How to Inventory Your Content Warehouse [en]

Remember when I said to treat your content like a product? Now is the time to take practical steps. Your website is like a warehouse: full of treasures. To bring those treasures into your shop window, you need to know what you have and where it’s stored.You have created lots of content as advised in this introduction to content marketing. Now, your site is bursting, with all the subjects you’ve been covering. If that hasn’t already happened, it will. Faster than you might think.

You should, therefore, take a content inventory. The good news is, you can stay at your desk. To inventory a real warehouse, you’d have to climb up and down ladders, lift boxes full of expensive things, and count. Content inventories are fun (in comparison, anyway). Believe me, I’ve done both. Many times.

The Benefits of Content Inventories

The pay-off is always huge. As Kristina Halvorson says, content inventories change lives. Once you have completed it…

  • you’ll see what content exists, how accurate it is, and how to make everything better
  • you’ll identify core messages and topics and see what content is lacking
  • you’ll find all the redundant, outdated or trivial content that you can merge or delete
  • you’ll have a place to check if content on a particular topic exists: you can see what can be re-used and stop creating duplicates
  • you’ll see clearly how to organize your existing content better to make sure people find it easily
  • you’ll be able promote your content on social channels such as Twitter and Facebook more effectively

…and you’ll find answers to specific questions about your content and your business that nobody could help you with before. All of that with an inventory!

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Convinced? So, close the door to your office. Sit down. Promise yourself a reward. Here we go with a journey around your warehouse!

How to Get Started

You are going to create a spreadsheet listing all your site content. Instead of paraphrasing, I will refer you to Jeffrey Veen’s how-to about content inventories. Go read it, I’ll wait.

Done? OK. Doing it completely by hand: copying and pasting is, as Veen says, mind-numbing. However, as it forces you to look at every single page, it makes you thorough and will produce better insights.

But if you feel an irrepressible need to cheat, you can use PageTrawler. It’s in beta and will exchange an inventory of your first 50 pages for your e-mail address. It outputs CSV files (comma separated values) that you can then open with every major spreadsheet editor. I can’t wait to see it become a full product!

Easy tools such as PageTrawler will multiply soon. For the moment, though, we’re stuck with link checkers and sitemap generators which are difficult to bend to our purposes and don’t supply all the information we need.

Sitemap generators like Xenu Link Sleuth and others can follow links on your website and list the address of every page. But unless you know how to convert XML into CSV files and manipulate them, using these tools might prove more pain than they are worth. Settle for the repetitive task. Most of the time, you’ll be better off.

Remember that the more thoroughly you read and report all of your content in your inventory, the more you’ll be aware of inconsistencies in categorizing, tagging, naming conventions, tone and so forth. You will also find more opportunities for content re-use.

If you have a little energy left, you can also add a column or two about audience responses: report the number of retweets, comments and visitors each article gathered during a period of reference.

Once all pages are listed with all the basic information, treat yourself to that reward. You deserve it.

Analyse and Brainstorm

At this point, you’re either exhausted or boiling with great ideas for improvements. Probably both. Hence, it is a bad time to make hasty and inconsiderate decisions. Write down your great ideas and save them for later. We’re going to take a few more hours for analysis. Involve as many people as you can who have an influence on your content, brainstorm with them and create a document describing

  1. your objectives
  2. how the content is supposed to help you achieve them
  3. who should read/watch your content
  4. what these people need from content
  5. a description of your content (topics, form, length, tone)
  6. and how you’re creating content at the moment.

I would also suggest that you take a look at other publications serving the same audience and see how they are doing. Take copious notes. With all this information in hand, you can now see…

  • what themes would differentiate you from your competition most effectively
  • what topics to publish about next
  • which words to use to name things consistently across your site (for clarity and search engine optimization)
  • which changes to make to your workflow to achieve better results.

No Shortcuts, Just a Few Quick Wins

You’re probably thinking: “I don’t want to do all this”. You should do as much as you can, really. If you insist on instant actions, there are a few simple steps you can take to make your content better right now.

You can put the content that is beyond repair offline. The definition of “beyond repair” is up to you. Look at topics, accuracy, form, length, tone, voice and consistency. It is very hard to assess the quality of your own writing. When in doubt, request confirmation from a friend or a professional.

You can make the categories or tags better. Take a tour of other publications covering the same topics and record their categories. Note their strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of categories or tags you plan on creating for your publication. Now, test it on the inventory before making changes to your website.

Create a new column in your inventory for “new categories” or “new tags” and, for each piece of content, list the categories or tags it would belong to. Doing this on a portion of your content will make the potential problems with your new scheme apparent. Rinse and repeat until satisfied. Then, make your changes.

Once you have cashed in your quick wins, go back and complete the analysis phase described above. It will be invaluable when you start to create content again, I promise.

In the meantime,  tell us the pains and benefits your inventory has caused you in the comments. I would love to hear.

Photo credits: Old Wool Warehouse by Tim Green; stock clerk by Alfred T. Palmer for The Office of War Information. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I wrote “How to Inventory Your Content Warehouse” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 23, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Churning Content Without a Plan is Gambling [en]

Recently, I have been writing about content consumption a lot. A comment by Therese Torris drew my attention to the causes of the avalanche of content we are struggling to live with. It might appear as though our content environment rewards the churning of low-cost branded content. She calls this “Content Inflation”. However, we can point out an alternative route. Organizations who produce a high volume of low-cost content haven’t had the chance of seeing the benefits of carefully planned and executed publishing.

When you work in digital media, you face a constant temptation to scorn strategy and ride the wave of chance instead. First of all, the Internet is always hungry, and any time spent planning is time you could have spent posting. — Project Argo’s “Wrap-up: Strategy and planning”  (via Contents Magazine).

“Riding the wave of chance” is a lot like gambling with your company’s money. If you post a mass of content, some of it is bound to be relevant. When the costs and the risk of downside seem low, gambling seems acceptable. Unfortunately, the costs and risks of this gamble are higher than you imagine.

Costs of Content

You can’t apply industrial-age economics to content production. Content doesn’t get cheaper as the volume goes up. Unlike Ford’s automobiles, the cost of quality content goes up with the volume because content production involves skilled labour and very few economies of scale. Plenty of organisations try to work around this hard fact using various forms of automation. Content farmers such as Demand Media come to mind first. But there are others such as Best Spinner.

While automated tools can be useful, letting general trending topics or ill-chosen metrics replace a strong editorial strategy will drive the relevance of your content down. Licensed or crowd-sourced content will rarely be tailored for your audience’s needs, the tone of voice they are most accustomed to, etc. Every mismatch drives relevance down and reduces your chances of the gamble ever paying off.

Even if achieving “critical mass” lures people onto your site, the irrelevant content will make them flee. You can not externalize the cost of an editor to your audience. They won’t do the hard work of sifting through masses of content to get what they want. The time and attention of your audience are scarce. We are bombarded with content and our patience is lower than ever. Our earlier discussions here made that fact clear. If they can’t find what they are looking for, you’ll miss a sale, or get a support e-mail or a phone call to deal with.

Once an automobile is shipped, the cost of ownership is transferred to the new owner. Content, however, remains your responsibility beyond publication. On the one hand, to store, archive and back up content still has a cost — even though it is decreasing. On the other, keeping an inventory of your content and re-evaluating it regularly is resource intensive. Taking good care of your content is necessary, though, because old content can expose you to legal threats and give you a bad name easily. When it doesn’t convey the right message with the right tone anymore or becomes outdated, someone has to fix it. When it no longer complies with company or state regulations, someone has to fix it. Or take it off your website.

Maximize Benefits, Minimize Costs

Content isn’t promotional material. Think about it this way: when you choose software, does the breadth and quality of the documentation matter? Why would it be different for your own business? Content is more than bait to amass Google juice and stay “top-of-mind”. These are but small benefits which arise naturally when you publish. Aim higher!

When content is part of your product line, your audience’s confidence and loyalty get bigger. The shift is subtle but it will have a major impact. To treat content as a product means that:

  • it has a serious cost and should get a proper budget
  • it has a life-cycle which goes beyond publication
  • it has to be promoted and monitored to see whether or not it answers the needs of the “market”.

By treating your content as a product, you can use the tools business people know and love to reduce costs and risks while making the benefits higher. Publishing will no longer be a wasteful gamble but a part of your business which allows the other parts to shine brighter.

Content and link farmers won’t change. We’ll just have to give up on them. At their scale, their businesses work well-enough still. Legit brands, small businesses and freelancers shouldn’t follow their lead, however. Not because we drown in content, but because it isn’t the smartest and most effective way to attract attention to our businesses or passions. It is in our interest to get serious about content.

Image credit: Roulette Wheel by dahlstroms. Creative Commons Attribution.

I wrote “Churning Content Without a Plan is Gambling” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on February 17, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Tactics for Content Re-Use [en]

You might have realised how resource intensive content creation is. There is no hope for economies of scale, unfortunately. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the costs of content. First, you can use your attention and research time to create more content. Second, you can make your content live longer. Third, you can plan on reusing content in various places.

Get More Out of Your Research

You can get more content for the same amount of research. For example, when composing a document, there are always notes and links that don’t find their place or get edited out. Maybe you could use them as a tweet or a blog post. Even research that does get used for one piece can be used in others. With a publication calendar and a solid multi-channel content strategy, you can find ways to reuse research and, often, also content up to five different ways, according to Ardath Albee. She gives the example of a white paper which might help you create blog posts, slide decks and a webinar. Of course, what you create should depend on a strong strategic foundation defined by your goals and your means.

Be Aware of the Cycles and Use Them to Your Advantage

You can also, when appropriate, re-use content that has been published long ago. If you were to compare this spring’s advice about weight-loss and exercise with last spring’s, you wouldn’t notice such a big difference. Just like magazines, you can use tactics to promote, or even re-edit and re-publish old content.

When you can’t re-use content like this, having a list of content triggers and corresponding templates can save you time and worries. When quarterly results hit or new product lines are announced, lots of content is published on multiple channels. The content is often similar. Write a template (a recipe) which will guide the writing and use it every time.

Modules and Meta-Data

Unfortunately, we often let our content management systems decide how granular our content can be. Out of the box, we often get text-areas for a title, an excerpt, the body of your post, categories and tags. Whatever you publish, you can benefit from getting more granularity — especially in the giant blob that is called “body”. Breaking down content in smaller chunks opens the gate to content re-use across different contexts and different channels.

Product descriptions and biographies of staff, for example, need only be written once and — ideally — stored in only one place. Tweets linking to the same article, even if you publish them numerous times can all have the same text. Pamela Kostur explains How to Rewrite Content for Reuse in a two-part series. Every step you take towards content re-use can have tremendous benefits.

With a little more in-depth work, you can prepare your content to last longer and be reusable on various channels most effectively by summoning technical expertise. To attain this degree might take a lot of work and you might need the assistance of a content strategist to help you decide on the purpose of your content by giving it SMART goals, break it into appropriate modules, mark it up well, and add copious amounts of accurate meta-data. Sara Wachter-Boettcher details how to do just that in Future-Ready Content. If you work on a big enough project with many stakeholders, the benefits will make the whole endeavor worth it. Promise.

Which Content On Which Channel

Preparing content for re-use isn’t a license to send all your content on all your channels, however. “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” is a catchy phrase for content strategists. Yet if you and other people in your organisation take it literally, you might get into trouble. Clinton Forry explains that it is best to “publish selectively”. It all comes back to your strong strategic foundation and your goals. Each channel and platform should have their own set of guidelines because every one of them has their own constraints. Keep that in mind.

Content re-use is a hot topic right now and there certainly is more to learn. If this quick survey sparks ideas around content creation and distribution work flows, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

I wrote “Tactics for Content Re-Use” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on April 4, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality [en]

At first, I used Paper.li simply as an aggregator of links from all the people I followed. Of course, to an outsider, the group of people I follow looks random. No wonder I am the only regular reader of my first paper. To experiment further, I made another paper about content strategy. I thought that it would be neat and orderly at last. However, the people in the list are… well, people. So of course, they share things that aren’t related to their work. At first, this bothered me and I tried to edit things out manually but I soon gave up and then came to like it. Disorder and variety are a great vehicle of personality.

Sharpness in publications is overrated

Recently, Seth Godin threw out one of his short brain poking posts. He compared the merits of sharp and well-rounded individuals. As my brain still tries to reconcile its liberal arts education with all the unsolicited advice about sharpness floating around, it got me thinking.

I have a lot of varied interests, this is also why my first paper doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me. When people tell me to be focused, sharp or pointy, I like to remind myself: “I am no sword. I am no laser. I am a man“. Personal branding experts and their followers stay “on message”. Repeat their “value proposition” incessantly until they become so dull and uninteresting, they have to stage conflicts where none exists, churn out top sevens on their blogs, etc. Many publications I used to adore began resorting to these techniques. They publish things like “Kurt Vonnegut’s ten best tips on writing” and “What five things Hunter S. Thompson can teach you about writing”.

These blogs seem to publish for search engines and forget they address people. They cover keyword after keyword to lure us onto the business sites. This strategy is short-sighted because it doesn’t show their personalities and the full breadth of their expertise.

As Mandy Brown explained in her essay in Contents magazine, editing and publishing is about people and communities. You can’t be too sharp with people, they’re made out of flesh. Publications and editing need to take this into account.

Diversity is necessary

Editing any publication requires more than focus and sharpness. We need context and diversity. In content creation as in curation, coming to the subject matter from a variety of angles will provide both.

On the one hand, it will prevent readers from getting bored by creating rhythm. As Stephanie Booth explains in “Variety is the spice of life”:

By publishing only one type of “top post”, one turns it into the “average post”. Add a sprinkle of intermittent reward to the mix, and you’ll probably positively influence the way readers perceive your content.

Gradual discovery is a delight

On the other, gradual discovery and engagement works wonders to encourage readers to come again. Providing information little by little rewards subscribers and followers. It creates familiarity over time. In turn, familiarity provides the necessary context for you to go farther into details like in a good television series when you discover the characters little by little.

BoingBoing, Kottke and Brain Pickings, for instance, are the ultimate examples.  They are difficult to grasp at first. Even after many visits, it might still be difficult to reduce their editorial line to one sentence or even a paragraph. Does that prevent people from getting it right away? Sure. Yet, after stumbling upon interesting articles of theirs over and over, curiosity is tickled. Readers start trusting them to come up with rich and fulfilling content. A relationship develops, in short. Each author has their own numerous areas of expertise and interests. Through their long history, they develop themes that subscribers can pick up on and follow.

The point is not to forget about planning all together. To convey the breadth and depth of your or your organisation’s personality requires a strategy. We made progress in our methodologies but relationships with humans can’t be mechanized. We shouldn’t forget Tara Hunt’s advice to embrace the chaos. In all forms of publishing, you are always dealing with humans. You don’t get to choose if things are messy, they will always be. You can only choose how much of a mess you want and if the mess is rich in meaning or not.

Image credit: “Spinning Blade” by Patrick Fitzgerald, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I wrote “Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 9, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Marketing for Small Businesses [en]

Content marketing is the buzzword of the week. Yet, it has always existed: under different names, spread by different means. When a farmer talks with his customers about the compared merits of different crops on the market floor, it is content marketing already. He helps his customers make better sense of the world in a language they can understand and builds goodwill in the process.Somewhere along the way, companies lost this human connection as evidenced by the fourteenth thesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto by Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger:

Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

But now, they’re beginning to get better at communicating in a human voice again and respond to their customers’ true concerns in conversations. There is talk of content strategy, content marketing, etc. in lots of exciting places.

Small businesses relied on these conversations and the spreading of good content for a while now. John Jantsch, in his 2006 book Duct Tape Marketing, exposes a holistic approach to marketing which is all about reaching out to the right prospects with compelling content.

The major point is this: Content Marketing is the creation and distribution of content to build trust in your relationship with your prospects. They want reliable information about their situation and how different options compare. Give them that and soon, prospects will turn to leads and leads will transform into customers.

In most content marketing efforts, there are three goals you have to work towards.

  1. Help people live happy stories by sharing relevant information.
  2. Show them how you can intervene in their stories with your products.
  3. Discover your specific way of caring in the process.

How To Join The Conversation

John Jantsch advocates reusable and modular content. So you can mix and match according to your audience and chosen means of distribution. The different pieces of content he would suggest are:

  • A statement of why they should hire you
  • A summary of how you’re different from the competition
  • A description of your ideal customer and why you appeal to them
  • Your marketing story
  • Your offerings, of course.
  • Compelling case studies and testimonial proof
  • And the list goes on…

The content types detailed above are all sound, but remember you don’t have to feel overwhelmed or constrained by the list. Don’t rush it. Some organizations can churn out content and hope for the better. You can’t gamble like this, you have a business to run. Create as much value as you can. Stay confident that each piece of content you create answers your audiences’ needs and supports as many of your business objectives as possible. Focus on the three pillars, take your time to plan your content as you would a new line of products.

Small Steps Add Up

This being said, don’t let such warnings block you. Content publishing is like any new business you dive into, you will make mistakes at first and it’s OK. Writing and publishing are processes of constant discovery. The feedback you will receive will help you get better. Start writing right now, publish when a piece is ready. Take it step by step, one piece at a time.

Most advisers, just like John Jantsch, would want you to start at the center with core messages. Enough with this obsession, I say! Start at the periphery and move towards the center later. In their time, themes and patterns will emerge and point towards core messages and values. If you can’t figure them out, don’t be discouraged. Keep writing and publishing content nonetheless. Core messages and differentiation from the competition will come as you discover subtleties in your way of caring for customers. You can’t just declare them, they have to mature and arise. If you pay attention to your education efforts, your caring and your story, you can be confident that good things will happen.

What’s Practical

Marcus Sheridan taught himself how to use the web to promote his fiberglass pools business. The content he has created became a major factor in River Pools and Spas growth. His first move when he started out was to collect questions he was being asked, answer them in writing, often breaking industry taboos like pricing in the process. His efforts were so successful that he became a content marketing consultant known as The Sales Lion. If you are just starting out or if questions don’t roll in the door fast enough, you can use Q&A sites such as Quora or Stack Exchange to gather more. Write answers in the best manner possible using your own personal voice and post them on the web. If you don’t already have one, a blog is a great format for such efforts because it is modular and flexible.

By helping people make sense of the world around them, you will gain their trust and their business. Saddleback Leather, a small business selling durable leather bags, teaches how leather work is done, on the one hand, and shows their specific way of caring in a story on the other. You also have a great story to tell — I am sure. Invest a little bit of time to write it down because it will bring context and help with connections. Follow the steps I showed to craft the Editor’s Note of your Paper.li with a broader focus and get your story heard.

Of course, curation with Paper.li is also a way of providing content to help your customers make sense of the world. Many small business owners share their experiences on this blog like Nichelle Stephens, cupcake queen, or Brendon Held, kitesurfing expert. There are countless others such as Brian from the Edison Pen company — specializing in custom pens. They edit a delightful Paper.li about writing tools entitled Writing Instruments Daily. Follow their lead: I wish you nice chats!

Image Credit: Table centerpiece representing Turkish merchants in conversation photographed at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts by FA2010

I wrote “Content Marketing for Small Businesses” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on Mars 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation [en]

Our beloved internet never sleeps, never forgets. Worse, people often don’t understand our intents or make wrong assumptions about us. We may assume a curator approves of the content of every article he shares, for example. As a beginner on the web, I’ve been misled like this myself. Or, we may make mistakes with the tools. We live in troubled times — the economy suffers and the social norms around online sharing haven’t been firmly established yet. Employees worry about what they can and can’t do online. Job seekers worry that what they share online can be held against them. In such a context, using Facebook’s frictionless sharing and semi-automated curation tools like Paper.li may seem risky for one’s reputation. Yet, the benefits of online sharing are too numerous to abstain. So, what can we do?

Letting Go of Fear

We’re all protective of our reputation. Who isn’t, right? So much so that worms and phishing attacks spread on social networks using our concerns. We, from time to time, all receive direct messages on Twitter saying “OMG, they’re saying nasty things about you here” with a link to a malicious site. Even if we suspect a trap, the urge to click that link is always strong. Yet if you click that link out of fear, your Twitter account will be hacked and send out the same direct message to all your contacts. Letting yourself get caught in this manner will damage your reputation.

Although less immediate, being defensive with your social media presence or your curation efforts will cause you harm also. People are able to tell when you let your fears drive you. Curation implies risks: you never have all the facts, you make decisions quickly, etc. Many regret having bombarded their friends with the KONY 2012 video because of the backlash and revelations about the campaign. Said friends may hold this against them.

You can’t stop people from talking. There might be people criticizing you down the street. Could you interrupt their conversation and protest that their characterization of you is anything but fair? Yes, but it would make you look freaked-out and whiny. Social media offers the unique opportunity to listen as people have conversations. Your new found ability to listen isn’t, however, a license to make rude interruptions, complaints and start petty arguments.

Letting Go of the Thirst for Control

We may have trouble accepting that we can’t control how others see us — ever. We can influence it to some extent but never control it. We can’t even control all the signals that we, ourselves, send into the world as tightly as we would like. Body-language, micro-expressions and other leakage can always be interpreted. Not accepting this will only make us insane.

It’s the same online: you can’t attend to everything all the time. Your Paper.li might go out with a story you wouldn’t have shared. One of your clever “If this then that” recipes might cause feedback loops and spill large quantities of updates. Tumblr’s queue might malfunction and all your posts might get published at once. Such accidents happen.

The best we can hope for is a set of social norms and best practices to handle these problems. Call it netiquette, social media guidelines, whatever… we look to grow and spread the online equivalent of tact and manners. Lots of people have been working on this problem by now and some widely agreed upon best practices have emerged. I have reviewed some of the many social media policies that organisations have made publicly available (and that Chris Bourdreaux has listed for everyone’s benefit). there are a few constants:

A Few Guidelines

  • Once something is published, it can’t be taken back. This is the first rule. Bots, archive builders and content scrapers are constantly making copies of everything. There’s no complete “delete” function. Therefore, you should always consider your posts carefully.
  • Be respectful. Avoid being a troll, feeding trolls or flaming people. Beware of themes such as religion and politics. Treat social media like you would face to face encounters.
  • Stay calm. As stated in the example above, do not complain about misrepresentation, just point it out and always assume it was a mistake made in good faith.
  • Admit your own mistakes and correct them. If you’re willing to admit and correct your mistakes, people will be far more forgiving.
  • Do not mislead your audience. Make a clear distinction between facts, opinions and fiction. If you want to experiment with self-representation as a literary genre, make the relevant writer-reader pact as clear as possible.
  • Respect copyright laws. There are countless resources to find free or cheap images to illustrate your posts. You can search Flickr by license, browse Wikimedia Commons’ catalogue or even take your pictures yourself.
  • Ask before naming friends who don’t blog. If your blog or social media posts get high PageRank, your blog may come up in the search results for your friends’ name.
  • When you disclose who you work for, put a disclaimer up stating that your opinions are solely yours.
  • As long as such a disclaimer is very clear, express your opinions.
  • When it comes to your profession, stay around your areas of expertise.

If you keep these guidelines in mind, everything shall be OK and you’ll be able to handle the risks of online sharing. I hope you are a little less worried — I certainly am, so we can go make and spread cool stuff. Sharing’s beautiful. Let’s go!

Image credit: “Surveillance Video Cameras”. Paweł Zdziarski. Creative Commons Attribution License.

I wrote “How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on April 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Context-free content: new challenges for publishers [en]

Publishers used to control the way content was experienced. Designers read and put content in tailored layouts. Content was produced and laid out for consumption on paper and later on desktop computers.

The experience could be controlled but the content landscape is changing. First, an ever expanding portion of audiences access content through mobile devices. Each device, browser or app fragments the user experience. Second, new services extract content from the publishers’ websites and put presentation firmly in the users’ hands. As a result of both developments, the number of contexts in which a single piece of content is available has grown out of control. No one can keep track or test them all.

Content consumption apps and services

In the last few years, many new services appeared to help users collect, experience, store and share the pieces of content they come across on the web. Paper.li is a good example. It collects links in Twitter and Facebook and displays them alongside an excerpt in a familiar format. Others such as Readability and Instapaper reformat the content, act as repositories and sync it to other devices. All these services trend towards orbital content which “is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users” as Cameron Koczon puts it.

One of the consequences is that content is separate from its original layout. “The separation of design and content is not a bad thing for designers, in fact, it’s an opportunity to create a better content consumption experience than the next guy”, Simon Madine explains in Context-free content and content-agnostic design.

Responsive web design

Context is fragmenting even on single websites. Last year, Ethan Marcotte published an article entitled Responsive Web Design which he later expanded into a book. His ideas ignited the passion of web designers. Using the capabilities of modern browsers, web designers craft a single website which adapts to devices dynamically. You can see an example by visiting the Boston Globe and resizing your browser window. New challenges arise from these changes in design process. A single site’s user experience now changes dramatically from device to device.

Responsive content

Due to both the new service ecosystem and responsive design practices, content needs to fulfil business objectives and user goals in many different situations. To adapt to these changes, we must go back to content fundamentals and pay close attention to the emerging practice of content strategy. Shelly Wilson proposed, in her five minute presentation at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum, to integrate content professionals to the iterative design process of responsive web services. Ongoing conversations among content professionals and other designers address these issues and significant progress is made.

Progressive publishers who have embraced the separation of content and context by implementing content serving APIs (The Guardian, National Public Radio) had to adapt their content creation processes. Martin Belam, Lead User Experience & Information Architect at Guardian News & Media, shared his experience in a talk at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum and on his blog. Content creators must learn to create content that is self-contained and context-agnostic enough. Otherwise, we might run into problems, such as:

  • Spatial relationships between pieces of content are often broken. You can’t say “the figure on the right” because it might very well be somewhere else or not render at all.
  • Embeds, whether based on Flash, inline frames, or native HTML5 audio and video tags, can prove problematic in certain contexts. iOS refuses to render Flash and HTML5 tags are not universally supported. Planning for graceful degradation is more important than ever.
  • Help sections instructing users to use a mouse are rendered meaningless on touch-screen devices. Users may get confused and write for support or worse — leave forever.

Creating content which retains all of its meaning in different contexts is challenging. Fortunately, the whole community discusses these issues and best practices are starting to emerge.

I wrote “Context-free content: new challenges for publishers” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on October 14, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.

Use the Editor’s Note to Tell Your Paper’s Story [en]

Curators show who they are by exposing what they care about, what they consider worthy of other people’s attention. We use stories as currency in the attention economy: picking the best of them and passing them along.We manage a platform of stories. Yet, it seems we’re not storytellers ourselves. Or when we are, we separate the curation from the storytelling. Browsing through Paper.li, I found that most editors do not use the “editor’s note” text area — myself included. Is it shyness? Do we want to put other people’s content first and foremost?

By putting your curation efforts in context, you add value to each individual link you share. It is not necessarily about taking a larger chunk of your reader’s attention for yourself.

And if you do want the attention, please, put effort in it. Pasting your website URL in there isn’t going to cut it. Whenever I see such editor’s notes, I get a spammy vibe and it hurts your credibility. Self promotion is fine, just make it elegant.

How To Unearth Your Story?

Curators care. Some care enough to set up a Twitter list and a Paper.li to use it themselves. Some walk the extra miles and edit theirs every day before sending it out to their community. We have individual reasons for caring. If you tell these reasons to others, they might be touched and start caring too. To unearth your own Paper.li’s story, all you have to do is ask yourself the questions that the interviewers here have asked to the featured editors. It is better to do it in writing, so open a text editor or grab some paper and a pen. Here we go.

Start with your topic. Explore the reasons why you are interested in the subject. Explain how you became the person who engages in the task of editing your paper. What happened? This is the first “crisis” of the story. Readers get a glimpse of the hero’s background and learn about the event which led you to your subject.

Next comes everybody. Our hero — yes, you! — meets people on social networks. There is a connection. And you use Paper.li to achieve a goal. Maybe they help you. Maybe you help them. Or both. Even if you don’t promote your paper, it’s your chance to take a better look at your sources. What do they have in common? Why did you select them?

The resolution. The hero’s efforts have brought the Paper.li to life. Somebody — it might be only you or your whole community — is now better off. To write this part, ask yourself these questions: do you get a response when you put your Paper.li out there ? Does it have an impact on the people you publish?

It’s OK to not be 100% accurate. I wouldn’t encourage you to lie, but don’t let an obsession with accuracy ruin your story. It’s your inner critic trying to fool you. There are many ways to cover the same sequence of events. The way you recall events isn’t necessarily the most accurate version anyway. Tell your inner critic to shut up and re-frame your story in the most positive and active light possible using the above structure. You should, in fact, feel a little uncomfortable with the result at first.

Editing, The Funny Part

Sprinkle active verbs. Verbs which describe movements engage the reader’s motor cognition. Neurons in the parts of the brain which treat our own movements fire when we see somebody else move and even when we read or hear about movement. You should use this in your writing — even more so in short pieces. For example, you “embrace social media” and you “use Paper.li to pick up interesting links from the community’s feeds”. “Embrace” and “pick up” paint a vivid picture and enhance your story without using too much space.

Disassociation strategies. If your topic is polarizing, you might be afraid to have your name associated with what could get pulled in your Paper. Framing your paper as the result of an encounter between you and the whole community (as we did) might not be enough. If you still feel anxious, describe how Paper.li helps you with its algorithms.

Make it short. You want to preserve space for the stories you and the algorithms have picked. It’s the point, really. So you need to pack your grand story in the tiniest amount of space possible. Don’t worry, though: just lay down the words first. Then, take out the unnecessary nuances and modesty. Eliminate the passive voice, the adjectives and the adverbs. Replace comparisons with metaphors. And see your word count. Repeat until you have sixty words or less.

Now, you’re ready to copy and paste it into your Paper.li. If you do complete this exercise, it might give you the courage to tackle other text areas. For example, take the part that is most personal in your story and squeeze words out until you reach below the 160 character limit of Twitter biographies. It’s a fun game and you’ll reap benefits.

Image credit: “Story Time”, by Dave Parker. Creative Commons.

I wrote “Use the Editor’s Note to Tell Your Paper’s Story” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 25, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Presenting Pearls: Stakes of Content Discovery [en]

Users of fast growing services face challenges discovering relevant content. To address these challenges is hard because relevance is an ever evolving concept which depends on the context. When the user has a clear goal or specific question, relevance is straight forward: that’s how we got search engines. But it is less obvious to address the needs of users who want to discover content that they don’t know about yet, or who watch a specific topic over a period of time. Search is about asking questions and getting answers. It doesn’t help you to figure out which questions to ask. Paper.li recently unveiled their Topic Browser to address these issues and let users of the platform extract more value out of our collective curation efforts.

Problems of Visibility

As the number of users to social networks and publishing platforms grow, the signals multiply. On the one hand, owners of the platform celebrate the growth of their service and the success of their company. On the other, this threatens to diminish the value of the platform as users get overwhelmed. The social signals which were supposed to help them make sense of the tidal waves of content become a part of the waves themselves. Moreover, potential users have difficulties understanding what the service is about or where the best stuff is. Each growing platform faces the same issues: Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress.com and Paper.li.

In our world of plenty, each service wants to give users tools to navigate the oceans of content and find the true pearls. If these tools can be developed, problems of visibility will not only be averted but the community will get more value.

Content Discovery Mechanisms

Relying on content discovery mechanisms means that we are outsourcing part of our choices. They present us with manageable amounts of options and we choose from this instead of choosing from the bigger pool. This is how we get a suggested user list on Twitter, Flickr’s interestingness index, WordPress.com’s homepage, or dedicated services such as Squidoo or Paper.li and its Topic Browser.

Tumblr faced a problem with their vast amounts of signals. Tumblr relies on tags and human editors to surface the best content. Tag pages are produced by contributors and editors working together. Users, then, can subscribe to this curated experience.

Squidoo is another service which relies heavily on human editorial skills to create pages about topics with original content and material from around the web: images, videos, RSS feeds. The addition of Amazon and Ebay affiliate modules brings revenue that is shared with editors who can then give it to charity or keep it.

Paper.li is in a position to solve this problem differently. With their Topic Browser, they inverted the process. Instead of having topics curated by few editors, they rely on the massive numbers of Paper.lis edited every day by their algorithms in tight collaboration with their users to surface content. The scale at which the Topic Browser operates is impressive: more than 13 million articles are categorized in one or more of the 20,000 curated topic pages. The filters ensure that the most topically relevant content gets added. Each topic page also features links to the individual Paper.lis which contribute to it, making it a topic watch as well as a discovery tool.

Personality Through Taxonomy

Using the wisdom of crowds to perform editorial tasks may seem risky but it gives us access to new information about our own community. On the one hand, individual personalities of the community’s members and publications may not shine as much anymore. This is a loss, since personalities are to be cherished. Yet, on the other hand, we may discover more about our collective biases and quirks. The culture of services and the communities they gather shine through their taxonomic choices. Tagging and categorization practices give us insights into the choices made when developing algorithms, and about human editioral practices of both administrators and users.

On Tumblr, for example, the Explore function is based on enlisting moderators to curate topic pages. They introduced this function with a limited array of topics in December 2010 and slowly added more to finally merge everything into the Explore function. Today, the page shows a selection of what the service has to offer.

This page does say tons about the Tumblr community: their love of pictures, leisure-related content and cuteness becomes apparent.

Paper.li’s Topic Browser is still in Alpha but the tagging system already shows signs of personality — especially on broad topics. Recreation, for example, seems to be synonymous with exercise for most of our community’s members. Love’s topic page points to an impressive array of posts about interpersonal relationships, wonderful personal blogs, and some NSFW images forming a striking portrait of the topic online.

As we explore the Topic Browser together, we will gain new insights about our community and our world. Dive in. And when you come back out, tell us what pearls you found and what you learned about the Paper.li community in the process.

Image credit: “Pearls” by Dr. John Supan for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I wrote “Presenting Pearls: Stakes of Content Discovery” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on February 6, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.