Archive for the ‘Editorial Strategy’ Category
We web writers like talking about bulleted lists. And keeping things short. And cake.
But for whatever reason, we don’t talk much about source content. We should. Because no matter how short our paragraphs, or how bulleted our lists, or how cake-filled our mouths, if we don’t start with good source content, we’re screwed.
Back up. Why’s source content so important?
Source content is to web content as marble is to the Venus de Milo. Or, more deliciously, as batter is to cake (mmm, cake). It’s the material you shape into your final product. If you want to create worthwhile content, you need to start with worthwhile source content.
What is “worthwhile” source content, exactly?
Source content comes in many forms—from your client’s current web content to print brochures to testimonials. Worthwhile source content gives you accurate facts and ideas relevant to your client and their users. Now, that’s not to say it doesn’t also contain outdated facts and irrelevant ideas. It probably does. That’s why you’re there—to separate the wheat from the chaff.
For example, if your client’s current print brochure says they work with Adobe, Apple, and Hall and Oates, that’s a fact. Arguably, a notable and powerful one. If your client’s current print brochure says they “work with many premier clients” that’s not really a fact. And it’s not a very powerful statement. Wheat. Chaff. See the difference?
Now, I know what you’re thinking …
But what if your client’s source content is all chaff? In that case, you’re going to have to do some digging. In other words, you’re going to have to ask for more source content. Or …
Okay, so. You asked the client for more source content. Turns out, they don’t have any. Now it’s time to dust off the ol’ notepad, hop in your Dodge Stratus, and conduct interviews!
That’s right. You’re gonna have to put on your reporter hat. Before you do, read up on how to do so effectively and efficiently:
1. Exhaust your resources.
The great thing about being a web writer these days? We have a handy tool called the Internet. Not like when our great-grandmothers were web writers. Back then, web writers didn’t HAVE the Internet.
Not funny? Let’s move on. My point is, the Internet obviously contains a lot of information. So, if you have holes in your source content, it can pay to do a quick Google search or two before approaching subject matter experts. If you get information from third-party sources, be sure to verify it with the client.
2. Prepare yourself.
Don’t go in to interview clients without a basic idea of what you’re looking for. If you’re working with a content strategy, refer to that.
If you’re not working with a content strategy, make a list of common questions users will likely ask when they come to a website that the source content didn’t answer. Such as, “How do I contact the company?” Or, “What, exactly, does this company do?” Write these questions down.
Then, when you interview stakeholders and subject matter experts, you can be very specific about what information you need from them. By being prepared, you save yourself and your client time. And you increase the likelihood you’ll get exactly the source content you need.
3. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Source content is a sensitive area for a lot of clients. Because, at some point—maybe even now—it wasn’t just their source content. It was their content. Their home page. Their brochure. They approved it. Maybe (though they might not cop to it) they even wrote it.
So, instead of saying, “Holy corn fritters your content’s horrendous!” say, “I’m SO thrilled to work with you. We’re gonna make your website super awesome.” When you show clients you’re on their side, they’ll open up. They’ll trust you. Which means they’ll be in a better position to answer your questions. And they are more likely to clearly, fairly judge your work once you start writing.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.
My kindergarten teacher used to say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” What a liar!
But as a web writer—and, OK, just as a regular human—I ask dumb questions all the time. Questions like, “So, what do your customers do with your toasters after they buy them?” Or, “What do you mean by ‘good,’ exactly?”
Dumb questions can get you really far for two big reasons. First, dumb questions loosen clients up. They’re so blown away by your sheer stupidity, they forget to be self-conscious. Instead of saying, “We’re an experienced team of technologists,” they say, “We fix computers. We’re computer fixers. You do know what a computer is, right?” They break things down in plain, direct, unmistakable terms—the same thing you’re trying to do for users.
Dumb questions also shake things up. They make people really think. By doing this, they open up all kinds of potential avenues. “Hey, do we need an FAQ section?” And, “Why exactly do we have fourteen paragraphs about our CEO on the About Us page?”
You ask dumb questions. They start asking dumb questions. The content gods smile.
And there you have it, chief. You’re now a source content rock star. Please, use your skills for good. And to score free cake for yourself and your loved ones (hint: me).
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing
Happy New Year!
(My New Year’s resolution was not to resolve anything this year. So far, I’m doing great.)
Say, I’ve gotten several requests for the "hive" diagram I use in presentations. It’s a simple, visual example of how web project team roles interact with one another.
This is it:
(click to see full-sized image)
I found the diagram on Skillset.org
back in ’08, but apparently they’ve pulled it down since then. So, as my gift to you, here it is. Wield it within your organizations at will.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing
As a writer or a content strategist, it’s your job to advocate for useful, useable, and on-brand web content. Like it or not, that responsibility includes unsexy stuff like error messages, functional copy, and automatic feedback copy.
Like most users, I never thought twice about automatic feedback copy until I ran into some bad examples of it. But since my experience on StratosphereHotel.com, I’ve done a lot of thinking about it.
What is automatic feedback copy?
Automatic feedback copy—also known as “automatic validation copy” or “real-time inline help”—is content that displays immediately after a user interacts with online content. It’s meant to guide the user’s actions to help them complete a task.
For example, it’s the “invalid email” message you get when you forget the “@domainname.com” part of your email address.
When automatic feedback copy goes awry
I recently signed up for email alerts from the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas, where I planned to stay. Filling out the contact form should have been a quick, easy task. Instead, I spent minutes struggling to understand their automatic feedback copy:
(click to see full-sized image)
What makes it bad automatic feedback copy?
They may seem harmless, but “Good Email” and “33 is perfect!” interrupt instead of support the user experience.
Here’s why. The copy:
- Doesn’t fit tone of the site
- Doesn’t move the user toward a goal
- May alarm the user
Using the wrong tone
Automatic feedback copy can be sassy—as long as it matches the site’s overall tone. A departure in tone makes for an inconsistent—and therefore unprofessional—website.
Missing the user goal
“Good email” is probably the Stratosphere’s way of saying “valid email address.” But what’s the point of patting your user on the back for their data entry skills?
“33 is perfect!” is equally problematic. I’m not sure the message is the appropriate response for age verification. A “thank you” or simply removing the default message—“You must be 21 to sign up”—would suffice.
Alarming the user
For many users, red font screams: Caution! Danger! Error! But instead of a warning, the red text gave me a compliment. “Good Email” just didn’t make sense to me in that context.
Why automatic feedback copy matters
Like every piece of content on your website, automatic feedback copy is an extension of your brand. Be mindful of how your online brand reflects—or detracts—from the brick-and-mortar customer experience.
If our rooms hadn’t already been booked, I may have reconsidered staying at the Stratosphere. But in contrast to a frustrating online encounter, my in-person experience at the hotel was more satisfying than busting a blackjack dealer. I’m glad I took the gamble.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Web Writing
I just finished reading Michael Arrington’s "The End of Hand-Crafted Content " (also published elsewhere as "AOL’s New Fast-Food-Content Strategy Means the End of Journalism You Actually Enjoy").
Since reading Wired‘s apocalyptic article, "The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model," I’ve certainly spent plenty of time bitching about the lowering of our already low standards for web content.
Here’s a summary of how mass-produced content works:
Pieces [(content to be created)] aren’t dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.
Then, the assignment is posted to a ginormous database; it’s accepted by a freelancer somewhere, who then throws something together as quickly as possible because he’s only getting paid, like, four dollars to create it. (Want to know what the best vodka in the world is? A random bartender from a random bar in Florida KNOWS THE ANSWER!) (Uh, you’ll have to sit through the ad first.)
So, in one fell swoop, Demand Media—and now AOL—are both flooding the search engines with awful, terrible content and gleefully commodifying the work of writers, videographers, editors, and other media professionals around the world.
I hate them. Oooooo, how I hate them.
But, you know what?
McDonald’s didn’t put La Belle Vie out of business.
Does McDonald’s make more money than La Belle Vie? Of course they do. They’re freakin’ McDonalds. But La Belle Vie is running a very fine, profitable business, thank you very much, turning out exquisite French food that makes me want to weep with joy. (Even their cocktail menu is extraordinary.) (No, I do NOT say that about every cocktail menu.)
You don’t have to eat at La Belle Vie to appreciate the metaphor. Not everybody wants McDonald’s, and nobody wants McDonald’s all the time. People go out of their way to find what will satisfy, even delight, their appetites.
AOL and Demand Media (and dozens more competitors, I’m sure) are anathema to pretty much anyone who wants an even slightly obscure question answered online. But in the long run, I’m betting on people, not algorithms. Just because I clicked on your stupid video doesn’t mean I can’t use my back button.
p.s. Google, get on this.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing
I’m currently seven months pregnant. Rather than developing nesting tendencies and actually cleaning my home, I have developed an addiction to reading craft blogs.
On many of these blogs, I’ve noticed the trend of labeling the comments section with something more customized than the standard "comments."
Here are a couple of examples:
It’s a great combination of being human and still being useful. This small change demonstrates an individual’s voice, but also clearly communicates the goal of the section.
I also thought it was a great example of how content (rather than design) can show brand and personality. These are blogs that are built on standard templates, but with this one little change, I suddenly felt a connection to a human on the other end.
Added bonus? People seemed to comment on these blogs more than the ones simply labeled "comments" or "leave a reply".
Many companies are locked into template designs that they feel constrained by, resulting in lamentations about being unable to add a lifestyle image or change a font. These projects are often time-consuming and expensive. Neither of those terms are popular, especially in the current economic climate.
So, when half of the room is screaming for a redesign while the other half is screaming back about time and budget, consider focusing on how the content can improve your site.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing
Writing error messages and instructional text isn’t exactly a sexy undertaking. Which is part of the reason it often gets left to the last minute.
Here’s an example of why that’s a really bad idea. I recently encountered this screen while reviewing my domain name renewal information (click on the image to enlarge):
I spent about two minutes here (which was about a minute and 45 seconds too long) trying to decipher the phrase “Bad username and/or password.” Because although I definitely had an account with the company, I couldn’t recall whether I’d previously activated my online customer service profile.
So I wasn’t clear on whether A) this was the place to create a username/password for that account and my entry wasn’t strong enough, or B) the username/password I entered simply didn’t match what I’d used to create the account.
Furthermore, I couldn’t tell whether the culprit was my username or my password, thanks to the clear-as-mud “and/or.”
Your users don’t notice your content unless it’s not working.
When you don’t take the time to carefully craft these seemingly dull and insignificant pieces of content, you end up with vague instructions and dead-end words like “bad.” And before long, you’ve got customers like me who are ready to jump ship.
On the other hand, when this kind of supporting copy is carefully planned for and constructed, it disappears completely into the experience. Your users don’t even notice it’s there. And that’s a good thing.
Remember: Your users expect perfection online. Or close to it, anyway. Why? Because nobody’s there in person or on the phone to guide them as questions arise. Which means your content has to anticipate those questions and provide answers at every turn. Make sure you’re always one step ahead with clear, actionable copy.
So, make your content work harder.
If this all sounds like a big job, well, it is. Writers agonize over stuff like error messages, links, and headlines every day. Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for writing killer instructional copy. Finding the right words depends on factors such as your audience, your business goals, your user needs, and your brand voice.
If you don’t have access to the kinds of metrics or processes that provide concrete insights, you can still cover many of your bases by asking yourself:
What questions does our current copy raise as users are trying to complete a particular task?
What are the implications of changing this word or deleting this phrase?
In how many different ways could this message be interpreted?
How can we minimize ambiguity?
How can we simplify or streamline?
Would a graphic be more helpful here than a word or sentence?
Even without tangible data to back up your changes, you’ll catch many of those careless copy oversights that frustrate your users and undermine business goals.
Posted in Editorial Strategy, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing
There’s a big fuss being made over the fact that Mr. Rupert Murdoch has said that his media empire will "probably remove our sites from Google’s index."
How DARE he hide his content behind the iron curtain of non-indexing?
Murdoch isn’t stupid. (Old and confused, yes. Stupid? Not so much.) He’s talking about making a seriously bold move, here, in the interest of keeping his empire from crumbling. So why are people freaking out?
It’s JUST WRONG. Right?
When the religion of the Web is that you can find anything you want, from anywhere, at any time, Murdoch’s plan is straight-up blasphemous.
With this in mind, our faithful interviewer asked, "One of the key, underlying principles of the Internet is that anyone from anywhere in the world can access information freely. Wouldn’t this change mean people have to afford it?"
Murdoch replied, "They’re already paying for newspapers. And anyone can afford a newspaper, they’re the cheapest things in the world. Electronically, it will be even cheaper."
(This cracks me up, because, of course, the majority of the world’s population either can’t afford newspapers or simply don’t have access to them … at least, newspapers that offer unbiased, quality reporting.)
Here’s what Rupert thinks you should do.
Generally, Murdoch wants you to know that his content is actually Quality Content because he employs real reporters, real writers, and real editors who offer experienced, insightful points of view. Which, of course, is true. However, this argument also implies that people shouldn’t go looking for "quality content" on search engines. No, no. You should go straight to an established publisher’s website.
Unfortunately, the internets don’t care so much about the "should"s. There’s a reason Google gets about a bajillion times more traffic than every publication website in the world … combined.
More than anything else, Murdoch is counting on his current readership’s loyalty to his brands. He admits, though, that he’s not sure what that’s going to look like in five, ten, twenty years… which means that this ends up looking more like a Hail Mary pass than anything else.
Rupert, dear, you can’t kill search.
Online readers typically know what they’re looking for, and they want the fastest way to get it. They want to be educated or entertained. They want their questions answered, their lives made easier. They have the Google or Yahoo! or MSN toolbar built into their browsers. They’re going to use it.
Murdoch doesn’t seem to get this, or care. The rest of the world, of course, does. Including you. You’ve been obsessed with SEO and page rankings for years. You don’t have the option of breaking up with Google.
However, you also shouldn’t be so obsessed with Google that you neglect to remember this all-important fact: getting your content indexed by the search engines isn’t enough to win eyeballs that matter. Just because your users can find your content doesn’t mean you’ve won your battle.
Content first. Google second.
Here’s where you can take a page from our friend Rupert and start placing significant value on content people will care about. Editorial oversight. Quality research. Quality writing. These things actually do matter. They inspire trust and motivate action.
Getting to quality content is worth your organization’s investment: time, budget, people. Because once your readers arrive from Google, they’ll either like what they see and stick around for a bit, or lunge for the back button.
Remember, people: If you have a website, you’re a publisher. If you participate in social media, you’re a publisher. If you create emails, help text, product descriptions … you’re a publisher.
You may not be selling content, but your content is selling you. Google won’t solve your problems. Of course, ignoring Google won’t, either … sorry, Rupert.
I just have to add this little gem: In the interview, Murdoch says that public broadcasting should be of the highest quality, which commercial broadcasting can’t afford to be. Then he tells us that " most of the stuff [public broadcasting does] is stolen from the newspapers now. And we’ll be suing them for copyright. They’ll have to spend a lot more money paying a lot more reporters when they can’t steal from newspapers."
Old. Confused. Sigh.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing
Whether you’re a writer, editor or content strategist, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how to effectively reach your audience. Maybe you pore over personas and case studies for inspiration. But there’s probably one resource you’re not considering—you! As a web user, you can be your own content expert.
Think about it. You know what an effective user experience feels like when you come across it: An instantly identifiable objective. Clean, concise copy. Benefits front-and-center. Easy navigation and clear task instructions.
Sure, style guides and success metrics are important tools for creating better content. But as a web writer and editor, I’ve learned that considering my own user experience every step of the way is one of the best strategies for success.
Here are some tips for developing your inner content expert.
Change your perception of web writing
We all hear a lot about the differences between print writing and web writing. Overall, web writing has to be more concise—scannable, task-driven, presented in bulleted lists, etc.—than print copy.
On the surface those differences seem pretty straightforward. I mean, when it comes down to it, good writing is good writing, right?
Not exactly. Web writing is a whole other animal. It needs to work in harmony with the design and information architecture to create a seamless user experience. It needs to help people DO something. And once you recognize that, you might need to change your approach to creating content.
How? By answering this one simple—but very important—question:
Is this something I’d want to read?
In other words, if I landed on this web page and read the copy, would it hold my attention? Would I get the information I need to complete my task? It may sound like common sense, but this approach can make a huge difference in the quality of your web content. Trust me.
White space is your friend
You’ve most likely visited a website filled with paragraph after paragraph of copy. And you’ve most likely zoned out, stopped reading, and maybe even left the site. I know I have.
Keep this in mind when you’re creating your content. If you can, see how it looks in a design mock-up. How dense do those paragraphs appear? Does the copy length seem intimidating and time-consuming? Would you read it if you were trying to complete a task in the midst of juggling a million other things, as your users likely are?
If not, start slashin’. Create some white space. Web users want to find what they need as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next task. They don’t want to spend a lot of time sifting through unnecessary copy to find the information they really need.
Remember, attention spans are short. Make sure your content keeps readers engaged.
Say something that matters
Concise copy alone isn’t enough. Bulleted lists don’t guarantee good web content. You still need to make sure the limited words on the page actually help users do what they came to do or learn what they came to learn. We’re talking product or service benefits, clear instructional copy, user-friendly navigation nomenclature, etc.
When you’re trying to complete a task or order a product, you want the most direct path possible to making it happen. And that path can’t be cluttered with mission statements or "why we’re great" language—unless it supports what you’re trying to do. Does this content help you make a purchase decision? Complete your task?
Great web content is about so much more than just brevity. It’s about choosing the right words (and sometimes showing rather than telling with good design) to support an effective user experience that will keep people coming back for more.
Keep this in mind when creating your own content. It’s not about the story you want to tell—it’s about what the user wants to know. Talk to them, not at them.
Now get out there and create some killer web content. You’re the expert, after all.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, User Experience, Web Writing
A few weeks ago, there was a rather heated debate (some might call it a "smackdown") between a few industry luminaries and their supporting communities. On one side, the web development/user experience community. On the other, the SEO community.
This battle has been fought more than once before. Is it possible for well-built, awesome websites and products to be findable simply by being built "right"? Are web developers behind the curve when it comes to the latest, most effective SEO techniques? Is either practice absolutely necessary for online success? Are they both?
There were some great discussion points that arose in this most recent debate. Let’s review.
"Good SEO techniques are just good web development techniques."
First, there appeared an inspired rant by the inimitable Derek Powazek on the evils of the search engine optimization (SEO) consulting industry. Derek’s ire was fueled largely by his recent experiences working with publishing organizations that are sinking millions of dollars into SEO initiatives while laying off writers left and right. His argument:
Good SEO techniques are just good web development techniques. They should be obvious to anyone who makes websites for a living. If they’re not obvious to you, and you make websites, you need to get informed. If you’re a client, make sure you hire an informed web developer.
Derek received a lot of feedback on his post and responded with a post called SEO FAQ, which is also an interesting read.
"SEO is a legitimate form of marketing."
The post was pretty heated, and it spread (accordingly) like wildfire. It wasn’t long before the post reached Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of SearchEngineLand.com and one of the SEO community’s most revered leaders. Danny posted a response to Derek’s first post, and then again to Derek’s "SEO FAQ" post. In Danny’s second post, he said:
Web development is not SEO. Good web developers will understand the fundamentals of SEO, in terms of good site architecture, crawlability and so on. But… few of them are dialed into how to handle giving Google and others a shopping feed. Or a feed of real estate listings. Or the completely separate ranking aspects that impact YouTube (the world’s second most popular search engine). Are they putting out a full-feed that Google Blog Search prefers? Are they checking that the URL shortener you use on Twitter spits back a 301 rather than a 302 redirect, or worse, frames stuff up via a 200 code?
Who has the secret sauce?
So. Whose advice is key for businesses truly succeeding online?
Fundamentally, Derek believes that the best way to drive traffic to your website or product is this: "Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again." His position is difficult to argue with. But, it’s also based on several faulty assumptions, not the least of which is that everyone who "makes something great" has the right people’s attention, online and off. And, frankly, most of us who want to promote our products or services really don’t.
From Danny’s point of view, helping individuals and organizations raise the visibility of their websites is instrumental to online success. Important, yes. Instrumental? Not so sure. What’s prioritized by SEO professionals is getting as many eyeballs as possible on the page. And yet, if what you’ve made isn’t great, you’re going to lose attention and possible conversions, fast.
Ultimately, Danny and Derek talked. Common ground (of sorts) was reached. Derek posted a very classy, very informed apology to "the people out there doing good work for real clients under the auspices of SEO." Danny published Thoughts on Web Developers, SEO, and Reputation Problems. The storm quieted. And we all went back to our work.
Alignment: A girl can dare to dream
I’m a content strategist, which means I care deeply about the expertise and insights on both sides of the table. I want websites to be awesome. And I want the right audiences to find out about them, so those users can accomplish what they need to, and be happy.
Really, that’s what I want. For people to have happy online experiences.
You know, here’s how I see it. For the web development community to tell us that "if you build it and it’s awesome, they will come" is simply naïve, bordering on irresponsible. However, for SEO professionals to promote SEO as one of the primary tactics for online success is equally misleading.
There’s some fairly obvious common ground, here, that’s getting overlooked. And that’s creating and maintaining awesome content that’s optimized for the right people to find it at the right time in the right places.
In my experience, both the web development and SEO communities have largely marginalized the importance of delivering relevant, quality content that’s focused on meeting clear business objectives and user needs. Or, they’ll pay passionate lip service to it, then go back to preaching and promoting their areas of expertise.
And so the content, as it often is, becomes someone else’s problem. Which ultimately becomes the end user’s problem. Which then results in a really crappy ROI for all those web design/development/SEO dollars you just spent.
One of the key components of any business’s online success is to start by deeply considering the content itself. Before you worry about building the damn thing, let alone promoting it, figure out why you’re publishing content, who it’s for, what it’s going to say, how it’s going to sound, and what happens to it once it’s "out there."
In other words … figure out your content strategy. Or, if you’re a web developer/designer or SEO wonk, ask for it. Because it should be informing what you are (or aren’t) doing.
Postscript: Get yourself edumacated
There were a lot of hopped-up, dueling posts and tweets that came out of both communities during the few days of battle. But there were a few added to the conversation in really valuable ways, and I encourage you to read them:
Additionally, I highly recommend the following resources to, well, pretty much anyone that deals with web content:
Onward, content comrades. Now, let’s hug it out.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy
I love this sign.
I pass by it every day on my way to work. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this sign is huge. I’d guess it’s six or seven feet tall.
I love it because it communicates information that’s useful to me (store name and hours) in a manner that is conscious of how I will be reading the information (quickly, from a bus, bike, or car).
Everything works together. It has both good information and an easy- to-read design. It’s a good reminder to not forget the how and when, in addition to the what, when looking at content for your site.
Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Writing