In 2012, The Wikimedia Foundation, in partnership with Oxford University, conducted a blind study comparing the quality of content found on Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. The study found that there was very little difference in the quality of the content. Wikipedia scored even better in several categories.
Before Wikipedia, Encyclopædia Britannica was the gold standard for general information about anything on the planet. It had 100 full-time editors and 4,000 contributors, including 110 Nobel Prize winners. Its sales peaked in 1990 when 120,000 sets were sold in the U.S. alone. It was a luxury item that many people valued enough to set up installment payment plans when they couldn’t afford the $1,000+ price tag all in one go. Instant access to quality information was worth it.
“Quality information is cheap—or rather, free.”
In 2012 Encyclopædia Britannica stopped the presses on its 2010 print version. Only 8,000 sets sold. It is now discontinued indefinitely. Why? The world of content has dramatically changed. As the Oxford study confirmed, quality information is cheap—or rather, free.
To succeed among a cacophony of sources, content must go beyond merely disseminating information, and truly add value to a user. That means the world of content development must change, too.
Good content grabs the user’s attention.
Content that adds value has to make a point that is unique. It provides a unique interpretation of information. It persuades people to take action. It makes a compelling argument.
Before you can make a point with a content consumer, you have to grab their attention. The average attention span on the web decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2015, but the ways to grab it have not changed. Grabbing attention can still be done with “once upon a time”-type narrative hooks, with the use of a compelling question, or by citing some shocking or unusual bit of information.
Grabbing attention gets you in the door, but the real test is what you do afterward. You must have a point to make—and that point better be clear, and it better be good. If the point is too obvious, the user walks away disappointed or worse. If the point is nonsensical or otherwise not believable, you’ve lost. Nothing burns bridges with an audience more than wasting their time with irrelevant, obvious or dubious points (except flat-out lying to them!).
Good content puts the user’s needs first.
Thoughtful, strategic content development begins with a careful consideration of how best to serve it up for the user.
Developers have several techniques available to them for structuring their content. They can implement a straightforward logical argumentation, compile a list of relevant data, or use narrative. Quality content is designed with a well-crafted structure that maximizes the impact of the point being made. It incorporates various elements with a technique and sequence that produces a cohesive whole.
“Content must go beyond merely disseminating information, and truly add value to a user.”
There are many factors to consider when designing content structure. In addition to having a crystal-clear point identified and a developed set of skills and techniques, content developers need to keep in mind their knowledge of the audience, limitations of the medium, and available resources. Developers need to know how to ask and answer important questions to understand these factors. Can we utilize multiple voice actors with short cuts for this script or are we limited to a single voice throughout the script? What kinds of illustrations will heighten these particular users’ interest? What techniques have the greatest likelihood of making the point stick?
Good content leaves the user with a clear point.
Finally, after grabbing the users attention and walking them through a persuasive presentation of the main point, content developers have to solidify the point in the users’ minds. As with grabbing the user’s attention at the beginning, there are some tried and true ways of finishing well. Some of the techniques include: wrapping up a core narrative illustration, bringing closure to a loose end in the introduction, or confronting the user with a “what are you going to do about it?” challenge.
Content can be nothing more than a random block of text on a screen or monotone words in a script—content that never enters the consciousness of a “user.” Or it can be a boring litany list of encyclopedic information. But quality content is a well-crafted work of art. It creatively expresses a unique blend of ideas, carefully employs techniques, and persuasively reaches into the hearts and minds of the user to make a point.