Cross-device publishing finally exists!

In May last year, I wrote a post relating to the abundance of systems (or rather posters and presentations of systems) claiming to represent the much-vaunted ‘content-goes-in-here-and-comes-out-working-everywhere’ solution.

At the time, I was working as Chief Product Officer at an international agency. The agency worked with many brands, all of which had a significant interest in – if the many presentations, posters and banner ads were to be believed – the myriad solutions available to them.

The problem, as it turned out after much research, was that none of the systems actually delivered on the claims. Sure, some excelled in one area or another, but none provided the ability to assemble, animate, integrate and measure the same content across the many devices our brand customers demanded. This represented a real challenge, especially as I was under pressure to propose a solution for a retail client desperate to provide its customers with an interactive derivative of their catalogue on iPad.

Working closely with the tech team, we architected a solution that drew upon some of the elements of some of the systems available. It was never going to be a scalable platform solution, and would certainly mean that processes and workflows would have to be duplicated to produce subsequent catalogues, but at least it would provide the vehicle for our client to launch an attractive, ecommerce-enabled catalogue on the iPad. It was pretty successful as well, going straight into the Guardian’s Top30 iPad apps list – much to the joy of our client. Everyone was happy. Until the second catalogue.

You see, the inevitable impact of not having a platform solution, a solution that addresses many of the repeat tasks associated with producing subsequent pieces, is that processes must be repeated. The producers on the project had to repeat tasks; Developers had to repeat tasks; Our customer’s own design team had to repeat tasks. OK, the result was going to look great but the work involved was also great. There was an unavoidable cost implication.

At this point I want to make something clear: I don’t write this blog as a means to publicize or promote. I write it purely as a commentary on what I experience in the industries in which I work. My opinions are my own and they are always considered. I feel it’s important to mention this given that I’m about to refer to a solution, a platform, in which I have a stake.

Let me explain: Having left the agency last year, I joined a small tech company with which I’d been associated a few years prior.  The company intended to launch the supposedly ubiquitous solution I’d been searching for: a SaaS-based platform providing the tools to create, animate, integrate and measure, interactive, shoppable content experiences that work across web, tablet and mobile. Sound simple? Of course not.

A few months ago, the first version was launched. We expected some hiccups and we had them. But since then, thanks to the brilliant product team and the scrum process to which they so diligently adhere, we have released no less than 20 new versions. And last night, we went live with undoubtedly the most significant version to date.

I’m not going to use this post as a feature list, or even explain the significance of yesterday’s update. All I’m going to do with absolute confidence, is say the solution, apparently ubiquitous in May last year, finally exists. It really does.

And guess what? the first live App, produced by Conran, with no need for coding whatsoever,  went straight into the Guardian Top30 iPad apps list! (This time for a fraction of the cost to the customer…)

The website is here. The product is truly impressive. And yes, mine is a thoroughly considered opinion!

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Is this man the Father of modern content marketing?

Content marketing is essentially non-interruptive marketing. Interesting, relevant content (in pretty much any guise) forms the basis for engagement, with the brand message laced within or around it. It isn’t a new concept by any means, but perhaps the earliest and purest example of modern content marketing was pioneered by a lawyer-turned-musician named Oswald Nelson.

Oswald Nelson 1906 -1975

Oswald (Ozzie) Nelson conceived, wrote and performed in ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett,’ an American sitcom featuring the real-life Nelson family.

The show (and here’s the content marketing bit)  didn’t just broadcast an initial sponsorship message as many such programs did, it laced the message throughout, making it an integral part of the show.

You might think this would be annoying, perhaps even the opposite of non-interruptive marketing. You might think the show wouldn’t stand a chance. But, having first launched as a radio show in 1944, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett moved to TV with ABC in 1952 (with Ozzie having negotiated a 10 year deal whether the show continued or not – unprecedented at the time) and continued thereafter until 1966, 4 years more than the contracted period!

To this day the show is the longest running live-action sitcom in TV history. Is Ozzie Nelson the Father of modern content marketing? I reckon he’s surely a contender. Take a look at this fantastic Christmas episode from 1956. Can you spot the ‘subtle’ product message?

Cross-device platform publishing doesn’t exist. Not yet anyway.

Having recently been commissioned to carry out a study of the digital publishing platforms1 currently available, one aspect has become abundantly clear: everyone is chasing the dream.

The dream, depicted as a kind of candy wrapper in posters on the walls of so many publishing exhibition booths, is of a mechanism by which source content is input (one side of the candy wrapper), some magic happens (the candy itself) resulting in packaged experiences available seamlessly across desktop browsers, tablets and mobile phones (the other side of the candy wrapper).

Aspiration?

Sure, platforms exist that cater well for specific devices, and some that cater well for multiple devices, but none by using the same original, designed content, played in a form that works cross-device.  Maybe this is an unrealistic expectation. The tablet user interface for instance, inherently differs from the desktop interface. Swiping makes no sense on the desktop, whilst mouse-over makes no sense on a tablet. Purely from a design perspective then, surely it is impractical to cater for both? And what about differences in format? A page/window/panel/screen (delete as inappropriate) on one device will have a different aspect ratio on another.

In design resource alone, brands looking to publish across as wide a gamut of devices as possible are faced with an expensive undertaking. Cost pressure alone is driving demand.

It may be that initial releases require compromise in design. Alternatively, compromise may be in functionality. Either way, platforms will exist because demand dictates. And whoever caters for the demand, and does so well, is likely to do very nicely.

1Where ‘platform’ is used to describe a mechanism by which source content is input, edited, transformed and published to multiple devices in a format sympathetic to the high design value of a glossy magazine and capable of harnessing the interactivity of digital media.

Why Facebook Stores Are Failing

Content, audience and engagement. Facebook has it all. So why are brands apparently struggling to sustain a business case for their Facebook Stores?

In the past year alone, Gap Inc, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney and Gamestop have opened and subsequently closed Facebook Stores. How can this be? All the ingredients for a successful online retail venture appear to exist, yet in practise the result seems half-baked. Why?

To find the answer, we should first remind ourselves why Facebook has become such a phenomenon in the first place: Quite simply, it’s a great place to hang out, meet, and interact with likeminded people. Its a round-the-clock party, hosted by friends, in a familiar venue, with constantly changing decor. (No surprise it was originally called Faceparty).

The fact is, people party to socialise, not to buy stuff. How many parties do you attend where suddenly, an uninvited guest buts into your conversation weilding a pop-up store? Almost certainly none. And why? Becuase it’s a social faux pas. It’s a turn-off. It’s party pooping of the highest order. And it’s a real challenge for Facebook.

“We just didn’t get the return on investment we needed from the Facebook market, so we shut it down pretty quickly. For us, it’s been a way we communicate with customers on deals, not a place to sell.” – Ashley Sheetz, vice president of marketing and strategy, Gamestore.

A perfect place for people to converse and recommend stuff, it seems Facebook has yet to resolve the natural aversion its users have to bridging the apparently logical step between recommendation and transaction. The problem is, since when has logic figured in socialising with mates? A party based on logic? Be there to be square…

Batman's cape had seen better days

Content [is/is not] King (delete as appropriate)

An interesting debate was sparked within LinkedIn’s Chief Content Officer group today. It centred around the (now rather tiresome) adage that ‘Content is King.’ It began when Ben Dorsey, a VP Marketing and Communications in Indiana, suggested that if Content is King, the organisation of that content is Queen. Disagreeing with this viewpoint (and struggling with the premise that organisation of anything can be particularly regal) I waded into the debate and aired my view that content isn’t ‘King,’ and that in fact, as suggested by the writer and activist Cory Doctorow, content is just something to talk about. It is actually the conversation triggered by the contentthat actually wears the crown. (continued..)

Who wears the crown?

(By way of warning, the liberal use of metaphors in this debate only gathers pace from this point on).

Stephen Berner, a content creator in NY, believes there is no King or Queen. Rather, there are multilple plates to be spun, ‘at the same velocity,’ and ‘incrementally dialled up.’ ‘Content is useless,’ he says, ‘unless it can be found..’

Margot Carmichael Lester, a content strategist from North Carolina, suggests that ‘..regardless of who wears the crown, CCOs and other content managers need to be the power behind the throne..’

King, Queen, Throne, Crown, Plates, Power, whatever, it seems to me that Ben’s original comment, his original content and the ensuing conversation, confirms that relevant content, made available at the right time, in the right format, for the right audience, inevitably triggers all-important conversation..

Have a read of the exchange in context in the LinkedIn CCO group.

Creating Sticky Websites

Interview with me by Chris Lee originally published on 1st July at www.nmk.co.uk

Quality engaging content is crucial to the success of any company’s online marketing strategy. But even quality content’s impact is limited if the website is not engineered to make purchasing decisions simple for visitors thereafter. New Media Knowledge spoke to one expert to learn how to create engaging corporate websites in the age of the Social Web.

There is a well-used saying in Internet marketing circles: “content is king”. Optimised content draws in search traffic; engaging content is shared on social networks and retweeted on Twitter, yet many companies are at a loss as to what kind of content to create and how to seed it. NMK caught up with Dominic Duffy, executive vice president of Platform and Marketing at interactive content marketing platform Ceros, to learn more about content marketing best practice.

What are the challenges site owners are facing right now in attracting visitors and – moreover – encouraging them to come back?

As more and more brands acknowledge the value of content, they’re faced with three key challenges. Firstly, they need to create content that will engage users and encourage them to recommend it to others. Secondly they need to provide that content in a way that will make users want to return regularly. And finally they need to do all that in an efficient and cost-effective way. That’s no mean feat, which is why you’ll often see dated content tarnishing otherwise excellent websites. Equally great content can get lost in a badly designed website.

Does it all come down to design? If so, what makes a website really effective?

Design is extremely important but its application is often confined simply to the ‘look and feel’ rather than creating a connection with the user. As well as design, site owners need to think about how they will engage users. The best way that they can do this is with well thought out content.

Think of a ‘traditional’ website. How do you know what content has changed since you last visited? How do you know what content is new? In fact, if it is the first time you’ve visited the site; do you even know how to navigate it? ‘Traditional’ websites actually stand alone in breaking the pattern for every other form of media: They have no distinct beginning, middle and end. As a consequence, there is an inherent difficulty in using them to convey a clear message; a clear story.

Brands must provide good, exclusive content that is regularly refreshed and conveyed in a format that needs no familiarisation and has an inherently clear beginning, middle and end. Following this formula will engage users at level way beyond that of a conventional website.

How much of a role does social media play in customer retention and does it vary by sector?

Social media is extremely important and whilst its relevance is perhaps greater in B2C (business-to-consumer) at the moment, it’s fast becoming applicable in B2B (business-to-business) as well. After all, social media is effectively earned media – and therefore aspirational to brands.

Twitter is a powerful tool for brands but it’s confined to providing recommendation and referral, whereas Facebook can be used to convey content. However, Facebook pages can present brands with the same challenges as websites in terms of attracting a high volume of visitors on a regular basis. Aside from the usual offers and promotions for which Facebook has become a default location for many companies, brands struggle to provide fans with sufficiently engaging, regular content that will retain attention outside of special promotions.

What’s a great example of what you would cite as an effective website and why?

I think women’s fashion retailer Net-a-porter is one of the best examples of an effective ecommerce website. The website is a very impressive and well-executed blend of magazine-like editorial content and online shopping. It’s much more of an experience than a simple shopping site.

One of the most powerful parts of the site’s design is that upon first visiting the website, the user is presented with messaging that clearly states the content has a lifespan: “In this week’s magazine..” This might seems like a minor detail, but highlighting fresh content in this way can encourage users to keep coming back and make it easier to navigate the site and discover new content.

Original Interview can be found here