Monthly Archives: January 2011

review: content strategy for the web = must-read!

Finding yourself wishing you’d read a book a few years earlier often indicates how useful it could be to your work, your life, your knowledge. Since Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web only came out last year this wouldn’t have been possible, but if your work involves web content in any way, my advice is simple: Read this book!

Have you ever been part of a web project where people talk about design and multimedia and shiny objects, but when you ask “who’s providing the content?” they stare at you or say “we’ll worry about that later”? Here is a book to back up the importance of content, who creates it and why a content strategy should be part of any major web decision.

It’s a quick read, providing, in her words, “a high-level overview of the benefits, roles, activities and deliverables associated with content strategy.” It isn’t, she stressed, a be-all-end-all book on the web (she offers great reading suggestions), about choosing a CMS (which is merely a delivery system) or a marketing manual. It’s divided into four sessions: Learn (broken into Solution, Problem and Discipline), Plan (Audit, Analysis, Strategy), Create (Workflow, Writing, Delivery) and Govern (Measurement, Maintenance, Paradigm). The writing is crisp, non-technical and compelling.

Among the key points, which many of us often feel like we’re preaching in a wilderness:

  • Less, not more. Adding more and more pages without strategy just creates a confusing user experience and makes the website unwieldy and hard to maintain from the inside. I’ve seen sites that add new pages while abandoning old ones because they weren’t perfect, and the result is a veritable graveyard of content of no use to anyone.
  • Have a plan. Why is content created at your workplace? Where does that information come from? Do you have quality control? For more dynamic sites, do you have an editorial calendar of how often new content is generated, who’s generating it and how it is organized? Unfortunately, these questions don’t have good answers for way too many sites.
  • Ask “why” and “who”? If departments want to plug a new shiny tool into their website, or add a Facebook page or YouTube Channel, two great questions to ask are “why do you need it?” and “who’s going to keep it current?” Especially in higher education, buyers get easily excited about a new product or social media platform, but after the novelty wears off they have no plan — and maybe no idea — how to maintain it at a baseline level, let alone how to keep it fresh and engaging.

Would I have liked to have this book a redesign or two ago? Absolutely. But since I can’t go back in time, I can say this book has already positively influenced planning and discussions going forward. And just mentioning it around campus around trainings and meetings has made several people interested in reading it. In my experience most people WANT to make their content better, but aren’t sure how and welcome any help. From a big-picture standpoint, this book is not just helpful but essential for those aiming to make their websites great.

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new rockmelt social browser: breakthrough or hot air?

You’ve probably seen at least some of the hype about Rockmelt, which bills itself as the first-ever “social browser” with its direct integration of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Its deployment began as invitation-only (thanks, Norma Campbell!) … which seems a lot like Google Wave, and we know how that ended.

To be fair to Rockmelt, however, the integration feature is really cool. You can click a button to see your friends’ most recent Facebook posts. Or to read their latest tweets. Or to use the browser, whatever page you’re on, to update your Facebook status or post onto Twitter.

Rockmelt also will happily project all your friends’ recent Facebook and Twitter activity onto your desktop in specific intervals. But, as the screenshot above shows, that can get mighty distracting and take away from your actual browsing experience.

With sharability the new currency of the web, Rockmelt covers this well with a share button that allows you to share the page you’re on via Facebook and/or Twitter. Saves a step or two from copying and pasting, and could promote more interactive browsing experiences.

The panel along the left shows whether friends (all or selected) are currently online. Which could be good or, well, a bit stalkerish. A corollary complaint I have is that Rockmelt tends to pop open Facebook chat without my permission. There are few things I hate more than chat, so I find this an annoying bug.

Standard features aren’t much different than most browsers, with the exception of the Incognito Window, which allows you to browse sites without leaving traces in your history or cookies after you close it. As far as add-ons, Rockmelt allows you to browse the Google Chrome store to pick up extensions from entertainment to education to social plug-ins.

On the whole, Rockmelt makes a pretty good browser, and the ability to be connected to, and share things with, your social network is a cool concept. But unless you like to be distracted by updates at work, it’s much better suited for casual use when your main online task is being social.

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did facebook kill blogs? no. but it may have changed them.

For years, we’ve seen so-called analysis pieces pondering whether blogs are dead, due mainly to the ascendancy of Facebook. The latest round involved a Pew Internet & American Life report (where pundits didn’t bother to question sample size, differences between longitudinal and latitudinal developments, and convenient redefinitions of generational years). Any exercise declaring a communication channel dead is foolish, and millions of blogs are indeed alive and well.

But I do think Facebook and other social media platforms have changed the order of blogs in our universe. The connections and instant confessional of Facebook (and Twitter) changed some things: 1) The blog as primary community, 2) The primacy of multimedia and 3) The shift from general/personal blogs to more purposeful/professional ones.

Once upon a time, a main way I gained new friends, and kept up with their lives, was via the Xanga blogging community. Last I checked, only four of my Xanga friends updated in the past month, whereas I used to see many more than four update any given day. These days, most of my new online connections come via Twitter, perhaps moving on to Facebook.

As a microblogging platform, Twitter allows us to spill our thoughts in 140 characters or less any time with no muss or fuss, and allows us to connect with others in one catch-all location as opposed to surfing to their blogs. And yes, most of those I interacted with most on Xanga I keep in touch with via Facebook and Twitter now.

The boom in visual online sharing — whether YouTube for video or Flickr/Photobucket/Instagram for photos — means we can communicate quickly, simply and effectively with more than just words. I used to do photoblogs, but I find it easier to make a Facebook album and tell the story through captions. And with video the richest of online storytelling formats, content creators and consumers naturally gravitate toward this medium.

If you look at the blogs that are most known, most read, most ballyhooed, they are topical blogs, or those that revolve around a particular thread, theme or point of view. Blogging Nation is no longer about teenagers discussing their unrequited crushes. That can, and does, unfold quicker across Facebook, with greater ability to sate instant gratification. Now blogs are more likely to detail new products, apps or online communities; people defending or refuting various political positions; and people chronicling some kind of life journey. Taken as a whole, any given blog with any readership is more likely to have a more specific focus.

And oh yes, Facebook and Twitter drive more traffic to my blogs than anything else. So it’s not a zero-sum game but a question of how audiences and interests intersect and overlap.

Those are just my general observations as someone who keeps and/or contributes to five blogs and manages a sixth. What do you think?

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2011 goal: become a better five-tool player

In baseball parlance, a five-tool player is one who does many things well (batting average, power, speed, fielding, throwing). In today’s workplace, where we need to perform many, many different tasks  — how many folks get to specialize any more? — flexibility and improving several skills is at a premium.

In that way, I’m studying my major skillsets, or desired skillsets, to examine where I want to grow and improve:

1. Writing. This has been my bread and butter. I started writing poetry when I was 4 (didn’t say “good poetry”) and have been paid to write since I was 20. But improvement is always possible. The character constraints of Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) reinforce the most important writing tip ever, Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words.” I think sometimes, with my general writing, I’m too satisfied with a first or second draft when I really need to keep trying to make it better.

2. Web communication. This could represent several tools in itself, but for the sake of keeping it to five, I’ll consider this a mashup of social media, analytics and website management. This is an area I’ve had to learn on the fly, but often with the help of reading and expert advice — much of it free from colleagues. Analytics, which I just started getting into after last year’s SIMTech Conference, represents countless opportunities for improving our web presence. Not included in this list but related is …

3. Content strategy. Thanks to the awesome book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson (a later blog post), I gained more of a handle on, and case for, better institutional content strategy. This has resembled the Wild West in our decentralized web presence, but combining analytics with rolling content audits and content strategies could work wonders. Or so I hope …

4. Video. My communication degree had a broadcast concentration, so I know the basics. And they sat dormant for many, many years until I had to start supplying more video content a few months ago. I started using iMovie — so much easier than the analog editing I learned on ginormous machines — and now look to improve my camera work, which requires better equipment as much as anything. But I know that, underlying it all, sits a basic desire for storytelling that I cherish.

5. Management. I’ve read books, had training, but what does it mean in the real world? I supervise two full-time workers (who I view as colleagues, never subordinates), a small student social-media team (interns and volunteers) and student bloggers. I’m trying to track, prioritize and document things better, but don’t want to make it a chore. As a discipline of the Tom Peters empowerment strategy, I sometimes wonder if I’m too permissive … but my hope, especially with students, is to put them in position and with the tools and opportunities to succeed.

So, what about you? What skills would you like to gain or improve?

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