Digital asset management (DAM) at Content, Seriously

Two industry experts presented on DAM and taxonomies at the latest meetup for people who take content seriously. In this special one-off event, participants got to experience an eclectic corner of London in an even more eclectic venue.

About the venue: Rotherhithe Picture Research Library

The Rotherhithe Picture Research Library is an extensive collection of visual media – photos, drawings, paintings, maps, video, and even costumes – that media producers use to study eras and areas when conducting background research for their films and plays.

What makes this venue and collection unique is the approach that one Managing Director, Olivier Stockman, takes in managing the collection: the index is completely analog.

Stockman explains his philosophy behind the decision. He wanted to create an environment of discovery. The idea that someone would do an online search and settle on a single answer belies the richness of the material.

Researching a topic for a film, for example, could involve looking at streets and architecture, typical household items or clothing from that period, or typical work and holiday activities. Call this way of research the equivalent to the slow food movement, where one is expected to take the time to savour and digest what’s before you. But more on that later.

Digital asset management (DAM): Theresa Regli

The first speaker was Theresa Regli, one of the top DAM (Digital Asset Management) consultants in the industry and a new transplant to London. Hers was more of a conversation than a formal presentation, where she answered questions about how DAM systems work, and some of the challenges around managing digital assets. Here are some highlights.

About DAM systems

DAM systems are, in some respects, the new kid on the block, though the functionality is growing in sophistication quite rapidly. The need to manage digital assets grew out of organisations such as museums and corporations having large numbers of images that weren’t being stored in ways that were useful for finding and using them later on.

Digital assets aren’t just images

The notion of digital assets are expanding from static images, such as drawings and photos, to items such as video, 3D renderings, and other properties that contribute to virtual reality environments. This could range from gaming companies looking to manage all of the minutiae that gets combined in a multitude of ways during the development of games, to multinational corporations managing virtual reality apps that let you see furniture at home before you buy.

Connecting digital assets with physical assets

In the more interesting projects that Regli has worked on, there has been a need to connect the digital assets with physical ones. For example, one multinational had an extensive collection of physical objects from their century-old corporate history, and what was displayed online had to be keyed to its physical location in a warehouse.

Categorisation and data modelling

Whether you’re a company trying to organise your website images or an organisation with complex digital asset needs, Regli warned of the dangers of thinking that a technology will fix what is essentially a categorisation problem. Before pouring data into a DAM system, the organisation must do the up-front work of thinking through the business problem to be solved, analysing the assets, and then creating a categorisation system – a taxonomy or ontology – that forms the foundation of the data modelling to be done within the system. Regli says it may be a hard conversation, but it’s a disservice not to tell clients that buying the system without having the right complement of people to do the preliminary and ongoing work will be wasted, an expensive exercise.

Treasure hunting in analog

With Regli’s words of wisdom ringing in our ears, participants engaged in a treasure hunt through the stacks of the library. Regli provided a handful of topics to find, and participants could choose which topic to locate. The familiarisation on where the stacks were and how to look through them went fairly quickly, and several people chose “hops” as their topic. Hops played – and to an extent, still plays – an important part in the British economy.

Soon the oversized, loosely-bound packets of photos appeared on the desks. One of the photos found was of families picking hops in Kent. This discovery led to a discussion about how families who wanted to take a vacation, but really couldn’t afford one, would go to Kent for a week and pick hops. It seems that Stockman’s discovery method proved itself that evening.

Creating successful taxonomies: Andreas Blumauer

Wrapping up the triple-bill of DAM activities, Andreas Blumauer discussed the organisation at the heart of any digital management: taxonomies. Organising content for presentation is not as simple as it seems. Presentation needs to happen in context, and the relationships between entities are what provides enough context to give us a better understanding of a topic. Indeed, Blumauer introduced himself using an example of relationship categorisation to demonstrate the principles.

Image of Andreas Blumauer categorised

Creating successful taxonomies: Andreas Blumauer (slide 3 from his presentation)

Using recognised standards like SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organisation System)

There are a great number of factors that make a taxonomy successful, with a few of them standing out in Blumauer’s presentation. It’s important to keep in mind that a taxonomy is not meant for presentation, as is an information architecture. The taxonomy is meant for storage, to create classification, thereby contributing to knowledge.

First, effectiveness depends on the taxonomy being understood by the systems, search engines, and so on. This means using recognised standards. SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organisation System) is developing standards for knowledge systems – and the W3C is working to ensure that there is alignment between the ISO 25964-1 standard and SKOS.

Mapping to create context

Second, effectiveness depends on mappings to create context. Using a simple example, Blumauer demonstrated how connecting terms and labels creates a wider understanding of a topic.

A simple hierarchy is:

– Glassware
– – Stemware
– – – Champagne flute

Non-hierarchical connections would include:

– Champagne flute is used for Bellinis
(And then Bellini gets connected back to champagne flutes)
– Champagne flute is a champagne coupe
– Champagne is served at Tony’s cocktail bar
(And then Tony’s Bar gets connected back to champagne cocktails)

Mapping is business dependent, so it’s important to build a solid foundation and then to maintain the taxonomy. Nothing stays static, and new connections need to be made on an ongoing basis.

Include semantics in content architecture

Third, it’s important to connect the content lifecycle with a four-layer content architecture that includes a semantic layer. The semantic layer contributes to the success of search – semantic search, recommendation systems, analytics and in presenting the right content within content management systems: dynamic content publishing and automatic content authoring.

About the speakers

Theresa Regli worked for many years as a taxonomist and then as a DAM consultant for The Real Story in the US. She is now based in London, where she helps organisations turn content into digital assets, simplify complexity, and realise their potential in the digital world.

Theresa started as a journalist, transitioned to web development, and taxonomy, and then became director of content management at a systems integration firm. She has advised over 100 businesses on their digital strategies, including 20% of the Fortune 500. She is the author of the definitive book on managing digital marketing & media assets, Digital & Marketing Asset Management.

Andreas Blumauer is managing partner of the Semantic Web Company, and has experienced with large-scale semantic technology projects in various industry sectors. He is also responsible for the strategic development and product management of PoolParty Semantic Suite. Andreas has been a pioneer in the area of linked data and the semantic web since 2002; he is co-founder of SEMANTiCS conference series, and editor of one of the first comprehensive books in the area of the semantic web for the German speaking community. Andreas holds a master’s degree in Computer Sciences and Business Administration from the University of Vienna/Austria.

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Content design in the private and public sectors

Content, Seriously is a meetup for content professionals in London. It’s organised by Rahel Bailie, Scroll’s chief content strategist.

Before the latest Content, Seriously event, Rahel polled the meetup members to ask what they wanted to talk about. Content design rose to the top of the list.

As the meetup series normally focuses on content strategy, the topic was a bit of a departure, though a delightful detour into an all-too-important aspect of content.

The field of content spans a long continuum, in the context of both private- and public-sector creation and delivery. At one end of the spectrum is straightforward content creation and copywriting. At the other end is content strategy and content engineering – creating content systems. In between are a multitude of roles and responsibilities. Content design is firmly situated in the space where UX meets content.

What is content design?

Content design is a well-defined discipline in the UK. Thanks to GDS (Government Digital Service), content design is a commonly-understood role with a standardised job description. For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s the definition on GOV.UK:

“A content designer works on the end-to-end journey of a service to help users complete their goal and government deliver a policy intent.

Their work may involve the creation of, or change to, a transaction, product or single piece of content that stretches across digital and offline channels.

They make sure appropriate content is shown to a user in the right place and in the best format. They start from discovery and work closely with user researchers, service designers and interaction designers.”


Start with user needs

The content design process begins with determining user needs. This means doing user research as a core activity before you even think of putting fingers to keyboard to create content. The research can span a range of methods, such as ethnographic research, analytics, keyword research, and user journeys.

The user stories that come out of this must include meaningful user acceptance criteria. They can follow the same format as normal agile user stories – but only if the criteria is useful. In other words, a user story that goes:

  • As a user
  • I want to understand Regulation ABC
  • So that I can be in compliance

probably isn’t useful unless users already understand what the regulation is and why they need to comply.

How content designers create content

The second part of the equation is when fingers do begin to dance over the keyboard. This is where writing for digital becomes so important. It’s not just the basics of writing for the web, where we keep the text as short as possible, front-load the important points, and write for viewing on multiple sizes of screen.

It means using the language that your audience expects and uses themselves, keeping the copy short, breaking up the text with meaningful headings and subheadings, and using conventions such as lists to make the important points easier to follow.

And, last but not least, be sure to have all content reviewed by another person to catch any mistakes or bias that could have been inadvertently introduced. This is known as the ‘2i’ process – short for ‘second pair of eyes’.

Content design in the private sector

Danielle Kirkwood, a content designer with Intuit on their QuickBooks product, uses similar content design techniques to ensure that their products stay focused on their users and stay leaders in the marketplace. However, the job description is not quite the same as that of GDS.

Enterprises can make content design their own, and the demands on a content designer in this particular company make for an enjoyable job, with substantial improvements to products as the outcome.

At Intuit, content design goes beyond meeting user needs and into a technique they call ‘Design 4 Delight’. Content designers use design thinking principles to alleviate frustrations that users have, solve known user problems, and think of ways to solve problems that users might not realise they have.

Content designers are expected to do regular user visits, going to the customers’ offices to observe how they use the products in their environments. The breadth and depth of these visits facilitate customer-driven innovations.

In a business context, this means using team, tools, customers, and space to create valuable business opportunities by turning ingenuity into reality. As in the public sector, the work is a blend of content and UX. Here it shows that when content and UX are considered together, content can play a critical part in making a product understood.

See the presentations

Come to the next Content, Seriously meetup

If you take content seriously, then this group is for you. It’s a relaxed and informal atmosphere for content professionals to meet and learn from another. It’s also a place where organisations looking for serious solutions to content dilemmas can come to find answers.

We’ll discuss how to use content to solve business problems, explore industry best practices, discuss trends in the management of content, and share case studies.

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Editorial, content marketing, advertorial: are we being clear?

For a while, during the earlier epochs of digital evolution, the future looked rather bleak for writers. Extinction seemed the inevitable consequence of an online marketplace whose users expected to get quality content for free. How could such an arrangement be supported; how could a writer make a living out of that?

As it turned out, things aren’t so bad. Hunger for engaging digital content has only increased as the online world begins to supersede more traditional platforms of entertainment and commerce.  Successful organisations are now only too aware that content underpins the relationship they have with their customers; without content there is no relationship. And they are willing to pay good money to keep the relationship sweet.

Content contentment

Not only that, it’s a relationship that can be traded. Advertisers looking to find ways to reach a publisher’s hard-won audience will gladly pay for access to this relationship – and are currently paying more than ever. A record £8.6 billion was splurged on UK digital advertising last year, a jump of 16% on 2014, representing the industry’s fastest growth rate since the economic downturn.

Around 9% of that – some £776 million – was used on content and native advertising, the areas of most value to writers and content designers. It was an increase of 50% on 2014 levels – and the figures don’t even account for money directed towards content marketing, online PR and search engine optimisation.

The UK enjoys the largest per capita digital advertising spend in the world, according to Clare O’Brien of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), who shared her insights at a recent Content, Seriously meetup. A happy alignment of factors, such as the UK’s highly developed creative and advertising services, its mature and ‘compact’ national news and broadcasting industries, and high per capita online consumer spend, make it extremely attractive to digital advertisers.

Predictions about the extinction of writers and other content producers were clearly misplaced. In the race to build audiences and influence opinion, there’s arguably more appreciation for their craft than seemed possible to hope for a decade ago.  And given that users expect free content and are generally hostile to display ads, banner ads and pop-ups (more than 1 in 5 online adults currently use ad-blocking software; under the age of 24 it’s almost a half), it’s no wonder that native advertising is taking an increasingly prominent role in marketing strategy.

Native advertising: softly, softly…

Native advertising is far more subtle than the rude sledgehammering of pop-up ads, and when it’s done well it can be just as appealing as the content it sits in. The idea itself is nothing new. Victorian-era companies twigged early that supplying content to gently steer customers towards a primary product, itself often far removed from the subject matter, was a highly effective way of increasing sales.

A much-cited example is the tyre company Michelin, who published their now famous maps, hotel and restaurant guides as a means of encouraging people to travel more by car – and use more tyres. Their marketing material was so popular it eventually became a brand-defining product in its own right. And even in the 1950s, Guinness was using advertorials about oysters to get people to drink more stout.

The principle online is much the same. It’s about camouflaging the main message – ‘buy our product’ – in content that an audience will not reject as bald advertising. Advertisers use promotional material that appears ‘native’ to the standard editorial content that surrounds it, matching it in style and get-up, and making it seem at face value that it’s from the trusted content provider rather than an advertiser.

…but stay honest!

Of course, advertisers are not allowed to pass off adverts as factual editorial or deceive audiences by concealing the commercial arrangement made between an advertiser and publisher. Native advertising is regulated and the UK has one of the strictest regimes in the world, underpinned by the CAP Code (rarely referred to by its full name, the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing) and enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Their remit has covered digital advertising since 2011, with sanctions that include pre-vetting of content, adverse publicity, removal of paid-for search advertisements; more serious cases can be sent to Trading Standards or the Information Commissioner’s Office for criminal prosecution. In the US, by contrast, general guidelines on native advertising were only introduced at the end of 2015.

Editorial or advertorial?

Regulatory framework has given birth to a whole new glossary of terms for the different types of content that seek to persuade opinion. Scroll through a digital marketer’s playbook and expect to find mention of content marketing, sponsored content, partner content, native advertising, thought leadership, public relations, marketing copy, paid-for content, promoted listings, advertorials, in-feed ads, and probably another small thesaurus’ worth of related terms and euphemisms.

In such a welter of overlapping and fuzzy terms, it can sometimes be difficult for content producers to be sure that they are stepping on the right side of the regulatory line. After all, content is very often designed to be persuasive or influence behaviour. Does that mean such content is automatically subject to the CAP Code?

The crucial difference between content marketing and native advertising, for instance, is that the latter has been paid for and the message is controlled by an advertiser, promoter or marketer in a commercial arrangement with the publisher. Content designed to boost the publisher’s own position, but not directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods or services in non-paid-for space on a company’s own website – what many call content marketing –does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Code.

Be up front about advertising

Clarity is the core principle behind keeping native advertising on the right side of the Code. If a publisher has been paid to communicate or endorse a brand’s message, then it’s advertising – and if it’s advertising the audience has to know it before they start to consume it.

There are many ways to flag up native advertising – one of the reasons there are so many terms for such content. For instance, it could be labelled as ‘sponsored’, ‘suggested by’, ‘presented by’; we’re all familiar with Facebook’s ‘suggested posts’ and Twitter’s ‘promoted tweets’. It could have a visual cue or demarcation to make the boundary between advertising and editorial content obvious. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, Clare O’Brien of IAB said, but it does have to be clear and up front.

In the end, advertisers are paying for a slice of the trust that you have built up with your audience. Fall foul of the Code and you risk facing the reputational damage of naming and shaming and taking your ads down. If you’re audience feels duped, the trust will go – and that was the very commodity you were trading on in the first place. Get it right and your audience will continue to trust and enjoy your content, and advertisers will continue to pay.


Many thanks to Clare O’Brien for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup. Join the next meetup: 


What happens when content design crashes into the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?


What would it be like to produce content in a total data vacuum? Picture yourself working in soundproofed blacked-out box with a computer that can only send but never receive information. You have a brief to design some content, but you haven’t been given much information about your users. You’re going to have to rely on intuition and assumption about their needs, interests and behaviour. No matter – you’re a resourceful person, so you make the best of it and cobble together some best-guess content. It’s a relief to press send.

Off it goes into the ether and you’ll never have to think about it, the users or their needs again – because there won’t be any feedback. That includes all metrics, page views, click-throughs, bounces and everything else you’re used to for assessing whether your work is fulfilling its aims. It sounds like a recipe for awful content, doesn’t it? It must be – though of course you won’t get to know either way.

Data drives content

For content professionals, such a scenario in the real world is unthinkable. Content is driven by data and databases, from analytics to A/B testing. Data is the beating heart of how content designers think about user needs and what we do to deliver on them. It’s also the biggest weapon in our armoury when it comes to dealing with sceptical and obstructive forces in the organisations we work for.

And yet, the situation above isn’t just a thought exercise. Working in a data void – or at best with a seriously diminished data set – could well become a reality for many of us in a couple of years if we don’t take timely steps to stay compliant with imminent new data protection legislation, according to Hazel Southwell, Data Protection Consultant, speaking at a recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Ignore data protection at your peril

Content producers who ignore the new rules will be destined to launch their content into the void, she warned, like the Soviet scientists who shot Laika, a Moscow street dog, into space with scant means of monitoring her progress and no hope of her survival. The ill-fated dog died from overheating after only a couple of hours and the scientists learned next to nothing from the adventure. At least she got to be the first animal in orbit – which is far more than content producers can hope for in return for their doomed efforts.

Producing content without user research and analytics (both pre and post publication) makes it far more likely to be irrelevant to target audiences – and useless to our objectives. More than that, data is the trump card, the invincible ace of spades, in any argument about the direction that content should be taking.

How often does data come to our rescue when subject matter experts are blocking improvements to clarity and readability, or when managers are resistant to important content changes? They can’t argue with the data. Without data in the armoury, we’re fighting blindfold with both arms tied behind our back.

Say hello to the General Data Protection Regulation

On 25 May 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force, making sweeping changes to rules governing the way we collect, use and store data. It will have an impact on any organisation, whether based inside or outside the European Union, that processes the personal data of any resident of the EU or any EU citizen elsewhere.

Companies will no longer be able to sidestep data protection obligations because their head office is in the US, say, or their servers are in Vanuatu. If they’re dealing with the personal data of EU citizens then they must comply with the rules. So Brexit will not provide a way out for UK organisations either.

The UK currently has one of the toughest data regimes in the world in the Data Protection Act 1998, backed up by the enforcements of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But the GDPR knocks that into the shade, not least with sanctions that are designed to bring the global tech behemoths out in a cold sweat. Even the likes of Google and Facebook might think twice about transgressions, faced with fines totalling €20 million or 4% of worldwide annual turnover – whichever is greater.

Personal data will include photos, email addresses, bank details, social media posts, cookies and IP addresses – anything, in fact, that identifies you directly or indirectly in your private, professional or public life. And if you’re processing this data, whether you’re a multinational or working from your front room, whether you’re turning a profit or not, then you’ll need to comply.

It might be a shock for a humble WordPress blogger to find their use of tools such as Google Analytics (much of which is based on monitoring IP addresses) could fall foul of the law. And their difficulties will be compounded if they deal with personalised content tailored to their audiences – for example, if they use a formula whereby 2 users might see a different paragraph within a single page depending on their age. It seems the quest for making highly relevant content is to become even more tortuous.

So how do you comply with the GDPR?

You’ll have to get explicit consent for obtaining and keeping personal data, which must be given to you freely, rather than as a bargaining chip for accessing your services. You’ll need to ask for it in clear and obvious way, not just imply you’re taking it and going ahead.

Having obtained consent fair and square you’ll have to store it, not only so the ICO can check you’re doing things right, but also so individuals concerned can see what you have on them. They should be able to transfer their data to other data controllers if they want – what’s being described as a new right of ‘data portability’.

Consent can be withdrawn as well as given, and you’ll have to erase data or correct inaccurate data if requested, or restrict processing data if you get an objection. If the data you’re keeping gets compromised through a security breach you may have to notify the relevant authority, the individual concerned or the public at large.

You’ll have to demonstrate that you’re complying with the GDPR, through policies and procedures, staff training, monitoring, documentation – and if your organisation is large enough, with the appointment of a designated data protection officer and appropriate records of your data processing activities.

Privacy will be prioritised by better design (privacy by design) and through more stringent default settings (privacy by default), and you’ll be encouraged to use data only when strictly necessary for your services.

Privacy fights back

If it sounds tough, that’s because it is. There are some obvious exemptions to the rules – such as for national security, defence, law enforcement, public services and health and so on – but it seems the EU has had enough of companies storing and selling huge quantities of personal information, our interests, health, social background, jobs, wealth, education and much more – information that has very likely been obtained in ways we were not wholly aware.

While we unwittingly surrender the details of our address books, calendars, emails and map co-ordinates to apps and companies that seem to have no call to know them, many of us are only dimly realising that our most private information is forming part of a vast global trade far beyond our control. Marketing giant Acxiom, for instance, is said to have stockpiled up to 3,000 separate nuggets of information on each of the 700 million people in its files.

In this context, the GDPR could be a welcome rebalancing in favour of the individual. Even so, EU member states still have some flexibility about how they implement many of the GDPR’s 99 Articles – not to mention the uncertainty of how a post-Brexit UK might slot into those arrangements.

There may also be ways to anonymise or ‘pseudonymise’ data so that it can be used without stepping on anyone’s toes, or making the most of exemptions for statistical research that doesn’t rely on the identifying aspects of the data. The sweep of the legislation may be fixed, but the crispness of its final boundaries are still to be defined.

Respect privacy, improve content, win trust

However the cookie in your cache might crumble come May 2018, content strategists must start putting data protection much higher up the agenda now. Content professionals are creative people and will be able to conjure up inventive and unimposing ways for users to give consent about their personal data.

It’s in everyone’s interests that content is engaging and relevant, and it won’t take much for users to understand how important data is for the best in content creation. It will be even more important for content professionals to create the kind of compelling content that will make users care enough to click the consent button – in whatever form it takes – without a second thought.

Many thanks to Hazel Southwell for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.



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How to produce quality content

We all want quality content. Nothing is more likely to lose an audience than badly designed, poorly written, uninformative content – and no-one sets out to produce that.

But what is quality? How do we know when we are getting it right? How can we measure it?

Content is the difference

What we do know is that content is king. In a multi-channel universe with millions of sites shouting for attention, there’s only one thing that differentiates your page from the rest – content.

Content is also all you have working for you at the crucial “zero moment of truth”, the period in a user’s decision-making process when the research is done before buying, according to Andrew Bredenkamp. He is the founder and CEO of Acrolinx, a linguistic analytics software platform, and he was a speaker at the recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Companies are slowly waking up to the reality that content matters for the bottom line. We’ve moved from a time when content was operating as little more than glorified placeholder on websites whose sole purpose was to carve out a corner of the web and bag a domain name.

Companies had to have content, but cared little about it, Dr Bredenkamp said. Now, they still have to have it but they want it, because they know content gives them a competitive advantage. Whether your aim is to get new customers or to retain existing ones, it’s content that’s going to do the job.

Who decides what quality is?

So, how do we make sure our content has the quality it needs to deliver? The problem is that quality is deeply subjective, meaning many things to many people. Ask copywriters and content designers what good quality is, and they’ll talk about the words, grammar, spelling, style and tone. They’ll want tight copy with a logical structure that’s clear and easy to read, in short sentences and paragraphs, free from typos and inconsistencies. They’ll also be concerned about the substance of the material: how engaging, interesting and informative it is.

They’d have an eye on what we might call its authorial quality too. Is the content coming from an expert or enthusiast who knows the subject inside out and wants to communicate that knowledge for others’ benefit? Does the content have authority, build a relationship of trust with the reader and genuinely put their interests first?

The content strategist’s view

The content strategist, meanwhile, would look at the bigger picture. They’d be thinking about content and its role in the sequence of steps users are likely to take fulfil their needs, and how content could create a consistently positive experience throughout the user journey regardless of the platform or device they’re using.

In larger organisations this could involve co-ordinating a number of content-producing teams who each have their particular agenda to push. If the sales team’s material sings in harmony with the after sales team, for instance, then customers are more likely to get a unified, integrated experience. Uneven content that pulls in opposite directions conjures up a chaotic vision of a brand. Disjointed, inconsistent content tracks with poor ratings for reputation, Dr Bredenkamp said.

Quality for marketing

Ask marketeers the same question about quality and you’d get a quite different answer. No doubt they’d be delighted if the content did everything the content strategist and content designer wanted – though this isn’t their primary concern.

They’re far more interested in the findability of the content. They need hits – and whether this is on the back of fancy prose is irrelevant. What use is well-written high-quality content if no one finds and reads it? Quality content for them scores highly on the search engine results page (SERP), and draws users towards their website and away from their competitors.

Don’t try to trick Google

Working out what Google wants has long been the preserve of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) experts, who have traditionally used every weapon in the armoury to give their content an edge. What is becoming clearer is that the old SEO techniques are not nearly as effective as they once were. As many people in SEO will tell you, the days of using content as a vehicle for keywords and backlinks to dupe Google’s algorithms are numbered.

Google is doing what it can to neutralise the tricks of the trade and people who game the system. After all, the search engine wants to offer content of high quality too – search results that provide good information to the people looking for it. It doesn’t want to give them a parade of keyword-bloated SEO-tweaked trickery that fools algorithms as much as it short-changes its users.

Searching for quality

A measure of how important this is to Google can be seen with the care it takes over perfecting its search processes. Every year it makes at least 500 changes to its search algorithm, occasionally adding to this with major overhauls, such as Google Penguin and Google Hummingbird, that can make significant differences to how it gathers results.

Google’s systems are further augmented with the input of real people – providing a human element to Google’s search iterations that is better able to evaluate content and detect true quality. Google search quality evaluators, as they’re known, scour pages looking for characteristics such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, satisfying information and a positive website reputation – measures that are far more difficult for an algorithm to assess.

Make your own quality

As Google gets more interested in the question of content quality and how to measure it, where does this leave us? Should we just accept that quality is whatever Google says it is? Doing so would be to fall back into the old modes of second-guessing Google’s designs – and this contradicts what Google has been trying to tell us for the last few years. Their message is clear: think less about trying to please Google and more about delivering the best possible experience for users. Get that right, and, in theory at least, high search rankings will follow as a matter of course.

We are in a position, then, that the meaning of “quality” among those who have a stake in creating it, is becoming far more closely aligned than it has been previously. Quality for copywriters, content designers, marketeers, content strategists and search engine optimisers seems to be increasingly about responding closely to the needs of users and ensuring a positive experience for them across platforms.

It’s not just user needs

But there’s more – and this point can be painful to hear for people passionate about content.

It’s not all about the user. Our services to users are built upon the aims and objectives of our organisations. Quality requires time, thought, investment, planning – among the reasons that many companies have been slow to embrace it. There’s no reason to go to the trouble if your quality content is not achieving what you want it to.

High quality content does not automatically become highly effective content, as Lucie Hyde, Barclaycard’s Head of Content and Digital Channels, said in a later presentation at the meetup. A Bach cantata is of exquisite quality, but it’s not going to be a dancefloor hit in Ibiza.

Getting the conversion

Your content has to be effective. This could be commercial effectiveness, clinching the sale, or it could be non-commercial, fulfilling an obligation. It has to achieve what it sets out to – and make what Bredenkamp called the ‘conversion’. It’s not enough for content to be of a high standard – although it definitely helps. The more problems there are with the content, the lower the conversion rate tends to be, he said; the fewer style errors there are, the higher the rate.

You have to know the needs of your organisation to create a definition of quality. When you work out exactly what your business needs are, then you’re better able not only to recognise quality, but measure it too. Comparing the conversion rate of one page against another very quickly gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t, he said. Your notion of quality can then be supported by something indisputable – data.

Quality is driven by data

There’s nothing like data to cut across disagreements in the meeting room about the direction content should be taking. Content producers may have style sheets and writing guides, they may be writing “on brand” and “on board”, they may be getting the top readability scores and high search rankings. But, as football commentators are so fond of saying, there’s only one statistic that really matters – and with content it’s the conversion rate, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness and quality of your content.

Quality is about context as much as standards. It’s about recognising user needs and mapping them to the objectives of your organisation – and it all has to be done with the right style, tone, accuracy and relevance to engage and entertain. It’s a lot to ask, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy.

Many thanks to Dr. Andrew Bredenkamp for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @abredenkamp

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Better metrics for social media

In 2015, virtually all companies have an online presence, from the Fortune 500 down to the local dry cleaner. Companies encourage customers to like, follow, share – anything to show engagement. But does that really work?

According to Charlie Southwell, most companies aren’t putting enough thought into their social content. He points to an article on Marketing Week reporting that nearly half of Chief Marketing Officers claim that social media has a “below average” impact on profitability. So where is the disconnect?

It’s not a numbers game

In 2016, we can buy thousands of Twitter followers, YouTube views, or website views for the price of a fancy coffee. But it won’t change your business. Charlie points out that you would get more business impact by taking the money you budget for social and throwing it off the roof. There’s even a name for it: the MoR (Money off Roof) Test. The premise is that the excitement of seeing an executive standing on a roof, throwing money at passersby, would generate more viral excitement than most social media content.

Productive uses of social media

There are six main uses for social media in business, and you need to plan your social media strategy with all six pillars in mind. To summarise Charlie’s points:

  • HR – social content can be used to attract talent, onboard staff, and keep them engaged, both while employed and as alumni.
  • PR, marketing, and advertising – social content can help with lowering the cost of marketing, acquisition, and customer retention.
  • Sales – the use of social content here is embodied by FRY: Frequency of purchase, more customer Reach, and Yield of average transaction.
  • Customer service – Fielding and resolving customer problems has become one of the top uses for social media.
  • Business intelligence – Combine any of the number of measurement and analytics tools in the market to draw some powerful conclusions about how business is perceived and how to proceed.
  • Internal communications – Social tools help your teams collaborate, and reduce down time spent on fruitless information chases.

Charlie provided a number of example objectives that could be used as a starting point, and emphasised that each organisation will have unique objectives. Those objectives should be platform agnostic, as platforms come and go (remember MySpace?). Each platform and channel has its own idiosyncrasies, and the timeline for seeing return on your investment will vary. You don’t have to be Einstein to measure social media, Charlie reminds us, but you do have to engage in some rigorous planning that starts with business objectives.

Many thanks to Charlie Southwell.

Twitter @charliesaidthat



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Need a deeper understanding of content best practices?
Attend the meetup for content professionals – Content, Seriously

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Take a content strategy workshop – Content Strategy Intensive

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Applying science to content analytics

Analytics Eats HIPPOs for Breakfast was the attention-getting line that opened Adrian Kingwell’s presentation at the March meetup of Content, Seriously. Any line that involves large mammals is bound to get the audience’s attention, even though in this case, HIPPO stands for “HIghest Paid Person in the Office”.

The vast majority of writers can relate to the situation where the HIPPO, whether that be client or in-house executive, decides that content should be written in a certain way, or delivered in a certain channel, generally based on personal opinion. The writers are left scrambling to mind-read the HIPPO’s instructions, balancing that with what information could be gleaned about what content actually works for the intended audiences.

Using analytics, the HIPPO can be tamed, and may even be happy about it. Instead of acting on opinions, writers can use the data behind analytics to determine what content works and why.

The starting point for analytics

Adrian Kingwell

Adrian Kingwell

The reason that organisations create content is to solve a business problem. That meant asking the right business questions. Then, the primary job of analytics is to get answers to those questions. Start with why: why is content being created at all? What is the business purpose? Then ask how: how should the content be created and delivered? Which channels are most appropriate? For which audiences? Once those criteria have been established, ask what: what content would be most appropriate for those audiences, in those channels, for those business purposes?

Starting with “why” and working backwards, analytics can reveals information about our customers and shows ways to improve content. Every piece of content on a website has an objective. It’s important to agree on the objectives and the key results. As well, ask what else could add value? Once that’s been decided, have the analytics analyst tag the pages.

The goal of analytics is to improve results

Adrian pointed out that the content strategist’s best friend is the conversion rate, which can be calculated as goals divided by number of visits. Each organisation has different goals, which could translate into number of sales, value of sales, number of subscribers.

Goals unrelated to conversion might be time on page divided by time on site, return visitors, recency of visit, or page values. What’s important is that the metric is agreed upon, and that you measure results over time. A single-day snapshot is meaningless. The iterative cycle of measuring, improving, measuring again, and improving again that will ultimately get results.

Many thanks to Adrian Kingwell for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @adrian_kingwell
Mezzo Labs

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Need a deeper understanding of content best practices?
Attend the meetup for content professionals – Content, Seriously.

Want to upgrade your content strategy skills?
Take a content strategy workshop – Content Strategy Intensive.

Need help with your content strategy?
Scroll can help – Scroll content strategy services.

Content strategy tips for future-friendly content

No one likes stale content. That’s why we do our best to give it a long life, making it interesting and relevant to our audience in ways that could endure weeks, months or even years.

The same goes for content design, but this has the added difficulty of going past its sell-by date because of the technology it relies on.

The past is another planet

Only a decade ago, your phone was a tiny thing with a small screen and numeric buttons like a school calculator. You used it to make a call – it’s a phone, isn’t it?

Somewhere in its labyrinthine menus was an option to go online, but once you’re there it was so slow and clunky that you didn’t bother, and did all your surfing on your computer at home.

Anyway, there was no hurry, no relentless soundtrack of pings from incoming emails, chat and tweets. Twitter, Apple Push Notifications, apps hadn’t been invented. Social media was just a fuzz on the dim horizon that only a few were coming to realise would be massive.

It’s not that long ago, a decade, and yet in terms of the way we communicate with and relate to each other, it might as well be another epoch.

When Wikipedia was launched, there was up to a five year time-to-obsolescence on web-enabled services. Now it’s around 12 months, and shortening all the time – a rate of change known as ‘velocity of obsolescence’.

And if change is ever quicker for software and hardware, where does this leave content design? How can content designers meet the goal of providing fresh engaging content across time, space and devices?

A content-first approach

We may not know what the future has in store for us, but this doesn’t have to be an obstacle, according to Mike Atherton, veteran information architect and UX coach. For him, it’s not so much about defying time, but about being future friendly.

Talking at Scroll’s Content, Seriously meetup recently, he stressed the importance of putting content first. Design the content before thinking about the interface, and the future isn’t such an issue. Users get to engage with your content as and when they please, whether on a laptop, tablet, phone or watch.

He illustrated his point with his design for the latest website of the upcoming IA Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, a new site had to be designed every year from scratch, which was a good exercise for volunteers, but left the summit without a clear and enduring brand.

The task, then, was to create a future-friendly website that could be easily updated and applied to changing user needs, regardless of interface or location.

Complexity behind, clarity in front

The trick, he said, was to create a ‘domain model’ from the off, which describes the subject and how all the concepts and relationships hold together within that. It’s not the same as a sitemap – it’s a stage removed from websites – and nor is it just a summary of content.

The domain model explains the complexity of the subject and enables content designers to decide which parts they want to show on what interface. It also enables them to balance comprehensive detail against user accessibility, what Mike called ‘complexity behind the scenes and clarity up front’.

He showed how the domain model described the relationship of the main concepts to each other, such as event, venue, location, person, role, session and session format. If domain models capture the overall context, the content model zooms in to detail, its properties and how it’s offered to users, giving it its structure.

In his example, the ‘person’ concept from the domain model becomes explained in terms of its inherent properties, such as name, company, job title, biography, job title, associated website and Twitter ID.

Once content is broken down into these atoms, it’s only at this stage that the design needs inform the ‘granularity’ of the content model, where and how the atoms appear in relation to each other.

Structured content is future friendly

This makes it straightforward to apply the structured content into the content management system (CMS), which can deal with it in terms of its properties, content types and relationships.

Use an unstructured CMS and you get what Mike called ‘blob’ content – a mess of pages, titles and rambling body fields, in which the relationships between each part are lost, formatting is made ad hoc and links are added by hand.

Style clashes are far more likely, but even worse from a user’s point of view is that the core concepts that hold the content together become trapped in and swamped by the body field.

Future-friendly content, he said, is ‘stored, structured, and connected outside any interface’, but ‘ready to use in every interface’.

In ten years from now, as we zip around on hoverboards, browsing the web on our trousers, these principles are still likely to be true.

Next steps

Buzzzzt! Content is energy

Content. We hear that word all the time. But think for a minute, what does ‘content’ mean to you?

The way we think about content has a profound effect on how we approach content-related problems – and how we solve them.

For some, content is a commodity to be packed, packaged, displayed and (we hope) consumed. If it’s a popular, desirable commodity, the value is reflected in an accumulation of views, likes, shares and comments.

The trouble with this perception though is that it gives content a passive role, not only in its relationship to users, but also to the organisations it’s supposed to serve.

A decade ago, this view prevailed. Websites were built with rigid, lifeless layouts that attempted to recreate print documents online.

Unfortunately, many organisations still treat their content this way.

A dynamic view of content

At Scroll’s last Content, Seriously meetup, Kate Thomas suggested a more dynamic view.

A long-time content strategist and former Head of Content at ORM London, Kate argues that content is better seen as energy – the vital, sizzling force that powers the page.

Some content is like kinetic energy – the short, snappy, vibrant, engaging material that crackles off the page.

Other content is more like potential energy, ready to unleash its potential at the click of a mouse. You can store up this kind of content on the site – it’s always fresh, relevant, and interesting to users.

Content should fizz and pop like electricity – but it does no good if left as a livewire, wasting its power and frying you and your clients in the process.

That’s where content strategy comes in.

Harnessing content energy for business benefits

If it’s going to work properly for you, you must harness the energy of your content. A good content strategist has the systems, processes and tools to do just that.

They can plan ahead, with a full understanding of the users’ needs, backed up with analysis of the data, and fit the plan to the organisation’s editorial calendars. They understand the systems, the governance structures, the content models and content plans.

They oversee the resources, whether human, financial or content-related; and they know how to utilise the technology, including software, hardware and hard copy, applying the right media and channels to the message.

Unlike colleagues such as copywriters, SEO experts, UX teams, content designers and so on, it’s the content strategist’s job to see the whole picture and make sure it all works together. Their goal is getting the right content, at the right time, to the right people.

In this way, the content strategist channels the power of content to support the client’s business goals.

The result is real-world benefits, not just a rack-up of shares, likes and retweets in the ether.

In one of Kate’s recent projects, for example, her client saw gains of £600,000 because of improvements she made through the content strategy.

Correctly harnessed, content is the current of a digital presence – a liquid and energetic force that powers effective responses to business and user needs.

Next steps

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