The forgotten c-words of content
Some of us writers just love snappy alliteration. Digital content creators love a good listicle. Even though talking about “c-words” sounds like an entirely different kind of *ahem*… content, it seems to be a trend in talking about digital content and marketing.
Do a search for content advice and you’ll come across a wide selection of “The 3 C’s of Suchandsuch” and “The 7 essential Cs for Somethingerother”. When we think about content in its broadest sense, there are a ton of concepts that come to mind and, okay, yeah, a lot of then start with C.
And, as a famous blue, furry philosopher once said, “C is for Cookie. That's good enough for me.”
As is the trend in a lot of content advice, there are two streams: the sales/marketing angle (compel, convince, convert, etc.) and content strategy lingo (customized (user personas, customer journeys, etc), collection (of data, of feedback, etc.), creative (storytelling, unique material, mixed media, etc.)).
Those are all important, I highly recommend checking them and the aforementioned cookie enthusiast out.
Because that already seems to be out there en masse, I thought I’d go another direction today. Sticking with the “Cs” theme, I want to highlight some things I think sometimes get lost as attention has shifted to either sales tactics or more complex content strategy — the basics.
So, here we go: Stephanie’s 3 forgotten Cs of Content
I know this one is so obvious that it should be a no brainer and not even worth mentioning.
Sometimes those no brainers are the first things to be taken for granted as we focus on other big picture or strategic approaches.
The problem with that is that the content itself is the concrete foundation on which any other element, strategy or approach is reliant. No matter how gorgeous the house is on top of it, nobody is going to buy a house with no or a crumbling foundation.
When users come across information, they have the expectation that it's right.
Through that exchange of information, you build trust between you, as the source of that information, and your audience. When information isn't correct, that trust is broken.
Getting even just one piece of information wrong could mean a user will abandon your site and either seek the information through another source or another method. Without an audience that trusts your site as a reliable source of information, time and money spent on marketing campaigns or in-depth strategy exercises is wasted.
A story: Years ago, I was working on some very poorly written content that was out of date, riddled with errors and had huge gaps in information. A young woman I was working with had recently finished some kind of certificate in content strategy and would wax poetic about user journeys and storytelling. She was right - there were a ton of opportunities to sit down and map out a solid content plan. Before we got into any of that, though, we needed to address the immediate issue: we are presenting bad information and it needs to be fixed.
It felt like I was saying, “This house is falling down!” and she was saying, “What if the house was blue?” Not a perfect analogy, I know, but I think it gets at the point I’m trying to make: prioritize the immediate issue or you'll be left with blue paint and no house.
Remember: web content is available all the time. There is no pause in production, no retractions - what a user sees in the moment they hit the page is what they get and then they’re gone. It's your job to make sure that interaction, no matter how brief, provides that user with accurate information.
Prioritizing can be hard, especially when you have a long list of things to accomplish and they’re all important and of course you can't just ignore the big picture and get stuck in the details forever. When you prioritize one thing, it inevitably makes the other things at the bottom of the list seem unimportant. The alternative, though, is trying to do everything at once or out of sequence and you can end up either spinning your wheels or doing double work (what’s worse than work? Double work!)
How to Get Correct:
Check for errors. And then check again.
If you’re not sure, don’t guess. Engage a subject matter expert to make sure what you’re saying is accurate.
Have a second person review, especially if it’s content you’ve been staring at for too long and words have lost all meaning.
If you can’t correct what’s wrong, take it down entirely. No information > Wrong information.
If you can, provide a link or number to where a user can find the information in the meantime.
Give users options to provide feedback easily if they find an error or to get in touch to confirm what’s there.
Emphasize the importance of the trust between you and the audience when communicating with stakeholders and how it relates to what goes on the web.
I’m willing to admit that this made number 2 on my list because it is an extreme pet peeve of mine. Seeing out of date information gets under my skin to what is probably an unhealthy degree.
It shares a lot of what I said about correct content regarding trust and positioning your site as a reliable authority. You want your website to be the go-to place, not the 1st stop on a frustrating search for information.
When you’re dealing with time sensitive information like events or deadlines, it’s important that your content managers are on top of keeping the information current.
How many times have you gone to a site about a conference or other event and found the information from a previous year with no indication if current content is on its way? The further out it gets from an event, the more irritating it is to see old content.
If my general irritation isn’t enough of a convincing factor, consider that there are other, more tangible benefits to keeping your content fresh.
Rather than trying to trick Google’s algorithm, improve your search ranking by continuously adding and updating content.
Users will be able to find your site easier and more often if you are supplying it with new information. Because Google is always crawling for and indexing new content, your site it more likely to appear higher in search results than one that has stale, unchanging content. The more active you are, the higher your potential for improved ranking.
You can also increase your visibility through social media when you have a steady stream of new things to post about and continuously drive your followers to the site.
Most of all, current content is more engaging and enjoyable to read for your audience. And who awards consistent user engagement? I do!
But also someone that actually matters: it's Google again.
Gone are the days of “keyword stuffing” to get Google to notice you. Instead, it recognises when fresh content is added and the correlating user engagement.
All this to say, don’t go waving your arms around for Search Engine rankings before you have the content to back it up. It’s like when I’m on a work call and my 3 year old launches into, “MummymummymummyMAMAMAMAMummmmyyy” until I cave and find out what urgent information she has for me. When I do, she realizes she has nothing and just blurts something out.
“Pinky pie is the best pony, she’s pink.”
First of all, Pinky pie is by far not the best pony - not in Equestria, not in the world. To her credit, though, she is pink, so she gets some points for accuracy. What she did, though, is ask for attention before she had anything new or exciting to show. More importantly, she’s going to have to work harder to get my attention next time.
In her defense, she’s only 3 and I’d expect more from an experienced digital specialist.
How to Stay Current:
Keep an active content calendar with notifications to update timely information as soon as it’s in the past
If an event has passed, but the page still has information you want to share, make sure you update the content to reflect that the event already happened and share any information you have on subsequent events - even if it’s just to say, “We’ll be back again in 2020 - Dates and Info Coming Soon” (where possible, use a specific date in place of “coming soon”).
Let your CMS do the work for you: For information that can be removed as of a certain date, explore options within your CMS to automatically expire, unpublish or otherwise hide the information without an author needing to go in to manually make updates.
If content has started to go stale, actively seek out new content. There’s a very good chance that some people in your organization don’t think to reach out about web content and this is a great time to bring them in and show them a Whole New World of content (don’t you dare close your eyes!).
Another piece of the puzzle to delivering the right content to your audience is making sure that content is understood. Once again, this comes back to users leaving your site with accurate information. The more difficult it is to understand or interpret your content, the wider the door opens for user frustration and misunderstanding.
Don't bury important information in a sea of jargon, overly complex writing, and redundant or otherwise useless copy.
Many of us come from a writing or academic background that builds habits we often have to break in web copy. I find that writing clearly is especially challenging for those who have done well in environments where flowery or over-complicated writing reads as “smarter”.
If I have to follow a confusing string of words and work to try to extract the real information from this weird, roundabout journey of a paragraph, I’m reading bad content (and possibly just plain old bad writing). Don’t make your users have to work for information, to try and follow a narrative that doesn’t apply or is so full of extra words that the meaning gets lost.
Keep it simple. Give the users the information they want, when/where they want it (at the top of the page or in a clearly distinguishable call to action or other page element).
Stripping away the unnecessary “noise” does not mean removing personality from your content. Editors striving for clean, straightforward content can sometimes take it too far by sanitizing out the fun or unique style and tone. Authors should aim to strike a balance between providing only the necessary information while maintaining those elements of personality that make it engaging and unique.
If you check your site and make sure the content meets these 3 Cs, you are off to a great start. By prioritizing correct information that is current and easy to understand, you are in the best position to build an audience that will see your site as a reliable source of information and authority. From this solid foundation, you can build content marketing and engagement strategies, knowing you are ready to drive users to quality content that will bring them back for more.