Designing Glanceable Content for Partial Attention

Captive audiences are the exception, not the norm.  Audiences only rarely offer their undivided attention. How to design content for audiences who are only half paying attention is a growing challenge.

Despite wide recognition that most folks have too much on their minds, content producers continue to hope they’ll get the full attention of audiences.  According to conventional advice, if content designers make content simple and relevant, the content will earn the attention of audiences.  The messy, everyday reality that audiences face interferes with their attention, no matter how well considered and crafted the content.  The stark truth is that attention cannot always be earned. It must be bargained with.

Mounting evidence indicates audiences have less attention to dedicate to consuming content actively. Even when they want content, they don’t necessarily want the content to dominate what they are doing.  People want content they can multitask with, content that supports them as they do things like chores, exercise, or driving — instead of being the focus of what they are doing.  The rising popularity of audio books and podcasts are indications of the desire for content that supports multitasking or continuous partial attention. Streaming content doesn’t require active interaction.

Another tactic to compensate for our fragmenting attention is to make content smaller.  Many publishers seek to turn content into bite sized chunks that don’t take long to read.  Audiences nibble bite sized content when they are focused on other things, such as a conversation or a physical activity such as walking or waiting, or when they are mentally preoccupied with matters that may not be directly related to the content.

Bite sized content appears as informational cards displayed on smartphones, on the screens of smart watches, or as the snippets of audio available on voiced controlled audio platforms.  Contrary to common belief, making content bite sized does not mean it demands little attention from audiences, even if the item itself requires little time to read, watch or hear.  Attention is not the same as time to read.  Attention is part of a broader concept of content engagement.

Transcending the Four Standard Categories of Content Engagement

Content typically falls into one of four categories of engagement, according to the attention and interaction they require:

  • Content that requires constant user interface (UI) interaction and full attention.  An Xbox game might fall in this category, where the game paces the player, requiring them to interact and give their full attention.
  • Content that doesn’t require much UI interaction, but requires full attention.  An involved murder mystery story, whether  delivered as a video, audio or text, would be an example.
  • Content that requires UI interaction, but only intermittent attention.  An example is a buzzing notification on a watch or smartphone.  You can’t avoid paying attention to the notification, because it’s in your face.
  • Content that requires no UI interaction, and only intermittent attention.  Glancing at a dull sports match on a TV in a sports bar might qualify.

But another category exists, where there is intermittent attention, and only limited UI interaction.  The content is not zombie-like, where no interaction happens, but neither is it reactive, where the machine is demanding interaction.  Instead, the content allows the user to pay attention electively, and interact electively.  This is glanceable content that offers some choice.

Finding the Threshold of Significance

Chunks of content should be significant to audiences. When audiences can give their full attention, a sequence of small content chunks can be woven into a narrative that provides detailed meaning.  But when audience attention is partial, a content chunk must stand alone to convey meaning.

In some cases, content designers know the context of the audience, and can design small items of content that matches that context.  Notifications, at their best, provide an example of small items of content that match the context of the user.  It is easy to get notifications wrong.  Notifications or alerts tend to poke the user.  They are often action focused, requesting or confirming an action.  Notifications either presume attention, or demand attention.  Notifications can be hectoring, where the machine sets the pace for humans, rather than letting humans set their own pace.

In contrast to notifications, glanceable content presumes that the audience will choose for themselves when they want to look, and for how long.  The content needs to tempt the user to look at it occasionally, without being a distraction.

What makes a small chunk of information significant to users, making it worth their while?  The chunk of content needs to be specific enough to satisfy the user’s curiosity, but not require a distracting amount of work to access. The content will fail if it doesn’t get this balance right.

Apple recognizes this conundrum in its guidelines for the Apple Watch. It advocates “glanceable” content with “lightweight interactions”.  Not all interaction guidelines of the Watch meet those goals, however. Because only a small amount of content is presented, designers compensate by asking users to interact with it to get exactly the bit they want.

Compact content can be complex also well (Images from Apple Watch guidelines.)

Google has tried to get around the distraction of interaction by requiring little of it from audiences. Google Now cards provide bite sized content, where information within smartphone apps gets surfaced to a main screen.  Google Now curates information through a combination of machine learning to anticipate likely user preferences (implicit feedback), and getting explicit user feedback on these preferences.   While very clever, this approach can’t easily be extended to other publishers who lack the technical resources and embedded positioning of Google.  Not all Google Now cards are easily glanceable, either.

Bite sized content can get busy.  Many layers of information can get crammed on a display, using hieroglyphic cues.  Such displays can vainly call attention to themselves, requiring both sustained gazing and mental interpretation.  They are compact, but not truly glanceable in the sense that someone can notice, at a glance, a key nugget of interest without effort.  Audio content runs less risk of this, since it is harder to compress content at a rate faster than the brain can process (though advertisers sneakily do such things).

Content for Multitasking

Multitasking is a myth: humans don’t really focus on several things simultaneously.  We slice our attention between different targets, switching back and forth between them rapidly.  But multitasking is a powerful metaphor for how people relate to content: they commonly process content from two more sources at the same time.  To be successful, glanceable content needs to respect what the audience wants to focus on.

It’s hard to multitask when everything demands your full attention, and your active interaction.   It’s hard watch a video or listen to audio if one needs to fiddle with screen settings, if one needs to tap and swipe incessantly to hunt down a piece of information, or if one feels rattled by surprise alerts that jump out at you.  All these annoyances are the product of interaction designers who expect and demand attention and interaction from the audience.  Interaction designers often fail to consider the broader content needs of the user.  They fail to think outside the UI in which they are boxed.

Before interaction design became largely associated with Javascript tricks, there was a movement to study how to best design “ambient displays” that provided supplemental, contextual information that was easily glanceable.  A well known example was the “Ambient Orb,” a small light that changed color according to how the stock market was doing (or, if you preferred, the status of the weather).  The product provided a primitive example of how to make content glanceable and non-distracting. But the product treated the user as a passive vessel who could express little choice in what content to follow, and consequently had little substance to keep them interested.  Multitasking wasn’t a challenge, but the secondary task wasn’t very meaningful either.  Ambient displays can come up short because they only focus on ensuring content doesn’t require much attention. They don’t provide any interaction.

A better example of content that is both glanceable and requires only light interaction comes from a digital content display for radio broadcasts known as Journaline.  I’ve only recently learned about this platform, even though it has nearly a decade of history behind it.  I want to spend time discussing concepts  related to Journaline because it provides a good example of how content can be used to support different scenarios of use.  A major use case for Journaline is to provide text-based content on the screens of radios (though the same technology can be applied to video as well).  Its premise is that the text content is secondary to the broadcast audio, and should not interfere with the primary attention of the audience, who may be washing dishes or waiting at a stop light.  Journaline provides guidelines for presenting content in conditions involving low attention.  I am less concerned with whether Journaline itself will become successful commercially than I am in the lessons it can provide content designers more generally.

Designing Elective Supplemental Content

Journaline is a full content schema with its own XML-based markup language. Developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer IIS, “Journaline® is a data application for the DAB and DRM digital radio systems that provides hierarchically structured textual information. The user can easily and immediately access the topics he is currently interested in.”  Alternatively, it has been described as “teletext for digital radio.”

Journaline offers straight text-based content, without distracting elements such as gestures, animations, switches, sliders, or activity ring displays.  The simplicity of its approach makes it a powerful example to learn from.  Because of its XML foundation, the schema can reuse existing content delivered from other sources such as RSS feeds.

Imagine listening to audio content such as a radio broadcast.  You may be doing other activities while listening.  The audio content itself might make reference to other things.  So you may have a need to access supplementary content either relating to the activity you are doing (such as getting traffic information), or supplemental content relating to the audio you are listening to (such as the name of the guest being interviewed).  Journaline provides such information, which can be accessed and seen simply.  Some models of BMWs in Germany have Journaline content displays embedded in their digital radios.

Journaline delivers supplemental baseline information that is changeable, and subject to updating.  It provides a feed of content, but allows some audience control over specific items of interest. The paradigm balances the amount of content offered, and the interaction required.  Sufficient new content is provided to make the display interesting enough to glance at occasionally when convenient to do so, while enough control is offered so that audiences can choose what to get updates on without requiring a distracting amount of interaction.

Journaline identifies five content types associated with informational updates:

  1. News
  2. Sports events and results
  3. Financial information and stock market values
  4. Airport departure and arrival times
  5. Games and lottery

Many of these types involve awareness information that is not so essential that people would actively seek it.  The information is useful when presented, but not worth investing special effort.  The airport info could provide useful pre-arrival information while driving, but won’t provide the depth of details available on a smartphone once one has arrived.

Supplemental information is often related to broadcast programs.  Journaline provides the following scenarios for program related information:

  • Show background information (with optional link to a website)
  • Direct phone link to participate in chat show
  • Song info and purchases, and podcast downloads
  • Captions (radio for the hearing impaired)

I’m not sure all these are necessarily compelling use cases in the context of listening to a broadcast, but they do illustrate the range of uses of supplemental content.  Sometimes the content has a call to action that is thematically tied the primary content, and thus does not compete with it.   But the actions presented in the supplemental content are always elective — the  primary content isn’t promoting the secondary content; rather, the secondary content offers deeper support for the primary content.  Elective actions include ones that cannot be anticipated or expected (such as a desire to call the station), and  options that allow the audience to defer tasks for later, such as the ability to order something to check out later.  When done properly, low-key options let the audience choose the right time to take action, instead of pestering them to act when it may be inconvenient.

Dynamic Information Architecture

Journaline is effective in how it manages information, a kind of dynamic information architecture.  Like traditional information architecture, it provides elements that give audiences choices to navigate and select.  But it is also dynamic, where the elements themselves change as new information is available.  It blurs what’s navigation and what’s content.  Items in a list can update continuously, and can be navigational links to more details about the item.

Journaline works on a feed model, but it doesn’t simply provide a chronological stream.  Instead, content items are pushed out when updates happen, and are stored and available to view when no updates are required.  What’s available to view will be the most up-to-date content about preselected topics.  These topics can be selected (pulled) either through navigation, or by following topics based on simple metadata components such as keywords or geotags (such as content related to things near me).

Journaline uses simple structures for content.  Items are broken into two parts: an initial summary and detail, which could be a headline followed by an explanatory statement. Summaries can be collected by topic.  This simple structuring allows for three basic layers of information: a consolidated view of several items, a general view of a specific item, and a more detailed statement about the item.

The below figure shows how different levels of information relate to each other.

Levels of Glanceable Content
Levels of Glanceable Content

There are three basic levels of content, and three options to reveal content.  Conceptually, they provide different windows for glancing at content.

The highest level provides an overview or digest.  Screens may contain several headlines that relate to a common keyword, or may provide a table of information on a common theme that is updated continually, such as a scoreboard showing teams and scores.

At the mid level, the screen will show a summary of information related to an event or topic. This will typically be a headline, or a caption relating to the audio or to a displayed image.

At the lowest level, items will present details supporting the headline.

Content is revealed in different ways.  Some content is static and fully visible at a glance.  Such content will never require more than a single glance.  But other content is disclosed incrementally over time.

Overview or digest content will refresh frequently. Each headline displayed may serve a predefined role.  A digest on a topic may be composed of different headlines that are presented in a list, where each item is assigned a slot.  A slot— a fixed position on the list —  shows a headline message that changes.  For example, people might track several related items, perhaps headlines relating to an election.  The first slot in the list relates to the keyword “candidate X” and will change throughout the day according to whatever the most important event is relating to candidate X.  A scorecard is a list in table form, where the left column is fixed with the names of teams currently playing, while the right side automatically updates with the most current score.  When the content item refreshes in a predefined spot, it makes it easy for the audience to glance at the content and notice what’s current and new.

Scorecard table, with scores updated continuously
Scorecard table, with scores updated continuously

A different behavior for refreshing content occurs when messages are revealed in stages.  Perhaps several ideas need to be shown that won’t all fit in a single short headline.  Several techniques can be used to reveal such content.  One technique is the news ticker, which displays a running headline.  Text captions for audio may be presented karaoke style.  Another technique is to rotate short headline snippets every few seconds.  These techniques can be useful for background content.  They can be digested with a quick glance, and will change enough to encourage curiosity.  If, however, they contain essential information that must be monitored continually, then they will become distracting.  The staged revelation of content provides a wide frame for audiences to follow, but can demand more attention from them.

Sometimes the audience will want more information than can be presented in a glance.  They want a detail to complete the information hinted at in the headline.  A full message might fit on a single small screen, but if not, then scrolling is required.  Even gesture-based scrolling entails interaction by the user, and requires longer attention spans as well.  This option exists to provide audiences with choice.  They choose this degree of distraction, and will hopefully be in a position to focus away from other activities and content.

Short-burst Content: A Challenge for Content Designers

Audiences routinely experience short bursts of content.  Events are chronicled with live tweets.  Siri and Alexa provide short answers to queries.  All these options offer great benefits to audiences, but they aren’t always the best option in a given situation.  Sometimes short messages require too much attention to follow, or too much work to specify what one wants.

According to the cliché, timing is everything.  When audiences face so many demands on their attention, content timing matters significantly.  Content designers should consider ways content can work in harmony with the activities of audiences, instead of competing with these activities.  Disruption, while cool for startups, is annoying to audiences.  Supplemental content can be a new category of content that supports other activities, instead of being its own activity.  To realize this possibility requires the embracing a radical idea: accepting that the secondary content presented may not be the primary motivation of your audience.  Because audiences in many circumstance are only willing and able to offer partial attention, the secondary content needs to be sufficiently interesting and timely to merit glancing.

The content design challenge is discovering how to get audiences to glance at content that they don’t feel they need to see, but will want to view, if only briefly.  Content that’s useful, without being demanding.  How can we create glanceable moments?

Journaline offers two ideas worth exploring more.  First, it shows the value of creating a hub for content that features topics that change, and that are of interest to audiences.  People will revisit the hub to glance at what changes have happened.

Second, it shows the possibilities of using a secondary channel (in this case text) to augment the primary content channel (audio) to support elective, secondary tasks.  Audiences are primarily interested in the content in the primary channel, and only some will be interested in the secondary channel content at any given time, since they may be preoccupied with other matters.  This technique can easily be used with video, by providing additional real-time or more personalized secondary information relating to the video content that some people will be interested in glancing at, and which is short enough not to distract long from the primary video content.

Designing for partial attention can seem like a loss of control, since there are no guarantees a specific message will reach a specific person.  But it also represents an opportunity to reach audiences who may not be otherwise available.  And it encourages us to think about the fundamentals of how to attract audiences and build their interest in content.

— Michael Andrews

Content Maintenance: A Framework

What happens to content after its publication seems to vary widely.  Content maintenance is not considered exciting — and is often overlooked.  Even the term content maintenance has no commonly accepted definition. Despite its lowly status and fuzzy profile, content maintenance is a many sided and fundamental activity.  I want to explore what content maintenance can involve, and how to prioritize its different aspects.

An Inconspicuous Activity

Many diagrams showing the content lifecycle have a placeholder for content maintenance.  After creating content and delivering content, content maintenance is required.  But what that means in practice is often not well-defined.    This shouldn’t be surprising: content maintenance somehow lacks the urgency that content creation and content delivery have.  After the adrenaline rush of creating new content, and watching the initial audience response to it, the content is no longer top of mind.

Content maintenance is often a lower priority. The UK's Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic.
Content maintenance is often a lower priority activity. The UK’s Government Digital Service awaits guidance on the topic. [screenshot]
In many organizations, content maintenance isn’t planned at all.  Some content gets updated because it is rewritten periodically, while other content is never touched after publication.  The organization may do a cleanup every few years in conjunction with a website redesign or IT upgrade, relying on a tedious content inventory and audit to evaluate how messed up the situation has become — content strategy’s equivalent to doing a root canal.

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rich, in their popular book Content Strategy for the Web, offer one of the most detailed discussions of content maintenance. They call for a content maintenance plan that reflects content objectives such as assuring accuracy and consistency, archiving or reordering older content, confirming links are working and metadata is current, and removing redundant content.  This is a good list, but in itself doesn’t suggest how to implement a repeatable process for maintenance. These authors further recommend establishing rules to govern content.  Another sound idea.

But critical questions remain: On what basis does the organization prioritize its maintenance plan?  What criteria govern maintenance decisions?

A pivotal issue with content maintenance is defining its scope.  What activities are necessary, desirable but optional, or unnecessary? Does a maintenance task apply to all content, or are there any distinctions in types of content that effect how tasks are allocated?  If there are differences in how various content is treated in maintenance, on what basis are priorities made?  Are they arbitrary decisions made by a committee crafting a plan, or are decisions guided by a stable set of rules that are always dependable?  How do we know we are doing content maintenance effectively, given finite resources?

Decisions about content maintenance can reflect deep convictions about the core value of different kinds of content.  The content maintenance approach of an organization can express unconscious attitudes about content.  One common approach is to make sure that popular content is kept up-to-date.  An exclusive focus on popular content is not a comprehensive approach to content maintenance.

Many people consider content maintenance as a simple housekeeping task.  But it can play a bigger role.   The ultimate purpose of content maintenance is to help organizations use content to grow their engagement with audiences in a sustainable way.  Content maintenance deserves to be reappraised as a foundation of sustainable growth, instead of a zero-sum exercise of pruning and fixing last year’s publications. When organizations understand how content maintenance is essential to making content reach and connect with audiences more effectively, they will place more emphasis on what to do after content’s been published.

Content maintenance serves two functions:

  1. Countering entropy, where published content starts to decay due to various factors
  2. Improving relevance through optimization

Entropy-fighting Maintenance

Keeping content up-to-date often seems like an impossible task because content managers don’t have a good understanding of why content gets out-of-date.  Admittedly, the reasons are manifold.  But a clearer understanding of why content becomes dated will help with the maintenance process.

Recently, some content managers have begun to speak about a concept called content debt.  The concept refers to when there is no plan for the content once it has been published, so that a debt is incurred because the content’s creators have deferred decisions about what should happen to the content in the future.  Many organizations practice bad habits when publishing content.  With so many ways things can be done badly, establishing a robust process to keep content accurate is not an easy task.

We need to distinguish two related concepts: content relevance, and content validity.  Content relevance refers to whether audiences care about the content.  Content validity refers to whether the content is accurate, a subset of content relevance.  When people speak of updating content, they often do not make clear whether they are concerned with fixing inaccuracies in the content, or whether they are assessing how to make it more relevant.  A lack of precision when speaking of updating content can become confusing for those responsible for the task.

Generally, when people speak of updating content, they are presuming the content is intrinsically relevant, but that some aspect of it needs correction. Two types of updating are common:

  1. Content accuracy updating
  2. Technical updating

Content accuracy updating addresses what has changed factually in the content since it was published?  Facts have a tendency to go out of date.  In his book, The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman notes that even scientific facts are not stable, and are subject to revision.

Web content often created around events, past and future.  Some content refers to forthcoming events on specific dates, which may indicate a need to update the content after that date, depending on what the content says.  Other content may have a hidden dependency on events.  A change in executive leadership, product names, or business location may impact many items of content that make reference to these now-changed facts.  To some extent, content referring to internally determined facts can be managed utilizing content structure and metadata.

When content refers to facts that change due to external factors, the maintenance process can be messier.  Content may refer to whether products comply with certain regulations that may be subject to change but that could not have been fully anticipated when the content was created.  Service providers such as airlines may need to update content to indicate changes in factual information reflecting service disruptions due to external factors such as strikes or volcanic eruptions.  Organizations should map how content accuracy may be dependent on external events, and plan for how content will be updated in such scenarios.

Technical updating can be challenging for organizations that have a lot of legacy content.  The web is over 20 years old, and has become our external memory of what’s happened in our world.  Many people expect to find something they saw in the past, but how that content was constructed from a technical perspective may not be compatible with current web standards.

External developments are often responsible for technical decay.  Broken links referring to third party content are the most obvious example.  The more pervasive problem arises when technical standards shift, and the content is not renewed to conform to the new standards.  Two examples of standards shifts are changes in markup standards, such as the growth of semantic search markup, and changes in media format standards, such as the recent demise of the Flash format for video.

Updating content requires content professionals to think about the content lifecycle more globally.  The content lifecycle depends on the event lifecycles to which the content refers and relies on.  The content is part of a larger story: the story of how a product is managed, how an organization evolves, or how an enabling technology is used.  The specifics and timing of these events may not be known, but the broad patterns of their occurrences can be anticipated and planned for.

Popularity as a Factor When Updating Content

Deciding what content to update is an essential part of content maintenance.  It often involves judgment calls, which take time and do not always result in consistency.  In the search for rules that govern what content to update, some content professionals have been advocating content popularity as the criterion for deciding what content to keep, and hence keep current.

Paul Boag has suggested a traffic-based approach to managing legacy content.  Gerry McGovern has written extensively about the value of using traffic to guide content decisions.  McGovern’s writings on the importance of content popularity have become popular themselves, so I want to examine the reasoning behind this approach.  He uses the “long tail” metaphor of content demand first popularized by former Wired columnist Chris Anderson, but draws different conclusions.  McGovern differentiates the “long tail (low demand or no demand stuff) and the long neck (high demand stuff). The long tail has been seen as a major opportunity, but it can become a major threat.”

The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.
The Long Tail concept of content popularity, where many items are of interest to few people.

McGovern considers the popularity of content in terms of the distribution of page views.  He contrasts the head of the distribution, where the top ranked pages get a high volume of views, with the many low ranking pages in the tail that get few views.  McGovern says: “Much of the long tail is a dead zone. It’s a dead and useless tail full of dead and useless content.”  In contrast, content in the head of the distribution (the top-ranked pages) get the lion’s share of views.  How much of total demand is attributable to the head is not always clear.  McGovern has cited the figure that the top 5% of content generates 20% of demand; the next 35% of content (what he calls the body, though this is not a standard term used in head/tail distributions) accounts for 55% of demand; the remaining 60% is basically useless, accounting for only 20% of demand.  More recently, McGovern has featured the success stories of various organizations when they removed 90% of their content, implying that only the top 10% of content viewed is worth keeping and maintaining.

McGovern’s argument is that low traffic content gets in the way of people accomplishing their “top tasks,” which are represented by the highest volume content.  Moreover, long tail content is difficult to maintain.

McGovern makes some excellent points about the costs of low usage content, and the importance of making sure that frequently accessed content is easily available.  Unfortunately, his formulation is not a reliable guide to deciding what content to maintain because it doesn’t distinguish different content purposes.  McGovern considers all content as task-oriented content.  But content can have other roles, such as being news, or providing background information for educational and entertainment purposes.

Let’s assume, like McGovern, that all content follows a head/tail distribution.  With task-based content, the rank ordering of popularity is stable over time.  If all the content is task-focused, then the ranking of pages in terms of their popularity won’t change.  We can argue how many pages deserve to be included —that is, how many tasks should be supported —but the customer’s prioritization of what’s important is not impacted by when the content was created.

In other cases, when the content was created can have an impact on how important consumers consider the content, even when the age of the content has no bearing on the accuracy of the content.  In these cases, relevance is a function of time.

Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content's purpose.
Comparison of how content popularity might change over time, according to the content’s purpose.

The most obvious case is when popularity of content decays over time because it becomes less topical.  Any informative content that might be considered news, such as high profile product announcements or announcements of changes to membership services, might become less popular over time.  News oriented content becomes less relevant over time, but old news content is not intrinsically irrelevant.  The need to keep legacy content will depend on the organization’s mission, and the utility of the information in the future.

A different example of content is so-called evergreen content — content that will have a long shelf-life (even if it isn’t truly maintenance-free).  Often such content is created to build awareness and interest in a topic, and isn’t tied to a specific event.  The content may debut with a low ranking, but gain views as awareness builds.  It may gain exposure through a promotional tie-in, a third party’s endorsement, or relevance to some event that wasn’t foreseen when the content was created.  After gaining in popularity, its popularity may settle back down into the long tail.  The popularity of such content can yo-yo over time.

Without considering the purpose of the content, it is difficult to know what content to maintain.  Relying solely on content age or content popularity can result in a meat cleaver approach to content maintenance.  While content that is jettisoned does not need to be maintained, the content that is kept does not all need to be treated the same way.  Sometimes content is intentionally kept in an archive, with a minimum of maintenance promised or provided.

Content Maintenance as Quality Improvement

A very different view of content maintenance considers maintenance as continuous improvement.  Instead of just keeping content up to date, content is actively managed to become better.

Gerry McGovern touches on this approach when discussing what he calls “top tasks”.  He says: ”Continuously improve your top tasks. The Long Neck [top-ranked pages in the head of the distribution] is made up of a small set of top tasks and it’s important to manage them through a process of continuous improvement.“

Continuous improvement can be applied to any content, not just content supporting common tasks.   The purpose of such activity is to make the content more relevant to audiences.  It is a form of content optimization, a term most often used to refer to far narrower dimensions of content, such as search engine positioning or call-to-action behavior.

Optimizing content — in the broader sense of making it more relevant for audiences — involves two sets of decisions:

  1. Deciding what content to optimize as part of an ongoing evaluation program
  2. Making choices about evaluation methods, and assigning resources to support such activities

Optimizing content is often associated with A/B testing.  But the range of approaches available to improve content relevance are diverse, and include:

  • Analyzing content usage and actions
  • Surveying attitudes and preferences relating to content
  • Testing content comprehension and receptivity

Behavioral outcomes can certainly be tested, but content testing and analysis can probe more upstream factors such as how audiences evaluate the content prior to considering taking action, and suggest more fundamental changes that could improve content relevance to audiences.

Some techniques available to improve content relevance can be done prior to publication. The question arises of what content should continue to be evaluated after publication with the aim of improving its performance? If the content was well thought out before its publication, why does it need optimization after publication?  Any evaluation and enhancement activities that are done multiple times will require additional commitments of resources.   What content justifies the extra attention?

Business critical content will be the best candidates to optimize through continuous improvement.  Business criticality will reflect the reach of the content (amount of views), its importance to audiences, and its influence on business outcomes.  It may be content that comprises part of a funnel, but not necessarily.  In some cases, it might be key content that provides the first impression of an organization, product or topic that will have long term impacts in terms of future behavior or social influence.

Strategic Content Maintenance

Content maintenance involves many aspects, and content with different characteristics and purposes must be prioritized differently.  Maintenance-free content is a myth, but not all content requires the same level of maintenance.

Many times organizations jettison content for the wrong reasons. Content should be retired because it is no longer relevant, not simply because something about it, factually or technically, has become dated through neglect, and it is now too much effort to update it given the volume of content that’s in a similar state. Manage content based on current and potential relevance, and plan to maintain the relevant content. Jettison content that’s no longer relevant, and unlikely to be relevant again.

While having less content can be easier to maintain than having large volumes of content, one shouldn’t base one’s content strategy on operational convenience.  Small, tightly focused websites can be the right choice for smaller, tightly focused organizations, who can devote their energies toward optimizing the entirety of their content.  But for larger organizations with diverse missions, imposing a rigid content diet — say restricting the website to 50 pages — may help the web operations run smoothly, but at the cost of preventing the organization from fully serving their audiences, and allowing the organization to meet their wider digital objectives.  If the breadth of content offered is insufficient to satisfy the needs of audiences, the content published will sustain neither the audience’s interests, nor the mission of the organization.  The organization needs to understand what effort is required to maintain what it decides is relevant content, and then plan how to maintain that content appropriately.

No one-size strategy for content maintenance is right for all organizations.   But  organizations can use a framework to help them prioritize their content maintenance, in terms of identifying differences in content, and different approaches to maintaining such content.  The end goal is to find the right balance.  As alluded to earlier, content maintenance is about delivering sustainable growth.  It is about fostering a pool of content that can establish, maintain, and even expand its relevance to audiences without being a drag on operations.

The matrix considers content according to two properties.  First, it considers how popular the content is over a defined time period, say six months.  Second, it considers two broad approaches to maintaining content: through continuous optimization, and basic updating.  The goal of the matrix is to encourage content managers and owners to characterize the kinds of content that belong in each quadrant, and decide how they will manage such content.

The filled out framework is illustrative.  This strawman framework is intended to spark discussion rather than dictate action.

A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.
A matrix that can be used as a framework for considering different dimensions of content maintenance.

It is important to note that what’s low traffic content today may not be so tomorrow.  Organizations also need to consider the diversity of their mission or corporate strategy when making decisions about how to maintain content that gets less traffic.

What Happens After Publication?

Ideally, every item of content published should belong to a specific content maintenance category.  At the time of publication, it could be slugged with the category that best represents how it will be maintained in the future.  Doing so can help support of the operational processes associated with maintenance: for example, determining how long it had been since the last update for items associated with a certain category.

Content requires maintenance, and maintenance requires process, not just willpower.  Rules, criteria and plans are helpful to ensuring that content maintenance happens.  The challenge is connecting these rules and plans to the larger purpose of the organization’s content strategy.  Content maintenance needs to be upgraded from its status as a boring chore, to being seen as a contributor to sustainable growth in audience engagement.

— Michael Andrews

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