I used to blog … occasionally. It felt tedious and time-consuming.

Most of all, it seemed like a bunch of work for an unknown return. Who would read it? Would it be interesting or matter? Would it result in more work or speaking opportunities or notoriety?

Did I have anything to say?

Yep.

Last year, I went on a speaking tour of sorts in Europe with my good friend, Mat Sweezey. We did a ton of events in just under three weeks, and had countless conversations—many of them about the power of content and the importance of understanding what it means to be the consumer of that content.

Not only were people giving me an hour of their time to hear what I had to say, but they wanted to talk more once it was done. They wanted my input, specifically. Many of these people didn’t even primarily speak English.

Why? Because I’m famous? Obviously not.

My input was helping them. I was being conversational, yet helpful. That’s when I realized I could probably write without all the pressure, and still do something worthwhile for other people.

So, I committed to writing once a week. With one or two exceptions, I’ve done that for an entire year.

What Worked

The most important thing that happened is I started to find my voice through disciplined, consistent writing and speaking. It was a worthwhile venture for that alone.

As I brought up in that post, I learned to focus on writing about people, big ideas, and how design and business fits into that. I learned to listen to feedback from others and give true value back. I learned that posts that bring in the most visitors (by far) are the simple, tactical ones (like exporting notes from Powerpoint or dealing with WordPress gallery styling) thanks to search engines, but that doesn’t translate into much beyond creating value for that person in that moment. Writing consistently about your expertise takes much more time to turn into big numbers in your analytics.

Instead of focusing on getting inbound traffic that doesn’t help me meet my goals, I focus on giving value to the less than 100 folks who read my posts every week.

These have been the five most popular posts that aren’t “How To”s:

  1. Cancellation as a Feature
  2. Your Work is Bad and You Should Feel Bad
  3. Get Started in Professional WordPress Design & Development
  4. The Interminable Pursuit of Best Practices
  5. Grow as a WordPress Developer

The two WordPress posts were kicked off by me essentially crowdsourcing the topic, so I’d like to do something a little like that again.

What’s Worked?

I’ve completed my commitment to disciplined blogging. Now, I want to commit to valuable blogging—however often that ends up being. As Chris Lema says, blog “as consistently as you can do it while being helpful”.

So, I’d love your help. If you read what I write, I’d like your feedback, so I can continue to meet my goal of being helpful and valuable. Your answer to this one question will shape what I write about and how often I write going forward.

Thank you for letting me be a part of your day. I’ll continue to try and earn it.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


 

December 5, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content

Ironically, today’s thought was sparked by BuzzFeed’s insistence on delighting users over boosting numbers.

(Really!)

In an article at Poynter this week, Dan Oshinsky discussed a 2012 email newsletter that went out from BuzzFeed that had an extremely high open rate. Its title?

“You’re fired.”

You might see how this would’ve gotten a massive open rate. You might also see why recipients replied with a fair amount of disdain for the tactic.

Wisely, BuzzFeed listened to the feedback and actively chooses to find less hilariously awful ways (arguably) to get the numbers they want.

Better Metrics

Choosing to be a little more humane wasn’t the only thing that changed at BuzzFeed as a result of that ridiculous email: it led to a revision of how success was measured.

BuzzFeed now de-emphasizes open rate as a “silver bullet” metric: It looks instead at click rate, the number of links readers click and how long each reader spends with the email. The newsletter team also monitors growth rates for every newsletter subscriber list and compares how many people are reading them on mobile and desktop platforms.

Email open rates are a great metric for ensuring you’re not cutting yourself off at the knees with a bad subject line. It’s not that they shouldn’t be used, it’s that it doesn’t tell you nearly as much about engagement. It’s often more of a way to know you’re setting the stage well for the killer content inside your email. From there, matching metrics up with your goals for the email is the key to knowing if you’re getting where you want to go. If your newsletter is a collection of links or seeks to drive recipients to a call-to-action, clicks are certainly paramount! If it’s got readable content in it, knowing how long the reader spends will tell you whether things are getting read or opened and archived quickly.

Web analytics information presents a similar trap: big numbers look good, but they often don’t actually matter unless they show that visitors are doing the right things.

For instance, many times a high bounce rate is perfectly reasonable! Consider these examples:

  • Sometimes, a call to action on a landing page will link a user to a new domain where they can log in to your product. That’s a bounce, but they’re going right where they should.
  • Your contact page often contains everything someone needs when they’re Googling for “company x phone number”. They’ll leave immediately, because they got what they came for.
  • Blog posts often have extremely high bounce rates, even if they’re great posts! A reader can get value out of it and still not want to click around further on the website.

In each case, you need better metrics to determine success:

  • For the landing page linking to a new domain, attach an event so you can see success in your reports.
  • On your contact page, use a tool to know how customers get your phone number. If you use AdWords, consider the WordPress plugin I helped write for CallRail.
  • Design for further engagement on your blogs to see if you can increase time spent on the site, but also take a look at returning visitors over time. Offering a newsletter subscription is another great option.

Wrong Metrics in Best Practices

The wrong metrics won’t just throw off your ability to know success and improve, it can also teach you the exact wrong things to do.

After one of my talks at Dreamforce this year, an audience member asked about some sales tactics he’d heard from successful salespeople and wanted to know how he could apply them to email marketing (which is also designed to drive sales). The concepts seemed a little iffy, but the salespeople had seen success. Why not try it?

Here’s why: the audience member’s business runs off renewals, while salespeople are often only incentivized to make the sale. There’s no way to know if these tactics would actually pay off in the long run, because the salespeople didn’t know (or care) if customers stuck around. Overselling a product or feature, for instance, can benefit someone who gets paid only off of the conversion, but the business takes the hit when the customer ends up disappointed in the experience.

So, as I told the audience member: there’s no way to know if those tactics would work, because yours goals don’t align. He needs to look for tips from people who are also incentivized to keep customers happy over the course of renewal cycles.

Trusting the wrong person’s tactics is an epidemic in content. Have you seen how many blogs have co-opted the clickbait/Upworthy style of creating titles? If your sole metric of success is ad revenue off of single page views, that may very well be a useful tactic for you. If you’re hoping to build readership, you probably ought to crank back the eye roll-inducing titles and work on having great content that’s worth reading.

It all comes down to ensuring that the metrics you’re trying to affect accurately reflect your business goals.

I’m wincing as I conclude with: maybe you should learn from BuzzFeed and take a fresh look at how you define success.

November 14, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Data, UX

The relationship between content and design is often that key ingredient that makes people love what you’re offering.

Everything from a simple blog to a company’s flagship software to a retailer’s in-store offerings operates on the principle of wrapping content (words, images, data, products) in a layer of presentation (layout, colors, typography, delivery) and interaction (filtering, searching, exporting, purchasing, responding).

It’s a hard relationship to get right, because the variables are difficult to quantify, and things change so quickly. How do you present the valuable content you have in a way that not only doesn’t scare people away, but keeps them engaged? What does success look like in what Seth Godin calls “attention economy”?

Companies are just beginning to throw massive amounts of resources into creating the right experience for customers. From user experience design to emotional design to material design, the approaches to figuring out how to perfect these experiences—that relationship of content and design—are increasing and giving great insight. It can still be easy to miss the forest for the trees, though, and focus on methods before understanding the foundation.

Conversation

I like to explain this foundation by using conversation as an analogy. Maybe it’s because it hits home with me, personally.

Your content is what you’re trying to say, but your personality dictates how you’ll say it. It doesn’t matter how true what you’re saying may be if you say it like a jerk, or if you seem too obtuse, or if you’re too verbose.

And I know this because it’s something I’ve been working on personally for a long time. I can give the right answers all I want to, but if I don’t inspire the person I’m talking to to take it to heart, it ends up falling on deaf ears.

Insight is useless without the inspiration to act on it.

If my personality doesn’t do a good job of presenting what I’m saying, it comes across as self-righteous, judgmental, or—worse—irrelevant.

Your content may be valuable, but the presentation of that content will make or break it. It must be designed, and it must be designed well. Designing that presentation of content—the experience—takes a lot of learning, time, and experimentation. Not only do you have to understand the foundation and the methods, but you have to be willing to find out if and how it connects with your audience.

Knowing When You Nail It

People Over Pixels: Meaningful UXYou’ll never get that balance of content and design right the first time. You probably won’t the next 100 times you try, either. You have to make a best effort, be observant, and implement what you learn.

I’ve been giving a new presentation this year called “People Over Pixels: Meaningful UX”. The content is close to my heart, because I show how UX efforts can and should meet business goals and how, in order to do so, you actually have to forget the business goals and focus on people, instead. Then, not only do you meet the business goals you need to meet, but it actually has some incredibly important side effects that improve the lives of people.

I knew it was crucial that this content not just be presented in a standard, bullet point slide deck that I walk through matter-of-factly. So, it works more as a narrative. I wanted to tell a story—one that people could understand they could participate in. I wanted to inspire people to dig into their UX work.

It’s been going well, to be sure. I’ve gotten good reviews and positive feedback from my previous presentations, and I keep getting invited back. That’s good! I take the feedback and tweak the presentation to improve it.

But, last week, I presented this talk at Dreamforce to a theater of folks. The feedback was different. Emphasis mine:

“Do you know if they posted the A/V for [this talk]? I am requiring our team and execs to listen/watch it. Thanks, amazing session!!”

“Cliff gave – by far – the best presentation of the week! It had substance, was engaging, and provided me with ideas I can use as I return to the day-to-day of work.”

“speaker was very engaging and interesting”

“Best, most passionate session I’ve seen in a long time!”

“Speaker was unbelievable. Really awesome job. Most compelling I’ve attended.”

You’ll need to believe me that this isn’t a #humblebrag in disguise, because I want you to see that the words people used of their own volition were about engagement, and they often came coupled with an action. The words matched the way I wanted the story to come across, and the actions matched what I wanted to see happen. I’m less concerned with being right or interesting; I want to compel people to act. I want to inspire them to work hard.

These are the moments you look for. It’s like magic. That certain je ne sais quoi transmitted your content into a design that people embrace. The biggest mistake we can make, though, is assume that this means simply replicating exactly what was done going forward will produce the same results. It won’t. It should, though, spur us onward and teach us that we’re going in the right direction.

Again, for me, personally, getting this kind of feedback has been important to me over the years. Often, my job as a UX Designer is to sit in a room and politely, but clearly, say, “That’s not good enough. We need to do better.” I can speak truth all I want, but if I don’t inspire people to take the feedback and build something better, I’ve failed. So, I follow up with people after meetings (especially if they’re seemingly tense) to ask how I came across and make sure I made sense.

But, when the feedback is different, I take special note. Yes, that means the unabashedly negative stuff, but that’s just telling you what not to do. It’s the different positive feedback that gives you the deepest insight.

For instance, one day Matt Medeiros asked me for feedback on his Conductor plugin, which hadn’t launched then. He asked for for my frank thoughts, and I definitely gave them to him. It wasn’t all positive, but I definitely wanted him to know that I thought he was on the right track. When I saw this tweet right after, I knew I’d nailed it:

In your quest to build experiences that people care about, pay close attention to when inspiration swells up in others. That’s what ideal user experiences are anyway: content that does something for real people so directly and transparently that you hardly notice it was designed at all.

October 23, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Speaking

Last week, Martha P. Nochimson of Vox.com published a 5,000-word feature about The Sopranos. It’s a fantastic piece of writing with an interesting, somewhat visual layout. Even Nilay Patel of The Verge remarked:

It’s everything a feature on the internet should be: thoughtful, concise, exclusive, and interactive.

A positive reception from others in your field is an accomplishment in and of itself. We’ve all enjoyed reveling in a moment of affirming nods from people we respect while talking about recent work.

On top of that, the piece has all the components commonly used to get readers and have them read to end: an interesting topic, an exclusive insight, a leading question as a title, immersive design, great writing, and general obfuscation of the answer to the title.

Readers have come to find the answer, and they will get more than they could even imagine! They will experience anticipation, tension, and, finally, grand resolution! All in one excellent piece of writing.

I can almost imagine the palpable feeling of accomplishment the writer probably had as the article was published. How often can all those pieces come together so well?

(Villian enters stage left.)

Rage Guy

Exposure

Oh. So, you could choose to immerse yourself in that experience, or you could just get the answer first and then decide if the article’s worth your time?

But that’s not fair! How is anyone supposed to get readership? And, anyway, isn’t @SavedYouAClick supposed to be fighting clickbait like Upworthy?

Nilay went on to say in that same article on The Verge:

It is b******* because he didn’t save anyone a click at all — he stole an experience. That story is great. It is absolutely worth the click. Arguing that it’s not because the headline is phrased in the form of a question is reductive to the point of absurdity, just like arguing against lists or quizzes or gifs or any specific form of art is absurd. Rock music. Horror movies. A generation raised on rebellion has grown up to instead police the web pages of the larger internet from the wide-ranging terrorism of mild curiosity. We are all of us the Tipper Gore of clickbait headlines. Parental advisory: viral content.

And there’s the trap: “That story is great. It is absolutely worth the click.”

Basically: as a person, you ought to read that article because it’s great. You ought to read the whole thing because that’s what a normal person should do.

You ought to do as we intended because we know best.

No. One. Cares.

Believe me, I hear this logic. Most of the world listens to horrendous music that offends my sensibilities on every possible level. People ought to listen to music written by artists, not entertainers.

But no one cares.

The world doesn’t care like you do about certain things. They don’t see the complexities and the beauty and the effort. The world isn’t like your perspective informs you that it ought to be.

A reality check is in order. This is exactly why I’ve been giving a talk for two years now about why (not if) people care about your content the way you do. They don’t.

The sooner you come to grips with the fact that your emotional attachment to your content exists inside you alone, the sooner you can put your content to work.

Want to be helpful? You have to focus on others.
Want to be informative? You have to focus on others.
Want to drive business? You have to focus on others.
Want to get a ton of traffic? You have to focus on others.

You have to detach—at least, if you have goals for you content outside of simply writing for yourself. Once you have that moment of detached clarity, it makes sense, and informs your strategy.

After giving a presentation in Charleston this year, one gentlemen came right up to me and expressed that it had never occurred to him before that no one has the context to appreciate what he’s trying to do. And, so, instead of lamenting that and expecting it to change, he would take a new approach, understanding that it was his job to explain it to people who otherwise do not care.

One post at a time. One word at a time.

That’s the hard truth. That’s why I preach frameworks and strategies over best practices and tactics. The latter shift, whereas the former shouldn’t.

If you don’t understand that, you put yourself at risk. Take it from the man behind @SavedYouAClick:

“I’m one person with a Twitter account,” Mr. Beckman said. “It’s indicative of a much bigger problem. If I can disrupt your content distribution strategy from my iPhone, then maybe something is wrong with your content distribution strategy.” (source)

September 5, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Marketing

There is no perfect content management system.

In fact, forget being perfect for everyone—there’s no perfect CMS for you, either.

That’s just not the way it works.

There’s a best solution for you, but it may not be the best overall.
There may be a best solution in certain categories, but it may not be right for you.

Why do we feel like there is?

As Paul Boag points out, the early days of the CMS may have led us to believe that these systems were going to solve all our issues; that, now, anyone could update the website with ease.

Even today, we tend to throw around phrases like “everything is editable” or “totally intuitive”.

Yet, we find that’s usually not the case at all, right? Every CMS takes getting used to for everyone. Every CMS takes a different approach to structuring the admin areas. Some are purely for blogging, some are for more entire sites, and some are custom-built.

In general, a content management system does bring incredible accessibility to, essentially, editing database rows. It does feel like magic sometimes.

Expectations (Update Available!)

The issue with magic is that it gives us unrealistic expectations. It makes us think we should be experts in the CMS immediately. It makes us think every feature we’ve ever wanted is one free plugin download away.

I’m a huge WordPress fan. I’ve developed on top of it for years. I love it and my clients love it. I do think it’s the best choice for a majority of folks, and its popularity confirms that.

I also think WordPress is the most intuitive CMS, but that doesn’t make it…intuitive. Not by my standards, anyway.

I’ve traditionally introduced WordPress to green clients by saying something like:

“I think it’s the best option for you. It’s got a lot of power. It’s going to take you the first 4-5 times in that admin area to feel comfortable. You’ll have questions and get confused, just like we all do with new software. I’m here to answer your questions, and even when I’m not, those answers are a Google search away. After those first several times, you’ll get your bearings, and you’ll be running like a pro.”

And that whole “holy grail of plugins” thing that people seem to think exists? As Chris Lema says: you can’t afford it.

If you’ve got clients that you’re talking about content management systems to, you owe it to them to manage their expectations as much as possible.

Know Your Options

There’s a ton of options when it comes to CMSs. Sure, WordPress is the most popular, but Drupal scales really well. Ghost is beautiful, and Statamic and Perch are really fast and simple. Jekyll is great for developers. Joomla! is really good at social networks. The list goes on and on.

We do a disservice to others when we don’t know about these other options.

I don’t just mean that we could be presenting alternatives (although that’s true), but we’re removing the context for people to understand the CMS landscape.

“I’d like to move to a better CMS. What’s the best choice for me?”

“Oh, WordPress. It’s the most popular, it’s easy to work with, there’s a huge community, and it’s free!”

…and then they get 3 weeks into their new site and don’t feel like it’s so “easy to work with.” So they start Googling, and they see countless other options that look way simpler.

What they don’t know is, for instance, that Ghost won’t run on their host, or Drupal doesn’t have the plugin that their site actually relies on now, or the random CMS they found doesn’t have a community and is really hard to upgrade.

You don’t have to know every detail of every CMS to understand their strong points. Once you do, it’s much easier to explain that the CMS landscape is complicated.

People coming into a new CMS, like WordPress, ought to understand that there are quirks, some things are difficult, and when it comes to your plugin hunt: here be dragons. It will take time to learn.

But, you, because you’re an expert, know that this is the best option overall for them. You’ll need to remind them when they demand too much or get frustrated.

It doesn’t take much to be an expert on CMSs to someone who doesn’t understand the landscape. You’ll just need to be honest. You’ll either deal with their expectations upfront, or you’ll deal with them a few weeks into a completed project.

Simplify When You Can

Let’s say WordPress is the choice for a client’s new site. You’ve had honest conversation about expectations and the time it will take to learn.

You can still do your part to improve the experience. Even WordPress has a confusing Dashboard setup out of the box (“WordPress News”? Why would my client care?).

You can hide some of the unhelpful items ahead of time with “Screen Options”. You can have a license to a WordPress learning tool like WP101, or you can hook up an interactive walkthrough tool like Sidekick. You can further refine the admin area and prepare it for users with a bit of code.

With Evermore, we go even further by having curated customization options, so that the entire site presentation of the site (from Site Title to widgets to colors) can be configured visually in the WordPress customizer. We look for every instance to make the entire experience more and more intuitive.

Yet, despite the best efforts of everyone involved in a CMS, no option will ever be perfectly intuitive, flexible, fast, upgradeable, and affordable. Let’s talk about it like that’s the reality we live in, so we can cut down on the frustrations users are having thanks to expectations run amok.

August 15, 2014 — Leave a comment — In CMS, Content, WordPress