I’m eating the company dogfood, as it were, by selling my house through an estate agent that is a client of ours. I have become the use case.
So here I am, on a page featuring the particulars my house, faced with Tweet and Facebook ‘Like’ buttons.
My first thought is: I’m not putting the link on Twitter. Mainly because my followers include hundreds of people to whom my house is completely irrelevant. Why would people I’ve connected with, loosely speaking for professional reasons, want to see inside my house? That would be a bit weird.
Facebook though – that’s mostly my real friends. Or at least people I have really met and who have probably been inside my house at some point. It’s nice to throw up the odd conversation starter on Facebook, so I click the button.
Within an hour two of my wife’s distant friends text her about how tidy our kitchen looks. When she picks the kids up from school another parent is concerned that we are going to remove our son from her child’s class. I get a message on Facebook from a friend I’ve not seen for some time, asking where we are moving to. Others comment on the post.
All this is fine – but a bit strange. It feels like we are not in control of the conversation about our moving plans. I’m not so bothered about people scrutinising the pictures and the price (you can’t afford to be too precious when your underpants are visible on Google Streetview) – although I know others who would be. But I probably wouldn’t do it again.
It turns out my house sale is not something I actually want to share via social media.
The sharing buttons are there for other users too, not just vendors. But, more generally, as we pursue fans and followers across sundry social media platforms are we forgetting to ask the question: why on earth would anyone want to share this anyway?
There are still things that people want to keep quiet. Britons selling houses might be one example. We don’t want people to know that we want to move. Nor how much our houses are worth. Nor what colour our bed sheets (or pants) are.
People like to share trivial personal news, funny items, coupons and offers, and interesting articles. After that there is such a thing as too much information, and a whole slew of content that is too boring or pointless to share.
I shared my house on Facebook but not Twitter because I use those two platforms differently. I don’t really use Google+.
Which social networks would be best for your users to share items from your website? Do you know how they are using the different networks? Has anyone yet found a good reason for a business to be on Facebook?
It must be a fallacy that the more social media buttons you put on your pages the more people will share your content. Apparently the main way of sharing content is still cutting and pasting the URL, rather than clicking a button. That suggests that offering more ways to share is not the most effective way to get people to do so. They’ll share (or ignore) the content that they want to, regardless.
I dislike the sight of a rack of social media buttons on every page of a website, and also the hassle of having to edit auto-sharing options, such as a formulated tweet. Others in the office distrust those auto-share widgets from a privacy point of view, because they are unsure what is being tracked.
Let’s keep the user experience healthy and exercise some restraint. More importantly, let’s try to understand what and why our customers want to share and on which platforms.
Also, at what point in a process might your customers want to share? One of my favourite sharing examples is when the Wiggle website invited me, just after I had submitted a review of a product I bought from them, to share the review on Facebook. One little click of a button pushed the work I had just done out to a whole new audience without any further effort on my part. (Yes, that’s the writer talking).
Most of this understanding, like my experiment with the estate agent, comes through giving it a go and seeing what happens. Overall, it is not a given that it is better for people to share your stuff and follow you on social media. Ask anyone who has had their fingers burnt by a miscalculated Groupon deal. But if you do want to encourage sharing of your content, the key is not the buttons but creating content that people want to share in the first place.
Often when I meet other content strategists the talk is of inter-departmental horse-trading, corporate politics, and satisfying the great gods in the boardroom. At the recent London Content Strategy meetup I wanted to chip in what it’s like from my perspective, where there is only one department – our whole company, sitting in one room – where the politics are more to do with whose tea round is up next, and the boardroom is populated by laity whom we address by first names.
Of course, once I had talked about it, I found that not everyone in the room was quite as corporate a type as I had assumed. Even those who were quickly pointed out that it’s all the same thing really, because at any one time they are only working with a small set of people, trying to sell something to the next person in the chain.
So what is it like doing content strategy for smaller companies? New article follows the video and slides.
I’m sure everyone would say that money is short. Seriously, in three years, I am yet to work on a single project with enough money apportioned for a thorough job on the content.
Our clients vary from a one-off-website-in-three-days to businesses with employee numbers in three figures who pay for continual development. From a content point of view, it is rare that a project would entail more than two week’s work.
We talk about content strategy in our sales pitch because it shows an intelligent and ordered approach to projects. But we don’t write it into proposals because no one will pay for it as a discrete set of items.
Clients will, however, pay for design, because they have an opinion on colours and fonts and don’t know how to implement them. They will pay for development because they have no idea how that works. Same with SEO. Many clients will also buy blogs, blogging help and copywriting. All of these things act as Trojan horses for sneaking content work through the gates.
It should be said, that with longer-term clients, they begin to trust us and like what we do, so content strategy is less of a snake-oil concept. (Although take a moment to appreciate the initial topsy-turvy world where SEO is paid for hand over fist and content strategy is suspected as a con).
Some want to lift the iceberg, and put every bit of corporate marketing that they’ve ever produced on the website somewhere. But a problem that is just as common is a client having little or no content at all. This is a bit disturbing, especially when combined with a small budget and short timescale, but it’s also a fine opportunity to shape all of the content from its inception, and have a lot of input into the final substance of the application.
My job title is Content Strategist, although sometimes in the office I’m simply called Microcopy Man. I do a healthy amount of copywriting, and have to look at everything I do, including social media and mailing, through the lens of user experience, information architecture and marketing. To clients I’m a content expert, so that turns into consulting as well.
Smaller businesses are simply not loaded with people creating content, never mind content that is any good. Working at this level means being prepared to fill in gaps and make content happen, even if that means taking the photos or inventing the business model.
That’s a rather negative way to say that your mistakes will be noticed and you can’t hide from the client. So good relationships from the outset are vital, and depend on constant communication. A content strategy of some sort is essential to relationships too, even if it’s basic, even if it’s not billable. Having on paper a record of what is needed and who is responsible gives you a schedule and language to deliver the project smoothly.
All of this means that I get to create, and my work brings a little sunshine to those corners of the web in which it appears. It means I get to educate, to train, to see clients learn how to blog well, or start to take more care with their content. It means that I get to work closely with a fun team, doing a variety of jobs for a high turnover of projects.
Doing content strategy for small businesses is challenging, and sometimes I feel like there is not much of a roadmap for what I’m doing. But ultimately it is satisfying, and I love it when a great website comes together.
The post contains some links to slides, video and notes from the conference if you want to find out more.
The follow up November Event, taking place Wednesday 16 November in the same venue, picks up some of the conversations that were firing at the conference, and hopefully turns up the heat under them:
My own short talk will be a summary of what I’m learning doing content strategy for smaller projects and smaller companies. It’s great to have some theory about how content strategy fits into the overall picture, but when you’ve got a tiny budget and few days to deliver a website what can you really do to make sure that content gets to shine?
Expect crafty shortcuts and random animals.
I have a friend who switched political parties when he realised that basically, his people were in the other one. The people at these content strategy events are basically sound and amazing – down to earth, creative, at times ingenious but always pragmatic. My kind of people.
So I’m looking forward to hanging out with them on Wednesday, and chipping in my tuppeny-worth. Hope to see you there too.
Confession time. I work with website content every day but I don’t think I’ve ever stuffed a keyword. Sure, I’ve added the odd one to the final copy if the subject doesn’t quite speak for itself, but in the main, a website is about what it’s about. I’ve been relying on Google to lead people who are searching for that subject to the site.
And, in nearly all cases, that’s been happening.
According to Google’s recent update, my faith in this simple approach will now be rewarded even more. The ‘Panda’ algorithm change earlier this year was designed to assess website quality. Later, Google said: ‘Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content.’
Google will never disclose exactly how they are attempting to discern “high-quality” – an element so ambiguous it comes with its own set of speech marks – but they do provide a telling list of questions to provide guidance. A bit like Eastern mysticism, the questions will lead us, trembling, towards an unknowable higher state…
The list of questions is worth bookmarking, and there are common themes to pull out of the list. If I had to sum up what Google is looking for in online content, this is what I’d say:
Authority and trust permeate the list, which is tricky, because you can’t just turn up one day and proclaim that you are either (well you could, but no one would believe you). To become authoritative and trustworthy, you need to write strongly and accurately, provide information that checks out, on a website with an experience that doesn’t leave users anxious or confused. You need to make a name for yourself with reliable content over time, and care about the subject.
These two go together like Jedward or Brangelina. I bang the usefulness drum all the time, because if your website is not useful, people simply don’t stick around. But useful alone is not enough – your content must also be original. In other words, it must be more useful than the other websites showing up on the same search results page.
It might be in more depth or take an unusual slant on the subject. It might provide unique information, be comprehensive, or be presented in a more compelling way. Whatever it is, you must avoid your content being too short, unsubstantial or unspecific.
And ‘original’ has another application: Google likes content that is original on the site, that is, not duplicated among your pages. Repetition is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to SEO.
Well duh. Of course it should be well written. But if that’s the case why do so many businesses spend so little on quality, error-free writing?
Good writing is not something abstract and hard to pin down. In fact the Google questions nail it. They talk about quality control, and eliminating spelling, stylistic and factual errors. They mention the role of editing, attention to detail, producing a print level standard of writing.
Hint: if you’re mass-producing copy through a large number of creators (and probably paying them very little), then you haven’t got a hope. I like this question: ‘Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail?’ Well, are they?
There is a strand in the reasoning of Google that is best summed up as: don’t piss people off. Write content for readers, not to get them. Tricking them to your site undermines your trustworthiness. Bye-bye. Don’t produce content that is likely to draw complaint (which is not the same as controversy). And guess what? Excessive adverts annoy people.
All of which is hardly surprising, and yet people still get a glimpse in their eye when a spammer tries to flog them peripheral SEO services to pimp up their search performance.
Of course it’s important how you structure your site, what you do with the metadata and keywords. But these are lesser considerations compared with creating core content that is authoritative, original, useful, well-written and doesn’t drive people mad.
In Google’s own words: ‘focus on delivering the best possible experience for users.’
Or, as Socrates said: ‘endeavour to be what you desire to appear.’
When I first started working with web content it amazed me that people could merrily create web pages with spelling and grammar mistakes on them. It just seemed like a basic consideration that you would ensure that you had spelled things correctly – and not a difficult one to achieve.
Talk about naïve.
The worst example I found was the home delivery information page on the Homebase website. It was long, ugly, and featured 33 mistakes. The gravest of the lot was this bad boy:
…have your order delivered to your workplace, a neighbors’s, etc.
Neighbors’s? To combine a localisation fail (UK English, anyone?), a grammar fail (apostrophe rage!) and a syntactical fail (neighbour’s workplace? Why would I want it delivered there?) in one single word is a miraculous feat. One could say Herculean, if Hercules had been really, really stupid.
There were also asterisks that linked to nothing, commas and full stops awry or missing, and three different notations for time (6.00pm, 6pm, 6 pm). That’s without touching the inconsistent person (‘you’, ‘the customer’), the Americanisms (‘neighorhood’) and the internal jargon (‘delivery lead time’). And the fact that the whole page took 1,493 words to explain how a delivery would work.
But that was years ago; back when businesses were trying to work out how to get their systems and information onto the web. Of course mistakes were being made, and things being overlooked. In some ways it must have been easy for web copy in a massive outfit like Homebase to slip through the cracks.
So what’s the same page like today?
The good news is that someone has worked on it. The am/pm denotations have been cleaned up and it is now written in UK English. A few words have been shaved off (still 1,377 words long though) and the punctuation reined in.
But the fact that someone has worked on the page makes the extant mistakes even worse. The very first line begins: ‘We’ll deliver it all for from only £5.95…’ (my emphasis). And the second paragraph is word-for-word the same nonsensical sentence from the old page:
Please note that your order is made up of a combination of items / delivery services, deliveries may be made separately.
How does this happen? Someone has looked at the page and implemented changes. Why are there still big, obvious mistakes?
I don’t run a colossal retail business. So when I ask this question, I genuinely want to know: when you’re Homebase, how hard is it to eradicate mistakes in your web copy?
The point is that mistakes look sloppy. They erode trust. In the case of a large corporation like Homebase, they say to the customer: we simply don’t care enough about you to provide you with clear, thoughtful information. We’re not even going to proofread it properly. Enough people buy from us anyway – who cares if you can’t work out what our delivery terms are?
How many businesses can afford to take this attitude? If you’re not as big as Homebase, mistakes may hurt you a lot more. Instead of taking it for sloppiness, people will think your spelling mistakes are the sign of an amateur. It was the moment that I spotted the word ‘Sreenplay’ on a film poster that I realised it was not the real thing.
And let’s not just talk in the vague terms of trust and professionalism. One online retailer doubled its revenue by correcting a single error on its website. The BBC story claims: ‘when there are underlying concerns about fraud and safety, then getting the basics right is essential.’
We need to know, on an unfamiliar website, that it is secure and reliable before we will buy anything through it. Spelling mistakes do not give us that reassurance. Spelling mistakes put a business in the same company as spam emails about enlarged organs and updates from that guy on Facebook who quit school a bit too early.
A few years into this work and I am not surprised by mistakes any more. Nor do I think it is merely a basic consideration that you write your copy properly. Rather, I think it’s a fundamental, strategic and essential one.
Photo: adapted from a photo by iirraa on Flickr
Services that are worth their salt don’t just give you what you want. I noticed this the other day when I was buying cheese from a proper cheese shop.
The shopkeeper started asking me questions. What kind of goat’s cheese? Is it with other food, after dinner – what’s the menu? When are you eating it, tonight, or in a few days?
When I walked in there I had a fair idea what I wanted. Within seconds of conversation, I realised that I had a lot to learn about selecting cheese. I also had a much better picture of what would work. After a short while, I was asking the man behind the counter for recommendations.
Compare that to a supermarket: limited range, pre-packed, potluck within safe parameters. Ask a shelf-stacker for advice and you’ll get bemusement and a shrug if you’re lucky.
Another question-asker, the Flower House, create stunning bouquets. Go in there with a budget and they’ll ask what main flower you’d like to design around, how many colours you want in there, what the occasion is, all the while giving advice and telling you how to carry flowers on a bicycle without ruining them.
Come to think of it, I chose my mechanic because he asks me questions too. He explains exactly what’s wrong, finds out what our car usage is going to be like over the next few months, asks whether we would prefer to spread costs or sort it all now; use cheap parts that will need replacing sooner or expensive ones that should see us through.
I drive out of my way to go there, even though there’s an authorised garage just up the road. That’s the authorised garage who take the keys on the front desk, make all the decisions themselves and hand them back with a vastly more expensive bill a few days later.
You could see questions as an annoyance. You could take them as a slight on your intelligence. But I know when someone asks me a question that often they care about solving my unique problem (creating a memorable cheeseboard), serving my unique need (how I use the car), or delighting my unique wife (with a one-off bouquet).
There is a time and place for I know what I want just hand it over. But don’t believe the myth that a tailored service costs more. Not so. The cheese and flowers are cheaper in the supermarket but they are nowhere near as good. When it comes to the garage, the personalised work saves me a small fortune.
I was reminded of this the other day when our web company quoted five times as much as any one else for a contract (we have since discovered). The client got back to us with ‘why are you so expensive?’ We answered with a barrage of questions about what they wanted to do and why, and how they expected to work it. We even questioned some of their numbers.
We got the gig. They didn’t even contact any of the others. They offered us more money than we had asked for.
I guess we knew what we were talking about, and didn’t want them to waste their money. That’s a valuable trait when you find it in other places, so that’s what we aim to do ourselves.
Ask enough insightful questions and you begin to attract trust.
There is many a time a cheap, even free, website will do. But not always. And if you are a business who can’t afford to squander cash and want to find a trustworthy website company who know their stuff and can build something that works just for you, that’s what we’re about.
But you’ll have to put up with a tonne of questions first.
SweetBar provide an old-fashioned pick and mix sweet cart for weddings and other occasions, and as you can imagine, need an effective website to back up their word of mouth recommendations and take bookings.
Last year SweetBar took up my offer of a free hour’s content work. I wrote them some copy for use on their front page. Many things have changed since I sent the words through but some of the copy was in place for the winning version of the site.
What’s more, the judges thought that the ‘clear, easy to read website’ was one of the elements that makes SweetBar successful.
Obviously there is an awful lot more to their success than my exceedingly modest contribution, but there’s perhaps a whiff of credit there. Given that it was a free bit of work, it must at least go down as a good value…
Mostly though, I’m pleased for the company, who provide a delightful service. Having been to a wedding with a SweetBar in attendance, I promise you, they are a very popular thing to have at your nuptials.
So if you’re getting married… strike that, if you’re doing anything, get the foam shrimps and cherry lips along. It will be a hit.