Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

IT $480,000: Content $5,000

TUANZ Business Internet Conference is on next week in Wellington. My presentation is 'Usable content: an achievable dream'. It includes an imaginary budget for the CMS of an imaginary company, Telepop Ltd, with a staff of 1,000. I tried to keep the budget realistic, although naturally every project is different.

Telepop's budget for a new intranet
CMS software purchase:$200,000
Software installation/customisation: $150,000
Business analysis: $30,000
Content audit: $8,000
Template design: $30,000
IA, usability tests, extra functionality: $30,000
TOTAL: $480,000

Typically, apart from the audit, Telepop excludes content from the funding loop. Sure, writers will be trained to use the publishing tool, but that's IT training. Telepop assumes everyone can already write good content. They organise a 1-day workshop on writing for the intranet for the web management team (16 people), and consider the job done and dusted.

Initial training for 20 content editors: $5,000

After go-live, the story is even sadder. At the very least, Telepop will pay an annual CMS licence fee of $20,000. Meantime, the web team turns over, trained writers leave, and the number of staff actually writing content increases every year. So what is Telepop's annual budget for training content writers? Zero.

To me this seems a tad bizarre. Telepop has spent a fortune on a virtual high class shop with marble fittings, gold taps, and customised systems. They decided what they would sell, but settled for poor quality stock. Now they plan to pay the rent every year, and never replenish the stock. Alas, the Telepop fantasy is an everyday scenario in the real world.

November 15, 2006

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Rare revolving reads

My son Ben, aged nine, found his perfect book and began to read it continuously. He read it ten consecutive times before he stopped telling me the score. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl was perfect, so why read anything else? Now Max, at seven, feels similarly about the Tashi books.

At their age I was more of literary glutton than connoisseur, but I did reread The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett many times. And about six years ago I read my way through Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust; I read as slowly as I could, and when I closed volume 12, all I wanted to do was start again.

Why are some books so compelling that they become a revolving read? And is there any web content with the same force?

It's not just the book, it's the reader. These are all terrific books, no question. But for certain readers at certain times, they are more: they are an extension of the psyche.

Ben was Zorro but he was also Charlie, a boy of humble origins who went on a quest, trounced his enemies and saved his family. Charlie was his avatar. And Max is just like Tashi, a teller of tales that have his friends agog, and are recounted with amazement by their parents. Tashi overcomes villains by thinking fast and moving fast. Max is committed to the irresistible, ingenious, inventive, pure-of-heart Tashi.

Mary Lennox, heroine of The Secret Garden, acted out my destiny as bossy brat and secret gardener. Even now a forest is growing on my roof, hidden from street view, with seven trees as tall as myself. And my back porch houses an impossible vege garden; last year I had to trim the tomatoes with hedge shears.

Charming, neurotic Proust acts on me as a kind of drug. I read a few lines, and drift into a daydream. When 'reading' Proust, I spend more time meditating on my own parallel internal experience than actually looking at the words.

Online, most of us don't want a compelling read: we want information fast, or we want to get a job done, fast. But some online content does grab people so they revisit again and again.

Games, for instance. And it strikes me that the rare revolving reads involve us in exactly the same way as games do. Reading is never passive, but those rare revolving reads get us actively working, choosing, deciding, comparing, planning, dreaming, and thinking our own thoughts. Like a game does.

The 2nd Big, Big Book of Tashi. Anna Fienberg, Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble. Allen & Unwin.

Use relevant, authentic photos or none

Eyetracking maps show there is a certain type of image that people literally do not see on a web page. It is amazing to realise that images can be totally ignored by a sample of 30 people in the entire time they spend looking at a page. A selective blindness strikes virtually all viewers.

Continue Reading >

Tackling things at last

The Stern Report warns that the world has 10 years to tackle climate change, or face a global recession costing about $10 trillion. This certainly has woken up the politicians. As a result, today I had a Major Language Moment. I caught Helen Clark on TV3 news talking about energy efficiency, sustainable land use, biofuels in petrol, and so forth. Then she uttered these immortal words:

'All of these things have to be tackled.' I nearly fell off my chair.

For the last 10 years, every news broadcast has featured at least one person - and not just politicians - talking about 'addressing the issues'. How vague. How non-committal. How pompous. How remote. How utterly unconvincing are those weasel words, 'addressing the issues'.

Addressing... writing a name and address on an issue shaped like an envelope? Saying 'Greetings, o ye issues! Let us have a pointless little meeting'? Whether talking or writing, addressing is not exactly an energetic verb.

And issues... issues are not problems or crises, let alone things. They are abstract topics of esoteric academic interest. Professors can debate them for years. They never go away.

Together, 'addressing' and 'issues' create a cool, undemanding, cerebral concept. They absolve the speaker from actually solving problems. They are a comfortable refuge for people who have no taste for action.

But today Helen Clark blew away all self-protective ambiguity and uttered that grunty rugby word, 'tackled'. Sure, her verb was passive, so perhaps someone else is destined to do the tackling. But I have no trouble picturing our prime minister hurling herself at these 'things', determined to bring them down, and fast.

With the change from weasel words to action verbs, plain language took over, physical, active, and convincing. Oh please, may Helen's words influence our nation. And may she resist the temptation to relapse.

Fury at phonies online

The definition of phony has shifted. And that brings a warning for every business that publishes content online, especially blogs.

A print newsletter for philatelists was published by New Zealand Post a few years ago. Purportedly written by 'Uncle Fred' (I think), it discussed his life and travels as well as stamps. Nicely designed, it was unmistakeably a corporate document. Yet some people believed Uncle Fred was a real person, even replying to his letters. More fools they: that was the attitude then.

Online, readers may still get sucked in, but when they find out, their reactions are different. They aren't embarrassed. They are enraged. Readers get heavily involved with blogs. Their comments become part of the content. The story is not just what the company decides to dish out: the story is the way people react, what readers write. The readers are the story.

Two journalists travelled across the USA, overnighting in Wal-Mart parking lots, and reporting on their road trip in a blog, Wal-Marting across America. Good story. Trouble is, they concealed their identities and the fact that they were paid (doh!) by Wal-Mart. By the time BusinessWeek unmasked them, the public was engaged in the adventure.

How Wal-Mart went wrong: that's the story now! It has been summarised and analysed by scores of journalists and still it continues.

Edelman screws up with duplicitous Wal-Mart blog, but it's OK? Dave Taylor asks, for example.
Damage control by Laura St. Claire is far from convincing. Some might call it nauseating.

Oh by the way, I really, really am Rachel McAlpine.

The purpose of books

What is the purpose of books? Not the same in every culture. A display of thirteen centuries of illustrated books in Japan shows books dedicated to catching the essence of a moment - a second - or even a nanosecond. One scroll illustrates a single day's journey. An all-night party by Hokusai produced 364 sketches. The books themselves were perceived as ephemera.

"When the evanescent is carefully contemplated, something timeless is revealed," says Edward Rothstein (New York Times). The exhibition is in the New York Public Library until 4 February 2007.

Ehon: The Artist and the book in Japan
Were these beautiful, strange, startling books the equivalent of a newspaper? Is online journalism the ultimate in ephemera, or a museum of fossils?

October 10, 2006

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Getting contented

Here's our blog about web content. And intranet content. Ready set go. We are bursting with ideas and at last have a place to put them. That's just the start: we are looking forward to your comments.

Last week someone asked me whether I knew of any 'New Zealand-based web community that shares information, contacts and experiences focused on content rather than the IT aspects of web.' Well, no, not last week. But today, here we are.

If you stumble on this blog while it still looks funny, sorry: soon it will be a bit more styly, and properly organised.

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