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Three things about mobile content

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What does the evolution of mobile mean for the discipline of content strategy?

Last week I joined the masses of content strategists, editors, marketers, and developers who met in Chicago for WebContent 2011: Going Mobile. In a variety of ways, all of the presenters asked the question ‘what does the shift to mobile mean for working with content?’ – and attempted to answer it through discussions of user testing, social media marketing, message architecture, SEO, and the strategy and design process. Slides from most of the presentations are now available.

Even with sessions covering this variety of topics, a few big themes emerged, and over the past week I’ve thinking about three main takeaways for content strategy. They’re not exclusive to mobile, but really reflect the growing need for user experiences to travel across platforms, and for content to go where it’s needed.

Context

This was definitely the big one, as mobile is making it clear that we need to understand and plan for a variety of different user contexts. Comscore’s Mark Donovan was the first to bring this point up, asking how, when, why and where content is being consumed, and what other data is it being combined or mashed up with. In other words, with mobile, time, place, attention level, and the presence of other content sources create very different contexts through which users are accessing your content. While this has always been true, mobile has expanded the scope of possible contexts.

Robert Rose made context the main point of his presentation as well, looking at how ‘context aware everything’ shapes the kinds of experiences we can offer. Looking beyond time and place, he asked us to consider social and augmented reality, contextually-based security, management and delivery and personalized search results.

In her presentation on structuring editorial and messaging for mobile, Margot Bloomstein made the point that users expect content and functionality to be specific to their particular situation at any given moment. She suggested that maintaining your brand and experience demands content strategy that ensures a clear ‘message architecture’ (a hierarchy of communication goals) that carries across contexts, and supports navigating between them.

Erin Scime and Jessica L’Esperance from HUGE talked about the differences between a web and mobile strategy for a major hotel chain. One major difference is telling multiple stories (web) vs. telling a single, focused story at a given moment (mobile). To make this happen, along with the functionality, the editorial structure had to change significantly. For example, for the mobile site, content that encouraged booking was prioritized, and the language became less marketing, more instructional.

Flexibility

In order to migrate to mobile, content needs to become more flexible (it can’t be tied to ‘pages’, for starters). For this transformation to happen, the ways in which we produce and manage content need to change.

What does this mean? Karen McGrane and Jeff Eaton attacked this question head-on, emphasizing that content needs to be structured with flexibility in mind, i.e. structured for use and re-use across platforms.

They warned against merely thinking of creating a ‘mobile version’ of your site or content, quoting Responsive Web Design author Ethan Marcotte: “Fragmenting our content across different ‘device-optimized’ experiences is a losing proposition, or at least an unsustainable one” – and pointing out that while responsive design solves at the design level, we need to do the same thing with content.

How to do this? Build for flexibility, not the latest trend. Separate of content from form and make content semantic. Transition to a content API. All of this helps build flexibility into your content so you can create once, publish everywhere.

Agility & cooperation

Maybe it goes without saying that content strategists need to work closely with designers to create effective mobile experiences. This is true for all platforms, but on mobile, the boundaries between content, design and functionality get blurry, while tighter, more focused mobile experiences demand that they be seamlessly integrated.

Erin Scime and Jessica L’Esperance highlighted the close working relationship between the content strategists, designers and developers on their projects, and talked about shifting from a reliance on documentation to continuous communication. On their hotel project, Jessica, the designer was focused on user goals and tasks, features and functionality, and navigation and flow. Erin, the content strategist was focused on the content experience, business case, and content production and distribution.

Giving the example of designing the hotel chain’s mobile booking system, Jessica worked to optimize the booking flow while Erin prioritized content that would encourage booking. Clearly, this process had to happen in a highly collaborative work style. They kept their team for this project “lean and mean” and reminded us that “Mobile moves fast. Collaboration is essential.”

A fourth thing: active content

I’d like to add a fourth thing to this list of mobile content considerations—something that seemed to be missing at WebContent 2011, at least as a major area of focus.

What is different about mobile content? It’s easy to point out things like small screen sizes, different input modalities, and its consumption in an ever-growing number of contexts… but what is changing about the content itself?

One of the biggest shifts we’re starting to see is that mobile content is aspiring to become active. Both in substance and form, we now need to pay special attention to the ways in which users actively engage with, rather than passively consume content. In other words, content is finally, truly becoming something that’s interactive.

This is an opportunity and a challenge for content creators – to create content that inspires people to take action, to actually do stuff out in the world; and content, moreover, that is responsive to the actions they take. Recipes have a natural niche here. A number of sites and mobile apps are onto this, and they allow users to create shopping lists, and break recipes down into navigable steps. Some go further in making content active, allowing users to comment, modify, add photos, or favorite recipes. Content becomes a living thing that changes from one moment to the next.

Not all content is as obviously and neatly actionable as recipes are. But, knowing that users have become more active in their intentions around content gives us new things to consider as we produce content for mobile platforms and beyond. A major challenge for content strategy will be how to meet an active consumer who wants to take action, and how to make content that is truly suitable for the interactive medium.

Kim Lawless More posts by Kim Lawless