‘Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant’ according to Lotus founder Mitchell Kapor (of the software, not the cars). Yet many companies persist in power-spraying customers with every possible piece of information they have to hand.
Of the hundreds of people I’ve trained in Content Strategy, I’d estimate that 60 per cent have cited sheer volume of content as a major contributor to the poor user experience on their web and mobile sites. Yet when it comes to rationalising their content they face the combined forces of internal politics, resource constraints and the threat of sinking search rankings.
What is this urge we have to offer up Too Much Information? It’s nearly 18 years since Jakob Nielsen first measured the effect of improved web writing. He put figures to what all good editors instinctively know: that in most cases, concise, scannable, objective copy, highlighting clear user benefits, will usually outperform feature-led, hyperbolic overwritten blocks of copy. Research into consumption of corporate video and social content supports the same theory – clear, concise messages, mapped to customer interests, in manageable chunks, do best.
Of course, we’re not talking about content created purely for entertainment purposes. Or editorial content structured to appeal to those who require an in-depth read. We’re talking about brands and companies that – in their haste to impress upon current and potential customers their market superiority – deluge them with so much information that it’s overwhelming at best and irritating at worst.
In one of my favourite pieces of research of the past decade, nearly 100,000 customers worldwide told the Harvard Business Review they wished brands would drop the ‘bells and whistles’ and simply focus on answering their ‘plain vanilla questions’. This is at odds with many content marketing plans I see, that appear to prize volume and frequency over strategy. In fact, the volume often IS the strategy, as companies feel the pressure to be prolific across multiple platforms and justify their marketing technology investment. In the meantime, departmental silos, a lack of editorial expertise and complex sign-off processes mean they are often panic-publishing badly-planned, unengaging content of little value.
The 5-point TMI checklist
If you suspect that you might be operating a quantity-over-quality content strategy, perhaps it’s time to benchmark your efforts against this checklist. How many of these 5 statements can you honestly say apply in your organisation?
- ‘We know who – and what – each piece of content is for’
This is about STRATEGY. If every piece of content had a clear audience and strategic objective, the (business) Web would be a much better place. By requiring stakeholders to provide a statement of intent for each item they request and clarify measurable objectives for it, you should see volume go down but effectiveness go up.
- ‘Each content item follows one of our bespoke best-practice formats’
This is about USABILITY. By establishing a clear set of formats for people to create content into, you not only cut down time spent in production and sign-off, you also ensure usability principles are prioritised. From a whitepaper to a tweet, set strong examples and guidelines for people to follow – and train and support them in this.
- ‘We have a clear editorial hierarchy – we don’t do content by committee’
This is about QUALITY CONTROL. Not all editorial opinions are equal. Sometimes levels of editorial expertise are at odds with your corporate structure. This needs fixing fast, or what starts life as good content will be weakened (and often lengthened) in multiple group feedback rounds. Our survey says senior management are the worst offenders here.
- ‘We iterate and re-use rather than duplicate or recreate’
This is about EFFICIENCY. A lot of information-overload on company and product websites has its roots in non-joined up processes and politics. It becomes easier to produce a brand new ‘better’ version of something (or launch a microsite/add on) than to fix the original.
- ‘Customer data, insights and interaction inform our content planning, which is carefully done to a strict timetable’
This is about CUSTOMER-FOCUS. Leonardo da Vinci wrote: ‘the greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.’ It’s always tempting to act on the ideas of colleagues (especially senior ones) but the best content strategists strive for proof over opinions. Formalising your content planning and creating a culture where customer feedback is regularly sought and acted upon is a great way to stop I’ve-had-another-idea-for-an-app-syndrome. Having ideas is great, as long as they’re based on real customer needs, not egos, and the rest of the content calendar doesn’t grind to a halt while everyone hurries to implement that one idea.
How many of the TMI checklist did you tick off? Ingrain this behaviour in all stakeholders and it’s a great leap towards a truly customer-centric content culture and a big step away from over-sharing.
Catherine Toole is the Chairman of Sticky Content Ltd, she gave this seminar at Europe’s Customer Festival. See the slides:
Are you guilty of TMI? Catherine Toole | Sticky Content | Europe's Customer Festival from Sticky Content