Duolingo has been around for a while and it is a testament to just how good it is that it is still so successful. It uses gamification to help users persist at learning a language long after the initial excitement disappears. It blends this with a beautiful and intuitive interface to make it easy to see your progress and to continue returning to it day after day.
You start by picking a language and then you start on your skills tree. You need to get 17 of twenty exercises correct to pass a set; pass the one to ten sets in each skill and it turns golden. You can then move to the next row of skills and pick any of them but you need to complete everything on a row to move on.
The exercises are a mixture of types which never become repetitive.
The neat part of Duolingo
When discussing what a Web Content Strategist does, it is very easy to get bogged down on all of the different requirements of a role that spans so many disciplines. It is a very useful exercise to reduce it to its most important elements. In the excellent The Web Content Strategist’s Bible, Richard Sheffield outlines 4 key qualities for a content manager which have nothing to do with technical requirements. He contends that the individual must be:
- A decent writer and editor
- Someone who understands how to plan and implement a project
- Someone who really wants to do this kind of work
- Someone who understands the bare basics of how the web works technically
And that’s it. Everything else is ‘gravy’.
Different jobs will have different emphases and technical requirements. I would fully agree with the above. Of course I can think of half a dozen other attributes to add to the list but that is self-defeating.
A content manager’s job is broad and varied. They are the link between various specialists while also needing to be specialists in several areas themselves. A talented content manager will propel a site’s strategy and development forward. But to do this they need to excel in numerous areas. Here are 7 key web content skills to start with.
If you are planning a site launch in 4 months you need to identify every piece of content that you will require along with all the other tasks involved in devlopment. For Cycle Ireland, I took around 8000 photos, selected 1650, photoshopped and captioned each of those, and then started work on the videos, text and supporting content.
Being an outstanding content manager requires the ability to plan in detail from the outset. Efficient processes and good organising is essential in order to keep problems and missed deadlines to a minimum.
Paul Kimmage interview with Floyd Landis on NY Velocity.
In 2010 the journalist Paul Kimmage interviewed the former pro cyclist Floyd Landis for a newspaper article. Landis won the 2006 Tour de France before having his title stripped for a doping offence. Coming from a Mennonite background and having been almost completely ostracised from the sport, Landis is an unusual character in comparison to most cyclists.
Kimmage read through the transcript of his 7 hour conversation with Landis and decided there was more to it than he could cover in a single newspaper article. A couple of months later the full, 31,000 word transcript was published on nyvelocity.com, an act which would not have been plausible offline.
The interview quickly gained attention and led directly to multiple lawsuits which divided and galvanised cycling fans. The topic of doping is discussed at length in the interview and revelations would dominate the sport since.
Only online could you publish such a document and see it spread so quickly. It was an inspired and brave decision to do so and shows how not all content decisions can be made by referring to guidelines or usual practice.
Don’t be afraid to take risks with your own content and to test what happens when you do something unexpected.
I follow on from my last post with a few more ideas on creating an appropriate content tone for your online writing.
Know what you want to say
Everything that you write must be in service of a point, whether that is to educate or persuade. Know where you must end up before you start. Sketch an outline before you start and it will be easier to stay on track.
Illustrate with stories
Instead of writing about what customers want, illustrate it with a story or two. Just make sure that the stories have something compelling to them. “John was a first-time customer who bought X product and was happy with it.” isn’t much of a story. There needs to be a twist or a reveal. “John bought X from us and returned 2 months later to buy the same for his wife – he said X had been invaluable to him during the coldest December in a generation when his family got snowed in for three days.” gives the reader a lot more information.
Call to action
Whatever it is, whether it’s a purchase or an email signup, carefully lead up to it and don’t be shy about doing so. You are writing for a reason and this is it.
Content tone needs to be crafted
It is not something that happens on its own or is a byproduct of writing. You need to craft it and practice it in order to get it right. Don’t neglect it.
We love to see outstanding content. xkcd is a “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language” by American artist Randall Munroe. It has been one of the most successful webcomics of the past few years. Munroe decided to do something out-of-the-ordinary.
He created “Time” – a 3,099 panel comic that updated one frame every 30 minutes, later hourly. It began with two people building a sandcastle and wondering why the water level is rising so quickly. They go on an obscure and difficult to understand journey where not a lot of note happens.
It was completely impractical for anybody to follow the comic in real-time, and previous panels were not made available on xkcd.com. When the comic was finished, it was left to fans to extract them and compile them into gifs, videos, and interactive pages such as http://geekwagon.net/projects/xkcd1190. The fact that xkcd had a highly successful forum helped greatly.
The comic generated a lot of discussion and publicity for its sheer ambition. There was nothing else like it out there. After some time, Munroe did an interview with Wired explaining that it took place in the Mediterranean Basin 11,000 years in the future, and pointed to various clues to its location within the comic.
xkcd: Time panel 1067
This is anexample of content not created by examining analytics or user needs. A great piece of content was created and it worked. What can you do that’s as ambitious?
Who is Miles Fisher? He is the prototypical actor of the future. Is that too extreme? Ok, let’s try again. He is a talented and successful actor who approached the business from the off with a hardnosed mindset. In this video he talks eloquently about how he exploited the possibilities of online media to carve out a career for himself.
‘Even before I made the first video that really popped off, I was in dialogue with people that were doing it on a bigger level than I was’. He didn’t make something and hope that it went viral, he researched the area intensively, planned his impact and made his first video.
‘We went all out – I took a little bit of a risk, I paid for it out of my own pocket’ – on his first video – he committed to it fully.
‘Be a good consumer – always looking around’. Being a good consumer is almost his first rule of being a good creator of online content.
‘I want to create a very-high production value, very cinematic-type videos that come out less often, so they are kind of an event.’ This is his way of differentiating himself from the surfeit of video blogs which often use webcams and are weekly – he was not content with following the crowd.
‘I put a lot of emphasis on everything I do – I think about not what the marketplace wants right now but where it’s going down the line and what sixth-graders (12-year-olds – LOC) are doing right now. And it’s not so much what they are watching but what they are making is amazing… and it’s only going to get more and more.’
‘Boredom has just evaporated… there are so many things to do now.’
‘Prove over and over again that you are worth people’s time.
Miles Fisher on Youtube:
Miles Fisher: How a Viral Video Star Is Reinventing the Acting Biz
This Must Be The Place (NSFW)
Don’t Let Go
As you can outsource virtually any part of the web development process, so it is with freelance web content. This can be a really good idea if you do it right – let’s look at the pros and cons:
Pros of freelance web content:
- You get access to a level of experience that you may not otherwise be able to afford
- You can get talent even if the role is not a full-time or permanent one e. g. for a microsite.
- You can be flexible and try things out without committing to the cost of a full-time member of staff.
- You can get a fresh perspective on the site – if you get someone good to do this it can save you a lot of money.
- You need to efficiently plan your content to be sure that everything will go smoothly.
Cons of freelance web content:
- The freelance content writer does not cultivate the familiarity with your business that a full-time content producer/manager would have. They won’t know your products or customers in absolute detail.
- An in-house content producer may (not always) offer a greater likelihood of imposing a consistent voice on the site.
- They are always available, even if that is only in theory.
- You can train them more easily in the needs of the business.
- Physical proximity to your team/business/products can be an advantage.
Freelance web content checklist
Define your site’s tone of voice – this should not be longer than a couple of paragraphs. Link to three or four examples on your site that best exhibit this voice. This will be the introduction for any writer to your site.
Write a biography of your customers/users. Outline their issues, what they are looking for, why they choose you, how they find you, what they complain about. Keep this short and to the point.
Decide your approach
The 404 error message is a small thing in the bigger picture, but you want to make sure that it fits with the tone of your site. You have several options for how you approach this:
Gather Content (www.gathercontent.com) is an intriguing new way of organising your content planning. There, of course, are various methods you can use, starting with the trusty old spreadsheet (it’s a classic for a reason).
Gather Content is a piece of cloud software that does a few neat things. Once you enter the content that you have, and need to plan, you can assign each piece to an individual and give it a deadline. A content map is automatically created, which is great, but the pages are not clickable, which is a disappointment.
You can assign a current state to each piece of content – a feature reminiscent of WordPress.
When you would use Gather Content
Gather Content appears to come into its own when managing multiple different projects as you can do it all in one place. You can give elaborate structures to pages beyond defining what text is required. The ability to make notes on an individual page is neat, and this is the area in which it goes far beyond the spreadsheet concept. You can attach images and metadata to individual pages.
Gather Content Logo
While it feels a little early stage, it is a promising piece of software. The more complex your planning is, probably the more likely you would be to benefit form it. For any content strategist, it is worth taking a look to see if it is a fit for you.