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The balancing act

Transcript of Kat Hartmann's presentation at the Arthouse on March 14, 2012.

Content-strategy logic tells us we should focus on the short head, but this is often easier said than done. How do strategists balance often-conflicting stakeholder needs with organisational interests? At the same time ensuring content remains high quality, users continue to be engaged and the seemingly insatiable hunger of the digital environment remains as satiated as possible.

How many of you work in organisations with a one-size-fits-all approach to content management?

I think most of us here, at some point or another, have worked for a company that insists on adopting a democratic approach to their content. The problem is, the reader is not a democratic beast and search engines don’t care how much time you have spent primping and priming your content, unless it’s with SEO in mind.

For the most part, it’s a rather small percentage of your content that attracts the highest traffic, leads to the most conversions, has the strongest metrics and is generally just loved by all. This group of content is widely known as the short head.

As is the way with most things web, there are different schools of thought regarding what classifies as short head. I won’t go into the methods behind finding out what’s in the short head, nor the percentage breakdown of short head to long tail – mostly because your method doesn’t actually need to be all that exact to extract the information you require.

Anyone familiar with their analytics will more than likely already be able to spurt out their short head without even thinking about it. But, for those of you who cannot, you’re not alone.

Finding out what’s in the short head

I have worked at organisations who have achieved remarkable levels of success in the metrics associated with a site with no content strategy at all. However, in my experience, those sites generally have smaller content bases. Once a site begins to press into the thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of pages it becomes impossible to maintain diplomacy without sacrificing the impact of the short head.

Other sites adopt a process whereby content, once uploaded, is rarely revisited again, inadvertently tarred with the print publication methodology that places it in the realm of the back issue. The problem is, online, there is no such thing as a back issue. And trending topics are a fickle thing that is changeable as the wind. Which brings me to the greatest tool of all: data.

Oh data, my data

I don’t know about you all but the hardest thing for me to let go of, when I hung up my journalist boots, was gut instinct. Looking at content in a more analytical light was like taking the creativity out of the art work. That is, until I discovered it’s actually more akin to studying a piece of music, note by note.

Data is your best friend, your protector and your bible. It’s your backer in every challenge and your evidence at each trial.

Let the content creators fight for and prove the validity of instinct – in my experiences I have found that forcing them to do so will not only solidify their own reasoning, it will also help hone their ideas.  (One of) your (many) role(s) is to teach content creators how to dissect the information that comes out of their creations once they unleash their content on the world wide web.

Your role is not only to teach them to interpret the resulting data but also how to use it to guide future decisions.

Does anyone here remember the scene from Page One where the documentary makers are filming in Gawker’s offices and they cut to the shot of the Chartbeat Big Board? For those of you who don’t, the real time feed – displayed on a massively oversized monitor in their NYC offices – is connected to each and every one of the Gawker-family sites and displays second-by-second traffic for each article published on these sites. There is no hiding from the data for Gawker’s content creators. Gawker’s jounro’s and founders are constantly reaffirming the positive impact on the tool. It lights a fire in the bellies of the journo. They want their articles to do better so they become more original, thoroughly researched pieces that stand out from the crowd and track well with users.    

While an oversized monitor may not be the solution for all organisations, data sharing often can be. It teaches content owners to be more strategic with their own offering and to take ownership of the management of existing content that is having some measure of success in the metrics department.

If you can get the content creators to consider data and trends before they even begin working on a piece you have won more than half the battle.

Which brings me to the other part of the ongoing battle that is content management: what to do with the long tail.

The inhibitive long tail

The long tail, in its sum total is just as important as the short head, it just happens that it’s made up of a remarkable larger mass. Essentially, I am about to make a point I am confident most of the people are already across but it’s an important one nonetheless so could do with revisiting. I also think is worth reinforcing in this context:

The long tail has rights too.

The sad thing of it is, it doesn’t have equal rights. And while I have never been able to pin down a content strategist who will tell me exactly what to do with the long tail in the long term (most avoid it in the hope that the focus on the short head will be suitably distracting) I have found plenty who have imparted pieces of advice on how to manage it in the short term.

Some nominate an active first-phase subbing and then leaving content to its own devices, other talk  about empowering the creators to take ownership and responsibility for the ongoing maintenance of their own content.

Teaching content creators to do as much as they can is generally an investment worth undertaking. Empowering them with knowledge, up skilling them in systems and encourage them to become masters of their own domain can result in dramatic changes in the achievability of daily long-tail management.

I have had varying degrees of success with both methods in the past and so would not advocate one over the other. If I am going to be brutally honest, the success depended largely in the wider organisation ethos, rather than the expertise and enthusiasm of the content manager. Each organisation has its own priorities and success with long-tail management can often depend on the strategist’s capacity to work within the confines of those priorities – or, more importantly, in harmony with.

Content quality

Earlier I spoke about how it’s important not to treat all content equally. I would like to take some time to quantify that statement. As far as I – and most other web professionals – are concerned, content is still the king of the digital domain, right? Whether you’re looking at usability, UX, SEO, EDMs or any other aspect of web coms the ethos remains the same: none will captivate and engage an audience without quality content. Given this, it’s important that all content remain of a high standard, right? Right. Well… kind of.

It’s generally at this stage that organisations need to do a little cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately this generally falls outside the realms of the Finance Department. In fact, it generally falls square in the lap of the content manager.

So how do we maintain quality without sacrificing quality and spreading out resources too thin? The answer, unfortunately, is: you don’t. Most workplaces I have spent time in - or at least the ones that are not old-school new media - have been under resourced. Nine times out of ten this is due to a lack of understanding of what it takes to run a website and a failure to comprehend the complexities of digital publishing (starting with the fact that it is so much more than just publishing!).

Organisations demand that digital teams publish enough information to keep the web beasts well fed, at the same time insisting it remains as rigorously verified, subbed and signed off on as their print counterparts. Unfortunately the disparate demands are often irreconcilable.

So what is the answer? Honestly, I am not entirely sure. Additional editorial resources might go some way to addressing the issues. But what if that’s not a reasonable request? As mentioned, in my experience, the only resolution here is to empower your content creators and managers - to have faith in their capacity to create and publish high-quality work.

One of the most important things we can learn from Knowledge Centred Support is the benefit of rewarding learning, collaboration, sharing and improving. Innovative, creative thinking that allows a more automated approach to the long tail.

First-phase systems are also important. What work can be done now and done only once on long-tail content? Sometimes an investment in the start results in time-saving further down the track.

And, while I am not going to sit and advocate for the publication of substandard content, try to remember that the web is not permanent. Most mistakes can be corrected. And, to a degree, your users are your additional eyes and ears on the ground.

Buy in from above

Remember earlier I discussed winning half the battle by securing the allegiance of the content creators? Well, I am about the touch on the even bigger battle – buy in from the boss. One of the biggest challenges facing content managers and strategists is buy in from above.

It’s one thing to have spent the time analysing the data, pulling out the short head, educating the content creators and improving the systems but it can all be for nothing if the people in the top offices aren’t willing to subscribe to the philosophy or aren’t across the governing methodology behind it.

So what’s the answer?

Those of you at the last meet up might remember some of the discussion we had around managing executive buy in. It’s something I now want to throw open to the group to discuss because I think community learning may well contain the answer.