“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”
Identifying the originator of that sublime quote has been the subject of m`uch debate over the years—one that has encompassed a who’s-who list of the world’s most influential thinkers, from Voltaire to Mark Twain to Winston Churchill. This article on Quote Investigator seems to trace it back to French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century.
Pascal’s saying sounds odd the first time you hear it, but then its premise almost immediately becomes clear: Clarity and simplicity take time. Pascal otherwise prides himself in crafting concise, informative letters to his friends and colleagues that communicate his key thoughts, waste few words, and leave little doubt about his intent. Most of the time, Pascal likely researched, scribbled, sketched, made a list, sorted his thoughts, wrote and re-wrote before putting his final version’s pen to paper. Only after all that planning and envisioning of his message does he arrive at a message that is all signal and no noise. Any information not on point was left on the cutting room floor.
However, in this one particular instance that allegedly produced the famous quote, Pascal was short on time and simply needed to start writing. The letter probably meandered a bit, was not as well organized as usual, and contained more information and ideas than the recipient really needed. It may have been difficult to sort through Pascal’s thoughts and identify his intent. For that, Pascal apologized, basically saying “I was short on time, so I had to throw in everything … Sorry about wasting a bit more of your time than I intended to.”
If Pascal lived in our modern day he’d be a big fan of Post-It™ Notes, I’m sure. Digital project managers, creatives and developers can certainly appreciate Pascal’s approach. Our research, strategy, sketching and wireframing, information architecture, and prototyping represent the “more time” that Pascal preferred to take. This is the work that comes before any design comps, or any lines of code — because it needs to come first. While design and code often seems to many as being more “tangible” progress, a well-thought-out, properly-invested-in Discovery phase involving strategy, research, mapping, and planning is the most important progress of all.
Your project’s goal is to deliver a “shorter letter” to your audience:
- an easy-to-navigate web site;
- a delightful mobile app experience;
- an efficient business software user interface;
- an infographic, data visualization or explainer that conveys complex information.
In short, without the right amount of up front planning, you may be apologizing for a hastily-delivered project being such a “long letter.”
If you work in consumer-facing health communications, you face the considerable challenges of language barriers and health literacy gaps. Here’s how the US Department of Health and Human Services assessed it:
Only 12 percent of adults have Proficient health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. In other words, nearly nine out of ten adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease.
That level of health illiteracy is of course concerning, because health is related to everything we do. Our health is affected by the amount of sleep we get, the nutrition we put into our bodies, the amount of social interaction we have with friends or family in a week, and even the way we sit in a chair. All of these factors impact our overall health.
So, how do health communications professionals work on this issue? How can they create content that is more understandable, and then spread that information as far and wide as possible? How does a healthcare brand make its important communications ‘contagious’?
Contagious is a sublime book written by Jonah Berger. He goes into six “STEPPS” that can help your content go viral. His framework can be incorporated into health communications and help professionals work smarter—not harder—with their content.
Berger’s STEPPS are as follows:
- Social Currency
- Practical Value
Understanding these can help you plan your content to make it a ‘social epidemic.’ If you want to spread your information fast and become top-of-mind, then you need to think about how to apply each of Berger’s STEPPS into your marketing campaigns.
Step 1: Social Currency
Social currency is the knowledge you have to add value to a conversation. The more you know, the more “status” you often have in society.
People are always talking about what was on the news and what they saw on social media. They use this information to start conversations at work, among friends and family, and even with total strangers. When we do this and share the right type of information, we gain social currency.
According to research cited by Buffer, there are two main reasons people share content:
- “to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about”
- “to stay connected to people.”
The research showcases that people want to be liked. Berger explains that “[the] desire for social approval is fundamental human motivation.” With this knowledge, health organizations need handcrafted, creative content so people can engage with it.
Health organizations need to dive deeper into their target audience(s) and find valuable content based on the consumer’s interests and motivations. The content also needs to be remarkable. According to Berger:
“Remarkable content provides social currency because they make people who talk about them seem more, well, remarkable.”
In healthcare communications, you should almost always provide an example or visual to help explain the health-related concept. This will not only help with readers with lower health literacy rates, but it will also boost the attention and social currency value of the content.
Step 2: Triggers
Triggers are prompts that keep people talking about your brand or product. Berger provided a great example of triggers that may help you understand this concept better.
Rebecca Black’s song, “Friday”, has a prevalent trigger associated with it. Can you take a guess on what it is?
Drum roll please… the song’s title, “Friday”, is the trigger! When this song was popular, every Friday people would turn on this song because it was Friday.
Health organizations could easily take advantage of triggers because health is related to everything you do. Content could be focused on everyday health and wellness topics to prompt healthier decisions and lifestyle habits.
Step 3: Emotion
If you make someone feel an emotion with your content, you will create a bond with the recipient of your message. This person then has the ability to share your message with their network and spread your brand to potential new customers of your products or services.
According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, purchase decisions, brand loyalty, and customer engagement are directly related to the subconscious mind. Emotional benefits can overpower the rational benefits of a product or service because people care about how they feel with a product or service.
Healthcare organizations should be factoring in how they can make people feel. A prime example of doing this step right, is Health Beat, a brand journalism publication of Spectrum Health. Health Beat publishes inspiring patient stories of hardship, hope, love, joy, and excitement that spark a range of emotions in their readers, leading them to share those stories on social media so others can share in that emotional connection.
Step 4: Public
Another step that is crucial is “public.” A key factor of this step is observability — meaning if people see something, they will engage with it. How far the engagement goes depends on the content and the person.
Berger also relates this concept to “social proof.” Social proof can be seen in how people wait in line for an overpriced cup of coffee. People assume the longer the line, the better the coffee. But in reality, they are herding to “social influence.” Social influence has a big effect on behavior.
Health organizations can take advantage of this step, but have to be careful what topics they promote and educate about.
For example, Berger discussed how anti-drug ads aren’t always the best tactic to prevent people from using them. Although the aim of these ads is to prevent young adults from using drugs, the response was often the opposite. Berger informs us that anti-drug ads promote drugs as bad, but clearly showcase that people are using them.
Showing the drug use creates visibility and social proof that can increase the appeal of drug use among teens, and even create a larger problem. It is important to remember this example as a cautionary tale when moving forward with health-related campaigns.
Step 5: Practical Value
People share practically valuable information to help others. This includes useful information.
Useful content is different for every person. It could be a tutorial video on how to prepare a meal, or an infographic giving consumers useful, relevant information. The opportunities to create useful informative content in healthcare are endless.
So, how do you know if your content has value? Ask yourself if the content provides a functional or emotional benefit to someone. If it does, you have your answer.
Step 6: Stories
Stories carry things — a lesson or moral; information or a take-home message. According to Berger, stories “provide a quick and easy way for people to acquire lots of knowledge in a vivid and engaging fashion.”
So how do you know if you are creating a good or bad story?
Good stories provide social currency, emotion, and practical value. Bad stories do not.
If you want to create desirable, shareable content in healthcare you need to put these STEPPS into action.
- Social Currency
- Practical Value
Think about how your message could be woven into these important considerations, and then wait for your consumers to engage with it or not. Then make adjustments and try again.
Remember, you can’t make something viral, but your audience can.
Because I’m the Astronomy Guy at Elexicon, I’m once again going to use my work as an excuse to post about Space.
Here’s a breathtaking photo of the Orion Nebula.
This image of the Orion Nebula is one of the largest and deepest ever taken. It was done using the HAWK-1 infrared camera attached to the Very Large Telescope in Chile, an 8.2 meter telescope that can see celestial objects in extraordinary detail. This image is not exactly what was released by the European Southern Observatory originally; the observations were remastered by astrophotographer Robert Gendler to bring out more detail and to really shine a light (so to speak) on the phenomenal beauty of this immense stellar nursery.
There’s some important science lurking in this image, but there’s something I want to point out first. The glowing part of the nebula is actually just a small part of a much larger complex called the Orion Molecular Cloud. It’s a dense, cold cloud of gas and dust, invisible to the eye, and stars are forming in it. A clutch of stars happened to form near the edge of the cloud, and once they switched on after birth their intense radiation began carving enormous cavities in the gas, chewing away at the material in the cloud.
Because they’re near the edge, they eventually ate a hole on the side of the cloud. In a sense they popped the bubble, blowing out the cloud at their location, which happened to be on the side of the cloud facing us. When we look at the Orion Nebula, we’re actually seeing a dimple or divot scooped out of the denser material. The lower density and much hotter gas filling that dimple glows brilliantly, creating the nebula we see.
This image actually shows that extremely well. Redder material is denser, and the blue glow suffusing the nebula is lower density, hotter gas, tracing the shape of the cavity. It’s an extraordinary glimpse literally inside the nebula.
In other words, you’re looking at a star factory. This video from the Science Channel explains what goes on inside that factory:
The TL;DR version: when gravity clumps enough material together, pressure can build to a point that the atoms of that material fuse together. Those atoms then release their energy in a chain reaction that ignites as a star. A star is a perpetual series of nuclear explosions balanced by the contracting force of gravity—until the fuel runs out.
How star formation relates to content strategy
We sometimes see attempts to trigger website ignition by throwing all available website-y material together in one collection of web pages. Unfortunately in those cases, physics isn’t taking over just because staff bios, a company history, and excerpts from brochures about products or services are gathered together.
Without strategic planning and intentional organization of content, you can end up with a loose mess of material adrift in a nondescript corner of the universe—er, the internet.
Here’s the thing: those clouds of dust in the photo above are the same material that ignited to become stars. The clouds are reflecting light from nearby stars or radiating heat from those stars as light—they’re not giving off their own light.
A website that is similarly just a loose association of website-y stuff is also defined in contrast to other, ignited websites using similar material—competitors. And it won’t look as good as a cloud of space dust backlit by stars.
This applies at the page level, too. For example, efforts to make the homepage ignite can lead to unusable clutter that drives visitors away or leaves them with an unclear path to what they need. You don’t want a page like that standing in contrast to the ignited homepage of a competitor.
The lesson: you won’t get ignition with your website without some intentional arrangement of the material. You want the web equivalent of the atomic fusion that ignites a star.
But also remember: once you have ignition, you won’t have the balanced forces of chain reactions and gravity holding it together. You need a plan in place to keep the fires going.
We can help with that
Elexicon’s content strategy services can help you figure out what you have and what you need, as well as how it all should be arranged to achieve a stable, lasting ignition. Together with our design and development services, we can help you achieve a clear, usable, and human-centered experience for your users.
Your website can shine on its own. And, hopefully, outshine the rest of the stars.
I’m the kind of person who will immediately pick up any book of Hubble Space Telescope photos or read about galaxies in my spare time. I make Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog a daily must-read and have a sky map app on my phone’s homescreen. I’ve currently got two different space photos set as my desktop background on two monitors.
I don’t claim any real level of expertise, but I’m fascinated by this stuff.
I mean, look at this mosaic of the Andromeda Galaxy:
This post isn’t just an excuse to post some great space photos, though it’s at least partly that. Here’s another:
That’s our galactic center, including the region containing a supermassive black hole in the white area on the right.
But that’s just the stuff we can see.
My amateur interest in space recently got me thinking about how something we can’t see, a concept in astrophysics called dark matter, might relate to my professional interest in content and the work we do with it for our clients.
I’ll let Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain what dark matter is:
The too-long-didn’t-watch version: it’s something we know must exist, but don’t know much of anything about. Yet.
Phil Plait goes into slightly more detail:
Dark matter was discovered a long time ago, when it was found that galaxies that live in clusters were moving way too fast to be held by the cluster gravity. They should just simply shoot away, and clusters would essentially evaporate. This implied that clusters of galaxies were either very young and hadn’t had time to dissolve — which we knew wasn’t true; they’re clearly old — or there must be a lot more gravity holding them together. We can add up all the light from the stars in the galaxies and estimate their total mass, but what you get is only about 5-10% of the mass needed to hold clusters together. So most of the matter making up the clusters must be dark. Otherwise we’d see it.
It’s also what gives galaxies their rotation speed—without it, galaxies would rotate slower.
Dark matter is an essential piece of the cosmos. The problem is that we can’t observe it directly, which makes learning more about it difficult. But we’re working on that.
Cosmologist Sean Carroll recently explained why it’s important to study dark matter, despite the fact that we can’t see it:
Only 5 percent of the universe, by mass, is the ordinary stuff out of which you and I are made. So, if you care about understanding the universe, 95 percent of it is dark matter and dark energy. If you want to know how the universe works, you have to understand that stuff. (my emphasis)
Carroll went on to say,
It’s very annoying to us, as scientists, because we know it’s there. We know how much of it is there. We know where it is. But we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what is actually making up the dark matter. So the more we can study its properties, how it collects, how it evolves over time, the more of a hope we get to understand what it is made out of and why there is dark matter at all.
The team of scientists used computers to painstakingly study 2 million galaxies in a miniscule patch of sky, detecting tiny changes in apparent shape in those galaxies caused by dark matter’s gravity distorting their light.
The reason for making this map is that quest for knowledge about the universe Carroll talks about above. Maps like this help scientists make sense of what we see out there, whether it’s how galaxies form, move and evolve, or how they collect together in clumps. Maps like this helps scientists take dark matter into account.
What does this have to do with content?
At the start of many web projects, content is like dark matter. It’s something—text, data, graphics, video, audio—both agency and client know exists, but it’s not fully understood. We know it’s essential to the website, that it makes up the largest chunk of the site’s mass, that without it the site wouldn’t work or hold together very well.
Despite that, it’s easy to get caught up in what I’ll call the luminous material, the design and development. Those are the stars and galaxies of the web, the stuff that’s easy to see and conceptualize—and they’re essential pieces.
However, design and development without a full accounting of content is like cosmology in the days before the discovery of dark matter. At the time, scientists’ theories for galaxy rotation and clustering didn’t match up with observation. Model galaxies would fall apart, because dark matter wasn’t part of the equation. The models had to adapt for the presence of the stuff in order to work.
The same is true for websites: you need to understand your content if you want to keep your site from falling apart or spinning too slowly.
Fortunately, we can observe content directly. If we take the time, we can catalog it, organize it, adjust it, cull it, create it, plan for its future, and more. In other words, we can build a dark matter map. We call this map content strategy.
Content strategy is an essential component to any successful website project. A good content strategy will tell you what you have, why you have it, what you need, and where you’re going with it. It will align with and inform your goals, making them achievable from where you are now. It will turn your dark matter into a fully-known piece of the puzzle.
We’re interested in helping you discover what makes up your dark matter. Together, we’ll plot out how it collects and evolves. And we’ll help you plan for its future.
What can we map for you?
Last month, Matt Haughey of MetaFilter published a piece on Medium about the status of one of the true stalwarts of the internet:
MetaFilter is the little weblog that could, established in 1999 as one of the first community blogs. Over its fifteen year history it has expanded from a place to discuss interesting things on the web to include Ask MetaFilter as a community question and answer (Q&A) site, along with more subsections for things like music by members, completed projects by members, meetups among members, and most recently TV and movies.
While MetaFilter is relatively small (only about 62,000 have paid the one-time $5 for an account to date and 12,000-15,000 of those members come back to interact with the site every day), we have a great group of members, and I think we consistently have some of the best discussion on the web, with the sites attracting over 80 million readers last year. Our commenters are literate and thoughtful, and our site is watched around the clock by a staff of moderators. Despite the site’s modest stature its influence makes waves in the larger world (like mentions on popular TV shows: Tremé andMythbusters).
Unfortunately in the last couple years we have seen our Google ranking fall precipitously for unexplained reasons, and the corresponding drop in ad revenue means that the future of the site has come into question.
Haughey goes on to explain the situation at length.
His story is alarming for a number of reasons. MetaFilter is highly-regarded, with a reputation as a good citizen on the internet and has a community that is generally one of the best. The realities Haughey and his staff now face this are brutal and should have been avoidable.
However, the nature of Google in 2014 is such that determining where MetaFilter went wrong (or even if they went wrong) is difficult.
What we do know is that, as the company has grown over the years, Google has become increasingly opaque and monolithic. It has also become seemingly hostile to some of the principles it was originally known for. The famous but informal Google motto “Don’t be evil,” has become a punchline to some observers, particularly after the sudden shuttering of Google Reader and the intrusive full-court press on Google+. This MetaFilter story only adds to the narrative of a Google that is losing sight of the open internet, where the cream rises to the top.
At the surface, the MetaFilter situation is related to positive changes Google has made to their algorithm aimed at reducing instances of low-quality content and serving up high-quality content. However, if you do a Google search today, you still get content farm results and low-quality answers from sites like Ask Yahoo! If this were a case of MetaFilter losing out to quality competition, or utilizing unsavory SEO techniques Google is flagging, it wouldn’t be so disturbing—it would be expected. As it is, you have MetaFilter losing out for reasons that remain opaque to the outside.
Here you have an extreme case that offers a harsh lesson: you can do all of the right things and still lose out if you are too dependent on a third party company for your success. It’s true with Facebook and other social media sites, and it’s true with Google too.
MetaFilter, for example, is now pivoting to another, less ad-dependent business model, but it seems they should have done so earlier as a safeguard against the shifting sands of Google’s algorithm.
Our guidelines for customers remain what they were before: keep your SEO efforts clean and produce good content while striving to engage your users in a meaningful and lasting way. Just remember that what happened to MetaFilter underlines the importance of the engagement component. Search results can change, but a proper web strategy can minimize the damage to your business when they do.
For some more background on the story, check out this episode of the TLDR podcast.