Content Is King

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For most organizations a web site is about communication. Outside of businesses that are primarily (or solely) retailers, the web is all message. For a small, local community organization that message could be about work they’re doing, who they’re helping and how other members of a community can participate. For a house of worship it could be about their message of faith, their schedule of events, and programs in which they participate. For a business that message may be a show case of the work they’ve done, customer testimonials and services they offer. For a small town government that can be services, alerts, important phone numbers and common forms.

Getting the message out involves a passive and an active part. I’ll call website the passive part in the sense that people on the Web come must come to the site. To ensure the people you want to reach make the effort to find your site good visual design is certainly important, but content is king. What’s on the site has to be worth the effort. Often, a clean, sparse design with a strong message has more impact than an expensive and fancy animated introduction. Google, after all, started with a single text box in the middle of the browser window beside two buttons. As sparse a design as one could imagine, but the content behind the site was powerful.

The active part is how the site reaches out to people. To many people e-mail comes to mind. However, e-mail is only one part of a larger universe of communication tools. New forms of communication can range from participatory media like Wikis or Blogs, RSS feeds that help alert people to changes on the site, to Twitter feeds, SMS messages, Facebook applications or even “chat-bots” on instant messaging networks. The channels of communication are no longer restricted to desktops or laptops at home and the office. They’re available on phones and are with people almost 24x7 through cell phones, iPhones and netbooks.

Like the passive part, the active part needs content. SMS messages, Twitter feeds and instant messaging often have zero potential for flashy design. They are 100% content. E-mails are a quickly ignored if they contain nothing useful, despite the care and effort that goes into the visual appeal. Facebook applications don’t gain traction with users unless they have a utility and an appeal. Ideally, any active component would also be engaging to the user. Whether it’s commenting on a blog, participating in a Wiki, or playing a Flash game, people generally like to interact, participate and be heard.

Is visual appeal important? Of course it is. Good visual layout and structure will help emphasize and reinforce your message. A poor visual appeal won’t necessarily kill a strong message, but it can certainly be distracting. Design should marry content and help produce a clear message. As style and tastes changes, so should the visual design of an organization’s communications, within the context of an existing brand and consistent branding. Practically speaking, what does that mean? It means the website that looked good in 2000 probably looks a little dated today. When you update it, though, you need a continuity of design so people still know it’s you.

So, how does this affect your communication strategy? First, if you are thinking just Website, you need to broaden your horizons. Email, feeds and messaging need to be integrated into your communications. Second, you need to keep content fresh. You need to be engaged in your content and not just hire someone who ‘updates the site when a phone number changes.’ Third, you need to engage your audience, even challenge them, and get them to become participants instead of just recipients. Fourth, you need to spend time on the visual appeal to help reinforce your message.

Fundamentally, content is king. You need to hone your message and give it clarity. Weather a ‘vision statement’, ‘mission statement’, set of core principles or the ‘elevator speech’, if the message is fuzzy no amount of communication will clarify it in the minds of people you want to reach.

Paul Hoehne.

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