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Content is everything, so just do it

May 30, 2010

Sometimes the blog posts that most inspire me are the ones I disagree with the most. Such is the case for a recent Signal vs. Noise post about content. In particular, I could not disagree more with the following:

I’m sick and tired of hearing about how you should be producing “content” to attract a web following. Treating content as a category on its own is missing the point entirely. Nobody cares about content. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, hey, I should read some content today.

I get that he’s writing a rant to make a point. Namely, the things that matter most are the concepts expressed by content, not the content itself. But on the Web, nobody finds your concepts if you don’t wrap them in effective content. Everywhere in communication, nobody will take your opinions seriously, let alone be influenced by them,  if you  don’t write or speak in ways that make sense to them. The point is not how to form opinions, its how to express those opinions in ways that maximize their effectiveness. Otherwise, you might as well write a journal and burn it at the end of every day.

So content is not some trivial thing that you do after you decide what points to express. If you want your opinions to have the desired effect on your target audience, you have to get up every day and say “What content will I produce today?” Rather than responding to his rant with a rant, however, I will reason my way through this. If you’re interested, read on.

Content is everything

Perhaps his point is subtler than it seems. But taking it literally, it is patently false. Everybody cares about content, or at least they should. And rightly so. You see, the Web is comprised almost entirely of content. Every character of every post or tweet is a little bit of content. Even the spaces between the words are content. (Consider the difference between #content #strategy and #contentstrategy.) Every piece of code of every application uses content to do its job. Take search: The URL, the title tag, H1, meta description, subheads, alt tags, anchor text, even the URL of the page you link to, these are all content. All the search algorithm has to go on is content.

The reason we focus on content is people can lose sight of how important it is on the Web in the rush to create compelling messages. How a page is built or a video is encoded affects who sees the message it carries, shares it, and comments on it. It also effects the content of those comments. In our consultations, people who don’t think about these things are not effective, mostly from lack of attention. Sometimes this just means nobody hears the messages they’re trying to communicate. But other times, the content might actually result in negative influence on what they’re trying to do, as though they would be better off not doing anything than creating the pages they create.

A scenario: IBM content strategy

IBM has lots of content efforts going on all the time to try to get the word out about our offerings. If we all just do our thing and stay on brand and on message without some kind of content strategy in place, we fail. Why? Because we unwittingly create lots of duplicate experiences and confuse users and search engines in the process. Users get really mad when they can’t find stuff on your site. The more content you have that looks the same to the casual user, the harder it is for them to determine which page on a particular topic is most relevant to them. If they only have time and attention for one page and you give them 1000, many of them will simply leave in frustration.

If you don’t pay attention to content strategy, some of the more frustrated users might even tweet or blog about their negative experiences with your content. A company’s worst nightmare is a viral post about how it doesn’t have its act together. This is especially true for companies that make products for the Web. The implication is, if they can’t get their content strategy right, how can I trust the products they make to help me publish content on the Web?

So obviously, we care a lot about content strategy at IBM. We try to govern content in a way that makes sense to our customers. That means we have put a lot of thinking into content strategy in every phase of the publishing process. And one of the key decisions we make often is not to publish something because of the risk of negative user experiences with it, including confusion with other content we have published or have planned for.

Perhaps his rant was directed at individual brands. But I say, the point is the same as it is for corporate brands. If you want your voice to be heard and have its desired effect on your audience, ask yourself every morning, “What content will I create today?” And that starts with, “What content will I consume today?” Because your voice only makes sense in the context of all the other credible voices on the Web. And how they craft their content affects the effectiveness of your content. Of course you need interesting things to say, and there’s no algorithm for this. But interesting points are just one component in effective communication. The sooner the blogger gets that point, the sooner he’ll be more effective.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2010 11:57 pm

    Hmm… I find myself in the position of not disagreeing with either of you. The SvN article is arguing against the tide of pointless drivel generated on a daily basis to slake public’s thirst for information and to keep up with the arms race that is SEO.

    I read the article as a plea for the masses to stop churning out stuff just for the sake of it, and also cry for a return to spontaneity and creativity. As a large organisation, IBM has a veritable flood of interesting things happening at any one time, which obviously necessitates (and helps to drive) a content strategy.

    Let’s say you set yourself a goal for Writing For Digital to produce one article per day, for the sake of being in your user’s face more and more often – the salient point being that you stretch yourself beyond your means in an attempt to improve your standing against those who are better resourced than you. Regardless of your (formidable) skill as a writer, this will result in the occasional “off” article, which may have a negative impact on your audience.

    I cite my relationship with Copyblogger as an example. I came onboard during what must have been a good phase for them – their articles resonated strongly with me, but then over time I started seeing how their articles were pointless, and designed to attract, rather than retain, people like me. I have since stopped reading Copyblogger. Sure, I might be missing out on some good articles in amongst the bad, but then again, that’s what “Signal to Noise” is all about isn’t it? (The physical concept, not just the blog). Too much noise obscures the signal.

    • May 31, 2010 5:10 am

      Good points Caesar. I guess it’s a balance. Of course you can’t schedule creativity. I find I can come out with one interesting post a week. When I used to have a daily column at ComputerUser, many of them were a stretch. And I do think too much content is at least as bad as not enough.

      I was just reacting to the common critique that you need to be authentic and creative first and worry about all the aspects of crafting effective content for the audience later. I think you can’t separate these, and it’s more effective to study what your audience cares about as fodder for future content. If your audience is talking about stuff that interests you, the least you can do is retweet it. That’s content.

      Normally, I retweet it and file it away until my brain can analyze it sufficiently to give me something original to say about it. If you don’t at least do daily research into the audience for your primary field of interest, you’ll miss a lot of stuff and your genuine insights will be fewer and farther between.

      The goal of the research is being able to produce compelling content when the moment is right. I don’t think it’s all that helpful to say “no more content” and hope for inspiration to hit when you least expect it. It doesn’t often work that way.

  2. Maria Ruotolo permalink
    June 2, 2010 4:21 pm

    Great entry – relevant to web sites or our social media presences. Working against a strategy and with a plan (with room for creativity and authenticity) is just going to be more effective.

  3. June 8, 2010 3:06 pm

    I cite my relationship with Copyblogger as an example. I came onboard during what must have been a good phase for them – their articles resonated strongly with me, but then over time I started seeing how their articles were pointless, and designed to attract, rather than retain, people like me. I have since stopped reading Copyblogger. Sure, I might be missing out on some good articles in amongst the bad, but then again, that’s what “Signal to Noise” is all about isn’t it? (The physical concept, not just the blog). Too much noise obscures the signal.

  4. chilishrimp girl permalink
    June 10, 2010 1:41 am

    I don’t agree or disagree with you and the recent post on Signal vs. Noise. Credibility should be built from the value of what you are creating. “Value creation” should be the starting point of building credibility, and “how” is only secondary. Some people like to think, some people like to write, some people like to talk, some people like to read and some people like to share information. So, it really doesn’t matter, because it is all about the “value” that your are creating. It’s too much useless content (i.e. garbage) since everyone thinks it is a MUST to write. In fact, those useless content (to me) is creating negative value because it is wasting my time. I also give credibility to people who shares insightful content to me. So, my point is – don’t need to force yourself to write content. Just do whatever thing that you like the most and do the best, to create value to others. For those who like to express their point of view in more efficient way in writing, I would recommend them to buy your book. 🙂

    • chilishrimp girl permalink
      June 10, 2010 4:14 am

      Btw, my previous comment was related to the latest post on this site – Why blog writing is essential to gaining credibility.

    • June 10, 2010 2:44 pm

      Thank you so much for your insights.

      I do see a lot of noise out there. My Twitter feed is a mess, and I only populate it with 150 of the leading experts in my field. But I don’t think you can get the word out about your own credibility without writing. If you’re lucky enough to get a speaking engagement, that certainly will help. I had no chance to do that, despite my title, because I didn’t have a book with which to demonstrate my credibility. Now that I have a book, I am fortunate to get some of those opportunities (with a one-year lag time). When I do present, I will need to write all my notes and slides and such to prepare for the event and to provide attendees something of value to bring home. So writing is even central to providing value in your speaking engagements.

      Writing is not the only way to show your value. But it is the most findable and tangible way to do it. I’m trying to encourage people to write better because, for most people, not writing is a career limiting choice. If they don’t write, they diminish. If they write better, hopefully they won’t create as much noise, and their careers will blossom.

  5. June 11, 2010 4:26 pm

    I agree with much of what you said. How does any writer decide what they want to write about? The ones that have a following think about what their readers want to read, and put together articles they’ll find interesting. I haven’t seen too many writers who don’t follow some process for putting together an editorial calendar.

    The difference now is that we can find out what people want to read about by looking about what they search for. It’s no different than asking them for their input, except that you don’t have to bother them.

    Ryan Malone
    SmartBug Media
    An inbound marketing agency


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