Let’s Talk About Blog Slump

Rachel Lovinger   January 29, 2014
Huh? Just blogging. Did we doze off for a second? Photo by Jonas Löwgren

Opps! Where does the time go? It seems like just a moment ago I was promising part 2 of an article would be “coming soon.” I blinked, and 3 months had passed. There were even three thoughtful and interesting responses to that piece that we hadn’t gotten around to approving! Rather than just make a bunch of excuses, we thought we’d turn our content strategy lens on ourselves and talk about why it’s difficult to keep a blog like this going, and what could be done about it.

But let’s start with some excuses. Er, reasons.

1. We’re a pretty vocal group.

As a community we’ve been talking online, in print, and at conferences. A lot has been said, and we love it. But we also want to make sure that we’re adding something new and different to the conversation. As content strategists we value thoughtful communication and we want to talk when we know that we have something to say, and we know why we’re saying it.

2. Content Strategists are busy.

With all that talking, we’ve done a pretty good job of announcing our arrival on the scene. And now we’re in demand. So we’re digging in and getting to work. This was what we were hoping for! But it leaves less time for doing things like writing blog posts.

3. When we do talk about something, we have a lot to say.

When we started this blog, we thought it would be easy to do short pieces. But once you get us started on a topic we’re passionate about, we have to put all our thoughts out there. Instead of 300-400 words, our posts tend to be 800-1000 words or more. This isn’t inherently a problem, but it may seem more daunting for busy people who want to contribute.

So, what can we do about it? What does it take to keep a blog going? We decided to ask some friends-of-S/G (the ones who have been keeping their or their company’s blogs going pretty steadily) to share some advice. Here’s the wisdom that they shared with us.

 

Find something interesting to write about

The most critical part of keeping a blog going is having something to say. Here are some of the places our friends find inspiration:

Nicole FentonSwell Content:
“I read a lot of books and articles from other disciplines. I take notes and highlight passages that interest me. I keep a log of things I might want to write about, or pull into my writing practice, such as design thinking or ways of seeing new problems. I also listen for questions or recurring issues my clients need help understanding.”

Georgy CohenMeet Content:
“I think one thing that helps with Meet Content is being attentive to our community – through our Higher Ed Web Content LinkedIn group, Twitter, and other online watering holes. But I also pay attention outside of the immediate higher education industry to trends and innovations in other fields, particularly online journalism, which I can then bring back to the higher ed context.”

Rahel Anne Bailie, Intentional Design:
“When I find a topic that I don’t think anyone is explaining well, I figure I will fill that gap. If I’m not on the money, so be it. At least it will spark some conversation. And that conversation can turn into another blog post. When I write something and people start discussing it, I’m encouraged. It’s a cycle. For the Summer of DITA series of posts, I had joined a summer writing challenge led each year by a writer friend of mine. That gave me a commitment – like Weight Watchers – so I figured out a different aspect for each post as I went along.”

Colleen Jones, Content Science:
“Feed off of questions from clients, stakeholders, or other people who are interested but “new” to content strategy. These questions often shed light on a newbie’s point of view and sometimes force us to question our assumptions. And, if you answered the questions in some form, then you probably have a start on your post. (Content reuse in action!)”

Ian Alexander, EAT Agency:
“I try to make it as personal as I can. The practice of UX/CS contains these zen-koan-like life lessons that cross over from home to work and back again. Kids Play with Rocks All the Time – was inspired by my sons playing on the front porch – 10 balls were available but they were drawn to throwing rocks. So instead of forcing them to play with the balls I turned it into a lesson about what rocks can do – early hammer, start fire, build houses, etc.”

 

Don’t go it alone

It’s a lot easier if you’re not trying to do it all yourself. Here on Scatter/Gather, we’re happy to have contributions from the content strategists in all Razorfish offices. And we love to bring in the thoughts of our colleagues in the industry. Here are some of our friends’ tips on how you can get help from others:

Kate Kiefer LeeMailChimp:
“Get lots of people around the office involved and invested in the blog, give them guidelines, and help them become confident writers. When you’re in a slow period, there will be plenty of people you can tap on the shoulder to write about their work.”

Colleen JonesContent Science:
“Talk to interesting people about their experience, success, or useful perspective on content strategy. We often turn the conversation into an interview that we publish on our blog.”

Georgy CohenMeet Content:
“If there is a shared area of concern or challenge, that may be a great opportunity to pull together people we know have smart things to say on the topic.”

Speaking of getting help from others, we noticed that a lot of content strategy blogs that had previously been entering a slump were reenergized this winter by a fun experiment from @blogsecretsanta. People signed up via twitter, were assigned a secret santa at random, and then each person wrote an anonymous post for someone else’s content strategy blog. You can read all the resulting posts (and maybe find some new blogs to follow) on Secret Santa’s 2013 blogroll.

 

Go easy on yourself

If there’s one thing we realized from looking around at our colleagues’ blogs, it’s that everyone goes through a slump. Sometimes it lasts a few months, sometimes it’s years. So, if you go a little longer than usual without a post, don’t be too hard on yourself. Here’s what our peers had to say about setting reasonable goals:

Rahel Anne BailieIntentional Design:
“Part of what I did was to set my bar lower. If I set a once-every-two-months schedule, I’m not as stressed as I’d be on a bi-weekly schedule.”

Colleen JonesContent Science:
“Find a balance between being chained to a schedule and having absolutely nothing planned. We aim to publish a post every week, but we will not force a post if it isn’t ready. And conversely, if we publish a planned post and then have some news to share, we’ll post twice in one week. Also, our editorial calendar tends to be high-level and focused on topics and themes. It gives us direction without making us feel burdened.”

There’s a lot of great, practical advice. Now we’re going to go work on some more posts.

The Trouble with ‘Content,’ Part 1

Rachel Lovinger   October 29, 2013
The lowly carrot, elevated to an art. Photo by T.Tseng

Let’s talk about the word “Content”.

When you have a word in your job title, you tend to notice how people are reacting to it. When I started working in the field of content strategy, the impression was that no one wanted to hear about “content” because it was too “technical” sounding. In the past few years that’s been changing. People are embracing the idea of content, and the challenges and opportunities we face with creating and distributing it in the digital age. Yay, progress!

But while some people are celebrating the love fest (#ConfabFeelings became a popular hashtag during the Confab conference this past June), there’s a murmur of dissent growing in the shadows. Search for “hate the word content” on Google and you’ll start to get a sense of the range and depth of objections. Some people are uncomfortable with the word, but acknowledge that it’s probably the best option we have at the moment. Others are incensed at the destructively reductive nature of the word, and even insist that we should stop using it. Recently I read an interview with a documentary film director that closed with the statement “in an era of films being reduced to being called ‘content’ and watched on people’s phones, the studios need to encourage the love of filmmaking as much as they can.” I realized she was probably reacting to Kevin Spacey’s speech about the Netflix distribution model. (Full disclosure: I was giddy when I heard Kevin Spacey use the word “content” in that speech.)

The core problem seems to be a feeling that the word “content” reduces thoughtful, artistic expressions to a commodity. The websites and apps we develop to elegantly deliver words, images and media experiences are perceived as empty containers, hungry for content to be poured into them. Content marketing campaigns depend on calendars that demand to be filled on a regularly scheduled basis. This may give the impression that an effective approach to content is to churn out generic stuff that fits the size and shape of the container, and meets the deadlines.

No true content strategist agrees with that approach. We believe that content should have a purpose – whether that purpose is artistic expression, education, or meeting a business need – and quality is one of the top criteria for determining its value. As a discipline, we celebrate content. We support it and advocate for it. We build entire ecosystems to make sure it can get in front of people who will love it as much as we do. We adopt tools and design processes, workflows and governance plans that make it possible for people to create and maintain delightful, useful, effective content for engaging experiences.

For the sake of communicating efficiently about those systems, we need an inclusive term like “content.” It’s just not effective to say “words, stories, music, movies, games, poems, videos, photos, drawings, and other stuff” every time we want to talk about the things our systems enable people to make and distribute. In this sense, it’s a neutral word. Hating on the word “content” is like a chef saying “I don’t make food. Food is what people get at McDonald’s.” Well, there probably are chefs who feel that way, but it’s based on a fallacy. At the same time, I would never, ever refer to my favorite chef as a “food maker.” The word “content” isn’t perfect, but I don’t want to see it vilified. We need words to be able to talk about these principles and practices.

I work in content strategy because I love content. I’m pretty sure that feeling is shared by most people who do this kind of work. I’ve been fighting the good fight for content every day of my career, emphasizing that the promise of digital is that we can get away from the containers that have limited content creation and distribution, and focus on the substance. It should be all about the stories, the art, and the experience. We’re trying to create systems that don’t get in the way of the creative process, so people can tell stories, paint pictures, play music, and make movies that are better, more authentic, more informative, and more engaging.

Of course, there’s an inherent problem with creating systems for artists. I’ll get into that more in part 2 of “The Trouble with ‘Content’,” coming soon.

Connected TV: Where are we now?

Jake Keyes   September 24, 2013

 Don’t touch that dial. Photo by x-ray delta one

The Breakdown: Maybe one day we’ll arrive at some kind of perfect, connected, when-and-where-we-want-it  TV experience. One where we only pay for the content we want, and it’s all on a single sleek device, and each household saves around $70 a month. But we’re nowhere close to that. We’re living in a time of television device/content chaos. So, we thought we’d to do a quick informal survey among the CS community here at Razorfish, to answer these questions: How do you watch TV right now? And how is that working for you?

As the responses rolled in, we found a fascinating range of frustration, disorder, and ingenuity.

Michael Barnwell

I use an iPad connected to my TV to stream Netflix shows and movies, or use my desktop and laptop to watch Amazon Prime selections. I almost never use my phone to watch anything. More and more, I watch TV series after they’ve run, rather than waiting for each new show.

While shows have always been episodic, the ability now to watch episode after episode in one sitting makes viewing more like the experience of burying yourself in a sprawling novel—you decided when and if to stop. I’m guessing that writing might catch up with the way people are viewing shows these days—there could be short, intense episodes followed by longer, more elaborated episodes, breaking free of the conventional arcs of time-slotted stories. Subscriptions to streaming services, I suppose, will support this kind of viewing.

Jake Keyes

I just moved to a new apartment. I was able to carry my entire TV setup in two trips: one for the TV, which is about as light as the bag I carry to work every day. And a second trip for a plastic bag holding HDMI cords and gadgets. I have an Apple TV, a PS3, and a Mohu Leaf antenna for basic broadcast channels. And that’s about it. I remember past moves, even five years ago, when a large LCD TV was a two-person job, not to mention the confusion of the DVD player, wired TV speakers, laptop adapters, a couple of surge protectors, color coded three-headed A/V cables, and so on. In sheer weight and number of plugs, things have definitely gotten simpler.

Now the complexity is in the content sourcing. Once you’ve made the jump from a traditional cable bundle, you have to just make it up as you go, pulling from iTunes, HBO Go, Hulu, and shadier places if necessary. What’s most interesting to me is that there’s no universal solution. No two cord-cutters watch TV in the same way.

Rachel Lovinger

I have a pretty crazy set of devices and services for watching TV content.

My main sources of content are network/cable broadcast and Hulu. But I also have a variety of ways of time- and location-shifting them. For cable I use my DVR or On Demand (OD) channels included in my Time Warner Cable subscription. I can watch Hulu on my TV at home via either Apple TV or Wii, or I can watch it anywhere via iPad or laptop. I could also watch my DVR or Cable channels anywhere using SlingBox, on either iPad or laptop. I also have a Simple.TV which records over-the-air network channels (via a digital antennae), to a cloud DVR service, which I can watch online from anywhere.

I can’t say I have a single favorite – I like different approaches for different reasons. At home I prefer watching on my TV (rather than laptop or iPad), and the DVR gives me the most control, in terms of what’s available and skipping commercials. But if I record shows in HD it runs out of space pretty quickly. So, often I record things on the DVR mainly as a reminder, and then watch the shows on HD OD channels or Hulu, if they’re available. I could watch any of these on the iPad when away from home, but unless the wifi signal is excellent it’s usually too slow and frustrating. The Simple.TV is an interesting experiment, but the UI is still very much a work in progress, so it mainly serves as a backup to my other approaches. It came in handy when TWC & CBS were feuding this summer, as it allowed me to continue to watch The Late Late Show while the channel was being blocked by TWC.

I guess you could say I’m kind of a TV nut. I don’t intentionally save shows up to binge on them, but they do tend to pile up a little. Then, because I have so many different ways to watch them, I find I have trouble keeping track of where each show was saved, and what I had and hadn’t watched, and then remembering to clear episodes off of other platforms after I’d watched them. I had to make a spreadsheet to track my TV shows!

Robert Stribley

I rarely watch TV and I don’t have cable. Like many people, what I have instead is the Internet. I don’t miss TV at all. Having to endure the ads when watching commercial TV now is shocking.

Instead, I am sometimes confronted with the twin problems of device diversity and choice paralysis. Problem is, no one device gives me everything I want. I’m not saying no such device exists. Just that my peculiar arrangement gets me most of what I want, but not everything.

I’ve long had a Roku and now a Google Chromecast. I can stream Netflix, Amazon Instant and Vimeo video via my Roku. And now I can stream most of that plus Youtube via Chromecast (as well as native music and video from my laptop via Chrome). However, I can’t watch Amazon Instant Video via Chromecast yet (a Silverlight problem, apparently) and my Roku is sometimes flaky with the same (a Time Warner problem, probably). Of course, I can watch all of those things on my big screen now, but I can also watch them on my laptop and to some degree my iPad and iPhone. I can watch most shows soon after they air. And buying episodes individually is actually cheaper than cable. Plus Netflix is killing it with the binge TV lately. Hello House of Cards! Hello Arrested Development! Hello Orange Is the New Black! So why would I bother with cable? If my cable provider allowed me to purchase HBO a la carte, I might get sucked in, but like many other stubborn folks, I refuse to pay for a raft of programming I’ll never watch.

That said, I do currently have one exception to my 21st-century viewing habits. How am I staying on top of the last few tensioned-filled episodes of Breaking Bad? I watch it at a local bar. As it airs.

Mia Gant

I exclusively watch TV shows on Netflix because our TV set-up in our common area consists of a giant, hideous non-flat-screen TV that is covered in a super unhealthy layer of dust. At one point, someone plugged a Wii into it and went through the process of setting up the Netflix app, but other than that it has no cable connection and barely picks up any of the local channels. To add to that, each of us has an unusually spacious bedroom, so really we all seem to prefer to not hang out in the common space, which is why our TV setup in there is old and decrepit.

I personally like to veg in my bed after work and stream Netflix from my 21″ iMac, which has functioned as my “TV” since I got it in early 2011. (I know, what an expensive TV, huh?) Regardless, that iMac is the closest thing I have to a SmartTV and so it is also where I consume most of my viewable content. My routine is to take my wireless mouse and wireless keyboard across the room to my bed and MacGyver the whole thing into an elaborate remote system that has somehow come to feel totally natural to me now.

I mainly stream Netflix, but occasionally in the mornings I’ll live stream Pix11, The Today Show, or GMA while I’m getting ready for work. I also have an iPad Mini, which has enabled me to stream Netflix during those random times I get inspired to cook extensively in the kitchen.

My favorite setup, however, is to veg in bed with the previously mentioned 21″ iMac streaming The League (or some comparable, snackable episodic comedy) while I surf on the iPad Mini. This enables me to watch the show AND enhance that viewing experience by looking up characters/actors on IMDb or wading through related #hasthtags and Twitter conversations. On this flip side, this also means I’m probably completely distracted and immersed in something totally unrelated from the show I’m supposed to be watching.

 

SXSW 2014 Panel Picker: Voting Early and, Well, Once

Elizabeth S. Bennett   August 28, 2013

 (Game not over until you win. Photo by spookyAMD)

It’s late summer and time again to vote for SXSW 2014 speakers!  We’d like to offer some suggestions culled from the more than 500 presentation, workshop and panel ideas submitted by our interactive brethren and sistren. Sign in and vote with the ever-popular Panel Picker.

First, please check out (and vote for!) Razorfish’s content, design and tech-oriented panels:

  • Content Modelling: Designing Structured Content – A workshop co-led by Rachel Lovinger. Learn how to create content models that communicate a shared understanding of the content requirements, align the design vision with editorial needs, convey them in a tech-ready form, and bring your strategy for structured content to life.
  • Mismatched: What’s Wrong With Recognizing Patterns  – Frequent Scatter/Gather contributor Robert Stribley, fresh off his first SXSW appearance this year, will talk about how, faced with a daily onslaught of data, we make decisions every moment based on the patterns we recognize. But what can go wrong with the way we identify these patterns?
  • Technology’s Public Relations Crisis – Presentation Layer Engineer Elizabeth Fuller will put a humorous spin on our society’s misconceptions about scientific & technological progress and offer some solutions along the way.
  • Passions and Platforms: Digital Love & Basketball  –  Media Technology Specialist Tricia Andrew will talk about her journey through fandom, as a die-hard Oklahoma City Thunder fan (despite growing up with the Knicks and living within a stone’s throw of the new Barclay Center). Tricia will describe how she went from simple consumer to Thunder brand evangelist, and offer tips for transforming your own customers. [Editor’s note: We’ve seen Tricia give a version of this talk in the office and it is amazing!]

And here are some other content focused submissions that we hope make the cut:

Content Strategies for Augmented Reality  – Speakers: John Tinnell, University of Colorado, Denver, and Sean Morey, Clemson University

Great Artists Steal: Plan Content With UX Tools – Speaker:  Laura Creekmore, Creek Content

Using Narrative Taxonomy in UX Design – Speakers: Alex O’Neal, TEKsystems

The Data of Happiness: The ROI of Good Content – Speakers: Clay Delk, Volusion, Misty Weaver Content Insight

Assertive Strategy: Content Amid Constraints – Margot Bloomstein, Appropriate, Inc.

Baby Got Backend – Jeff Eaton, Lullabot

Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk – Kristina Halvorson, Brain Traffic

Content Everywhere: Preparing for Mobile & Beyond – Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Independent

Did we miss your SXSW content submission or another one you want to promote? Let us know by posting a comment.

Shelf Life: How to Handle Dated Content

Robert Stribley   August 5, 2013

(photo by CarbonNYC)

A couple of months ago an obituary for Lena Horne went viral. Thing is, she died three years earlier, on May 9th, 2010. Apparently, many folks didn’t notice the date and posted her obituary on Facebook and Twitter all over again. Similarly, on June 28th, a story about how Anonymous discovered Ron Paul’s connections with Storm Front went viral on Twitter – despite having been written on February 2nd, 2012.

These examples highlight a tricky content strategy issue. When you read an old article couched within a new design, the presentation can fool you into thinking it’s new. And this happens regularly: outdated stories go viral years later, when someone posts them thinking they’re new. Of course, this probably wouldn’t happen with print. Newspapers age, yellow, they change in their style. If you pick up a paper from even a year ago, you’re probably not going to mistake it for today’s paper. Digital, though? No difference. In fact, a really old article might be presented within a totally modern interface. Online, this issue applies most obviously to news articles, but you can imagine it applying to other content as well: policies and procedural information on an Intranet, for example. And even content that may retain its value, like human interest stories and blog posts, has links, which become outdated.

I’ve fallen prey to this problem myself. Recently, someone posted a Mashable article about birds creating tweets by pecking at pork fat on a keyboard. That turned out to be so old that the referenced site and Twitter account are now inactive. So I deleted the tweet. The story was still interesting, but I’d framed it as a current story, so it didn’t make sense.

Noted then: although stories go out of date, removing them altogether isn’t always the answer. Still, they would benefit from some sort of thoughtful content governance. Here are some content strategy and experience considerations for handling dated content.

  • Maintain an editorial calendar (seems obvious, right!), which includes an archive date for content, where necessary. We’re talking online archive, here, not the traditional print world archive. And I don’t mean some sort of digital vault where content goes to die. More of a status or state for content, which keeps the content readily findable. (In some cases this might mean a separate but still visible section of the site.)
  • Provide clear rules for how content will archived once it reaches a certain age. The archive date should trigger an action for each particular piece of content. In the journalistic arena, content likely needs to be maintained, but its presentation might change. In the corporate world for example, content – even “news” – might be moved to an archive section; it might even be removed completely from the site.
  • Schedule a review of evergreen content, so you can consider whether it needs to be updated or revised, if not archived.
  • Design a more prominent date stamp. The date is important regardless of whether the story is old or new. Even the time is important on certain breaking news days.
  • Design a different style of date stamp for older content and/or add a label to be placed before the date stamp, such as “From Our Archive.” An archive banner with a unique color might even be appropriate.
  • Create a somewhat different look and feel to be utilized for “Archive” articles or content once they reach a certain age. That visual difference shouldn’t be the only thing to indicate that content is older, but coupled with a more prominent date stamp, it could provide a visual cue, which regular visitors begin to recognize when they happen upon older content.

Each of these changes may not work for every organization. Some evergreen content needn’t be archived at all, and sometimes old content simply becomes inaccurate and should be removed. Nonetheless it behooves brands to be more clear and more creative with how they tackle this issue. The result – a cemented sense of trust with content consumers – makes it well worth the effort.

A Few Lingering Thoughts on An Event Apart

Hawk Thompson   June 21, 2013

 Photo by zeldman

I have a confession to make: I attended An Event Apart more than two months ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Sure, the fact that it was my family’s first trip to Seattle might be part of the reason (it being my six-month-old daughter’s first big trip ever may also factor into the equation). But more than the AirBnB rental in Queen Anne, dinner at the Walrus and the Carpenter or anything else about the trip, the reason #AEASEA is branded on my brain has to do with how the conference confounded my expectations in the best possible way.

Simply put, An Event Apart elevates the conference-going experience. A decade-plus SXSW veteran (love you SX), I’ve survived enough hype-fueled madness to know to plan for the worst and to expect a good amount of stress at the very least. As its name implies, An Event Apart is cut from different cloth. Attendees have the same agenda — three days, twelve speakers, no overlap — so there’s little need to wait in line or jockey for position. Perhaps because of this, each speaker is able to hold the autdience’s attention and every talk feels like part of a conversation.

The ethos behind A List Apart helps bring everything together. United by common beliefs, collaborative projects like Editorially, mutual business interests like A Book Apart and, of course, the ubiquitous Zeldman, the speakers exude a camaraderie that’s contagious. This shared enthusiasm keeps everyone feeling convivial and fuels discussions between talks.

A List Apart attracts tremendously talented people who work together to weave cohesive narratives. Take Karen McGrane — a content strategy hero of mine for a number of reasons, her brilliant book Content Strategy for Mobile (read our review here) chief among them. What struck me in the context of the conference was how compatible Karen’s approach to creating mobile-friendly content was with Luke Wroblewski’s mobile-first mandate, Ethan Marcotte’s rationale for responsible responsive design and Jared Spool’s celebration of UX generalists. Taken as a whole, these talks all draw from a deep well of experience to rally the audience to join forces and future-proof the web in anticipation of whatever challenge comes next.

Looking back, it’s clear that everyone involved with An Event Apart is invested in creating truly stellar online experiences for all users that can stand the test of time. While it wasn’t surprising that common themes emerged over the course of the conference, it was delightful to experience this emergence firsthand. I left Seattle with five big takeaways and one strong urge to return in the near future.

 

Testing, Testing, One-Two-Three

Elizabeth S. Bennett   May 14, 2013

 A series of tubes. (photo by nezume_you)

Here you are. You’ve developed a digital strategy that includes building out the content on your (or your client’s) website and mobile platforms. You’re excited. and fairly certain based on business goals, the competitive environment, and what you know about your target audience that your plan is a good one. Now it’s time to test out the vision with real people to make sure you’re on the right path.

Your goal is to get a good sense of how and whether people respond to your content. What’s the best way to go about evaluating all those words and images?

In my experience there is absolutely no substitution for listening to how real people respond to and interact with your site/experience. That’s not to say you can’t gather some useful information from surveys and other quantitative means at certain junctures, but you will never know your customers/audience/visitors until you listen to their experience in their own words.

Having said that, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do with these real people when they turn up at your testing facility. How are you going to ensure that you’re eliciting valuable and reliable responses?

There are many approaches to user testing, and it’s important to be thoughtful about which path to take. I’ll be looking specifically at three approaches to testing content and when each one best applies. I’ll also explore the inherent risk in testing content, namely the impulse to zero in on the tone and style or format of the content at the heart of your experience, at the expense of broader learnings.

Testing the Experience

One approach is to focus on the experience. I doing so, problems (or successes) with content should become evident. With this method, you’ll provide some context for the respondent, observe them interacting with the experience, ask open-ended questions, and pick up on verbal cues and body language that invite investigation. Patterns of behavior will emerge and you’ll get a sense of how the experience is and isn’t meeting expectations.

Strengths: Provides a comprehensive customer perspective on the experience. If done well, findings will include what is and isn’t working with the strategy, design, content and interactions.

Drawbacks: May not yield precise degree of detail you or your client is seeking about the content.

When it works best: Really any time, but it’s a particularly good approach when the strategy and experience hasn’t yet been vetted by real customers. It’s also good for testing a complex experience where gaining a foothold on the big picture should be a prerequisite for testing the content.

You might say I cut my teeth on this method back in the day, when I was a consultant at Creative Good, a customer experience consulting firm. I corresponded recently with Mark Hurst, the company’s president and founder, and I asked him how he and his colleagues would test a content concept. He said he never thinks about content as its own phenomenon.

Hurst says that when his team members speak with the customers of clients one-on-one, they don’t set out to test a visual concept and then a content concept. “Those aren’t separate things in our worldview. Instead we look at the user experience overall, one unified experience that is created by the visual and the interactive and the content and a constellation of other factors.”

It can be much harder to sell the big picture testing scenario to clients who often think about their digital experiences as separate pieces in a puzzle, says Hurst, especially when there are multiple business owners responsible for content. But if you immediately zoom in on a sliver of the experience, it can have the opposite effect of sharpening your focus, Hurst says. “You’re cutting out a whole spectrum of observation and knowledge that you could be getting.”

Testing the Content

 As the name suggests, this testing approach is focused exclusively on the content – be it prose, labels, marketing messages, or digital assets. The idea here is to invite testing respondents to comment exclusively on content with some specific goals in mind, like assessing tone and voice, article length, video style, navigation labels, etc.

Strengths:  Opportunity to probe deeply into content elements, editorial strategy, tone/style, and basically anything you have questions or concerns about.

Drawbacks: Chance you may miss out on crucial strategy/experience findings by focusing exclusively on content.

When it works best: You’ve already vetted the strategy and experience with your target audience and believe it to be ironclad, but you have further questions about how successfully the content is supporting the strategy; you accept that this method is more of a usability study rather than a research method that could influence the overall direction of your site, app, etc. You might also use this approach when your experience and content are still in the concept stage to get an initial read on how customers or visitors respond to your vision.

Colleen Jones, principal at Content Science, a digital content strategy consultancy, and author of a recent content credibility study, says that you can definitely conduct targeted testing on content by “focusing test protocol (questions and tasks) on content issues instead of design and experience issues.” As an example, Jones says that instead of ending a task at finding content, you can end it with answering a question that requires both finding and understanding the content. Or, she says, you can focus the task on understanding the content only.

With content as the focus, Jones explains that the overall experience is a secondary matter. “If the experience causes or exacerbates content problems,” Jones says, “then you can still observe and note that. But, the experience isn’t the focus.”

Sometimes Jones tests content at a very detailed level, such as sample text, imagery, or video. “We have tested samples of text content that reflect different approaches to voice. One sample was lighter and more humorous in tone than the other.”

Jones says the approaches above have been very successful for her clients. For instance, she worked with a health start-up to test and evaluate tone of voice on their site. “We had to experiment with the right techniques in protocol to bring out real response and get at issues we’re interested in without biasing the results,” she explains. “You want responses to be as organic as possible.”

My experience is that when homing in on content – or really any single component of an experience – there’s a risk that important findings won’t emerge. Let’s say you and your client have agreed to test a site’s Videos page.  You might get some very useful feedback about videos, but you could be inhibiting respondents from providing other perhaps more valuable feedback. If you haven’t established the environment for broader observations,  respondents might not have the opportunity to say how much they dislike the homepage or that they’re super excited about something on a competitor’s site. That’s why I only recommend using this approach if you’ve already vetted a site’s overall strategy and experience through qualitative testing.

Testing the Content in the Course of Testing the Experience

This is a pretty straightforward hybrid between testing the overall experience and testing content in isolation. You and your client can feel confident that you did a thorough job of testing the experience and you still get to satisfy your or their need to zoom in on content questions and concerns.

If you’re hankering to ask overtly about content, this is your opportunity to do some investigating without making content the sole focus of your testing. My recommendation would be to test the overall experience, like in the first scenario, but set aside some time at the end of each interview, say one-third of the total time allotted, to inquire about the most pressing content questions. Best to keep the questions open-ended to elicit the most organic responses. 

Strengths:  Opportunity to dig deeper into content elements while gaining critical information about the overall experience

Drawbacks: When time with respondents is often precious, it could be that you miss out on important strategy/experience findings in an effort to glean content insights. 

When it works best: When broad experience testing isn’t going to address the content questions you need answered. In order to move ahead with your work and validate the experience, it’s vital to know what users think of the content.

I recommend this approach if it’s not the first time you’re testing the experience. If it is and you or your client think it’s critical to call out some specific content questions, I would keep them to a minimum and develop your research plan around testing the overall experience with the expectation that any glaring content problems will arise when you let customers engage with the experience as a whole. 

Choosing and Selling the Best Approach 

As the content expert in the room, it will be up to you to educate your client about different approaches to testing content as well as to advocate for the one you think is best suited to the occasion. It will be helpful to have some case studies at the ready to illustrate how and when each one works best.

Speaking of case studies, we’d love to hear from you about your experience with testing content and if you have anything to add to the above approaches and when to use them. Thanks for adding your comments to this post.

Confab Crosses the Atlantic

Cameron Siewert   April 5, 2013

All of the lights. (photo by Cameron Siewert)

For the first time in its hugely successful 3-year run, Confab has gone international. I attended the premier Confab London conference last week, and the themes that emerged from two days of talks transcended cultural considerations, framing content strategy in a context that was sometimes well-established, sometimes surprising, but entirely universal.

Tapping Into Emotion

Kate Kiefer Lee of MailChimp said it most succinctly: Content not only makes people do things; it makes people feel things. When considering what content is appropriate for a given experience, we should think about what customers might be feeling when they arrive— and how we want them to feel upon interacting with our content or completing a task. In copywriting, this is about knowing the difference between voice and tone. But it’s also about planning content with empathy and giving customers the content they need at each moment to feel more confident, better understood, and more connected to our brands.

Practicing the Art of the Quest

We talk a lot about storytelling. Matt Thompson of NPR ratcheted it up a notch, calling on content strategists to turn our stories into quests that our customers can rally around. Rather than selling customers on the end of the story—the product or service—we should take them on a journey, galvanizing them with the mission behind our clients’ products and services, or the benefits and solutions they offer. As we all know, getting involved in the story is much more powerful than simply knowing what happens at the end.

Expanding on Accessibility

We’ve long considered accessibility a key to successful and enduring content. Wiep Hamstra spoke about the foundational importance of accessibility, comparing it to the base of a mountain whose peak represents a culmination of smart UX, relevant, adaptive content, and responsive design.

But Karen McGrane took the concept of accessibility a bit further in her presentation on the mobile content mandate, stating the importance of adaptive content as a means of reaching a large (and growing) percentage of the global population whose Internet usage happens primarily—or only—on mobile devices. Accessibility isn’t just about reaching handicapped or disabled users; it’s about our responsibility to make content available and accessible to everyone in equal measure.

Getting Back to our Roots

For many of us, writing was (and maybe still is) our entrée into the world of content strategy. And for all the innovative ideas and creative concepts that were presented throughout Confab London, the one that echoed the loudest and most frequently was the mantra, “It’s just good writing.”

How to write for mobile? There isn’t a special trick to it, said Karen McGrane. Good writing is just good writing—and often, the writing we find on mobile websites, with its brevity, clarity, and clear calls to action, is just better all around.

Writing for the web? That’s really just about good writing too, no matter the medium, said Ginny Redish, who confessed that she wanted to include the post-script “And this all applies to print, too,” in Letting Go of the Words. (Her publisher didn’t go for it.) When it comes to optimizing the text content on our clients’ websites, it’s a critical part of our jobs to know what constitutes great writing—for everyone, across every channel—and how to bring it to the forefront.

Broad Inspiration

One week later, what resonates most with me is the breadth of thinking these themes reflected. In our discipline, every intellectual curiosity—from socioeconomics to basic psychology to old-fashioned love of the written word — is relevant and even essential to making our work more insightful and effective. Content strategy isn’t just about text and images, after all — it’s about understanding, empathizing with, and engaging real people with complex motivations. And our job descriptions will continue to evolve to reflect a greater sense of how all those factors come together across diverse cultural contexts, informing better, clearer, more universal content experiences.

 

SXSW 2013: Twitter, Transparency, and Data Storytelling

Robert Stribley   March 21, 2013

The signal and the noise (photo by stribs)

Last week I attended South by Southwest (SXSW) for the first time. As a “South By” virgin, I was determined to make the most of my experience. I went expecting to have to sift through many talks to find some gems that matched my particular interests. Instead, I found myself confronting a tsunami of interesting panels, presentations, and interviews. I was often faced with choice paralysis.  Fortunately, I managed to attend many excellent presentations, though it took some serious, daily research and planning to do so. And I managed to avoid attending too many stinkers (and there were some). Here’s just a handful of the subjects and themes from presentations that really resonated with me.

Transparency & Versioning

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan and Eric Price, an MIT grad student, hosted a discussion on “Version-Controlling the News.” In the real-time arena of digital news-gathering, it’s easy to see how a story posted moments ago could quickly become outdated and need to be revised as facts stream in. However, most news organizations (and content publishers in general) aren’t particularly effective at communicating the hows and whys behind those sometimes myriad changes. Sullivan and Price argued for more transparency in versioning such content and for granting users access to the previous versions of stories, so they can evaluate them for themselves. 

Additional considerations: What happens when a new story changes so much it’s not the same story? Shouldn’t both be displayed? Sometimes a story starts out with one set of authors, but the assigned authors change. Even the direction, tone and theme of stories can change significantly after they’ve already been published. With that in mind, Price developed NewsDiffs, which tracks and archives changes in articles after publication — currently within The Times, CNN.com, Politico and bbc.co.uk. Increasingly, then, we need to provide readers with access to previous versions of content, highlighting the rationale at least for the more significant changes. (Spelling errors, missing commas, grammatical errors, etc, are not as vital, though these can still be catalogued as a second, less significant but nonetheless visible category of changes). Apply this concept to content everywhere. As readers better understand versioning, it’s not hard to understand why they’d demanded it, and how content versioning (and usable experiences coupled to it) will become key in maintaining brand transparency.

Crafting Stories from Data

“Big data” was a big theme at SXSW this year, and one very engaging panel, “Journalism by #s,” examined the role of data in journalism. Participants described how journalists can discover new stories without leaving their desks. The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker, for example, explained how his brother broke a groundbreaking Nature story about the core temperature of plants, simply by examing existing data, available to anyone on the Internet. James Grimaldi (also of the WSJ) drummed home the importance of knowing the tools at your disposal: Every journalist should be familiar with data-oriented applications like Excel and Access. (You can certainly count me among those writers who have come to appreciate the redeeming organizational features of an ostensibly boring application like Excel.) 

On the other hand, Grimaldi said, we also bear a responsibility for the context within which we present data and the accompanying details. When NY paper The Journal News decided to publish a list of gun owners with their addresses, it did no one any favors. Grimald called the effort a “disaster” and “a data dump with little analysis.” Data when exposed like this no longer lives within a moral vacuum.

Sure, this session was conducted by journalists, but as content strategists it’s not difficult to imagine how any company we’re working with could have a wealth of data (about the company, about consumers, about users) which is rich with stories, just waiting to be discovered. It’s up to us to dig for them — or, at least, to train our clients how to dig for them.

Saving Languages With Content Strategy

Participants on the “Indigenous Tweets, Visible Voices & Technology” panel were all, in one way or another, engaged in enterprises which give an online voice to endangered languages. They discussed strategies for saving or at least preserving languages via content and social platforms, via blogs, podcasts, video, etc. — basically, whatever creative online means made sense for a particular community. Kevin Scannell, founder of the site Indigenous tweets.com, tracks the use of endangered languages on Twitter, including languages limited to as few as a single voice. He also explained how neither Google nor Facebook are allowing new languages and translations of their platforms to be added, so he’s leading crowd-sourced, unofficial translations of these endangered languages, which can be implemented via Greasemonkey scripts. Similarly, Kara Andrade has worked to develop localized content management systems, which allow Guatemalans to create and disseminate content in their own language. This panel served as a salient reminder for the real-world good we can do as content strategists, when we apply our skills creatively to such issues around us.

Treating Twitter as a Source

Members of the “Global News After the Twitter Revolutions” panel shared how that social platform can serve as a source of valuable information, stressing, of course, the need to ensure individual sources are reliable. NPR’s Andy Carvin explained how he actually searches on expletives in order to find sources close to a breaking events: As in “What the fuck was that?” getting tweeted after an earthquake. He also described his method of building Twitter lists in advance of trackable events like hurricanes, so he’ll have a stream of reliable information from first responders, based on geolocation where possible, as the event unfolds. And he warned of people parroting news terms they don’t fully understand like “breaking news,” “confirmed” or “reports,” which might lead to the spread of misinformation and even hoaxes.

CNN’s Meredith Artley discussed strategies for tweeting at high-traffic times of day. For example, CNNbrk developed the Lunch break tweet, a tweet about something, an interesting story, that isn’t their typical breaking news, but they know Twitter users can enjoy on their lunchtime break, giving a little boost of traffic to CNN. 

There’s a lot more I could share. Data genius Stephen Wolfram proved fascinating in his explanation of how, “Computation is going to become central to every field.” The founder of Architecture for Humanity Cameron Sinclair showed how “resiliency [in damaged communities] is not by chance,” but by design. Certainly a principle we can apply to our own work. And I saw an excellent panel on “Copyright & Disruptive Technologies,” wherein Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh proclaimed, “Don’t sue me for what other people do on my service,” and litigator Andrew Bridges demonstrated the incredible disparity between punishment for copyright violations and other crimes.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are my notes from each of these sessions:

 

Everything Is Not Important

Robert Stribley   March 15, 2013

The Breakdown: A couple months ago we spoke with our own Robert Stribley about his plans for his SXSW talk. Now he’s back from his Austin adventure and we’re sharing his slides with you. Next week we’ll have more from Robert on his first experience at Southby.

Speaking at SXSW last week gave me the opportunity to share some thoughts on prioritizing content, which I’ve been mulling over for the past few years. These seven principles aren’t all unique to me by any means (and I’m sure the content strategy community can divine many more), but I really enjoyed corralling my thoughts on how to focus on what truly is important within an experience and how, if necessary, to “murder your darlings.”

 

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Events

  • SXSW Interactive

    March 7 – 11, Austin, TX
    Several of our contributors will be speaking this year. If you’re going, say hi to Rachel, Robert, & Hawk.

  • Confab Minneapolis

    May 7-9, Minneapolis, MN
    The original Confab Event. Rachel will be there doing her Content Modelling workshop with Cleve Gibbon. Get details and we’ll see you there!

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    May 8-9, San Francisco, CA
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    intelligentcontentconference.com

  • Confab for Nonprofits

    Jun 16, Chicago, IL
    Another new Confab Event! Early Bird pricing until March 7:  http://confabevents.com/events/for-nonprofits

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    July 1-3, Frankfurt, Germany
    International Content Strategy workshops & conference: csforum2014.com Call for speakers now open!

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