’t just a technological progression but a communications one. Most recently the internet has gone out into the field as devices become more plentiful and more highly mobile. The phones, at least, became smart. And media became social.

But what holds all this together and, most importantly, what bonds what’s happening in marketing departments and agencies to what is decided at board or senior manager level? What I see is business critical communications decisions being made as if they were simply tactical subsets.

A toe in the budget door – but not the boardroom door

Digital communication professionals did themselves no favours. Marketing and even IT departments were the traditional organisational gateways to budget decisions. We framed our arguments and project language in a way that the people deploying what we offered would see as relevant. Oh, a big website overhaul might be a senior management or board decision but that was on the basis of costs (or politics) and the fact that some IT Directors, at least, made it through the digital ceiling.

So, what makes a digital project relevant at the very highest level? What raises what we do to the most senior floors and embeds communication and content as business critical, alongside production costs and HR budgets?

Let me introduce you to the concept of digital governance…

I’ve worked as a non-executive director in the National Health Service (NHS) and spent a number of years as a Chair of Governance. Governance is embedded into corporate structures at the highest level and companies such as Enron have simply served to demonstrate the value of probity.

Good corporate governance is a system for structuring, operating and controlling based on: sound business ethics, long-term strategic goals, care of employees (past, present and future), customers and suppliers, the environment and the local community and proper compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. Source: Applied Corporate Governance

Within the health service there is also a specific clinical governance structure. In my opinion this brings together to critical organisational pathways: business function and business output.

Clinical Governance is a framework through which NHS organisations are accountable for continuously improving the quality of their services and safeguarding high standards of care, by creating an environment in which excellence will flourish. Source: A First Class Service – Quality in the new NHS

Clinical governance: bridging the gap between managerial and clinical approaches to quality of care Source: Stephen A Buetow, Martin Roland

Over the last year I’ve taken this learning acquired in the health service and tried to develop a framework for its development in digital content. What I’ve come up with is this:

Digital Governance is the framework through which organisations are accountable for continuously improving the quality of what they offer audiences digitally,  safeguarding high standards  and creating an environment in which excellence will flourish. Source: Me

Digital governance: bridging the gap between managerial and digital approaches to quality of content and communication. Source: Me

Okay, where am I going with this? And why should you care?

Anne Caborn's digital governance visualI believe that if we don’t start drawing content into some big business framework it could slide back into a series of not particularly significant (in board terms) silos; whether that’s usability, content development and management, design and build, search and optimisation… Content strategy has gone some way to providing the glue for harmonising key skills and expertise but it isn’t a term that gets the suits excited.

Information Governance already exists. Organisations get that the governance and accountability relating to business usage and storage of information is business critical. But information goes only partway to describing and proscribing content. Digital governance  of content creation, production and maintenance, supporting processes / methodologies and technologies needs its own guidelines, benchmarks for excellence and monitoring systems (piped upward to board level in dashboard form).

I’ve come across the term digital governance (and web governance) here and there but its current definition is neither broad enough nor sufficiently demonstrated within an organisation. It deals with probity – but not excellence. The only person who comes close to covering this ground sufficiently, in my opinion, is Lisa Welchman in the United States.

In the health service the weft and weave of clinical governance is raised to board level using a range of data and compliance measures. Mortality figures are obviously a key metric but what about recovery times for people operated on in a specific operating theatre, sent to recover in a specific ward? Do ‘bed days’ go up or down dependent on where a patient was admitted from, whether it was during the day or during the night? Metrics are marvellous but only if you bring them together from multiple sources, keep them current  and interpret them with confidence and robustness.

There is also another critical thing that makes governance business critical – the risk of legal and punitive  censure. Since 2001-2, NHS Chief Executives have been required to sign a Statement of Internal Control that forms part of the statutory accounts and annual report. In order to make this statement, Boards must be able to demonstrate that they have been properly informed about the totality of principle risks that an organisation faces (not just financial). Conclusions to such risks need to be documented using an evidence-based approach.

I firmly believe that in order for digital content to be discussed and taken seriously at board level, the possibility of breaking the law – which exists – needs to be better evidenced and monitored.

What laws do you want to break today?

I’m currently working on some new training and workshops that attempt to bring together the necessary governance disciplines required to properly monitor compliance with all the legislation and regulations that should keep organisations awake at night (but to which they are currently not paying it sufficient attention – if any at all). I’ll be covering this off in much more detail next year but the things we should be all-over-like-a-rash include:

1. Since March 2011 the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK has also been responsible for regulating online marketing. It recently banned a series of online ads for Lynx spray (it’s a bloke thing), which ran on Yahoo, Hotmail, Rotten Tomatoes, Anorak and Spotify, for being ‘likely to cause widespread harm and offence.”

2. Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 prohibit unsolicited electronic marketing material unless covered by the “soft opt-in” rule. This covers not only email but also text messaging. Breach of the regulations can result in regulatory investigations, fines, civil damages actions and criminal liability. Criminal sanctions may be imposed on company directors, as well as the company.

3. The above regulations also introduced controls on the use of cookies on web sites. Users have to be given guidance on why information is being collected using cookies and the opportunity to refuse that information. Organisations using cookies should have a clear compliance statement.

4. Since 2007 companies in the UK have needed to include regulatory information on their websites and in their email footers, such as company number and registered address (not always the main contact address) or risk being fined under the Companies Act.

Do keep up!

5. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 Part 3 makes organisations responsible for making their websites accessible.  The section came into force in October 1999 and the Code of Practice for this section was published in May 2002. The legislation was policed by Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) which forced a number of companies to make changes to avoid prosecution.

6. But did you know that since  October 2010 the Equality Act  replaced ‘most of’ the DDA? The RNIB points out that the new Act is ‘anticipatory’, which means you cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use your services, but you must think in advance and on an ongoing basis, about the potential illegality of:

  • links that are not accessible to a screen reader
  • application forms in a PDF format that cannot be read by a screen reader
  • core service information (for instance, timetables on a public transport website) not in a format accessible to screen readers
  • using text, colour contrasting and formatting that make the website inaccessible to partially sighted users
  • changing security procedures (for instance, on an e-commerce website) without considering the impact of blind and partially sighted customers that use screen readers.

And this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

You may think that as the newspapers are NOT wall to wall with reports about major prosecutions under any of the above (there have been significantly more in Australia, as far as I can see), you can just keep calm and carry on as before. I have only one question: Do you want to be the first prosecution? Even without a prosecution, do you really want to be named and shamed by a regulatory body?

Welcome to Digital Governance 101.






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…




Don't be afraid to tinker with your From line

I happen to belong to something call Groupon, an online, email driven business that harnesses the power of collective purchasing to offer money-saving coupons on anything from fish pedicures (no time to explain) to car valeting and even holidays. Groupon is a play on words – well word actually: “coupon.” Geddit?

But a puff for Groupon is not the point of this quick post. I was clearing out old Groupon emails from my inbox and noticed how they have progressed the From line in their emails over time – I’ve been a member for about 6,8 months.

Take a look below. The top line on both images shows the most recent email. The bottom line, the oldest.

Obviously this isn’t all the emails I received from them in that time period shown. But I hadn’t spotted how they had slowly modified their From line from:

  • being benefit led and explanatory – “MyCityDeal – Groupon” (bottom)
  • to leading with the brand name but supporting with the benefit – “Groupon – MyCityDeal” (middle)
  • to simply – Groupon (top/most recent).

The brand has grown enormously in this time and you’d have to live in outer space to have not heard of them. Every time I look the value being placed on the company and the list of prospective buyers seems to increase. Way to go coupon people!

But the point of this post is – don’t be afraid to fiddle with your From line in emails.

We allk now that people delete emails faster and faster and that the From line is very important when deciding what to open. We all angst over Subject lines. Let’s start angsting that From line progression. If it’s good enough for a business most recently valued at $15 billion, it’s good enough for me.

Why does less cost more?

The lab rats and I have been pondering the quality v. quantity question recently. A lot of what we deal with as content strategists seems to rest on a (client?) perception that content is relatively low cost and readily available. Everybody can write, right? (And lots of people can pick up a camera to create moving or still images – which are also content, let us not forget.) The big money is in the code and the technology, the build and the maintenance, even the search and findability aspects of a project.

Sometimes I just drive out into the countryside, find a lonely hillside and howl “WRONG!!!” at the moon. Other times I sit in the office and ponder what we’re really dealing with here in terms of perception / mindset… It’s an interesting ponder.

The congility and Publishing expo logos And as I’m going to be speaking around this subject a little at next week’s Congility @ Publishing Expo in London on March 2 I’ve been pondering more than uusual.
» The lab rats go to Congility @ Publishing Expo

Scarcity and monetary value have long been linked. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t have a platinum bathtub or a 2 carat solitaire diamond ring. But underpinning the scarcity-value proposition is a far more fundamental one – supply and demand…

As soon as demand exceeds supply in the monetary model the price starts to rise. Financial markets are founded (and occasionally founder) on this principle. So there’s an automatic hardwire in our brain that takes us from less to less costs more.

Bloody publishing battles

This has created some bloody battles that started happening long before the internet was a glint in the eye of  Tim Berners-Lee. For example, traditional newspaper publishers have been fighting price and circulation wars for years (I speak as a former journalist and editor). Newspapers compounded things by introducing the more costs less approach, battling for readers by slashing prices and offering newspapers composed of myriad sections, a glossy magazine and a free DVD if you’re lucky.

And then the internet came along and there was even more more. We filled this virtual world with websites, emails, text messages, blogs, social media hubs and all this  information composed of bits and bytes that can now be squeezed onto flash drives, themselves as cheap as chips. The entire Library of Congress could be digitised and secreted in a gnat’s armpit.

cartoon showing two stick figures looking a jewller's window. the window is full of laters of the alphabet and words. one man is saying to the other: I remember when you could buy a whole alphabet and still have enough left over to get a fish and chip supperSo, where does that leave us? Is more always going to be cheap? Does it deserve to be anything else?

Okay, so those were rhetorical questions. What we have to do is get behind the content and feel the value.

Content is a means to an end. Content brings us information, which if configured right, allows us to extrapolate value as knowledge – usefulness, if you will.

We may have lost the ability to value to content intuitively because all we can see is how much of it there is, but we can reconnect with it’s unlying value as a carrier of knowledge.

More is priceless

As a content strategist I know that, far from more containing less value it has given us something priceless. More content has allowed us to experient and ring the changes with content in a way that was not possible when all content was offline and there was less of it (or it took longer to create and was more unweildy once created).

We can flex it and change it, measure it and track it – then change it some more. We can move people seamlessly through journeys that connect across on’ and offline nodes of information (a while since you heard the old ‘node’ term huh?).

We can also think long and hard about how we monetise these journeys. I hate the term ‘paywall’. It’s not the concept I hate, it’s just the idea of a pay wall. It sounds too much like  pain barrier to me. And there’s all sorts of stuff that we’ve yet to grasp effectively. The use of moving images and interactivity, the use of the visual (eg QR codes), hyperlinking and microlinking. Maybe more will never cost as much as it should but we can certainly get better at attaching the right value it.

publishing expo March 1 and 2, Earls Court, LondonYou can find out more about where these thoughts are leading me and the rats in the lab if you come to Congility @ Publishing Expo, Wednesday, March 2, Earls Court 2, London. » Read an outline of my presentation