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.
As you flow through my blog, you will see I mention a lot about strategy. The more and more that I have grown in my career is the more and more I have invested in trying to see the bigger picture and how all of the pieces connect. I have recently started taking the Digital Strategy certification program at the University of British Colombia – and I have to say that the introductory course totally has my creative juices flowing. I have not been able stop consuming the content and I’ve spent pretty much all day online clicking on links and reading some very interesting articles and blog posts.
There was an older blog post referenced for reading and it was a list that the author created in what he felt were qualities of great digital strategist. It’s entitled What Makes for a Great Digital Strategist? and his list includes 4 items that I totally agree with.
He looks for qualities such as being an inventor, an integrator, empathetic and unyeilding. These are definitely qualities that are integral to a digital strategist role. I would add to this list with 3 other qualities.
Big Picture Thinking
You have to be able to see the forest through the trees and understand in that tangled mess how you will get through to the other side.
Calculated Risk Taker
Inevitably you will at times need to take things and throw them against the wall to see if it sticks. It might not work, and you will have to take a few steps back to sort it out and try again.
Someone who is constantly in pursuit of knowledge. Gathering intel to make better decisions, learning from others mistakes to make better decisions and products. Using that knowledge and understanding how to action theoretical insights.
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!
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.