Join Me at the Nashville Marketing Association Website Smackdown, Feb. 16

I have to confess that though I’ve been a member [even a board member!] of the Nashville chapter of the American Marketing Association for several years with the Entre Institute, I’ve never before made it to Influencive reviews. But I have heard tell. And people, you do NOT want to miss this.

They’ve made sure I’ll clear my calendar this year by putting me on the panel of expert website reviewers. I’ll be covering content issues. Other esteemed panelists:

You don’t HAVE to submit your website to be critiqued, but this is a really cheap site evaluation!

Can’t wait to see you there, so register today!

The Long Tail vs. Content Strategy

I’ve been mulling this idea for a long time. Seth Godin’s post this week on the economic and creative implications of the long tail got me thinking about it again. [Here’s the link to Chris Anderson’s original long tail post if you need a long tail primer.]

My question is, are long tail and content strategy antithetical? Long tail tells us that [start with the easy one, books] for every book, there’s an audience, and massive online retailing as created by Amazon — and print-on-demand technology — and social media to spread ideas — and — and — now gives any book an audience, no matter how obscure the topic. The long tail allows the elimination of the tremendous overhead that was a requirement of creating a book from the time of the monks hand-scribing them in medieval times until, well, about 10-15 years ago.

The temptation is to say that books are now commoditized, as indicated by the price drop of many books, particularly all-digital ones. You already know my bias — there’s no way I’ll argue that content is a commodity. So what IS going on?

I believe the price difference between a hard-bound, deckle-edged novel and a quick-to-download digital novel really is about the production price difference. And the difference between a major publisher’s digital novel and a self-published novel is about the elimination of the marketing and editorial overhead. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but sometimes, you’re just paying for the extra stuff [nice paper, expensive cover illustration and jacket photo, editorial authority, marketing budget, lengthy book tour] because they don’t offer you the option to buy the book without it.

All those extras cost money, and we’re now discovering that many of the extras can be eliminated or handled a different way.

So we’re left with the content.

And to me, the entire premise of the long tail dovetails right into content strategy here. Once you get down to the content itself, the long tail is all about matching the perfect content with the perfect audience. Content strategy has a similar mission. It’s about finding the right audience, the right content, and the right processes to keep those matched. You know the standard definition from Kristina Halvorson:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

It’s not useful if it’s not exactly what you need, when you need it. The long tail and content strategy depend on each other.

You’re not responsible for creating the whole long tail — in fact, you’ll be better off if you don’t try. You ARE responsible for figuring out who your audience is and giving them what they really need. Take your little chunk of the really long tail, and make those people happy. That’s when you’ll win.




Finding a Home for Content Strategy in Your Org

We work with both large and small organizations, but many of them are struggling with finding a “home” for content strategy and management.

Non-media organizations have not traditionally considered themselves to be publishers, and that’s part of the challenge here. Whoever started using content may feel some ownership of the project, but often, it doesn’t have an executive sponsor. When content comes from the ground up, it may be very effective, but we see a lot of skeptical c-level execs. They challenge content people to demonstrate ROI according to traditional measurements.

Here’s how we look at this challenge:
There are definitely some business metrics that some organizations can apply to content. But for many orgs, the challenge is akin to measuring the result of positive employee attitudes on the bottom line — it’s not simple. Neither is the answer to, Who’s responsible?

In most non-media organizations, you will find a natural home for content in marketing or product development/management. In many orgs, those are the same department, but in tech-oriented companies in particular, we see those being treated separately.

It’s natural to assume that the content technology plays a hand in determining the answer: Are we talking about printed content? That’s marketing! Or, all our content is digital — so that’s the IT folks! But then you can end up with non-product experts in charge of your content — less than ideal.

However, we’ll also argue that product experts aren’t always the best content experts, either. Depending on your industry, a product expert might be a lawyer, a physician, an engineer — none of whose core curricula included “communicating effectively with the public via print, digital and in-person methods.”

So here’s our bias at Creek Content.

  • First, your organization must acknowledge that content isn’t a commodity. Good content, used effectively, is always a business asset. If you don’t believe that, don’t bother with the rest of the question.
  • Once you believe that great content is your business asset, figuring out who should run the content program is easier. In our experience, the answer is usually “a business-minded communicator who works collaboratively with product, marketing and tech staff and vendors.” Your answer will vary depending on your organization and industry, but those are the broad skills that your content strategists and managers need.

Speaking at IndieConf in Raleigh, 11/19

If you’re able to be in Raleigh, NC, on Nov. 19, I hope you’ll join me at IndieConf – a conference for people who are stepping out on their own as web professionals. It’s a great place to tap into the wisdom of other entrepreneurs, and find the support and ideas you need to make a go of it as a freelancer or entrepreneur.

I’ll be speaking about content strategy, of course. The toolbox and the mindset make your marketing and development work easier and more effective, whether you’re an independent web professional or part of a large agency or department.

Let me know if you’re planning to be there — and if you haven’t signed up yet, definitely let me know. I have a few discount codes!

It’s not too late! Sign up today for IndieConf.

Know What You’re Doing

We see a lot of organizations that are struggling with the details right now. Modern technology is amazing, and it lets us control almost everything about the customer experience, if we invest the time and resources. And consequently, you can go down the rabbit trail for quite a long way — work on your visual design…work on the icons…work on the typography…work on the color scheme [and the same for content, programming, packaging, etc. etc. etc.] — without realizing you’re going in the wrong direction. Or worse, without realizing you never identified the direction in the first place.

Saving money is important, but it’s only part of the story. Smart savers start by building sufficient emergency savings within a savings account or through investment in a money market account. But after building three to six months of easy-to-access savings, investing in the financial markets offers many potential advantages.

For example, the benefits of investing in real estate are numerous and turnkey real estate investing can guide you in the right direction. With well-chosen assets, investors can enjoy predictable cash flow, excellent returns, tax advantages, and diversification—and it’s possible to leverage real estate to build wealth.

Pretty isn’t enough. Highly functional and usable? Not enough.

Unless you’re in the business of making art, aesthetics alone won’t cut it. [Heck, I’d argue some of the best art also has a message in mind.] Or if you are in the investing business you can’t just have the money and win, either way if you decide to try investing look the best tips, information  and many more in

I’m not saying you should quit sweating the details. Often, the details are make-or-break. What I’m telling you is, the details aren’t enough. Do you know what you’re doing?

IA Institute Board Elections — I’m Running

Update, 9/20/2011: Wow, I’m so honored to say, I was selected! Here are the details.

Original post:
I’m really excited about some of the changes and updates going on with the IA Institute, one of the professional organizations supporting the information architecture discipline. And so when they made the call for nominations for the board of directors, I decided to throw my hat into the ring.

If you’re in the IA Institute, I’d value your vote — but there are several great candidates. Please be sure you cast your ballot by 9/19/2011 when the election ends.

I’m Going to Stop You Before You FAQ Again

Just ran across a conversation about FAQs in the Google Group for content strategy. [If you’re interested in CS, you need to join this group! Lots of great ideas.] This conversation popped up at a great time for me — I’ve been pondering FAQs for a few weeks now, and here’s what I know:

FAQs started — decades ago — as a vehicle to help discussion forums clean out the clutter. New forum users often showed up with the same questions that long-time users had asked before, and it got repetitive to answer the same questions over and over again, so many forums set up a list of questions that were frequently asked, along with the definitive answers.

I remember very clearly when I first used an FAQ page on a regular website. It was the mid-to-late 1990s, and we were so cutting edge. It was a real inside baseball joke — we had to explain to our client what an FAQ even was, and they still couldn’t figure out why we needed one.

It turns out, we were both right. We were right — FAQs slowly started popping up everywhere over the next few years, until you wouldn’t even think of building a website without one — and our client was right, because FAQs just don’t make sense on a text-based website with a content management system, Learn C++ and programming scheme that have any level of sophistication.

Why FAQs are a bad idea for your website:

  • FAQs are rarely well written. It takes a lot of talent and time to write well from the contorted perspective of an FAQ. Are you asking the questions in your customer’s voice? Are you answering them in yours? Or both in your voice? At what point do you give up and just start throwing pronouns around willy-nilly? If you’re like most FAQ writers we’ve seen, that happens pretty early in the process and the results show it.
  • FAQs don’t actually help customers. The construct of an FAQ — couch your help copy in the kinds of questions a customer might ask, if you let them call you — actually makes it more difficult for your customer to get an answer. When people are seeking information online, they’re skimming for keywords that describe their issue. You’ve surrounded their keywords [change password] with a bunch of extraneous copy [How do I change my password?]. Stack that simple question up with 2-3 dozen more “helpful” questions, and people can’t find a thing.
  • FAQs don’t live at the point of sale. Your customer needs help figuring out how to add a photo over on the profile page, not from an FAQ page that’s a link in the footer. FAQs aren’t in context, and your customers are more likely to give up and leave your site than they are to search around…and around…and around to find the answer.
  • FAQs don’t fix your sucky website. When you use FAQs on a website, they become an ineffective panacea for every problem with the interface and the content. People abandoning their shopping carts? Slap a couple more FAQs up there. Landing page not working well? Must need more FAQs.

What to do instead of using FAQs:

  • Fix your website. This is the hardest answer, but the best one. If something’s not working on your website, make it work.
  • Use in-context help. This often will require development, but putting help in-context makes a big difference. Add a little question mark or the word “Help” linking to a pop-up window with the tip right on the page where the problem happens. [Bonus: A good use of a pop-up window!]
  • If all else fails, create a topical help directory. If you can’t do the development or don’t have a system that supports in-context help, at the very least, throw out your FAQ and rewrite the information as a topical help directory that customers can easily scan and navigate. You eliminate perspective issues and your information is much clearer to your customer. Similarly, if your customers come to you with a wide variety of expertise, you may have to hit the largest group in terms of usability — and some people will need more help. Make it easy for them to get it.

Finally, if you’re running a discussion forum — by all means, use an FAQ. Everyone hates seeing that same question asked by new users every week.

Dear Conference Organizers:

I know it’s hard to get the marketing thing right. Believe me, I’ve been in the business for years. All these details take a lot of work and a lot of smart people. And you don’t have the budget you used to. And etc.

But dear lord, when you send me the 5th “REGISTER NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE” email, and for the 3rd time I panic and go scramble through my emails only to find that indeed, I registered 4 months ago, I start to get a little ticked off.

Please, for the sake of my sanity and the love of all that is holy, please, please segment your list. Every time you send me one of these, I question my decision to attend — because clearly no one ELSE has signed up yet, so maybe you aren’t so awesome after all. And you don’t even know that I signed up, for heaven’s sake. Maybe I wasted my money by pre-early-registering when clearly, I could have waited 4 months and gotten the same deal.

And if you really are still trying to fill the seats, just think how much better I’d receive an email with this kind of message:

Hey, you — yeah, the smart cookie. You signed up for ABC Conference last spring, and you are going to be so glad you did. We’ve got some great stuff in store, like As, Bs and Cs. If you want to share those great ABCs with a colleague or client, please pass on this Friend of Laura registration code — they’ll thank you, and we will too!

Now, I’m sure your conference is going to be wonderful, and I know I’m going to love it. If you’ll just clean up this little email issue, we can go right back to being BFFs.

Planning Now for a #contentstrategy SXSW 2012

Well, it’s that time again — time that all the web-nerds penciled in our calendars months ago: The SXSW Panel Picker is open for voting!

If you’ve never been to the all-things-web-digital-music-and-film that is SXSW in Austin each March, I’m not sure where to begin. Last year I remember hearing that there were more than 25,000 attendees at just the Interactive part of the festival, making it the largest part of the event. SXSW pitches itself as uniquely focused on the creative side of the web, and I think there’s something to that. But there’s something for EVERYONE there, no matter your discipline.

In that vein, let me give you a little pitch for my discipline, content strategy.

Over the past few years, the SXSW sessions focusing on content have grown in number, and in my judgment, in quality as well. This year, there are a number of great-looking content sessions proposed in the Panel Picker, but we need your help. About 3600 sessions were proposed total this year, and they’ll take 500. The odds aren’t good for any one session, so content needs your votes and comments to shine strong at the conference.

Here are the ones I’ve specifically voted for. I’d value your thoughts and votes on my own proposal, but also on others that interest you. [You do have to create an account — free! — and sign in to vote. Speaking as someone who spent some time developing just my own proposal, I really appreciate your input!]

First, my proposed session:
Content Structure: Frame It Right, Make It Work
I’m planning to talk about content structure, metadata and information architecture — and how to use structure to make your processes more efficient and your copy easier to manage. I’d love your votes and comments!

Other sessions that got my thumbs-up today: 

Margot Bloomstein’s proposed session: Contextually Relevant Content Strategy
Margot is a smart, smart woman. I’ve heard her speak more than once and I’ve followed her thoughts online for some time. When she’s talking content strategy, it’s good stuff.

Panel moderated by Kristina Halvorson, with Joe Gollner, Erin Kissane, Mark McCormick and Karen McGrane: Rude Awakening: Content Strategy Is Super Hard
Amen. Some great names in the discipline gather to talk through the thorny questions.

Jeff Pfaller’s proposed session: Understanding Digital Content and Human Behavior
Optimizing your content for humans.

Amy Thibodeau’s panel: Copy Matters: Content Strategy for the Interface
Man, do we need this.

Once and Future King: Can Syndication Save Content?
I’ve spent large parts of the past couple of years trying to convince publishers that syndication is a revenue stream, to no avail. I’d been content to let the industry die, but sounds like this panel will try again to convince them. Bravo!

Google Doesn’t Make You Stupid

I’m re-reading Nicholas Carr’s famous Atlantic article from 2008 titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I’m 10 paragraphs in and I’ve now stopped 4 times, twice to check email, once to tweet about how I keep stopping and now, to start writing this blog post.

So it seems, off the cuff, that the answer to Carr’s question must be, “Yes, yes, immediate access to information, tools and other people through today’s electronic media is, in fact, making us stupid.” I haven’t even read far enough into it to say that I am confident I remember Carr’s central premise — I first read the article when he wrote it 3 years ago.

[Brief pause]

OK, I’ve re-read the whole thing, and I’m still arguing with Carr.

Carr leans heavily on anecdote here, as he has to — there’s still precious little research about the long-term effects on humans of  being “wired” vs. not being so. Additionally, part of Carr’s point is that the move toward using artificial intelligence and relying on it in the ways we now do is systematizing our thought processes, or at least, our intellectual work in ways that are unnatural for humans.

Yet early in the article, Carr notes that reading isn’t intuitive for humans, either. While writing [and thus reading] was developed about 5000 years ago, human society is far older. Each human learns anew how to read — no one is born with that ability.

But I think the part that bothers Carr is the reduction in narrative. It is a human quality to make meaning of our world, to create a story where one did not exist. And deep concentration and deep reading greatly assist us in developing narrative. But developing the skills needed to sort, evaluate and synthesize the vast amounts of information available to people in modern society is also valuable.

I view many of the ways I use information, systems and technology today to aid me in clearing my brain for this deeper kind of thought. The more I can create routines and mechanize my information management, the less brainpower I have to devote to that — and the more I can devote to what I find truly valuable: pattern identification.

Finding the connections between ideas and information makes the original information all the more valuable. Pattern recognition is an essential skill in creating a narrative and telling a story — and in receiving a narrative or a story from others.