content strategy

Five Ways to Save Your Video Content from Devouring Itself

Video content poses unique challenges to content marketers, content managers, and content strategists. Especially since it is often hosted on constantly evolving, proprietary platforms. The incorporation of outside links in YouTube videos is a fine, current example.
Search and content have a long, dysfunctional history. Search algorithms change to address unsavory content practices. New unsavory content practices pop up to exploit newfound vulnerabilities. This cycle continues, and will, for the foreseeable future.

These algorithm adjustments also apply to video content. I happened upon an article on ReelSEO, written by Chris Atkinson, detailing the introduction of including outside links on YouTube videos, and its potential search and content implications.

(These platform-specific announcements are especially important to we content folks, as they often have a direct impact on the whats and hows of our content delivery.)

Link to anything you fancy

Link placement within videos has been an option for years. Up to this point, YouTube has limited the nature of those links to other YouTube videos, YouTube channels, or fundraising appeals. Most recently, they added “merch” as an option for channel owners to link to YouTube-approved retail sites like iTunes, GooglePlay, etc.

Now, the floodgates are open. Links to any site are now allowed on any YouTube video. Gone are the days of only placing a link in the video description area. CUE THE PARTY HORNS. Sort of.

Some video content creators will abuse this. I guarantee it. Others will link to too many things in a video, causing confusion. We’ll see videos so laden with links, calls-to-action, and more that your old GeoCities page will seem like a serene utopia in comparison. Link to the Facebook page! Visit this microsite! Fill out this email signup form! LINKS!11

Start by creating great video content

The best case scenario here sees content creators using the in-video link option to focus their channel-specific video messaging even further. We want to provide the best content experience possible, links clicked, Watch Time, and otherwise. How do we do that with video?

  1. Create content that people want to watch. Think palatable, not gimmicky. Effective and straightforward trumps trying-to-be-funny or attempted-edgy on most occasions.
  2. Make content clear and concise. Make your point in as few seconds as possible. Be directly helpful. PEOPLE LOVE THAT. A shorter video makes the link placement have less of an SEO impact. It’s easier to watch a shorter video, from a life-expectancy point-of-view, too.
  3. Focus on a single topic, concept, or task. The linear presentation of a video and its (new) links precludes an easy message hierarchy. Stick to a single message, and don’t try to do to many things at once. Otherwise, you’re likely lose your audience on all of the things in frustration and confusion.
  4. Give it context. Resist the urge to start off videos with a Ken Burns-style mini-documentary about the company. Instead, give them the background they need to make use of the rest of the video. If your messaging is consistent, this context should flow easily from one platform to the next.
  5. Tell the story. Use a video’s linear constraints as a force for good. Take advantage of it with an equally-linear storyline. Beginning, middle, end. Even if it is a :30 second piece. To quote Steve Martin’s character Neil Paige from the holiday travel film, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”: “When you are telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: Have a point.”

Place the link carefully

The ReelSEO article touched on another important part of this equation: inclusion of a “Watch Time” variable as a metric used in SEO. In other words, the longer a viewer watches your video, the better your stature in search results.

The Watch Time metric will be a considerable challenge for some. It’s not exactly new; YouTube has been doing this since March 2012. This is fine for short videos with a quick and concise close.

However, longer videos were often published with the optimistic mindset of “viewers can watch a little, or they can watch all 18 or 32 minutes.” The impact was the same. Now, the opposite is true. Watching a portion of a video to the end, once started, now has a potentially detrimental effect on the placement of the video within search results.

Atkinson notes that this presents a paradox of sorts. Ideal link placement within the video becomes a Schrödinger’s content cat situation:

  • Place the link at the beginning, where more people will see it? (Assuming more people will start your video than watch it to the end.)
  • At the end, to receive more SEO mojo? (At the risk of fewer people actually seeing and clicking on said link.)
  • In the middle, to strike a perilous balance?

Link to appropriate web pages from your video (And vice veresa.) Strive for a seamless experience across platforms with branding, messaging, and tone & voice. Great content makes it all a more satisfying endeavor, all around.

(Top image adapted from “Skip containing discarded VHS tapes” by Flickr user Rob Pearce.)

content strategy

An Intoxicating Tale of Content Strategy

An effective content strategy bridges the critical gap between online and offline worlds, and the gaps between departments. When a content strategy is put in place, business goals will be met more easily, and people’s expectations with the brand will be fulfilled. I’ll drink to that.

A new product, a new opportunity

There it sat, on the shelf in the liquor store. An unfamiliar whisky housed in one of those fancy, boutique-style bottles. It wore an already-iconic label. I was intrigued.

This distilling company put some careful thought into this whisky. They even created some delightful point-of-purchase pricing signs echoing that label design. The text at the top of those tiny pricing signs reads “Just Released”–an announcement to the world, proud and urgent.

They want people to know about the whisky. They want people to buy it. But, as of this writing, THAT’S THE END OF IT.

The portable web changes everything

Like any other whisky nerd, I searched the web from my smartphone for any mentions or reviews of this whisky. To my surprise, there was only one relevant listing. And it wasn’t a helpful listing, either: an online retailer that offered only a price and size of the bottle.

The label on this bottle includes the company’s website. Unfortunately, it, too, was unhelpful. The whisky was not listed anywhere on the site. Searching for the whisky’s brand name on the company site brought up a page full of PHP errors. (That’s another matter altogether.)

Lots of whisky enthusiasts would have stopped right there. Despite the lack of information, I purchased a bottle.

(I shan’t mention the company name, lest this post become the only thing about this whisky on the all of the Internet.)

The gap between online and offline strategy appears

Time and money were spent on the product design and retail accoutrements, but the online presence? NOT A DROP. A chasm between the distillery’s new product strategy and the online strategy quickly became apparent.

This distillery has a product, a niche whisky. They want to sell it. Lucky for them, people want to buy distinctive whiskies. But they don’t buy them blindly. They want to know all kinds of things before making that purchase: age, blend, whose grandpa distilled it in the hills 100 years ago, etc.

If that information is not presented at the point of purchase or on the item itself, they’ll seek it out online. Possibly right there on the spot.

When companies present anything less than a complete and unified presence online and offline, people notice. Really, they do. Those people may shrug their shoulders and carry on with their tasks on your site (albeit with less satisfaction and ease.) Or, in the absence of any info online, they may give up and go to a competitor.

Each item and brand, especially in a retail environment, should have a corresponding presence online. That presence needs a solid strategy to inform its messaging, target audience, distribution, workflow, and maintenance.

Instill your projects with content strategy

I’ve heard online content strategy described, at its most basic, as the alignment of business goals and user expectations:

  • Company provides a product or service
  • People complete tasks related to that product or service (e.g. learning, purchasing)

The closer we align the meeting point(s) of those business goals and the user expectations, the better. Both sides need to be addressed. The one-way, broadcast model the distillery put in place, either actively or by omission, will no longer cut it. They missed the mark entirely in this case. No pun intended.

A toast to your future content projects

Part of the burden (or joy, I mean) of content strategists is keeping up with an organization’s new initiatives and changes to ongoing efforts. The launch of this whisky is a fine example.

To avoid a similar situation, get a seat at the table early in the process to engage with all staff involved on a project:

  • Ask lots of questions
  • Consider the implications of new company endeavors in the short and long term
  • Filter each and every situation through your core online content strategy
  • Be ready for changes that will inevitably come up along the way
  • Make sure that new efforts are sustainable

Content strategists can have a great impact, but they are not a cure-all. Some projects may suffer from scalability issues, unwise decisions, or legacy organizational baggage.

What content strategists can do, however, is follow the standards for making great online experiences. They can ensure that the right audiences are addressed in the most effective way. And, they can guide the process with an overall strategic vision in place.

When your project is (hopefully) successful and all things are operating in sync, I have but one more bit of advice: pour yourself a glass of whisky.

content strategy

You May Ask Yourself These Five Simple Content Strategy Questions

1. What am I trying to accomplish?
Determine your core strategy, your unifying principles to follow. This is more critical than it might appear. Are you selling albums to adults? Soliciting donations for Dalmatians? With an honest evaluation of what you are trying to accomplish, only then should you begin down the path of content creation, delivery, and marketing.

2. What are my competitors doing?
Or not doing? Put on your detective hat and figure out where you stand in the marketplace. Though you shouldn’t necessarily copy what they are doing (or not doing), observing your peers / competitors will give you a benchmark of current market activity and user expectations.

3. What do I already have?
Complete an audit of your content. Audits uncover what you have, and what shape it is in. (Is it up-to-date? Accurate? Trivial?) Due to silo-filled work environments, many organizations are unaware of the value already in-house. The unrealized potential of ongoing initiatives may give you a head start on upcoming content marketing plans.

4. Do I have the capacity to create content sustainably?
Honestly evaluate your organization’s human resource capacity and budget for content creation. Many plans look great on paper. At the start, enthusiasm is high. As campaigns and initiatives wear on, it becomes clear that they are unsustainable. Any content marketing plan should be based on an organization’s true ability to sustain it.

5. How will we care for the content throughout its lifecycle?
To remain effective, content needs maintenance. Rather than implementing the “set it and forget it” mentality, content should enjoy regular, scheduled check-ups to ensure that it is still relevant, accurate, and supports the organization’s core strategy.

content strategy

Online Content Readability Tests: Content Strategists Beware

Old-fashioned readability scores and indices don’t account for some of the most critical elements of online content presentation. Avoid using them as the only measure of the true readability of online content.

The story of a story

“Go Dogs. Go!” I love this book. Well, a version of this book. (The small one.)

Several popular children’s books from publisher Random House are available in two physical formats: the standard hardcover book and the board book. Each format has its pros and cons.

  • Hardcover book. More, thinner pages for more content. But, thinner pages tear easier.
  • Board book. Fewer, thicker pages means less content. Super durable.

The more / less content situation wouldn’t be an issue if you were writing a book from scratch.

Instead, publishers are most likely taking their more popular, large-format titles through an editing and re-versioning process. In the end, they can introduce a more durable version to another audience: page-chewing babies.

Getting to the point

This content editing process HAS to be complicated, from an editorial point-of-view. Imagine the task of conveying the familiar storyline in one-sixth the number of words.

In the case of “Go, Dog. Go!”, the longer, hardcover version was trimmed from 528 words to only 70 words in the shorter, board book version. Each one of those 70 words matters, believe me. (I’ve read it hundreds of times.)

Sure, there are fewer words. But, fewer words doesn’t always make a message or story clearer and easier to read.

Testing the readability of “Go, Dog. Go!”

Readability tests are equations using syllables, word counts, sentence counts, and familiar-word lists. Most often, they produce a number that corresponds with a grade level.

From a readability metric standpoint, you might think that such a dramatic reduction in content (the 528 versus 70 words) would make the story easier to digest. Based on five of the major readability tests, results were mixed.

Two tests showed improvements in readability in the shorter version, one saw no change, and two others came back with less favorable scores:

While the goal of the publisher, editor, and author is fitting the same, beloved storyline into fewer pages, another, more-interesting thing starts to happen: a brutal distillation. Only the essential remains.

The shorter version  of “Go, Dog. Go!” sheds some of the more superfluous elements of the story. Gone are the hat-disapproving dog, unrelated sub-plots, and unnecessary filler. What we are left with is pure magic. Seriously, you need to read this short version. I still love reading it.

Why we test content readability

Some of us might test content JUST FOR FUN. Others are tasked with the duty of measuring how consumable the content is by some score or index. The duty of measuring readabilty does not end there.  We want to:

  • Determine if current content meets existing standards
  • Establish a baseline readability score
  • Set goals and standards for future content production
  • Measure edited, re-vamped, and re-organized versions of the same content

How we’ve tested content readability in the past

The major readability tests were constructed in the 1940s to deal with printed texts. These equation-based systems improved the texts of the day: newspapers, books, etc. Familiar-word lists were refined, and other adjustments were made. Things were set for some time.

Research completed in the following decades took into account one of the foundational concepts for clear and concise online writing: structure. However, it proved impossible to fold structure-based variables into a traditional readability equation. Text needs are much more complex than could have ever been anticipated.

Today, a quick search online will produce several sites that offer options to measure content via cut-and-paste or by entering a page URL. Simple, quick, and easy. Right? NOT SO FAST.

This has an impact on online content

As we approach online content itself from a messaging and editorial standpoint, we encounter similar issues as seen in the children’s book example. Adjusting text content can have a positive or negative impact, depending on the test. The worst-case scenario has people adjusting text to game the tests into delivering favorable scores.

No current readability test accounts for the hallmarks of easily-consumed online content:

  • Concise sentences free of filler words
  • Bullets
  • Subheads
  • Emphasis (bold, H1, H2, etc.)
  • Shorter, easily-read paragraphs

Add a few more variables into the equation by considering responsive design implications, device capabilities, and context, and soon the notion of an agreed-upon readability score is RIGHT OUT.

We are creating content destined for literally thousands of different environments. Even if we had a measure that took into account how that content was displayed now, it would by out of date in a week.

Don’t measure readability only with a number

Content strategists are often asked how we might measure the effectiveness of our efforts. Sometimes we can point to cost savings, favorable return on key performance indicators, or other data-based measures.

Other times, our value is best presented in refinements to the overall user experience. Which can be tough to measure with a series of numbers.

It’s hard to resist. You might be begging for an easy, scalable, plug-and-play solution for your online content readability measurement needs. Instead, you might wish to make a checklist of sorts, from a messaging point-of-view:

  • Does this page/element stick to a single message overall?
  • Does the content avoid jargon and language inappropriate to the audience ?
  • Are the ideas presented in a clear, logical fashion from a user perspective?
  • Does the page have a clear objective (and call-to-action, if appropriate)?
  • Can users scan and quickly understand what they will get from the page?

Readability scores are not completely without merit. I still use them for passages and paragraphs, when appropriate. But they simply cannot be used for measuring an entire page’s readability.

In the meantime, go find the board book version of “Go, Dog. Go!” at your library. (I didn’t even let any story spoilers slip. The ending is AWESOME.)

content strategy

Don’t Just COPE. Call The COPS On Your Content.

Content devices, platforms, and delivery are becoming more complex. Our approach to these changes must retain a strong editorial approach in addition to advances in technology. OR ELSE.

A recent, delightful A List Apart article by the super-smart Sara Wachter-Boettcher, “Future-Ready Content,” brought back some memories for me. A few days later, Brad Frost’s article there, “For a Future Friendly Web,” did the same.

I remember hearing about something exciting back in 2009 or so. It was clear, simple, and full of hope. It had the answers. A silver bullet.

The concept was simple: Create Once, Publish Everywhere. It even had a smart acronym: COPE.  Daniel Jacobson at NPR detailed the concept in a blog post.

We needed a COPE coping mechanism

Since 1996, I had been working in an industry that needed the help: public radio. TONS of content (old, new, and upcoming), new platforms, new audiences, and more.

It quickly became apparent that the COPE silver bullet had a bit of tarnish on it, from a marketing and distribution perspective.

COPE works best when there is a single content type, maybe two. Limited content types usually mean a corresponding limited number of end uses. Even then, in my public radio sphere, issues popped up:

  • There was one format for broadcast by radio stations and one for sharing online
  • Critical metadata was often incomplete
  • A less-than-reader-friendly transcript sometimes accompanied the audio asset
  • Hosting concerns about ancillary images or video
  • Content lacked proper context for distribution outside of its native environ

Technical issues worried me in 2009. (They still do. Always will.) But, editorial issues cause me worry now.

Content, publishers become more sophisticated

COPE represents an important step in any content equation. Content is best when device-neutral. Structured content is here to stay, and rightfully so.  (I even wrote about the concept “atomic content” on this blog in 2009.)

In a very basic sense, COPE gets things in order, preps the content for prime time. But it is incomplete.

We can’t forget about the life of content that starts after the publish process is complete. (I’m looking at you, Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest.)

As organizations create more future-ready content, they’ll need to make sure the folks with their fingers on the publish buttons know what they are dealing with. As the content becomes more sophisticated, flexible, and responsive, so too must those that plan, create, and deliver it.

This is the part where I hold up a big caution sign

I’ve had experience in other organizations with varying content workflows. Sometimes we are lucky to be in control up the content production river and down. Like on this blog, for example. (If there is a workflow issue, I’ll need to go stand in front of a mirror and work it out.)

Other operations are larger than WAY LARGER. As content-producing operations scale up, things become more complex. WAY COMPLEX. Some difficulties:

  • We content types might not be involved as much. In larger organizations, content experts may have limited opportunity to guide the content strategy process at each step: plan, create, distribute, and govern.
  • Roles become much more specialized and decentralized. Some staff members may create concepts, others produce the content. And others yet may publish and distribute.
  • People with different goals will be in charge of parts of the content lifecycle. Campaigns and concepts are often generated in different rooms than those close to the code and pixels.
  • Departments have different levels of content literacy. Naturally, experience and approaches  with content will vary. Some folks will have old media mastered. Others will be digital natives.

Marketers feeding ever-hungry channel-mouths would be DELIGHTED to see content formatted in a way that allows (and encourages, at least a bit) publishing everywhere, every time. That might lead to content ending up in places where it shouldn’t.

COPE makes the assumption that content (once produced, properly marked up, and made available via CMS or API) is suitable for any use. The everywhere in create once, publish everywhere is a marketing catastrophe waiting to happen.

Time to call the COPS

This is why I’ve wished that the acronym wasn’t COPE.

I’ve my own acronym. Rather than COPE, I want to call the COPS: Create Once, Publish SELECTIVELY. (No relation to the television show of the same name, however.)

It’s a bit more labor intensive, but the extra effort will make these endeavors more focused and effective.

COPS would follow those same longview content preparations steps as COPE. In addition, COPS should:

  • Take into account the appropriate-ness of the content for each channel and audience
  • Add in the editorial and messaging considerations unique to each
  • Use the content only if it meets stated objectives and goals via those channels

These items should be present from the start. But, as I mentioned earlier, those considerations might not survive through the content workflow and the sometimes-dizzying personnel chain that accompanies it.

Selectivity is the key. We are not only talking about different devices for displaying our content. We are talking about different online platforms, too.

If the COPS theme wasn’t already playing in your head, LET ME HELP YOU OUT:

(Image adapted from “More Cops” photo by Flickr user Elmo H. Love (cc: by) )

content strategy

Content Strategy and the Birth of the Cool (or Fabulous Business Blog)

Should you go forth and publish content before launch? Not to fill up the buckets on the site, but to determine the viability of newly-established editorial calendars and workflows? PERHAPS.

Birth of the Cool

Many of us have been lucky enough to witness the birth of something new. Like babies. Or cool. As in Miles Davis’ classic album “Birth of the Cool.” Or even, perhaps, a company blog.

Blogs, like babies and classic jazz albums, are each special in their own way. Unlike most babies or classic jazz albums, blogs ushered in a revolution in online publishing. Waves of that revolution are still having an impact in the business world as many are still launching their first forays into the blog world.

Usually, blogs have their chronological bits intact. Posts are dated, and listed in reverse publish order.  With those dates, you can tell how much time has passed between posts. That can be a good thing. Visitors will have an idea how often you are publishing new content.

Can we actually do this?

However, the blog format also puts forth the expectation that more content will be coming. That can be a daunting thing to a time- and resource-crunched team.

Fortunately, the launch of every company blog is accompanied by a robust and thorough content strategy. RIGHT? For now, let’s assume that it is. All of those classic, core, content strategy questions have been answered:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Who are we speaking to?
  • What are we going to say? And how?
  • Who played alto sax on Birth of the Cool?

If things have gone well up to this point, these things will have been hammered out, too:

  • Publish frequency
  • Content ownership
  • Content workflow from ideas to archive/sunset
  • Editorial calendar for the blog that ties in with other company endeavors

Who is going to raise this thing?

The discussion that follows a decision to undertake blogging for a business brings up questions: who will write it, publish it, manage the calendar and comments, etc.

What is left is the world of planning, creating, and publishing the content. You know, ACTUALLY DOING THE THING.

Often, closer to launch, the discussion turns from horror (OMG, we don’t have any content) to that of shame (OMG, we need to compensate for a lack of content.)

Sowing the seeds of content

Many new blog owners seed their shiny new blogs with a few extra posts, a fine idea. Any artifice is quickly outweighed by the depth and context that a few extra posts bring to a blog. It might even change a one-time visit to a subscription (or other conversion).

Lucky for those managing a new blog, they are about to enjoy two opportunities. (I say that with a bit of sarcasm, because they are probably freaking out at the prospect of launching a completely empty blog.) Those opportunities?

1. Testing the viability of the editorial calendar
2. Testing the workflow under real conditions

These two things are ever so intertwined. An editorial calendar cannot be used without a workflow, and a content creation workflow needs the fodder of an editorial calendar.

Keep an eye on that (editorial) calendar

The success of an editorial calendar depends upon its honesty. Failed calendars are full of good intentions, but leave out important considerations like:

  • Will our subject matter experts contribute?
  • What if the contributions are of hopelessly bad quality?
  • Can we sustain our proposed content production schedule?

Be as realistic as possible, and build in some extra time. If things are moving along ahead of schedule, note it, and keep going.

It’s gonna be work

The workflow test will very quickly surface any bottlenecks or pain points in the content planning and creation phases. Testing the workflow might seem awkward, but it will pay off quickly as the blog starts regular content production.

Keep things real at this stage. A certain amount of artifice will be apparent at this point, and that’s fine. You’ll want it to be the well-rehearsed fire drill that precedes the real burning building of content creation. Some tips:

  • Carefully outline the steps in the workflow
  • Communicate roles and expectations early on
  • Track progress throughout testing
  • Note any major issues along the way
  • Adjust the workflows accordingly

Congratulations, it’s a blog

With these steps, you, too, can become the proud parents of a bouncing baby blog. A blog that is effective, meets business needs and user expectations, and is generally delightful.

Sure, there are lots of trying times ahead. But, by following the steps above, you’ll be able to avoid many of the headaches and late nights that other blog parents have endured.