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3 things to stop doing in the Digital Age

July 26, 2010

Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I might remember, involve me and I’ll understandAncient Chinese proverb

I recently gave a talk about our book to a group of 100+ editors with some web responsibilities within IBM. The talk itself followed the central themes of the book. Perhaps the most challenging theme to that audience is our contention that writing in social settings is not optional. If you want to grow your career, you will have to develop a footprint of original content on the Web–blogs, wikis, tweets, other posts–within your area of expertise. If companies want to reach their target audiences, they must encourage social interactions between their employees and external clients and colleagues.

How do I know this point was the most challenging? I spent an hour talking about what is in the book and a half hour fielding questions about it. In much of that half hour, we talked about how we make time to write in social settings. It’s hard enough to add social writing to our workloads with steady resources. But most editors are asked to increase their volume as resources around them are reduced. In these challenging times, how do we find time for writing in social settings? I answered the question with another question: What are you going to stop doing to make room for social writing?

I proposed that, in the evolution from print to Web, we need to publish ever more interactive and social web content types if we want to meet the changing needs of our audience. Doing more interactive, social writing simply means doing less static, anonymous publishing. For example, developerWorks–one of the shining lights of IBM information–found that wikis and forums were far more popular with their target audience than white papers and articles. So they shifted a lot of their resources towards these social media and away from the static stuff.

In this post, I want to recommend three ways you can begin evolving your information model to the changing expectations of the digital audience. Obviously, you don’t just drop PDF or other more static models. But adopting the new models means doing less print-centric publishing and more web-centric publishing.

1. From white papers to wikis

Because we are in the midst of this evolution, it is hard for us to grasp the speed or the depth of change. Suffice it to say information preferences are changing rapidly. As information becomes ever more pervasive, trustworthy, rapid and accessible through web and mobile applications, our expectations change. Consider how Twitter has changed your information habits. Just that one venue alone has altered my expectations about the size of information chunks and the speed with which they are developed and shared.

Five years ago, an IBM study indicated that white papers and articles were the most popular content types of any we published at the time. In the last two years, this attitude has changed drastically. Though we have not replicated that study methodology, several independent studies from parts of the corporation (including developerWorks) indicate a strong preference for wikis over white papers for a lot of our content. White papers are still preferred for thought leadership and for certain audiences. But many of our more technical audiences prefer wikis, especially for offering information.

How does moving from white papers towards wikis change our publishing processes? There’s room for improvement, as there is in Wikipedia, but the basic process is communitarian rather than hierarchical. In other words, rather than seeing ourselves as the sole creator and propagator of the information, we see the audience as co-creators and co-propagators of our information. This comes with many challenges, such as information quality governance. But it opens doors to create all and only the information our audience needs, in some cases developed by them. Again, we have only just begun this journey. But it is the wave of the future.

2. From landing pages to community pages

Another content type that we focus our attention on is called a landing page. A landing page is just any Web page for a specific drive-to event, such as a banner ad or a paid search listing. Most large companies have too many of these. They tend to be static pages with one or two links to offers or other conversion experiences. Because they serve a rather narrow purpose, they are like the long-tail products of a catalog marketer. The writing is also static and anonymous: Describing a product or offering in hyperbolic terms.

One thing we’ve learned from studies about user behavior is that users are skeptical of static landing pages. If they feel coerced to follow a particular corporate path, a percentage of them will abandon the experience. They long for the control that other web experiences give them. Most of all, they long to participate–to share their perspectives with the site owners and other visitors with similar interests.

Recognizing this emerging audience need, we are trying to build experiences that enable this level of participation. I call them community pages, for lack of a better word. They include curated and created content. They include the ability to comment, rate, share, and like parts and pieces of the experience. The thinking is, if we curate content from the best and the brightest both inside and outside of the company, and we allow users to use it in their preferred ways, it will break down this skepticism for static landing pages. It’s no longer one corporate point of view, but a symposium of perspectives that combine to provide a more complete picture.

3. From buying influence to earning influence

A lot of companies are sort of stuck in the print-centric world of buying influence through advertising. This will never go away completely, but I think users have the same sorts of skepticism about paid listings and banners that they do about landing pages. They resist tacit acceptance of the messages conveyed in the ads. Study after study has shown this. The marketers response is typically about numbers: As long as we get ROI for the ad, it’s worth the investment. In other words, as long as enough people who experienced the ad bought the product, it was worth the investment.

I think this attitude is short sighted. Web users are different than users of other media. They are less apt to surrender control of the information path. They are more likely to count a poor information path as a negative experience. A bounce is not a neutral thing. Every bounce is a negative branding experience for the audience. So if you get the industry standard bounce rates from banner ads (78%), you are not doing enough good even if you achieve ROI. The hidden cost of negative branding from these bounce experiences is typically ignored. But it is real.

I suggest a different approach. Rather than buying influence through paid listing and banners, earn it through organic listings, syndication and social sharing. Easier said than done, I know. To get natural attention, you have to create trustworthy, original content. You have to get folks with authority in the marketplace to recognize the quality of the content and to share it. And you have to use the channels digital audiences trust to garner attention to it. That means reinvesting some of what you were spending on paid listings and banners on content creation, curation and social writing efforts.

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