Tag Archives: content strategy

Hick’s Law, making choices and leaner websites

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The other day, I hit the up button for the Culkin Hall elevator and a rare thing happened: Both elevators showed up on my floor and opened at about the same time.

My reaction was confusion. It goes against the natural pattern: Hit button, see door open, get in. Now I had to make an additional choice.

How many times have you encountered this unnecessary layer of decision-making in your daily life … especially when visiting a website?

There’s even a scientific theory related to this: Hick’s Law. Also known in some circles as the Hick-Hyman Law, after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it posits that increasing the number of choices will cause the time for humans to make a decision increase logarithmically (or by a lot, if you prefer).

True of the elevator story: Normally, shuffling in would take about a second, instead I was confounded and took a few seconds. No harm no foul, but with websites it has more important connotations. (It’s the titular reason one of the seminal works of web usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine took this theory Hick started developing about 75 years ago and translates it to design, especially for the web:

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

Inciting indecision

More than increased time to decision, the greater danger is that people decide not to choose one of your options because they become frustrated or interrupted. “If you choose not to decide,” the band Rush notes in “Freewill,” “you still have made a choice.” I have opted out of confusing websites, forms that ask for too many fields or transactions that are too complex or take too long. Which is to say, sites not observing Hick’s law can cost themselves transactions, actions and certainly user happiness.

My friend Kyle James (now with NuCloud) gave a conference presentation years ago where he said something to the effect of “if you want your user to take one action, design a landing page with one link.” (Or something, sorry Kyle if I screwed that up.) And it’s true. The opposite is what we find on too many websites — pages overflowing with links, many of them poorly labeled or redundant, which increase user frustration and decrease the chance of completed tasks.

Many in our industry love specialized jargon or vague acronyms or phrases that they understand within their own circles but that are unfamiliar to students, prospective students and parents. Our suggestion is always: Speak like your user. Give them phrases they recognize, especially in your links. When creating web content, there’s no prize for showing off how big your vocabulary is or how many insider buzzwords you know.

Make actions possible

For whatever website you create, three key considerations remain constant:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you offer? (Or “what is your value proposition,” if you prefer.)
  • What action(s) do you want them to take?

Other key questions about content strategy exist, of course, but those three should drive your creative. Showing what you have to offer (why a visitor should apply to your college, sign up for your service, buy your product, etc.) and then trying to move your audience toward a related action should take priority.

Long rambling paragraphs about your mission statement, links appearing for vanity sake and a barrage of irrelevant graphics that might bury those calls to action and things your visitors are actively seeking work against the success of your site … and of your business.

With the web, less is more. Especially now that so many people use mobile devices requiring a leaner experience. For last month, more than 40% of our external traffic arrived via mobile device, and 50% of our first-time external users were on mobile. They don’t want to scroll past some irrelevant “happy talk” paragraphs and they sure don’t want to roll through 37 links to find what they want.

Let’s use a different elevator analogy. You get on an elevator and it has a set of numbers (1 to 10) on one panel and a set of letters (A to J) on the other. You’re pretty sure you want a numbered floor, but the added choices leave you unsure. Sounds outlandish, right? Yet this is what a lot of websites do by crowding in extra information and links and shiny objects.

We should all be leaning toward lean websites. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get on our sites and go where they want without unnecessary confusion or work. If they can reach their desired web destination on a smartphone while traveling a few floors on an elevator, you are moving in the right direction.

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The wrong question people ask about social media

Anybody who has ever started, or been asked to start, a social media account has asked — or been asked by a supervisor or colleague — some variant of this question:

How do we get more fans?
How do we get more followers?
How do we get more likes?

Alas, this is the wrong line of question to ask.

It’s like somebody deciding to be an artist and strategizing how to make more money before they’ve even determined what type of art they can make.

Instead the questions anybody should ask before creating an account are:

Why do we need this?
Who will provide what kind of content?
What has value to our followers/fans?

There are more questions than those, but those are a place to start.

qqqWhy do we need this? If your reason for having a Facebook account for your business, organization or unit is because we have to be on Facebook, then you should probably stop and think. Why do you need to be on Facebook? How will it benefit your customers or potential customers? How will it add value to your efforts?

Who will provide what kind of content? Every successful social media community is an ocean teeming with many kinds of life but also rife with captainless ghost ships and shipwrecks of efforts gone awry. Many people begin with the best intentions, and when the awkward first steps anybody makes in a new endeavor don’t bring immediate success, many drop it to chase another shiny object. Or they update just enough to show they exist but never respond to questions they receive nor do anything to be a good member of the larger community. I’ve been trying to help a unit who had a student create their Facebook page and now nobody’s sure now how to access it or become an administrator. Always have a plan not just for maintaining it today, but for sustaining it into the future.

What has value to our followers/fans? This is the biggest difference between an account that muddles along and one that finds success. Social media — like any communication channel really, but more so — is about your users, your fans, your followers, your current customers, your potential customers. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. Your posts could be about you but they should relate to what matters to others, because if nobody’s interested, you may as well put your content in a bottle and cast it in the ocean.

Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple! Squeeze This!, posits a great question for anybody working in the digital space: Is what I’m creating adding something to someone’s life? Is it useful, entertaining or beautiful?

Why do you follow the company/school/organizational accounts you do? Chances are they provide you helpful information, a chance to laugh or smile, or some inspiration to lift your day. You don’t follow accounts that only talk about themselves in uninteresting ways and don’t care at all about you, right? (I hope not.)

Your content should add value to your connections. The Bangor Police Department provides a key community service, yes, but it entertains as well. Humans of New York provides beautiful and touching stories, and sometimes information and opportunities to make others’ lives better. Locally, businesses like Bosco’s Meats/Bosco and Geers can show us what yummy lunch special will tempt our taste buds — a real win-win.

Great brands, and great social media accounts, tell stories — the stories can be about themselves but they show their value to users in some way. If you’re posting content that wouldn’t even stop you from scrolling your feeds, or making you want to follow your own accounts, you need to stop posting and rethink what you’re doing.

Because if, instead, you’re posting awesome and share-worthy content, content that is useful or entertaining or beautiful, the fans and the followers and the likes will come.

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#ConfabEDU takeaway: we’re all in this together

The best conferences create intentional or unintentional threads and themes that come home with you. For the recent #ConfabEDU conference in New Orleans, a message of togetherness was the main one stuck in my head and soul. Whether about working together with others on your campus, trying to bring communities together or the togetherness of the higher ed content strategy family, this message came through repeatedly — sometimes as reinforcement, other times as revelation.

Lisa Welchman discussing collaboration and web governance.

Lisa Welchman discussing collaboration and web governance.

Lisa Welchman, author of the web governance guideline Managing Chaos, set us in the right direction. She advised us to collaborate, enable and encourage all our website editors instead of trying to tell them what to do. She talked about workteams, and how the ones that worked together to set and follow standards do the best job.

In “A Four-Step Framework on How to Succeed at Practically Anything,” the University of Rochester’s Lori Packer talked about creating opportunities for our communities to share things on social and the importance of telling each other about our cool ideas and projects. Pat Brown from Purdue, in discussing “Optimizing Organizational for Web and Other Futile Pursuits,” said change management is a key part of web management today and added successful efforts need to fill four roles: change advocate, change agent, sustaining sponsor and executive sponsor.

Myths and realities

Kicking off day two, “Myths of Innovation” author Scott Berkun cited, among other things, the myth of the lone genius. All of the greatest inventions, he said, came from people inspiring and inspired by the ideas of others and often from groups conducting experiments … not from the myth of epiphany of a single inventor. He also mentioned how the former Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (today better known as 3M) suddenly had its most lucrative invention in the form of masking tape, manager (and future president/chairman) William McKnight realized an important change in management structure — by instilling a culture of delegating authority and trusting experimentation, he helped 3M turn into a company where true innovation could (and did) come from just about anywhere within the organization.

Tweeting this in the morning, and Georgy Cohen posted it in the afternoon. What is this sorcery?

Tweeting this in the morning, and Georgy Cohen posted it in the afternoon. What is this sorcery?

Jeff Stevens from the University of Florida offered a fresh take on the silos we find around campuses or within campus systems: perhaps instead of isolation they can serve as watchtowers that can alert and communicate with others. Georgy Cohen of OHO Digital followed up on that in her presentation on building internal communities for content strategy, which encouraged actively engaging your editors and experts in making your web community better. Sarah Maxwell Crosby and Susan Lee from Dartmouth discussed amplifying voices within your community to build a better web presence.

Amanda Costello of the University of Minnesota closed it on a high note with “How Silos Learn: Working in the Idea Factory.” We may dread the silos on campuses, she said, but there’s no reason to die in them. She encouraged working horizontally with others to share ideas, institute projects and seek success. Quoting the late Paul Wellstone — “We all do better when we all do better” — she said connecting people is a form of teaching.

Less loneliness

My own presentation, “‘Am I the Only One?’ Personalizing ‘Social’ to Connect with Students” went better than expected (it’s a tough topic that’s very different from the rest of the conference) in large part because I had an empathetic audience willing to engage in discussion. The problem: College is a mentally challenging time for students, who deal with new situations, the feeling they have to meet impossible standards and that everybody is doing better than they are (their connections post social-media highlight reels that aren’t reality). Audience members talked about what they’re doing at their colleges, what they want to do and ways we can change the situation for the better.

Erin Supinka and Ma'ayan Plaut making the New Orleans airport more awesome.

Erin Supinka and Ma’ayan Plaut making the New Orleans airport more awesome.

And, almost as if I needed a bonus lesson, what is usually a solo trip and wait in an airport reconnected by with conference friends. I bumped into (SUNY Oswego grad) Tim Senft of Cornell University, and we split a cab to the airport and a bite of late breakfast. Then the wait for the plane was made more pleasant by hanging out with friends Ma’ayan Plaut from Oberlin and Erin Supinka from Dartmouth.

Indeed, everything is better with others. Working (or just laughing) together improves our work … and our lives.

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6 Qs with Kristina Halvorson, author of ‘Content Strategy for the Web’

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, published in 2009, is simply one of the most important, influential and inspiring books for anybody writing for the web or running a social media account. I’ve loaned out my highlighted copy so many times I need to put a tracking device on it (though many people decided to get their own copy anyway) and it’s the kind of reference that merits rereading from time to time to get back to foundations. Halvorson’s impact extends beyond the book as the firm she founded and leads, Brain Traffic, organizes a wonderful series of Confab conferences, with the next being Confab Higher Ed in New Orleans this November (where I’m speaking).

I recently had the opportunity to ask Halvorson six questions, where she discusses why she wrote the book, offers advice for those implementing content strategy and gives a marvelous turnaround example worth seeing.

TN: You’ve probably heard this question before so I apologize, but for the sake of those reading the blog: What’s your working definition of content strategy?

kristina

Image courtesy of contentstrategy.com

Kristina Halvorson: For seven years, I’ve been saying, “Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” That definition still holds, I think, but Brain Traffic’s “quad” (which includes substance, structure, workflow, and governance) provides a larger, more flexible framework for talking about content strategy.

To be honest, this question actually makes me want to go hide under my bed. There are so many smart, experienced people who answer it in several different ways. For what it’s worth, I still use my short and sweet definition simply because it helps people find a way into the conversation. It’s not overwhelmingly technical or … big.

TN: I think many of us consider your book and tips crucial to content strategy, but clearly it took a while for anybody to articulate it. What drew you to the concept of content strategy and led you to writing the book?

KH: In 2007, Brain Traffic was a healthy little web copywriting agency. I’d been writing for the web for 10 years by that point, and I was getting sick of getting called in at the 11th hour to fill in the lorem ipsum in the wireframes. We never seemed to have the time, budget, or information required to do content right. I decided to start approaching projects more as a consultant than a project manager. In fact, I started using the title “interactive content strategist” … and here I thought I’d made it up! At some point, I figured out content strategy was A THING that existed long before I started using the title. Unfortunately, I could only find a few people out there talking about the topic (Rachel Lovinger, Colleen Jones, and Jeff MacIntyre, for example). So, I felt like there was a real opportunity to get a larger conversation going. That’s why I wrote the book.

TN: Introducing content strategies into organizations is important, but are there any mistakes people should avoid when beginning the process?

KH: Yes, two in particular.

First, you are going to have one hell of a time helping people understand the difference between content strategy and content marketing. “Content marketing strategy” starts with the assumption that content marketing is the right thing to do—that sort of is the antithesis of good content strategy. It’s important to help people understand that, look, content isn’t something we just decide to crank out on an assembly line; it needs strategic consideration that has to start with business outcomes, user needs, and a diagnosis of our current-state content challenges and opportunities. Only then can we make an informed decision about where we are going to focus our content efforts. So don’t make the mistake of starting out with any assumptions about what needs to happen with your content—in marketing, websites, support, corporate communications, social media channels. You simply don’t know until you have a clear understanding of where you are now, and where you need to be.

Second, don’t go in there acting like you know what’s best for everyone. No one cares if content strategy is “the right thing to do.” Most of the time, they care about their own job performance and whatever audience they’re trying to serve. Listen, listen, listen, listen. Tailor your content strategy “sales pitch” to whatever pain people are suffering, or whatever hot topic they’re all fired up about. It’s not about your ideas. It’s about creating and sustaining excellent content that satisfies business and customer needs. That’s it.

TN: Non-writers in general receive often the idea of content strategy well, but after a while they may stray from the path. What tips do you have to keep the content strategy fire burning across the organization?

KH: Again: keep people focused on how content strategy activities—whether in UX, the CMS, or the enterprise as a whole—are solving pain points and opening up new opportunities. It’s crucial that you advertise your activities and successes—even small ones—every step of your content strategy journey. The best success stories I know are the ones where people made time to “roadshow” what they were doing in content strategy and how it was making a difference.

TN: Do you have a favorite turnaround/success story (or stories) on an institution(s) whose content went from a mess to one of the best?

KH: The gov.uk website is every content strategist’s dream success story. They took very complex content nobody could find or understand, and made it clear, accessible, and useful for an entire country. They got an entire GOVERNMENT on board to make government content—which is notoriously structured based on internal org structures—to be based entirely on user needs.

TN: Does the success of Content Strategy for the Web and of related things like the Confab conferences surprise you at all?

KH: Honestly? No. This conversation was way, way overdue. We all needed something to rally around—a simple, straightforward story for why content is hard and what we can do about it. I am proud to have helped tell that story early on, along with of a lot of people who openly shared their ideas and experiences. (This continues to be something so fantastic about the content strategy community!)

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#whyichoseoswego: a quick and lovely user-generated success story

If you have any contact whatsoever with a college admissions office, you know that May 1 is Kind of a Big Deal. It’s the deadline for students to make deposits, heralded as #CollegeSigningDay or #DecisionDay or other hashtags. But what, we pondered as The Day approached, could we do to stand out — to show students why Oswego can be an awesome choice without resorting to tired platitudes.

At our student social media team meeting four days before #CollegeDecisionSigningDay, I wondered out loud and the answer that tumbled out was a #whyichoseoswego tag. Ask current students, alumni, faculty, staff, anybody really to tweet what made them choose our college. (I weighed #whyichoseoz but wanted to get “oswego” in there to be extra-clear to anybody who saw it.) The interns didn’t think it was an awful idea, so I emailed our partners in admissions and they liked it.

> Strategy: Cultivate and share reasons students decided to attend Oswego via the #whyichoseoswego tag

> Execution: Request participation via Twitter (and Facebook to a lesser degree) and via micronetworks and share to encourage more participation

> Goal: Positively influence students who are still deciding that Oswego can be the right fit for them

So we started simply: I asked our interns to post at some point Monday afternoon and for the admissions interns/tour guides/etc. to do the same. Admissions intern Bridget Jackson took it one step further by contacting everybody in the organizations she’s in to pitch in. I figured, eh, we’ll get a few, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but with something this quick, who knows …

Result: Wow.

whyiscreen

Topsy found 518 tweets, and note that prominent alum/ESPN anchor Steve Levy is toward the top. We didn’t even solicit him; he just saw a post that resonated with him and shared. That’s not “going viral” but it is impressive given the bootstrap effort.

The @sunyoswego account retweeted many of them, although I chose to space them out 10 to 15 minutes to not overwhelm the tweet stream and after a firehose of awesome tweets on Monday afternoon it took me until nearly noon on Tuesday to catch up. I also put together a Storify with a large number of the posts:

whyistorify

The 700+ views are pretty impressive, and reflect the social media theory that people like to observe more than participate. I did a bit.ly on the link and found about 90 percent of the visits via social share came from Facebook, where posting it also brought a lot of great comments from alumni and parents of current students.

Note that this promotion lived almost entirely in social — Twitter mainly with one post on the college’s Facebook page plus sharing into our closed incoming student group — and via word of mouth starting with a very small group. This was no massive campaign, we didn’t do a major reach out to alumni ambassadors (next year, with more time, I would include that component) and it really sprung up as a quick, grassroots, bootstrap effort of organic support.

What about admissions results, you may ask? The director of admissions reported a large late surge of deposits and that our incoming enrollment is up around 100 freshman over last year. Admissions also reported a really “positive buzz” that, while not the only factor that may influence any individual student, cultivates an atmosphere that supports choosing Oswego. And admissions definitely thinks it’s worth collaborating on to make a bigger deal in the future.

Add in the show of pride and positive feelings from current students, alumni and even some faculty and staff members, and we definitely feel good about choosing to launch this modest campaign.

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Make somebody happy

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 10.25.00 AM

Colleges do a lot of activities in social media — generally driven by goals, if you’re doing it right — but sometimes the most rewarding thing we can do is make somebody happy. On what’s become Random of Act of Kindness Week, social media is a great place to show you care.

We had an opportunity last week through a request from the family of Judy Letvak, a longtime dedicated alumni volunteer who passed away in 2013. A member of our alumni board and often the first person to like one of our Facebook posts and offer encouragement, Judy made a large impact reflected in her memorial overlooking Lake Ontario. Judy’s niece Allison told us via Facebook post she’d love to see the spot in winter. “Judy Letvak’s memorial overlooks the lake in the most beautiful spot I’ve ever seen,” Allison wrote. “It felt like magic up there and I could truly feel her spirit there and understand why her heart never left Oswego.”

How can you not answer that kind of request, even when the last several weeks have proven less than ideal for a trek to take a picture on a cold and breezy lakeshore? But a friend of the family and a former outstanding student of mine, Danny Distasio, reiterated the request via Facebook message at about the same time we had the sun break through for a while. The time was right.

The resulting picture won’t win any composition awards but, posted the next day as our Friday #oswegram, it resonated with those who loved Judy or the picture or the campus. As of Monday, 73 shares shows many people wanted to pass along this little tribute, which warms anybody’s heart. Perhaps the more important metric was a happy family, Allison saying: “Thank you to everyone who took the time to do this for me and my family! Hope to come up and visit Judy’s spot soon!”

(And if you’re hung up on ROI, there’s even something for you: The post generated at least one request for more information on how to get a memorial on-campus for a loved one.)

So you can be kind and create great content. Making somebody happy is always worth the effort.

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Without content strategy, even a great CMS won’t help much

We’re in the process of redeveloping oswego.edu — which includes a switch to the Drupal content management framework and migration of 10,000 pages — but we’re also trying to redefine why our website exists: for our users and why they come to our site.

Rick Buck, our web technical lead, and I gave a Winter Breakout session that we thought would attract maybe a dozen or so people … only to learn it was moving to an auditorium with more than 60 people anticipated. Yowza! But this definitely means we have many stakeholders very interested in the process, and that’s a great thing.

While the new content management system is one attraction, our presentation also focused on what’s most important: content. As I like to say, “A content management system creates neither content, nor management, nor a system.” The other two involve a lot of work but without good content that helps the people who come to your site do what they need to do, you’re really limiting how many improvements you can make, no matter how great your CMS is.

To start the journey toward content strategy, we sent the editors of 140+ accounts a web content brief (below), a Google fill-in document that asks four important questions:

  1. Who is/are the audience of your pages?
  2. What are the most important tasks your site(s) visitors want to accomplish?
  3. What are the primary actions you want site visitors to take?
  4. What are your top priorities for your web presence this year?

Screen shot 2015-01-28 at 1.21.54 PM

Screen shot 2015-01-28 at 1.22.06 PM

(Disclaimer: We borrowed ideas for the above from other colleges, because they are awesome.)

Since we sent the form on Monday, we’ve been quite impressed with submissions. Editors are putting a lot of thought toward audience, tasks and goals … some of the foundations for content strategy. We haven’t been in a position or had the staffing nor time to go with this approach previously, so I expect it to change a lot of the site’s content going forward. And that’s a lot of work, but worth it in the long run.

We’ve already started content audits on various accounts — identifying what’s there, if it’s working, if it’s relevant — that we can share with site editors and then collaborate to see how it all lines up with the web content brief. We’ve also introduced questions — the 5 Ws of reviewing web content I’ve posted previously — to ask while evaluating every page and/or deciding whether to create a new page.

We’re still very early in the journey toward sitewide content strategy and a more awesome oswego.edu. It includes a CMS, yes, but we hope that it’s ultimately defined by improved content. How will it go? Stay tuned.

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