Marketing and Commnications
Digital content includes the words, pictures/images and videos that we traditionally think about. But it also includes other things that haven’t always been traditionally at the forefront of content – it includes understanding how different technologies consume and display content, how that content needs to be architected to be able to be displayed and to be found, and how users want to consume that content based on devices and technology platforms.
Woah! Does that mean content is no longer king?
I fundamentally believe that content is king. But content can no longer drive other things – like layouts and designs and how it is consumed. WHAT???? (all the content people are freaking out right now).
So fundamentally – digital content is any content that exists in the form of data. But creating digital content has taken on some new meanings.
I’m not a know it all. In fact, I think that any one who wants to be considered digital can’t be a know it all. The space evolves way to fast for anyone to be an expert. I would actually consider myself a generalist, because as the space has evolved its driven deep subject matter expertise in things like content, analytics, AI/ML, voice, IoT etc. So I know a little about a lot of things and look for those who know a lot about minimal things to know that I’ve found a great partner. So for these reasons, this is a brief digital content history.
In traditional content, it was the content that drove the design and layout of pages. It did even in the first iteration of websites. To some degree it still drives some website or larger screened experiences.
There was the initial launch of the website. It could have some text and animated GIFs and maybe some photos. There was the abysmal digital magazine (gosh remember that?) – where we tried so hard to take an actual magazine and put it online. We calmed down and at some point were like “hey, let’s just PDF the darn things and put it up on the site.”
I recall the launch of parallax websites – because it was a way for imagery to be the true driver of the experience rather than the words. It was revolutionary and it was beautiful. Parallax websites were revolutionary because it got digital content out of this box that we were all stuck in, and closer to that magazine like experience we were hoping for online.
Then we realized content needed to be found and devices began to rapidly change and social media launched. Content as king became even more apparent, but what did change dramatically was how content’s ability to drive design took a massive shift.
Devices and technology began to drive layout and design and content design was now required to take somewhat of a back set.
If you don’t agree with me, it probably means you didn’t make the leap to what digital leaders are looking for when they are hiring. Just saying.
Here are some very real examples:
Remember flash? Well that has been a slow and agonizing death (yes, it’s still dying) – but what was most frightful for content creators when this became a reality at the time, was the basic ability to play videos and be able to view animation online. HTML5 jumped into be the saviour in this situation, but the truth was the death of flash was driven by technology and device changes. Video content was not at the forefront of that decision making. (The rivalry between Apple and Adobe also probably played a part in this – and the fact that iPhones weren’t going to support flash – but whatevs).
In 2005 YouTube launched and in 2007 the iPhone launched. Maybe a coinky dink – maybe market stressors provided ample opportunity to solve for the flash crisis. Whatever it meant – video content consumption changed. What it needed to be viewed changed. What it needed to be found changed. Decisions on using your own player or a social player changed. Whatever decision was made was driven by the technology changes and device changes and therefore meant that the content couldn’t drive the design.
Not true say you? I say try making a video that is longer than 45 seconds and see where you net out with that.
Usability changed as a result, and many content creators began to realize that social channels dedicated to videos were a better place to play than prop technology, because it made finding their content easier and it was where people who wanted to watch videos were. It was where they realized that they could try to make that 5 minute video all they wanted, but the costs and the consumption wasn’t really working out.
Twitter drove us to the 140 character limit – though newly expanded to 280. As it turns out, Twitter’s decision to extend the character limit on tweets has done little to change how people use the service. So um yeah – what was that about content driving design?
Realistically speaking, do you think that based on the size of your watch screen and it’s underlying technology that it is content that dictates what get’s displayed? I would argue… not really. However, I would also take it one step further and argue – how users use it and what they want to consume will have huge influence in driving design.
Welcome UX and IA teams.
We have screens on watches on fridges in cars and this is going to continue to evolve. What we are going to see, is an evolution in what ends up being the simplest way for content to be consumed unilaterally by all of these things. We are going to continue to push the concept of “publish once and be everywhere”, for cost reasons: companies don’t have limitless buckets of money to hire 8 million specialized resources because we have 8 million ways to display; for logical reasons: why do we need to do this 8 million times in 8 million ways; and for future reasons: things are moving to voice which means content is going to be forced to do different things online, and with the rise of AI and ML content is going to be shaped and designed at times without human intervention.
Because of all of the above – content cannot drive design.
However, though it cannot drive design it still is king. So fundamentally it does mean that you need to be better at creating compelling, unique content. It also means that you need digital content specialists (IA/UX/SEO/digital copy writers) to help you prep your content for digital consumption and to meet new legal accessibility requirements (otherwise you should probably just publish paper copies).
And while I make no claims in being a digital expert, I do know this – if you want to show digital professionals that you have evolved past paper thinking… it means that you need to know how to make content king when it no longer drives design. It means you understand that how it is consumed will be dependent on how the device and therefore the underlying technologies flexibility in its UI exist.
Sometimes the interesting thing about being both a communications person and a digital person, is that there can tend to be an assumption that I lean heavily one way or another. The majority of my career has been in communications and worked my way up through the ranks starting out as an intern at a communication agency.
My interests slowly gravitated towards social and eventually digital, well because I just so happened to part of the era that launched yahoo chat rooms, ICQ, msn chat, the early stages of lavalife etc. etc. The move into the social space was interesting because it was happening to me and those in my generation and I also happened to be a communications person pondering what it would mean for my career and what it meant for communications as a whole.
Later on I became much more heavier in the technology aspect, and I saw this as a wonderful blend for a communications person. How useful would it be to really understand the intricacies of how the technology worked and what it could and couldn’t do, and be able to leverage this expertise from ac communications perspective.
The irony however, was that the transition back into communications and the few years in digital that I spent, has turned me into what communications people consider to be a highly technical person that more closely resembles someone from IT. IT teams relate well to me because they understand that I understand, and that I really get it. It is always a bonus for them to have someone from the client/business side that actually understands what they can and cannot do.
Understanding technology doesn’t limit or reduce the ability for anyone to perform as a communications person. To write, to lead strategy, to edit and/or approve. It is highly difficult to do that when you are relegated to a role understanding as the IT person. I would add to this that my communications background is what landed me the digital role in a media company famous for its content and published brands. It’s a very odd place to be – to not actually be the IT person or considered to be an IT person by IT people, nor the communications person considered to be a communications person by the people in communications. I think you can be both roles and really strategic in both of them – which to me is ultimately what makes the most sense since the world of communications is going digital!
This is what most companies – if not all companies struggle with. Content strategies can be complex at best, and when you tie in digital content – the level of understanding required takes things to an entirely different level.
Digital content strategies require a different line of thinking than traditional content stratgies – namely and primarly SEO and engagement (think time on site) in real estate that constantly competes for the users attention while encouraging them to go visit other things.
Here are 7 simples steps to take your digital content strategy to the next level:
1. Know your audience and who you are trying to reach: from television netowrks, advertisements, magazine content to the web. Everyone has always known that content is king, but only if it is talking to the right people. Know who you are speaking too, and who you are trying to reach. Use analytics, surveys and behavioural tracking to assist in defining who these people are.
2. Define you digital objecties: Do you need more visitors to your site? Do you want them to stay longer on your site? Do you want them to click around on more content on your site? Do you want them click over to other sites? Do you want them to comment? Do you need to improve your SEO? Do you want to grow your social following? Do you want to go responsive because your mobile audience is growing? Moving into ecommerce? Want to upgrade your technology platform or CMS? You can’t choose them all, but choose the ones that are most required for your current situation.
3. Ensure that you are properly resourced: What and who do you need on your team? If it is a specific CMS/platform, an SEO strategy, community management etc. you need to make sure that you have the right people in place to support where you are going Don’t forget your Information Architects and UX specialists! Prioritization of information, site layout and taxonomy play a critical role in content strategy for tagging and archiving reasons!
4. Plan your content: That’s right – the good old editoiral calendar. Know your dates, themes, company priorities and ensure our site and content managers are prepared.
5. Get geographic: Knowing your audience (point 1) also means knowing where they are. Region specific content/offers = awesomeness.
6. Think Like a Human Being: Based on your objectives and your audience, remember that you should probably make decisions from the perspective that your audience would appreciate. What are your CTA’s, are they continuing to ask your audience clearly what to do while at the same time driving to assist in hitting your objectives.
7. Assess content performance: Stay on top of what works for your audience and what doesn’t. Clean up your content, remove what is old, repurpose content that may be more relevant or previously performed well. Be the ultimate curator and historian of your own content.
Here is the thing… in certain regards it makes sense that you have individuals who are familiar with publications, or broadcast and of course digital. However, a well rounded practitioner should be well versed in all areas of communications. As we move forward with technology, more and more it becomes apparent that these mediums bleed into one another, and have become tripods with each one depending on the other.
Yes there are definitely shifts in the way organizations spend their advertising/communications/pr dollars, with more moving away from print and into digital. That being said, it does not mean that all the mediums disappear and one will emerge the champion. Audiences consume information in so many different ways, and the most important decision you need to make as a practitioner is where to find them, if that medium makes sense for your target and what you are trying to achieve.
When you divide the three mediums so specifically, you end up with departments that compete for dollar spends based on their specific “specialty”. I’m not disputing that it does not make sense that happens, but I will say that divisions like that mean that it becomes a personal interest on obtaining larger dollars, rather than whether or not it makes overall sense for a campaign or an organizational objective.
I firmly believe that at this juncture in the evolution of our industry, being a digital specialist should not exist. I’ve mentioned this before, and I will mention this again – digital is another medium. It is another tool in the tool belt for marketing and communications practitioners to use. There should be no reason why anyone on any team should not be familiar with all three mediums, have some exposure to all of them, and have a firm grasp and understanding how they all should be used.
Teams should be educated in all ways that each of the mediums change. That being said, I also believe that every professional should have a vested interest in self education and keeping themselves current and relevant as well. The future of digital in these professions is that it will be common place – as it is in every day life already.
Having had the opportunity to become a well rounded communications practitioner, it is really interesting to see how people use the word “strategic” when speaking about executional things. It’s almost as though the word “Strategy” or “Strategic” has become a buzz word and somewhere along the line, it does get confused with tactics and/or execution.
Press releases, websites, contests, a page in a magazine, a commercial, Facebook pages, Twitter pages – these are all the tactics. HOW you use them and your plan for that, should be tied into a bigger concept that is then linked into a specific objective. Confusion over the word “strategy” is prevalent in all communication/marketing disciplines and this truly impacts creative as well. Creative is encompassed into a large part of what we do and being creative also requires strategic thinking.
This post was inspired by my friend and colleague Lisa, (@lisawrites) when speaking about the creative process and creative strategy. Much like the communications process, the creative idea (images, layout, copy and design) has to link to some overarching theme that does inspire, engage or cause something to happen. Pretty or Twitter or a Website are not a strategy, but they are definitely tools that can be used to make something happen or reach an objective.
As common as this is, I do encourage communications and creative teams to think like this:
- What is your organizations overall objective?
- What is your organization’s overall goal/s for the year? How do you understand these goals linking into achieving their objective? (Not sure – then ask!)
- How is this campaign or idea going to help the organization achieve the above two things?
- What is the main objective for this campaign? How does it link to your organization’s objective?
- What are your goals for this campaign and how does that tie into your organizational goals for the year?
- Who are you trying to reach? Why do you need to reach them? (Creative teams need all the above information and absolutely need to be linked in at this point and moving forward)
- When do you reach out to them? What do you want them to do/say/think/believe?
- Where are they? How will you reach them? (Here are the tactics! See how far down the list it is? All the other stuff needs to happen first before we get here!)
- How will you know if what you want them to do is being done? – In other words – what are your metrics of success or KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators).
- What are your benchmarks? What will you do if your KPI’s are not performing the way you would like? What other areas of support will put into this? What is your plan B?
Once you have these in your pocket you can execute. By no means am I implying that this step by step process is linear at all! In most cases, it will be more matrix like with lots of back and forths and adjustments, all while being sensitive to deadlines and budgets. As a rule of thumb I try to follow the above. Now, more than ever in my career (especially because I work production focused advertiser initiatives a.k.a – the actual execution), I see how critical the above steps are. Not all campaigns will perform the way you hoped, but that also means there are key learnings that can be pulled from that to understand your organization and its objectives even better.