May 2015
By Keith Boyd and Tom Aldous

Image: @ alexkalina/ 123rf.com

Keith Boyd manages the developer documentation team in the Cloud and Enterprise (C&E) division at Microsoft. In that capacity, he oversees content strategy for Visual Studio, the .NET Framework, Microsoft Azure, as well as the editorial strategy for MSDN Magazine. Prior to arriving in C&E in 2013, he held the same role in Windows.


Keith.Boyd[at]microsoft.com
www.microsoft.com


 



Tom Aldous, The Content Era’s founder, spent the early years of his career as managing partner and lead XML/CMS consultant at Integrated Technologies, Inc (InTech). After 20 years, Tom moved on to become Adobe’s lead XML/DITA/XSLT/HTML5/FrameMaker expert. He then served as Senior Vice President of Global Operations at Acrolinx. Tom has recently returned to his roots of consulting, leveraging his 25+ years of experience in the industry to form The Content Era LLC.


tom.aldous[at]thecontentera.com
www.thecontentera.com

Eight steps that will take you into the content era

Way back in 1996, Bill Gates famously coined the phrase "content is king". That simple statement has been interpreted and misinterpreted in the intervening decades, but regardless of his intent, the statement is now more relevant than ever.

Gates put that phrase in a broader context by explaining that people "…must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will," and continued by saying "…those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products – a marketplace of content." How should we think of that marketplace of content?

  • Content is information
  • Information is knowledge
  • Knowledge is power

Welcome to the content era – an era where great content gives you, your business, your organization, or your brand power. Your content represents a significant part of your value proposition. It signifies your intent to deliver on the promise of value, even after the sale is complete. It represents your commitment to a deep and meaningful relationship with your prospects, your customers, and your partners.

Once upon a time, content was an afterthought, something that was frequently rote and uninspired. Teams of writers who barely knew a product or service cranked out technical documentation according to a specification. Similarly, companies produced web pages with limited or no value simply because every business needed to be on the Web. There was no joy in this task. People who consumed the content typically did so out of necessity, and rarely by choice. The expectations of consumers and information workers were low.

Flash forward to 2015. The information age has transformed the way we live, the way we interact and connect with each other, and the way we use, consume, and process information. Everyone has choices: a choice of device, a choice of technology, a choice of vendor, even a choice of content. But that deluge of content can be overwhelming, even for the most resilient consumers and information workers. As the information age matures, smart companies are seizing the moment and stepping into the content era.

"Content era" is a phrase that Tom Aldous, co-author and owner of the eponymous consulting firm coined to describe a time where content truly is king, where content plays a critical role in the user experience for your product or service. There are lots of things you can do to evolve your content and experience online. The following techniques are proven strategies that will help your company or organization step into the content era.

 

1. Differentiate your products and services with beautiful and consistent content experiences that span websites and apps, mobile and desktop.

The rush for businesses and organizations to create apps is reminiscent of the late 90’s as businesses, organizations, and individuals rushed to build their first websites. Most of those early sites were primitive by today’s standards, and it’s likely that the apps of today will pale in comparison to those of tomorrow. Much like the early days of the Web, it’s important for organizations to take their app just as seriously as they take their website. Ask yourself why do you need an app? What unique functionality will it provide? Will it delight your current and future customers or frustrate them by its limitations? Building an app is not the goal – happy customers, or more engaged users, are the goal. Doing an app right isn’t cheap. And, you have to consider at least two – arguably more – unique app ecosystems if you’re going to reach a majority of consumers. Apps are a big part of the content era. Just make sure you know why you’re building an app, and how it will add unique value before green-lighting the project. If your "app" is really just a thin layer around your website, you’re probably just hurting your business or organization more than you’re helping it.

 

2. Provide just the right content, at just the right time, in exactly the right context.

Content seems easy. After all, anyone can write. But the truth is much more nuanced. Most of the time when people are interacting with content from a business or organization, they don’t want to be there. It’s unlikely that any of them will see using your content as a pleasurable experience. Instead, it’s a tax that they must pay in order to better understand your products or services. If you can help them find the right resources based on their context, instead of forcing them to wade through all of the content your organization produces, you’ll have happier customers. What are some of the contextual data points you can leverage to serve up the right content? If your customer is authenticated it is pretty easy – you already know a lot about them. If not, you can still tailor their experience based on their location and their most recent actions prior to seeking content. Intercepting that contextual data and providing recommendations based on it can delight and surprise even jaded users.

3. Build seamless web experiences that flow right through the marketing process ("acquisition") to the post-sales experience ("engagement and retention").

Marketing content is by design intended to excite your users. Technical content is designed to help them once they’ve acquired your product or service. Rarely do the two bodies of content match in style, tone or substance. If the technical content represents your company or organization’s commitment to the customer after the professional relationship has been consummated, it shouldn’t feel different than the content used for pre-sales. Rather, the product you thought you were getting should feel the same as the product you actually got. Be intentional in planning content that takes the user all the way through the "funnel", and make sure the marketing team is talking to the technical content team. These experiences should exist on a continuum, not in isolation.

4. Delight your customers and partners by providing only the best and most relevant resources, not everything the Web has to offer or that you and your team can think of to create.

There’s already too much content on the Web, and it’s growing by terabytes every hour of every day. Estimates place the size of the Web in excess of five billion gigabytes of data. That’s a lot of content!

The Web doesn’t need more content, it needs less. Honor your user’s time by producing only what they need to be successful. Start small, and use telemetry and data to identify gaps, then fill them. Embrace a "minimally viable" approach to your content. Your customers will thank you, the Internet will thank you, and you’ll spend less money producing content. That’s a win-win-win.

5. Expose your content as a REST-based service, so it can be consumed by other apps, sites, and services, expanding your reach.

For the last 20 years, the primary way that people consumed content was via a web browser. But this is changing. Smart companies realize that their content has value, and that by making it available as a service that can be consumed by other sites, services, or apps, they extend the potential reach of their own content exponentially. It’s relatively easy to expose content as a service, and REST-based services have become the de facto standard for easy consumption across nearly any modern device. Try exposing your content in this way – it will amaze you how your customers, developers and others will come up with new ways to help you to reinforce your value proposition and extend your reach.

6. Use semantic techniques to maximize SEO and content discoverability.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines the Semantic Web as "… a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries." The Semantic Web, sometimes also called "Web 3.0", is really just a combination of different schemas that help to illuminate relationships between data. Simple applications of Semantic Web techniques include the application of metadata in your content or the ability to apply arbitrary tagging to content assets. Applying metadata at the document or element level helps search engines better understand your content, making it more discoverable.

7. Curate the Web when possible, and only create new content when necessary.

Producing content is expensive. Reusing and endorsing content produced by 3rd parties using a curation platform or tool is not. The most famous curation platform for the Web is probably Pinterest, but there are many other tools designed for use in the enterprise that enable your content professionals to curate the Web for the benefit of your users. Curata, PublishThis, BagTheWeb, and MassRelevance are examples of enterprise-grade curation platforms that should be part of any smart content professional’s repertoire.

8. Delight your customers and partners through interactive content experiences that differentiate your brand and inspire them to choose your product or service.

You can’t stand out from the crowd by serving up the same, tired web experiences that people are accustomed to. On the Web, beauty matters. A professional designer may feel like a luxury, but will help you build content and experiences that are truly different from your competitors’, and that help your business or organization stand out from the crowd. A good designer can help you to keep the information density at the right level, and suggest ways for viewers to flow through your site in order to turn leads into customers. And if you can make your site a virtual playground where customers can try before they buy, all the better. Providing an interactive environment will make your site more engaging, and will drive conversions. As an example, see the "Create a Web App" functionality on the Microsoft Azure site. Clicking the button provisions a VM (virtual machine) and deploys code that enables developers to try the platform before they buy, with no credit card or other transactional data required.

 

Learn more at the Information Energy Conference 2015

If you’re interested in learning more about making the jump to the content era, and how your business or organization can apply these principles, please join us at the Information Energy Conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on June 3rd and 4th. Discover how and why Microsoft is waking up to these new realities and adapting to an era where content is indeed king. And learn more about how Tom Aldous has helped countless businesses and organizations make that same leap.
Businesses and organizations that are unwilling and unable to make the leap will be left behind. Why?

  • Because knowledge is power
  • Because content is king

Welcome to the content era.