If you want people to decide or act based on your content, they have to trust it. Trust sounds easy and abundant, but it’s actually rare online. Seth Godin recently called trust a “scarce” and “precious” resource in the digital economy.  We find that in the pressure to get content into the digital world, it’s all too common to neglect the essentials of content credibility and, as a result, undermine trust.

To be credible, your content has to be good quality. But, that’s not enough. Your content also has to communicate why it’s credible. Your content has to appear credible to the people you want to reach.

Based on my going-on-15 years of experience and our credibility research, I’ve considered the essentials of conveying content credibility. I find one essential that seems the most basic is often ignored or misused—the date. Yes, as in February 28, 2013! Go with me on this…

Why Dates Matter

People around the world are getting accustomed to having constant access to digital content. Your users want the greatest—and usually the latest. If your content doesn’t seem recent, it often seems less credible.  Using dates purposefully ensures your content seems current and, as a result, credible.

To boot, libraries and institutions (such as CDC) offer guidance about assessing whether an online source is trustworthy. Many of your users likely have seen or heard that guidance in one form or another. That guidance often mentions checking…you guessed it, the date.

The Dating Game

I find the importance of dates is similar for much digital content. What might vary? The exact approach depending on the lifecycle of your content. Consider…

  1. A press release, announcement, or promotion.
  2. An article or publication.
  3. An “evergreen” set of reference, instructional, or support material.

Each of those types benefits from dates.  For 1, why would the date be important? It makes the content relevant and, potentially, seem urgent for attention. How about for two? Well, the date also adds context. It’s a stamp that says “at this time, this is our thinking” and, practically speaking, the date makes the content ready for archiving. And for three? If it’s evergreen why does it need a date? I find a “date last reviewed” or similar element does wonders to convey that longlasting, almost timeless content, is current.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg, but I think you get the idea. Used thoughtfully, dates serve an important purpose for a variety of content. Now, let’s explore why they go wrong.

Dating Mistakes

Where do dates go awry? When you forget the purpose of having the date—or forget the date altogether. The problem with providing no date for content, I hope, is obvious. You get no benefit of credibility and, potentially, confuse people. That especially goes for health content. But, what about a date with no explanation? Or too many dates? I’ve observed plenty of usability tests where those kinds of mistakes confuse the heck out of people.

Consider the dates on this sample content.

dates-example

Are those dates when the notices were posted? When they started? When they expired? It’s hard to tell. Consider this, too. I pulled this from a current page, and many of the dates are a couple of years old. At first glance, this seems outdated. Notices from 2011, what? I’ve watched users churn over trying to figure out what dates like this mean. Confusing people and earning their trust usually don’t go hand-in-hand.

So, to avoid those kinds of pitfalls, use dates deliberately and make their meaning unmistakably clear.

It’s Not Too Late To Date

In our digital world where trust is an increasingly scarce resource, an increasingly valuable asset is credible content. Don’t let your assets, your credible content, go to waste. Show your content’s credibility, starting with an intentional approach to dates.

Are you in the Boston area? (Or do you love visiting Boston, like I do?) I’ll be there at the end of the month to speak about credibility for health content. I’m also giving a half-day workshop about content analysis and strategy. (Get the details and register at Healthcare Experience Design.)

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in February 2013.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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