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.

This material first appeared on a post I contributed to the Follow the UX Leader blog. (Minus the Muddy Waters tune.)

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.

This material first appeared on a post I co-authored on the Coherent Social Media blog. (Minus the Talkiing Heads video.)

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:

Readability comparison chart.

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.)