Categories
Content Strategy Copywriting

Context-free content: new challenges for publishers

Publishers used to control the way content was experienced. Designers read and put content in tailored layouts. Content was produced and laid out for consumption on paper and later on desktop computers.
The experience could be controlled but the content landscape is changing. First, an ever expanding portion of audiences access content through mobile devices. Each device, browser or app fragments the user experience. Second, new services extract content from the publishers’ websites and put presentation firmly in the users’ hands. As a result of both developments, the number of contexts in which a single piece of content is available has grown out of control. No one can keep track or test them all.

Content consumption apps and services

In the last few years, many new services appeared to help users collect, experience, store and share the pieces of content they come across on the web. Paper.li is a good example. It collects links in Twitter and Facebook and displays them alongside an excerpt in a familiar format. Others such as Readability and Instapaper reformat the content, act as repositories and sync it to other devices. All these services trend towards orbital content which “is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users” as Cameron Koczon puts it.
One of the consequences is that content is separate from its original layout. “The separation of design and content is not a bad thing for designers, in fact, it’s an opportunity to create a better content consumption experience than the next guy”, Simon Madine explains in Context-free content and content-agnostic design.

Responsive web design

Context is fragmenting even on single websites. Last year, Ethan Marcotte published an article entitled Responsive Web Design which he later expanded into a book. His ideas ignited the passion of web designers. Using the capabilities of modern browsers, web designers craft a single website which adapts to devices dynamically. You can see an example by visiting the Boston Globe and resizing your browser window. New challenges arise from these changes in design process. A single site’s user experience now changes dramatically from device to device.

Responsive content

Due to both the new service ecosystem and responsive design practices, content needs to fulfil business objectives and user goals in many different situations. To adapt to these changes, we must go back to content fundamentals and pay close attention to the emerging practice of content strategy. Shelly Wilson proposed, in her five minute presentation at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum, to integrate content professionals to the iterative design process of responsive web services. Ongoing conversations among content professionals and other designers address these issues and significant progress is made.
Progressive publishers who have embraced the separation of content and context by implementing content serving APIs (The Guardian, National Public Radio) had to adapt their content creation processes. Martin Belam, Lead User Experience & Information Architect at Guardian News & Media, shared his experience in a talk at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum and on his blog. Content creators must learn to create content that is self-contained and context-agnostic enough. Otherwise, we might run into problems, such as:

  • Spatial relationships between pieces of content are often broken. You can’t say “the figure on the right” because it might very well be somewhere else or not render at all.
  • Embeds, whether based on Flash, inline frames, or native HTML5 audio and video tags, can prove problematic in certain contexts. iOS refuses to render Flash and HTML5 tags are not universally supported. Planning for graceful degradation is more important than ever.
  • Help sections instructing users to use a mouse are rendered meaningless on touch-screen devices. Users may get confused and write for support or worse — leave forever.

Creating content which retains all of its meaning in different contexts is challenging. Fortunately, the whole community discusses these issues and best practices are starting to emerge.
I wrote “Context-free content: new challenges for publishers” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on October 14, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.

Categories
Copywriting

Storytelling lessons from “A Song of Ice And Fire”

Late as I’ve come to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice And Fire” book series, I can’t put the books down now. They’re well-written and engaging. Engagement is — of course — the paramour of social media. If we can understand how to drive engagement over such long pieces of writing, we will become better online storytellers. So I tried to uncover a few lessons (without revealing the story).

Embrace Constraints

Rules might seem cumbersome and unnecessary. On the contrary, they guide story-tellers. Rules help you decide which chunks of content do not fit your strategy. And they help your creations shine.
For example, “A Song Of Ice And Fire” uses only a limited number of point-of-view characters. The author follows this rule even when it becomes difficult. As he says in interviews, POV characters should have a story, which makes it impossible for them to be simply pairs of eyes. Sometimes this creates complicated problems, such as the one he refers to on his blog as the Meereenese knot.
For online story-tellers: informational needs of audiences, tone, article length, and the channels they prefer provide plenty of opportunities to create rules. Seize them. Your audience doesn’t need to be aware of them at all. Yet, being consistent in these helps you meet audiences’ expectations and makes your content more easily digestible.

Relatable Characters

The lawful-good Starks’ introduction at the beginning of the “Song” sweeps the readers into the story. Their family life is introduced, and immediately besieged by their environment and the political situation of the realm.
Characters’ flaws, the pressures of their environment and their story help audiences to relate to them. Even when they exhibit major flaws, people will still relate to them. As the author says in his interview on Sword and Laser, people — especially women — relate quite strongly to Sandor Clegane, nicknamed “The Hound”.
For online story-tellers: of course, most content marketing is non-fiction — one would hope. Yet, there are still characters to be built. In a case study, for example, both the caring employee and the client have to be fleshed out. You have to decide which aspects of their personality to include and which to leave out. Are your clients laid-back or corporate? Are they demanding or outright anxious? How do you or your employees respond to them? Such details become apparent in case studies or any other type of narrative document. Better plan for that.

Use Familiar Elements To Build Rapport

The novels in “A Song of Ice and Fire” introduce a fantasy world full of wonders but in such a way as to not confuse readers. For example, the numerous religions present in the series are based on mixing and matching tenets of existing religions and adding some imaginative elements. Anchors of the storyline are references to dynastic wars from British history. Grounding things in reality makes them more plausible, George R.R. Martin says in his Authors@Google interview.

For online story-tellers: in your own efforts, beware that people need to put your service or company into an existing category. Same thing with your content. Breaking expectations in subtle ways like George R.R. Martin does in his books with unnatural eye colors, for example, will help you build your publication’s personality.

Pace and Variety are Everything

Books longer than 500 pages tire me. I seldom finish them. Most of them are poorly paced and too monotonous. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is neither. The rare times I would get tired or the more frequent times I would become disgusted with the story’s cruel twists, I’d glance a few pages ahead. Seeing which character would be the next point-of-view, I’d quickly finish the chapter at hand in anticipation of reading the next one.
For online story-tellers: social media and blog posts aren’t as sequential as novels but they’ll tire your audience all the same. To prevent this, provide different types of posts, don’t make them longer than they need to be and don’t publish too often.

Reveal the past as you go forward

If you are going to reference the past, it helps to uncover it little by little. When you anchor your reminiscing in the flux of current events and concerns, you provide important information without diminishing the momentum of your story. In “Song”, George R.R. Martin uses this technique all the time, he says in his Authors@Google talk (31st minute). From time to time, a character will start telling the story of another character’s parents or grandparents. He even introduces conflicting accounts of the same events from different characters. And it’s up to the reader to piece them together.
For online story-tellers: social media users in general and techies in particular are obsessed with the future. One step ahead, always one step ahead. Past and current events don’t get discussed in much depth. The rise of topic pages in new services might alleviate that — in the future. But for now, this is the way it is.
As a result, posts that are out of beat or explore the past don’t get much attention, I noticed. Hence, dropping the name of current cultural phenomenons such as the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its HBO adaptation “Game of Thrones” is an effective — albeit inelegant — tactic.

Don’t Overpromise

For a time, George R.R. Martin would announce estimated completion dates for his works. Now, the book will be written when it is written and no interviewer in his right mind dares ask the question any more.
For online story-tellers: although building up anticipation can make sense in some cases, most of the time it is best to keep expectations low. Do not make promises you cannot keep. Publishing many posts in a short period of time might also count as a promise for more. Pacing yourself will ensure that you won’t set expectations too high.
Image credit: Detail from “Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte” (oil on canvas), Albert Anke, 1884. And “Sanctuary — Edward IV and Lancastrian Fugitives at Tewkesbury Abbey“, Richard Burchett, 1867

I wrote “Storytelling lessons from “A Song of Ice And Fire”” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on November 12, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Categories
Copywriting

How to Establish a Writing Habit

Writing is the foundation you’ll build your success upon. Believe me. Whether you’re working on a business plan, a marketing kit, looking to start a blog, a newsletter or write an ebook… writing is always the first step.It can be daunting for various reasons. Yet, it’s worth the effort. First, your thinking will get clearer. Second, your ideas will get out there for the world to see and add to. In any case, you and your business will benefit. Ready to give it a try?

Just Start Writing

The first priority is to start. Grab tools that will mark the page and get to it. Forget everything else. Forget about finding a topic. Forget about the delete key and publishing. Stop your research. Ignore your inner judge and your inner editor for now. There’s just one thing that matters: you’re going to put words one after the other.

The Resistance

Obstacles might pop up along the way. Be prepared. Research, tinkering and other weird obsessions might conspire to stop you. Don’t listen to them.
Curators get plenty of input and we often crave more, right? Because we’re curious and like to explore. Our time and attention get sucked into our favourite Paper.lis or Wikipedia. It should follow that we often have plenty to say. Yet, once we become information gluttons, the fear of not knowing enough never goes away. We think to ourselves “The next link could lead me to the information nugget I’ve been seeking all my life”. So, we continue to explore the web long past the point where we know enough to write.
There’s another well-documented way of not writing: to get stuck on the tools. You don’t need a distraction-free writing environment or a fancy Moleskine notebook right now. Nor do you need to figure out which blogging software you want and which premium theme to buy. Blogging is especially tricky. It’s full of intricate details that you can get stuck on. There’s a whole advice industry living off of your confusion about these. These details don’t matter now. Just write.
Merlin Mann, productivity consultant and entertainer, has more advice about starting creative work, the different kinds of obstacles you’ll encounter and how to overcome them. He presents his insights in a 28-minute NSFW talk which has been featured in Bullseye.

Edit, Then Publish!

Once you have finished your first draft, set it aside for at least a few hours before reading it. Promise yourself to not get discouraged. You’ll realize that first drafts are most often terrible, as Anne Lamott points out in her “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”. Her book, which focuses on fiction writing, contains nuggets of wisdom for all writers. You might enjoy it, I did.
When you come back to your first draft, resist the temptation to delete it right away. Most drafts can be redeemed by rewriting and editing. It won’t always make it good to publish or be worth the time… while you’re building up your expertise, you should give it your best anyway.
Editing is a different skill set. It is taxing in a different way: you have to read the text over and over each time looking for different things. If you can’t hire an editor or make a deal with a friend to trade editing services, you’ll have to edit yourself. It is possible but not ideal. Copyblogger has a very good guide to editing your own work in five steps. You should take some distance with the text and with yourself.  Trim it and trim it some more. Look at the style and the form. Read it aloud. For more details on what to look for and what to do, you can refer to this complete self-editing checklist.
For web writing, there are a few more things you should always take care of:

  • Test your links in “Preview” mode.
  • Illustrate your posts and credit your images.
  • Add five to seven tags.
  • Craft an excerpt if your blogging tool can manage them.

Now, you’re all set! Ready to let go of your work and send it off into the world? The “publish” button can be the hardest button to push. Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author, calls this the fear of shipping. Exposing oneself to criticism is always hard. Yet, you have to ship because as he writes:

It’s not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.

Click the button. It’s going to be relieving. I promise!

Repeat

Now, you’ve written, edited and published at least once. What’s been done can be repeated. It is a state of mind that you have to reach each day anew. You can make the process easier by training yourself to write in a specific position, place and at a specific time of day.
Mornings are popular among writers of all kind. To start your process, you may commit to Morning Pages. They are three leaflets that you should fill with stream of consciousness prose. You don’t even have to make full sentences. Total freedom. Julia Cameron, American teacher and writer, suggests making it a daily practice in her “Artist’s Way”. After you’re done, you’ll be able to work on other assignments with more ease.
As for the place where you write, experiment with different ones. You can write anywhere that suits you best, everyone has their own preferences. In this post about the best places to write, Joe Pawlikowski says he gets the best results in hotels and libraries. I find libraries to be dangerous places to write: whenever I get frustrated by my writing, I jump to the comics section and there’s no turning back. So, yes, your mileage may vary.
The trick to getting good at beating the resistance and ship, is to do it often. It’s never trivial to sit down and write or push the “publish” button. It is hard emotional work. Once you’ve done this enough times, you can work towards better tools and smarter strategies. You can follow Penelope Trunk’s guide to blogging, subscribe to ProBlogger and other such resources. Happy writing!
Image credits: Princess of Lamballe by Anton Hickel, 1788 at the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.

I wrote “How to Establish a Writing Habit” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on June 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Categories
Copywriting Social Media

Report and Curate With the Same Passion

Recently, I wrote about the focus on original reporting that online magazines such as Salon.com and Gawker have decided to develop. According to this article by David Skok, these changes in editorial strategies are normal and have historical precedents: TIME magazine went through a similar transformation.Skok, therefore, concludes that “the aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow”. Yet there will always be a place for smart curation. Each publication has to find the right mix to serve its audience.

Curation Lacks In Journalistic Institutions

However, original reporting and curation aren’t mutually exclusive and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They both need to be used in their place and adapted to our purposes.
As Mathew Ingram writes in this GigaOm article about the debate around aggregation and curation as theft, “the question that matters is whether it serves the reader”. Patient, thoughtful and enthusiastic curation is helpful to both author and reader as another way to make sense of a complex and noisy world.
As journalistic institutions take the narrow view of journalism, they miss out on opportunities to bring value through curation. This is what Martin Belam calls the “curation gap”. He writes:

For me ‘the curation gap’ is that, at present, most mainstream media organisations seem lacking in the tools, or the will, or both, to bring the best of the voices in those niches and make them relevant to the mass audience.

He also says that journalists have the right tools with their “ethics, legal training, mass cross-platform audience” to become great curators. I second this with all my heart.
Some institutions and old-school journalists have a hard time understanding the value of curation because they focus on their feeling of being ripped off. They don’t make the distinction between content scraping, aggregation and curation. They fail to see that curation and writing share most their core processes.

Writing and Curating, Same Skills

So much so, I would argue curators are bound to be good writers and good writers have it in them to be tremendous curators. Both are a labour of love, a constant learning experience, and take courage. The courage to face the gaps in your argumentation and build bridges over them to be clear.
Taking different arguments made by other people, using them in a new argument, and taking the whole thing one or several steps further than the preceding authors did is the essence of essay writing, isn’t it? Curation is like that: curators summarize, quote and link other people’s work. They also add contextual information which tells audiences what the information means and — more importantly — why they should care.
Like strawberry picking, the process of curation is difficult, time-consuming and impossible to fully automate. Sometimes the ties that bind collections together are shy and take time to come out. The context is hard to explain clearly and the purpose of the collection might be hard to uncover and convey.
There is a real difference between reposting content and creating meaningful collections. Gawker’s lone strange goat pales in comparison with Buzzfeed’s collection of disappointed animals, for example. Both are trivial but the latter represents a greater curation effort.
The result of these efforts is valuable, too. Journalists need not fear but join curators as we touch the audiences who wouldn’t understand or relate to the relevance of a piece right away. We make the wonders of the world more accessible. We need more attempts at making sense of the world, not fewer.
If you need a quick way to understand or explain curation, Percolate offers a thoughtful definition of curation and a manifesto packed in a short video (via Brain Pickings). Time and attention, contextualization, communicative enthusiasm: the most important aspects are covered in the video.

Thorny Question of Money

Since curation is an emotional and intellectual labour much like writing, true curation can’t be cheap. The thorny question of publications’ business models is still hanging over our heads. Whether they produce curation, original content or a mix of the two, money remains an issue.
Brain Pickings is supported by donations. Salon.com has a freemium model. The Browser makes money through Amazon referrals and plans to move to “a mixture of sponsorship, advertising and ‘freemium access’,” according to The TelegraphGawker‘s 100% ad-supported.
There’s no single business model for web-based publications and probably will never be. Curation is as expensive and hard to monetize as any content but it is a useful service and represents true opportunities to serve needs which aren’t fully served yet.
Top image credit: “Strawberry Picking” by bigbirdz. Creative Commons License BY.
I wrote “Report and Curate With the Same Passion” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 3, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.