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.
- Finding a vision when you don’t have anything concrete to go to
Firstly, take comfort in the fact that no one knew where things were going with digital disruption and didn’t have a clear vision to begin with. We are in the age of “we’re figuring this out as we go.” The fundamental question everyone will be asking you and your organization is why. Why is your organization going to actually go ahead and take this leap into whatever the heck “digital” is for you – especially if you are not traditionally a technology business. For some organizations it is clear – you are losing market share and money to disrupters. For some organizations, it might not be so evident (I know this sounds crazy, and yes we have historical examples of epic fails that should be enough) but depending on the kind of business you are in, and how your business has evolved – it might not be so obvious.
So what should you do?
Knowing that there is empirical evidence of organizational downfalls and why this occurred is probably the first start. Why is this important? It’s because you have to do some outside in scanning and understand the core business reason that it happened. Just because it is not your business exactly, doesn’t mean that the underlying issue can’t impact you (ego reasons, culture reasons, investment – or non investment decisions etc.) If you haven’t done it yet, you should perform a SWOT and PESTLE analysis. Take a look at the weakness/threats your organization has and the external things happening in your industry, nationally or globally that will at some point have an impact on your organization.
Next you have to determine whether you want to take an offensive or defensive (or both) approach to your transformation. There are a few reasons that are pretty standard that underlay digital transformation if you don’t consider it an imminent threat or if you’re not losing money… yet. You can choose from the below, what you think might be the most important to your organization and its future:
- Because the pace of technology change is quicker outside your organization than in
- Because customers demand better user experiences and access on all different types of technology platforms
- Because the world is going to be increasingly interconnected through technology
- Because you need to think about your succession planning and talent attraction/retention
Maybe its one of the above or maybe it is all of the above. But take your SWOT/PESTLE and any of the above reasons, as well as whether you think you should be going offensive or defensive. You now have your “why” and some places you think you should be headed as an organization. You have a vision of where you want to go and you can create an action plan around it.
2. Business Model Generation
Now the truth is – and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times – digital transformation is business transformation. What does this actually mean?
- It means how you invest your money will change, because you will need to bring in new talent, stand up new divisions and the biggest will be how you invest in your technology infrastructure and architecture to enable your organization.
- It means how your budgets are planned and allocated will need to change. People get resistant to having smaller head counts or having less money to do what they want. It might even change how you do your accounting in the business.
- It means processes are going to change. Areas that once owned a process, or where certain decisions happened will change. Often people translate this immediately too: job loss. But no. It just mostly likely means that roles get to change, or the ownership of certain aspects of the process are shifting.
You can choose a variety of models for digital: Decentralized, Centralized, Center’s of Excellence, Offsite (Labs, Mode 1/2). What you pick is really dependent on how your business operates and what you think will help you get early wins. What matters most is that best practices in change management are carried out, which include tons of communication and that processes, roles and responsibilities get ironed out to prevent conflict.
3. A willingness to admit that you may not have the right people at the table
Digital is one of these tricky things that didn’t happen with a school degree. Most digital professionals (myself included), didn’t have a digital degree option when we were in school – and had to go through the evolution of this industry in the school of hard knocks. You might (or might not) be surprised by this, but many digital professionals came from IT (development or product engineering) or marketing/communications – because digital really is the intersection of these functions.
There are numerous debates about whether Digital should be part of IT, or Marketing or on it’s own – but nonetheless it requires people who have real experience in delivery of digital products and experiences. More importantly it requires people at the decision making table with the experience to understand what the organization is being asked to do when it comes to becoming digitally enabled. It means having someone who is versed in digital who can inspire and excite, can see the future of where your organization could go digitally and who can ruffle feathers in a non-threatening way while pushing change in places with less resistance to drive the places with more resistance.
Why does this matter? Those who work in delivery know when someone does or doesn’t understand. You must have a leader that is able to talk to developers, engineers, UX pros, look at the analytics and understand what they are telling you. This is the difference between garnering real respect from your reports. Their belief in you as the beacon for organizational change rides on this respect.
It also requires someone who can speak to the rest of your business and build and nurture relationships for when the going gets tough (cause it’s gonna)! If you have someone at the table who can really understand the details of what is required to deliver digital transformation, it helps decision makers understand what they are getting into. Someone at the decision making table with these skills means the ability to create the endorsement, relationships and support needed to mobilize an organization to really make change.
Do you have the right skills in the right places with the right people to make your organizational evolution possible? It’s a tough call, and only you know what your organization needs – but it does mean you have to be willing to admit that you may not have what you need.
What are some of your lessons learned that you would be willing to share with other change agents?
For those who love people watching, well – this is for you! Being able to observe and make deductive decisions assist in creating insights that will strongly benefit your overall strategy.
Here are 5 reasons why observation is necessary:
1. People have behaviours. These behaviours are usually habitual. If you are able to tap into a human habit digitally, it means that you have found a way of integrating into a users life if what you put forth provides a value ad or solves a problem for them.
2. Observing allows you to identify a problem that a user may not even know that they have. People tend to compensate a behaviour when they assume that there is no other way to do something. When you find what that is, you can create a product/service to fill a void people did not even know that they had.
3. You can better understand how the user actually uses something. Professions such as Information Architecture and User Expereince come from this. Understanding how people typically use an app or website means that you can design to make it easy to use or teach a new behaviour.
4. You can make it better. Apple is famous for this. Every year people camp out for a new iteration of something that is even just a minimal improvement.
5. Data alone does not provide you enough contex. Numbers in surveys or reports and analytics are just that. They are numbers. In order to be able to find insight and create a compelling story for those numbers having actual context and opportunity to obseve how these number fluctuate and for what reasons means that you can make stronger decisions for a better strategy,
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.
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.