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Archive for the ‘designing content’ Category

The Long-lost Art of Conversation

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It sounds very old-fashioned, doesn’t it? And yet, there’s nothing more actual for a business than being able to converse in a highly noisy environment such as information today. It is quite possibly the biggest challenge to face.

We have it all: traditional media, new media, social networks. Everybody talks. But is anybody listening? My answer would be: yes, and no.

If we still think about companies as broadcasters, isolated in their ivory web-tower, waiting for users to eagerly land on their splash page (sorry, a bad bad memory from late 90s), the answer is obviously: no. Teh interwebs have drastically changed, and now information flows through RSS or API rather than through HTML. A change of mentality is essential, as well as aknowledging this new user-centered universe: the users have tools to create their own mash-up of information, picking from a large range of providers, and they are not forced to tune in to the source. It is still possible to be a lone broadcaster, mind you. But be prepared to have a product or service that speaks and sells for itself.

I shall tell more: not only companies must be able to bring their message out of their (comfort) corporate context, but they must learn to converse in that different context, using different registers, and adapting their style to the digital venue where the conversation is taking place. Can the Content Manager be of any help? Obviously. In the planning stages, they will define which venues are interesting enough to be attended, and the kind of conversation the company should be engaged in; in the day-to-day activities, these conversations should become one of the deliverables, always carefully scheduled, checked and updated; in digital venues like Facebook that let page administrators track some metrics, they will adapt or change the conversation, or even include new interlocutors, according to the results.

Whatever the case, it is crucial that those conversations are not left going unattended.

Written by Paola

September 29, 2008 at 9:01 am

Swimming With the Flow

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I said it before, but I suppose I will have to repeat it over and over: working with content in the digital era challenges our traditional way of distinguishing one role from the other. The media industry can still count on a wide variety of professionals who take care of any single aspect of the publishing process, but now every company needs to be out there and communicate with the world, and they can only count on a small group of people (in-house or outsourced) to keep that publishing stream going. They need to learn to communicate with limited means even if it’s something very far from their core business.
How do they do that?

One of the most delicate phases of this whole process is setting up a sustainable workflow to get content from each knowledge center to the communication staff. Every passage counts, whether it’s processed by a CMS system or not, and every passage must be taylored to the organization’s strenghts and limits. Guess who pops out at this point. Yes, don’t roll your eyes: it’s a dirty job and someone has to take care of it. And who’s better equipped to design the content lifecycle than a content manager?

I personally believe that it is one of the most engaging and gratifying tasks a content manager can accomplish, both as an in-house resource and as an external consultant. It’s a breed between a business analyst and a functional consultant role: content becomes an abstract entity, a raw material that’s handed from one unity to the other. The goal is to design the smoothest and most cost-effective way to get it to those in charge of the end product. Identifying key players, assigning roles and responsabilities, estabishling the flow (sometimes automated by the CMS) are tasks that, if properly planned, can decide the success or failure of a content-related project. Establish a smooth flow, and your content won’t have to emulate a salmon behaviour.

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Written by Paola

August 14, 2008 at 11:17 am

The Devil Is in Templates

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Shopping for something on the web, subscribing to a service, requesting for help online. We are overwhelmed by a massive amount of automated replies everyday. As users, this constant exposure affects our level of tolerance, and usually we don’t even cringe anymore to horror greetings like “Mr/Ms x”. As content managers, however, we can’t afford to relax and exploit the advantage, because it’s only apparent. People can only take so much inconsistency, or rudeness, or illiteracy, in one day. And the last straw could be your reply template.

Of course no standard reply can be the perfect one, and avoiding every mistake and inconsistency is an impossible task: e-mails, even the automatic ones, are part of a conversation, and conversations are dynamic entities that cannot be pinned down to a template. Anyway there are some measures you can take to prevent the biggest gaffes.

First (and foremost): Don’t let the developers put in the system the first template they find. Or, worse, don’t let them write it by themselves. Nobody is expecting you to write part of the code, and nobody would be thrilled if you took the initiative to slip some code of yours in the project. That works both ways, even if the programmers feel really confident about their language skills. You have to double-check every word that’s in the system.

Then, about the templates:

  • avoid gender gaffes, such as the “Mr/Ms” above;
  • at the same time make sure you don’t use convoluted or awkward impersonal forms to avoid that gender trap;
  • a standard reply should be used to confirm that a task has been accomplished, or not: Don’t rely on them too heavily, or you will be set for some surprises;
  • it is not the proper place to explain procedures, passages or products: Just put a link to the main website (or update the main website if it’s lacking that kind of information);
  • most people are well aware that no real person typed the message they just received, but don’t take it for granted: Warn your reader that “this is an automated reply”;
  • if you are selling products or service, make sure the receiver knows that he or she can contact you for further questions, and how (in case you can’t promise that, warn the Customer Service Department that you have a problem).

As made evident by the last item in the list, you have to keep in mind that content is just another form of costumer service, and that no automation can exempt you from taking care of the users. On the contrary, automated processes require the greatest deal of consideration and attention.

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Written by Paola

July 26, 2008 at 10:21 am

Analyzing the Bathwater

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There is a saying that goes: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is quite common knowledge, as there’s a very similar warning in the Italian language too (buttare il bambino con l’acqua sporca, in case you’re italophiles): if we’re not careful, we could get rid of a good thing just because we don’t want to deal with the rest of the mess.

So let’s try to apply this warning to our job. When I start working for a new organization, for the first weeks you will find me buried under piles and piles of paper: brochures, flyers, yearbooks, house organs, magazines, catalogues — everything I can put my hands on, even if it was published twenty years earlier. I am not only getting familiar with my new employer, I am also mentally scanning their riches. Looking for babies. Sometimes I am really lucky, and there’s plentiful toddlers, alive and kicking, ready to be brought to the next step. Other times I can tell that nobody has ever really taken care of the content, and I’m left with communication devices stating unconsistent facts. Or even wrong facts. OK, let’s not be too harsh, sometimes they’re totally consistent. Well, their visual is.

In these cases my gut reaction would be to throw the mass of paper in the nearest bin, and call it a day. But then I think about the babies who may be gasping in the bathwater; so, armed with a cup of green tea (if my name were Sam Spade at this point I would positively need scotch), a pen and some grids, I start going through the materials once again. That’s when the content audit starts.

First of all, I map all the content in the different grids, according to the type of publications: periodicals (newsletter, press releases, house organs etc), corporate, single product deliverables. At this point I only need to know if any of these publications is still useful, or if it’s only “bathwater”. It’s trickier than it seems, because maybe a product sheet describes something that’s not produced anymore (bathwater) but there could be a very interesting boilerplate that could be reused (baby). Keep. At the same time, content is like clutter: you have to get rid of the things you don’t really need, before they start piling up. When in doubt, I open a “let’s review this in 6 months” file: if I’ve never felt the need to consult that content in the meanwhile, it is ready to become bathwater.
Keep in mind that it’s worth writing down the content you are dismissing, and the reasons why: in a year you forget a lot of things, especially the less important ones, and you don’t want to go through the same painful check everytime someone emerges from the archives with a piece of content archaeology.

When I’m past this stage, I can finally devote myself to babies. I will write down what’s good and what’s not in the single publication: I am looking to reuse as much as I can, because that single content is an investment my employer decided to make at some point. Man hours, or money given to an agency, I don’t care: I’m sure there’s a chunk of text, or even just a winning metaphor. I maniacally note everything down.

A blog post isn’t exactly the most fitting place to go into the details of designing the grid, or specifying which qualities you look for to discern the babies from the bathwater. It really depends on your role and on the type of project you’re working on (clearly an Enterprise Content Manager [1] has a wider scope than an E-commerce Content Manager, and someone working in an online media environment has a pivotal skimming factor, that CMs working in retail/sales don’t have: date of publication). The only advice I can give in such a brief post is to broaden your field of investigation as much as possible. Don’t focus on the short-term goal, but make an inventory that you can reuse over and over for projects you don’t even have in mind yet.

That’s time consuming, I know, and if I have to fill a timesheet I always warn my manager: I need a field who reads “baby saving”.

[If you’re an Enterprise Content Manager, you can’t miss Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content for some great tips on content audit — well, the rest of the book is really helpful too!]

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Written by Paola

May 29, 2008 at 9:33 am

The Evocative Power of Limitations

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A lot of people think that they would come up with the best ideas pretty easily, were they only given carte blanche on a project. And I’m sure this finds most of you in agreement.

Well. It happens, sure, but only with a certain type of mindsets. That is those really lucky minds who are able to conceptualize every scenario in their heads, who can draw deductively the details of a plan and who can inductively go back and forth from the single detail to the whole scenario. I don’t know about you, but I am positive that my mind (and that of my friends’ and colleagues’) is not so efficient (sigh!).

Call it “desert paradox”, call it “tabula rasa syndrome”, were we given the chance to use any solution we want, most of us would freeze. It’s our personal version of the writer’s block.

So, how do you overcome this block?

Let me answer to this with a quote. The author is Age (aka Agenore Incrocci), of the prolific duo Age & Scarpelli, two of the best and most creative screenwriters of the Italian cinema. In his book Scriviamo un film (Let’s Write a Movie — sorry, apparently no English translation around), Age gives a lot of solid, sensible advice to would-be screenwriters, struggling to find a story, or to depict a character, or to put an end to a plot. We are not writing for a movie: maybe we are in the design process; or maybe we’re just struggling with a copy. The analogy works the same.

The chapter’s title is “The file in the cake” and here are some excerpts (very very poorly translated by yours truly, I’m sorry):

The convicted, the prisoner in the cell — the topic of so many tales, movies or comics — he knows he has only one way out of jail: the little wired window. And, in order to violate it, to open a way out, he must hope for a “nail file in the cake” (the knotted sheets will come later, they are an optional).
How can he get that file? From whom? Screenwriters often find themselves in a position not very different from the prisoner’s. Or rather, I think they have to try hard to put themselves in that position. The delusion that, with free hands, we could let out our creativity freely doesn’t grant predictable outcomes; on the contrary, it makes us wander aimlessly, and dispels our ideas, rather than support and assist them. There’s nothing more stimulating for creativity than the necessity to come up with the solution to an issue (be it small or big) within strict limits, than being bound to browse through what already exists, that we know already and that is, in a certain way, at our disposal to solve the issue. By “what already exists” I mean:
a) the setting we are in and which contains:
b) the things (the “tools”): rummage your characters’ pockets: they can hide everything you want, we want, and that — with “professional honesty” — has been put in them;
c) the situations that have been already set up, the “work in progress”;
d) the characters, with their relationships, nature, habits, jobs, tics (which are rarely accidental in a movie).
It is somehow a bet. And, above all, a game. Like a word play where you have to obtain words from the letters that form another word: things, facts. The nail file in the cake.

So, next time you are given budget limits or very strict project limitations, don’t complain: stop for a second, and think of them as your saving grace, as your file in the cake. Without them, you most probably would get lost.

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Written by Paola

April 3, 2008 at 10:18 am

10 Ways To Not Step on the Information Architect’s Toes

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Due to some copywriting deadlines (yes! I’m currently back to my old freelance job), I’ve been neglecting the blog for a few weeks. For which I’m sorry.

But I’m even sorrier because I basically lied to capture your attention. So let me spill the beans.

There’s no way a Content Manager can avoid stepping on the IA’s toes. There are several ways a CM and an IA can coexist peacefully (and, sometimes, productively) instead.

First and only rule is: being flexible. Not all web projects are alike. For instance an e-commerce website requires a great deal of attention to product presentation and to the purchasing process (if we are smart enough the post-purchase phase will be considered too); the rest is a (very important, but still) accessory. A digital magazine, on the other hand, must be built having in mind the whole picture: it’s like a multi-purpose building, and for each and every purpose we must preview a solution; architecture is pivotal.

So, how do an IA and a CM interact on this? Let’s make it a little trivial: the CM must know every single component of the website, and the IA must envision the big picture. More often than not, when a CM and an IA talk to each other, it helps them achieving their particular knowledge: from micro to macro, from small to big, from the single part to the whole, in web projects constant communication between the two helps improving the final outcome. For content may have some quirkiness that helps the IA coming up with an alternative (and better) solution; and, on the other hand, an unorthodox architecture could spark new ideas in the CM’s mind about a new way to propose content to the audience.

In any case, be always ready to correct, improve or dramatically change your initial ideas in the process. And never (ever) take it personally. Defend your ideas, but don’t get too attached to them: two heads think better than one. Especially when they think in unison.

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Written by Paola

March 15, 2008 at 1:03 pm

Designing and Writing (and Managing, Yes)

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People involved in the content publishing process often talk about the content lifecycle, a concept that comes in handy especially when you have to adopt a Content Management System. But I don’t want to talk about technologies. Yet. Let’s stick for a moment to the sheer (human) tasks and skills of somebody who’s in charge of being the voice of a company. Be it on or offline (did I stress that enough?).

The job of a Content Manager consists of three main tasks: designing, writing and managing. And, depending on the organization, it can easily cover all the three. Let’s take a closer look at the first two tasks (I will save the last one for another tidbit: indigestion could be lethal!)

Design? Yes, content is a very vague entity, a raw material that needs to be cut and shaped to fit the needs of a company. It has nothing (let me state it once again: nothing) to do with graphics, and it has a lot to do with having a vision. Let’s make an example: your organization needs a website. Not a corporate website, but a simpler product website. Maybe they need something eye-catching, or they’re thinking about a mixed strategy (an online competition? A support for a direct mailing? You name it, web is the limit). The staff in the Communication department came up with ideas, and they’re smart enough to ask for the Content Manager’s advice. After a thorough analysis of the documentation, a lot of questions should arise. What do we have to say in this website? What’s the more effective way to say it? Will it be periodically updated? Where do we gather data from? Can this be done internally or do we have to rely on external contributors? Who will be our internal point of reference? How can we bind them so that data don’t stop flowing abruptly after the first month online?
It looks pretty overwhelming, doesn’t it? But, in fact, this is not. A check of the strenghts and the limits of a project, content-wise, pretty much shapes the content design by itself. Remember: content design is not about drawing the perfect website, but about serving the users’ needs within a budget (and within the limits of an organization).

Writing. Whether you manage content or you manage people producing content, it can’t be simpler than that: a Content Manager must be a good writer. Not as in “My prose has been published on the New Yorker”, of course, but a CM must be able to tame the power of words. When I started working in the content arena, there was no way of being trained as a Content Manager, and in Italy, for instance, you could count the number of CMs by the tens. They were copywriters, journalists, freelancers, embarking on a new endeavor. Personally, I started working at a monthly magazine that was just projecting its website — a great opportunity to learn how the traditional publishing process works. But it was also the right environment to learn how to take care of content, how to shape it, how to tell a good piece of work from a bad one. And in the meanwhile I was popping out article after article for on and offline newspapers: it was the greatest informal CM training I could get. Just the last personal memory: a couple of years after, I was working as a Content Manager for a web agency, and I needed to find a junior. A girl walks in for the interview, and she starts telling me what a great CM she would do, even if she’s fresh out of college, and how she dreams about managing writers, and so on. Great. I ask her: “Can I see some of your writings?”. She looks at me as if I asked her to produce her criminal record, and replied “I don’t write. I am a Content Manager”. Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

Written by Paola

February 5, 2008 at 9:47 am