Sunday, September 23, 2012

Digital content: It's all useless unless you need it.

Grossly oversimplified visualization of www.

It's a mess out there on the internet.
Corporate websites can have hundreds of thousands of pages--and once you get below the pretty top-tier pages, you'll usually discover a tangled-up mess of minutiae, page proliferation based on tiny product variations, dated remnants of deserted projects, microsites stood up for long-dead campaigns, and who knows what else. And digging through corporate website backwaters feels like wading through a marsh. It's far too fecund, and you can't stand the thought of diving in.

Welcome to a large part of my daily life right now. My team is like the ultimate yard crew, trying to turn a massive swamp of murky content into a well-manicured, easy-to-stroll, yet meaningful collection.

The temptation is to bag all the useless stuff. Only thing is, useless is in the eye of the beholder. I might think that a network-based firewall secure gateway overlay is just techno-blather about nothing. But if I'm the person who's been burned by an intrusion, network-based firewall secure gateway overlay might be the most important thing in the world to me.

So what is a corporate website to do?

Intel's search bar
Intel.com's solution, a prominent search bar on the home page and everywhere else, is an ingenious solve--but one that Wikipedia has relied on for years. Chances are I'm not going to surf to, say, ethernet gigabit server adapters, any more than I'd menu my way to the wiki for Os Mutantes. So why feature surf-oriented navigation prominently? Instead, give the user intelligent search that leads right to a series of pages about his beloved ethernet adapters.

GE's organizational mastery
I'm not up on GE business practices. But if their website reflects how they conduct their company, they must be one incredibly organized enterprise. Despite having more business units than some companies have products, their site reminds me of a rich obsessive-compulsive's closet: perfectly tidy, all clothes folded neatly and put in their place. There's not a t-shirt out of place, and certainly no lame tie-dyes laying in the corner to mess up the neat freak vibe.

Oracle's embrace of chaos
Oracle, a company of acquisitions, has a site that seems unapologetically dense and deep. It throws up links by the dozens on almost every page, has tabs inside of tabs inside of tabs, and is seemingly bottomless in layers. But it in a way, it works. In addition to inviting exploration, it plays into the Oracle heavy-duty tech brand.

++

P.S.

Early in my career, in the mid-nineties, I worked with a couple technical writers who were pushing "information architecture" services.  It felt so high falutin' back then, but now I can't imagine how a site of any magnitude could be built without it. David Payne, if you're out there, I congratulate you for being decades ahead of the curve.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The strategic business value of boring.



Mike Lynch cartoon, November 2010 Harvard Business Review


Is business today akin to a Grateful Dead concert? It often feels like it to me. It's a loose affair, full of unbound improvisation and lots of hoping for the best. Sometimes you get something inspiring, often you get aimless noodling. I'm not the first to make the Dead/business comparison. There are at least two books dedicated to it, Marketing Lessons I Learned from the Grateful Dead and Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead. And in some ways, right on man. Jam on.

But I've never been a hippie. At heart I'm a suit guy. Maybe my shirt's got a lavender hue, but I'm still buttoned-down, at least for an advertising guy. And I see value in that. I've started reading Peter Drucker's Management: Tasks, Responsibilities  Practices. Despite living up to the title's dryness sometimes, it's absolutely relevant and innovative--just in a reserved, controlled, non-Deadhead kind of way.

So when can boring provide strategic business value?

When it ensures that ADHD isn't confused with agility.
Creative folks are bored with advertising campaigns before they even hit the streets. An ADHD bunch to begin with, they've heard all about the campaign a million times, thought about it a billion more. One more time and they'll vomit. So right around the time they call mom to tell her to watch the first TV spot, they're dying for fresh turf.

My strategy life has shown that this isn't merely a creative thing. Right now, one of our clients is rolling out a strategy in a unified, strong way--just in time for it to face the chopping block. It's just not getting the results the company's leadership wants. From their perspective, the core strategic idea has been around for a year or more, so totally old hat. But in reality, it has reached few of its customers, or even its internal audience.

Yet the leadership is clamoring for a shiny new strategy, and very well may get one in the name of agility. But almost always, an executed strategy has more value than a PowerPoint strategy. Even poor results can mean valuable information for course correction. Refining may seem boring compared to reinventing, but is often a better place to start.

When it makes you think inside a box.
Creatives say they want freedom to do whatever, to head whichever damn direction the muses are singing today. The truth is more complicated. The best work is often done within limits. The Mastercard "Priceless" campaign--which, I'm proud to say, is from the agency I work for--is a fantastic example. No matter the ad, the rhetorical framework is always the same. In reality, it's just very creative fill-in-the-blanks.

Strategy is all about creating boxes--hopefully fairly roomy, interesting, built-to-last boxes that provide both form and inspiration to campaigns, websites, products, programs, and organizations. It might be boring to live inside a box for years, but also potentially very lucrative.

When it can keep an organization on course during stormy times.
We're batted about by waves these days, from massive breakers changing the landscape to choppy surf disrupting daily work. And with all the shifts, alterations, and randomness in my digital work for oft-fickle technology clients, I sometimes find myself dazed and confused. I don't think I'm alone.

A firm bearing enables one to stay on course despite the stormy times. It might seem better, easier, more fun to go with the flow and run with the wind. Yes, sometimes this is a wise choice, but steady as we go is often the more profitable choice long-term. Steady might not be a Deadhead-friendly word, but it's a yawner that certainly should remain in our business vocabulary.

++

Per usual, I'm merely another drone in the hive following the latest buzz. There's an NBER study extolling middle managers, Susan Cain's oft-watched TED talk on the power of introversion, even Boringness: The Secret to Great Leadership, an HBR blog post by Joel Stein. But hey, being on the cutting edge is for exciting people.