Guess-work and Offensiveness

We were just the wrong people. Lads’ mags aren’t staffed by lads. They’re staffed by middle-class graduates, some from Oxbridge, struggling wildly to guess what will appeal to a 17-year-old squaddie from Solihull. And getting it wrong, again and again. It took us six months to work out that young men liked cars.

Sex! Girls! Meltdown! Confessions of a baffled lads’ mag editor by Michael Deacon for The Telegraph (via @Suw).

What’s immediately apparent from this quote is that some editors don’t even know anybody in their target audience. Yet, it’s not the problem. The problem is “guessing”. Even when you’re part of your target audience, you should never assume all of your audience is just like you. You should want to do a minimum of research on the side and call for resources to be allocated to more thorough research.

“Offensiveness just seemed to… happen”, writes Michael Deacon about the controversies and problems the magazine has had. Again, research and a strong content strategy may help to avoid that. Erika Hall says it best when she states that “assumptions are insults” in Just Enough Research. Editors just like any type of designers can’t offer appealing solutions or entertainment to people they know only through stereotypes.

It is never easy to point out your team’s blind spots. It might feel like undermining your boss’ grand vision. The pressure is strong to do as you’re told — especially as a young graduate with no work experience. But it is important to ensure the success of your venture. In the particular case of lads’ mags, the author of the column says himself that their circulation do not show the biggest success. No amount of research can tell you what to design or what to publish, of course. Success is never guaranteed. True insights and solid plans can help you make better decisions though.

Editorial practices at Aol

Since I am flipping through the Yahoo! Style Guide, these days, I started wondering why Aol’s editorial practices never were the subject of publications. For example, on the Nieman Journalism Lab, we seldom hear anything from them. Apparently, I hadn’t been paying attention to the right sources. After a quick Google search, I found the “Aol Way”: a secret plan that leaked in 2011. It is a 58-page compilation of the editorial practices that the leadership at Aol wanted to force on their teams.

The Aol way relies on pressuring staff to increase keyword density and volume to lure search engine users on their properties. Their surrealist goals called for steep increases in volume and page-views through SEO and analysis of search traffic to select subjects. It didn’t address editorial quality much when in today’s competitive landscape quality and relevance should be at the centre of every content initiatives. These sentiments were shared by  Dan Mitchell writing for Fortune and Mathew Ingram from GigaOM. Their analysis is worth reading and should serve as a deterrent for people intent on following the advice contained in the 2011 Aol document.

Where are they now? The fact remains that there are very few articles about their editorial strategy available online. They don’t seem to be communicating on that very much. People covering new media could be a little more inquisitive, maybe? Do they find the company’s practices irrelevant? I, sure, would like to know more about the inner workings of their digital newsrooms. Because I am curious like that. If you have insights, do share in the comments. Please.

Happy Belated Ada Lovelace Day

I pride myself in being reasonably knowledgeable in the history of sciences (for an English major, I mean). Hence it is a little shameful and revolting not to be able to find a historical figure to talk about for Ada Lovelace Day and miss the deadline. It tends to show that Ada Lovelace Day remains necessary as a reminder as well as a celebration. But there is another problem, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are so pervasive that their boundaries are blurred now. Who’s to say what is in and what is out?

Recent experiences in user support have lead me to think more about a former client who inspires me. Kelly Hungerford, community manager at Paper.li, has a passion for people. She helped me produce what was, until then, my best work. These articles are still on their Community Blog.  She has incredible insights into the challenges and motivations of the service’s users. I try my best to emulate the qualities that make her so in my own work.

I always knew support and community management weren’t as effortless as she made them seem. Yet, I didn’t get the full picture until I was confronted with users all the time in my own job. Getting people to adopt software is a constant challenge. Even if the tool is good, it takes patience to get them to invest in learning and change their workflows.

Support is yet a different beast. Users who contact support are often on the brink of giving up on the tool. They expect to be let down because of all the terrible support out there. It takes an enormous amount of kindness and comprehension to get through to them — in addition to the technical expertise necessary to diagnose and fix their problems. When they get timely and effective support, their attitude changes. They feel listened to and invested. I saw that at Paper.li and I aim for the same thing — always.

Technology is about people, organisations and technics — in that order. It needs a lot of diversity among the people making it to strive. We need the insights of everybody to make it work. That is why I wish you a happy belated Ada Lovelace Day.

Let’s Pretend This Review Never Happened

While reading “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir)” I would take long pauses to laugh and ponder the strangeness of life. When the time to leave for a 3-day trip to Paris came, I still had 60 pages to go.  It didn’t make sense to take the hardcover for such a low page-count. Yet, I wanted to know what happens next. Instead of obsessing over the book during the trip, I decided to finish in one long and laughter-filled sitting.

Jenny Lawson is a most courageous author, willing to write about subjects that most writers avoid. She manages to bring the fun out of every anecdote — even the ones that could be tragic.

All kinds of funny are woven into the pages of her book. It’s always fresh and surprising. For example, some exchanges that she transcribes between her and her husband, Victor, are surrealist delights. It’s as if the dialogue had been written by a Dadaist Aaron Sorkin. Only better. Because it never sounds “written” nor out-of-character.

While her prose appears spontaneous, this book proves — if her blog had left anybody wondering — that she’s a master writer. She plays with form, sometimes entering into a dialogue with an editor who battles to keep her on track. At other times, she embarks upon what seem to be monstrous digressions à la Montaigne but she always comes back. Unlike the French essayist, she must have thrown a whole lot of words out because there are no unnecessary ones left.

“Let’s pretend this never happened” is a celebration. Her outrageous love of language and — most importantly — life transpires between each and every line. What’s not to love about such a book? I hope there will be a sequel, soon.