Through her book Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content (New Riders, 2011), Colleen Jones has added an important volume to the growing content strategy literature. Much of the content strategy literature focuses on how to create, curate and aggregate quality, informative, and useful content. But it often misses an important point: The purpose of websites is more often to persuade or influence than merely to inform. Thus the literature needed a book that helps content strategists build influential websites. This book goes a long way to fill that void. I especially liked her use of timing as a critical success factor in content. This is often overlooked in the literature.

The book shelf at Confab 2011, showing four books featured on this site.

In a refreshing way, Jones doesn’t merely tell the reader how to use content to influence the web visitor. She shows the reader why it’s important by grounding the discussion in rhetoric and psychology. But in case you might be intimidated by the theoretical parts of the book, she uses plain language to explain concepts that have challenged scholars for centuries. For my taste, she is a bit too shy on “heavy” topics. But it is clear that she wants to make the book accessible to novice content strategists while contributing to the literature for experienced content strategists.

As an effective way to bridge that gap, the book uses fresh examples, some of which come from Jones’ storied career, to add flesh to the theoretical bones. These I found the most engaging aspects of the book and well worth the price on their own. But as much as I like and respect Jones, I can’t give her a free pass on everything. Not that I disagree with much of what she writes. But in the course of reading the book, I found several missed opportunities to add depth to the topics she focused on. By teasing these out, my hope for this review is to spark some discussion around these topics and build on the foundational work in her book. If you’re interested, please read on.

1. On SEO snake oil

SEO is a dirty word for a lot of people because of the way it has been practiced. What I call black-hat SEO is what Jones calls SEO snake oil. It is the practice of using SEO to attract high volumes of people to your site without regards to their needs or interests. As Jones puts it:

SEO snake oil, however, leads people to spend money on being found at the expense of making their websites worth finding. If your website is mired in meaningless articles “for SEO purposes,” you’re not going to get results. (p 6)

Obviously, I agree with this position. My issue is with the depth of her explanation. She doesn’t really explain SEO snake oil much. She spends a half a page on what it is and refers to it throughout the book. But unless it is clearly distinguished from white-hat SEO–the kind we advocate in our book–I worry that some readers will think all SEO is snake oil.

Later she says, “Many online marketers try to push people to a website instead of attracting and influencing people who already have some interest” (p 21). This seems like the seed of the distinction I longed for in the book and never got. SEO snake oil fits into the category of pushy tactics she rightly criticizes. White-hat SEO fits into the description of attracting and (perhaps) influencing people who already have some interest.

Most users use search to find what they are interested in. By typing in queries in search engines, they indicate that they are already interested in those topics and tasks. White-hat SEO is about using keyword research to find out what the target audience needs and giving them what they need when they need it. This is how you build trust with them so that you can eventually influence them. Though she does reference good work that emphasizes white-hat SEO (including our book :-)), some explanation of the distinction between SEO snake oil and legitimate SEO within her book would be helpful.

2. On learning the audience

I loved that she spent an entire chapter on how to use principles from classical rhetoric in content strategy. But I wish she had gone a bit farther and used some of rhetoric’s most important contributions to understanding communication– audience analysis. The three main modes of classical rhetoric–logos, ethos and pathos–are all understood in terms of the relationship between the speaker and her audience. If you don’t know your audience well, you don’t know what logic works for them, to what extent your audience trusts you, or how to tug at their emotions. So learning the audience is a vital part of using rhetoric to influence.

The web offers an unprecedented view of the audience for text-based media. Some discussion of using web technologies to learn the audience and feeding this back into ones’ use of logos, ethos and pathos would be helpful. To learn the audience with web technologies, we advocate keyword research and social media listening for the whole audience (whether they are customers yet or not). We advocate many web metrics tools, surveys and user experience testing for existing users. Instead, Jones recommends the books Mental Models by Indi Young and Strategic Market Research by Anne Beall. Both are valuable resources for traditional marketers. But they don’t help that much for content strategists, who need to learn their audience’s particular needs in real time.

3. On web analytics

Jones spends three chapters on evaluating web content and adjusting it accordingly. Regular readers will know how important I think this aspect of web publishing is. You can do a lot of research up front to learn audience needs and plan to fill them. But this is at best a guess of what you think your audience will need. The only way to really know is to start gathering data and analyzing it in ways that lead to tangible site improvements.

My main complaint in this part of the book is not as much about the content but the way it is presented. She starts this section, in Chapter 8, on the limitations of web data, cautioning readers to carefully interpret and evaluate data. One of her strongest claims in this section is that data should not be used to drive content decisions but merely to inform them–as though the data can only recommend optional actions. This I disagree with. Done right, data is the driver of post-publishing adjustments.

In Chapter 9, she goes into some detail about evaluating content with the right methods. This chapter is good, albeit a bit shy on tooling and techniques and long on methods. But coming after a chapter in which she encouraged data skepticism and discouraged the reader from using data to drive content decisions, I wonder how many novice readers will take the methods that seriously. If she had just reversed the two chapters, it would have been fine. As it is, chapter order effectively buries the lead–the importance and appropriate use of web analytics for content decisions.

4. On branding and lead generation

Jones is quite right to emphasize gearing ones content plan to business goals: content as a copyright asset, content to aid with branding, content to help establish relationships, etc. My only wish is that she had spent less space on branding and more space on lead generation. The kind of influencing we primarily focus on at IBM consists of bringing new customers into the site and converting them to warm leads. My executives consistently fund content activities that influence users in these ways. Branding is great, and you certainly don’t want to do anything to harm your brand reputation on the web. But it only pays the bills for web content if you can show that the positive branding you are doing results in more leads for the sales force to contact.

If there is a second edition of Clout, I would hope for more on white-hat SEO, audience analysis, web analytics and lead generation. I’d especially love to see the definitive guide on influencing new prospects to become warm leads on the web. As it is, Clout is a very useful book. If it provided these elements, it would become a must read in my book.