Required reading: You’re using research wrong

Let me start by saying, My mama raised me right. It just didn’t fully take.

And so I have disrupted more than one meeting with some — shall we say — unpopular assertions about the role of research in marketing and product development. I’m almost always polite*, yet I can’t let pass the opportunity to share my view that research results do not constitute a message from Your Favorite Higher Being Here.

After New Coke, I’m not sure why anyone has to explain this again. There are emotional and group-think elements to human response, and these are difficult to measure with standard business research techniques.

I won’t go on: I’ll just direct you to Ben McAllister‘s great piece in The Atlantic on the dangers of using research to make creative decisions. He agrees there’s an appropriate role for research, but argues that it’s dangerous to assign scientific weight to information that should be viewed as an indicator only.

Thanks to Randall Snare and Jonathan Kahn for linking to this piece and thereby bringing it to my attention.

*About this topic, anyway. No comment about my embarrassing reactions to poor retail customer service.

Nashville content strategy meetup: Don’t miss this in June

We had another great gathering last night at the Nashville Content Strategy Meetup. We talked about Confab, user experience, business strategy, the paleo diet and the Roman Empire.

Mark your calendar now for Thursday, June 9, 5:30p.

Announcement on the place will happen in the next few days on the Nashville Content Strategy Meetup group and Nashville Content Strategy Facebook group.

Confab 2011 Wrapup: I Find My People

There are some great workshops going on tomorrow at Confab, but I can’t stay for them. So I thought I’d wrap up here with a few final thoughts on this great first-time conference on content strategy.

  • Agreed with Kristina Halvorson and others that the conversation ongoing about content strategy is really useful. It’s not navel-gazing; there’s a lot of definition still to be done in our discipline. So I’m patient with some of the long-form talk and the Twitter chatter; it’s making us who we are.
  • Really liking Melissa Rach‘s perspective on content strategy. I think there’s still a lot of nuance to be hashed out here, as well. Part of this is about defining the discipline; we are related to user experience, analytics, information architecture, marketing, product development and more. The perspective you work from is going to inform your own definition of content strategy.
  • Really hating Twitter today. It’s been performing poorly for at least 8 hours now, and while the conference backchannel isn’t a national security issue, it makes it hard to talk when this is the channel I’ve grown to depend on for much of my professional communication.
  • The people at Brain Traffic and the UIE staff involved in Confab know what the hell they’re doing. I have been to a whole lotta conferences, and this one rises way above the rest on sheer logistics alone.
  • And then there’s the content. Let’s just agree on the front end that I’m square in the middle of the target audience for this conference. But the content was great, with few uneven sessions. If you care about content, if you have to deal with content, if you don’t know what the heck to do with your content, sign up to attend Confab 2012.
  • Perhaps the best part for me was the people. I got to meet many, many people who’ve just been avatars to me for so long, and it was wonderful to shake their hands and even hug them in person. There’s a lot of smart thinking about content happening around the world, and I’m delighted to get to know so many people working on it.

Here are my notes from the sessions I attended:

Steve Rosenbaum: Curation: Beyond the Buzzword
Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare: How to Create a Data-Driven Content Strategy
Angela Colter: Testing Content
Ahava Leibtag and Aaron Watkins: Johns Hopkins Testing Content
Ann Handley: Keynote
Jeff Cram: Learning to Love Your CMS
Christine Perfetti: Essential Techniques for Measuring Your Content’s Success
Rachel Lovinger: Make Your Content Nimble

Launching another salvo in the content strategy-UX war

Update, 8p: I’ve just heard from Melissa Rach about the context that Twitter can’t provide. It’s some great info and I’ll share it here.

From Melissa:

I really appreciate you letting me know about this blog. I wasn’t able to get on Twitter all day (computer meltdown), but I was told that the quote was taken out of context. What I actually said, is pretty much what you say in the second-to-last paragraph of the blog (I agree wholeheartedly). I also agree [with] you that [it] is part of our job to make sure the organization knows what the user wants (that was in a different part of the presentation.)

My definition of content strategy is something along the lines of “helping organizations use content to achieve their business goals.”  And, it’s true, I intentionally leave “users” out of that statement. But, I do that for several reasons:

1. (most importantly) — serving the user should be one of the business goals we are trying to achieve. If the organization isn’t committed to an overall relationship with the user, the content will not be supported and have a difficult time being successful. (It’s a battle we can’t win).

2. A really great content strategy is the combination of three things: user perspectives, business perspectives, and content “best practices.” However, during strategy work, if you say the business perspective and the user perspective have exactly the same weight — in my experience, you get businesses creating types and quantities of content they can not maintain, which is not good for the user or the business. So, we need to say “here’s what the user wants” and temper that with “this is what we can handle right now.”

3. Some organizations get really limited by the user research — they can’t innovate beyond what the users specifically asked for. As, the old saying goes, if you asked people in 1900 about transportation needs, they would have said “faster horses” not “automobiles” — because they didn’t know those things were possible. So, as a strategist, we need to help companies have room to innovate in order to improve the overall user experience even more than users could imagine.

So, actually, I think we’re pretty aligned — and I would appreciate it if you would amend the post to say so.

P.s. There are actually examples of enormously successful (but of somewhat unethical) content strategies that actually do exactly the opposite of the what is in the users’ best interest. Not something I would advocate, but interesting to read about. The IBM FUD example is an interesting one:,_uncertainty_and_doubt

I’m going to leave the original since Melissa refers to it, and because I DO see people using the business-only perspective.

Original: It’s been a long time since my mouth fell open at something I heard at a conference, but it happened to me today. I want to say that the unfortunate part is, it happened at a session I wasn’t in. So from the outset, perhaps I’ll get corrected or someone can clarify that the tweet I read was completely out of content….but I asked about that and got more context, and my mouth was still open.

Earlier this year, Erin Kissane wrote a broad post on the Brain Traffic blog talking about where content strategy fits in the web strategy landscape. I largely agree with her post. [Following is the part that no longer applies:], but I can’t agree with a comment from her colleague Melissa Rach that was tweeted today. [But this part still does!] I’ll say first, I momentarily met Rach Sunday night and she seems lovely, and by all accounts, her presentation on strategy today was one of the highlights of Confab. I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are the two tweets that rearranged my face [See context above!]:

@CSApplied2012 As a strategist I’m here to help the business achieve their goals – user isn’t in my definition @melissarach #confab

@CSApplied2012 Content strategists serve the business and through the business we serve the user @Melissarach #confab

It may just be that I approach my work from a different perspective. But to me, in my work, the user experience is primary. If the business goal isn’t aligned with user goals, you aren’t going to succeed. And the business perspective is fine, as long as the business actually understands its users. But I find that many, many organizations do not even bother to ask their current customers what they need. They just assume they know.

So I think the first job of any successful content strategist has to remain helping a business figure out what its customer actually needs. We have to be user-focused first, or we can’t help the business in the end.

Confab | Christine Perfetti: Essential Techniques for Measuring Your Content’s Success

Christine Perfetti is talking about how to test and measure your content.

So important: Web analytics tell you WHAT is happening. They do not tell you WHY.

Perfetti is showing really horrifying and totally believable tests….

  • People who got all the way through reserving a room at Disneyland…who wanted a room at Disneyworld.
  • People who were thrilled with the hotel reservation form for another hotel…until they got to the end and discovered it didn’t work the way it appeared, and they didn’t have a reservation set up after all.

Both these examples just make my stomach hurt.

Perfetti’s recommendations on usability testing

Oh, love this: Perfetti just has observes in the room. She says, People know there is someone behind your one-way mirror. Better just to have them in the room and don’t be sneaky. Intros people by first name only, not title. Prefers that observers use paper and pen so as not to have distraction of typing.

Perfetti’s recommended books on usability testing

What you should look for in a test

  • Users going to the FAQ: People aren’t getting what they want
  • Users clicking on Help
  • Users going to a sitemap
  • Users clicking the back button: They’re not seeing what they want
  • Pogosticking: Going back and forth on a list of links, looking for something they never find
  • Going straight to search: People don’t want to search. They haven’t seen their trigger words, so they type them in.

So now we’re going into advanced techniques specifically for content.

5-Second Test: Bring up a page for literally 5 seconds, see if people can figure out how to solve a problem you give them. We’re doing one here about uploading photos…does it seem it will be quick and easy to do? Perfetti shows a page full of text from Photobucket…the room laughs. Is anyone confident they can upload photos? No one.

Now we see 5 seconds of Picasa. This was also text heavy, but also had a big blue button that said, Get Started. Now we’ve seen a Flickr page. It showed a visual representation of the process. Most people agree this is the one that makes it look quick and easy to upload photos. will let you test pages on their site. Perfetti warns: 5-second tests work “very, very poorly” for home pages — these pages have many priority. Use these on content pages or other single-purpose pages.

Great point: People want to spend all their time testing their home page. This is not usually a good use of time. They want to find the page that is useful to them. Test whether your home page directs people to the content they want, but test the effectiveness of your other pages.

First-click test: Give users a specific task, and see where they click first. Are they headed down the wrong path?

Love this: Users don’t like to choose their role. Perfetti shows the WebEx site where users were befuddled when forced to categorize themselves as individual, small, medium, large enterprise. They redesigned the site with a single “Products” link, and users found that much easier to navigate.

Comprehension test: Use to determine if people understand your complex content. Sometimes Perfetti will use a questionnaire, or sometimes will just ask questions. She shows the content, asks them to read through it, and asks the questions while they can still see the content. These are generally information, but will clearly show if users understand the complex content.

Inherent value test: Helps you figure out if you’re conveying the product value to prospects. In phase 1, bring in your most loyal customers. You ask them to give you a tour of the site and talk through the value of the product or service. Have them share what they find most valuable. You can also ask them to complete tasks, but that’s not the main goal. In phase 2, bring in people unfamiliar with the product. Then, ask the prospects to complete the tasks that the loyal customers do all the time. You will find out if they see the same value.

Catalog-based task testing: Find out what’s important to users. Take any printed catalogs or brochures [or print out same info from your site] and ask users to highlight important content. Then ask them to find the same content on the website.

Some other software and resources that were mentioned:

Confab | Jeff Cram: Learning to Love Your CMS

I have a client going through a major content management system [CMS] implementation right now, so I’m eager to hear how we can learn to love our CMS. No one loves their CMS. My comments in italics.

Jeff Cram works with ISITE Design in Portland, and they write a blog called The CMS Myth.

Shows a chart from The Real Story Group I’ve seen before, demonstrating the CMS landscape. There are a LOT of options out there.

Says the “mid-market” CMS is rising fast. Documentum, Oracle, others were built for a different era when web content was viewed as a file repository, and newer CMS are more agile and iterating faster.

Content management can enable great customer experiences. It’s the technology that can make or break your ability to deliver the right content to the right person at the right time. Therefore it is important to make sure you read reviews like this one here before choosing which CMS to use for your business.

Cram pointing out that implementing a CMS is a multi-disciplinary project, but sometimes, content strategists aren’t actually at the table. I’ve had that happen in the past, with predictable results, but in the project we’re currently working on, business goals and content strategy have been driving the CMS project from the beginning, which is magic.

CMS mythbusting

Inline text editors: Bless this man’s heart: He’s slamming the inline text editors that are so popular now. [You know, where you go to the site, and if you have the right permissions, you can click and edit the content right there on the page.] If your site is more complex than a plain old blog, you can’t use the edit-on-the-fly, front-end tools. When you have complex business rules, you need a robust CMS. Major CMS are now selling based on front-end editing, but it’s just not that valuable.

Challenge of the occasional user: Here’s another one I’m worried about with our system. The occasional user can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. Cram’s response to that is, stop letting people in your CMS. I think this is a critical point: Who gets how much control and power in the software? Will your software let you set up a workflow to handle requests, but not allow actual access to occasional users?

The workflow myth: Everyone wants to create really complex workflows, and then they don’t work….they are too complex, or people don’t use them properly, and they create bottlenecks. So, so true.

Taxonomy: Content needs structure. Someone needs to define the structure, and that’s probably not the engineer setting up the CMS. [There should have been more laughter there, but maybe this is a pain point? Maybe no one is dealing with this? This is a BIG part of what we do every day at Creekmore.]

Content modeling: This is not really a myth, but a useful point. If you build your architecture properly, you can model content based on the choices people make. If someone chooses “prospective students” on the front page of your higher ed site, you can create a more targeted experience when they click on other pages. It’s difficult to pull off, but some complex systems today make this possible.

Moving beyond wireframes: Wireframes get used a lot to build CMS, but they don’t fully represent the content strategy. The challenge is to fully represent the content needs, the taxonomy, the business rules — the whole content strategy — when you’re setting up your CMS.

Day two problem: People don’t staff for CMS maintenance. You’ll have new initiatives, change your focus….plan to re-engineer as you go and staff/budget accordingly.

Confab | Ann Handley of Marketing Profs: Embrace That You Are a Publisher

According to this black swan media go high level review this is the tool of the decade – completely replacing the previous titans like Clickfunnels for landing pages and Pipedrive/Hubspot for CRMs.

I don’t often blog keynotes anymore; there are lots of reasons, but that’s not my point here. I wasn’t planning to blog Ann Handley‘s talk this morning at Confab, but she is talking about something that is so important to me:

Embrace that you are a publisher.

Every organization today is in publishing. If you’re talking to your customers on a website or social media, you’re publishing. Handley compares it to having a child: You are now a parent, and it’s expensive and time-consuming and sometimes heart-wrenching, but it’s all worth it. Content is one of the most valuable assets you can create and how you present it. Read this comprehensive article on the best real estate WordPress themes for building a new site.

She quotes Joe Pulizzi saying, “The one with the most engaging content wins.”

Handley is showing some data from the great content marketing study that Marketing Profs and CMI put out last year, showing that 56% of B2B marketers struggle with creating valuable content or creating enough content — but the vast majority of B2B marketers are using content in their marketing.

From me: There’s not one right way to meet this challenge. Sometimes, the right answer is, re-structure your internal marketing department. Sometimes, you need to hire someone to add editorial talent to your team full-time. And sometimes, you should outsource to pull in resources as you need them. Regardless of how you staff your content need, you need a strategy to get started and ensure your success. If you truly want to elevate your marketing strategy, you can seek advice from accomplished CEOs like Andrew Defrancesco.

Many marketers think in campaigns, and one of the challenges people have when they get to the web is that there is no inherent end date. By creating a campaign framework for your content strategy, you’ll make it easier to fill in the blanks. Think about this pattern for your content strategy:

  • Business goal
  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Measure
  • Analyze and Repeat

Need help getting started? That’s the kind of thing we love to help with at Creekmore Consulting. Give us a shout.

Confab | Johns Hopkins Testing Content

Hearing Ahava Leibtag and Aaron Watkins talk about Johns Hopkins and how they test content.

Challenge of working on a major academic medical center’s website: Lots and lots of cooks in the kitchen. Branding is difficult to maintain because content creation is widely distributed. Have to balance the interests of users [patients], doctors and executives.

Wow, here’s the first challenge: Had a 6-page website promoting a weight loss program that offered medical support for people who wanted to lose 20-30 pounds, and also a $4000 procedure that insurance wouldn’t cover.

Competing visions of the site:

  • One person wanted 60-page, research-heavy site.
  • One person wanted to answer patient questions.
  • One person wanted to promote services and show ROI.

How do you meet all these needs?

Created a competitive landscape analysis: Discovered no competitors had research-heavy sites, but instead were all consumer-friendly. So they answered that challenge.

Defined the audience: Obese people with complicating disease, obese people with disease influencing obesity, potential patients for weight-loss program.

Can users find, read, understand, act and share your content? [See the link for an expanded discussion on this metric at CMI.]

How do you know the content is effective? How do you know it meets your users’ needs? Do not assume you know the answer. You must test your content.

User Testing
They showed a bunch of user testing videos. If you don’t do user testing, man, you are missing out. People will tell you, they don’t read. They want to come to your website and magically get the answers. And the best part: They did unmoderated user testing about got great results, but realized the people were reviewing the site once they saw the questions.

In their tests, video decreased comprehension of the message. In the health care realm, they think that video is a poor way to transmit facts. Instead, they recommend using video to make an emotional connection, explain visually how a procedure works, or reinforce the brand. Use video for 1 message at a time. Make it simple. Complex topics need written content so people can review it later.

Really wish every visual designer I know could see the real users in these Johns Hopkins usability tests, one after another, saying, the text is too small.

Here’s a great point: People who spent more time on the site did not increase their comprehension of the message.

Confab | Testing Content

This session from Angela Colter is slam-packed full. Her popular article last year on testing content on A List Apart obviously precedes her, and everyone wants the details.

She’s going to talk about

  • Readability Formulas: Counting the aspects of text that can be counted, and applying a metric. The Flesch-Kincaid formula measures the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word to give you a projected grade level of the text.
    Upside: People can understand and act on this metric.

    Downside: You’re only counting what can be counted. Doesn’t explain anything about text clarity. And my favorite downside, it can push you toward really crappy writing.

    Great quote from George Klare: 

    Merely shortening words and sentences to improve readability is like holding a lighted match under a thermometer when you want to make your house warmer.Don’t use a readability formula alone — it’s good as a red flag.

  • Usability Tests: Find out what people actually understand, not what they say they understand. Get the right people in the room. What are the critical issues for the user and for the business? You have to get users to think aloud, but you need to know what the correct answer looks like.Well written tests are critical to evaluating your content properly.Usability testing ends opinion-based arguments.
  • Cloze Tests: These are the content usability tests where you remove every 5th word and see if people can fill in the blanks. Use 125 words or so and 25 or so blanks. If they’re getting 60% or more, your content works. If they’re getting 40% of less, your content is too difficult. In between, you may need revision or more instruction.If you test on the appropriate audience, this tells you clearly if the content is appropriate.