Summer Musings on Websites

Ok, summer is halfway over! I hope you've had some vacation time to relax. Summer is also a great time to think big and muse on how you want to improve your website. Here are 5 important things to consider:

1) An easy to update website is essential. I like Wordpress, tolerate Drupal, and dislike Joomla. But really, I can't figure out why more non-profits and companies aren't on Squarespace. Its platform is so much easier, looks great, and saves money. Squarespace didn't pay me to say that. If your website isn't very complicated, I would move it to Squarespace or another similar platform. Save the development headache and focus on the content. 

2) Website accessibility better get prioritized. Winn Dixie was sued for not having an accessible website recently. The blind customer won the case in June. Some design/development firm sure blew it. Next time they'll think about the 19% of folks with a disability in the US. You should too. Start with this guide to learn how to make your site more accessible. I'm working on improving mine this summer. 

3) Values show up on your website. Whether you are aware of them or not, your values are reflected in your behavior, your communication, and your website. Do you value efficiency, honesty, relationships...or something else? What are your values anyway?  How are they showing up on your website? My co-author and I discuss values extensively in our book Don't Be a Zombie: How to Refocus your Company’s Identity for More Authentic Communication. Using your values is the key to authentic and consistent communication. 

 Meme with a white cat and a stuffed animal cat that says "Oh look, we have a copy cat here"

4) Copying doesn't work. It makes for websites that look too similar. It's easy to look at competing companies or blogs and think, "Oooh, we should do that too." If you find yourself saying something like that, STOP. It's a terrible idea. Instead, you can see what the competition is doing so you can do something different. Seth Godin talks about this in probably half of his 25+  books.

5) The best website book still remains the same. If you haven't read Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug, you are probably violating basic UX rules with your website. This means losing customers and readers. And don't depend on expertise of others. I know many designers and developers who violate basic UX rules all the time. Don't make people leave your website in frustration.

So that's what's on my mind. Do you agree or disagree with me? And what are you thinking about this summer? 

The Zombie Business Cure Book Available NOW

So happy to announce that my book is out now! You can buy it at Amazon here!

Do you know an organization whose communication is lifeless or indistinguishable? The Zombie Business Cure can help. 

The book covers:

  • content strategy
  • communication planning
  • some UX case studies

It's full of practical tips! It can help whoever is managing communication for an organization (or aspires to do so). This might be a:

  • small business owner
  • non-profit executive
  • marketing or public relations professional
  • business or communication student

Do you know someone who it might be able to help? If so, maybe you could buy a copy as a gift. 

Talking About Originality in an Advent Calendar

My religious family members would be so proud. I'm in an advent calendar - but for content strategy! Gather Content's 2016 Advent Calendar gives all kinds of solid advice from experienced content strategists. 

Learn how to stand out by being original with your content! I'm talking here about ideas from my forthcoming book The Zombie Business Cure. Click below to get to the 5 minute video!

Write Like It’s 2016, not 1996

Where were you in 1996? I was in the picturesque town of  Davidson, North Carolina, typing away. As a senior in college, I interned at a small sports marketing firm. We produced the College Soccer Weekly website that was later bought by soccer.com. This was my first "office" job - until then I had mostly just coached soccer.

 Logo for College Soccer Weekly, the website I wrote for in 1996

My main task was to develop website content. I conducted interviews with college soccer stars who were on the US National Teams. I interviewed legendary coaches who won often.  I wrote game notes before big contests and summaries afterwards. We had 1 million "hits" per month during the busy season of Fall soccer. And that was exciting!

ONLINE WRITING IN 1996

But bless the dear soccer fans who visited our website. I often broke the rules we now know about writing for the web. Here’s an example from the article about game between top teams Notre Dame and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

"After equally good chances at both ends and some fine goalkeeping by Notre Dame's LaKeysia Beene and Carolina's Siri Mullinix, newcomer Anne Makinen of the Irish grabbed the attention 22 minutes into the game. A foul by Carolina 25 yards out gave the Irish a free kick which center midfielder Makinen perfectly placed into the lower left corner of the goal, avoiding the wall of Carolina players." 

I ran this passage through a free online resource, the Hemingway Editor app. It examines your text and lets you know how readable it is. Check out the result:

 Screenshot of my sentences run through the Hemingway Editor app online. These sentences are at Grade 18 reading level and difficult to read.

Yikes! These are "very hard to read" sentences at a reading level of Grade 18! The recommended grade level for writing on the web for a U.S. audience is generally 8th grade. (Even first year college students often read at this level.) 

We’ve learned so much about how people read on the web in the last 20 years. But has that actually changed our writing? Looking at many websites out there, the answer is "no." 

Online Writing in 2016

In July I realized this problem with online writing was bigger than I thought. I read this article on "The Impact of Smart Analytics on Commerce" on a blog of tech giant IBM. Now certainly IBM has a batch of user experience professionals, marketers, and other employees who must understand how people read online. Right? Right?! So why can't someone edit the posts on the IBM Commerce Blog? 

Look at the mess when I run this article though the Hemingway Editor:

 View of the IBM article text put through the Hemingway Editor. Most sentences are highlighted in red because they are considered "very hard to read"

The article's reading level is at Grade 18. There are 12 "very hard to read" sentences. This looks pretty darn similar to how I wrote in 1996.

Don't think I just cherry picked this article. I looked at a sample of 7 of them from the IBM blog. Here's that list along with the number of "very hard to read" sentences and the grade level of the writing.

Even highly educated IBM customers can experience cognitive overload when reading online. And our eyes get tired. We get distracted. We get lost in a long compound-complex sentence. Make it easier for everybody to read! IBM just needs one extra hour to change its articles for how people read online. Shorten sentences, find alternatives to complex words, break up lists of items. Kill the sentences that sound like a PhD student. 

If you write online, you must know how people read online. Otherwise it’s like being a fashion designer without a sense of how the human body moves. You wouldn't do silly stuff like design pants that people can’t walk in. Don't write articles that are hard to read either. Nobody ever says, "Jeez, that was too easy to understand!"

So...what should we do? 

Do at least one of of the following ASAP:

  1. Use Hemingway Editor and run all of your website text through it. There’s a free version. It’s awesome. The Internet could be a better place for all readers if we all used it. 
  2. Read Chapter 5 from Steve Krug’s Book “Don’t Make Me Think.”
  3. Read Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish. You can snag a few sample chapters at Ginny’s website. 
  4. Have beta-readers who represent your target audience read your copy. Learn what confused them and which sentences they have to re-read to understand.

Join me in writing at least for 2016, if not for the future...

The Zombie Business Cure Book Coming Early 2017

Cover of The Zombie Business Cure book

I'm happy to share with y'all that the book I've been working on for the last two years will be out in stores in early 2017.  I'm currently finishing up the last chapter with my co-author and friend, Dr. Julie Lellis, a professor of strategic communication at Elon University. 

Our book helps small business owners and communication professionals in larger organizations to be more mindful and authentic in their communication. 

We include case studies and examples in the book of organizations such as:

  • Starbucks
  • Buffer
  • Lululemon
  • Allstate Insurance
  • The Unipiper
  • Nat's Hard Cider
  • Duke University Lemur Center
  • Meals Plus
  • and many more!

This will be a short blog post as I'm so tired of writing already. I'll keep you posted as the book becomes available.

Thanks to everyone for their support!

Love Your Videographers: Advice to Create Successful Videos

Videos can be very effective for marketing, but they aren’t cheap to make. And low quality videos have poor return on investment. Research by the Content Marketing Institute looked at 200,000 YouTube business videos and discovered that more than 50% of them had less than 1,000 views. Many videos created by businesses and other organizations are boring, poorly made, or just blah. When investing in video, you should aim for high-quality results that support your marketing objectives.

So how do you create the best video possible for your money?

The key to creating a terrific video and having a great relationship with your video team is to get everyone the same page - and keep them there. So says the experienced team at StoryDriven, a marketing firm with a specialty in documentary-style video located in Durham, NC. The group has made videos for organizations such as Harvard Business School, CrossComm, Durham Academy, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina.

ScreenShot of the Story Driven websiteI sat down with Nathan and Bryce of StoryDriven to understand how we can do a better job of working with videographers, keep on the same page, and end up with impactful videos. Learn from them in our interview below:

What are your goals as videographers?

Bryce: We want to make sure that we are communicating the message that truly needs to be communicated. We need to take time to understand what the client is trying to say and get all the important information before we start shooting. Success often depends on the pre-production work - figuring out the right structure of the story, doing pre-interviews, and so on - you should have a clear idea of how the video should be laid out before you start producing it. This makes for an enjoyable experience.

Nathan: Also we want to be a strategic content partner that goes beyond video. For example, we can take your video and transcribe it and then you have tweets for days or weeks. We can pull still frames with quotes overlaid for easy social media posts. We want to see that your video has maximum impact, so you can reach your business goal and feel you got the most of your investment.

What things do clients do that annoy you?

Nathan: It's frustrating when we get called in, and the client has already decided on all the things that make a story good or bad. If we don’t have the chance to give input and bring our expertise as storytellers through video, we are limited from the get-go. Some clients would rather have their video vendor execute than be a collaborative partner. And we’ve realized that videographers start to expect this. But we help our clients get more out of their video when we develop ideas together. We’ve seen what works and doesn’t over many years and types of videos.

Bryce: Good communication is key to any healthy relationship. Part of that communication is aligning expectations. Assumptions about responsibilities and workload is a formula for disaster. Our job is to educate our clients and be their guide throughout the process. Take workload for example, oftentimes clients don’t realize that even a small change to a video will require us export, compress, upload and deliver it again - changes should be sent in batches so the process isn’t bogged down with a continuous stream of minor tweaks.

What do you wish clients did more of?

Nathan: Provide positive feedback along with negative feedback - that’s always nice, we are human beings too.

Bryce: Patience is important. If someone were to come to us saying, "We need this next week," that’s just not realistic for success. Video needs to be incorporated into your strategic communications plan. Give your video partner a three month window.

How much do high quality videos cost?

Nathan: It depends on the complexity of the story being told and the length of the video. It’s actually harder to make a shorter video than a longer one. There is a wide range in the industry, but the best videographers in our area might price a video with three characters anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000.

Bryce: It's always going to cost more than you think it is. If you are deciding who to use based on a bid war, you might luck out and find someone early in their career who charges less. But, you want to make sure that you are working with someone who “gets it,” wants to understand who you are and where you are coming from, and can expand upon your brand. Keep in mind that big equipment does not equal value. Value is understanding and being able to collaborate with a trusted partner.

Do you have any other advice for those hiring videographers?

Nathan: Always give your video person a deadline even if it's arbitrary. This helps us prioritize our other work and get it to you in a reasonable time. And be sure there is one contact person for us who can consolidate feedback so we aren’t getting different direction from various team members.

Bryce: If you work with someone to build a relationship, every time you do a project together it's going to get better since both parties come in with more knowledge and understanding of the situation. We love what we do and think that not only can we produce terrific videos, but the process itself can be fun for all.

Nathan: Yes, we love what we do and especially like finding partners to work with for the long-term. View your video team as a relationship, treat them like you like to be treated, and you are going to get more exciting video and care on your projects.

Thank you, StoryDriven team!

Check out some recent work by StoryDriven:

Investors' Circle - The Investor Story from StoryDriven on Vimeo.

If you have any further questions on documentary style video, you can reach out to the StoryDriven team or contact me for advice.

Do Less, Not More in 2016

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”- Dr. Seuss

Too many people in both small and large organizations create a lot of extra work for themselves. They pump out content, send a flurry of mass emails, and rapidly develop services or products. I see lots of activity without enough planning, thought, or research. This often leads to poor results. Busyness isn’t productivity.

In 2016, I hope you do less, not more. Do whatever you do with care, thought, and deliberation. Make sure what you are creating will have impact. Don’t create unnecessary work for yourself.

keep-calm-and-do-less_small.jpg

Before creating an article, a product, a service, or anything else, ask yourself critical questions such as:

  • Who is this for?
  • How do we know they want it?
  • How long will this take to make?
  • Does this help us reach our business goals?
  • Is it worth the time?
  • Do we have the time?
  • How will we measure results?

Here are my other hopes for you in 2016:

Have a communication plan for this year. It doesn’t have to be long. A one page document with goals, target audiences and key messages can be sufficient. Plan what you are doing instead of taking haphazard actions. I did my communication plan for the year the other day in an hour. Download an example of a simple communication plan template here.

Go for quality not quantity. Whatever you plan to do online, go for quality not quantity. With digital content, especially for professional services organizations, this will serve you well. I encourage you to have short headlines, clear navigation, and straightforward language. Keep it simple and meaningful. Dump the marketing fluff. Here are 5 ways to give your website some love. Or check out my 2015 website tips that are still super relevant.

Don’t guess what the people you serve want. Talk with them, ask them, and study them. You’ll be much better at delivering items that are valued. Many companies create services or products based on intuition or false assumptions. I haven't seen it work well.

Be choosy about what ideas you execute. Ideas can be a dime a dozen. Next time you have a great idea, do some research to try to confirm it. Is it really great? Are you able to do it? Is it worth the effort? Remind me to tell you about my company called Recycled Sequins sometime. Great idea (I had a awesome tagline!), never executed (it saved me hours of work and frustration.)

Aim for joy. I hope you like what you are doing with your work life. If you don’t, what can change? Life is short, the first few days of 2016 are already gone! How are you going to spend your time?

I'll be doing more UX research and content strategy this year. Let me know if I can help you.

Wishing you a thoughtful, careful, and deliberate 2016!

Content Manager's Pledge

Here's the content managers pledge I presented at LavCon 2015: I pledge in front of my esteemed LavaCon colleagues for the superior content for which we stand,

to always have a project goal to communicate clear deadlines to provide organized feedback promptly and to treat my content authors with the care they deserve

so our one project together can become many, with unicorns and rainbows for all.

5 Important Things Photojournalists Can Teach Website Managers

NPPA_new_logo.jpg

One photojournalist in Iraq narrowly avoided death by explosion when she declined to get in the first vehicle of a convoy. Another woman was mugged twice in a short trip to Africa. As I listened to these photographers speak, I thought about how easy my job is helping people improve their websites. I spent a recent weekend at the National Press Photographers Association Northern Short Course to further my multimedia storytelling and photography skills. I was awed by the amazing images that people sometimes risk their lives to get. I was also able to glean many pointers that apply to anyone who owns a website.

Here are five important things relevant for any website owner or content manager:

1. Seeing is believing. Photojournalists and videographers are providing visual evidence to give weight to facts, statistics and stories. Whether it’s the war in Syria or poverty in Tennessee, seeing images makes things real. Whatever service or product you provide, using photos and videos can have outsize impact on your viewers.

Are people’s lives transformed by your work? Get them on video talking about that. Show what their lives look like now. Is it really easy to use your product? Demonstrate that visually. If you’ve created a big happy community, give us genuine pictures of joyful people interacting on your website. Show, don’t tell, when possible. It’s so much more compelling when we can see the process and/or the results.

2. People need to get the idea from one picture. On the safer side of photography is portrait specialist Greg Heisler (pictured, right). He has shot more than 70 Time magazine covers including most celebrities you can name. Heisler explained that he makes sure that he has that one image that encapsulates the main message of the story. Although he will shoot other photos for interior pages, his audience needs to get a strong sense of that famous person by looking at one photo.

Similarly, the pictures you choose for your website, especially your homepage, have to represent what you do very well. Your photos must capture the main messages you are trying to send. People make very fast decisions about websites and move through them quickly – you often have only a few seconds to make an impression. Finding the perfect pictures for your website takes time, but it's worth it. And please, don’t use carousels (aka sliders) – users usually ignore them or find them annoying.

3. You have to have a good reason to produce something longer than a minute. This gem is from Ben Garvin, a photojournalist based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Currently I've noticed that video is a favorite content tactic. Yet attention span for viewing video is very short. Abandonment rates on video are tremendous – in fact, research from the Nielsen Norman Group states you lose 20% of your viewers within the first 10 seconds of a video.

If you are using a promotional video on your website, keep it as short as possible! Spend the money to hire a great videographer. Watch this terrific example of a well-made video created for a non-profit organization. If you have audio stories or testimonials, edit them down to be short and powerful.

4. It's important to avoid jarring the viewers. This idea came from photojournalist John Kirtley of Asheville, North Carolina, as he explained his editing process. (You can see a particularly inspiring news video he produced below.) He really keeps viewers in mind and is careful not to startle them as he puts together his stories. You need to apply the same idea to your website.

Pop-up windows, auto-playing music or videos and even anchor links can startle website users. These are not the kind of surprises we enjoy, yet I encounter them regularly. If you aren’t sure if something is jarring, try it out on a few honest friends. Check out their reaction to make sure you aren’t hindering instead of helping your website users.

5. People remember what they feel. If something makes you smile or feel some sort of emotion, you pay attention to it, Kirtly explained in his session “Making the Most of the Mundane.” Keep this idea in the forefront of your mind as you plan your website - how are you making your users feel?

Improving user experience for website visitors is on the rise but remains a competitive advantage. Your focus should be on your website user. Help them feel trust, ease and happiness when they visit your site. Can they accomplish their goals quickly and easily? Is it possible to delight them along the way? MailChimp does a great job of this with not only with a great product but also a high-fiving monkey after you send out an email blast. It’s a small but memorable touch that puts a smile on my face.

You don’t have to risk your life to help your website users, you just need to pay better attention to them. Channel your inner photojournalist, and start now.

For some extra inspiration check out this video produced by John Kirtley:

Snow Down, Slow Down

Handprint in SnowAs much as I dislike the cold weather, when snow falls, we all slow down here in the South — and that I secretly love. We have to pause because most of us don’t have experience driving in snow, and our area isn’t well prepared for “wintry mix” or serious snowstorms. There’s usually a flurry of activity at the grocery store in the 24 hours before a storm, but then a hush falls over the town I live in.

There is great value in this forced slowing down.

When I think about websites, content and technology, I deeply believe the best experiences don’t come from hurrying. I’m not just talking about the final results — perhaps a beautiful, responsive website — but also the process for the people who create these things.

There is a quote I love that I refer to often:

“We live by slowing down and saying with our lives that the world will not be saved by frantic activity.” – Stanley Hauerwas, theologian, Duke University

This is written on top of my digital to-do list. When I’m hurrying to create content, it’s not fun. It's evident in the final product. I do better work when I listen, consider, reflect, reconsider, then act.

Especially on social media, it can feel like lot of pressure to produce things quickly – for example, another blog post or more tweets. “Don’t just sit there, do something!” sometimes seems to be the message.

But when I look at the people and organizations I really value, they aren’t bombarding me with information or running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Two examples come to mind:

  1. Smashing Magazine who only emails me once a month with a newsletter. I look forward to it because I know it will have thoughtful, interesting and useful content in it.
  2. Twitter member and usability expert Steve Krug tweets every few days or less. I like reading what he tweets out, and I don't need him to tweet 5 times a day.

Much of the time on Twitter and other online spaces, there are organizations and people spewing information about nothing of value. If I came across these overly talkative folks at a party, I would likely scoot to the other side of the room.

Now you can be that person at the party who talks all the time to hear themselves talk, or you could be the person who speaks up less frequently, more deliberately and more thoughtfully. At least for many professional service businesses and organizations, the second option may serve them best (e-commerce might be another story). I value those people who are ok with the silence and the slowing down, who trust that frantic activity isn’t going to make our websites better or our lives better or the whole world better.

I vote we slow down more frequently to do more impactful work and have more meaningful conversations. We can make this world a better place to be.

Let it snow!

Focus on Author Experience (AX) for Great User Experience (UX)

Author experience (AX) is a critical factor that affects user experiences on websites — particularly for decentralized organizations like universities. In case you aren’t familiar with AX in terms of websites, you could think of it like this: Author experience includes all aspects of content authors’ interactions both with the website and the managers at an organization.

AX is a priority for decentralized organizations such as universities that have many different groups publishing websites and content. And sometimes the content development landscape in higher ed looks like this:

Content Landscape in Higher Ed
Content Landscape in Higher Ed

Helping content authors get on the same page about goals, quality, and style is essential to avoid an inconsistent and confusing user experience.

Three things that can improve AX:

  1. Training on writing, photo, and video because nobody wants to feel over their head
  2. A style guide so that there is consistency on the website
  3. Page level content strategy, since having objectives and a goal for each page leads to smarter content decisions

All three are important, but I see page level content strategy as the key to helping content authors (I’m assuming there is already a communications plan in place for the organization). For example, in a decentralized environment, it’s much easier to fix formatting issues missed (ignored?) in the style guide than to get someone to remove poor content. Once content is up online, there is something sticky about it – it’s often hard to get rid of since people are now invested and accustomed to it.

More on page level content strategy in my next post coming in January!

If you are a content author in higher ed or another decentralized organization, how can you start a conversation about what you need? And if you are a manager, what could you do to improve AX (in order to improve UX) in 2015?

One Major Content Strategy Idea that Most Businesses Have Backwards

If you remember nothing else about this blog post, take away this:

Story FIRST, then format

I talk with small business owners every week who have this backwards. Recently, I had a typical conversation with a retail business owner who had a few online videos on his website:

Me: “Tell me about these videos.” Biz Owner: “We had to create videos. You know, people really want to watch videos, we had to do it.” Me: “I’m not getting any of the important things you told me about your business in these videos. They don’t match your branding or feel or have a clear message. I was confused when I watched them.” Biz Owner: “Oh. Hmm. . . . . But people like videos so I had to do something.”

Like many business owners, he had it backwards - he was choosing to use a video to tell others about his business, BUT he wasn’t clear on the story and message that he wanted to share

We know videos have extremely high abandonment rates - many viewers will leave after 10 or 20 seconds. Bad videos aren’t going to help your business at all. In fact, they just undermine your credibility.

FIRST determine what story you want to tell. Think of stories that best tell what you do and how people’s lives are changed by your business. (If you are having trouble with this, consider checking out The Story of Telling blog by Bernadette Jiwa.)

After you are clear on what the story is, THEN choose the proper format - text, video, graphic, photos or some combination of these.

Your story will give you clues as to the best way to tell it. For example, if you are explaining a process, a graphic or video might be great. On the other hand, if you are talking about a decisive moment in your business history, a photo and text combination might work.

For example, a young woman I know wanted to start a cape business. Knowing kids and beautiful capes would be involved, she made a great video for a Kickstarter campaign. Her campaign goal was $15,000. She was wildly successful and raised $45,000 to start her business. That video really helped her.

Again:

Story FIRST, then format

Burn this idea into your consciousness and make your content decisions by it. Take a moment right now if you can to think of a story you can tell about your business. Send me an email if you want to run it by me for feedback.

In my next post, I’ll talk in more detail about when a video format may be the best way to tell a story.

Have a website? Got content strategy?

Content strategy is a relatively new term that began to be used in web circles in the late 90s. It's commonly used by many professionals now. What is it? Why should you care? Here's my short explanation of what content strategy is:

Content strategy provides useful information to your audience so they get what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. It's the planning, creation, and management of content in all forms.

If you bother to make content (create a website for example), it's worth thinking about content strategy. Simply put, you are more likely to get your goals met if you do some planning first.

Is content strategy the same as a communication plan? No. A communication plan would contain a content strategy. A communication plan is broader - it will specify overall goals for your organization, audiences, timelines, measures of success, etc.

You may be a very tiny business, perhaps a one person show, and wonder if you should be worried about this stuff. The answer is yes. You are more likely to be a successful and lasting business if you plan your communication. You will also then ensure you won't look like a zombie (book forthcoming on this topic).

If you don't have much time to devote to communication planning or content strategy, you can head the right direction by answering these questions:

  1. What is important to my organization? What values do I/we hold dear?
  2. What are my goals?
  3. Who is the primary audience I need to reach with my content? What are they like?
  4. How can I best reach them? What would they like to see?

This is a start toward a communication plan and content strategy. Let me know if you have questions or need help!