Talking Content, Content

Delighted and honored to be the latest guest on the Content Content podcast. Join Ed Marsh and I as we discuss why tech writers are now content engineers, why metadata is important, what it’s like to document massive hardware, and more.

Why XML is a Four Letter Word – and more

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Is Your Website a Reflection of You or Your Customers?

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Hey Dad, did you have any feedback?” That text from my daughter was part of an ongoing discussion around the website that she was designing for a new business venture that she and a partner were launching. It was the third iteration of the site, and this was the first version that was fully mobile friendly.

My feedback was that with just a few minor tweaks, this iteration was very close to where they needed to be for the launch. It told a good story and provided the basic information their customers would be looking for.

It wasn’t always the case. Early in the process of them developing a business case I asked my daughter and her business partner what they wanted the website to communicate.

The immediate response was “We want it to let people know what we do.”

A logical answer, but my response was something along the lines of “That’s great, but other people do what you do. What makes you special?”

We are focused on people with a particular problem area.”

Great. So think about the people who need help solving that problem. What are they going to be looking for?

As these sort of discussions continued, the website design and prototypes evolved from their description of what the new company did, to a series of short articles that addressed the potential customer’s problems, and how my daughter and her partner can help.

They also looked at the list of services they were offering and decided to focus on the three where they have had the most interest. Now instead of a webpage with a shopping list of things to pick from, each solution article has information about the relevant service, with pricing and contact information.

But it’s not only small businesses or start-ups that need to be switching their thinking from a website that, no matter how slick it’s presented, is little more than a digital brochure. Often these sort of “inside-out” websites end up being a reflection of the corporate structure accompanied by a list of products. Switching the mind set to a customer driven “outside-in” view can pay dividends, not only in an improved experience that can help customer’s solve their problems, but they can also have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.

I once worked on a project for a large company whose website was a perfect reflection of their corporate and business unit structure. You had to know what part of the company was responsible for a particular product to be able to find it; even the employees had a hard time figuring out where to find information. But a customer focused analysis showed that 80% of the traffic went to the website for just four things: to look up product specifications, pricing, buy spare parts, or get support. Once we rebuilt the website around making those tasks as easy as possible, traffic, leads, and online parts sales revenue all increased, and support costs decreased.

Improving the customer experience is now regularly cited as a top strategic imperative for many companies, and the website is the always-on global showcase for that. Delivering a customer-driven web experience means not only changing the mind-set and the content, but also delivering a more engaging relevant and engaging experience that delivers value to the individual customer. It can rapidly become a complex process and needs the right sort of management tools to enable and support an effective web presence.

Avoid Brand Disasters with a Visual Content Strategy

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It took a man with his sleeves rolled up to make me understand that we had a problem.

A Flawed Hero

At the time I has heading the marketing content delivery group at a major equipment manufacturer and we’d just posted a new ‘hero’ shot on our website. We were very proud of the image: a burly rugged looking guy on a job site stood in front of one our machines. A perfect illustration of our brand.

Or so we thought, until I logged in to my email the following morning to find my inbox stuffed with requests to take the image down.

Most of those emails came from one specific geographical market. What we hadn’t realized was that the burly man had his shirt sleeves rolled up, and in one of our biggest, most important, markets that was a safety violation. And safety violations were definitely not something we wanted to be seen promoting, or have associated with our brand.

The image was quickly taken down and metadata added that it wasn’t to be used in certain markets. On reflection, we should have already done this. But like many large companies we drew our content from all across the enterprise, as well as from outside suppliers and agencies.

Customers Don’t Care About Your Silos

The man in the shirt sleeves got us thinking: Did different parts of the company use different images to represent the same things based on their local and business knowledge? Did they assume an implied level of knowledge about the subject and its applicability? Did the images chosen just reflect the siloed make-up of the business’s organizational structure? How was metadata applied — if at all — to ensure correct usage and attribution?

Most importantly: how did all this affect the customer’s experience when interacting with our brand across different channels around the globe?

It doesn’t matter how your company is organized, or what separate lines of business you have. As far as your customer is concerned every interaction with you is a representation of your brand, and they expect a consistent experience. But it must also be a consistent experience that is relevant to them and their locale.

Pull Things Together With a Visual Content Strategy

So how do you deliver a consistent brand representation while still being aware of localization and cultural issues?

You need to develop a Visual Content Strategy:

  • What do you want your images to do? — Showcase your products? Showcase your customers? Show customers using your products?
  • What business need do you want your images to help achieve? — Engage prospects and lead to click-through and lead capture? Educate and help customers with self-service thereby reducing support costs?
  • What sort of images will you use to reflect your brand? — Photographic and realistic, inspirational and abstract?
  • Where will the images be used? — Global generic images? Regional and local application? If regional, how localized?

Next, look at the images that you are already delivering or have in development. Do they match the aims and business drivers outlined in your visual content strategy? If not, stop using them.

Content for the sake of content, no matter how pretty it looks, is a waste of resources and opportunity.

Take a detailed look at how your products are represented and localized. After the “shirt sleeves” incident one of the decisions we made was that for the equipment product pages on our website the main product shot would be just the machine against a plain white background.

Presenting the equipment in a consistent way made it stand out and avoided localization issues. The job-site shots were relegated to a gallery that could be customized based on the customer’s location.

The next step is developing a strong metadata model that is applied to the images to ensure that you use the same images to show the same ideas and concepts. Attach data that fits your workflow and that allows you to deliver the sort of customer experience that reinforces your brand. Balancing consistency with creativity should also be considered and trade-offs need to be made.

Delivering Consistent Experiences

With a strategy and metadata architecture in place you need a way to store and manage images so that they can be easily located and used in the correct manner.

A Digital Asset Management system is key to delivering a consistent visual user experience. I’d recommend starting with an achievable object, such as a DAM to drive your website and then grow it organically across the enterprise, to cover other delivery channels. Get people used to using it, prove that it provides value and it will lead to improved customer experience.

The man in the short sleeves helped my team develop and deliver a platform that quickly grew to an enterprise solution with over one million assets that could be tracked and reused to send the correct message in the correct market.

[NOTE: This post was first published on CMSWire September 2016)

Collaboration is the Pits – And it can drive success.

“Hot Pit Pass” – Those words on the ticket hanging around my neck on a fancy lanyard were magic to me. The coveted prize of any motor-racing fan, to be granted access to epicenter of the action in any major motor-race. A few years ago my wife and I had been lucky enough to be invited to attend the Texas NASCAR race as a guest of Richard Childress Racing, and part of the package was a guided tour of their pit operations and the coveted pass that allowed us to stay in the pit and garage area the whole race. NASCAR is un-matched in the access it gives fans and visitors, and with that magic piece of paper we got to wander anywhere; including sitting on the pit wall watching the cars come in and being serviced.

It was a magic moment witnessing the well-rehearsed choreography of a top-flight pit crew. Six men flowed over the wall to service the car, filling it with fuel and changing four wheels and tires in less than 15 seconds. (In Formula One where the pit crew can number as high as fourteen people each with a dedicated task they can accomplish a four wheel and tire change in less than three seconds!)

A good pit-stop can mean the difference between success and failure in a race; and a good pit crew can be just as effective as the driver when it comes to positioning a car to win. Despite there only being one person on track, motor racing is definitely a team sport. This was bought home to me again recently during a business trip while watching the 2015 NASCAR race from Atlanta on the hotel room TV. Not surprisingly I’ve stayed a fan of the RCR teams and always follow them closely, and the Caterpillar sponsored #31 team in particular. During the Atlanta race the #31 pit crew were exceptional, as it soon became apparent that with every single pit stop the car emerged from the pits several positions ahead of where it had entered. In some cases the fast efficient work of the team gaining four or five places.

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It also struck me that the pit-crew model is a perfect analogy for the content creation and delivery process.

Customers are looking to your content to provide answers to questions, and as the content creator you may feel like the lone driver out on track fighting for space and hoping to get out front and be noticed first.

But the truth is that most customer answers need input and information from across your organization. Customers don’t think in terms of your operational silos, so they don’t look for information in neatly packaged chunks. To meet your customer’s needs you need to collaborate with subject matter experts, do research, and them pull it all together in a language that your customer will understand.

You need to pull together your own “pit crew” around a particular subject, value their individual inputs and pull them together to develop a process, to deliver the result that will help you, and your customer move forward at an accelerated pace.

Collaboration of this type also results in a premium consistent brand experience; ensuring that your customer gets the same answer, the same information, no matter through which channel they ask their question.

Working together results in success for both you and your customers.

Be Arnold – Not Mary-Kate

“Why be Mary-Kate and Ashley when we can be the Arnold to the rest of the industry’s Danny DeVito?”

It may sound like a strange conversation, but it’s one I’ve had several times at different points in my career; usually when I’ve been at a small to medium sized, or spin-off start-up, software company. The underlying conundrum behind the question was “How do we differentiate ourselves?”

Nearly every business, to a greater or lesser extent, is akin to a commodity driven business these days. There are very few disruptive companies whose success is solely due to the fact that they are the only one doing something. Everybody has a competitor, or two, or lots; all doing essentially the same thing you are, especially when you are playing in a global marketplace.

If someone tells you what line of business they are in, and you answer “Me too,” then you are now a commodity. If you don’t differentiate yourself trough the unique value you bring to you customers you become an Mary-Kate or Ashley Olsen. A product that can be swapped out with one that does basically the same thing and no-one really notices the difference.

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So how do you differentiate your value?

With CONTENT

Content can make you stand out like Arnold Schwarzenegger towering over Danny DeVito in the movie Twins.

Look at what makes your company and products special, how do you solve your customers problems in the way that provides them the most value? Find the perspective that only you can provide; look to your company’s own experts, and your customers too. If you can find a niche where you can provide the most informative, engaging, and useful information, then plan to become the industry’s leading expert in that space.

With the right content and the right approach you can position yourself to tower over others who may think they are just like you. Remember – Be Arnold, not Mary-Kate.

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Content Delivery – Porsche Style

What’s the quickest way to deliver your content to a multinational audience? – This maybe one of the most efficient ways I’ve seen.

While monitoring the Twitter stream this morning from various motor-sports journalists covering the build up to this weekend’s Formula One Spanish Grand Prix there were several enthusiastic posts about a little piece of plastic.

This piece of plastic, distributed by Porsche.

Porsche QR Press KitJournalist Jon Noble immediately tweeted,

“I remember the era of 100-page media guides. Look at this slick modern version from Porsche.”

While NBC Sports’s Will Buxton added a few more details.

“Very cool media kit from Porsche Supercup. A simple plastic card featuring a BeeTag. Open the document in 5 languages on phone/tablet. Ace.”

Globalized, smart, slick, and in keeping with the brand. Delivering content to a well-defined community in the way that works best for them. – Brilliant piece of content marketing.

From a marketing perspective it’s also interesting to note that Porsche aren’t even competing in the main GP event. They don’t have an F1 team, nor do they supply engines anymore. They do however have supply all the cars for one of the, normally ignored, supporting events – yet they got a sizable share of the journalists’ attention and social media buzz this morning.

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And I found out that the British refer to QR Codes as BeeTags – apparently named after a popular QR Code generation software.  – This plays to a conversation I had at the STC Conference in Atlanta last week discussing the fact that just because something is written in English, it doesn’t mean it is equally understood in all English speaking markets. – Maybe that’s a subject for another blog post.

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Know Your Muppets.

I may have been the only one in the room who noticed, or even cared, but it annoyed me.

During a recent presentation by a top industry analyst they referenced an on-line marketing campaign that had featured The Muppets. On one PowerPoint slide there was a picture of Kermit The Frog.

The analyst proudly said something along the lines of “As you can see this campaign was aimed at children because it uses the characters from Sesame Street.”

My geek-alert radar triggered at the mistake. Kermit is of course not a Sesame Street character, but  the leader of The Muppets. It was an innocent enough mistake, even an understandable one. But it was compounded by the fact that I knew a little about the campaign being referenced, which was in fact not aimed at children, but their parents.

The consultant immediately dropped a couple of notches on my internal credibility monitor.

In fact during the day the same consultant made a few pop-culture references, and I could tell that they didn’t really understand the context of what they were saying.

This got me thinking about my own presentations. I’m a self confessed geek, I even have a T-shirt declaring the fact, so I have a tendency to pepper my conversations with pop-culture references. The same applies to a lot of presentations I do, more so in public conferences than during internal meetings. But, I always make sure those references are related to things I know about; I’d never make an on-line gaming or baseball reference as I have no interest, or reference, for either.

If you do make some sort of external reference when presenting to an audience, then make sure it’s factually correct and applies in context, because if you don’t there is bound to be someone in the audience who will spot your error. And that error will undermine everything else you say.

The same applies to the content you produce and deliver to your audience online. The best content is that which engages the audience and provides value. To deliver that sort of value we often produce content that puts our products or services in the context of the customer’s story and experience. We talk about, and reference, their industry, their process, their culture. If we get any part of that wrong, the customer will notice and it will undermine everything else we claim about our products.

Before you put out any sort of content that makes external references make sure you know your Muppets!