Apr 14, 2011

The Competition for Attention: Tips for Content Strategists

Gaining the audiences attention - and keeping them in their seats - are dual challenges.

A panel discussion on product development I attended at last month’s Web 2.0 Expo got me thinking about the competition for gaining – and keeping – attention in today’s transparent marketplace.  The intensity of the panelists – borne from their need to court and satisfy investors –  and the fact they all have big brand experience in the hyper-competitive search space – offered sharp perspective on how first movers, first impressions and simple promises made (and kept) to users can make or break web-based products out of the gate.

So what’s this discussion doing on a communications blog?  Well, some of the conclusions drawn from the product dev gurus on the panel translate nicely to the information markets, and our own roles as communicators.

The session was titled “How to ship product and influence people,” and the participants were were:

  • Michael Sharon, Facebook, @deprimer
  • Jess Lee, Polyvore (and formerly of Google) @jesskah
  • Daniel Raffel, Heavy Bits (formerly of Yahoo!) @danielraffel
  • Jeff Bonforte, Xobni (formerly of Yahoo!) @bonforte

Keep the bar for quality high.

Steve Jobs, Jeff Bonforte noted, has the spine and the bankroll to keep the bar high on the products Apple delivers.  The quality and legendary user-friendliness of Apple’s products are obviously not an accident.   The companies that consistently ship good products have internalized the process, added Michael Sharon.

The same thing could be said for building great content. Keep the bar high and build processes – such as encouraging a wide range of employee contributions, sticking to key themes or objectives, adhering to some sort of editorial standards and having peers review the content are keys to fueling successful content generation.

Is done better than perfect?

This question inspired lively debate, because of the tension between speed to market and quality, and the group spent a lot of time discussing the point at which a product is ready – and how slippery that moment is when you try to nail it down.

“Minimal viable product does not mean ‘launch crappy product,’” said Daniel Raffel, to the agreement of the group. However, Sharon immediately countered that done is better than perfect, saying, “Move fast and break things. It’s the web, you can update it tomorrow.”

One the one hand, there was agreement that the market rewards bold moves – but only if the product is good.  Listening to the panel argue about whether done is better than perfect, the adage “You don’t get a second chance at a first impression” came to mind.

And I think that’s the exact challenge anyone communicating with online audiences faces – from big-league product developers to a small marketing department planning its content strategy.  There’s real risk for the brand if the product/content/service/web site/blog/ white paper/whatever doesn’t work for your audience.  We all know it’s harder to regain a person’s attention when they’ve concluded that they don’t like what you’re purveying.

The answer? Simplicity. My take away from this discussion was the need for simplicity.  We’ve all used products that suffered from feature creep, making the product more complex and less satisfying to use.  Similarly, we’ve all read overloaded press releases and moribund white papers staggering to their deaths under incomprehensible loads of information.  For communicators – especially those communicating within the social layer – conveying key ideas clearly and simply is an important skill.  The rule of thumb I’m applying to some of my own writing is whether or not I can summarize it decently in a Tweet.   If the answer is no, that’s a signal to me that I need to do some editing, and consider splitting up or better organizing the content.

Listen to the people … and to the data.

Jess Lee mentioned the importance of using user feedback – but noted that it’s wise to look at the data too.  People will tell you one thing in focus groups or surveys – and that information is important, but one also needs to look at the user data, because that reflects their actual behavior.   For communications teams, user data relates to the content your audiences consume, and can include:

  • Web site analytics, which show what content on your web site is most popular, and what content generates desired actions (e.g. sharing, clicking through on links.) You can also discover what search terms people used to get to specific pages.
  • Blog analytics – what posts are most popular and widely shared?  Paying attention to this information will help you focus future content on popular subjects.
  • Your social media monitoring tools.  Monitor for more than your brand and competitors.  Cast the net wider, and monitor for keywords and phrases – this intelligence will reveal conversations about topics that you may not realize are happening – but afford good opportunities for your organization.

Let’s face it – there are many online products and apps out there, and the companies producing them essentially have one shot at the all important first impression.   If they’re successful, happy users will leave glowing reviews, they’ll chatter happily about the service on Twitter, Facebook and on their blogs – and the word “sucks” will be absent from the swelling buzz.  Listening to the experiences of those with their feet to the fire on the product side in ferociously competitive markets offered real insight, I thought,  for communicators – and emphasised the importance of gaining immediate traction with your audiences.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

Related reading:  Why Most Product Launches Fail – HBR April 2011

Image courtesy of Flickr user illustir

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