Why Our Content SUCKS

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at SearchFest by SEMpdx down in Portland, Oregon. I spoke on the “UX and Audience” panel with Susan Delz of Ion Interactive, moderated by Nathan Isaacs of 7G Media. My travel to SearchFest was partially funded by a generous grant from The University of Washington’s Information School, where I’m currently a graduate student.

I talked about Why Our Content SUCKS And How We Can Make it BETTER.

Why Our Content SUCKS. And How We Can Make it BETTER! - my presentation from SearchFest by SEMpdx on SlideShare

Slideshare promoted my deck to their “Top Presentation of the Day” over the weekend. So I wanted to take some time to break down why I told this story, what my inspirations and goals were, and share some insights in order to enhance transparency and understanding.

I also want to share a secret with you about how I approached this talk that makes it different from any presentation that I’ve ever done before.

This is Not Your Problem — it’s Ours

Listen: something I made absolutely clear during the session that’s not as visible in the slides themselves is that I’m not speaking to SEOs and Content Marketers as if I’m on the mountaintop and they’re down in the pit. In fact, I’m down in the pit along with them and nearly everyone else — my employer has many of the exact same challenges and issues that I point out in the deck. I’m no savior and I don’t have all the answers.

But what I do have is empathy, both for practitioners as well as for their audience: readers, users, and customers. That, and a boatload of optimism and idealism — more than enough to spare for an industry that’s frequently equated to snake oil salesmen and other, even less savory malefactors.

That’s why I use pronouns like “our” and “we” throughout the slide deck instead of “your” and “you”. It’s subtle, perhaps, but I think it makes a big difference in terms of the overall ethos of proposing Content Strategy as the solution to our collective challenges.

My main objective is to have you walk away with the understanding that I’m not preaching at you. Rather, I’m striving with you, alongside you, trying to scramble out of the pit myself, but also lending a hand so that you can climb up the chasm walls with me.

It’s a long way to the top, but here’s the point: if we can’t get there together then there’s no point in making the journey at all.

Design Inspiration

Good stories have deep roots — it’s helpful to know how they’re connected to their foundations. My design and overall approach to this presentation were inspired by two great presentations that SlideShare featured last month:

Click through these presentations and spend some time considering their design and composition. Doug and Ryan have both created absolutely stellar examples of educational content and storytelling done right in a completely engaging manner. All presentations should aspire to this level of quality.

Both of these talks illustrate some of the foremost challenges faced by marketers and brands and provide solutions for them. But they do so by incorporating the tenants of inbound marketing directly into the slideshow content itself. And their efforts earn your attention. Boy do they ever.

Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun

Finally, I leaned heavily on Scott Berkun’s excellent book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. It’s so engaging and digestible that you’ll probably end up reading the whole thing in a single day, just like I did a few weekends ago when I was preparaing for my Ignite! Seattle talk.

If you want some fun ideas for improving the quality of your presentations, also see Scott’s great post on Advice for Speakers Bored with their own Material. Good things happen when you try something new.

The Story of Why Our Content SUCKS

The story arc has three main beats:

  1. Content is an experience that’s all about people
  2. 10 ways our content sucks
  3. Content strategy is the solution

Content is an Experience that’s All About People

Content is an Experience

We all talk so much about content that you’d think it was our sole reason for existing. But when you look at content across the Web, you’ll notice that quite a lot of it… well, sucks. How could that be when we’re all focusing on producing so much content?

Therein lies our problem. While we’re certainly churning out a lot of content, we’re not focusing on things like purpose, process, intended use, and the needs of our audience. Nor our workflow, systems, architecture, and processes. Instead, we’re just looking at the analytics data, trying to squeeze a few more visits out of some niche long-tail keyword set. So instead of incentivizing real engagement and increasing overall lifetime value, we’re simply rewarding our teams for producing more and more and more content.

But what is content anyway? It’s not a feature. And it’s more than the sum of its parts: words, design, production, UX/IxD, advertising. When we regard content as a feature or as simply being a set of components that can be “bolted-on” to a design, then our content is bound to fail.

That’s because content is the experience — it’s the whole thing. And you can often tell good content from bad by focusing on the experience it creates. It’s pretty easy to figure out when a brand is just targeting some niche set of keywords with their content… instead of, you know, targeting the needs of their users.

Good content is about experience, which means that it’s about data, systems, processes and workflows. It’s about brands and their business needs. But it’s also about the goals of customers and users. In short, good content is about people.

When we lose sight of that, then our content is going to suck.

10 Ways Our Content Sucks

10 Ways To Know When Our Content Sucks

In my original outline for this presentation, I had over thirty reasons why our content sucks. But I wanted the good attendees at SearchFest to get out to the after-party and then go home at night, so I condensed them down to just these ten main points:

  • We think of content as just being another commodity instead of a mission-critical business asset
  • We publish as much content as possible instead of curating a compelling collection
  • We don’t plan, edit, or schedule our content, so we’re not relevant or ready for an opportunity (nor for a crisis)
  • We planned, but failed to get content support instead of building our base
  • Our content is useless, unusable, and/or inconsistent instead of being clear and complete
  • We design first and then just plug the content in later instead of designing from the content out
  • Our platform dictates how our content works instead of our content shaping the platform
  • Our content doesn’t have structure, so it’s neither responsive nor adaptive and can’t be reused
  • We don’t use metadata to describe our content so it can’t be found without Google because our on-site nav and search don’t work
  • We don’t think beyond the page, so our content isn’t portable to new social and media platforms

These certainly aren’t the only reasons why our content sucks, but they’re major factors in its suckage.

You might be asking yourself: can content succeed without doing these things? Sure, of course it can. But probably not for very long, and certainly not in any sort of sustainable way that will help grow our businesses over the next 100 years.

Ask yourself Clint Eastwood-style if you feel lucky, punk, do you? And then ask yourself honestly if you want to trust the reputation of your brand and the life of your business to that luck. Me, I’m not going to do that because I don’t think that kind of luck exists.

I’d rather design, build, and publish for the next century — not just for the next “Like”. If we can’t get these core aspects of content right, then its ability to succeed for our users, customers, and brands will be diminished over the long term.

Content Strategy is the Solution

Content Strategy: The Solution For When Our Content SUCKS

So how do we makes things better? Content Strategy.

In order to set the stage and create a shared understanding, I take a great deal of time and real estate to walk the audience through “Big-C” Content Strategy. I cite a number of core definitions from well-known practitioners of Content Strategy, show visualizations of the Content Strategy process and content lifecycle, and then relate Content Strategy back to the better-understood approaches to web content in other disciplines.

Then I show examples of seven of the core tactics and deliverables of content strategists:

  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Content inventory
  • Content audit
  • Editorial calendar
  • Templates
  • Standards
  • Content management

Each tactic or deliverable links to some sort of tool or template that people can download and put to use immediately. For some reason, doing this sort of thing has always been a key challenge for me in my presentations, but I’ve come to think providing this sort of actionable outcome is essential for any good talk.

I don’t want people to just think about Content Strategy; I want them to take action.

Content Strategy References and Citations

The core content within this presentation is based on the ideas, concepts, and work of numerous content strategists, information architects, designers, and others who are far too many to name. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

But the main people whose work I studied (and, in some cases, cited directly) in order to produce this deck included Kristina Halvorson, Melissa Rach, Brain Traffic, Mig Reyes, Rachel Lovinger, Erin Kissane, Colleen Jones, Luke Wroblewski, Jeffrey Zeldman, Mark Boulton, Karen McGrane, Ethan Marcotte, Daniel Jacobson, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, James Callan, Elizabeth McGuane, Erin Scime, Richard Ingram, Kevin Nichols, Paula Land, Misty Melissa Weaver, John McCrory, Arnie Kuenn, Stuart Maxwell, Leif Kendall, Noz Urbina, Margot Bloomstein, Peter Morville, Lou Rosenfeld, and Rian Van Der Merwe.

Take some time to follow and bookmark the links to their channels and sites — you’ll learn even more from them directly than what’s included in my SearchFest presentation. You can also find out more about content strategy by using my personally curated (and continually updated) list of content strategy resources.

Let’s be clear: as far as I’m concerned, I’m just the messenger here. I’ve brought you the ideas originally created by these brilliant folks. All I’ve done is to package up their thoughts and hand you the box.

C’est cadeau, as they say.

Secret Revealed

If you’ve made it down this far in the post, then you deserve a little cadeau of your own, a reward for your perseverance and investment of time.

Michael King of iAcquire, @ipullrank
John Doherty of Distilled, @dohertyjf

So here’s my secret: I collaborated with Michael King of iAcquire and John Doherty of Distilled on this presentation months in advance of the SearchFest.

Over the past year, we three have invested in “Big-C” Content Strategy. For example, see John’s fantastic post about how a blog is not a content strategy. Then go check out Michael’s awesome volunteer project for the William Way LGBT Community Center that he worked on with SEER Interactive.

We thought it’d be fun to coordinate the themes of our talks and some of the actual content as well. So you’ll see that John and I both used the same Brain Traffic “Quad” diagram in our talks and that Michael and I both use Erin Scime’s Content Lifecycle model. I gave them both shout-outs during my talk, they gave me shout-outs in theirs.

Take a look at Michael’s SearchFest presentation on The Season of Our Discontent Marketing as well as John’s slides on The Price of Technical SEO Debt. If you liked their presentations, contact them on Twitter @ipullrank and @dohertyjf and let them know.

Because Michael, John, and I took the time to plan and schedule in advance, we were able to tell a larger, richer story at SearchFest. We pulled from the same thought leaders and used the same assets in order to back up each other’s messages. We were clear, consistent, and complete every step along the way.

You know… Content Strategy.

Resolution and Hyperspace

Content is not a feature - it's people!

Listen: I’m not trying to sell you my services; I don’t have any to sell. I work in-house for a retail brand. I just really do think that Content Strategy is the answer for improving the state of both content marketing and content itself. But it’s still pretty new for the SEOs and content marketers among us – self included!

And, speaking frankly, it’s a hell of a lot harder than putting together a cheap infographic or a goofy video.

That’s because good content is all about People and Process. And whenever you’re working on a process with people, there’s going to be a lot of that other fun “P” word: Politics. Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach point this out in their book. If you’ve ever worked on any sort of content strategy effort where you’ve tried to drive institutional change, then you know it to be true.

Content Strategy has the capacity to re-shape the content marketing world, improving (and easing) the work of practitioners while better meeting the needs of their customers and users. If we can do that en masse, then I believe that we really will make a better Web.

Oh, and we’ll drive a lot more business along the way.

You’re going to see a lot of marketers enter the Content Strategy world this year, and for all the right reasons. Because producing content is hard. Because it’s political. Because we have a lot to learn from each other. And because we can achieve far more by working together than we can apart.

But mostly because our content SUCKS.

About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a UX content strategist at Facebook, keynote speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter @jcolman. Feel free to contact him directly.

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30 Responses to Why Our Content SUCKS

  1. Jeff says:

    Great Post Jonathon-

    I was at both Mike and John’s presentations and had to make a tough decision to not come see you speak. When smart people work together to present a common theme, it has the ability to truly drive change.

    I also believe you guys chose the correct audience for presenting your shared theme of “dis”-content. If I have anything to do with it, the points I learned from all of you will be instilled in the work I do for my clients moving forward. thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • No worries, Jeff – I was actually telling people to go see Justin’s & John’s talk. I wanted to be there myself!

      So glad that SearchFest was a useful experience for you and that you have good resources to take back to the office. We all win when you make the Web better.

  2. Ross Hudgens says:

    This changed my process, and the way I will build my business. Not often I can say that – thanks Jonathan. Really helpful.

    • Wow, many thanks, Ross – that’s the highest praise I can imagine. Very much appreciated, man. Thanks, too for the shout-out in your fantastic talk.

      Great seeing you again in Portland and wish we’d had more time to catch up.

  3. Unfortunately i didn’t make it to your course (opted for the analytics and seo track). I also have not read this entire post yet (i did Pocket it for later, tho). Did want to compliment you on your site though, it is gorgeous 😛

  4. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing! This definitely changes the way I am going to work moving forward.

  5. Jeff Nowak says:

    Jonathon–Been following you since Intelligent Content Conference 2013 and really appreciate the outside perspective your bringing to the content strategy discussion. You’re pulling together the best of what you see, and actually condensing it down to understandable matter rather than a universe of discussion. Keep up the good work and keep sharing these great presentations. Rock on , man!

    • Many thanks, Jeff – I really appreciate your kudos. I’m working hard to learn more about content strategy so that I can help transform the content marketing industry… and through it, publishing for the Web.

      I really do think we can make it a better place by working together. 🙂

  6. Nice post Jonathon, also I really enjoyed the presentation.

    I think the problem is many companies are in this mindset that they just have to produce content over and over, SEO’s are keen to get more content and so are many other areas of the business. This in turn creates a big cycle of promotion and in turn low quality stuff is pumped out.

    Its just about educating companies to generate higher quality content over the lower quality stuff and thinking on a long term basis.

  7. Gianluca says:

    Concepts like the ones you shared in your preso (nice its “backstage” story) should be taught to all the young student of the so many “creative writing” “pr” “communication” “journalism” and so on schools and academy, apart obviously to us SEO and Internet Marketers.
    At least that is something I’m trying to do during my lectures in some of those schools here in Valencia. Asap they understand the importance of content strategy and the “philosophy” behind it, the better will be for them in terms of career, for their (future) clients/employers in terms of wins and for all the professionals who will work with them because they will have a easier life :).

    By the way, would be great to create some “storytelling” with you… knowing our common tastes I know it will end involving some Sci-Fi reference :D.

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  12. Siegfried says:

    This is something I need to work on – creating better content. atm my content is not as good as it could be but I am trying to build a base traffic, so there is someone to read it when my good content arrives finally 😀
    nest regards

  13. J Wonder says:

    No matter how strong your SEO strategies are but you can never go without a strong content base. Even if you are a master of the english language and the content is not genuinely informative, it is equally bad.

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