Whether your content is produced in-house or licensed from a third party, make sure it’s complete from top to bottom. Otherwise, you might send someone off in a JAZZ RAGE.
LISTENING TO MUSIC HAS CHANGED
I love music. After a lifetime of being hooked on CDs and LPs, I recently jumped into the realm of getting a music subscription online. The charm of these services is that they don’t require any downloads—all of the music is streamed on-demand.
Services like this are not new. They’ve been around for some time, actually.
I took the plunge because one of the services, Rdio, had finally created an online experience with the things I wanted. It’s easy to use. And easy to sync across different devices and locations. BUT, there are some common content issues that keep it from being a fantastic experience.
PROVIDERS NEED CONTENT
Services like Rdio work by licensing content, making it available each month to eager listeners for a subscription fee. Record labels strike deals with these online services to provide access to their catalog of titles.
Rdio has done their part, making the layout and features downright lovely. So lovely, in fact, that I’ve been going about as if I were a salesman for the company, begging people to sign up.
Being a jazz nerd, I immediately typed “Miles Davis” into the search box on my first visit. This is where the trouble started.
BUT SOMETHING MAKES ME KIND OF BLUE
First, some jazz history: Miles Davis played trumpet with bebop sax legend Charlie Parker early in his career. They made fabulous recordings. Rdio makes enjoying these rather difficult. To illustrate, here are the entries for Miles and Charlie Parker:
Figure 1. Miles is agitated. (Click to enlarge/exasperate.)
Although it’s likely not the fault of Rdio, there are some serious content problems here. Content is duplicated. Other content has frustratingly incorrect or incomplete metadata. Some content suffers both problems.
Some of these distinctions make sense. But others feature almost comical misspellings or strange divisions (comma or hyphen or slash or semi-colon or … ).
A careful audit of this content prior to publication would have surfaced these content classification crimes. Miles himself would arrest you for such offenses against his music.
Figure 2. The Miles Davis album “You’re Under Arrest.”
At any rate, this many misleading options will bewilder even seasoned enthusiasts.
CONTENT MILESTONES OF THE UNWANTED SORT
Even more jazz history: In 1958, Miles recorded a classic album titled “Milestones.” Get it? Miles? Tones? Milestones? (This is as good as jazz humor gets, folks.)
That search I mentioned earlier? For Miles Davis? It yields 368 separate album choices. If you wanted to listen to the “Milestones” album on Rdio, you would be presented with yet another content conundrum:
Figure 3. (Click to enlarge/enrage.)
When faced with 368 album choices, a listener can get overwhelmed, to say the least. They may switch from navigating the search results via text to relying on visual cues (in the form of album covers).
In Rdio’s case, album covers and artist names are considered metadata. Inaccurate and incomplete metadata makes navigating the options difficult, if not impossible.
When metadata is incomplete or inaccurate, people will flee. They’ll unsubscribe from your service and take their money with them. You don’t want that.
METADATA TO THE RESCUE
In the interest of creating a satisfying user experience, the record companies would do well to clean up the catalog they license to services like Rdio. As newer editions of “Milestones” are released, this user experience will only become more unwieldy.
Complete and accurate metadata will make your life easier now.
New technology and its applications will find new uses for content in coming years. Make sure that your content—and by extension, your metadata—is complete and accurate. Because it just may make your life easier in the future, too.
Whether it’s the printed word, television, or text messages, a new medium is often cause for debate: Some people lament what might be lost and warn of lurking dangers. Others celebrate the new possibilities and buy a new gadget from Apple.
So, it’s no surprise that new communication tools based on short formats—like Facebook, Twitter, and text messages—would prompt such a discussion. What are all those status updates, Tweets, and texts doing to our brains? Are they rotting our attention spans? Making us more distracted than a cat at a laser light show? Changing the very way we think?
Mittens is so totally into Floyd.
There’s a thoughtful piece about this over at Tom Johnson’s blog, I’d Rather Be Writing, discussing contemporary reading behaviors and short formats. The post was prompted by feedback Tom received suggesting that he shred some already sparse content because “no one’s going to sit through this.” In the accompanying thread, Tom and his readers discuss the more vs. less balance in different media and situations in detail, so I won’t try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, as content strategists, the issue of enough vs. too much never goes away.
How much? How many? How often?
My favorite comment in the above thread comes from Tim Rich, who proposes the following mantra: “As little as possible, as much as necessary.”
Tim’s handy phrase caught my attention because clients still ask: What’s the “right” number of navigation buttons and content categories? What’s the “right” length for a piece of web copy? How far will users scroll? How many clicks are too many?
Say it with me now: It depends.
That answer is a running joke, but it’s also true. One-size-fits-all works for a pretty small number of things. (Scarves, for example. And possibly, eye patches.)
Most situations call for some kind of assessment. Certainly that’s true of messy human endeavors like communication, knowledge, and understanding—all of which are interlaced with content.
As content strategists, we know there’s no simple answer to the question, How much content do we need? We have to assess a host of factors, including audience needs and tasks, business goals, the delivery medium, the nature of the content, the environment in which the content is accessed and used, and so on. And then we have to use human judgment, skill, and craftsmanship in our attempt to find the right balance.
Some clients can handle that kind of ambiguity—offer up a metaphor about tailors or house builders, and they get it; they see the value in a thoughtful, customized answer to complex questions.
Other clients want us to cite best practices or to emulate what the competition is doing. Best practices are useful, sure, but applying them blindly and without consideration for the particular situation misses a whole lot of opportunity and may even cause damage.
Less is more. Except when I want more.
Maybe Goldilocks was fickle. Then again, maybe she really knew her own mind and didn’t want to settle for something that didn’t fit her needs.
Recently, I wrote about the benefits of a less-is-more content strategy. I wasn’t advocating a “gut-and-cut” approach to content or for brevity above all. Like cocktails, politics, and reality TV, maxims should be consumed in moderation.
In the post I commented on the value of ditching excess in order to make room for what’s essential. The thing is, what’s essential changes with every situation, and imposing strict limits based on what’s “right” is arbitrary and counterproductive. Random examples:
Most books aimed at young adults are under 200 pages. There are exceptions. When the content is good and in demand, attention spans stretch to accommodate 784 pages. Sales were good.
Most help content is short for a reason: users want quick answers in order to get a task done and move on. But there is such a thing as too sparse. I’m looking at you, Spøklaår nightstand.
“As little as possible, as much as necessary.”
Tim’s mantra is reasonable and useful. It may be only slightly less ambiguous than “it depends,” but it is more to the point. An answer like that might help clients understand that content strategists aren’t trying to apply a set of one-size-fits-all rules. Instead, we’re trying to create bespoke solutions that fit the needs of audiences and businesses in specific situations.
If you grew up in a certain era, you probably remember fiddling with the dial on a car radio, trying to tune in a station. When you found the signal: hooray, music! And in between? Noise. Sometimes, web content can seem a lot like the static you hear between stations.
Is your website broadcasting loud and clear? Even if your content is terrific, presenting it the wrong way can make it seem like static. Let’s look at what you can do to make your signal heard.
Even good content can be noise
When we talk about web content, we talk about messaging and audiences—what your site is trying to say, and who you’re saying it to. If something is clearly off-topic or doesn’t apply to any of your audiences, it’s noise. Most people who work on content will accept that verdict, if grudgingly.
Where things get a little touchier is when something is only marginally relevant. Or relevant to the wrong audience. Or not clearly focused. The information you needed yesterday may be noise today. Perfectly good content will be noise to somebody.
The bottom line: When you’re looking for information, everything that’s not what you need at this very minute is noise.
Noise gets in the way
When there’s too much noise, it’s hard to find the signal. With that car radio, we all had days where we got fed up with the static and popped in a cassette.
Sometimes content is labeled vaguely, and this only compounds the problem. If people can’t tell at a glance whether something is what they’re looking for, you’re probably making them work too hard. And if you make your audience work too hard, they’re likely to wander off and find a site that gives them more help.
If your site has too much static, they’ll pop in the cassette—and, for that visit at least, you’ve lost them.
Boosting the signal
So, how can you break through the noise and get the most out of your content?
Segmentation. We often recommend segmenting content by audience, if your audiences can self-identify, like “Patients” and “Doctors.” (Or sometimes you may need to organize your content by task, or by where the content falls in the purchase cycle.)
Prioritization. Understand your audiences and their tasks, and decide what your website is trying to do. Then make the site structure— and the page structure—reflect those priorities.
Clear labeling. Specific and accurate link text, page titles, and headings are essential. They’re like the numbers on that radio dial. Without them, your audience is just fiddling around hoping to stumble upon something worthwhile.
In many cases, improving your signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t mean deleting a lot of your content. It means finding a better way of organizing and presenting what you’ve got.
Chances are, you’ve got the information people are looking for. Put a good clear signal out there, and they’ll keep tuning in.
As an Information Architect and HUGE Martha Stewart fan, I have unrealistic expectations about how organized my house should be. I periodically take on projects to get sections of my house in order. I approach them similar to my work projects, with audit and analysis, followed by designing a solution and implementing the structure.
Early attempts at these projects would always stall in audit and analysis. I would come across the random things that just didn’t seem to go anywhere. Unable to find a home or at least some friends for said item would paralyze me into inaction.
But I’ve since found a solution that’s made my projects finish without fail… I get rid of it.
This doesn’t always work, but approaching a large organizational task by assuming that I will be getting rid of anything that is redundant or without a home clarifies the usefulness of the item and my emotions about it.
If I truly cannot part with it, then it needs a home. Usually that home is a highly prominent location that allows for organization based off of frequent use, like a utility drawer.
I’ve since transferred this process to wrangling source content. When I’m left with the stragglers that aren’t like anything else, I consider a series of questions:
"What will this information add to the experience?"
"What would be lost if this information went away?"
"Who would be affected if they look for this and can’t find it?
"By including this information, will it get in the way of more important information?"
If any or all of the answers to the above mean I need to keep it and there’s still no obvious home, perhaps I need to reconsider how I’ve organized things.
If I don’t need to keep it, then it’s simple. It just goes away.
Useful, usable website content is not about providing every single piece of information that anyone could ever think of, but instead focusing the information that people are most likely to want and use.
Getting rid of extra stuff clarifies your message and makes it easier for the majority of people to learn what they came there for.
So when you’re faced with leftover pieces of content start with "what if we got rid of it?" If you can answer that, the rest is much easier.
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.
At lunch the other day a friend asked me, "Where can I find somebody smart, but really cheap, to be my ghost-tweeter?" A guy next to her obviously thought she was loony. Not me; I’m used to it.
Twitter-as-content-commodity was a new twist, but her conundrum was very familiar. What she was really saying was, "I know I need smart content, but I don’t want to pay for it." On a grander scale, many organizations have the same attitude.
Most people understand that content has value. Big value. They just can’t prove or measure the ROI. And, therefore, they have no concept of how much content is worth.
Proving and measuring the value of content is complex. But, as content professionals, we have to do it. I have some ideas about how to do it, but before I even go there, let’s talk about why everybody is so confused in the first place.
Brace yourselves, content folks. We’re going to talk economics. I promise there will be no math involved.
1776: Defining product value, Adam Smith style
I’m no expert in economics, but I know this much: Adam Smith was a smart dude. Back in 1776, he wrote The Wealth of Nations, a book that basically defined economics as we know it. His ideas still influence the way we assign value to things today.
For the market economy to work, Smith said products of value have three characteristics:
Excludability: The seller can "exclude" you from owning or using the product unless you pay for it; the product is difficult to replicate so you have to buy it from the seller.
Rivalry: It’s more expensive for two people to use the product then one person (So, I can buy a pair of shoes for $10, but if we both want to have shoes it’ll be $20).
Transparency: Customers can see exactly what they’ll get before they buy the product.
These rules work pretty darn well for things like apples, shoes, or kazoos. Those are the kind of tangible products people bought in 1776. (Well, kazoos weren’t invented yet, but apples and shoes surely were.)
1956: A funny thing happened on the way to the factory
Smith’s theories worked pretty well for 180 years, but in 1956 something happened that would have surprised Adam – in the U.S. the number of white-collar jobs surpassed blue-collar jobs.
So, instead of people working in factories and farms making tangible products, people were sitting behind desks making … information. Accountants creating reports, lawyers creating legislation, advertisers creating TV spots, etc., etc. In 1956, content/information was red hot. The first computers were up and running (Check out the photo below of a home computer in 1956 for proof). Heck, Marilyn Monroe even married Arthur Miller, a playwright (you may have heard of him).
The industrial age was over. The information age had begun. Information was in demand in a way it had never been before — and Smith’s three pillars of economic value had started to blur.
1990s: Content breaks all the rules
Until the 1990s, Adam Smith three pillars seemed to be adequate, if not perfect, even for content. Before then, if you wanted some information, you bought a book or newspaper (tangible items). Sure, you could lend your book to a friend, who would get the content for free, but content creators were largely paid for their work.
But, with the advent of the internet, the pillars of value for content collapsed.
Excludability: Content is now easy to create, use, and replicate.
Rivalry: When content is posted online – even if you make me pay for access – I can easily share it with millions of friends without paying a cent.
Transparency: Once you’ve looked at content in-depth, you really don’t need to buy it, do you?
Simultaneously the business importance of good content went sky-high AND the value of content tanked (according to Adam Smith). On top of it all, the internet movement suggested that all content should be free. And society agreed.
2009: Classical economics is toast
So, let’s recap. Today, content is one of the most important business assets in the world. AND, according to traditional economics, content has little value. AND people expect to get it for free (see newspaper industry stats). AND we’re experiencing the worst recession in 80 years.
The economic system is just plain out of date.
I wish I could tell you about the economic model of the future. (Not only would that be nice for you, but I’d make zillions.) Lots of brilliant economists have been trying to figure it out for years.
No wonder people are confused about what to pay for content strategy and creation.
COMING SOON: The Value of Content, Part 2 (The Sequel)
Here’s what I do know. Content makes money. Content saves money. And, ROI of content can be measured. That’s what my next blog post will be about in a few weeks. (It’s just like when the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii – two whole episodes of non-stop fun! Just. Like. That.)
Until then if you have any great examples or ideas about content ROI, send them my way (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d love to hear about them, and I’ll include them in the blog when I can.
Like many information architects, I come from a design background. That’s why I am very familiar with the tasks and process involved with design. While I have always worked closely with writers throughout my career, I have never been a writer myself.
I know that in past lives I have made a terrible assumption. Working at Brain Traffic I have seen daily proof that I am not the only person to make this mistake. And while I have seen the light, this assumption still runs rampant thorough the industry. I’m here to set the record straight.
Here it is … ready?
It’s the information architect’s job to find the source content.
Many information architects and designers try to draw a parallel between writing and design. Finding and selecting the colors, fonts, images, etc., is an engaging and exciting part of creating a great visual design. Searching for or creating the source imagery is why many designers get up everyday and go to work.
Conflicts often arise between information architects and designers when the interface is involved. It’s understandable, then, that the IA might assume that writers don’t want the IA to have anything to do with choosing the source content they’ll use to write a website. Wrong.
The writer loves it when an IA points out the relevant source content so he or she can read it, decipher it, and consolidate it into a clear and useful message. They want to focus on the tone and voice of the content. They want to turn nonsense into plain language, often on a tight timeline.
With all respect to the design process, locating source content for every single page of a site is much more time-intensive than finding source assets for representational pages of visual comps. And, digging into the source content is something that should never be skipped when you’re creating the architecture for a new site. From my experience, it’s the only way to plan for a great site that has meaningful content on all of its pages.
So, make sure you know what source content will be used for every page on your site and document it for your writer. Your writer will thank you for it. Trust me.
Now that the social media tools that define Web 2.0 have moved into the mainstream—and believe me, it’s mainstream now that our moms are on Facebook—the interactive community has moved on to the next big thing: Web 3.0.
Recently I’ve seen an increase in tweets and blogs about the topic. After trying to follow the conversation, I had to admit to myself I didn’t really know what “web 3.0” meant. So I decided to see what the buzz was all about.
Here’s your crash course in Web 3.0, in case you were wondering, too.
What is Web 3.0?
The first thing you should know is that the definition of Web 3.0 is still a little murky.
Here’s what some people are saying about it:
"Web 3.0 is about making the web a more personal web. [It’s] an internet that can anticipate my needs, understand my meaning and even allow me to find information better than ever. " Judy Shapiro, Ad Age
" The core idea behind Web 3.0 is to extract much more meaningful, actionable insight from information. The goal of Web 3.0 is to reorganize information so users can capture what things are and how they are related." Web 3.0 Conference site
"… Web 3.0 is about open and more structured data – which essentially makes the Web more ‘intelligent’. The smarter the data, the more things we can do with it. The current trends we’re seeing today – filtering content, real-time data, personalization – are evidence that ‘Web 3.0′ is upon us, if not yet well defined." Richard MacManus, Read Write Web
Web 3.0 is also sometimes called the semantic web. But sometimes the semantic web is referred to as a component of Web 3.0. Like I said: murky.
Why could Web 3.0 be awesome?
According to the various definitions out there, we’re on the verge of the BEST INTERWEBS EVER. In a nutshell, it sounds like Web 3.0 aims to be a customized information delivery system that intuitively caters to your every want and need—wherever you are.
Yes, this includes more and better mobile apps. And not just for the iPhone. (Please? Thank you.)
According to the Web 3.0 Conference people, the benefits of Web 3.0 are totally rad:
This seemingly simple concept will have a profound effect at every level of information consumption, from the individual end user to the enterprise.
Web 3.0 technologies make the organization of information radically more fluid and allow for new types of analysis based on things like text semantics, machine learning, and what we call serendipity — the stumbling upon insights based on just having better organized and connected information.
Why might Web 3.0 Suck?
Besides the inherent fear that a “smart” web is the first step to a Terminator-style robot revolution, some valid concerns have been raised about Web 3.0.
Recently, Advertising Age’s Judy Shapiro wrote a blog to express her concerns. Her post “In Web 3.0 We Trust – or Not” explores the need to integrate the human element of trust into the forthcoming “intelligent” web.
She writes that Web 3.0 risks disaster:
"… because as our dependence on the internet grows, a lack of trust will unravel any or all of the marvelous innovations being conceived now.
What good is more linked data when we have no idea which data to trust? Wouldn’t you rather get a product recommendation from a trusted friend than a "paid" digital butler, ah, I mean agent?"
Besides wondering whether we can trust the content Web 3.0 serves up, we’ll also struggle with issues of privacy. In order to make the data more customized, Web 3.0 gadgets will need to gather more of our personal information. Which begs the questions:
What will they do with our personal information?
Will it be protected?
How will we know?
Will we like Web 3.0?
I think that depends, on many factors. And of course it will be heavily influenced by personal choice.
Factors to consider:
Will the technology deliver what it promises? Gadgets are cool, but only if they work.
How will the technology change our lives, in a tangible way? It has to be intuitive and easy-to-use to improve our everyday lives.
Can we overcome the feelings of mistrust brought on by an “intelligent” web? We have to be able to trust the content it serves up—and trust that our private information is protected.
How does Web 3.0’s focus on technology affect the need for publishing useful, useable content? This last factor is the most important, in my opinion.
Here’s what Rachel Lovinger, Content Strategy Lead at Razorfish, has to say about the influence of Web 3.0 on content:
“The promise is that [Web 3.0 is] going to help make content more readily accessible. So, the call-to-arms for content strategy is a big one. Like my tweet quoting Tom Tague [from his keynote at the Semantic Technology Conference on June 16], there’s a lot of content, not enough information.
Web 3.0 is going to help the good stuff rise to the top, but in order for that to happen, there has to be good stuff.”
Exactly. We need to continue planning for content the same way we’ve always needed to—but with more urgency. But don’t worry. Brain Traffic can help. Just give us a call. (The telephone may be so Web 0.0, but it’ll still work in Web 3.0. Promise.)
I have always liked the idea of medieval mapmakers using the phrase "Here Be Dragons" to denote unexplored or dangerous territories. Sticking a fire-breathing reptile in documentation when you run out of facts? That’s panache.
Unexplored and dangerous territories, indeed
These days, people aren’t so stylish. When an information architect (or user experience designer) doesn’t have the time (or the talent) to document content requirements, they stick a "page stack" on their site map. It looks like this:
Don’ t get me wrong: I’m cool with the stack if there is accompanying documentation that provides content details. But when an information architect uses the stack in place of content requirements, they are leaving the client in unexplored and dangerous territories (without even a dragon to warn them).
A little dragon goes a long way
So, I have an idea. If you’re a web professional doing information architecture and you’re not documenting content requirements, stick a dragon on your site map instead of a page stack. This will be a nice heads up for your client and particularly fun for those of you who used to be designers.
If you’re a client and you see a dragon on your site map, consider why your information architect is not worried about the information. Then, call Brain Traffic.
P.S.: Unfortunately, that here-be-dragons bit is mostly a myth. Only one medieval artifact, the Lenox Globe (ca. 1510), actually has the phrase "here be dragons" on it. Well, technically, there’s also the Borgia map (ca. 1430), but it doesn’t really say "here be dragons." It says (over a dragon-like figure), "Here are men who have large horns of the length of four feet, and there are even serpents so large, that they could eat an ox whole." Put that on your site map.