Content is more important than design – do we need any more proof?

In April I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled ‘Designing for the Future Web‘. In it I laid out my thoughts and opinions on how our experience of the web would change over the next few years, and how we would need to adapt our thinking around design and content. The main points of the article were:

  1. The number of devices connected to the internet would grow
  2. We would not be able to predict with any certainty where or how our sites would be seen
  3. To maintain a seamless customer experience, users should be able to have the same core experience regardless of the device, and switching from one to the other should present no challenge.
  4. To design for this we would need to concentrate on content structure first and visual design second, creating richer experiences for more capable devices.

Unsurprisingly, considering the general audience demographic of Smashing Magazine, this didn’t go down well with some of the readers. My favourite comments being:

i feel you my friend, as far from i know design is dead and designer swept away by the multitude of the wave. im thinking doing some admin/ Logistic work rather than be a creative. suck my balls corporate people – YR

And:

…. that’s Fking RETARDED, please get better authors on here…. – Nick

Yes, I have taken that last comment slightly out of context, but it tickled me, what can you do? (He was actually talking about my views on keeping JavaScript off of first generation mobile phones).

Well, I’ll ready myself for more of the same, because, without a doubt, content is more important than design.

Go on then, tell us why

The internet has always been a joined up medium. HTML was designed to link together documents to create a ‘web’ of content that could be searched and explored.

Since the days of CERN, the amount of content that has been created has grown in unspeakably large volumes, to the point where no human could ever possibly know where to find the content they need. So we developed search engines to help us with this. They crawled and indexed on our behalf so that we could bring information to us when we needed it. And this is the crux of it: the right information when we need it.

We’ve now reached a point where the ability to access information is driving changes in the products and services that are being developed, and in our own behaviour.

Product evolution

In iOS5, Safari has finally gained the same ‘Reader’ functionality that is available on the Mac OSX version. Pressing the ‘Reader’ button will strip all design from the page and publish only the content, resized and restyled. No fancy fonts, just Georgia. It’s like you’re reading a page from a paperback. If you like it, but don’t have the time to finish it, just save it for later.

Why have they introduced this? Because Apple understands that you go to sites to consume information. That content is valuable as a traffic driver, and in turn, a revenue generator. So the experience of reading that content on a mobile devices must be as clear and simple as possible.

Service evolution

The concept that information is always available, wherever we are, is defining a new set of services. Companies like FourSquare could not have existed a few years ago, but the broad availability of hardware-specific functionality such as geo-location has changed the game. Their partnership with Groupon to provide localised real-time deals starts to hit the mark, despite the issues with the Groupon IPO. These service are not about design, they are about content. Targeted content.

Behaviour change

The evolutions in products and services are in turn driving a behaviour change. Our ability to access information wherever we are is funnelling into the purchase process. We check prices and specification in-store at the point of purchase, we may even be swayed from one brand to another, or one shop to another, by the targeted offers we receive.  Targeted location-aware, identity-aware content is turning us into savvy consumers.

The result…

We’re finally able to make good on the marketer’s dream: the ability to deliver the right  content to the right person at the right time, driving sales and adding value to the purchasing process.

It’s clear, design is the enabler not the driver; users don’t need design, they need information that benefits them in a clear and tangible way.

So, sorry designers, but content is more important than design.

The album that saved my (musical) life

Pixies - Bossanova album coverThis is a post about the Pixies.

It’s August 1990 and my life is about to change. I’d like to say that someone had passed me a copy of the seminal album, Doolittle, with its dark, jagged lyrics, but they hadn’t. The album I had heard was the smoother and less predatory Bossanova, and from that day on my musical taste changed irrevocably. A large part of my existing music collection never got played again.

I’m sure we all have an epiphany of a similar nature at some time in our lives, I’m glad mine was musical. That was over 20 years ago, but here I am still listening to the Pixies.

Why are you telling me this?

I’m sure that’s the question you’re asking. Twenty years is a long time, especially in technology. The internet – as we know it – didn’t even exist in 1990. So you might think that a group like the Pixies are no longer relevant.

But it’s not the case, and I, for one, am glad.

The Pixies, or just Pixies (no The) to be exact, have embraced digital media as part of their touring comeback. They’ve grasped the essential nature of the social web to create an online community that is both forward-looking (new fans) and reminiscing happily (old fans like me), successfully spanning the generation gap.

They’ve done this by:

1. Creating a multi-platform web presence

Each platform has its own strength and weaknesses. The Pixies are harnessing this by creating a central hub (pixiesmusic.com) surrounded by a mobile app (iPhone and Android), a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The Twitter account is mainly push messaging, the Facebook page is for discussion, the mobile app pulls the web presence onto mobile devices (including streaming capabilities), and the main site contains all this plus e-commerce functionality. They’re not the greatest designed sites in the world, but they work.

2. Creating a core content pot

The main site is built around one idea, to create a single source of Pixies information online, from the basic discography to an ever-growing gigography – a complete list of all the gigs the band has played. Fans are encouraged to provide their thoughts, memories, pictures and even recordings of these gigs. The same content structure is used in the mobile applications.

3. Giving something for nothing

If you want people to give something to you, you have to give something to them. For signing up to the site you get a free live EP in digital format and access to stream old live concerts and demo’s. It’s an immediate value-add for the consumer. By showcasing their live sound (which is excellent), fans are also encouraged to see the band play live (tour dates and tickets available on the site) or to buy recordings of other shows, spanning from the early ’90s to the present.

4. Keeping content fresh

The web is a bottomless pit of content it seems. By mining its depths, the Pixies are regularly sharing old interviews, live performances and TV appearances. These are mostly from YouTube, but sometimes highlight content from fan-sites. Just a few days ago, I came cross a site that was streaming a recording of an interview with the Pixies on John Peel’s radio show. It had been taken from a tape recording and cleaned up. I have a tape of the very same interview in my loft, and was compelled to comment that it was the case. These constant reminders of the past make great fodder for discussion amongst the faithful and Facebook posts regularly get a lot of comments.

It’s great to see this kind of renaissance. They’ve approached it just the right way, and are reaping the rewards.

For the interested among you…

The music of the Pixies is fantastic, but don’t take my word for it, take a listen:

Bossanova – where it all started for me – listen to Bossanova

Come on Pilgrim – the debut 8 track mini-album from March 1987 – listen to Come On Pilgrim

Surfer Rosa – the first studio album from 1988, a short, but not so sweet, chicano-influenced mix produced by Steve Albinilisten to Surfer Rosa

Doolittle – the iconic Pixies album – listen to Doolittle

Trompe Le Monde – the last studio album, a sci-fi inspired piece of alt-rock that’s so good that it’s over before it’s started – listen to Trompe Le Monde

Or for a single album overview there’s always Death to the Pixies, a collection of album tracks – listen to Death to the Pixies

Enjoy!

Company websites… who cares?

Yesterday, Jeff Bullas posted a blog entitled ‘Is Facebook killing off the company website?‘ It’s based on a study by Webtrends that looks at the effect that Facebook has had on the website traffic of a selection of well-known brands. It’s a good post, and one that raises a key point, but unfortunately like some businesses it is 80% concerned with Facebook and 20% everything else. The issue here is not Facebook – internet behemoth that it is – but about the value of the company website and its place in the wider online strategy of all companies, large or small. In fact, Facebook won’t be the most relevant social network for a lot of companies, especially those without a B2C focus. The real gem inside the post is simple – make the most out of aligning all your digital assets. But how do we go about that? And what is the value of my company website in this scenario?

Taking a step back

I love the 90'sIt isn’t the 90’s anymore, but let’s pretend that it is. As businesses start to realise the value of a burgeoning internet, they are all lining to up to create their own little piece of web real estate. Things start off simple: just a name, an address, some contact details, a little blurb to say what you do. Really it’s nothing more than a glorified entry in the Yellow Pages.

Over the next decade, that online directory entry will grow and grow, getting ever more complex as businesses try to cram more information into it, desperate to be relevant to any visitor. It’s understandable though, because it’s pretty much the only place you have:it has to try to be relevant to everyone.

We’ve now reached a point where the question of relevance has changed in emphasis. Relevance isn’t just content, it’s also channel.  And as a result, the company website has to change.

What is the value of a company website?

The value of a company website lies in its authenticity. It’s the one place where the company has control, from the carefully selected domain name to the honed and polished content. At the very lowest level, if you want to find out how a company positions itself, you visit the company website.

But that’s it.

Your company website is no longer the best place to engage with prospective employees, to advertise your services, to create thought-leadership positions, or to generate leads. The explosion of social networks and other web services has meant that there are a host of specialist services available that can be utilised to increase a company’s web presence. It’s a similar scenario to digital TV; channels have become more fractured and more focused, and for each channel there is a target demographic that they are designed to exploit in a way that more generic channels cannot do.

The Twitter Fail Whale
Twitter's Fail Whale has become an iconic symbol, despite its negative connotations

Hold on, you want me to trust everybody else with my stuff!

At this point I’m sure there are a few people who are asking this; it’s a completely valid question. The answer is yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying, but you don’t need to worry about it for a number of reasons. I’m going to put my IT hat on for a moment, so bear with me.

  1. The people behind a lot of the services are quite likely as well prepared for downtime as you are. Online services are always susceptible to downtime, whether from DDOS attacks , weight of traffic, hardware issues or simple human error:  the Twitter ‘Fail Whale’ has become an iconic symbol over the last 5 years. But they are businesses too, ones that rely on being able to provide high-quality outage-free services, and as such they will have structures in place to deal with these issues.
  2. A distributed network of services delivering your online presence is more resistant to failure than a single site. If you have one site and its down, it’s down 100%. Having a number of independent services providing content minimizes the risk of 100% downtime. We do the same on a hardware level at our data centre; spreading elements physically across locations and logically across multiple nodes.
  3. You’re not alone. Many companies have started using third-party services for online communications. The internet is the great equalizer, small or large you can use these tools to your advantage.
  4. Having a third party service go down doesn’t reflect poorly on your brand, it reflects poorly on theirs.

So there’s no reason why you shouldn’t create a more distributed web presence, but how do you go about doing it?

Mapping your online real estate

The first step to working out how you create your online presence is to work out what sort of content you have. From the content you can then work out the most relevant way to present it.

Here’s a theoretical example for Acme Corp.

Blended services - example
Acme Corp - online presence map

I’ve identified four types of content that are pertinent to my users: Social content, Positioning content, Communications content and Functional content.

Social content is about building personality around the company. Its purpose is to entice the best new employees by showing what it’s like to work here. The content is upbeat and slightly frivolous, so I’ve selected two matching online services. Facebook will be the main area for photos and stories about social events, and for sharing information that we find interesting outside of work. The main contributors will be the staff themselves. We’re also using Last.fm; music is really important to the team in the office, so we’re going to share our musical playlist with the world. Later on we might also include Spotify and Flickr.

Positioning content create a clear set of focus areas around the business. I want to create a thought leadership position around the key personnel within the business and make sure that their thoughts and opinions are heard. Personal brands are a big topic right now, so I’m going to leverage those personal brands, exposing people’s strengths and experience. For this I’m going to use LinkedIn and maybe Flavors.me (if they have a profile). To provide these people with the platform to talk I’ll use a WordPress blog, and maybe Lanyrd to spread the word if they’re speaking anywhere.

Communications content is all about publicity and PR. Whatever happens in the business, it will get published as communications content, from official press releases to office parties. Twitter is the obvious platform of choice for this.

Finally, functional content is the real nuts and bolts information. Where are we, who are we, what are our products and services. All this will go on our company website, which will form the hub of all the other services we use, pulling them altogether.

Of course, there will be an element of crossover, where we push content to other channels once in a while – using individual Twitter accounts for positioning work for instance.

As we can see from this example, there are numerous ways to blend services together to create the right online presence for your business.  And within this blend there is still room for the corporate website; we just need to be aware of what its purpose is and why people will want to visit it.

Maybe it is the 90’s again?

Well, it might be for the company website at least. It’s time to go back to the basics. Your company website still has a part to play, but it’s a limited one.  Give it the attention it deserves, but let’s not forget that there are many other ways to connect to the audience we crave – and it’s not just Facebook.

“So Sony, but that’s not allowed” said Apple

Machiavelli ponders his next move...
Apple - sorry, Machiavelli - ponders the next move... (Image credit to Crashworks)

Today, Apple confirmed that it had blocked a Sony eReader app from being released onto the App store. Nothing much that’s newsworthy there; if it wasn’t for one thing. The reason it was blocked was not that it was a poorly written or low quality app – although one more eBook reader isn’t exactly anything to get excited about – but that it allowed for direct purchases from the Sony store in app. Again, nothing new here, you can purchase ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle app too. But, there is a distinction.

In Amazon’s Kindle app you are thrown out of the app into the browser to make your purchase, whereas in the Sony app, as far as anyone knows, the experience is completely enclosed within the app itself.

Why’s that important?

The reason behind this is, unsurprisingly, money.

The in-app purchase model is extremely important for future revenue growth. Initially, revenues were fueled by the intense activity around the store generated from hardware purchases, as new iPhone and iPod owners bought and installed apps. Figures show that, on average, each iOS device contains 60 apps. At first these apps would have been paid apps, but as with all software, it wasn’t long before someone else came along offering a similar app at a lower price, pushing down prices until they eventually reached zero. Now, for every paid app there are many free variants of varying quality. So, even though there is natural growth within the marketplace, caused by the growing user-base of devices, the revenue generated per device is falling.

Step forward in-app purchases.

In-app purchases are the logical next step. If the means for app distribution has become stale, but the app itself remains vigorous, then you start to charge users for content – or in this case, additional content. This model has already been well-explored in the games industry, through the medium of DLC (DownLoadable Content) and in-game purchases. Platforms like Steam, created by Valve, have proved the worth of this model.  Zynga’s Cityville, one of the most popular games on Facebook, also uses this idea, allowing users to buy additional credits to use in game to build their city.

The company that controls the process of in-app purchases stands to make a lot of money, hence today’s decision. Apple wants to make sure that all purchases go through the app store so that it can make a percentage from every sale. It’s as simple and as Machiavellian as that. Direct purchases from other sites, ones out of its sphere of influence, are directly competitive. The only reason it hasn’t stopped the Kindle app is simply that it would be accused, not wrongly, of making decision on our behalf about which sites we visit. And at this point I think this would be a draconian step too far.

Apple isn’t only company looking at this. Facebook announced last week that Facebook Credits were going to become mandatory for apps on its platform, with an exchange rate being set for virtual currency transactions. This is exactly the same move being played out.

I may be wrong, as always I am open to your thoughts and criticisms, but after all, this is money we’re talking about.

What is Quora? And what does it mean for B2B marketers?

Quora logoJudging Quora is going to require some distance and objectivity, as we’re in the middle of a huge amount of hype right now which is liable to distort the arguments around it. Given that, here’s my take.

Why has Quora been successful?

Quora’s initial audience was very closely related, coming from a small set of industry verticals centred on tech start-ups and the tech industry in the US. At the same time, the tech journalists who follow start-ups also came on board and were able to get access to a group of very influential Silicon Valley VC investors and start-up CEO’s. So, the questions being asked were getting answered by the key people in a position to answer them.

Great, so it’s the new Twitter then?

Well, no, what remains to be seen is if the site can remain relevant with a much larger and more defocussed audience. If the majority of questions remain unanswered, or if the answers supplied become less authoritative, the site will suffer as a result. This is their biggest challenge.

So, what is it then?

Quora is indicative of a new approach to information search and retrieval on the web. Users are looking for more defined pieces of information that are authoritative, short and to the point, and crucially, that come from people that they trust and are within their social circle. In this respect it is a next generation approach to the old ‘Q&A’ sites, such as Yahoo Answers, hooking into the fact that we weight our opinions based on those around us.

Qwiki takes the same approach to information creating short visual wiki presentations.

And that means what for B2B?

Should it take off and continue its massive two-month growth, then it will become part of the social media landscape for most B2B companies. Monitoring the topics and questions that are being asked online, ready to step in and provide information openly and quickly. It also provides the opportunity for thought-leadership.

Okay. But what if I don’t like it…

No problem; for a more light-hearted view on Quora, you can always go to Cwora (http://www.cwora.com). Enjoy!