Content That Works, A RexBlog Series

content

This is a collection of essays about content that first appeared as blog posts, beginning March 3, 2010.

Introduction
1. The two kinds of online content that matter most to business customers: Chronological Content & Research Content
2. Everything yöu’ll ever need to knöw aböut research cöntent can be learned in the “metal umlaut” entry on Wikipedia
3. Two types of content that may not win awards, but that we can’t do without: Directories & Data
4. Lessons found in reporters’ notebooks and librarians’ index cards
5. Contextual content, in context

Introduction

(Originally posted on March 3, 2010.)

I thought I’d start with a complex and indiscernible examination of the nature and meaning of content, maybe something titled “What is content?” complete with footnotes citing Freud and McLuhan. I decided against that, however, as I can think of no content more boring.

If you’re taking notes or high-lighting your computer screen with a yellow pen, Rule #1: Boring content is not good content.

I’d prefer for these posts be engaging and witty. That’s because engaging and witty content is good. Engaging, witty and short content is even better. Engaging, witty, short and packed with expensive Google keywords like “asbestos exposure” is the highest valued content of all (not counting Dan Brown books and movies starring blue aliens).

For the past 30 years, I’ve been a professional content person.* Come to think of it, that’s all I’ve ever done. When I’m not creating or working with other creators of content or reviewing or syndicating content, I’m pondering how content works to make people buy things and, better yet, stay loyal to brands and institutions important to them. I’m such a content geek, I even study how people use content to express their contempt for large banks, airlines and politicians.

The specific kind of content I create is the kind of content used by businesses to communicate with customers. Therefore, I spend lots of time exploring the content that companies who are not my clients create or commission that is intended to do just that: communicate with customers.

Over time, I’ve discovered a sad fact: A lot of that kind of content is crap. So, I decided to write this series of posts about business content with the hope that maybe some — just a little, even — of that content would stop being so crappy.

To be honest, my first idea was to collect examples of that crappy content and to mock it. But the last thing I want to do is spend my time talking about crappy business content. More importantly, I don’t want my blog to show up when someone searches for “crappy business content.”

So, I am calling these posts “Content that works.”

The first post in the series will appear tomorrow (Thursday, March 4).

The name of that post will be: “The two kinds of online content that matter most to business customers.”

I know you’re already thinking, “Wow, I wonder what they are? I can’t wait until tomorrow to find out.”

I can’t either.

Rule #2: Great content is something you look forward to.

1. The two kinds of online content that matter most to business customers

(Originally posted on March 4, 2010.)

Business people do lots of things on the internet other than read or watch or listen to content. So when I say that only two kinds of content matter to them, I don’t mean web-based applications and email.

I mean the kind of content we typically think of as news and information and advertising and the stuff now called “post-advertising” — the kind of content that marketing people and journalists and bloggers and Twitter users create and add to the internet. The kind of content that companies hand over millions of dollars to Google so that business people will click through to see it.

I’ve given these two kinds of content that matter most to business customers the following names:

1. Chronological content
2. Research content

Chronological content is any content that is valued by a person because of its time stamp. And typically, it is valued for how fresh or recent its time stamp is.

Chronological content can be a tweet or a story appearing on the front page of the New York Times or a breaking news story on CNN or a blog post or anything else that comes in rivers, streams, flows, updates, subscriptions, blasts or other metaphoric words implying constant movement.

People in business need chronological content to stay on top of the information and knowledge they need to understand the ever changing context of their jobs. Chronological content helps them comprehend and navigate change. It helps them see opportunities and learn who is doing what in their industry. It makes them aware of new products and new processes. It helps them learn of new suppliers and new customers. It helps them impress their co-workers with how much they know about who got fired at every company in their industry.

Chronological content is necessary and addictive — and it keeps business people coming back for more.

Research content is any content that is valuable to a business person because it helps them shorten the “time to result.” That term, “time to result” is a term used by Google engineers to describe the time it takes for a user of Google to get to the information they are looking for. I had never heard that term until reading this blog post about music search — Now I use it whenever I can drop it into a conversation — and by my unofficial estimates, I’m up to 2-3 times per day. Heck, I loved that term “time to result” so much I registered the domain TimeToResult.com because I thought it would be a great name for a book or blog or to sell to someone who realizes it captures the essence of their well-funded startup company for which they need to purchase a domain name.

In business and online content, the concept of “time to result” typically refers to the time necessary for a busy business person to get to the information he or she needs to answer a question, make a decision or re-order the filter for 300 Acme-55-AA Gizmos.

This content is some of the most valuable content your media company or business-to-business or business-to-consumer company can provide. It’s the kind of content that is “mission critical” and that is “worth paying for” because it shortens a person’s “time to success.”

Unfortunately, it is some of the worst content most companies provide online. It is often crap. And if you care about the future of your business, or you want to provide content that people will pay for or if you want to have a future in marketing, then you better tune into the rest of this series on Content that Works, because creating content that isn’t crap is what this series is all about.

2. Everything yöu’ll ever need to knöw aböut research cöntent can be learned in this wiki entry

(Originally posted on March 8, 2010.)

logo of Motorhead, a metal band using an umlaut on the letter o in their logo

The subject line of this post is a bit misleading. There is no one wiki entry that will teach you every thing you need to know about research content. Fortunately, you can pick almost any entry on a well organized and managed encyclopedia-model wiki to learn what I’m about to explain. Typically, I’d use a page from SmallBusiness.com, as many of my theories about research content have come while spending hundreds of evening and weekend hours structuring it and learning what works and doesn’t by serving as “head-helper” to people who’d like to add content to it — or who can’t find something they’re looking for.

However, I’ve decided to use the Wikipedia entry Metal umlaut as the example for today’s “lesson.” If you’re curious why, it’s because many years ago, Jon Udell used this entry’s history to demonstrate what a screencast is. Also, after the first draft, I felt this post needed more cowbell.

So here’s what you can learn from a well-done wiki entry about the elements needed in great “research” content:

A precise title: The name of the article is not clever, nor written in any way to compete for busy readers by using tricks that blog writers are constantly trying, say: “10 ways to lose weight you can learn from metal umlauts.” Nope, it’s just “Metal umlauts” — and that’s even been shortened from “Heavy metal umlauts” at some point in the entry’s history.

The beginning of the article starts with a precise definition of what the title is: Unilke a news report that is structured around rules and metaphors people learn first while working on the high school paper — inverted pyramids and 5-W’s and an H (or is it 4-H’s and a W?) — research content is structured around rules learned by those who volunteered to work in the high school library. So, the first thing you should note (if you worked on the high school paper instead of the library), there is no “lede” — the strangely spelled word that American journalists use for the opening paragraph. In the UK, journalists use the easier-to-comprehend term “intro,” which is, come to think of it, a good description of what the opening of good research content should be: a precise introductory definition of the topic about to be explained.

Here’s the beginning of the Metal umlaut entry:

A metal umlaut (also known as röck döts) is an umlaut mark that is sometimes used gratuitously or decoratively over letters in the names of heavy metal bands, for example those of Mötley Crüe and Motörhead.”

You should note that the opening sentence also displays something about good research content that most people don’t know: it can contain wit, as in the way a contributor threw in the term röck döts using metal umlauts

Overview: After the opening, a well-organized Wikipedia entry has a few sentences of overview — typically filled with words and terms related to the topic, thus, if someone is searching for the topic and doesn’t quite enter into Google the correct word or terms for the subject, they might still find the article.

Table of contents: On the majority of articles appearing on Wikipedia, each section and sub-section title of the article is automatically gathered into a Table of Contents that appears in a box at the top of the page. Let me repeat that: Every article has a table of contents that is automatically created from the subject lines of sections and subsections of the article. Those of us who manage sites built on the MediaWiki platform (the open source software Wikipedia uses) know how to override the default settings of Wikipedia to move — or remove — the “TOC.” However, the default setting automatically creates a TOC, giving the reader (and Google) a precise understanding of all the types of information that can be found on the page — and an article-level navigational tool.

Intra-site links: Just look at all those links on the page that go to other pages on Wikipedia. Not only is this good for the researcher who wants to dig deeper into a new term or concept, it is another human-crafted hint to Google for helping to understand the relevancy of words appearing in the article with content found on other pages of the site. Great online research content is packed with inline links to other pages on the site that provide more understanding of the linked word or term.

Citations: One of the ways Wikipedians have tried to minimize the complaints about fuzzy facts appearing on the site is to require citations that appear as footnotes. If you know about the role journal citations played in the origins of Google, you might think about the possible role such citations might play in the current Google algorithm. For researchers, these citations may be the most valuable content appearing on a Wikipedia entry.

“See also” links: These are links to other pages or related categories on the wiki. Unlike inline links that go to articles related to individual words appearing on the page, these links are related to the topic of the entire article appearing on the page. (Sidenote: On a blog post, I believe inline “external links” are good etiquette and the best practice. However, on a research-oriented site, I believe the only inline links should be to pages on that site, and external links should appear as citations or appear in the “eternal links” section of the page.)

External links: As I have advised my children and anyone who reads this blog, Wikipedia is not “truth,” but it can serve as a gateway to truth. One of the most challenging aspects of managing a quality wiki is policing the external links — they are magnets for link spammers. (They are the reason we have a somewhat high barrier to editing an entry on SmallBusiness.com.) Some of the most hotly debated aspects of collaboration on a wiki entry can be what external links to add. Unlike a directory or search engine, a wiki entry is not a place where you collect all the links on that topic (or worse, links that have no possible relationship to the topic), but rather, where you list the definitive or most useful links related to that topic.

Categories: If you’ve read this far, you’re in luck: Here is the true magic of Wikipedia and the MediaWiki platform. I’ve waited until the end, because it is so incredible that I consider it a trade secret. The taxonomy of a wiki is primarily managed through Categories. Across the bottom of each entry, you’ll see a list of Categories to which that article belongs. Great research content is organized with such structure. The term given to the science and art of categorization is “taxonomy.” In some ways, the use of Categories on a wiki is like “tagging” content, but in a more formal and structured way. And to completely bury the most important thing you can learn in this post (again, I don’t like giving secrets away): Categories turn each page of a wiki into the equivalent of a “site map” for the topic of the article. For the reader — and Google — Categories organize every bit of content on the site on every page, making each entry a micro-site about one topic.

3. Two types of content that may not win awards, but that we can’t do without

(Originally posted on March 11, 2009.)

One of the ways you can measure the importance our culture places on different kinds of content is by observing the awards associated with them. For example, film and video have all sorts of awards that lots of people seem to care about — even people who don’t watch that much film or video. Music has all sorts of awards, and not just Grammys or CMAs. In my hometown, Nashville, almost every day there are short items on local websites about parties celebrating Gold Records or some award I’ve never heard of.

And speaking of awards you’ve probably never heard of, in the corner of the content world where I live, a corner that used to be called custom publishing but now is called content marketing or custom media, I’m grateful there are many awards for content created through the collaborative efforts of my colleagues and clients. They look very impressive hanging on walls or sitting on shelves.

But content that wins awards is not always the content that users of the internet find most important at any given time.

Much of the time, the most valuable content is what I described in a previous post as “research content” that helps shorten the time between a user beginning a search and finding the information they need to make a decision or fill in a knowledge gap.

Such content will never win awards, however, because it falls into two categories that are not understood or appreciated by most “professional content” people.

Those two categories are:

1. Data
2. Directories

Data is not an easily understood form of content for most of us who think content is a form of personal expression, like great writing, photography or film. Granted it’s hard for anyone to understand something that has as the opening line on its article in Wikipedia: “The term data means groups of information that represent the qualitative or quantitative attributes of a variable or set of variables.” Huh?

In the content creation and marketing fields, we can often become obsessed with data we believe reveals an understanding of how people act and react and what shade of green makes them want to purchase a box of cereal.

But that’s not the kind of data I’m talking about.

I’m talking about data that is presented to people as content that can help them make a decision. Here’s a short list of the kind of data I mean:

1. A phone number
2. The best price on an Acme 44.cc gizmo
3. A product specification list detailing the Acme 44.cc gizmo
4. The current temperature in Dallas
5. The definition of the word is

There may be one, but I’m not aware of it, annual awards given out for the best phone number, or the best temperature in Dallas. And while I feel certain there are all kinds of awards for people who collect and organize such content, I doubt ABC would air it on a Sunday night.

But it’s vital content to a big percentage of internet users — all day, every day.

Directories are also among the least glamorous forms of media. But they can be among the most useful to the user and most valuable to the creator (a media company or marketer). Most people think of Google as a search engine. However, a big part of what people — especially people who are working — use Google to do, is to serve as the index of a giant directory.

Even Google recognizes this and calls one doorway into its data “411.” However, I doubt most people go there: they simply key into Google (or Bing) something like “Acme Inc phone number” or “Acme Inc address.”

To be honest, I’m amazed at how most companies (and not just media companies) do not realize that the most valuable — and potentially monetizable — content they could provide is something they consider boring.

In fact, I could list several gigantic business media companies that do nothing more than collect data and organize it into directories. And some of them have figured out how to make lots of money serving that content up on the web.

You could too.

In fact, for most companies, I think it may be less hip, but provide a better return on investment, to be focusing now on a “data and directory media strategy” than a “social media strategy.”

4. Lessons found in reporters’ notebooks and librarians’ index cards

(Originally posted on March 22, 2009.)

reporters notebook and library catalog

[#4 in the Content that Works series.]

The next post in this series is about what Matt Thompson calls “context-centric news” and how it differs from what he calls “episodic news.” (They are similar to what I called earlier, chronological content and research content.)

Considering the difference between episodic and contextual news (or chronological and research content) got me thinking about the difference in journalists and librarians, two groups of people I’ve spent time with over the past 15 or so years of trying to understand the way people interact with information in general, and specifically, how they interact with it differently when it is presented via different forms of media.

Journalists and librarians are each, in their own ways, devoted to the recording and dissemination of information (or, more precisely, those things we all hope result from such activities: wisdom, insight, knowledge, understanding, truth). However, at the same time, journalists and librarians are quite different in the ways they approach the craft and science of organizing information so the rest of us can access it. Indeed, thinking of what they do as a craft or as a science is one of the ways in which they differ.

Think about the images above: the reporter’s notebook and the library card catalog. Both still exist and are used widely, but reporters and librarians are more likely to work today with the digital descendants of those near-relics of an earlier era.

Think about the way notes are taken by reporters and how every journalist has his or her own personal style and technique — and varying degrees of legibility or lucidity. Think about the ways in which that uniquely penned (or keyed-in) information captured in such notebooks (both those that are bound by a wire or those that are powered with a wire) are then used by reporters to craft a story that is supposed to provide the reader/listener/viewer with all the who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s and why’s sprinkled with quotes and color and imagery — all while being styled with prose colorful enough to win the reporter writing awards and a book deal. And, oh yes, it’s supposed to be presented to readers sooner than anyone else’s story and it’s supposed to include facts no one else has.

Then, think about the way information is recorded meticulously on a library catalog index card by men and women who spent four years in college, and likely a couple more in graduate school, mastering the science of how information is organized, categorized, interacted with, researched, accessed – and even enjoyed. Think about the way in which those 3×5 cards are all compiled with (if in the U.S.) one of two highly evolved classification systems created in the latter half of the 19th century by men named Herbert and Melville.

Now, consider the name by which those cards have been called (in the U.S.) since the 19th century: “index cards.”

Now consider the way in which Google (created by men named Larry and Sergey) describes how its search engine works: “Googlebot discovers new and updated pages to be added to the Google index…Googlebot processes each of the pages it crawls in order to compile a massive index of all the words it sees and their location on each page.” (I added the bold emphasis to make sure you got my point that the word index is a foundational concept shared by those who studied library science and computer science in college.

As I discuss more in the next post, I believe it’s time for journalists (and marketers and bloggers and twitterists) who create content for the web — especially news and information — to better understand, appreciate and embrace the science of index cards, not just the craft of reporter’s notebooks.

(Credits: Photo of reporter’s notebook via: flickr.com/photos/doctorow/ / CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo of index card via: WikiMedia Commons.)

5. Contextual content, in context

(Originally posted on March 24, 2010.)

future of context

[Note: If you don’t see tiny icons next to many of the hyperlinks on this post, trust me, they’re there (at least for me). As with anything new, operator (me) error or any number of other factors may be interfering with my intent. What I write in this post still stands, even if the demo doesn’t.]

I attended a panel at the 2010 South by Southwest Interactive Festival called “The Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online,” moderated by my friend, Staci Kramer. On the panel were NPR’s Matt Thompson; professor, blogger and twitterist-extraordinaire Jay Rosen; and web entrepreneur, Tristan Harris, creator of Apture, which, by the way, is the way I’ve added the pop-up media boxes in this post and the “contextual search bar” at the top of my blog that appears when you scroll down the page.

(As this post is more like one of those albums “inspired by” a movie than it is a sound-track of the session, I’ve included links at the bottom of the page for those who’d like to get closer to the real thing.)

In short, the session focused on the way in which traditional methods of collecting and distributing content — specifically the type of content we call “news” and “journalism” and “posts” and “tweets” and “feeds” — do not necessarily work when readers/viewers/users are trying to gain understanding and insight of the context of a story — when the readers/viewers/users desire to gain understanding doesn’t synch with the time the news/post/tweet occurs.

Just take the last few days of coverage of the House vote on healthcare insurance reform, (please). Most of the coverage online, on TV and in newspapers was focused on the process and political gamesmanship of the process. But what most people were trying to determine was, “How will this affect me, personally?” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, describing “media healthcare exhaustion,” wrote, “as time went on…journalists became consumed by political process and Beltway politics, to the point that the substance of health-care reform was overwhelmed.”

But Kurtz also defends those same journalists in the same column, displaying the bias he shares with nearly everyone who churns out “content” every day (including, I must confess, me):

Quote:

“The conventional wisdom is that the press failed to educate the public about the bill’s sweeping changes, leaving much of America confused about just what it contained. That is largely a bum rap, for the media churned out endless reams of data and analysis that were available to anyone who bothered to look.”

That quote sums up the belief of way too many people who spend all day, every day, reporting and analyzing the news: If we churn out enough endless reams of data and analysis, it will be available for anyone who bothers to look.

The need for a different form of journalism, one that compliments the “churning out” kind, was the topic of the SXSW session — and of this post. Matt Thompson uses the term episodic to describe the traditional “churning out” type information/news/journalism. It is the same type of content I called chronological in a previous post. Chronological (or episodic) news and information is that which flows over us all day, that which we believe we need in order to stay on top of things today, right now, this moment, real time. It’s the firehose of information we all complain about, as we lean over to drink more.

However, by focusing primarily on chronological/episodic content while creating the first 15 years of web-delivered and presented news and journalism, we have not gained an appreciation of the web’s ability to provide other types of information and content in other forms and structure that are described as “contextual” by Matt (or what I call, “research content”).

That’s unfortunate. For as Matt so succinctly declares, “The web rewards context.” And by web, he means (I’m guessing) Google, as it serves as a proxy for those who are searching (or researching) for specific information about a narrowly defined topic.

So what is this contextual content that journalists and bloggers have not yet mastered?

I like the word Jay Rosen uses when he describes it: “Explain.”

Contextual journalism in the form of explanations is the idea behind a concept website he recently prototyped called ExplainThis.org. It serves as a demonstration of one way journalists and readers/users can connect with one-another in ways that compliment “breaking news” with information that explains the topic; that provides context.

Content that explains things, categorizes, organizes and makes it easy to access at the precise time in which it is needed will become an integral part of what will make tomorrow’s new media, new.

Fortunately, traditional journalists are often great explainers. One of the best-of-the-best of these types of journalists is Howard Kurtz’ colleague at the Washington Post, Ezra Klien, whose blog posts throughout the healthcare reform process were islands of context in a sea of content, like this collection of blog posts he tagged with the category “health reform for beginners.”

But, alas, even a well categorized blog is not the ideal platform for the creation, organization, categorization and presentation of contextual content.

I have already telegraphied my belief that Wikipedia and its software platform, MediaWiki, provide the current benchmark for collecting and organizing contextual content. But whenever I say that, no matter who the audience, I discover most people — even savvy new media people — often allow their negative attitude about specific short-comings or policies related to the specific website, Wikipedia, to interfere with, more precisely, to detract from, their understanding of how the platform and process of developing and managing a wiki actually works. As with any technology platform that requires new approaches and new processes of collaboration and creation, you can look at Wikipedia or a major wiki project like the one I’m associated with, SmallBusiness.com, and deduce one thing. But until you spend time under the hood, often, many months under the hood, you won’t appreciate what’s actually taking place — or, more importantly, its potential. (I will gladly make an exception to that generalization for any traditional journalist or well-known blogger who has more than 15 edits on a Wikipedia article that went on to become a Featured Article.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons people don’t seem to get contextual content is because their experience has led them to believe it is limited to the hyperlink — and the hyperlink, they believe, is something that interrupts the flow of their brilliance or, worse, leads people away from their brilliance. (Or the company they work for believes the hyperlink is an invitation for the reader to go somewhere else to be monetized.)

But what if one could integrate contextual content from, say, Wikipedia (or Flickr or YouTube or any website) directly into a blog post? Like what I’m doing with this post.

The use of inline, contextual, pop-ups has been around for years. Some people still don’t know that if you highlight any word on a news story (but not a blog post) on the NYTimes.com website and click on the “?” that appears, a pop-up window will appear providing a definition and display of related content from New York Times sources. This is a wonderful display of how contextual content can be used. (Unfortunately, such inline contextual pop-ups have also been used for what I believe to be disruptive and in my personal opinion, unethical, advertising practices, as well.)

But what if you could go beyond what the NYTimes is doing today? Let’s say, you wanted to mention Rube Goldberg in a post, but thought some readers may not understand the reference. They would understand what you mean, perhaps, if you were able to add a clip of video in the middle of a sentence that displays a portion of someone’s attempt to create a Rube Goldberg-inspired invention.

That’s exactly what one can do using approaches like the technology being created by Apture, Tristan’s company. In fact, here’s a post on a NYTimes.com blog that goes beyond the definition-only pop-up and integrates a wide range of media from the NY Times and other sources.

An approach like that Apture enables can turn the simple, and often misused, user-activated pop-up into a rather powerful way for connecting news content with supporting “contextual” content, and does so in a wide variety of formats, including maps, video, photography and, yes, even Wikipedia entries.

Apture, of course, is just one among many ways to address the need to provide context, explanations, background information, understanding, etc., to those who aren’t on the same time-cycle as those who create and report on the news.

You can call it whatever you like: Content that provides context or content that is provided in a way to meet the needs of those doing research. But one thing is certain: unless traditional (and new) media companies respond to this need (and opportunity), they again will fumble the future.

Links related to the 2010 SXSW panel, Future of Content

News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News” was Jay Rosen’s opening remarks.

•The post, “The Case for Context,” was Matt Thompson’s opening remarks.

•The post, “Context: The Future of the Web,” was Tristan Harris‘ opening remarks.

•A great synopsis of the session can be found in this post on Elise Hu’s blog.

FutureOfContext.com is the session’s follow-up blog.

[The Pitch at the Bottom of the Page: I work with an exceptional team of content creators, analysts and strategists at Hammock, a firm that for 20 years has helped companies create content that works. Email me for more information.]