Content Management Tidbits

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Archive for the ‘writing 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

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

Succinct Wisdom: Traps You Set for Yourself

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This brand new column is for short and very practical suggestions. Enjoy!

Who’s the Content Manager’s worst enemy? The Content Manager, of course, who should be smart enough to write/author content needing as little updating as possible. Remember this, next time you land on a page reporting the statement that something is x years old.

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Written by Paola

March 25, 2008 at 7:39 am

Many Hands, Just One Voice

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Reading back the previous entries, I realized that I focused mostly on the essence of the role of a CM, and I didn’t give any of those nice tips&tricks people so badly need when they make their reaserches online… (if you want, put a colon and a closing bracket here — yours truly doesn’t like emoticons too much!)

So, let me make up for my academical ramblings, and let’s take a closer look together at the daily routine of managing content. One of the first qualities you want your content to display is: consistency. You want your web content to be consistent with the offline materials: style, tone, vocabulary… you name it. Different content, sure, but same facts, and a “familiar” way to present them. The user must recognize the “tune” your company is singing.

It’s an easier task when your company is small: you may end up managing all the content, thus having the most consistent communication around (and maybe no life whatsoever outside the work premises). It gets more complicated when you manage a team for a bigger company: many heads, many styles. It gets really tricky when you manage localized pieces of content. It can become a living nightmare when you juggle with all the above variables in a complex multinational company.

So… where do you start?

Keeping. It. Simple. (Stupid. No, I’m not insulting you, I promise! That’s a not-so-obscure reference for the first-hour web designers. KISS. Internal joke. Sorry, it’s such an amazing day today, it’s almost exhilarating! I can’t help it! OK, Back to business.)

So, here’s the first ├╝ber-practical tip.
Write simply.
Can it be that simple? Yes, it is that simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy.

First, because every writer is (or should be) pretty literate. And sometimes pretty literate people tend to overdo when writing: it’s like an intoxication of words, it takes a while to sweat it off your system.

Secondly, because some languages demand complex synthax. It may come pretty easily for the English/American natives. I know for sure that it’s not so easy at all for Romance languages speakers.

So: short phrases. Second-guess your well-formed sentences. If you feel like describing a noun with two adjectives just stop and think: “Do I really need the second adjective?”. More often than not you don’t. And if you think really hard you may end up realizing that you don’t even need the first one. And that choosing another — more fitting — noun would address the problem to the root.

I can hear somebody in the background coughing. You’re right. Busted. I. Don’t. Write. Very. Simply. At least here. But I have two major excuses. First, this is my blog: that is my very personal corner, which probably tells more about the way my mind works than about the work I do. And, last but not least, I just finished re-reading for the twentieth time Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco: a triumph of logical, synctactical, lexical and erudite complexity (four adjectives! FOUR!). It’s so intoxicating, it will take me weeks to sweat it off.

In the meanwhile, we can do some exercises together. I’m sure it will help.

Subject. Verb. Complement. If any, that is. And then, a nice round period.

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Written by Paola

March 20, 2008 at 1:32 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