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Content vs Storytelling

Content Marketing and storytelling.I hosted a panel the Content Marketing Association Summit in November 2013, and soaked in a lot of information from great speakers and panellists.

But with all this talk of content I started to wonder about the usefulness of the term.

As we heard from Twitter, Facebook, Coca Cola, The Economist and many other big digital brands, it became clear that what people mean by the term ‘content’ varies enormously.

Depending on context, content can be:

  • A feature article
  • A news story
  • Native advertising
  • A tweet
  • A Facebook update
  • An experience
  • A photograph
  • A piece of music
  • A movie
  • A short video
  • Computer software

I could go on, but you get the idea – it’s basically everything or anything that engages an audience.

This isn’t a new thing. If you go back to 1996 and Bill Gates’s famous ‘Content is king’ article, he says:

When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of “content” becomes very wide.

He goes on to define popular content as: ‘not just software and news, but also games, entertainment, sports programming, directories, classified advertising, and on-line communities devoted to major interests.’

Even brand advertising (which we’ve begun to believe is largely a form of interruption marketing and as such antithetical to content marketing) is now deemed ‘content’ if it captures attention and moves people to engage with and share it – as high profile examples like the John Lewis Bear and the Hare Christmas advert have shown.

Content is everything – so what?

The problem becomes – if content can be any or all of these things, does the concept of ‘content marketing’ have any real usefulness? Isn’t it just a by-word for ‘good communication’?

Related to this is another concern – that once every brand starts to publish increasingly large amounts of content online, are we heading towards a ‘dead end’ of information overload, as outlined in Mark Schaefer’s recent explosive blog post: Content Shock (a must-read for content marketers)? 

I’m still trying to work these things out and will continue to do so on this blog and beyond.

However, I’m starting to believe that a better concept for ‘marketers and influencers’ is not to focus on ‘content’ but rather on ‘storytelling‘. Because what we’re often talking about when we talk about content marketing is the ability to tell a story about your brand, product or service – and make it meaningful for your customers and prospects.

The channel, platform and media that delivers these stories is enormously diverse and will continue to be – but it’s the story that counts.

I admit, I’m being a little vague here about the distinction – and we need to nail down exactly what we mean by ‘storytelling’ (which I’ll leave for a future post). But I’m keen to explore all aspects of ‘content strategy’ and ‘storytelling’ on this blog, so let me know if you have any thoughts on the topic in the comments below.

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CMA Content Marketing Summit Panel, London 2013

I had a wonderful day at the Content Marketing Summit yesterday hosting a Panel on Strategy and Storytelling for Digital Content Marketers (that’s me on the left).

It was just fantastic to get four superb digital content experts together to talk about the issues facing content strategy going into 2014. They were, from left to right:

It was a long discussion, but the key themes that emerged were as follows:

I’m still processing all of the information that came out of this fantastic and inspirational day (everyone I spoke to agreed this was the best summit so far in terms of content).

In the meantime, here’s a great post covering the key speakers’ predictions for 2014 in terms of Content Marketing.

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Smartphone usage

Having worked in digital media for 14 years now, I’m used to rapid change and startling statistics. I often say that internet years are like dog years – there’s about 7 years’ worth of activity crammed into every 12 months.

Nevertheless, I’ve been startled by the sudden burst of speed in smartphone take-up. At the recent Content Marketing Association Digital Breakfast that I organise and host, Ross Sleight, Chief Strategy Officer of SOMO, offered these stats:

71% of people in the UK (that’s 35m) now own a smartphone.

Woah! That happened quick – it doesn’t seem long ago that we were urged to temper our expectations of smartphone adoption, when the majority owned feature phones.

Tablets are growing even faster. 29% (that’s 14m people) currently own one, but it’s expected to rise to 45% by the end of January 2014.

Incredible times and incredible growth.

I’m going to be talking to Ross, along with Ben Ladkin, Martin Belam and Elizabeth McGuane for a digital panel on Strategy and Storytelling for Content Marketers at the Content Marketing Summit on 27th November (book your place here). Please come and say ‘hello’ if you’re attending.

For more incredible mobile stats, and really useful insights, see the fabulous presentation Mobile is eating the world by Benedict Evans.

 

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Putting the user at the heart of your content

The Week magazine on desktop and ipad

As part of my role with the Content Marketing Association I organise and host the monthly Digital Breakfasts. It’s one of the highlights of my month, as I get to talk to some of the most experienced and inspirational minds in the UK’s creative industries.

This month we led on the theme of ‘User Centred Design and Content’, with presentations from:

* Jonny Kaldor, Co-Founder at Kaldor Product Development Group
* Andy Budd, Founder and Managing Director, Clearleft
* Alex Watson, Director of Product, Tablet and Apps, Dennis Publishing

What is a magazine?

Alex Watson, Dennis Publishing

Alex Watson, speaking at the CMA Digital Breakfast June 2013.

 

Having come from a background in magazine journalism,  I’ve seen the impact that digital has has had on this industry first-hand. As Alex Watson said in his presentation, the publishing industry been forced to ask itself: ‘What is a magazine?’ and ‘What does our product do for its users?’

That’s not an easy question to answer, and will vary from title to title. In fact, as Alex showed, a magazine is many things across its lifespan – it’s an advert, some relevant content, a reference tool, a souvenir, and more.

User centred design and content

All three speakers argued that the key to providing value in digital media is to put the end user at the heart of the design process.

Andy Budd highlighted another important tenet – failure is a core part of the product development process and a pre-requisite for success (adapted from the ‘lean start-up’ movement).

In reviewing the process of launching Dennis Publishing’s The Week magazine on iPad, Andy referenced the classic architect’s mistake of designing for a fictitious user behaviour that only existed in the designers’ heads.

This is how print magazines are often developed, and publishers invariably adopt the same approach when it comes to digital launches.

For digital designers and creatives, it’s important to evaluate the product design in context. That means testing your product early enough in the process, and often enough to identify any problems.

Andy was bold enough to share some of the details of the failure of the first prototype for the Week. What’s important is that those insights informed the finished design, which went on to become a great success for the app with readers and subscribers.

Take a look at Andy’s full presentation, and check out this book for more on UX for Lean Startups.

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Visual Web

Image via furthr.co.uk

The shift towards a more ‘visual web’ can no longer be dismissed as a mere trend. Look around and the signs are clear – publishers, brands and organisations need to create compelling visual content to acquire and retain users.

Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr is the latest sign that this shift needs to be taken seriously. Tumblr is a visually-orientated blogging platform that’s found great popularity with photographers, illustrators, fashion brands and other visually-rich content producers. But increasingly this move toward more visual content must be embraced by anyone seeking to reach and engage an audience online.

The big players on the web have made substantial changes to their web platforms around three core principles:

  1. Mobile
  2. Social
  3. Visual

In fact, these three trends go hand-in-hand, as Mashable’s rationale for its new design explains. We’re moving inexorably towards a post-PC, mobile-centric web, where visual media is more easily consumed and shared. Look at the recent developments of these digital giants:

So the time is now right to consider your visual content strategy, whether it’s building your community with photos or creating compelling infographics to drive leads.

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Time for a pause?

One of the highlights of 2011 for me was the APA Content Summit 2011, which took place in London last November. As always it was a fascinating event (disclosure – I work as a consultant with the APA) that presented attendees with many interesting ideas to digest about the future of content and publishing, but one of the things that stayed with me the longest was a small part of Rory Sutherland’s opening keynote (paraphrased from the live blog):

‘We are [now] going to see a slowing of technological change. [We normally experience] moments of extraordinary progress followed by stasis. So the next five years, barring freak ideas, is a period of time for reflection.’

My first reaction was to reject this. I’ve come to believe that the current media and cultural revolution that we’re going through (and it surely is a revolution) is different from those previous expansive moments of history in two important respects (one an observation, the other an assumption):

  1. The pace of the change itself is increasing
  2. The condition of change is here to stay

In other words I have come to believe that this revolution will not be followed by stasis, but that we will now experience change as a constant, and at an ever increasing pace. My reasoning was that the collision of network effects, Moore’s Law and so on, make this revolution unique.

So my first intuition was to reject Rory’s remarks as a misunderstanding or a mistake, and lump it in with the many other ‘reactionary’ positions offered by those businesses that are being disrupted.

But once the idea took hold it wouldn’t let go. The possibility that my assumptions might be false came home to me. After all, who’s to say that everyone caught up in revolutions of the past didn’t feel the same way as I did, only to be proved wrong when the stasis arrived?

And then today, Robert Scoble, a highly respected commentator on new technologies, came out with this in a blog post about a pause in disruption:

‘OK, I’ve been talking with hundreds of geeks from around the world this year at three conferences, CES, DLD, and World Economic Forum. I’m seeing a trend that is worth talking about. What is it? We’re seeing the end of one of the most disruptive ages in human history. I believe that we’re seeing a pause in the disruption.’

And later:

‘So, it’s time to take a breather. This year we won’t see a wild new innovation spread like wildfire, but, rather, we’ll just see more people adopt the disruptions of the past eight years.’

Okay, so two people have said the disruption is over (albeit temporarily). This hardly constitutes proof of the position. But these are two people whose views I respect enormously, arriving at the same conclusion independently, from different backgrounds (media and technology). Could there be something in this?

Well I can’t deny that the ‘type’ of change we’re experiencing has changed. I would characterise this best as a shift from revolutionary to evolutionary change (which is perhaps just another way of saying what Scoble and Sutherland put forward). Again, this is hardly a scientific assessment, but a good example would be the iPhone app Path, which offers an example of the evolution of social media, emphasising personal (limited number of people), real-time (timeline), visual (photo-sharing) and mobile (it’s iPhone-only). It feels like the revolutionary technologies of the past few years have been mashed up into a new, more elegant form. Revolution to evolution.

So is this really the year we’ll see a pause in the disruption? Of course only time will tell, but I can’t help recalling that we’ve said this before: after the PC desktop revolution, the internet revolution, the Web 2.0 revolution and the mobile revolution, and each of those turned out to be just the launch pad for even greater change.

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Siri on iPhone

Siri, the iPhone’s killer app

Like millions of others, I queued for the iPhone 4S last week (I don’t usually queue for new products on the day of release, but this time I was keen as my 2-year-old iPhone 3GS has been regularly crashing on me).

There are many improvements (especially if you’re upgrading from two generations back like me), but the thing everyone’s talking about is Siri, the speech recognition ‘personal assistant’ that’s built right into the operating system.

Here’s some of my thoughts on this new development in the user experience.

It’s better than you think it will be

When it was announced people were naturally sceptical about how well Siri would work. But what’s delighted users is that once you get to understand its limitations this thing works really well. The range of ways that you can ask questions and still be understood is impressive and the types of information it provides are genuinely useful.

For some things it makes much more sense to use voice commands

The more you use Siri the more you realise that this is the best way to do certain tasks. Much like the touch-screen interface that Apple introduced to smartphones and tablets, this feels like the user interface you’ve been waiting for all along. Mundane but essential tasks like setting an alarm, scheduling an appointment or texting a friend already seems an unnecessary hassle using anything but voice activation.

You learn together

As you discover the boundaries of what Siri can and can’t do, it starts to learn more about you. For example, I asked it yesterday to phone my mother. Siri asked me who my mother was. Now it knows, I can refer to my mother for relevant commands and it knows what I mean.

Likewise it learns to understand your voice patterns and will respond to contextual commands. This mutual learning process creates a bond between the user and the interface that makes it more personal.

It’s fun

Apple likes to delight its users and Siri is packed with personality. The UK version comes across as an English butler with a warm and often witty character.

Okay it’s the 21st century version of the pathetic fallacy, but the programmers of Siri have clearly put lots of effort into ensuring that you feel something for this technology – from its constant use of your first name to the witty replies to more personal questions (the Tumblr blog Shit That Siri Says lists some of the most amusing answers). It’s deft touches like this that help you to fall in love with it.

It’s disruptive

For some search-orientated tasks, Siri performs better than Google. Not because you can search with voice commands – you can already do that via the Google app on iPhone and a lot more besides on Android phones. Rather it’s because of the results themselves.

A Google search offers you a results page that often requires further action (which link do I click on?), of variable quality (web spam is increasing) and surrounded by ads. Compare this to Siri where some results are delivered straight into your operating system from Wolfram Alpha and Wikipedia.

With Siri we can see the potential for a better search system than Google’s. Naturally Google could emulate this functionality themselves, but the point is not that it’s beyond their capabilities (they have much of the technology already) but that it disrupts their business model.

Om Malik makes this point really well in the latest episode of This Week in Tech. As long as Google’s business is based on delivering text-based advertising around web and mobile searches, it’s not in the company’s interests to build Siri-like functionality. It’s these kind of disruptions that change the landscape in technology.

 

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Mid-set in the Indie Chill/Acoustic room at Turntable.fm

Like many others around the web I’m captivated by Turntable.fm, the new online music sharing service. I’ve just been exploring for the past 24 hours, but here are some random observations on the user experience:

  • It blends some of the key digital trends of today, social+gamification+music, and it’s a powerful combination. The Facebook integration is a great touch.
  • It’s a reminder of how ‘social’ music is. Music is inherently something we want to share and discover, and the chat box offers the opportunity to talk with others and make new connections. This validates Mark Zuckerburg’s predictions that music, movies and TV going are primed to go social.
  • The game mechanics really help to drive interaction. You’re encouraged to participate, share and provide good music, which makes the service for others even better.
  • It’s sharing in real-time. Live interaction is turning out to be yet another killer app of digital media – I’m currently organising a digital breakfast for the APA on this very theme. Turntable.fm makes legacy platforms for social media sharing seem, well, slow.
  • The tools and features aren’t obvious at first. I spent my first hour asking other users how things work. But once you get it, it’s easy to remember and that’s vital for usability. The controls are memorable because the service creates a good match between the system and the real world – which is one of Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics. The video below provides a good overview of how Turntable.fm works for newbies.
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Hult International Business School logo

I’m just getting started with my students at Hult International Business School, where I’m the course tutor on the elective module on Digital Publishing. We have our first class tomorrow.

I’m already excited by the amount of energy, enthusiasm and insight generated by the students, as evinced by their work setting up blogs and writing posts on an assignment I set up for the first week. The topics of discussion are as follows:

  • What have been the most profound disruptions to media incurred by the digital revolution?
  • Is it possible to preserve old forms of media organisation when data is digital?
  • What new user behaviours are the most significant in terms of the future of digital media consumption and delivery?
  • Discuss John Battelle’s definition of publishing in a digital era. Is there anything you’d change in his definition?
  • What are the key ways in which digital publishing differs from pre-digital legacy publishing practices?
  • Write a case study analysis and report on an existing digital publication

Below are links to the blogs published so far. For a broad range of insights and perspectives on the world of digital publishing they’re well worth a read:

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Instapaper 3.0 has a wide range of support from iPhone and iPad apps.

Since I last outlined my information workflow back in January 2010 things hadn’t changed much during the past 12 months.

But with the launch of Instapaper 3.0 I’ve finally been moved to ditch Read it Later and adopt Instapaper as my main tool for saving articles to read at a more convenient time.

Why? These reasons:

This also coincides with my recent switch from Delicious to Pinboard as my cloud bookmarking service of choice.

This was partly because of the news that Delicious might be closed down or sold, itself a result of woeful underinvestment by current owners Yahoo.

But once I discovered Pinboard as an alternative (thanks to @chrisphin) I found the slicker integration with other content sharing services and social platforms made it a no-brainer.

For example, you can set Pinboard to automatically bookmark links that you tweet, articles that you share on Google Reader, and posts you save on Read it Later and Instapaper, among others. This kind of integration between sharing and discovery services is a beautiful thing and makes organising the world’s information sooo much easier.

So two lessons learned:

  • A ‘social layer’ always makes things better
  • Opening up your platform and integrating with other apps and services around the web is a great strategy

I would love to hear about your information workflows online, with these services or any others, so please feel free to leave thoughts or observations in the comments.

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