content strategy

Questionable Business Goals and Bad User Experience

What happens when a content strategy is based upon a suspect business concept? The user experience will become the first casualty.

It has been a long time since AOL’s CD-ROMs were as ubiquitous as today’s Facebook comments. AOL is foisting ubiquity of another sort upon us in the form of dubious content.

Business Insider just posted a leaked 58-page guide AOL provides to their editorial staff. Titled somewhat ominously “The AOL Way,” the guide resembles a proper content strategy in many ways, replete with a very basic wireframe, a page table, some content production workflows, audience info, and more.

Yes, content strategy is the way

There has been quite a bit of discussion around The AOL Way document leak. Much of it points to the abhorrent content-farm practices at the core of their business strategy.

Regardless if one agrees with the content farm method or not, (and I do not), this leak points out that AOL has a thoroughly considered content strategy. The goals in the document are a stretch. The means of getting the content created are dubious and unsavory. But, this fact remains: they have done their homework.

But, you have to start with a sound premise

This raises the larger, more frightening question: What happens when a client’s business practices, aims and goals are suspect? How does a content strategist resolve the cognitive dissonance that this brings about?

The first reaction is to question a business’ decision makers and stakeholders in the project. But, often the business aims, goals, and directives will come from much higher in an organization. Legacy mindsets and practices hold firm. Shareholders and boards must be appeased. A certain strata within the company may want change, but others do not.

Ultimatum situations of “change this or I am leaving with my principles” may be too scary for most employees to consider. Those charged with creating a content strategy in a situation like this will follow Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim of “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Improvise. Make do.

Could this have happened at AOL? If it did happen, what’s next?

Bad content = bad user experience

A few years ago. I had a need for a clock radio. I went to the store and bought one. It was cheap. It didn’t hold a radio station in tune. The buttons were SERIOUSLY fragile. Some didn’t work at all. One day later, I returned it, and vowed to stay away from this clock radio brand for life.

That clock radio maker tried to fill an unmet need. They designed and manufactured something that was technically a clock radio. There was a fancy, full color box. The chrome buttons were shiny. It was sold where clock radios were sold. On the shelf, it sat right next to others that were more expensive and more substantial. A clock radio that does not work does not meet a user need.

A portion of AOL’s plan uses the content farm production method. As The AOL Way guide shows, vast amounts of this low-quality content will be produced. (See a “farmed” example below.) It will be written in a way that games search engine algorithms, launching it to top spots in searches. This content will clog search engines, crowding out other, more viable content. Just like that clock radio.

Content creators and publishers need content to fill a business need. That content must be useful and usable. A business’ reckless disregard for the end user or the end product will invariably create a poor user experience. No matter how carefully they craft the content strategy.

Perhaps the new head of content at AOL, Arianna Huffington, will make some changes for the better. Let’s hope so, anyway.

(“aol free time” image from Flickr user dehub (cc: by-nc-sa 2.0))