What next for content?

Jan. 26, 2011 | by Tamsin Hemingray

Monkey looking through telescope

The content monkey, out from behind the typewriter, looks to the future

We’re putting together an event for Social Media Week 2011, which we’re calling What next for content?

It’s on 10 February in London, and we’ll be chewing over the future for content, in the context of digital marketing specifically and online communication in general.

There’s a lot we could talk about, but I want to focus on the key trends.  So, I’m going to use Connect as a public notebook to jot down my thoughts – and see if I can get the conversation started ahead of time. Here goes…

Content strategy as a discipline will be recognised for the critical part it plays in effective digital communication

Let’s start with an easy one! In case you haven’t heard, Content Strategy is the new Social Media (or something) which means that in 2011 just about everyone and their dog is going to be wanting a piece.

It’s already an established discipline with recognised processes and outputs in the US and this year we’re going to see more hard examples of how organisations and brands have put it to use to improve traffic, deepen engagement on-site (lighter bounce rates, more page views per visit and increased time on-site) and get the right content at the right time in the right shape to the right people.

My fellow content strategists Charlie Peverett, Trisha Brandon and I saw an example of this at the Content Strategy Applied conference a couple of weeks ago, when eBay’s Nikki Tiedtke shared the impressive results her team have achieved by using content strategy methods to improve the satisfaction of their critically important European Business Seller users.

Just as you can’t imagine building a website without considering UX or SEO now (right?), soon you won’t go near a major web project without a content strategist on the team.

Web users will start to get their heads around paying for the best (advertising-free) content

When I opened my TV licence annual statement this week I noticed that I now effectively pay a “subscription” of £12 per month for access to the BBC’s content online, on the radio and on TV. I think this is fantastic value for money – I’d pay it for BBC4 and 6Music on their own.

Murdoch’s brave/crazy/arrogant/misinformed (delete as appropriate) move to put The Times and The Sun behind a paywall in 2010 has paved the way for a major shift in user attitudes to paying for quality content online in 2011 and beyond. (Rumours have already started circulating that The Telegraph will be the next quality UK newspaper to go this way – though they’ve denied it.)

And it really struck me what a huge shift in culture and editorial mentality the paywall must have caused at News International when I heard Jon Hill talk about designing The Times for the iPad last year. He described how exciting it was that the focus was back on pleasing the reader rather than the advertiser. (And though they’re starting at square one in terms of subscriber numbers, the graphs are at least going up for the first time in a while.)

It reminded me of the phrase that rippled through Twitter last year: “If you’re not paying for the content then you are the product”. Not long after that Yahoo! announced that it was selling the superb bookmarking website Delicious – and I watched, amused, as most of the people I know who would fight to the death for the “free” web signed up to a fee-based alternative.

In 2011 and beyond we’re all going to start asking ourselves how much of our attention and personal information we’re happy to give up to advertisers in return for “free” content. And we’re also going to start wondering whether it might be worth a pound or two each month to filter out the spam that clogs much of our search results – to get to the good stuff without promotional messages at every turn.

Content without context will win less attention

Rebel without a cause

.......................................... Attention is contextual ...............................................

While Google struggles to keep pace with the tactics of black-hat SEO and content farms, Facebook’s “like” button has transported digital content into a whole new era.

It’s nearly a year since they announced the roll out of plug-ins for other sites, effectively allowing Facebook users to “take their friends with them” as they travel the web. Love or hate it, Facebook’s ubiquitous nature means that for a huge group of web users an increasing amount of the content they find, share and talk about comes qualified by the perceptions of their friends and family.

Content that comes to the attention of people without this seal of approval is going to have an increasingly hard time holding that attention.

Only outstandingly relevant or original content will be able to break in to these semi-permeable walled gardens, via those in the group who take pride in being the first to share a great new find (but who must to invest the discovery time accordingly).

For all these reasons and more, SEO will inform – but no longer lead – the delivery of content

Up until now, a lot of websites have been a bit like a really knackered old mini cab. One that takes a while to warm up -where you need to know about its “special little ways” to get it to work properly, and it costs a fortune to run.

When a bit of it breaks no one can be bothered to fix it because, well, it’s an old banger isn’t it? So a customer gets in and finds it smells and the handle to wind down the window is broken and the driver keeps getting lost – and when they finally get to the destination it costs twice as much as expected.

For this type of website, SEO has often been used like a rocket booster welded onto the back of the knackered old mini cab. It means that the old banger can get to the customer who needs a ride quicker than anyone else. But what a miserable journey it is for any customer who gets in.

So, if I can extend this already over-stretched metaphor to breaking point . . . If SEO has been the rocket boosters, then content has been treated like the fuel.

And the thing about these particular boosters is that all they need is something that will burn. It doesn’t matter if it’s bits of old cardboard box or rubber tyres – it just needs to burn. Does it make the car belch out smoke that chokes or blinds other people on the roads? Doesn’t matter. Just stuff those keywords in and let the algorithm do its thing.

But hopefully not any more. Nobody (or rather, nobody you trust) is going to ‘like’ or pay a subscription for a random, keyword-stuffed piece of “linkbait”. So I look forward to the time, soon at hand, when content is the equal partner of SEO in the marketing mix. I think we’re going to be able to do great things together.

We will finally get our analytics tools fixed

Analytics for content - not new, still broken

I am regularly shocked at how regularly I have conversations with web people about the way that their analytics tool is ignored, broken, not able to tell you what you need, misunderstood or seen as the “scary” part of a content producer’s job.

When I was the editor and community manager at Dobedo (yes, it was a real social network in the late ’90s, honestly) everything I did was judged against how succesfully it attracted new users and got existing users doing and saying more. The analytics dashboard was the first and last thing I looked at each day. It told me all about how successful my content was – what I needed to do more of, what had fallen flat and where we needed to go next in terms of the development of new functionality and content formats.

We all need this data to do better and more relevant things with our content. 2011 has to be the year when all those gremlins and glitches in our analytics packages get ironed out. Or perhaps we just bin them and get ourselves signed up to the free and amazingly user-friendly Google Analytics?

If your brand is becoming a publisher then all these things will start to matter to you too

You may be wondering what any of these things have to do with the success or failure of your brand online. If you aren’t in the business of publishing newspapers does it really matter whether people pay for them or access them for free?

Well I’d argue that yes, it does if you have any aspiration at all to communicate with your customers online. If web users are thinking harder about where they focus their attention, whether they want to pass things on to their friends, and whether or not they want marketing messages mixed in with content that is primarily there to inform or entertain them, then you need to be thinking about it too.

We all need to be working out what users want, how they want it and where they want it. And that’s what content strategy is for.

Has your organisation got the people with the skills and experience that a digital publisher needs? If 2011 is the year of the content strategist, then I think that the second age of the web editor must be just around the corner too. And it’s about time.

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    Comments (10)

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    • Hikicha

      For one , i don't think there will be a huge percentage of users who will switch to pay for Ad free content . As per the Nielsen analysis , it could happen for certain selected content types ( Video, Live streaming TV, music  etc ) but for other types like News papers, won't find a huge revenue from it . Simply, there are too many news sources in web  and news papers are fighting a losing battle here .Apr 7, 2011 01:12 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      @Jeremy I think what makes the Readability model interesting for me personally is that it takes away my need to subscribe to sites on an individual basis. There might be a writer I love writing for The Telegraph and another one writing for The Guardian. Am I really up for subscribing to both newspapers online? That's quite a commitment. This way I get to pay for the content on "as I read" basis which I'd feel much more comfortable with. It's a much more palatable model for me. But that's just me!

      Re: TV ads - I've started using a hard drive recorder (BT vision in this case, but could be a Sky+ box or just a standalone recorder) which means I can pause live tv, set it up to record my faves etc. I pretty much NEVER watch TV advertising anymore. I just skip the ads. I hardly ever watch live TV now. Even if there is something on live I want to watch, I start recording it, go and make a cup of tea and then start the show from the beginning running on a 10 or 15 min lag - means I can skip through the ad breaks. Currently BT are benefiting from that - I paid them for the box, and the commercial channels are losing big time. Which is a worry because I'd be devastated if Coronation Street went to the wall. (Seriously.) Maybe in ithe future commercial TV will all have to be pay per view?Feb 7, 2011 10:34 am

    • Jeremy Head

      Hi Tamsin
      Your post made me think of Readability as well. The new paid for version in particular has me wondering. Am I prepared to pay someone else who is not a content producer to provide me with someone else's content minus the annoying ads they have on their to enable them to pay for that content to be created? Granted Readability says that it will give back a big chunk of its profit to the content creators its readers choose to read, but it still feels too far removed for me. Having said that I also found myself wondering how much (extra) I'd pay if say Sky offered their channels ad-free or I could choose to watch Channel 4 ad-free. Right now I can ignore web-ads - whilst on TV once the ads start, you have nowhere to go except changing channel. If web ads become yet more intrusive (which doubtless they will) maybe there will come a tipping point where people start to re-remember the value of great content.Feb 4, 2011 10:53 pm

    • Michael Rose

      I must admit that I've just been using the free bookmarklet up to this point and wasn't aware of the monitisation plans.

      I was worried that Readability and Instapaper would be competing products, making it hard to choose between them, but it looks like the latter are powering the former which is great news.

      The publisher options and API look great, it's a really smart business model all round; the best content experience plus a Flattr-like micro-payments system. One to watch for sure.Feb 4, 2011 07:38 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      @Michael - I installed the Readability tool on your recommendation and I have to say it's really got me thinking - especially with the launch of the new commercial version. A completely different way of "monetising" (yuk but you know what I mean) the best quality content. Thanks for the pointer!Feb 4, 2011 02:09 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      PS sorry about the tech difficulties you mention - will pass that on!Jan 28, 2011 04:14 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Thanks Michael - excellent food for thought. I agree. Users are really going to need help as they plough through the superabundance of STUFF out there. One of our jobs as content / UX people is to keep up to speed with the tools and layouts that help with that.

      Even if all content farms and other spam-merchants were deleted forever from the landscape of the web the vast, vast, vast open prairies of really brilliant stuff left behind would still need to be organised and signposted to help people find the things that they really want and will value the most. (One of the reasons why SEO will always have an important part to play in helping users imho).Jan 28, 2011 04:13 pm

    • Michael Rse

      It's great to read your views here Tamsin. I'm very interested in how this will start to play out in 2011 and beyond. I got very doom and gloom in 2009-10 seeing the same old content re-packaged and churned out like fuel (your metaphor is perfect). As people flocked to social-media, short tweets, short links and micro-blogging I saw the race for eyeballs degenerate once again with obfuscated links and link-baiting rearing its ugly head once again. And just when I thought access to online content was going somewhere interesting. All your proposed trends make me happy... I hope they all come about. I'd like to add one of my own 'Reasons to be Cheerful' and that's the rise of cleaner sites and 'Read Later' services. Social media and micro-content to small-screen devices are both going to continue to flourish but tools like Instapaper and 'Watch later' functions on both YoutTube and Vimeo, are going to play a large part in helping us to read and engage deeply at a time that suits, rather than at our desk or on the move. Real-time media is great for live, breaking news ("RIP Bill Cosby" :)) and social media is fabulous for getting relevant new information (I've stopped using RSS altogether) but social media never stops and 'deferal' services that allow us to read later when we're in an appropriate context are going to be vital in engaging with the glut. On a related note... 'readability' bookmarklets and the built-in 'Reader' function of Safari are also very encouraging trends stripping out the cruft from long-form content and helping the readers amoung us to 'full-screen' content, removing distrating elements and to really engage with great writing. I for one have been been scanning for too long, quickly consuming a link so I can get back to the stream for more, but I'm slowly developing a sense that everything I do (not just googling) is re-wiring my brain (Carr is right, but in the wrong way). As a result of this expanding awareness that what we focus on is what really matters in terms of understanding and development I think users and readers are going to flock to sites and services that provide clear, clean distraction free content. I'm struggling to know how marketing departments will react to this. Personally I'd skip iAds and PPC and move to using services like Fusion and The Deck. As a Web Editor with an eye on Content Strategy I'm delighted that context-rich distraction-free content will be once again be King. Thanks again... it IS about time. Long live the Web Editor! I'm almost tempted to call myself a Webmaster again... it's been 15 years coming but perhaps we can reclaim that one? :) PS: This form field for replies doesn't work on iPad/iPhone Safari browser and the Sumbit button is broken on Firefox for Linux :(Jan 28, 2011 02:41 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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