Monday, May 31, 2010

How to add content activities to your UCD process

Are you part of a UCD or Customer Experience team that's recently had a eureka moment and realized that you need to pay attention to content? You know that quality content needs to be part of your process if you're ever going to create really great customer experiences, but what does that look like?

Here's a simple diagram that shows various content-related activities that can be done throughout the various project stages. Some of them reflect traditional UCD activities, just be sure to include a content component in each of them!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Writers need businesses backing them up!

There are really only two reasons why professional writers write crappy web copy: they’re either not the right person for the job, or they don’t have the business support that they need. If you’re a business decision-maker, this is good news—both of these things are in your control. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about hiring the right writer. Today I’m going to show you how to provide the support that writers need to do their job really well.

Just follow these 5 tips for success:

1. Develop and use a writing style guide
Having an effective, usable, corporate style guide is critical when you want a consistent tone and voice, consistent terminology and phrasing, and brand-focused content. A style guide raises quality and reduces costs by eliminating the constant changes and choices around specific wording and phrasing details. It enhances creativity by focusing the writer on creating compelling content within brand and usability constraints. It also makes it possible to have a team of writers, or multiple consecutive writers, write for one product or one company with one voice. I’ll write more about what makes a great style guide later.

2. Engage the writer early and often
Please, please, please, don’t leave the writer out of the loop until all of the research, design, and preliminary testing is done! A writer cannot contribute their expertise in information design, customer focus, or almost anything beyond grammar if you provide them with a fill-in-the blanks activity two seconds before release. Grammar is important, but it’s seriously not enough to compete in today’s online world. Find a writer who has great ideas about content that go beyond basic web writing. What can they contribute to content design, research, testing, marketing, or usability? Find that person, and then engage them early and often.

3. Make sure that content is a recognized part of all project stages and processes
This is similar to the item above, but reflects the need for content requirements and contributions to be a recognized part of every project stage. There should be someone with specialized content knowledge who ensures that the product is being designed and developed in a way that allows for the most useful and usable content possible.

4. Invest time and money in content
Sure, free content is readily available. You could write it, or the product manager, or designer, or your receptionist. You could leave it to the end, and then quickly fill in those content gaps. But its worth will be equal to your investment—pretty much zero. Good content costs money and it takes time. It needs drafting, revising, editing, and testing. And then more of the same. Good content means paying a professional writer who has specific expertise. The good news is that your investment in content will pay off. In increased sales, customer conversions, customer engagement, customer loyalty, improved branding, competitive positioning... you get the picture.

5. Let go, and trust in your processes and people
This is sometimes the toughest thing for business people to do. Everybody has an opinion about writing, because everybody writes. But if you have the right writers, and the right processes to support them, you need to let go and trust in their expertise. You still need to pay attention to content, just be sure that your personal opinion isn’t responsible for major changes in the direction of the content. In fact, nobody’s personal opinion should be responsible for major changes. Pay attention to your writer, use personas as a tool to stay focused, and continually confirm or adjust the effectiveness of content through customer testing and analytics.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Real Feel-Good Online Experience

I love great online experiences. I never expect them, because they're almost non-existent. I'm more used to frustration and roadblocks. But every once in a while a great experience jumps out and surprises me and gives me a big fat smile. I was so happy with my purchase of the book Rework, and my experiences leading up to it, that I have to share it with you. It's a terrific example of great content, after great content, after great content... all working together to create a great customer experience.

Good content #1: Social relevance and intrigue

I read a tweet from Copyblogger recommending the book Rework, from 37signals. In less than 140 characters, I was captured by two persuasive messages: 1) Somebody else (like me) enjoyed a specific product, and 2) he commented on how much he liked Rework's web page, which made me curious enough to actually go look at it.

Good content #2: Product positioning

A big image of the book. On the cover: A great but concise testimonial from a well-known name, and an interesting graphic. I keep going. Back cover: Interesting, controversial, concise, clever. Definitely keep going. I see three YouTube videos, which I watch one by one. And I'm completely sold! The movies convey the basice theme of the book, and I get a sense that the authors are smart, clever, funny, articulate, and a bit irreverent. AND they're talking about something that interests me! I love it. I see the table of contents (in this case "essays") which confirms my first impression. I want to buy this book.

Good content #3: Super-slick, 1-click shopping with almost invisible upselling

Cut over to Amazon (In the USA you can do this directly by clicking on the book's image). I'm not a big consumer. I rarely shop unless my kids clothes are two sizes too small or it's Christmas. But I do admit to a certain fondness for books. Some call it an addiction, but that's just semantics. At any rate, I have an Amazon account with 1-click shopping set up, so literally all I have to do is select the book and click to purchase. But I like to watch my dollars so I check out the price before I buy. Very reasonable! So reasonable, in fact, that I need to add another book to get free shipping. No problem, there's always a good selection of books sitting in my Amazon wish list. Easy, easy, easy. I don't need to dig out my credit card. I don't need to spend time finding another book to purchase. There is not a single thing to distract me from my decision to buy, and buy right now.

So, who wins?

Everyone. Copyblogger wins because I talk about him, retweet his tweet, link to him in my blog. 37signals wins because I bought their book Rework, and am talking about it. And Amazon wins because not only did I buy Rework from them, I added another book to the order! And I win, because I'm happy that everything just worked to support me. I never felt like I was being sold anything at any point along the way. I was being shown something that I would enjoy, and was provided with a quick and easy way to buy it.

Was this just random good luck? No. It was a result of well-designed, effective, strategic content that provided me with an effortless experience. Someone else did all the work so I didn't have to.

Now, I just have to wait to enjoy the book.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hiring the Right Writer

You already know that it’s more effective and cost-efficient to hire a professional writer to develop your business copy than, say, getting the product manager or designer to do it. But how can you make sure that your content investment pays off? And why do so many professional writers do a lousy job of getting your message across?

Well, the good news is that bad writing is not necessarily the writer’s fault—it may very well be yours. That’s good because it means that great writing is within your control.

Many businesses hire writers because somebody tells them the writer is good or they read something the writer wrote, and liked it. This is a bad approach. There are way too many different types of writers, with different styles and skill-sets, writing for different audiences and business purposes. What’s divine in one instance is deadly in another.

Here are 6 steps to help you hire the write writer:

1. Don’t rely on their title

Writers use many different terms to describe their role: copywriter, web writer, technical writer, marketing writer, SEO writer, and content developer are a few of the most common. But these all mean different things to different people. The title is pretty much irrelevant. Ignore it.

2. Ask for writing samples that demonstrate familiarity with your project type

Just because somebody has written great marketing content on a website doesn’t mean that they have the skills to write user-interface text for your web application. An article writer who was trained in print media may not know how to effectively adapt their skills online, and an ad writer may make a mess of your e-newsletter.

The audience is also important. The skills needed to write for Mr. and Mrs. Everybody is very different than those needed to write for software developers, or the youth market, or research scientists. Is your writer experienced in speaking to your target audience in a natural and compelling way?

Look for strong writing samples that reflect a similar purpose, audience, and communication channel to your project.

3. Make sure they have sufficient subject matter knowledge or good research skills

Many businesses rely on writers to “create” rather than just “write” content. But writers need to get their information from somewhere. Be sure to hire a writer that has demonstrated a solid understanding of the subject, or has excellent research skills. Even if you’re providing all of the content, a writer who has research experience knows how to ask the right questions and can identify and strengthen weak areas in your content.

4. Choose somebody with the appropriate level of experience

If you have a good understanding of the writing requirements, only require one specific type of writing, and have a strong writer’s support system, then a junior writer may be appropriate. Look for a writer who is articulate and eager, has an adaptable writing style, and at least some experience in your specific type of project. It’s ok if this experience was gained through a school project or volunteer work. It’s essential that they know how to ask relevant questions and follow direction and the systems you have in place. I’ll talk about more how you can support your writers next week.

If you do not have a good support process in place, or if you need a writer to develop content for different purposes across multiple communication channels, then you need an experienced writer. Look for a writer who can clearly explain how their writing approach will be different in each context and the processes that they follow.

5. Choose a writer who can articulate and defend their writing choices

With every sentence we write, we make a series of choices. During the interview process, ask the writer to explain why they made the choices that they did, both in terms of language and information design. Listen to see if you think their points are valid in speaking about your business to your target audience. If the project is online, can they explain why their content is easy-to-use and easy-to-read? Can they explain why their content is compelling and effective?

6. Verify the quality of their writing

Get an expert’s opinion of the quality of the applicant’s writing. This is often easiest when you ask each shortlisted candidate to complete a brief writing assignment. This way, you can directly compare writing styles and techniques based on a writing sample relevant to your project. If you don’t have the necessary background to effectively evaluate the quality of the writing, hire a professional editor to provide feedback. For many people, mediocre writing may appear to be great. But the impact of mediocrity on your business can be huge.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Content Strategy: Sitting at the Customer Experience Table

Content Strategy is in its infancy as a recognized discipline and, like infants everywhere, is often overlooked. We’re still in the process of figuring out how we communicate our value and skills to ourselves let alone our clients. But people are starting to take notice, so we really need to ask ourselves: “Who do we want to be when we grow up?”

We all know the importance of first impressions. We’re in the unique position of being able to significantly impact how the business community views content strategy as a discipline. Because they’re only just starting to notice we exist. Think about that for a minute—it’s really, really cool!

As a new discipline, we have a responsibility to take our own advice and think strategically. We only have one chance to create our first impression in the business world.

Looking beyond the details

Too often we fall into the trap of carrying out our work in a tactical way. We educate clients about the need for improved processes, content testing, and editorial calendars. We focus on content audits, content design, and content management systems. We talk about web content, mobile content, structured content, and social media. These are great things—they’re the tools, technologies, and methodologies that we rely on to do our job. But, if these things are only tools, who are we as content strategists?

We need to step back and really articulate why we do what we do. Not how, but why. Why do we care about plain language so much? People don’t go to websites to find plain language any more than they go to them to experience the navigation. Why do people consume social media content like they’re starving? It certainly isn’t because they love the quality of the prose they find there. Why do so many people still pick up the phone hoping to talk to a knowledgeable and friendly support person?

At the most basic level, these things are successful because they make customers feel good.

Content strategy is customer experience

Every successful piece of content creates a positive experience for the person who interacts with it. You may have a brilliant piece of writing, efficiently developed through streamlined processes and targeted to a specific audience—but if it doesn’t contribute to the customer having a good experience with your client’s company, then it’s not successful.

The “strategy” in content strategy needs to reflect our focus on contributing to, and even driving, the overall customer experience. Even when we only implement a single element of the content strategy, such as web content or content process improvement, we need to know how it fits into the bigger picture and who the other players are. And we want to help shape that bigger picture whenever possible. It’s not just about unifying and improving content to create an effective website, or mobile application, or whatever. That’s content strategy for a project. We can aim even higher.

We can also contribute to the overall communication strategy and articulate content needs not just for online channels, but for print materials, face-to-face contact, phone support, corporate communications—basically, for every customer touch point. Because it’s the combined effect of every touch point that creates the customer experience. And that’s content strategy for a business.

The business community is realizing that the quality of customer experience is quickly becoming the leading differentiator that provides competitive advantage. And content is at the very core of customer experience.

Integrate, collaborate, and contribute

Currently, user-centred design (UCD) teams are beginning to fill the screaming demand for improved customer experiences. And they’re making tremendous headway. But the vast majority of these UCD teams do not have the necessary content-related skills or experience to even identify the current issues with content, let alone provide strategic advice on how to include content in the overall experience strategy. So content continues to be ignored.

Just when content strategy is becoming grown up enough to sit at the web design table, the UCD teams are moving to the customer experience table! This time, we need to invite ourselves to dinner before the meal is served. We’ll be welcome, because we’re bringing something that’s new and needed. By combining our content skills with traditional UCD skills, we can finally impact all communication channels, organizational silos, and customer touch points to create a truly holistic, consistent, and effective customer experience.

So, while most of our actual content-strategy work may relate to one particular channel, or audience segment, or project stage, we need to retain a very clear focus on what it’s all about. And that’s creating great experiences for our clients’ customers, and making sure that our clients know that that’s what we bring to the table – not just audits, and metrics, and copy, but experiences.

If we position ourselves as an integral part of the customer-experience team, rather than focusing on isolated content elements or communication channels, then businesses will view us in that way. We can grow up knowing that we are an accepted contributor to a core business strategy. Which is exactly where we need to be.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Multi-Faceted Content Strategy

I’m trying to figure out how we, as content strategists, can articulate what we do. As a starting place, I’m listing all of the things I can think of that are sometimes part of our job. Content strategy is an evolution and convergence of a number of different disciplines, so we do a lot of things.

If content strategy is a niche discipline within experience design (and I believe it is), then will we see even more niche-disciplines within content strategy? Will we need to know the basics of all of these items, and have in-depth knowledge of some? How can we package these skills and areas of expertise into easily defined marketable services?

Please share your thoughts, or add to this list!

• A/B testing
• Blogging
• Branding
• Business analysis
• Change management
• Competitive analysis
• Content audits
• Content best-practices
• Content convergence
• Content curation
• Content management
• Content mapping
• Content reviews
• Conversations
• Copy writing
• Corporate communications
• Customer experience
• Customer research
• Editing
• Editorial strategy
• Globalization
• Information architecture
• Information design
• Journey mapping
• Localization
• Marketing
• Multimedia
• Plain language
• Presentations
• Process analysis
• Process definition
• Project management
• Publishing
• Report writing
• Search engine optimization
• Social media strategy
• Storytelling
• Structured writing
• Style guides
• Subject matter research
• Task analysis
• Technical writing
• Technology analysis
• Translation
• Usability testing
• User interface (UI)writing
• User-centred design (UCD)
• Web writing
• Whew!