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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 With a bit of luck all the prep work will be out of date and useless.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?

Information entropy – ah, hmmm, huh?

A friend of mine recently reviewed a book chapter for me, in which I examined what lies behind the concept of information overload. She asked why I’d chosen not to touch on information entropy. My answer was simple and somewhere along the lines of: “Duh?”

In the physics lab “entropy” is used to described certain states in thermodynamics. I’m no physicist, so bear with me on this one; the lab rats have been doing their best to explain things to me. So, in lay terms, entropy is used to describe

  1. Energy that is no longer available (an example of this would be a car where the brakes have been applied and where energy has been lost in road friction / heat).
  2. The amount of disorder or randomness in a system. Gas, as it whooshes about, being more random / disordered than a solid. (Or a group of adults who get up from the dinner table on New Year’s Eve and start dancing to Jeff Beck and Hi Ho Silver Lining being more random than the same group when sitting and eating.)

Okay, that’s the end of Thermodynamics 101.

But there’s also Information Entropy. This is very different but you need to know about the physics one  (entropy as the second law of thermodynamics) so you can ignore it completely (for the time being).

Anyway, you can trace Information Entropy back to the 1940s and Claude.E.Shannon (1916-2001), known as the father of modern digital communications and information theory and his paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1948, Bell System Technical Journal), which looked at the engineering challenges involved in getting a message from one point to another.

The information content of a message, he theorized, could be reduced to the number of ’1′s and ’0′s it took to transmit it. This idea was gradually adopted by communications engineers and stimulated the technology which led to the binary language that underpins the digital information age. Shannon also coined the term “bit” for a binary digit.

Shannon Entropy, sits within Information Theory, the mathematical discipline that looks at how information is stored, transmitted and reproduced. It measures it, accounting for the possible variables eg a flipping a coin (2 sides) will have less entropy than rolling a dice (6 sides). While Shannon Entropy is strictly applied to the the minimum amount of binary code required to transmit a message from A to B it is also being deployed by non-mathematicians as a way of showing how much information is unequivocally captured within a message (its meaning to the recipient). Shannon himself didn’t get sidetracked by the semantic value (language comprehension and connotation) in the message, just the engineering challenge of transmitting it from A to B intact. In fact, the application of entropy to wider semantic issues of meaning hacked Shannon off quite a bit, apparently.

Time for a joke I think…

Back in the days before email. Way, way, back. People used to send messages via telegram. Such communications were expensive and often charged by the word, so people became very economic with their phraseology. This was particularly evident among professionals who used telegrams regularly – ie journalists.

Back in the 1960s a journalist sent a telegram to the home of veteran Hollywood star Cary Grant. It was a simple question, in theory, designed to establish the actor’s exact age. The telegram read: “How old Cary Grant.” The reply that came back was: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”  The joke, I believe, establishes the potential difference between the minimum character / bit count for information delivery and minimum required for accurate message comprehension / connotation. It would have been worth paying for the “is”.

You can also argue, well, I do, that the journalist was also applying data compression – the minimum number of words / bits required to convey the information. They fact that the journo failed shouldn’t prevent us acknowledging that they tried. You can also argue, well, I do, that the problem wasn’t the data compression but in its decompression by Cary Grant and what was probably a very knowing attempt to sidestep the sensitive subject of age.

Data compression is useful because it reduces space in information transmission and storage. But, at a language and messaging comprehension and connotation level, we ‘re also trying to apply reduction (compression) techniques so that we can dispense meaning the the minimum space / time possible. On one level this may be a practical desire to reduce issues around “information overload” but that doesn’t explain the phenomenal success of Twitter where the 140 character limit is almost winsome. Data compression at a semantic level is becoming more important if we believe that one key to resolving information overload is to reduce the amount of information people have to deal with. I have an alternative view about this which relates to how we feel about information and this was the subject of a recent survey on this blog. But I’ll save that for another day.

Okay – back into the physics lab

You remember I told you to forget all about the second law of thermodynamics for a bit? Now’s the time to start thinking about it again. What happened with Information Entropy was actually a bit of a hijack. The mathematicians kinda stole the word entropy and messed with it’s meaning a bit, on the basis that most of the population wouldn’t notice or understand. But there are aspects of thermodynamic entropy that are interestingly applicable for information and how it becomes more random / disordered as changes take place. In thermodynamics the classic example involves the ordered structure of sugar crystals compared with the disordered / random nature of sugar dissolved in water.

If you think about information and how it changes, it’s remarkably like the sugar dissolved in water. Over time, different bits of information get de-structured and mixed with other bits. It can become impossible to disentangle this information and restore it to the order of its original components. Looked at one way, this could result in knowledge. High quality information brought together, some bits lost / discarded along the way, but resulting in something different but useful. (It’s also entirely possible that there is a negative outcome possible where poor information is brought together resulting in dissatisfaction and misinformation.)

This makes for a slightly more refined version of the basic knowledge pyramid, which CDA used as the starting point for its Hierarchy of Mutuality and which is loosely modelled on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs*.

* Maslow argued that human beings required basic needs to be met in a hierarchy before they were free to realise themselves creatively and intellectually.

Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs

Knowledge Pyramid

» CDA’s Heirarchy of Mutuality

The question is, where are we going with all this? CDA is currently actively engage in development measurement systems for online engagement. We believe that these have to be a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data to be truly meaningful and that there comes a point where you have to park interpretation of the metrics; dwell times, page views, bounce rates and simply ask “How was it for you?”

Contribute to the debate

I’m currently working on a second part to the article above which will also cover The Triangle of Truth (thanks Clodagh). I’d been interested in any feedback on the argument so far.

» Email me at the lab cdacontentlab@webwordsworking.co.uk

Is it time to go viral?

Viral campaigns have been front of mind for me recently. I’ve suddenly been struck by how a great idea isn’t always the right idea. There may be a profound difference between what works as a viral campaign and what works for you as a brand / business / organisation – ie the audience that is most likely to engage with a viral and, most importantly, pass it on, aren’t necessarily the ones who are going buy what you sell. And… under those circumstances, is a viral still worth doing and why?

Take the 2001 ‘Proof’ campaign starring Kylie Minogue and which was considered too raunchy for the cinema audiences for whom it was conceived. It’s had more that 350 million hits on YouTube since then.

While conceived as a cinema ad it has proved itself extraordinarily viral. The question is – how many people who’ve watched this on YouTube (and it has now been named the best celebrity viral ad of the decade by online content distributor GoViral) are now wearing Agent Provocateur undies?

I understand that a lot of chaps may have rushed out and bought undies for the women in their lives (one or two may have bought velvet upholstered bucking broncos as well) but is that good enough, given how much a viral campaign of this type costs to create?

Remember, I’m just asking questions at this stage. I’m hoping you’ll have at least some of the answers. The most I’m going to offer up later in this article is opinions.

Okay, now let’s take a look at one of my personal favourites…

These sheep crack me up. There is no day of chaos in the office that cannot be improved by spending a few moments rewatching this one. But the truth is that no matter how many times I look at it I do not feel moved to go out and buy a Samsung LED TV.

According to its creators, the:viral:factory, it has featured on Sky, ITV, ABC, The Sun newspaper and The New York Times… But while demand for LED TVs is set to grow to around 90 million units by 2013 (39% of the total market), Sharp seem to be taking the high ground – in the UK at least. They’re on track to sell around 2 million LED TVs in 2009 and predict a massive 10 million sales in 2010. » Source

With no electric sheep in sight, Sharp are selling successfully. But that doesn’t mean they’re sitting back with their feet up.

As early as July 2008 Sharp  was encouraging younger Hong Kong office workers to send viral messages to their friends through a mini site, ‘Where’s my pixie’, promoting its Aquos TV range. They’d targeted this segment (25-35) because they were predisposed to go online and research prior to making a purchase. The characters in the viral were designed to demonstrate picture quality. And as far back as September 2007 Bob Scaglione, Sharp Consumer Electronics Marketing Group senior VP, announced the launch of its “most aggressive advertising and brand campaign in our history”. Earlier this year Sharp launched (and aggressively advertised) an new generation of Aquos TVs, replacing more expensive models.

Here comes the opinion…

Virals are like diets. Every now and again one comes along that catches the public’s attention and seems to get results. But the fact is that the only true way to lose weight is to burn more calories and consume less calories. A stonking good diet, when it forms part of an overall health and fitness regime (squeezing off that extra 5lbs before Christmas, say), may well make a difference. Used on its own… chances are any benefits will be transitory.

So, what should you ask yourself before getting stuck into a viral campaign?

1. Is it enough to create on simply ‘get the word out’?

2. What succes criteria should you / can you attach to it?

3. Where is the budget coming from (are you paying Peter with Paul’s stash and are other marketing initiatives likely to suffer)?

4. And where does you viral sit both practically and strategically when you look across your entire marketing landscape? (This can include blogging about the viral – so make sure everybody’s out of their silos.)

If the strategic and brand accord is that there’s room in the mix for a good viral – you don’t need Kylie writhing on plum plush to be successful.

A viral can be a picture (including a discount voucher), a simple game, an email, or even a phone message.

Irish internet and phone company Perlico created a ‘quack’ viral. If you rang the company you were given this amongst your options: “Press three to hear a duck quack.” Through word-of-mouth and email, the company received 70,000 extra calls in the campaign’s first three days and added what the company described as “a significant number of new customers”.

Don’t park your brain

It’s all very exciting, but the most important thing at this stage is sanity checking your creative juices using people who are outside the campaign team. I suspect this didn’t happen with the » Burger King Angry-gram

You also need to decide if the target for the viral is the direct target for your business or if the aim some form of ripple influence where the viral recipient influences your ultimate customer group? An example of that approach is »L’Oreal’s ‘Every mum is worth it campaign’ from March this year

You need to be prepared for a number of things, including the viral element becoming dissociated from you and your brand and taking on a life of its own. If you (or your CEO) find loss of control unacceptable – maybe viral isn’t for you.

The other thing you really have to understand is why people share things and accept things from people they don’t necessarily know that well – and not just as this applies to the internet (quaint word, but I still love it).

People do things because they make sense at the time. Online is also disinhibiting, so people will share (and accept) things, including links to raunchy Kylie videos, which they might baulk at sharing face-to-face. So the reason to share a viral must be clear. Its humour must be instant and universal and any essential usefulness immediately obvious.

And Christmas is a great time of year for a viral. Which reminds of the music channel that created a viral of a boy unwrapping a Christmas present. It was a light sabre which he wielded with gay abandon – until he cut grandma’s head off. Ho, ho, ho – or no. no, no? You decide.

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?

personality-montageweb

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

Are you a warden or a prisoner online?

stanford cartoon

The Stanford Prison Experiment looked at what happened psychologically when you placed some people in positions of power and other’s in positions of vulnerability (wardens and prisoners). Irrespective of their previous internal moral ‘clock’ – how would they behave?

The simulation carried out by Stanford University in the summer of 1971 was ended prematurely because of the impact it had on its university participants. Those students who were given the role of prison guards showed themselves capable of brutality. The students consigned to prisoner roles became stressed and depressed (as if their confinement were real).

Stanford, and the earlier Milgram experiment conducted at Yale University, opened up interesting questions, not just about the deeper, darker side of human nature but how we behave when we assume a role, or are put into a certain situation. As psychology professor Phil Zimbardo, who led the Stanford research team, puts it: “Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behaviour, more so that we recognize or acknowledge.”

Okay, now the digital communication segue…

While I’m not suggesting that digital content ‘controllers’ will ever resort to beatings and electric shocks, there is often a divide between those who police the content and those who do not. These schisms can exist between online content commissioners / editors and content producers / authors. Or between active members of the content team and ‘the rest’. The rest being anybody in an organisation that doesn’t take an active role in web, email, digital messaging strategy, development and delivery. It can also exist between on and offline teams (marketing, editorial, brand…).

The Stanford experiment didn’t end prematurely because the research team had learnt everything there was to know, but because they became alarmed at how quickly the abuse of roles and situations occurred.

So in any situation where there is authority and lack of authority there is the opportunity for abuse.

I can’t make over entire organisational hierarchies on the basis of the above premise, but I can suggest discreet changes to the way online content oligarchies are handled. That may seem a small change but just think about the influence your online content has on your brand and therefore on how wider audiences perceive your organisation. Plus online is relatively young and still relatively fluid. In-house content processes are not set in stone. Change them while you still can.

Where to start?

Who are the content controllers and what power do they have? A healthy content process has checks and balances in place reflecting different content steers. This shouldn’t be a cumbersome process but a light matrix approach to ensure that core organisational values, the needs of marketing and sales, corporate information, plus the rigours of online execution and presentation are held in balance.

When changes are made to online process and / or presentation – a new website, extensions to email campaigns etc – who is consulted (and who isn’t)? It’s hard for people to be all fired up about the company website if the only time they’re consulted about it is retrospectively: “Oh, the new website launches in 3 weeks. We need your new page content ASAP. Did you not get the email?)

How do you regularly test the water in terms of existing content processes and how they are viewed internally? Zimbardo points out that at some stage there is a shift from what’s reasonable to what isn’t. How would you know if this shift happened within your organisation’s digital content process?

If existing online content processes and manifestations aren’t working, do people (outside any content claque) feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t working’ or ‘our new website is rubbish’? If the emperor is in the buff you need to know quickly. Online is everybody’s business.

Checks and balances

A qualitative content audit can throw up weaknesses is existing systems. It needs to be carried out by an external team (but this could involve different departments or areas of online activity critiquing each other’s work).

Content should be reviewed against organisational values and Tone of Voice, online ambition and audiences. You may want to read an earlier post on personas (I’ve popped the link at the bottom of this post). I’ll work up a personality for any site I’m reviewing (as if it was a flesh and blood member of the team). If your website sat at the next desk, would you share your sandwiches with it?

I also came up with this acronym. I think you should be answering ‘yes’ to 6 out of 9 points.

1. Can a wide range of people within your organisation suggest a digital change and / or refinement and know someone will take notice?

2. Have they got a clear idea about who to approach if something isn’t working right – broken website links, poorly coded emails, spelling mistakes online… (or know where to find out)?

3. Are new digital projects only embarked upon after a well-rounded opinion-seeking process and shared collective understanding?

4. Little digital errors (page not found, spelling errors, broken links…) rarely happen.

5. Large digital errors (website down, email campaigns producing little or no response…) rarely happen.

6. Everyone takes an interest in what rour company is doing digitally, even if they’re not actively involved.

7. No faction, department, skillset, business unit, or organisational activity feels excluded (frozen out).

8. Guards need walls. Are the processes and decisions made about how your brand is communicated online done in clear view?

9. Eyes (2), ears (2) mouth (1). Is your organisation watching and listening to what’s been done and said online rather than simply talking about it. You should watch and listen more than you speak.

Internal link

>> More about personas

>> The 7 ages of content maturity table (towards the end of this post)

Find out more about the Stanford and Milgram experiments (I’ll open these links in a new window):

>> Stanford Prison experiment website

>> The Stanley Milgram Experiment