Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

Trust Agents: a gentle social media read and a scary question

'Trust Agents' by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith sits on my coffee table and every now and then, I read another chapter. Unlike many other books on social media, it is a gentle friendly read.

Every now and then Chris and Julien stop me in my tracks with an idea that demands attention. (See, I can't help using their personal names instead of the conventional Brogan and Smith. That's the social media world.)

In brief, they discuss and illustrate many aspects of modern marketing. I recall that even in the late 1990s, traditional marketing was dead. The old approach (branding plus bang-em-over-the-head-with-a-four-by-two) didn't even fit Web 1.0.

Everything that's happened online since then has steered marketing in the same direction:

  • Less skiting, more listening.
  • Less hype, more facts (for comparison shopping).
  • Less narcissism, more community involvement.
  • Less me, more you, more us.

Even when you know the goal, it can be hard to get there, and Chris and Julien include loads of advice. Some is radical. Most is practical.

Today this snippet made me groan aloud:

The trick is to come up with something you could tell people at a party, something that would differentiate what you think is interesting about what you do and what the average person thinks is interesting.

Alice and I love our business with a raging passion. Speaking for myself, I find everything about Contented utterly fascinating—our courses, our customers, our plans... I enjoy being forced to think new thoughts and do new things week after week. I love my work for reasons psychological, intellectual, ideological, economic, literary, aesthetic, pedagogic and technological. It's fun, dammit!

But the moment someone asks me what I do, the conversation is doomed. After my first three words, the other person's eyes glaze over and drift desperately over my shoulder, looking for somebody less boring. Know the feeling?

What a contrast with the years before I got hooked by the Web. Everyone seems to find a poet or writer fascinating. Even now, they find it mildly interesting if I say I'm a poet who went over to the dark side. But that's what I am, not what I do!

I have been unable to tell people what I do in a way that they find interesting. In the light of 'Trust Agents', this is no way to use the Web to build influence, improve reputation, and earn trust. Why would you respect anyone whose job seems so dull and forgettable?

Do you have the same problem? I have decided to give my sister Prue a tour of my computer and then ask her the scary question. I'll let you know her verdict.

Thank you Chris and Julien for confronting me with this horrible truth.


How to get exclusive news stories: retweetable tweets

On Twitter, the very latest unique news is highly desirable content. This kind of content is frequently retweeted. But if you are not a news agency or journalist, how do you find these exclusive stories? Keep your eyes and ears open!

Yesterday on Twitter Craig Thomier reported two snippets of news that together were new and astounding. (Well, I think so.)

So, in a group of 250 Queensland public servants, Craig says:

  • 20% are on Twitter
  • 98% are on Facebook.

The big thing is to recognize when something is brand new news, and more important, news that's interesting to your own readers. Craig didn't let these stats flow past him into the ether: he tweeted.

More and more often we're getting enquiries about Facebook and Twitter from government employees and teachers. They want to know how to use social media to communicate with colleagues, students or the public.

We are paddling as fast as we can! We concentrate on teaching what content writers need to know, whether the words they write are destined for a web site, intranet, or content management system.

  1. Strategic blogging course: already up and running
  2. Tweet for victory, a course on microblogging, is being developed right now—won't be long!
  3. Focus on Facebook: this course is already bubbling away on a mindmap.


ASTC conference notes: technical writers, editors and information designers unite

Sydney Opera House by night

Oh my gosh. Blog shorter blog more often she said. Well, haven't a hope of growing a tenth of the blog-germs in my mind.

And now, even though I'm in Delhi, I will throw some notes down about the excellent ASTC conference in Sydney at the end of October.

Interesting people and some great presentations. I'll comment on the ones that were strongly related to what I'm thinking or doing these days.

A. Neil James spoke about unifying the profession of plain english practitioners, technical communicators, information designers, editors—all doing the same thing but tragically sniping at one other for trumped-up theoretical reasons. These occupations are not a profession: he'd like to see a profession with certification, standards, etc. Good luck though I don't fancy the chances.

Echoes of the NZCS initiative to professionalize IT practitioners. That's proceeding satisfactorily. But I would say that, wouldn't I, as a fully fledged IT Certified Professional?

B. Sarah Maddox's topic was Getting the public involved in documentation. This sounded almost dull, but her talk was riveting. Not to mention dynamic. She showed us how Atlassian has been using Twitter, wikis, Facebook to get users' input at an early stage. Way to go!

An inspiring talk for someone who uses Twitter but tries to pretend Facebook doesn't exist. We can't do everything but we do consult (randomly) and even act on ideas. Our brand new course on formatting web content came from a plea on Twitter. We're working on one about accessible PDFs in reply to demand. And we've so enjoyed our first photo competition that we're sure to involve our customers more in future. Thanks Sarah.

C. Sarah Forget spoke about writing for translators. She even showed us the translator's software at work, and gave great tips.

This was directly useful for our planned global English course. I wrote a book called "Global English for Global Business" way back when it was such a new idea that very few people got it. Now, at last, it's hot.

D. James Robertson spoke about ways to deliver an intranet that works for staff. Clear, well organised, funny and authoritative as always.

Every talk he gives is relevant to our work at Contented. He admitted he was once a technical writer, so of course he cares about content. We'd like a course about intranets next year: they're hidden from the world, but entire businesses depend on them.

E. Irene Wong gave a super talk on communicating numbers, largely about graphs. Lively, well illustrated.

The topic relates to our course on using images in web content: a hot topic.

F. Charles Cave spoke on Creating e-learning using PowerPoint and Articulate - exactly the e-learning tools we use!

He was asked "How long does it take?" He said, after thought, 2 weeks to create a 15-minute training course. I thought that was a fair estimate, granted that he's now very familiar with the tools. On that basis, one Contented course takes 8 weeks to create, full time, and again, that's a pretty good estimate.

There's a convention that presentations at a professional conference like this should have the unspoken message: "We did this, and you could do it too." Usually, that's spot on, and I like it. The trouble is when I talk about Contented, I'd have to say, "We made our online courses like this, and it took us at least 80 weeks to make 10 courses, plus plenty of dosh, plus ongoing customer support and maintenance. We do not recommend you reinvent the wheel, to reinvent a cliche. We recommend you use Contented courses rather than start again from scratch." It's hard to perceive our development experience as tips, because it's our entire business—not a little extra side business—but I try!

Photo: Sydney Opera House by night. Pascal Vuylsteker. Creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Blog shorter, blog more often, blog happier

How big is a blog post? Any length we please.

an hors d'ouvre: three lines of links.
a bowl of soup: 200 words.
a satisfying salad: a full length feature article.

It's all good! Except maybe...
A disgustingly large steak with chips: One big lump without mercy.

But we have personal patterns and habits and right now I'm fighting my own. For me, writing is primarily an act of discovery, and only secondarily an act of communication. So I like blogging: it's a treat.

My natural impulse is to regard a blog post as something rather substantial. But why do I always have to make such a meal of it?

The result is, again and again I think a Great Thought which I feel like exploring further. Oh dear, no time, no writing, no nothin'. And the blog stays dormant, pulsing and heaving with thoughts unspoken.

What's more, this is a business blog, a strategic blog intended to be useful to people interested in web content and writing in general. So it has become a bit too narrow for my own pleasure.

For these two reasons my pleasure in blogging has frankly been shrivelling. Solution: I've "decided" (so help me God) to write less and write more frequently. I don't think quality will suffer at all. And I will suffer less.

Special offers to CONTENTED clients: gift time cometh

Lotus flower, Kyoto

The Contented email newsletter included three special offers today. In brief...

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all our fantastic customers. You understand the value of great web content, and you chose our courses above all other options. After your first purchase, 38% came back to buy more courses. Typically, you enrol two or three staff, discover how great the courses are, then enrol another 20, 50 or 100.

Frankly, a heck of a lot of hard work lies behind the online courses you love so much. If our customers were ho-hum or grumpy, we might have given up months ago.

1. 5% discount for next group purchase if you are on our clients page or have purchased from us before. This applies when you purchase for a group of 5 or more.
But hurry! This special offer expires on 24 December 2009.

2. Half-price Diploma in Web Content if you did our first generation courses (in HTML).
Be quick! This offer is valid until 28 February 2010.

3. 10% discount for a successful referral.
Tell others about CONTENTED courses! For each successful referral, we’ll give you 10% off your next single licence Diploma purchase.

But wait, there's more! Two more free gifts:

  • Use our writing tips on your intranet free -- just drag and drop.
  • Follow us on Twitter for unexpected gifts. Our first Twitter exclusive gave five lucky people a free Diploma!

Wake up to the new literacy

Writing by Anthony Russo

A writing revolution has been happening over recent years. It's not on show, and it's not happening in the classrooms. On holiday recently I saw it again, under my very nose.

Virtually every young guest at the Heilala Holiday Village was writing daily in a blog. They'd brought a netbook in their luggage, or used the iMacs in the dining room. And they were not just tossing careless words at the screen and hitting Send. They spent time and care over what they wrote. They exhibited precisely the behaviour that English teachers dream of.

They structured their prose. They edited it. They massaged it. They proofread. Above all, they wrote for an audience.

Older people watched the young travellers and waited for the iMacs to come free. And waited. And waited.

I was amazed and impressed. Even as one older guest was ranting on about the Poor Literacy Standards of Young People Today, there they were, under our noses, polishing their prose for a real audience. Writing and writing and writing.

Years ago, when my kids travelled through wild and dangerous lands, I hoped for a postcard every few months. They didn't write much: maybe because they had to say the same thing over and over again. Today's lucky parents can open Firefox, join the crowd and sweat over their children's hair-raising adventure of the day, told to the whole wide world in a blog.

Why this revolution? Why do people work so much harder at a blog than a school assignment? It's the audience: real, known and unknown, they're out there and they respond. Sure beats writing for a teacher, and ultimately, no matter how ingenious the teacher, school writing is done for a grade. Then there's the reward of seeing your writing look good on the screen: a printout cannot compete for glamour.

Clive Thompson calls this "the new literacy". In Wired magazine he tells us Andrea Lunsford at Stanford has been studying young people's writing for five years and come to some fascinating conclusions.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The Stanford Study of Writing

What e-government needs now

A McKinsey Quarterly article on E-government 2.0 concludes that government use of the internet is far from reaching its potential. Jason Baumgarten and Michael Chui look approvingly at early initiatives and coolly at what's happening now:

Despite spending enormous amounts on Web-based initiatives, government agencies often fail to meet users’ needs online.

Baumgarten and Chui are clear about why e-government seems to have stalled, and have three instructions. They're talking about the USA, and it's worth thinking about.

No use doing any one of these three if the other two are ignored. E-government is not a trendy add-on to government bureaucracy. It means re-examining the whole shebang — starting with the org-chart. Who's in charge? Who has the expertise? Can we afford any technological naivete in management?

To reach the next level in e-government services, organizations must overcome each of these obstacles. First, they must move to a governance model in which e-government initiatives are owned by “line of business” executives and supported by a dedicated, cross-functional team. Second, they must develop capabilities in critical areas such as marketing, usability, Web analytics, and customer insights. Finally, government agencies must shift mind-sets to proactively get citizens, businesses, and other agencies involved in contributing or creating applications and content.

This is the bit that Contented can help with, in our own small way: must develop capabilities in [...] marketing, usability, [...] and customer insights. Our Diploma in Web Content is one way that thousands of web content authors in government can gain those skills.

Does that seem a stretch to you? Well, the old p-government involved thousands of government employees working on paper and shifting those pieces of paper around. Some pieces went to the public. Marketing was seen as a discrete specialty. Even writing plain language was seen by some as an arcane specialty, done by the communications department and unrelated to everyday work! Government agencies should not be ivory towers or even contain ivory towers... but they did, and some still do.

When government went online, every document became a marketing tool — like it or not. Every document should be fuelled by customer insights. Many a government employee who writes at work now writes stuff that directly affects the public.

It's a huge turnaround from paper writing to web writing and there's a lot at stake. Million dollar ICT projects can fail if the content is written with a paper world in mind.

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