Calls to Action: Compelling or Inviting?

Many publishers are obsessed with developing the perfect call-to-action (CTA).   That obsession can end up being a turn off for some audiences.  Audiences don’t necessarily want to feel compelled to act, or feel rushed into making a decision.  In certain circumstances, publishers can ultimately achieve more by making their CTAs less compelling, and more inviting.

There’s little argument that CTAs matter.  A well optimized CTA can have real world consequences.  The UK government experimented with how to word a call to get people to donate their organs.  The best performing option yielded a significant increase over the worst option, and may be indirectly responsible for saving more lives.

But even the best performing CTAs are ignored or rejected by many if not most visitors.   Those visitors might not be ready to act, and the publisher can’t assume they’ll return to the website once they are ready to act.  They may head elsewhere.

Traditional CTAs, focused on urging the reader to do something specific, are not the only path to forming a relationship with audiences, nor are they necessarily the most appropriate path.  Publishers’ emphasis on action can sometimes presume a desire for commitment by readers that really isn’t present. When readers click, they are often not taking action as much as they are “poking” at the content, and seeing what happens.  They explore topics incrementally.  Their actions are tentative as long as they are still deliberating.

Before plotting the ways CTA buttons can wield power over readers to get them to comply with our wishes, content designers should consider how content users evaluate these buttons.

CTAs are most often crafted to support transactional content that discusses why a certain choice is a good one.  With transactional content, all the information needed to make a decision is right there.  The only unknown is whether the reader is sufficiently persuaded to act.

But much content is geared to building interest, instead of supplying cold hard facts or making bold assertions.  Such content is deliberative rather than transactional: it helps audiences think through a range of issues they need to consider before they are ready to make a decision.  When perusing deliberative content, readers often encounter CTAs that ask them to make a decision based on incomplete information.  What kind of CTA is appropriate to present when audiences aren’t ready to take action?

In many cases publishers serve up pushy CTAs while users of content are still trying to understand and evaluate a topic.  They aren’t yet sure how interested they are. A CTA is seen as pushy when the next step proposed is not aligned with the next step the user would be likely to take.   CTAs shouldn’t jump ahead of where the audience is likely to be after reading the content.  CTAs need to match the intention of the audience.

Getting CTA Alignment Through the Audience Perspective

The conventional advice about CTAs is to not offer choices to online visitors.  They will only get confused, distracted, or riven with doubt, according to this advice.  They won’t take action, and the outcome will be failure.

But a CTA that isn’t aligned with the visitor’s readiness is also a failure.  No matter how visible and clear the CTA, or how compelling the benefit, if the reader doesn’t feel ready to act, the call will be ignored.  No amount of  behavioral economics theory will nudge the viewer of the content across the chasm between figuring out their level of interest, and being ready to take action.

Choice Architecture in CTAs

Most CTAs shy away from offering readers any choices, but some exceptions exist.  The most common case is when a CTA for buying a service offers more than one package at different price points.  There may be a starter plan, a value plan (positioned in the center of the price spectrum and shown larger), and a deluxe plan.

Brands often offer multiple CTAs when the content system does not have sufficient information to segment the visitor accurately.   A website may not be able to assume everyone has the same reason for visiting and that everyone is seeking to do the same thing.  Uber’s homepage, for example, might include two calls-to-action: one seeking new drivers, and the other inviting new customers to join.  A common segmentation question is whether someone is an existing customer, or a prospective one.  Visitors are given a choice: to sign up for a service (new customers), or to sign in (existing customers).

The most common CTA that truly cedes decisions to visitors is used in product explorations.  Many landing pages give visitors the option of a trial or a tour.  They can choose to make a deeper commitment immediately, or they can explore the product more superficially with less effort.

CTA Variables: Payoffs and Obligations

Most CTA research focuses on wording changes.  For example, a marketer might test “Get your free evaluation” and compare it to “Download my no-cost evaluation.”    The wording is different, but the net outcome for the user is identical.  They are testing variant presentations of the same CTA, instead of offering alternative actions reflecting genuinely different choices.

Rather than focus entirely on wording, CTAs can be more dynamic and powerful when the outcome for the user is variable. Users then have more of a stake in what they are deciding.

Readers consider two aspects in a CTA: What do they get, and what kind of commitment are they making?  In both cases, CTAs are frequently vague on these points — often intentionally.  Here, the reality of CTAs collide with the lip-service many marketers pay to the concept of “value exchange” — that customers get something valuable in return for providing their personal details.  Customers need to trust that the publisher will give them something worthwhile in return for their effort.

The Reader’s Perspective on CTAs

Audiences encountering CTAs consider how the CTA meets their needs now, and in the future.  Past experiences with prior CTA interactions can influence these decisions, sometimes subconsciously.  A extended loop of micro-interactions with content shapes how valuable audiences believe the exchange with a brand will be.

Audiences may ask themselves:

  • What do they get now, and how valuable will it be?
  • What might they get in the future, and will it be valuable or not?
  • What personal details do they need to supply to get this information?
  • If they change their mind, how easily can they change the arrangement?

At the heart of the reader’s decision is an assessment of how much control they have in the process.  By clicking that button, what kind of commitment are they signing up for?

Commitments can be:

  • One time transaction [exchanging personal data for a defined information product]
  • Temporary commitments can be reversed [usage-based trial]
  • Commitments for a predefined time period [time-based trial]
  • Indefinite commitments with periodic windows inviting adjustment [open ended advisory relationship].

The reader wants to know how much of the content they will be able to experience immediately, verses how long they will need to wait to experience the full value of content offered.  Savvy readers are aware that signing up can involve an escalation of interaction from a brand.  They will get more messages from the brand unrelated to their specific request, and these will involve pitches for other informational products, requests for more personal data, and attempts to sell the brand’s product directly with offers.

As they are second-guessing what they may be committing to, audiences may simultaneously be unsure what they really want.  When brands focus exclusively on trying to get readers to agree to a specific proposition, they can loose sight of whether that proposition truly reflects what an individual wants.   Let’s assume the individual is interested in getting further information related to content they’ve read online.  The brand has successfully built sufficient interest to encourage the individual to listen to more of what the brand has to say.  Yet the presence of interest does not mean that the brand can simply craft some kind of “get more info” CTA and satisfy the individual.  The individual may be thinking the the current content is good for now, but not exactly what they want moving forward.  If the brand truly wants to build interest, they need to accommodate the preferences of readers, not just pressure them to take action.  Audiences may want options relating to:

  • Scope of the content — electing for broader or narrower content, based on what they consider more and less valuable in what they are reading
  • Pacing of the content — electing for more or less frequent content, based on how urgent or important the topic is to them at the moment
  • The convenience of the content — choosing formats based on convenience of consuming (such as audio podcasts) or sharing with others (such as worksheets and templates that can be repurposed).

The invitation to choice

Providing options signals to the reader they are important, and not just a means to an end for the brand.  Consider the case of the online political news publication, Politico.  They offer a premium service called Politico Pro that costs many thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to.  One of the key features the premium service offers over the free one is that readers can specify specific topics to track and get alerts when news is published about these topics.  That customization is simple, but provides enough value that thousands of readers elect to buy the premium service.

Instead of trying to control user behavior, calls to action that invite choice can help uncover what people really want.  That can be a key benefit when trying to understand the motivations of readers who might be interested in the product or service of a brand.  By inviting readers to request more tailored information, the content supplier can be more targeted in what they highlight.

The invitation approach is an alternative to the next-action approach, where readers are exhorted to “convert” by signing up, or at least reading one-more-thing while they are on a website.

What kinds of invitations are possible?  Brands can invite readers to indicate their interests by asking how the brand can be of help.   “How can we help you?” is not common wording in CTAs.   CTAs are generally geared to acquiring prospects and customers, and accordingly have a decisional orientation.  An invitational orientation steps back and emphasizes the relating and confirming stages of interaction with the audience.

How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content
How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content

Many kinds of companies can help readers by offering content options.  Some typical scenarios where readers can be asked for their interests could include:

  • Let me know when new information is available about [choices presenting informational topics of potential interest].
  • Suggest solutions that let me [choices presenting outcomes of interest]
  • Show me current offers on [choices presenting packages of services]

Better Content, Better Knowledge of Customers

Publishers can move beyond the passive feedback of click-based analytics by giving readers an active role in specifying their interests.  Behavioral analytics rarely answer why users take actions, and user motivations must be inferred from behaviors driven by a mix of factors.  When offering users choices, publishers get active feedback on the appeal of their content, and understand the motivations of their readers much better.

Publishers can gauge the depth of interest by providing audiences with choices.  Some readers may want to expand the range of topics the content addresses.  Other readers may want more focused content.  Some will indicate a continuing interest in the content, provided there is genuinely fresh material to see.  Such indications provide tangible information for publishers about the readiness of readers to consider actions.

This approach can be particularly useful in contexts where the factors involved with making a decision are complex, and the lead time for consideration can be long.  B2B marketing is one example, as are high stakes consumer decisions such as where to attend university.

All successful CTAs rely on experimentation and testing.  Introducing choices into CTAs brings a richer layer of information with which to experiment.  The specific options that customers care about, and ultimately act upon, might not be obvious until different variations are implemented and tested.  Only some options will perform above expectations: the challenge is uncovering which options matter the most to both audiences and the business of the publisher.  Content about high interest options may become more extensive and frequent.  Content about options that are of interest only to select groups may be offered less frequently or extensively, while low interest content can be withdrawn.

Providing precise, relevant content depends on publishers knowing their audiences.  Publishers prepared to make such an effort will gain far richer insights into the customer journey beyond what is conveyed through more generic approaches to modeling how people make decisions.

— Michael Andrews

From Labor Intensity to Value Intensity

Writing is at the core of nearly all content.  That’s true for articles, but also for video, and even the explanations that accompany a photo essay.  Writing is labor-intensive, and labor is expensive.  Many firms try to control labor costs by hiring writers willing to work for less.  But depressing wages is not the path to quality content.  The smarter approach is to focus on ways to reduce unnecessary labor when producing content.

When a process is labor-intensive, it is hard to develop sustainable value.  Each project involves dedicating people to produce something, and starting anew with the next project.  Content strategy fundamentally is about streamlining the costs associated with the labor-intensity of producing content.  Each item of content should ideally become less labor-intensive to produce.

Content strategy relies on three approaches to reduce the labor-intensity of content:

  1. Process Efficiency
  2. Prioritization
  3. Automation.

Process Efficiency

The first task is to ask how an organization may be wasting time producing content.  What unnecessary steps are being taken?  Sometimes inefficiency is the result of a badly set up infrastructure.  Perhaps a content management system requires authors to jump through too many hoops to get something published.  But more often the culprit is organizational.

Content strategists examine process efficiency as part of workflow analysis and governance development, but those descriptions can disguise the true nature of the problem, which is often political.  Many organizations have too many people involved in the production of content, involving too many steps, because they are unable to assign responsibility to the proper staff.  They may be risk averse, and consequently add unnecessary steps to the process.  They may be unwilling to empower staff to make decisions themselves, because they are unwilling to pay to hire sufficiently competent staff to do the work on their own.  These problems may manifest themselves as functional deficiencies, where people complain they lack the right tools for editorial review or collaborative editing, instead of asking why those steps are necessary at all.

Prioritization

The second task is to ask what time is wasted on producing content that delivers little value.  This involves assessing both the effort involved to create different content, and the value that the content delivers.  Some content may be deemed necessary, but delivers limited business value, so ways to streamline the creation of it are merited.  And some content may ultimately be deemed unnecessary, especially when it involves much effort to create and maintain.

The effort to create content reflects both how much labor is involved with creating the content, and how much time is required to keep the content up to date.  An e-commerce site might have a size converter to help foreign customers.  Even if foreign customers represent a small portion of sales, the effort to create the size converter is minimal, there is no maintenance involved, and so the incremental benefit is positive.  The same site would be ill advised to offer advice on customs duties for different countries, since these are complex and always subject to change.

Effort must be evaluated in terms of the business value of the content.  Content’s business value reflects the strategic goals that the content supports, combined with how the content performs in practice.  Determining business value of content is complicated.  It involves setting expectations for what the content is intended to achieve, based on its visibility and the critical impact it is expected to contribute.  The performance of the content reflects its actual contribution to business goals.  The interplay between expectations and current reality leads to a process of calibration, where content is evaluated according to its contribution and contribution potential.  Underperforming content must be examined in terms of its realistic potential contribution, weighed against the effort involved creating and maintaining the content.

Automation

The final task is to ask how to reduce duplication of effort when creating and maintaining content.  Duplication is evident when organizations produce many variations of the same content, but do so in an unsystematic and unplanned manner.

Content provides more value when a single item of content can support many variations.  One can distinguish two kinds of variation: vertical and horizontal.  Vertical variation looks at different ways to tell the same story.  Content about a topic is broken into modules that can be combined in various ways to present the topic.  Horizontal variation looks at how different stories on similar but different topics can be generated from the same basic content framework.

When duplication in content is understood, it can be planned around.  Content can be reused, and the maintenance effort associated with content is reduced.  Automation performs the donkeywork of piecing together the different variations as they are needed.

Value Intensity

Writing is hard work. Unnecessary writing, reviews and rewriting are a waste of money.  In order to get better value from content, one must first recognize how labor-intensive it can be.  Only then can one consider how the make the creation and maintenance of content less labor-intensive, and discover how to be more productive when producing content.

In an ideal situation, an item of content requires little effort to produce, but delivers critical business benefits.  The path to achieving that ideal is to develop a streamlined process centered on producing prioritized content that can be assembled from reusable components.

Value-intensive content delivers incremental benefits that exceed to the incremental effort required to create and maintain it.

— Michael Andrews

Format Free Content and Format Agility

A core pillar supporting the goal of reusable modules of content is that the content should be “format free”.  Format free conveys a target for content to attain, but the phrase tends to downplay how readily content can be transformed from one state to another.  It can conceal how people need to receive content, and whether the underlying content can support those needs.

I want to bring the user perspective into the discussion of formats.  Rather than only think about the desirability of format neutrality, I believe we should broaden the objective to consider the concept of format readiness.  Instead of just trying to transcend formats, content engineers should also consider how to enable customized formats to support different scenarios of use.  Users need content to have format flexibility, a quality that doesn’t happen automatically.   Not all content is equally ready for different format needs.

The Promise and Tyranny of Formats

Formats promise us access to content where we want it, how we want it. Consider two trends underway in the world of audio content.  First, there is growing emphasis on audio content for in-car experiences.  Since staring at a screen while driving is not recommended, auto makers are exploring how to make the driving experience more enriching with audio content.  A second trend goes in the opposite direction.  We see a renewed interested in a nearly dead format, the long playing record disc, with its expressive analog sensuality.  Suddenly LPs are everywhere, even in the supermarket.  The natural progression of these trends is that people buy a record in the supermarket, and then play the record in their car as soon as they reach the parking lot. An enveloping sonic experience awaits.

Playing records in your car may sound far fetched.  But the idea has a long pedigree.  As Consumer Reports notes: “A new technology came on the market in the mid-1950s and early 1960s that freed drivers from commercials and unreliable broadcast signals, allowing them to be the masters of their motoring soundtrack with their favorite pressed vinyl spinning on a record player mounted under the dash.”

Highway Hi-Fi record player. Image via Wikipedia.
Highway Hi-Fi record player. Image via Wikipedia.

In 1956, Chrysler introduced Highway Hi-Fi, an in-dash record player that played special sized discs that ran at 16 ⅔ rpms — half the speed of regular LPs, packing twice the playtime.  You could get a Dodge or DeSoto with a Highway Hi-Fi, and play records such as the musical the “Pajama Game.”  The Highway Hi-Fi came endorsed by the accordion playing taste maker, Laurence Welk.

Sadly playing records while driving in your car didn’t turn out to be a good idea.  Surprise: the records skipped in real-world driving conditions.  Owners complained, and Chrysler discontinued the Highway Hi-Fi in 1959.  Some hapless people were stuck with discs of the Pajama Game that they couldn’t play in their cars, and few home stereos supported 16 ⅔ play.  The content was locked in a dead format.

Format Free and Transcending Limitations

Many people imagine we’ve solved the straight jacket of formats in the digital era.  All content is now just a stream of zeros and ones.  Nearly any kind of digital content can be reduced to an XML representation.  Format free implies we can keep content in a raw state, unfettered by complicating configurations.

Format free content is a fantastic idea, worth pursuing as far as possible.  The prospect of freedom from formats can lead one to believe that formats are of secondary importance, and that content can maintain meaning completely independently of them.

The vexing reality is that content can never be completely output-agnostic.  Even when content is not stored in an audience-facing format, that doesn’t imply it can be successfully delivered to any audience-facing format. Computer servers are happy to store zeros and ones, but humans need that content translated into a form that is meaningful to them.  And the form does ultimately influence the substance of the content.  The content is more the file that stores it.

Four Types of Formats

In many cases when content strategists talk about format free content, they are referring to content that doesn’t contain styling.  But formats may refer to any one of four different dimensions:

  1. The file format, such as whether the content is HTML or PDF
  2. The media format, such as whether the content is audio, video, or image
  3. The output format, such as whether the content is a slide, an article, or a book
  4. The rendered formatting, or how the content is laid out and presented.

Each of these dimensions impacts how content is consumed, and each has implications for what information is conveyed.  Formats aren’t neutral.  One shouldn’t presume parity between formats.  Formats embody biases that skew how information is conveyed.  Content can’t simply be converted from one format to another and express the content in the same way.

Just Words: The Limitations of Fixed Wording

Let’s start with words.  Historically, the word has existed in two forms: the spoken word, and the written word.  People told stories or gave speeches to audiences.  Some of these stories and speeches were written down.  People also composed writings that were published.  These writings were sometimes read aloud, especially in the days when books were scarce.

Today moving between text and audio is simple.  Text can be synthesized into speech, and speech can be digitally processed into text.  Words seemingly are free now from the constraints of formats.

But converting words between writing and speech is more than a technical problem.  Our brains process words heard, and words read, differently.  When reading, we skim ahead, and reread text seen already.  When listening, we need to follow the pace of the spoken word, and require redundancy to make sure we’ve heard things correctly.

People who write for radio know that writing for the ear is different from writing for a reader.  The same text will not be equally effective as audio and as writing. National Public Radio, in their guidebook Sound Reporting, notes: “A reader who becomes confused at any point in [a] sentence or elsewhere in the story can just go back and reread it — or even jump ahead a few paragraphs to search for more details.  But if a listener doesn’t catch a fact the first time around, it’s lost.”  They go on to say that even the syntax, grammar and wording used may need to be different when writing for the ear.

The media involved changes what’s required of words.  Consider a recipe for a dish.  Presented in writing, the recipe follows a standard structure, listing ingredients and steps.  Presented on television, a recipe follows a different structure.  According to the Recipe Writers Handbook, a recipe for television is “a success when it works visually, not when it is well written in a literary, stylistic, or even culinary sense.”  The book notes that on television: “you must show, not tell; i.e., stir, fry, serve…usually under four minutes.”  Actions replace explicit words.  If one were to transcribe the audio of the TV show, it is unlikely the text would convey adequately how to prepare the dish.

The Hidden Semantics of Presentational Rendering

For written text, content strategists prudently advise content creators to separate the structure of content from how it is presented.  The advice is sensible for many reasons: it allows publishers to restyle content, and to change how it is rendered on different devices. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and Responsive Web Design (RWD) frameworks, allow the same content to appear in different ways on different devices.

Restyling written content is generally easy to do, and can be sophisticated as well.  But the variety of CSS classes that can be created for styling can overshadow how rudimentary the underlying structures are that define the meaning of the text.  Most digital text relies on the basic structural elements available in HTML.  The major elements are headings at different levels, ordered and unordered lists, and tables.  Less common elements include block quotes and code blocks.  Syntaxes such as Markdown have emerged to specify text structure without presentational formatting.

While these structural elements are useful, for complex text they are not very sophisticated.  Consider the case of a multi-paragraph list.  I’m writing a book where I want to list items in a series of numbered statements.  Each numbered statement has an associated paragraph providing elaboration.  To associate the explanatory paragraph with the statement, I must use indenting to draw a connection between the two.  This is essentially a hack, because HTML does not have a concept of an ordered list item elaboration paragraph.  Instead, I rely on pseudo-structure.

When rendered visually, the connection between the statement and elaboration is clear.  But the connection is implicit rather than explicit.  To access only the statement without the elaboration paragraph, one would need to know the structure of the document beforehand, and filter it using an XPath query.

Output Containers May Be Inelastic

Output formats inform the structure of content needed.  In an ideal world, a body of structured content can be sent to many different forms of output.  There’s a nifty software program called Pandoc that lets you convert text between different output formats.  A file can become an HTML webpage, or an EPUB book, or a slide show using Slidy or DZSlides.

HTML content can be displayed in many containers. But those containers may be of vastly different scales.  Web pages don’t roll up into a book without first planning a structure to match the target output format.  Books can’t be broken down into a slide show.  Because output formats inform structure required, changing the output format can necessitate a restructuring of content.

The output format can effect the fidelity of the content. The edges of a wide screen video are chopped off when displayed  within the boxy frame of an in-flight entertainment screen.  We trust that this possibility was planned for, and that nothing important is lost in the truncated screen. But information is lost.

The Challenges of Cross-Media Content Translation

If content could be genuinely format free, then content could easily morph between different kinds of media.  Yet the translational subtleties of switching between written text and spoken audio content demonstrate how the form of content carries implicit sensory and perceptual expectations.

Broadly speaking, five forms of digital media exist:

  1. Text
  2. Image
  3. Audio
  4. Video
  5. Interactive.

Video and interactive content are widely considered “richer” than text, images and audio.  Richer content conveys more information.  Switching between media formats involves either extracting content from a richer format into a simpler one, or compiling richer format content using simpler format inputs.

The transformation possibilities between media formats determine:

  • how much automation is possible
  • how usable the content will be.

From a technical perspective, content can be transformed between media as follows.

Media format conversion is possible between text and spoken audio.  While bi-directional, the conversion involves some potential loss of expressiveness and usability.  The issues become far more complex when there are several speakers, or when non-verbal audio is also involved.

Various content can be extracted from video.  Text (either on-screen text, or converted from spoken words in audio) can be extracted, as well as images (frames) and audio (soundtracks).  Machine learning technologies are making such extraction more sophisticated, as millions of us answer image recognition CAPTCHA quizzes on Google and elsewhere.  Because the extracted content is divorced from its context, its complete meaning is not always clear.

Transforming interactive content typically involves converting it into a linear time sequence.  A series of interactive content explorations can be recorded as a non-interactive animation (video).

Simple media formats can be assembled into richer ones.  Text, images and audio can be combined to feed into video  content.  Software exists that can “auto-create” a video by combining text with related images to produce a narrated slide show.  From a technical perspective, the instant video is impressive, because little pre-planning is required.  But the user experience of the video is poor, with the content feeling empty and wooden.

Interactive content is assembled from various inputs: video, text/data, images, and audio formats.  Because the user is defining what to view, the interaction between formats needs to be planned.  The possible combinations are determined by the modularity of the inputs, and how well-defined they are in terms of metadata description.

translation of content between formats
Translation of content between formats

Atomic Content Fidelity

Formats of all kinds (file, output, rendering, and media) together produce the form of the content that determines the content experience and the content’s usability.

  • File formats can influence the perceptual richness (e.g., a 4k video verses a YouTube-quality one).
  • Rendition formatting influences audience awareness of distinct content elements.
  • Output formats influence the pacing of how content gets delivered, and how immersive content the content engagement will be.
  • Media formats influence how content is processed cognitively and emotionally by audiences and viewers.

Formats define the fidelity of the content that conveys the intent behind the communication.  Automation can convert formats, but conversion won’t necessarily preserve fidelity.

Format conversions are easy or complex according to how the conversion impacts the fidelity of the content.  Let’s consider each kind of content format in turn.

File format conversions are easy to do, and any loss in fidelity is generally manageable.

Rendition format conversions such as CSS changes or RWD alternative views are simple to implement.  In many cases the impact on users is minimal, though in some cases contextual content cues can be lost in the conversion, especially when  a change in emphasis occurs in what content is displayed or how it is prioritized.

Output format conversion is tricky to do.  Few people want to read an e-book novel on their Apple Watch.  The hurdles to automation are apparent when one looks at the auto-summarization of a text.  Can we trust the software to identify the most important points? An inherent tension exists between introducing structures to control machine prioritization of content, and creating a natural content flow necessary for a good content experience.  The first sentence of a paragraph will often introduce the topic and main point, but won’t always.

Media format conversion is typically lossy.  Extracting content from a rich media format to a simpler one generally involves a loss of information.  The automated assembly of content rich media formats from content in simpler formats often feels less interesting and enjoyable than rich formats that were purposively designed by humans.

Format Agility and Content as Objects

We want to transcend the limitations of specific formats to support different scenarios.  We also want to leverage the power of formats to deliver the best content experience possible across different scenarios.  One approach to achieve these goals would be to extend some of the scenario-driven, rules-based thinking that underpins CSS and RWD, and apply it more generally to scenarios beyond basic web content delivery.  Such an approach would consider how formats need to adjust based on contextual factors.

If content cannot always be free from the shaping influence of format, we can at least aim to make formats more agile.  A BBC research program is doing exciting work in this area, developing an approach called Object Based Media (OBM) or Object Based Broadcasting.  I will highlight some interesting ideas from the OBM program, based on my understanding of it reading the BBC’s research blog.

Object-Based Media brings intelligence to content form.  Instead of considering formats as all equivalent, and independent of the content, OBM considers formats in part of the content hierarchy.  Object Based Media takes a core set of content, and then augments the content with auxiliary forms that might be useful in various scenarios.  Content form becomes a progressive enhancement opportunity.  Auxiliary content could be subtitles and audio transcripts that can be used in combination with, or in leu of, the primary content in different scenarios.

During design explorations with the OBM concept, the BBC found that “stories can’t yet be fully portable across formats — the same story needed to be tailored differently on each prototype.” The notion of tailoring content to suit the format is one of the main areas under investigation.

A key concept in Object-Based Media is unbundling different inputs to allow them to be configured in different format variations on delivery.  The reconfiguration can be done automatically (adaptively), or via user selection.  For example, OBM can enable a video to be replaced with an image having text captions in a low bandwidth situation.  Video inputs (text, background graphics, motion overlays) are assembled on delivery, to accommodate different output formats and rendering requirements.  In another scenario, a presenter in a video can be replaced with a signer for someone who is hearing impaired.

The BBC refers to OBM as “adjustable content.”  They are looking at ways to allow listeners to specify how long they want to listen to a program, and give audiences control over video and audio options during live events.

Format Intelligence

In recent years we’ve witnessed remarkable progress transcending the past limitations that formats pose to content.  File formats are more open, and metadata standards have introduced more consistency in how content is structured.  Technical progress has enabled basic translation of content between media formats.

Against this progress taming idiosyncrasies that formats pose, new challenges have emerged.   Output formats keep getting more diverse: whether wearables or immersive environments including virtual reality.  The fastest growing forms of content media are video and audio, which are less malleable than text.  Users increasingly want to personalize the content experience, which includes dimensions relating to the form of content.

We are in the early days of thinking about flexibility in formats that give users more control over their content experience — adjustable content.  The concept of content modularity should be broadened to consider not only chunks of information, but chunks of experience.  Users want the right content, at the right time, in the right format for their needs and preferences.

— Michael Andrews