“Snowmen, parking fines, alchemists and Agile” – Content Strategy Lightning Talks

Last night I was at The Book Club in Shoreditch for another night of Content Strategy Lightning Talks. Here are my notes from the evening…

“Content strategy on a shoestring” – Lucie Pitcher

Lucie Pitcher is a freelance content strategist, something she suggested was marginally worse than being an in-house one because it is easier to get rid of you when you start telling people their content sucks. She was talking about a project with a BBC advertising department where she was brought in “to wrangle a slightly dodgy CMS.” As a department they were great at making the ads, but hadn’t been so great at the web. As she put it, they are trying to sell a complicated proposition, so what better way of doing it than with really long articles that nobody wants to read?

Lucie was recommending three cheap tools she’d used to make her case. She’d championed Google Analytics, as a way of proving that most of their sales leads were being generated by content pages not the home page, and so the content needed to be optimised. She used Crazy Egg to make eye-tracking maps to prove the content was too long. And she’d used SeoMoz to overhaul their approach to SEO.

“Principles of Author Experience” – Rick Yagodich

I had a great deal of sympathy with the main thrust of Rick Yagodich’s talk—that we should care as much about the “content author experience” as the end user experience. He was talking about the age old problem of content management systems that people hate using. He looks forward to a world where all CMSs feature business appropriate language, a proper separation of content and presentation, the ability to create rules-based content, and the ability to preview how that content is going to render across a whole slew of devices and contexts.

Where I didn’t agree was with Rick’s diagnosis that developers were the problem. He described them as “programs” who have “no clue about content or workflow.” Over the years I’ve worked with some great developers who care passionately about exactly that. The live blogging CMS project I worked on at the Guardian was all about removing friction from the content production process, and the developers spent ages working on how to present a UI that most suited the workflow of the journalists. Maybe Rick has just been unlucky with the projects he has worked on.

“What happened when John Lewis forgot its virtual snowman?” – Emily Turner

Emily Turner was talking about how in her spare time she’d come to be impersonating the snow woman from last year’s John Lewis TV ad. It was an expensive campaign, but they’d forgotten the social media component of it, and a whole host of Twitter spoofs sprung up, Emily’s included. Emily sounded like she had a competitive streak, and wanted to be the best of them, so went on a binge of aggressively following, hashtag jumping, and trying to produce good content. She ended up with a couple of thousand followers, and picked one of the people imitating the male snowman to be her husband, getting their Twitter accounts to interact.

She said it all got rather surreal, and the Twitter account ended up being asked to judge Christmas decoration competitions, and mentioned and @-ed by lots of brands and celebrities. It also came to the attention of John Lewis themselves, and she had to have some kind of shady meeting where they allowed her to carry on provided she didn’t go off-brand, and passed on all genuine user enquiries. One bunch of people who never warmed to the idea were the ad agency who’d produced the TV clip, but maybe they just felt silly for not thinking to put their snowmen on Twitter.

“Easy to Choose? Content meets Behavioural Design” – David Hawdale

David Hawdale was presenting a case study in how Westminster Council were using “nudge” behaviour in the content they produce to try and steer the public towards doing things the way the council wanted. Content is not neutral, he said, and you can use it to frame options in a way to get a desired outcome.

One example was with the collection of bulky waste items. The council offer two services—a home collection service, and the tip. Both of them cost the taxpayer money. So on the page advertising the services on their site, the first option shown is actually Freecycle, which they point out is fast and free.

Another example was with parking fine appeals. He showed a demo of an interface, in which the motorist will be shown the CCTV picture of their car being parked during the process. At the moment there is virtually no friction in lodging an appeal, so the council has to deal with lots of frivolous appeals. The hope is that by confronting the user with the evidence of their car sitting on some double yellow lines, fewer people will have the chutzpah to go through with the appeal, and the council’s reduced workload will allow them to concentrate on where there are genuine grounds for appeal.

“Practical content gamification” – James Offer

James Offer won the competition for best cat video, with a clip of one playing that game where you move the cups around and have to guess which one the ball is under. So then I was quite distracted by that and didn’t take very good notes. James was giving a cut-down version of something he talked about at UX Scotland, and showed a couple of examples of gamified content. Condoms for pets was one example, a website that purported to advertise contraceptives for your pet, but which followed it up with a hard-hitting message about getting your pets neutered.

The other was a site that tried to educate people about password security. It asked them if their password to Twitter was secure, and offered to test it if they put their username and password in. This action, of course, set the Cloister Bell clanging, pointing out they’d just done something really stupid by putting their password into a site they didn’t know. If only with “Verified by Visa” and “Download Rapport from this unsolicited pop-up” our banks weren’t simultaneously training us to respond positively to classic phishing techniques.

“Comedy, Alchemy and Drama on the Web” – Paul Rissen

Paul Rissen was presenting a cut-down version of his awesome EuroIA talk, and to be honest, I had no idea how he was going to cram all that thinking into five minutes. But he did a great job, opening up with the premise of putting yourself in the position of a machine. All you know is wires and other machines, a boring flat world of machines. We’ve now get a world wide web of doucments, but the dumb machines can still only traverse links backwards and forwards, between pages. It is dull. Nobody gets excited about pages, they get excited about the things on the page.

Paul argues that whatever work of literature or fiction you love, it isn’t the work that you love, it is the characters and the settings and the things contained in it. Aristotle described stories as a “web of events” that make each other likely or necessary, and Paul believes that hyperlinked data finally gives us a means of expressing that. Show me, he said, not just the “internet of things” but the “internet of fictional things”. The BBC R&D department built The Mythology Engine to try and map the relationships and plot lines in Doctor Who and EastEnders, and Paul would love to see URIs for characters, locations, and events that take us beyond having pages about stories, but which express the web of the story itself.

He likened this to alchemy, where the symbol doesn’t just represent the thing, but takes on the properties of the thing, and where we have learned to manipulate the world wide web in the way that an alchemist sought to control the very atoms that shape the universe. All very heady stuff indeed – you can find my fuller notes of Paul’s talk at EuroIA over this way.

“How agile made me fitter” – Hannah Bullock

Hannah Bullock said that when you boil it down, agile as a word just means being flexible and able to move quickly, which, in her world means when your client and sponsors change their mind. She said she’d been excited the first time she was going to work on an agile project, because scrums and sprints make it sound sporty and fun. She’d got five main learning points for us.

Firstly, the user is king, and by that she means not just the end user, but the people who will be admins and content creators on a system, you need to talk to all of them.

Secondly, she learnt that actually, you do need to have a rough plan, you can’t just leave it all up to sprint planning meetings doing things in an ad hoc order.

Thirdly, design will be iterative, and you have to accept that things will change. The upside of this is that there is no wasted phase of time when all that is happening is some pretty pictures being made in photoshop.

Fourthly, communication amongst the team is essential to getting agile to work smoothly, and that means more than simply daily stand-ups, it means having designers and developers talking together as they build and adapt the plans.

Finally, and a key point for the evening’s audience, get your content made early. It is always tempting, she said, to get a bit of writer’s block and twiddle your thumbs and suddenly hand over all the assets at the end, but content is part of the design, and it needs to be in place whilst the design is being finalised.

Thank you

I’ll have an essay version of my contribution to the evening up shortly. In the meantime a big thank you to Jonathan Kahn, Richard Ingram for putting on another great set of Content Strategy Lightning Talks. You can find their forthcoming Content Strategy events listed on Meetup.

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