Archive | January, 2011

The Misplaced SEO-Content Strategy Fight

I’ve been working on content strategy and management for a good long time, so I’ve had my rounds with disreputable SEO practitioners. In the early 2000s, there were a LOT of snake oil salesmen out there. I could tell you some crazy stories, but we all love to sit around and grouse about the other guy.

To be clear: I think reputable SEO practitioners today contribute significantly to the web.

For some reason, the past few days have been the content strategy vs. SEO throwdown of the century. There are posts popping up all over. I’ve got my favorites, but there are some for all sides….whether you fall on the SEO or content strategy side of the fence.

But I’d argue we all ought to spend more time worrying about the problems created by spam content by Demand Media and similar companies. That’s a much bigger problem for legitimate SEO and content strategy practitioners. When the internet is overflowing with junk, that makes it far more difficult to share real knowledge, no matter which side of the fence you’re sitting on.

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You can’t speak in your own voice if you don’t know what you want to say

Authenticity matters a lot these days. I think it matters a lot more online than it did even 10 years ago. In a world where celebrities can get their Twitter accounts verified, people are willing to pay more for the real thing. It’s so easy to spoof — to pretend to be someone you’re not.

I’ve run a neighborhood email list for more than a decade now. Back when it started, we were in a different world, technologically. But from the perspective of my email list, not a lot has changed. People who are interested in what’s going on in East Nashville subscribe to my list. They decide if they want to read the list online, or if they want a digest email or to receive each email individually. I help people with problems with their passwords, and I try to keep the shouting to a dull roar.

It may surprise you, but the volume of crazy on my list of 5000+ neighbors isn’t that different from the days when I had 300 subscribers. There are some network effects there, things that react in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. One situation that drives most regular list members nuts is when an anonymous [a not-my-real-name member] posts something rude. And they always want me to “do something” about it.

From the cost-benefit perspective, it’s an easy answer. I’m volunteering my time to manage the list, and this doesn’t happen all that often, and plenty of polite members of the list are anonymous as well. So I’m not going to require some name verification process to join or post to the list.

But I do see the positive results of authenticity there, on a daily basis. People who are willing to put their names to their words benefit, especially when they share valuable information.

There are a number of parallels between this free neighborhood email list and the online communities I’ve helped clients manage over the years. And the authenticity rule is a clear parallel.

People who speak with a real voice — and even better, who put employee faces and names to the company brand — are rewarded with trust and loyalty. Too many companies are still hiding behind an anonymous brand identity, with an anonymous voice. I think there’s a variety of reasons you see companies doing this, among them:

  • They’re scared of losing control of the message.
  • They’re scared of their employees developing a following — thinking it will be detrimental to their brand equity.
  • They haven’t figured out how to represent their organization’s personality online in one-on-one customer communications.
  • They don’t actually have a plan about engaging their customers anyway.

Those are fixable problems, if you’ve got the will to fix them. Be for real online. It matters, and you’ll be rewarded for it.

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What I do all day

I get asked a lot what I do on a daily basis. Even other people who’ve been working in digital media for a while haven’t always worked with a content strategist. I’ve read several good descriptions of content strategy in the past couple of years, from how-to book-length versions to great blog posts to Google knols. I thought it would be nice to have my own answer as a reference point for the many times I’m asked about content strategy.

On a strategic level:
We map a path to fulfill our clients’ business goals via their web content.

On a tactical level:
We create, source, publish, manage and maintain our clients’ content.

What that means:
We work with audio, video and text — or any other format that “content” can take. We might write the help section of a website or the user manual for software, or a million little tooltips that show up on a website. We might analyze the content to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. We might manage the creation of video or audio files. We might figure out what kind of content will serve our clients’ and their customers’ needs. We might take hundred-page-long PDFs and re-format them into lean, useful web pages. We might select the systems to be used to manage content, permissions and workflows. We might design the taxonomy and metadata systems to minimize the manual effort required for content management. We might optimize a balky content management system. We might inventory the content to figure out what’s even there, how old it is and where the heck it came from. We might figure out what has to go to legal and what can be OKed by the marketing department alone. We might write a style guide for the site. We might find vendors who can license their content to our clients.

I’m tempted to go on, but I’ll stop now.

Bottom line:
We’re far more than web writers or editors. We design and implement the systems that make your content work for you. It’s a long-ignored need in much of the industry, but we’re really excited to see how much the marketing, product development and communications worlds are realizing that content strategy makes their lives easier.

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Online privacy reminder: You don’t have much

This quick read from the New York Times is a great reminder that your seemingly private online information isn’t all that private. While law enforcement can obtain a search warrant for even your home or business with probable cause [meaning there’s reason to suspect there’s evidence related to a crime], it’s apparently not all that difficult for it to subpoena [different from a search warrant] vast amounts of your online information, like email, social network account information and other online records.

I’m NOT a lawyer, but subpoenas and search warrants both require contact with a judge/judicial authority, to my understanding. But given continued evidence at how these tools are being used by law enforcement in some recent high-profile cases, it seems to me that even information like your search history could be easily obtained and used against you in court.

Just imagine the line of questioning as the D.A. reads out your list of search terms related to WikiLeaks, Al Qaeda and terrorism. Ever go back and look at your search history? If you’re a heavy computer user, out of context, your search history probably makes you sound crazy, dangerous or both. I tend to look up any term or concept I hear about in the news, just to see the other information available on the topic. This is the kind of information — our stream-of-thought — that has been previously unavailable to law enforcement. And in a culture that breeds fear, I don’t want to have to answer for my search terms to a jury. Do you?

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I need a sharable calendar with tags

Dear programmers of the world,

Here’s a problem that seems to need solving*. Please, my friends and I beg of you, please help.

My employees and I use Google Calendar. It’s great, because it integrates with Tungle.me and iCal and our phones and everything else we want to use to view calendars. Each of us has her own calendar, so we can see when someone’s out of the office, who’s in a meeting, whatever.

My family and I also use Google Calendar. I have a personal calendar category that’s separate from my work calendar, and my husband has a calendar, and my kids do. We have extra calendars for things like family birthdays that we all want to subscribe to.

About 75% of the time, this is a great solution for us. But frequently, I run into events that need to be in two places — a personal event happening during the work day, so my employees need to know I’ll be out of pocket over lunch — or a work event that runs into the evening, and my husband needs a reminder that I won’t be picking up the kids.

My taxonomic nature wants to throw a tag on that — anything I tag with “AshbyView,” say, should show up on my husband’s version of my calendar, or if I tag it “WorkView” then my employees ought to be able to see my personal event.

I cannot find that this is possible. And yet it seems SO possible.

So, dear programming friends, either tell me that I’m an idiot and to get XYZ Calendar Solution, or take this brilliant idea and let me know when it’s ready. There are families out there that would pay for this kind of information flexibility and accessibility.

*Should I be mistaken about this point — should you know of a web-based, cheap calendar that is easily sharable, exportable, on the iCalendar format and uses tags, please let me know!

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Quora: Lessons in community development

My trial-by-fire in online community management came just over 10 years ago, when we launched SmallBusiness.com. I’ve thought about that experience a lot in the past few weeks, as Quora has exploded among the tech community. [Find me on Quora here.]

When we were preparing for the real launch of SmallBusiness.com, we spent weeks scouring web forums for people who were talking about small business online. There were lots and lots of them…but there weren’t easy ways to find, organize or communicate with them. So we found most of the people we invited to beta test our site by hand, searching one by one through web forums.

Long before CAN-SPAM or marketing protocols, we were very careful about how we approached prospective testers, because we were long-time web users, even then. We knew that all communities have their own etiquette and customs, and to violate those is to risk death.

At the same time, we spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to seed the community with content so there’d be SOMETHING there when the first beta testers logged in. It was important to us to be transparent — to be real about who we were, but still to provide value to our soon-to-be customers.

And so it is difficult in some ways for me to watch the birth of Quora, because I feel a lot of it in a personal way. The people complaining on Twitter about getting dozens of emails in an hour when all their friends join. [Oh, for there to have been Twitter when we launched SmallBusiness.com!] The people wandering around saying, “What’s the point of all this? I can’t find anything on there!” And the endless critiques of its design and usability.

Welcome to website launching, 2011-style.

The really interesting part to me is the question-and-answer format, though, because SmallBusiness.com was also a question-and-answer site. It worked a little differently from Quora, but the similarities are many.  [It’s no longer the same format — SmallBusiness.com lives on today as a great wiki for small business owners, managed by “head helper” Rex Hammock.]

What I wonder now, and I don’t remember wondering 10 years ago, is whether the literal format of Q-and-A is really the best way to answer questions.

That may sound silly on the face of it, but much of what many of us are doing online is trying to both ask and answer questions. And now, after almost 20 years of working on the format of information, we’re still offering the questions and answers literally.

I’m cheered by the increasing discussions about structured content and the semantic web. But the depth of structure truly available remains small, compared to what we need. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not sneezing on the vast amounts of location information we’re using now, for instance. Or XML. But most of the value on the web is really still locked in text.

“Locked in” sounds funny when you consider how much you can find with your favorite search engine. But what you can’t do with much of the information is re-purpose it easily.

Quora doesn’t advance us down that road, but I’ll be curious to see how it fares, both as an information source and as a community.

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Get mobile, like yesterday

[This blog post reads like the unsolicited plug that it is.]

I absolutely love when I go to a presentation or seminar expecting to have a good time, or network, and I also come back to the computer lots smarter than when I left. I should have known that would happen today, because I knew I was going to hear Tim Moses of Sitemason talk about mobile apps. But still, he got me.

Tim Moses and a bunch of other guys I went to college with started Telalink, one of the first ISPs in Nashville, back in the mid-1990s. They sold it 11 years ago, and most of those guys have gone on to continue to do really interesting things with technology. Telalink’s impact on technology and entrepreneurship in Nashville cannot be overstated — there are an army of programmers, network guys and innovators who came through the doors of Telalink in its few short years as a company.

After Telalink, Tim and Thomas Conner went on to start Sitemason. Sitemason is a great content management system for many mid-size websites. It has a lot of functionality that honestly, you’d expect to pay a lot more for. One of the things they have focused heavily on is mobile compatibility — and not just mobile browsing, but mobile apps. One of the neat things about Sitemason is that your content management system can power your iPhone app as well as your website, bringing apps into reach for many companies.

So at today’s Nashville AMA luncheon, Tim talked about the dramatic changes in the mobile market in the past 3 1/2 years, since the iPhone was introduced. When you think about how many people with plain-old cell phones have 2-year contracts in the U.S., and then you realize we haven’t even been through 2 complete contract renewal cycles since the iPhone came out [and far less since the Android platform was introduced], the market penetration of modern smartphones is astounding, and it’s only going to grow.

If you have any doubts about how critical your organization’s mobile strategy is, please give Tim a call. I suspect he’ll be very nice, but he doesn’t leave any doubt in my mind about how badly marketers in particular need to get mobile in their sights.

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Where I’m going in 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months learning about additional conferences in my field — seminars related to content strategy, information architecture and management, and related fields like web entrepreneurship, user experience and social media.

In 2011, I’m definitely attending SXSW Interactive and GEL. SXSWi is not really an optional conference if you’re in the web industry, but it has the wonderful benefits of being educational, a great networking event and held in Austin in March. I’m just mad at myself that I missed the deadline to propose a panel last summer. Must plan my vacation better this year.

I attended GEL [Good Experience Live] in 2005 or so, and to this day, it’s one of the most inspiring business events I’ve ever attended. So I’m delighted to be able to return this year. As I’ve noted here before, Mark Hurst is one of my web heroes, and the positive, engaging spirit of his work infects his annual conference. No matter your field, you cannot help but go home from GEL smarter, with great contacts and energized to do fabulous work.

I’ve heard that SOBcon is not to be missed from Alli Worthington and Becky McCray both [some real web giants themselves], so I’ll check it out in 2012. [It conflicts with GEL this year.]

All of a sudden, there’s a whole raft of content strategy and information architecture conferences. And throw in stuff related to health care information management [a topic I touch on more and more in my work, and that I’m incredibly interested in personally], and I feel like I could spend half my time at conferences.

What are your favorites? What would I be a fool to miss in 2011?

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15 things we need to stop doing in 2011

What a great list of things to stop doing and thinking from Chris Koch. Here’s my favorite, though there are several good points here. In 2011, we need to stop believing things like:

Filtered conversation reduces risk. The ultimate risk in business is that your customers stop buying from you because they don’t trust you. Preventing employees from speaking to customers because they might make a mistake ignores this much bigger risk—which existed long before social media came along. Customers want to speak to the people they will be working with. That’s why employees and subject matter experts should be on the front lines of social media rather than marketers or PR people.

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