Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from The Content Advantage: The Science of Succeeding at Digital Business through Effective Content.

Let’s start with a fact. I’d like you to guess the answer to this question: What percentage of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared since the year 2000?

If you guessed a number around 50 percent or more, you are correct. If you did not, you’re not alone. I was shocked to learn that such a high percentage of U.S. publicly traded companies had died or become absorbed by competitors.
How could this happen? Many business experts and journalists agree that the most significant cause is digital disruption. Digital no longer means offering a website or a mobile application to complement offline operations. It means fundamentally changing the way companies do business, such as facing new competitors and responding to the wide-ranging impact of artificial intelligence, and other technological advances, just to survive, much less thrive.

The situation today reminds me of one of my favorite stories growing up, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. At one point, Alice runs with the Red Queen for a long time and then realizes they are in the
same spot as when they began.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

That seemed fascinatingly strange to me when I was a child. As an adult in the digital age, it rings true. Let’s take a closer look at why and how digital is turning business into a Red Queen’s race.

DIGITAL IS CHANGING BUSINESS FASTER AND MORE FREQUENTLY THAN EVER

One of the most useful resources I’ve found for understanding this current trend is the World Economic Forum, which is a Swiss nonprofit committed to improving the state of the world by engaging a wide variety of business
and civic leaders at its annual forum and in ongoing reports. The theme of the 2016 forum was digital disruption (specifically the Fourth Industrial Revolution), where Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme asserted the impact
like this:

Digital disruption is at the heart of all the conversations I have with CEOs today. And this is not surprising, as it presents the most significant threats and opportunities any of us have faced in business.

When assessing the implications, consider the fact that new digital business models are the principal reason why just over half of the names of companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000. And yet we are only at the beginning of what the World Economic Forum calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” characterized not only by mass adoption of digital technologies but by innovations in everything from energy to biosciences.

As further evidence that digital disruption is causing our Fourth Industrial Revolution, consider these fascinating facts offered by Fortune from a survey of the 2017 Fortune 500 CEOs.

  • 73 percent of CEOs surveyed identified the “rapid pace of technological change” as their biggest challenge.
  • 71 percent of CEOs surveyed agreed with the statement “These days, I consider my company to be a technology company.”
  • 81 percent of CEOs surveyed considered artificial intelligence and machine learning as “very important” or “extremely important” to the future of the company—a huge increase from 54 percent in 2016.

Just about every company, regardless of industry, has to be a digital company. Are companies putting their money where their digital concerns are? The answer seems to be yes. Analyst firm IDC reports that worldwide spend on digital transformation reached $1.1 trillion in 2017 alone and will hit $1.8 trillion in 2018, with $437 billion of that spend in the U.S.

DIGITAL DISRUPTION IS HERE TO STAY

Digital disruption is not hype or a fluke. It’s happening. It’s also not likely to go away any time soon. In fact, it likely will intensify. The World Economic Forum has identified four waves, each marked by rapid change. Nanterme describes them like this:

We are seeing the Fourth Industrial Revolution emerge in a series of waves: the digital consumer, who enjoys more interactive and personal­ized experiences thanks to SMAC (social, mobile, analytics, and cloud) technologies; the digital enterprise, which leverages SMAC technologies to optimize the cost of corporate functions and to transform enterprise collaboration for greater productivity; and the emerging digital opera­tions wave, where companies are truly revolutionizing business with the use of artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive computing, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

And Nanterme goes on to explain the accelerated change:

The rapid pace and scale of disruption is unique to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Digital companies can reach new customers immediately and at virtually zero marginal cost. They can compete in new sectors by collaborating with peers and competitors. They can massively improve quality and productivity by converging technologies and sources of data.

When I think of a company that is navigating digital disruption well, I think of Intuit. Fortune listed Intuit as number 537 on the 2017 Fortune 500 but as number 8 in the Future 50 Leaders list, a ranking of companies in terms of breakout growth potential. One reason for that 8 ranking is Intuit’s capacity to change.4 Intuit started as a disruptor itself with the release of Quicken, the desktop software for personal accounting, in 1993. Since then, Intuit has released a range of successful products while rein­venting itself to navigate big challenges, such as

  • Converting desktop software to web-based software and mobile applications
  • Responding to threats from disruptors such as Mint.com, which tracks all your personal finance accounts in one place

So companies and organizations need to transform themselves digitally—likely multiple times, the way Intuit has—to survive, much less thrive, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What does that mean for getting results through digital? To start, it means avoiding mistakes.

In the seven years since the first edition of this book, many companies con­tinued to start and restart these paths to nowhere. These mistaken routes all miss the importance of content.

PUSHY TRICKS AND SMALL TWEAKS

Think about conversions, a critical result. To make a sale or get a lead, many websites use persuasion like a pushy salesperson, aiming high-pressure ploys at people as if they were stupid targets. One trick I love to hate is the countdown timer. Every tick of the timer tries to rush me into signing up.

Such tricks act like prods to push people along. Do they get results?

Many consultants say we should expect 2 to 3 percent of people who visit websites to convert (buy a product, for example). In fact, the global con­version rate, as noted by the Monetate Ecommerce Quarterly Index, still hovers around 2 to 4 percent. That rate range has not changed since 2003. Even if you consider that not everyone who visits an ecommerce website intends to buy, these rates are low. And they’re not improving.

How can we improve? Many consultants tell us that testing and optimizing are the answer. We’re encouraged to tweak the text, buttons, and pictures on our websites and landing pages until conversion rates rise. (That’s some­times where manipulative tricks come in too.) We’ve had years to experi­ment. If tricks and tweaks worked so well, the global conversion rate would have improved, if not skyrocketed, by now.

Should you stop testing or stop optimizing? No. But that shouldn’t be all you do. Tricks and tweaks, by themselves, are not enough to get meaning­ful results.

OVERPROMISED TECHNOLOGY

No IT product, feature, or widget alone will give you results. I don’t care what the smiley vendor with the slick demo and the free drinks says. Tom Davenport, an industry analyst and author, has pointed out the limits of technology:

The important point, however, is that we need more naysayers in the IT field… Most products don’t work as advertised or very well in general, and even more are unworthy of the hype that surrounds them.

Time and again, I’ve watched companies, especially big ones, look to a product, platform, or technology trend such as artificial intelligence or digital core transformation as the pill to cure all ills. Time and again, I’ve watched those companies try to launch that panacea through a doomed project. Recent studies by the cloud technology company Innotas show that more than half of such technology projects fail. Those projects remind me a lot of this Dilbert cartoon (Figure 1.1), where a technology initiative starts with promising everything and ends by delivering nothing.

dilbert cartoon - technology projects

SEO SNAKE OIL

A cousin of overpromised technology, SEO snake oil is the promise of high search engine rankings with little effort. Who sells it? Slippery SEO consultants who take advantage of the fact that search engine formulas aren’t public. They’re held more sacred than your grandmother’s secret recipe. Those formulas also change regularly. So no one, including consul­tants, knows exactly what ranks your website.

The snake oil consultants “guarantee” rankings and make dubious recommendations. One of my favorites is to post lots of articles crammed with keywords. The result is often gibberish. And these consultants insist the effort is worth spending a chunk of change.

But there is legitimate SEO work being done by good SEO consultants. They experiment with different variables and observe what affects your search engine rankings. They pay attention when Google releases changes to its algorithm, and they warn that spammy, outdated SEO practices will be punished with lower rankings. Mostly, good design and content go a long way toward good SEO.

I don’t mean you should throw out SEO concerns. However, SEO snake oil leads people to spend money on being found (which often doesn’t work) at the expense of making their content and overall digital presence worth finding. If your website is mired in meaningless articles “for SEO pur­poses,” you’re not going to get results.

GRAPHIC AND INTERACTION DESIGN ALONE

An eye-catching and easy-to-use digital experience is good. But is that all you need for results?

Graphic Design Helps But Isn’t Enough

Good graphic design gives people a fantastic first impression so that they don’t leave your website right away. It also helps set your style. Those ben­efits are valuable but, by themselves, don’t sustain results for the long term. How many beautiful websites have you visited once and then forgotten? Oh wait, you probably don’t remember.

Usability and Interaction Are Important, But You Need More

Deeper design, such as whether a website or other digital touchpoint has a user-friendly interface, is important. If people can’t interact well with you online, you have a major problem. Usability is even a common courtesy that will help your reputation. But this deeper design does not fully address the substance of most content.

SHORTSIGHTED MARKETING

These problems happen in the name of marketing.

Broadcasting Doesn’t Work for the Interactive Digital Space

Since the late 1990s, marketing has claimed to adapt to the web. Before then, marketing followed a broadcast model, which treated the company brand as a battleship blasting its message at targets (the customers). Usu­ally, the blasts were campaigns or promotions that lasted for a few weeks or months.

Although marketers still talk about companies becoming interactive, it largely hasn’t happened. A 2010 Harvard Business Review article called for the complete reinvention of marketing and states:

To compete in this aggressively interactive environment, companies must shift their focus from driving transactions to maximizing customer lifetime value. That means making products and brands subservient to long-term customer relationships.

Most marketers I encounter still blast a message at customers rather than plan to interact with customers for the long term.

Online Ads Are Often Ineffectual

Banner ads. Pop-up windows. Distracting videos. Overpromising click-baity search engine ads. Online ads are so bad, they’re infamous. It’s easy to blame the designers or marketers. But the real problem is with the online adver­tising system that has promised from the beginning to provide better data about advertising effectiveness than do other advertising methods. Since the first edition of this book, an incredible amount of data about online advertising has become available. And that data is telling us that online advertising has little effect or that we are still uncertain about the effect.

For example, last year eBay released an extensive study in partnership with a group of respected economists about the effectiveness of search engine advertising. The sobering conclusion? That search engine advertising is useless and unprofitable for a prominent, well-known brand.

As another example, the largest U.S. advertiser, Procter & Gamble, cut $140 million in digital ad spending last year because of concerns that bots drove fake traffic to the ads and that ads displayed on websites and applications undermined their product brands. Seeing an advertisement for an Olay lotion on a porn website or a controversial political website, for example, would be a problem. To boot, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, Marc Pritchard, led an intense campaign demanding significantly improved transparency and adherence to standards from digital agencies and from advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook. Although Pritchard sees promise for “the next generation” of digital advertising, it’s clear that online advertising often overpromises and underdelivers.

I could go on, and I bet you could add to this list of tried-and-still-untrue solutions. Now, new tempting but mistaken paths have emerged.

THESE NEW MISTAKES ARE LEADING ORGANIZATIONS DOWN THE WRONG PATH

Two mistakes, design thinking and content bloat, either overlook content in a new way or focus on the wrong aspects of content.

THINKING THAT DESIGN THINKING WILL SAVE YOU

When I wrote the first edition of this book, “design thinking” was emerging as a buzzword in the business world to refer to applying a mix of research and design principles to identifying and solving business problems. Design thinking is still a hot concept, especially at large companies, resulting in extensive training for a wide range of non-designers in design. But as with technology, design thinking is not a panacea, because it leaves out other important thinking.

What thinking is left out? User experience design pioneer and Adaptive Path founder Peter Merholz tells us in his concise yet prescient article for Harvard Business Review “Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You.” Merholz notes that Adaptive Path succeeded because of the diverse thinking assembled. Design thinking does not account for, among other things

  • Business thinking, which is still critical
  • Anthropology and sociology research thinking
  • Library science/information architecture thinking

That last item is where Merholz touches on content, and today I would add a host of content-related considerations outlined in the rest of this book. I also would add marketing and technology thinking. Merholz humorously takes the need for so much different thinking to its logical conclusion:

All of these disciplinary backgrounds allow people to bring distinct perspectives to our work, allowing for insights that wouldn’t be achieved if we were all cut from the same cloth. Do we need to espouse “library thinking,” “history thinking,” and “arts thinking?” Should we look at Steve Jobs’s background, and say what business needs is more “calligraphic thinking”?

Obviously, this is getting absurd, but that’s the point. The supposed dichotomy between “business thinking” and “design thinking” is foolish. It’s like the line from The Blues Brothers, in response to the question “What kind of music do you usually have here?” The woman responds, “We got both kinds. We got country and western.” Instead, what we must understand is that in this savagely complex world, we need to bring as broad a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives to bear on whatever challenges we have in front of us. While it’s wise to question the supremacy of “business thinking,” shifting the focus only to “design thinking” will mean you’re missing out on countless possibilities.

I suspect that advocates of the design thinking hype cannot or will not share Merholz’s foresight, and so his article perhaps did not garner as much attention as it deserves. His contrarian view is worth revisiting. Over the past several years, I have seen first-hand the consequences of the misguided supremacy of design thinking, including:

  • Poor treatment of content professionals by designers, such as not including them in processes or respecting their feedback
  • Disagreements and delays in decisions due to lack of collaboration between the designers and the business leaders
  • Designs developed with a complete lack of awareness of the implications for content, such as assuming that a repository of content existed that did not
  • Leaving content strategy or content marketing strategy professionals out of efforts to define product or experience strategy
  • Design executives and professionals viewing content as a discipline that design has to subsume, not as a critical business capacity that needs its own leadership and operations

And I’m only scratching the surface. The point here is that design thinking alone will not suffice to navigate the road to business success that digital constantly disrupts.

CREATING CONTENT BLOAT BY FOCUSING ON CONTENT QUANTITY

I am delighted to say that since the first edition of this book more organizations and individuals have turned their attention to content. It is no coincidence that the internet is now doubling in size every two years, resulting in 50-fold growth of content and data from 2011 to 2020. I am not saying this book alone spurred this newfound attention to content. My point is that more organizations are now aware of content and doing something about it. Many have achieved important successes, as you’ll see later in this book.

At the same time, many companies have fallen for the “more is better” philosophy on content, creating a high volume of content across a variety of digital touchpoints. For instance, in 2015 the technology giant Intel found itself suffering from what I call content bloat, with content feeding 12,500 pages on the main website, 715 microsites, 324 social handles, and 38 mobile applications. And you can imagine the number of images, PDFs, videos, and other digital assets composing that content. This volume causes a number of problems for customers or users and the companies creating and managing the content, as you can see in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1 Sample Problems with the Content Volume Play

FOR CUSTOMERS/USERSFOR COMPANIES OFFERING THE CONTENT
Findability
Quality, relevant content becomes increasingly hard to find or discover.
Complexity
Content assets and digital touchpoints become increasingly challenging and expensive to manage and scale.
Confusion + Mistrust
Content gives conflicting messages, is outdated, makes completing tasks difficult, or uses an inconsistent voice.
Inefficiency
Sections of redundant content are created by different groups and compete with each other for visibility in search listings.
Dissatisfaction
Content does not help and even hinders new and existing customers, leading to low satisfaction with the customer experience.
Ineffectiveness
Content is not attracting the right people, encouraging self-service, improving conversions, or otherwise supporting business objectives.

If you care about content but have found that your organization has followed a path similar to Intel, the good news is that you can course correct. As Intel’s director of digital governance, Scott Rosenberg led a multiyear effort to reduce content based on clear standards and guidelines for effectiveness, and then introduced governance to prevent content bloat from happening again. Rosenberg notes:

The first step in your digital governance journey should be to deeply understand what it is you’re trying to address and the business impact. For example, if you are tackling content strategy issues like content bloat or what I call “experience bloat” (an abundance of websites, social handles, mobile apps, etc.), clearly define the impact to your marketing objectives and customer experience. Is it diluting your brand value? Decreasing qualified leads? Exposing internal organizational silos to your customers? Once done, share and validate your findings within your organization’s key influential stakeholders, such as your CMO and executive team. Gaining senior buy-in across the company is critical to securing the support, resources, and widespread behavioral shift needed to build a strong digital governance framework.

The rest of this book will help you avoid content bloat or course correct it.

SUMMARY

Thanks to digital disruption, we all face a new, often changing, path to success. Attempting the same shortcuts will disappoint, and we face new tempting but mistaken paths that are really dead ends. To survive, much less thrive, in the digital age, businesses need to rethink their approach to content.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a growing content intelligence and strategy company based in Atlanta GA. Content Science owns Content Science Review, Content Science Academy, and the content effectiveness software ContentWRX.  She also is the former Head of Content at Mailchimp. Colleen regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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