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The Content Strategy n00b

Who’s not here? Diversity in community

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A couple of weeks ago, Kristina @Halvorson raised a twitter-storm over e-zines and conferences that feature white men exclusively. In their defense, and judging from their apology, I think probably they didn’t plan to exclude women (or other perspectives). It probably somehow just sort of happened that way. They wanted to feature the best, most interesting figures they could, and those just seemed to end up white guys.

This sort of thing—that white men show up at the head firms, on the attendee lists, on the presentation line-up, on the bookshelves—happens all the time, and I believe it is, as @halvorson and others have said, an issue of diversity and inclusion. I am stepping off of the topic of content strategy for this post because I have some experience in being part of diverse community, and because I believe it absolutely essential that our community—that any community—learn what diversity and inclusion mean, why they’re important, and how to nourish them.

Something about my background

When I was in college, I studied French in Tours, France, which taught me first-hand about culture shock and the power of learning to live in someone else’s culture. I recommend this experience to every human being for gaining perspective on one’s own culture: You cannot understand yourself until you understand someone else. You can only understand being in the “majority” when you have experienced being in the “minority.”

I began facilitating “diversity workshops” back in the 90s, when I was an Employee Relations Rep in Rochester, NY. If you work for a corporation, you’ve probably been through a hundred versions of such workshops. They generally include activities and information to highlight several, important truths:

  1. Diversity is not exclusively about women and African Americans, nor about Equal Employment Opportunity laws, although it does indeed address these aspects, but encompasses all the ways in which people differ from one another.
  2. We all bring our biases, which are largely invisible to us, to new encounters with people who differ from us. We tend to trust and therefore favor those who are most like us and to have different expectations (often higher) of those who are least like us.
  3. Diversity is not about tokenism or being politically correct. We cannot point to one person of color in a room full of white people and say, “See? We’re not all white.” Nor can we learn the “right way” to talk about things, so that the issue goes away. Diversity is about seeing lots of people of all kinds in the group, and learning to talk with them (more than about them) in terms that they choose for themselves.
  4. We are all complex and multifaceted, and the goal of “diversity” is to create a working environment in which everyone can contribute her/his best work, which is known as “inclusion.”
  5. Diverse teams are harder to manage, but they produce better work.
  6. Stereotypes are not the same thing as generalizations. It’s all in how you use them. “Stereotypes” reduce people to a few characteristics, so that we don’t have to go any deeper to understand them, while “generalizations” identify characteristics as guides for understanding differences.

When I worked for Ernst & Young, my last project was managing the development of an online course in cross-cultural communication, which really is just another form of diversity education.

When my partner moved from Tuscaloosa to Cleveland to be with me—from the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama to the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio—we were, I believe, the first gay couple to be invited to the “new clergy weekend” at the time, and we have been open in the diocese from the beginning.

Since 2000, my partner, an Episcopal priest, has been working with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which ten years after our start, has grown into a vibrant and fully diverse Christian community, and its growth continues to accelerate. We attribute our diversity, and how we live into it, as one primary driver of that growth.

What we mean by “diversity” and “inclusion”

“Diversity” and “inclusion” are often spoken together, especially in business organizations. One could get the impression that they’re the same thing, but there are important distinctions. Diversity is a prerequisite for inclusion because an organization can be diverse without being at all inclusive. Diversity is hard, and inclusion harder.

Diversity: Who’s here, and who isn’t?

Diversity is about the composition of your community. A homogenous community is made up people who are all very much alike in important respects. A homogenous community is comfortable because its members can communicate with one another without a lot of misunderstanding borne of differences. Of course, no community can be completely “homogenous,” as every human being is unique, but the more homogenous the community, the harder it is for its members to have perspective on their own identity, their own biases, and their own values.

Inclusion: Who holds the power?

Even in diverse communities, it may be similar people who make the decisions, who enjoy prestige, who are chosen for leadership, or who feel most a part of the group, even when they are not the most numerous in the group. “Majority” isn’t always about quantity, but it’s always about influence. It is the “majority” culture that prevails in the seats of power, wealth, and influence, whether the people in those seats represent a majority of the population.

Inclusion is about the diversity of those who hold the power and esteem in the community. This distinction is critical and germaine to the conversation on Twitter because while a community must first tell itself the truth about its basic composition (who’s not here), it can only benefit from diversity if it can tell the truth about its inclusiveness.

Questions to assess inclusive diversity

I don’t believe that communities achieve real, inclusive diversity very often, nor that inclusive diversity just “happens” to a community. Inclusive diversity requires intention and care. Inclusive diversity requires learning to live in new ways. And inclusive diversity requires doing things that don’t seem logical, in order to get it started and let it take root.

Here are a few questions that can help us get outside our own perspective to begin the journey.

Who’s here?

A community must actively nurture diversity by learning to see “absence.” When a community is homogenous, it seems perfectly normal to recognize one another. Seeing who’s not here requires tuning into the humanity missing from your group. It’s easiest to begin with sex, color, and other outwardly visible characteristics. Are we all men? Are we all white? Are we all about the same age? Are we all straight? Do we all dress alike?

It’s important, however, to move quickly into deeper realms of difference. Do we live and work in major metropolises? Do we live in the same kinds of neighborhoods? Do we use the same slang? Do all have similar education from similar institutions?

Once we’ve built a sense of who’s not “in the room,” we can begin to explore the impact of homogeneity by assessing who holds the power.

Whose voice is heard?

Another way to assess the diversity of a community is to look at who’s authoring the books and articles that people get to read, who’s invited to present at conferences, whose names are most recognized, and who shapes the opinions throughout the community. If the people who get to hold the microphone are all alike in some way, then the community is deprived of new voices, different voices, dissenting voices, and perhaps startling voices.

Who’s making money?

I hesitate—almost—to say it, but the competitive spirit of business is probably in direct conflict with inclusion.

Capitalism generally values getting the business by beating out other people who could have it. But when a particular kind of person seems to hold the microphone, to get the business, to publish the books, and to make the innovations, one must as a matter of conscious suspect that other factors are at work in addition to those folks’ innate intelligence and their hard work.

Becoming an inclusive community requires a conscious effort to “make space” for people who are absent. That means sometimes standing aside on the platform, on the shelf, in leadership, and if we’re very committed to it, in business. Many organizations are working to make space under the banner of “supplier diversity,” signaling that they are willing to give special consideration to bids from minority-owned businesses. In order to ensure that minority-owned business get a fair shot, (and I won’t go into what constitutes a “fair shot” here), the organizations must ensure that they are somewhere in the pool of bidders.

Who leads?

But there’s more. Inclusion means working to share authority and power. Diversity in leadership is at least as important as diversity in membership, and at a certain point, it’s important for leadership to “turn over,” and for different sorts of people to lead. If you look at the agency partners, if you look at the elected government, if you look at the C-Suite, and they’re all white guys—except for the HR director, who’s a woman, and the diversity officer, who’s African American—then there is a lot of work to do. Those who hold the power to promote must not allow themselves to fall into the “we’re just hiring the best person for the job” trap. As above, if all the “best” candidates seem to look alike, then there’s something else going on.

So what? Why should we worry about any of this?

The decision to work toward diversity and inclusion in any community is hard, and the journey is fraught with change. After all, the goal of diversity and inclusion is not just to look different for its own sake, but to be changed, and no one likes that. To become a diverse and inclusive community means that we will all be changed in ways that we cannot predict or control, and certainly, no one likes that. But we must.

Diversity is safer

When you watch catastrophes of society or economy unfold, look for sameness in those at the epicenter. Homogenous groups are prone to look inward and to agree on decisions quickly. They can overlook things that lead into crisis. In diverse communities, we have to learn to accommodate different points of view and work to involve more people in decisions, which are powerful, crisis-preventing skills. Over time, we all develop broader perspectives—on ourselves, as well as on others. Diversity is safer because we learn to look more outside our own interests for the good of the community.

Diversity is richer

When the people of influence are all alike, in the end they can fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve learned all they can from others. Inclusive diversity ensures that no matter how much you learn, there’s always someone new who’s going to shake things up and make you revise your whole picture, which is great, once you get the hang of it. In a community that prizes experts, this can be especially disconcerting, and we don’t generally have the skills to say, “You know, I now have to reconsider everything I’ve ever believed about this…” But that’s the way forward. We always need new voices of widely different perspectives, so that together, we get to a greater truth.

Diversity is good

In the end, I believe that the greatest good for all of humanity can only be achieved through diversity. As we come more and more into contact with people who differ most from us, we need to have built the skills to make space for them in our own circles: listening, questioning, welcoming, and changing.

So yes, we need to consider seriously who’s on our brochures. We need to consider whose voices we’re hearing. We need to pay money to see and hear people we’ve never heard of. We need to decide to bring new perspectives into our workplaces. And we need to make space for others to stand beside us. It’s hard, but it’s the only way to the best.

Sophie’s choice: Well-crafted content or empowered content owners?

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It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate a hard truth about myself: I’m a content geek. I know I’m not the only one. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably a content geek, too. But if you’re like me, the realization that you might be fundamentally different from the normal people around you has been a long time in coming, and it’s only after years of stripping the formatting out of other people’s documents and spending more hours in “code view” than in WYSIWYG that it becomes clear: Not everyone can do what we do.

And as a content manager, I have a terrible choice to make: Do I apply my content geek powers toward crafting web content myself, or do I hand the keys of my CMS over to the content owners, who say that if only they had access, they’d create and maintain all their own content?

This is a timely question of content strategy because not only does a content strategy shape the form and substance of your web content, but it also specifies how it gets designed and produced. So who’s going to do it: The geeks or the owners? Two recent blog posts make the case very well:

Seth Gottlieb at Content Here debunks the “Myth of the Occasional CMS User,” and calls all organizations not to believe the promises:

“Often, one of the big justifications for a CMS is removing the webmaster bottleneck and delegating content entry to the people who have the information. The implicit assumption is that everyone wants to directly maintain their portion of the website but technology is standing in the way. But if you visit a CMS customer a while after implementation you are likely to find that the responsibility of adding content is still concentrated in a relatively small proportion of the employee population.”

Jeff Cram at The CMS Myth expands on Gottlieb’s post and advises that you “Stop Letting People Use Your CMS.”

“So, I’ll take it one step further than Seth. Stop letting people use your CMS unless they are an integrated part of your web and editorial team and need to be in it on a regular basis. Even then, they may not need to be in the tool.”

What is Content Craft?

Being a content geek—at least for me— means that I see the crafting of content through insect-like, multifaceted eyes:

First, there’s the substance of the content. What is it? For whom is it intended? What’s its underlying message? What are we expecting it to accomplish?

Second, there’s the fashioning of it. Have we chosen the right language, the right images, the right arrangement, the right granularity, and the right length to accomplish our goals?

So far, so good. Any good writer can do as much.

But then, there’s the structure of the content. Not in the sense of how the piece is composed, but of the technical aspects of the headings, the various kinds of paragraphs, the selection of appropriate keywords for linking to other content, and it’s position within the website.

THEN, there are the content modeling and metadata. How is this class of content the same as or different from other classes? Into which section of the site does this content go? How will it be tagged so that it comes up in the right places or at the tops of searches? Can I really build this specific set of attributes into my CMS templates?

And finally, there’s the markup. What HTML elements are we using (and NOT using)? How have we chosen identifiers and classes for the CSS code, so that it reads like Ibsen in the source view?

Content geeks can manage all these facets like playing with Legos. We have an instinctive compass that points true north: We connect the pieces across web space and keep the links consisent.

Subject Matter Experts, Not Content Experts

Once upon a time, I was all about empowering my content owners. I tried to teach them the difference between “bold” and a “heading.” I tried to teach them to use “styles” in MS Word, rather than formatting each piece on top of “normal.” I showed them how beautiful and consistent content could be when you paid attention to these simple details, how you could instantly reshape the whole piece by shifting templates. Their eyes would just glaze over, or they would simply decide that it was far too much work. Now, I’ve decided that for the really important stuff, I do it myself, and with pride.

In the end, there is a profound difference between subject matter expertise and content crafting skill. Every now and then, the two can coincide in a single human being. For the most part, however, when content owners pour their subject matter expertise into web pages, someone else ends up going through it to “clean it up,” not out of a pathological need for beautiful code, but because the whole user experience will be best served by clean, consistent, well-crafted content. And isn’t our website really there to serve the visitors?

The Bottleneck is the Real Work

When your CMS sales rep sings the praises of the system you’re evaluating, and especially how content owners’ creativity and productivity will be unleashed because they won’t need any “technical skill” to build web pages, don’t you believe the bull. Publishing web content takes technical skill and time, no matter what system or tools you use, and just as in every other professional endeavor, it is best entrusted to web content gee…er…professionals like you and I.

The Information Gathering Spot: Addressing the Terrible Truth About People and Information

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When I served as “information strategist” for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio from 2000 to 2006, I was responsible for connecting over a hundred parishes, over two hundred clergy, and over twenty thousand communicants with the bishops and diocesan staff, and with one another. In the year 2000, the main diocesan communication channels included the US mail, phone calling trees, limited e-mail use from personal lists, and a diocesan newspaper that came out eight or so times per year. There was a website maintained by a volunteer, but this consisted mainly of parish listings, intended for people outside the Episcopal Church.

Now, I’m married to an Episcopal priest, so I had a particularly personal stake in how the communications went. The clergy’s main complaint was that every day, as many as ten identical, No. 10 business envelopes arrived from the diocesan offices. Because they were indistinguishable one from another, they tended to sit together in the inbox until they could turn their attention to them. Besides these envelopes, there was no easy way to find out what was going on in the life of the diocese, the practical quotidien information.

We were locked in a non-communicative tug-of-war:

  • Parishes and Clergy: “Why didn’t you tell us?”
  • Diocesan Staff: “We did. We sent you a memo.”
  • Parishes and Clergy: “There are too many envelopes—we can’t read all that!”
  • Diocesan Staff: “If you don’t read your mail, then there’s nothing more we can do.”

When I broached the subject with my colleagues on staff, they were not terribly sympathetic: “I read MY mail; why can’t they read THEIRS? They read their mail at home, don’t they?”

So when information was important, we would mail a letter, transmit a copy by fax, shoot an e-mail to let them know it was in the mail, then follow up by telephone to make sure it was received.

I call this strategy “redundancy in pursuit of certainty.” Sound familiar? Has it worked for you? It didn’t work for us, either. In fact, redundant communication produces the opposite effect: The more you “communicate,” the less people pay attention to you, and the smaller their capacity to absorb and retain information.

“Internal communications” often go this way in organizations everywhere, large and small. The technological innovation of the “corporate intranet,” introduced to eliminate precisely this struggle, hasn’t changed it very much. Why not?

The Terrible Truth About People and Information

Truth 1: People will not know a thing until they are ready to know it.

  • You know how you can be walking down the same street you walk down every day and you suddenly notice a building and ask yourself, “Has this building always been here?”
  • You know how you can plan a big community event for months, and you send out “save the date” postcards well in advance, then send personalized invitations, then advertise it on the local radio shows, then hang big, colorful posters all over town, and then the day before, one of your biggest donors can call you up and say, “I just found out about the [event], and now I can’t make it. Why didn’t you tell me about it sooner??”
  • You know how your mother always told you “blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah” for years and years, and then one day, you find yourself in a real fix, and you suddenly realize that this is exactly the situation she tried to tell you about all those years…
  • You know how Glinda the Good Witch of the North shows up at the end of the Wizard of Oz, and announces that Dorothy’s always had the power to go home to Kansas, but she hadn’t told Dorothy that back in Munchkinland because “she wouldn’t have believed me; she had to find it out for herself?”

Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!

Truth 2: At that terrible moment, when they’re ready to know, they will ask why you didn’t tell them and complain about “poor communication.”

Then something “clicks,” the stars move into alignment, or two people have a chance meeting where someone asks the right question, and BING! those same people are ready to “know” whatever it was. In that instant, it seems to them that everyone else around them knew this thing—why didn’t they know? How were they supposed to find out? There’s just no communication in this organization…

Truth 3: Nothing can change truths 1 and 2.

You can try any technique you want: You can send redundant e-mail blasts. You can call people up with reminders. You can post eye-catching posters and banner ads. It won’t make any difference. This point cannot be overstated: MORE communication only makes the situation WORSE. As Peter Morville pointed out in his book, Ambient Findability, the human brain hasn’t had a whole-version upgrade in at least 50,000 years (Morville, 2005, p. 45). Until we get one, we will continue to ignore what we’re not ready to know.

Mitigating the Terrible Truth: Create an Information Gathering Spot

Even though you can’t prevent the phenomenon, you can mitigate it. There are ways to improve the odds that people will “know” more often and more easily. They’re not self-evident, however, and they require measured, disciplined tactics over time. I call this strategy the “Information Gathering Spot” because it requires creating a central location in which all information is shared. I recommend it for any situation in which a large group of people–company, community, or society—needs to be in touch, and in which there is a formal body responsible for “communication,” say, Corporate Communications and an intranet.

Cultivate a single “line of sight” for your audience

Any PR person will agree that the über-goal of communication is to have everybody paying attention to you at the same time, so that when you have something important say, they’re already listening. Reaching this Nirvana doesn’t happen on its own, and it doesn’t happen all at once.

  • You have to build a relationship with your audience over time, raising your credibility as a communicator, and inspiring trust as a respected source of information.
  • You have to put all the information in one place, and direct their attention to it repeatedly and regularly.
  • You have to be consistent, on-time, without fail. Whatever system you as the communicator put in place, you have to use it—and get everyone else to use it—in the same way, on the same schedule, for all your information. Period.

Help people be “ready to know”

Permit me a botanical metaphor: The human mind is a fertile—if overgrown—field in which grow all the things we know. The information swirling around us is like seeds, scattered on the wind. When a seed hits a clear patch of ground and sprouts, that’s when we notice something and are able to know it. Many seeds, however, get caught in the underbrush, and they don’t hit the soil immediately, if ever. Eventually, they may, and then they sprout into something we know.

In order to help people know more things, you have to clear this tangled field:

1. Accommodate the natural hierarchy of information needs

Most of what people care about knowing is basic and mundane. If you look at the web analytics for my organization’s intranet, for example, the most popular piece of content is—by far— the cafeteria’s lunch menu, followed closely by the online phone directory and the system in which you look up your paycheck.

This should come as no surprise to anyone: People need to satisfy their stomachs and their wallets before they can think about anything more “ethereal” like our “shared vision.” By providing immediate access to these “reptilian” items, your audience has more attention to pay to other, more “mammalian” things.

2. Make clear why people need to know, and what they’re supposed to do next

People cannot take in “useless” information, and “useless” is entirely in the esteem of the beholder. If it’s unclear why they need to know something, they will dismiss it even before considering it. But marking something “urgent” or “read this!” only confirms its uselessness. Your information needs to convey its own utility and next steps, and this is, of course, the skill of writing.

3. Structure and format your information to be skimmable

Ben Shneiderman, the eminent researcher in the field of information visualization, has made this “Visual Information Seeking” mantra famous: Overview first, then Zoom and Filter, then Details-on-Demand (Shneiderman, 1996). Whether it’s datasets or news items, the principle is the same:

Your users need to be able to skim at a high level (“Overview”) to get a sense of what’s there, then to focus their attention on the categories or subsets of what interest them (“Zoom and Filter”), then to grab the full detail on any single item that they are ready to know (“Details-on-Demand”).

Share responsibility for sharing and seeking

Here are the keys to making this whole strategy work. You have to:

  • Transform your concept of “communication” from a one-way broadcast to an all-way information exchange.
  • Lower the barriers to participation in the system. Everyone must have some access to posting information. It can be moderated and modulated, but people need to feel that if they have something to share that will be of interest to the organization, they’ll be able to get it out there.
  • You have to train your organization to take responsibility for sharing what they know and seeking what they want to know. No one gets to sit back. No passive consumers. If you want people to know something, you put it out there. If you’re a member of this organization, you go see what’s there.
  • You have to redefine the role of the official “communicators” in the organization from the being the single source for creating and distributing information to being the facilitator of this organic information ecosystem.
  • You have to establish a new social contract for knowing: If people don’t use this sytem to make information available, they can’t expect people to know it. If people don’t use this system to find out what’s going on, they can’t complain about being in the dark. In pursuit of this contract, the “communicators” pledge to maintain an easy-to-use system to which everyone has appropriate access.

It’s as audacious a goal as you’ll undertake, but the return on investment will be huge.

Creating an Information Gathering Spot in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio

When I began working for the Diocese of Ohio in 2000, I had built only one website of about six pages for my home parish, using MS Publisher. Because a volunteer was maintaining the diocesan website and my own experience was limited, I started fresh on a new, separate website. I invited a few members of my stakeholders for a strategic focus group, to ask them what information they really needed and how I could best provide it to them. They were great: They were practical and had reasonable expectations. They needed to know about events and deadlines, and committee meetings. (There was no central diocesan calendar of events, by the way.) They needed a place to get forms and other documentation. They needed to know about changes in the life of the diocese, particularly clergy changes. They needed all this information to be current and easily accessible in one place.

Based on their input, and on my own research into other diocese’s communication vehicles, I built a four-page website I entitled The Bulletin. If you’d like to see its humble beginnings, go to the “Wayback Machine” internet archive:

The main page of The Bulletin was called the “BulletBriefs,” which in simple, categorized, consistently-formatted bullets, showed news and announcements, new documents available for download, new events on the new diocesan calendar, and the next meetings of diocesan committees. Each bullet was linked to one of the other three pages: Calendar, Downloads, and Stories. I invited everyone in the diocese to send me the information they wanted other people to know, which I then entered manually into the web pages. I made this pact with them:

  • If you give me five minutes every Wednesday, I will make sure you see everything that’s new this week.
  • If it’s not in the Bulletin, you don’t need to know it.
  • If you can’t get your information in by Wednesday, you can’t require others to know it, at least until next week.
  • I will make sure that the information is consistent, skimmable, and well-organized.

Every Wednesday, I sent out an e-mail note to any who wanted it, letting them know that the Bulletin for the week was updated and ready. Whenever people asked me questions that the Bulletin could answer, I would tell them what they wanted to know, but I also let them know where they could find it out for themselves. This continual—if you’ll excuse the expression—evangelism was crucial to the strategy’s success. Over time, people offered suggestions for how to improve its usability, and so the design evolved.

Ultimately, the Bulletin became the framework upon which the entire diocesan website was built, and in response to user requests, the Bulletin turned into an automated e-newsletter informing recipients what’s new in the diocese, and linking back to the website. Although I am no longer on the staff of the Diocese of Ohio, the Bulletin still goes out every week.

Creating your own Information Gathering Spot

The principles of this community-based content strategy are almost primitive, yet they can reshape the corporate sense of what communication is and how it works:

  • Everyone who has information shares.
  • Everyone who wants information seeks.
  • The communicator provides and maintains the place for sharing and seeking.

If you keep these simple ideas in front of everyone, in a few years, your organization will find it strange that communication could be done any other way.

Works Cited

Morville, P. (2005). Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Shneiderman, B. (1996, September). The Eyes Have It: A Task by Data Type Taxonomy for Information Visualizations. IEEE Visual Languages , 336-343.

The Mythic Bestiary: Content Owners

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Shhhhh! Look over there!

The Neverland of content strategy is full of wondrous creatures. We invoke their names in meetings. Their titles appear on project plans. We assign them tasks and responsibilities, and we expect them to deliver. Of these legendary beasts, none is more elusive than the Content Owner.

Though we never see them working, like little elves, content owners mysteriously fill our web pages with high-quality, completely relevant, irresistible content. Chanting their spell of “lorem ipsum sit amet dolor…” they spin strawcases to gold and keep every project on-time, etc., etc.

Some of their powers they claim for themselves, and some we confer upon them:

Content owners want responsibility for creating and posting content.

If only we gave them complete freedom and access to the content management system (CMS), content owners could—and would!—take full responsibility for creating and posting all their own content. There would be no more bottlenecks! They would follow the styleguide. They would keep content fresh and current. And of course, because of the CMS’s WYSIWYG editor, they wouldn’t need to learn HTML or tagging.

Content owners are content experts.

Content owners know exactly what they want and how it should appear on a web page. They know how the navigation should work and which labels will eliminate confusion. They require minimal technical support, and can be relied upon to make savvy decisions. This is because…

Content owners understand the deepest desires of their audiences.

Content owners are continually in touch with their audiences and understand their requirements intimately. They have no need of data or testing. They have no time for research: Their content is too important for research, anyway. When cornered and pressed to support their assertions, they turn nasty and threaten spells to bring down the wrath of the C-Suite.

But if you ask me…

I don’t think Content Owners really exist—certainly not in these mythical terms. It’s all superstition, fairytale, and wishful thinking about some of the hardest work in publishing: Content Strategy.

There is no easy path to successful content, and the hard work cannot be foisted off onto content owners, even if they’re real—and real good—people serving in that role. They can be invited to help in the production process, but it’s too much to expect of them that they can do it all.

Yet on the other hand, content owners need to understand that they can’t do it by themselves. Content ownership is not content dictatorship. They may indeed know the information and subject matter that eventually becomes content, but it is precisely because they own it that they are not in the best position to turn it into good content. It requires distance and collaboration with content strategists.

Content must be planned and created in the context of all the disciplines of user experience. We can’t rely on elves or fairies—or even content owners—to make it happen by magic.

Content Transparency: Can you see me now?

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Welcome to the age of transparency

President Obama has promised “transparency” as a hallmark of his administration, which now publishes documents once consigned to darkness under rubrics of “executive priviliege” and “national security.” Data.gov publishes datasets for people to analyze for themselves.  Daily legal battles are being waged to unveil monetary contributions to political campaigns. Public institutions—governmental, religious, and educational—are under scrutiny to reveal their inner workings. And on the other side of the line, privacy advocates argue that too much information is accessible, that we need better policies and procedures to protect personal information.

Just publishing information in the name of “openness,” however, does not guarantee transparency.

  • Politics and public relations are notorious for obfuscation, talking a lot and saying little.
  • Bureacracies are practically defined by legalese and impenetrable red tape.
  • Crisis communication (a.k.a., c.y.a.) repeats only the key messages again and again.
  • Credit card lenders are under attack for bewildering fine print and “hidden fees.”
  • Human resources policies, crafted by the legal department, are intentionally vague to allow managers “discretion” in whether to follow them or not: What you don’t understand may or may not be held against you.

Transparency builds public trust because we trust what we understand, and distrust what we cannot discern. Your content strategy must address the issues of transparency: What information will you make available to your audience, yes, but how will you ensure that they can grasp your meaning easily and completely?

The meaning of transparency

You will remember from elementary school that there are three degrees of transparency in materials:

  • Opaque,” which allow no light to pass through them at all;
  • Translucent,” which allow some light, but no detail; and
  • Transparent,” which are perfectly clear, allowing all light to pass.

In other words, “transparent” means “see-through.”

Transparency in content doesn’t just mean “tell me,” but rather, “tell me in a way that lets me ‘see through’ what you’re saying.” Achieving transparency means helping people to grasp the fullness of what you say. It means finding the right words, in the right order, and with just the right illustration to make a situation, a policy, or a process “clear.”

Transparency in content and design

Transparent content is a lot like transparent interaction or experience design. A good interface requires no explanation. We say that it is “transparent” when it communicates itself nonverbally to the user. Users can tell intuitively where they are, where they’ve been, and where they can go next. They get regular feedback on their actions and have some preview of what their next action will produce.

Transparency in content means that users understand not only what the content says, but also why it’s saying it, and where it fits in the overall context of the rest of the content. Transparent content doesn’t make you wonder, “Why are you telling me this?” Transparent content doesn’t require indepth knowledge of the organization that produced it. Transparent content conveys itself in natural sequence in the language appropriate to the audience.

Usability testing for content transparency

When we think about testing designs for usability, we mostly imagine checking the site navigation and underlying information architecture, as well as the interactions. We test whether users can find certain information and complete their tasks.

It’s essential, however, to test your content as well. Reading comprehension, ease of visual scanning, ability to concentrate on the content without other distractions…these goals come as much from the disciplines of educational testing and instructional design as from engineering. After all, it is entirely possible to succeed in your architecture and interactions, yet still leave your users in the dark: Yes, they found where the information should be, and yes, they can made the process work, but they still have no idea what it meant or what they really did.

Testing content usability must be done in the prototyping phase, which means that your prototype must be populated with the real thing.

[Just a few] Barriers to content transparency

Dense, unstructured, unformatted text

Pages that are full of text, especially technical, poorly written text, are completely opaque. Pick almost any press release from any corporate website. Designed for the newspaper, the press release requires an absolute commitment from the reader to plow through it to see what it says. If you have to invest “quality time” with a web page to understand what it says, then it’s not transparent.

Monkeys typing randomly in hopes of Shakespeare

When the content is left to the end of the project, when no one really “owns” it, and when we use text as a “spacer” to nudge the images into the right places, then the content is meaningless and probably won’t be read, let alone understood. You must—MUST—have skilled writers and editors, expert crafters in their discipline, who are dedicated to the clarity (usability) of the written word. There is no such thing as “filler content.” Either it supports the users’ information needs, or it doesn’t. If text doesn’t contribute to user goals, then it has no place in your site.

We all know what this means!

It is common wisdom among writers to “know your audience,” yet content still shows up all over the web written from an internal, organizational, technical perspective. Worse, having done no research at all, we still feel confident that users flocking to our website already know what this content is about.

Hapless readers and users of this information can have the best intentions of plowing through the reading, yet unless they have direct experience of the organizational structure or the minds behind the content, they won’t have enough context to grasp its meaning or importance.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on passing content around to colleagues (Worse: Executives. WORST: Legal!) for feedback. Only your users are qualified to judge the transparency of your content.

Inappropriate techno-psycho-babble

On the heels of “know your audience,” however, it is imperative to strike the right balance of language. You must speak your users’ language fluently, and they must speak yours. To be transparent, content must use the appropriate vocabulary, tone, expressions, and humor for the audience. And don’t be deceived: They can always spot a non-native speaker.

Corporate speak: Losing the human voice

If you haven’t yet read The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, or visited their website (http://cluetrain.com), then it’s high time you did. In the age of content transparency, users have learned to ignore whatever has not been spoken by a true, human voice. The bland, faceless, toneless language known as “corporate speak” has no power but the power to repel. To be transparent, your content must speak directly to human users with a human voice.

Not answering your users’ questions FIRST

Users come to websites because they need to do something, find something, check something, or learn something. They come with questions already in mind or problems to solve, even if they’ve simply stumbled upon your site. The instant they arrive, new questions start forming in their minds. These questions form a Mazlow-ian hierarchy of needs, and transparent content answers these questions first. Only when users have addressed their immediate concerns can you hope to show them more content to take them further.

Self-serving organizational promotions, sales pitches, onsite advertising, pop-up surveys, and all the other barriers mentioned above only create piles of extra **** that the most committed user must dig through to find their answers.

A little bit of user research can discover the most frequent, most basic issues users bring to you, in the most natural sequence, and you can build your content strategy to address those first. Now, some of this transparency is accomplished through the information architecture of your site: Making things findable is the first leg of the race, but how you compose, arrange, and format your content will carry the baton the rest of the way.

Transparency as a content strategy goal

Setting a strategic goal for transparency involves decisions about what you reveal to your users, but also about how you will help your users “see through what you say” to what they need to know. You must discover not only what your users need to know and understand about your content, but also what they know (or believe!) already. Taking into consideration where your users are beginning, the jargon they speak, the basic questions they’re trying to answer, and their expectations of your site will all contribute to the site’s overall transparency and success.