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The Art and Science of Influential Web Content: An Interview with Colleen Jones

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Colleen Jones, author of Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content, discusses why influential web content is critical, the three real benefits of social networking, and the biggest mistake most organizations make with regard to their web content.

Peachpit: In your book, Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content, you talk about futile techniques aimed at influencing users. You compare them to hard-sell methods of used-car salesmen. Can you elaborate? Why are those techniques such a problem?

Colleen Jones: I don’t know anyone who likes high-pressure sales tricks. A used car sales person embodies that manipulative approach, especially in the United States. I think that’s the road that the interactive industry is headed with online persuasion. It’s the wrong road. That kind of influence doesn’t necessarily work and, if it does work, it’s only for the short term. It doesn’t foster long term relationships. In other words, if someone feels tricked or let down by you, she isn’t going to come back to you again.

Now, some people might say that this manipulative approach to online persuasion isn’t their concern. I disagree. I think it’s a problem that everyone in the interactive industry should care about. It damages the credibility of all of us. What’s more, we’re in a time when we’re trying to do more and more online and encourage more and more people to do things digitally—to share and store a tremendous amount of their personal data. This needs to happen in order for the interactive industry to thrive and, more importantly, for users to get everything they can out of digital products and services. But, it will be hard to get users there and keep them there if they stumble across stupid tricks like a countdown timer on a sign up page, gibberish articles created to game search engines, obnoxious ads with repetitive trite messages, and so on.

Another, related problem in persuasion is I’ve heard agencies and interactive marketers promise things like mind control to their clients. Talk about overpromising and underdelivering! Mind control isn’t possible. (If it were, the American Psychological Association would have some diagnoses for it, and they don’t.) But, what’s more disturbing is hearing people talk about mind control or manipulation as a goal. That’s not the goal at all.

The goal is helping people make good decisions and then act on those decisions. The goal is matching a business, product, or idea with users who are interested in and can benefit from it, then act on it. The goal is being a trusted advisor to users, not controllers of users’ minds.

Peachpit: So, why do you think the interactive industry keeps going down that road? What do you think the cause is?

Colleen: Well, it’s a combination of reasons, and I discuss them in more depth in Clout. One of the biggest is focusing too much on form, or design, and not enough on substance, or content. Manipulation happens when you focus too much on form and not enough on substance. One big problem I try to solve in my book is how to address substance. A lot of discussion about writing and content for the web focuses on structure, such as chunking and using tables and bulleted lists. That’s very important, but that content needs to have meaning. It needs to resonate and connect with people. You can have gibberish in some lovely bulleted lists.

Think about the people who have influenced you most—whether in business or just personally. They probably weren’t pushy or repetitive. They probably spoke and acted in ways that were easy for you to understand yet thought-provoking, memorable, and possibly motivating. They likely had a lot of credibility with you because of their experience or accomplishments or comments they’ve made in the past. You probably liked them because you identified with them in some way, whether their personality or their values or something else. By the time such people asked you to consider a different viewpoint or to take an action, it probably felt pretty organic, like a natural evolution, not pushy. That’s how our web content needs to influence.

Peachpit: How can someone start to take steps to make their online content more influential?

Colleen: First, you really need to think about context. Now, a lot of people are talking about context in terms of mobile and location. But, context is bigger than that, and we should always be thinking about it. Context is the result you want within the reality of your brand, users, forums/channels (such as mobile), and timing. Then, within that context, you need to influence what your users think and what they do. I break that down into three phases of influence. You need content to raise awareness with your users, become liked and trusted by your users, and then motivate and help your users act.

To figure out what content you need in each phase, principles from rhetoric and psychology help a lot. In the book, I talk about eight principles in detail and show many examples. Rhetoric, in particular, is a lost art that the interactive industry has largely ignored but desperately needs.

Peachpit: In your Voices that Matter interview, you said content should influence attitude and action. What’s an example of a website that does a good job of that?

Colleen: I include tons of examples and case studies in the book, so it’s hard to pick one. I’d have to say a favorite is Mint.com for three main reasons.

  1. It’s genuinely useful. The result Mint.com aims for—getting finances under control—is a win-win for the service and for users.
  2. It uses metaphor well. Mint taps into the metaphor of transformation, or starting fresh. That’s powerful in a time when many people are grappling with the consequences of past financial decisions.
  3. It influences users’ decisions by combining the right content and data. Mint offers media content, marketing content, social content, and the user’s personal financial data in one experience—and does it well. Our websites are increasingly becoming mashups like that. And, the product suggestions, because they’re so relevant, demonstrate an alternative to terrible, annoying web ads.

Peachpit: What’s the biggest mistake most organizations make with regard to their web content?

Colleen: They refuse to invest in content in favor of overpromised technology features, broadcast marketing techniques, or visual design. Their second biggest mistake is evaluating content wrong (or not at all) by not connecting it to results. For that reason, I spend a lot of time in the book talking about evaluation.

Peachpit: Many companies are using Twitter and Facebook as a way to communicate with their customers. Do you have any words of advice regarding how (or how not to) use these social media outlets?

Colleen: The most important advice I have is to understand the three real benefits of social networking.

  1. It provides another gateway into your web content besides search. People on social networks “curate,” or share content they like with their network. If your customer shares some of your content with other people, that’s a powerful endorsement.
  2. It allows your organization to develop personality through social media personas, such as @sharpiesusan for Newell Rubbermaid, so that users identify with you better.
  3. It enhances relationships with users by sharing content and comments. Reciprocating content and comments keeps a relationship going for the long term.

All of these benefits suggest a tight integration with your core web content. The biggest mistake most organizations make is to treat social media or social networking as an effort entirely separate from their web content.

Peachpit: Can you share an example of how improving their web content really helped an organization that you’ve worked with?

Colleen: One of my favorite examples is the strategy I developed for an online retailer. I like it because it brought benefits before making any changes to their web presence. The CEO and CMO had a vision for their niche brand to be the “ultimate outfitter” of comfortable but stylish footwear. If you think about an outfitter, such as going to an REI store, a customer expects—and usually gets—instant expert advice. To advise their customers like expert guides, this retailer recognized that content was critical. It was really the only way to accomplish that goal.

So, after some analysis and research, my team planned a strategy for a variety of content to support the decisions users needed to make. We also planned how social, media (blog), and core product content would work together. Then, we planned how to realistically create that kind of content with a mix of in-house and freelance content personnel. That vision and process of planning helped the retailer prioritize supporting technology projects, too.

In the book, I also share examples from Cingular Wireless, IHG, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more.

Peachpit: As content strategy filters up to management as a valuable facet of a successful Web presence, are company’s hiring “content strategists,” or is this work being assigned internally? If it’s being allocated to existing personnel, how can they quickly develop the necessary skills?

Colleen:Yes, companies are hiring content strategists like crazy—in house, freelance, or as part of a larger agency or consultancy engagement. You name it, companies are hiring it because they need it badly.

Content strategy is more than a set of skills. It’s a mindset and a process. I would advise anyone interested to focus on that first, then worry about the skills. Skills, tools, and tips constantly change and are hard to use properly without understanding the mindset and process first.

Peachpit: What future developments do you foresee for the field of content strategy?

Colleen: I see lots and lots of opportunities for content strategy that, in turn, will inform its developments. I think we’re in a very exciting time of figuring out what the right content is for the right users at the right time.

For websites, content strategy is going to make tremendous strides in how to best combine lots of different content into an experience, as Mint.com does. Also, I think all organizations benefit from positioning themselves as trusted advisors to their users or customers. The best way to do that is through content.

Content strategy will be at the nexus of marketing, media, public relations, customer service, and technical communication. Why? Because we need all of that content—at the right time, not all at once—to influence what people think and then support what they do.

Peachpit: Can you recommend some additional resources for people who want to learn more about content strategy?

Colleen: I help curate the Content Strategy knol (Google unit of knowledge), which is an awesome index of intellectual property in the field. I also recently guest edited a series for Johnny Holland called Content Strategy Week, which covers everything from the content lifecycle to maintaining quality when many people are contributing content.

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