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Web content & the law
Engaging with the rules and regulations governing digital content More

Why should the c-suite care about content?
To get the attention of the kings and queens of the Big Business Jungle you need to demonstrate you can take their pain away More

Posts tagged online writing

How do you 'feel' about information

Do me a huge favour and complete this simple survey. It will only take a 5 minutes. Work your way through the questions in the order they’re presented (don’t you dare peak ahead). Let your intuition take over. Simply opt for the answers that comes closest to your own views. And always go with your first choice.

As with so much online – there is no right and wrong.

I’ll share my findings with you, so watch this space.

» Take the lab rats’ questionnaire

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

Content is King (sort of)

Here’s a question – if content is king, how come it hasn’t got a seat on the board? Or a top of the range company car? How come content doesn’t sit in on senior management team meetings? Hm?

At best most organisations treat content rather like a middle manager that everybody believes has been promoted beyond their competence. Nobody disrespects them to their face but neither do they give them any real power. And they certainly don’t need to keep content in the loop.

I know what you’re thinking. The Lab Rats have got a bee in their bonnet and are blowing it up out of all proportion. (Can you blow up a bee? Isn’t that apian cruelty? Ed.)

Okay, the title ‘Content Manager’ is a fairly common one, but Content Managers are very rarely – if ever – at the top of the management food chain. And what about Content Directors? Visit one of the big jobs’ websites, put Content Director in the search engine and see what comes up. See what I mean?

Yet everybody pays lip service to the fact that content is critical. Content is what allows us to engage with and shape the experiences of our customers, prospects and users. Content is what we use to create conversations online. It’s what we use to create usefulness – ‘this is how to buy in our online shop’, ‘this is where you download the form you need’, ‘here’s how this website / email /digital message will enable you to do what it is you want to do’.

But we still treat content as something that just needs to be sliced and spliced. Content is something we control – not something that exerts control in its own right. We ‘chunk it’, ‘cut it’, ‘edit it. We approach content with mental scissors (or buy in scissor expertise to keep content under control).

(The sound you can now hear is a million Content Managers, and one or two Content Directors, hammering at the lab door and baying for my blood. A few of them are waving scissors. This could turn nasty.)

So I need to state here and now that if I ruled the world content would be supreme commander and Grand Poobah in every organisation. When the CEO played golf on Saturday he’d invite content to tee off with him. Content would have dinner with Alan Sugar and Barack Obama regularly. I rate content, okay? Put the scissors down.

Why Content needs a seat on the board

Content and its keepers must be elevated is we are  to truly exert its power to communicate and influence. Those who control it within organisations need to conduct peer to peer conversations at the higest level; not just about its use but its governance, budgets, its strategy and the wider social responsibilities that come with publishing and broadcasting. Particularly when the platform is as powerful as the internet.

The larger and more influential the organisation the more critical that its key content personnel are recruited and deployed at the most senior level. (This should be so for all organisations, not just the farsighted ones.) This is especially pertinent for public sector, goverment and quasi govermental organisations whose brands are also trustmarks for people seeking advice or reassurance. To ensure content is relevant, accurate, up to date (or suitably archived); to ensure is is adequately budgeted for and considered at a strategic level, it needs its own big cheese.

I’ve just joined a Google Group on Content Strategy. At the moment I’m just observing from the corners of the room but I’ve been struck but some of the arguments (and who’s doing the arguing). Serious hitters, every one. For example, Rahel Anne Bailie, Content Strategist / CM Consultant,  Intentional Design Inc, who observes how the customer value proposition may suffer if those developing the content are taken outside their knowledge base and not supported into new skills and knoweldge sets (which is, I think,  increasingly likely to happen as we harness a growing range of socio-adaptive, potentially vetuperative, user-centric platforms).

We need to bring on our content keepers, so that they are mixing on a daily basis with higher management and boardroom echelons. This is the level at which serious strategic skillsets are traded and mashed. Get content into that arena and we are creating (for the future) more rounded senior people who understand content as well as they do a balance sheet. Your current CEO may well have previously been a Director of Finance. Might your future CEO once have been the Director of Content?

Content and what happened with HR

I’m tempted to draw some parallels between Content now and  the position of Human Resources / Human Capital some years back. HR has a much higher profile these days. It reflects the fact that organisations became increasingly aware of both the potential and potential risk that was encapsulated in people. And not just senior people, but the employee driving a van or working the post room. It’s the same with content. It’s very easy to get excited about the content for the ‘big, new website launch’ or the ‘bumper annual report’, while that PDF languishing at the back end of some deserted, 4th level down, sub-page heirarchy, (out of date and poorly worded), still has the ability to bite you on the corporate bum and shame your brand.

So, I’m wondering, could you interpret an organisation’s content maturity, in part, from the seniority of its content keepers? (See my visual musing below: 7 ages of content maturity within orgnisations, with apologies to William Shakespeare.)

The maturation of HR function wasn’t just about watching out for the bad stuff that could happen – unfair dismissal claims, workplace bullying and the like – but also about providing the structure and support that enabled an organisation’s human capital to be the best it could be. HR maturity (and increasingingly senior titles for HR players) brought with it huge leaps forward in terms of equality and diversity, mentoring, workplace learning… Oh the wonder if content was treated and respected in the same way.

7 stages to organisational content maturity

Seamus Walsh of Vazt, also part of the Content Strategy Google Group, sent out the rallying cry ‘Has the time come for a Chief Content Officer?’ at the end of April this year. It was his clarion that prompted me to join the group (that and the very bossy co-founder of CDA). As Walsh put it: “Enterprise content is a corporate asset, yet it is  one of the only assets that is not represented on the executive leader team.    I firmly believe that an ‘enterprise content strategy’, with gap  analysis can help a company be more effective and efficient.  Frankly, I think removing IA role out of IT and moving in into the business in  an executive capacity will do the trick.’

So far there are about 33 messages triggered by Walsh – not all gung ho by a long chalk. One concern is that as debates about roles can quickly become political. The implication being that the thoughtful conversations about content and its management will be dismissed as talk designed to facilitate greasy pole climbing.

Another message that caught my eye was someone saying that they wouldn’t want to go into a job as a Chief Content Officer if the organization didn’t already have high content values. Just appointing someone senior with a fancy title doesn’t change orgnisational structure or culture. What we’re talking about here (well, what I’m talking about here) goes deeper than simply a title.

I believe that senior content appointments could have a profound influence on our industry. After all, it is acknowledged that leadership plays a major role in organisational change. Why shouldn’t content leadership have as important an influence?

Me? I’m holding out for the title of Grand Poobah.

With due credit to the big hitters and the Content Strategy Goggle Group

>> Content Strategy – Google Groups

>> Rahel Anne Bailie, Intentional Design Inc

>> Seamus Walsh, Vazt

The power of metaphor – discuss

candle-cartoon

I was lecturing to a room of health professionals the other week about how to handle vast quantities of information . This is not simply a question of moving and storing the stuff, but getting the right bits of it into the right hands. The health service is awash with data, much of it designed to shore up government aspiration. If you want data to become information, and from there get turned into knoweldge that is used and enthused over, you have to distil and present it in an engaging fashion. That’s why I was discussing metaphors.

I wanted to understand what metaphors this group of bright young health service leaders used when talking about knowledge. Your choice of metaphor (about anything) can say a great deal about how you view what you are talking about. There’s some very interesting research about metaphors, including work done amongst physicists, who were concerned that the traditional metaphors used to describe energy were inhibiting the way students grasped some newer scientific concepts, such as quantum mechanics ( David T. Brookes and Eugenia Etkina ).

In the Netherlands, Daniel G Andriessen, noted how many Western metaphors for knowledge equated it to ‘stuff”. This is pretty sad. Knowledge should be fluid and energic not stuff. But that got me thinking…

When clients approach large digital projects, such as a new website or email programme, they often approach the content as STUFF. This stuff has to be moved around and put into piles. It has to be ‘loaded’. The task itself is daunting. People don’t want to deal with the STUFF. STUFF is boring.

So, what metaphors do you use to describe content? Is it ‘stuff” or is it something more dynamic and fluid. If you’re a provider of digital services, what metaphors are your clients using to describe aspects of a digital project? Listen out for them. They may speak volumes about what sort of client they’re going to be.

Using metaphors online

The other aspect of metaphor I’m currently exploring is the way it can be used in online content.

Some of you are aware that I’m obsessed by the how the human brain engages with content offered via a computer screen, as opposed to traditional print medium. A University of California study, featured in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry last year, found that a simple task like searching the web enhanced brain circuitry in older adults.

Brain scans on volunteers aged between 55 and 76 showed that both searching the web and reading books produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning – but only in those who were experienced web users.

The researchers hypothesised that this was due to the sheer range of choice available online compared with the pages of a book and that users developed these skills over time. I don’t know about you, but stuff like that makes my skin prickle.

I also believe that the sheer visuality of the medium engages the brain in different ways, triggering skills that we first developed when drawing in charcoal on cave walls, or carving ornate pictograms inside temples and tombs.

Is metaphor the chimera that straddles both language and image?

Our general advice to clients is keep web copy simple. Avoid the clever and be very cautious of the humorous. People on the web are seeking knoweldge at speed and have no time to decode your wit.

But can the right metaphor enhance the speed at which a web users grasps a point? Could it give them a fast visual cue and trigger the parts of the brain your words cannot reach?

Me? I haven’t made my mind up yet. But it’s worth giving some brain time to.

Reply-focussed communication

Good website communication hinges on the information flowing from the right initiation point.

Just set aside transaction communications – ‘Your sofa is now in stock’ – for a moment. Nearly all marketing and business messaging was, traditionally, company initiated. A new product launch or brochure, a seasonal sale, a press release or case study… An organisation has something to say and sends out its message. This is the traditional initiation point for brand communication. It also assumed that the recipient wanted to receive the communication in question.

But website communication turns this on its head. It is customer initiated. People (punters, customers, web users) set out online ‘to do’ something – book a holiday, buy a book, donate to charity, acquire knowledge. We mention the latter 2 as the term customer initiated communication applies just as much to those not looking to buy something.

By its very nature, this type of communication requires a different treatment. It must be reply-focussed. Imagine sitting down to eat with a group of people and asking the person on your left to ‘pass the salt’. You expect them to reply, even if the reply is less than helpful: ‘Sorry, I have short arms and can’t reach it.’ You don’t expect them to say: ‘I have a labrador called Bert’ or ‘My girlfriend is in Dubai’. Communication is only satisfactory when it follows a logical sequence. (Rap lyrics not withstanding.)

‘Aah’, I hear you say, ‘how do I know what the customer has said, so we can make the right reply?’

Well, just by asking that question you’ve passed Reply-focussed communication Elementary grade 1. Simply asking it enables you to view what you’re saying online – and how you say it – from a more helpful perspective. Add to that what you know about your customers through data and journey tracking, and your on your way.

Email can be company initiated, but even with email you can’t just use a traditional offline approach. But that’s another post.