Content Strategy and the "What’s New?" Imperative

[December 17, 2010]

Just as Time, Inc. knows no one will pay for the same issue of People magazine week after week, it’s reasonable to assume most Web publishers realize the need to refresh site content on a regular basis. How many of them do so is a topic for next year’s crop of cultural anthropologists. But it doesn’t take a PhD to know people enter digital space for a face-to-face meeting with “What’s new?”

As I see it, the only reason for a Web site to exist is to broadcast insight, information, opinion, humor, drama, dance, music, art, literature science…in short, everything we mean by “communication.” As it stands, however, many Web sites are less dynamic than a digital circular from your local supermarket.

At most, they may have a news aggregator, delivering related links or someone else’s data via RSS feed. Often, you’ll find it squnched into the top right corner under an under-refreshed flash marquee—hawking topics of only limited relevance to the target audience.

Viewed from the perspective of their value to consumers, most News sections owe their existence to mere box-checking.

“See, my site’s dynamic now!” says the brand manager, ducking out the door for Pilates class.

But as the second decade of our turbulent century unfolds, such mechanical updates read like tired pick-up lines at a singles mixer.

Tell me something I didn’t know.
Today, there’s a non-stop geyser of digital news available to the net savvy—a larger share of the population than many a Type-A MBA wants to admit. At this point, all that last-decade talk about “bringing the best of the Web to you,” is surely over.

Facebook news outlets aside, with the arrival of real-time search technology, the justification for a data-scroller on your home page is practically non-existent.

After all, the only reason someone enters your URL is to access content they can’t get somewhere else. Over the course of a day, the net-savvy bump into the same Top News Stories again and again. Prince Charles and Camilla in the Bentley? Saw that. Julian Assange’s triumphant release on bail? Saw that. The Kardashian Christmas Card…

Like any other aspect of your brand, what matters is what’s ownable—even if that’s just The World’s Largest Selection of Bunny Slippers. So as you map out your digital content strategy, the route you plot must naturally run parallel to the few information streams you can actually call your own.

Of course, starting from what’s ownable takes time and discipline—two of the most endangered resources on the planet. Yet, I can’t believe anyone who bothers to develop a well-defined editorial calendar for their digital content will fail to see its advantages. And at the top of the list is the ability to present your Big Message in digestible chunks.

Considering how much has been said about what people will and will not read, it amazes me how much information brands try to pack into every page.

Attention deficit? It’s a density thing.
What they fail to grasp is that holding someone’s attention is not about content length; it’s about content density. In slavish adherence to usability theory, Web developers shave content down to the briefest possible nub.

Ironically, this means expecting users to absorb 25 or more snippets on a wide range of topics in the space formerly occupied by 3 or 4 topics in print. The density increases when you swap out your news feed for a blog roll.

Try this experiment. Invite 100 people to IM you at a predetermined time, on topics in the news, fashion, film, or gossip. As you stare at the wall of “short, sweet & to the point” text, see how long it takes until information overload sets in. Unless your “D’wha?” index is unusually high, I doubt you’ll get very much out of the exchange.

That’s because a true communication strategy is about rolling out your big message over time, not pushing content to deadline like a train dispatcher. Yes, I understand your client is frantic to announce a product placement on The Today Show. That’s not the issue.

What you need to consider, is how to fit such timely content into your overall strategy. If it means taking down the snappy little widget that went 16 rounds to approval, so be it. For the time being, your audience will be far too focused on Meredith Viera to care.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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