The Problem with Recommendation Engines

I was just reading a blog posts on why brands should build recommendation engines to create better content platforms and improve the overall experience for users. While I tend to agree “pushing” content to users is a better strategy than “pulling” them in to consume content, I don’t think the technology is ready to truly support these type of experiences.

Below is the comment I posted.

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What is digital content?

I worked on a few projects in the past year where the question of “what is content?” came up. To give some more context, we were designing content management systems, and client’s were confused by all the different ways you can create content within the software we were using. To the content editors we were designing the CMS for, a page was not a collection of blocks, views, and nodes, but a series of images, content listings, videos, and calls to action.

Digital content can be simply defined as codified information that is transferred from one entity to another via some digital mechanism, but that has little meaning to content editors. They see content as the components they need to build experiences that engage their site visitors. For your modern-day content editor, that content is the collection of parts that make a whole (videos, embeddable tweets, slideshows, etc.), rather than the whole (a rendered HTML page).

The content model within a CMS should be defined by the components content creators need to build their content – a collection of content elements and components that live independent of each other, but can be grouped in the most effective way to present information to an audience. These components can follow structured content best practices, but should allow a content editor to create content how they want to create content.

As content strategists, we need to be cognisant of the negative effect overly rigid content models have on the CMS’s that we design. Content models that do not conform to our own target users perception of content leads to low adoption rates, misuse of content creation tools, and technical debt gained by content editors finding workarounds to the limitations we build into the system. Structured content is important for portability, but that portability means nothing if your users don’t even want to use the CMS :-)

I see this componentized approach to content creation as a trend in this sector. The reality is content is getting smaller. This trend is reflective in the componentization of long-form content pieces like NY Times’ Snowfall and Pitchfork’s Glitter in the Dark. These components – banner images, slideshows, videos, etc. – are now pieces of content in and of themselves that people want to engage with and share with their friends.

Content management systems need to be more flexible in how they handle content. Content types should comprise of those smaller components that can be compiled to make up a rendered page delivering a message or series of messages to a targeted audience.

Content Strategists Are Facilitators of Human Communication

I’ve been working on an article for a trade publication for information scientists that explores how they can use journey mapping to source information from the social interactions of internal stakeholders, turning those interactions into knowledge that can be shared with organizations at large. My general argument is that as information scientists/content strategists/user experience designers, we are facilitators of human communication. Whether we are trying to deliver content to customers to try to get them to buy ski boots, or designing better tools to allow communities of practice to share best practices, our role is to step back and analyze how people within a certain environment communicate, then design systems, processes, and content that brokers the transfer of information between people.

Knowledge sharing is the basis of human communication. When we have conversations with others, we are transferring knowledge from one person to another, that they internalize and may use at some other point in life. The format of the information being shared – verbal, written or visual – doesn’t matter. As content strategists, we make knowledge transfer more efficient and effective.

We too often focus on the minutia of content strategy – data models, user flows, editorial processes, content management systems, etc. But, the core of what we do is facilitate human communication. If we focus more on understanding how people communicate and receive information, we may see more innovation in the content strategy field.

Are Today’s Content Management Systems Holding Back Content Strategy?

I have been doing content strategy and working with content management systems of all kinds (WCMS, SMMS, MCMS) for the past seven years. I have worked on websites and applications that use almost every popular open source solution, and had the misfortune of working on some that use proprietary systems as well. When I look back at all of those CMS’s and see how they have evolved to meet the evolving needs of content creators/editors, most are not keeping up with the times.

We are in a period in this industry where content management is multi-channel and multi-platform (bet you have read that in a few dozen articles). It’s cliche to say, but true. Yet, most content management systems do not support the need for organizations to publish a blog post or report to their website, and repurpose some of that content for Tumblr and Twitter.

The needs of content creators have evolved beyond the need for systems that enable them to publish content to a website by filling out a long web form. Content management systems of the future will enable organizations to publish content to any channel they have a presence on; repurpose content for multiple channels; give content creators greater insight into how their content is performing and why; and help organizations curate content that will resonate with their audience.

Imagine if your CMS were smart enough to tell you that you can drive 10% greater engagement on Twitter if you continue to repurpose your long-form video into 10-second clips and tag them with specific hashtags. Or, your CMS automatically recommends articles and Youtube videos that you could share with your followers on social media that support a new article you published to your newsroom.

Content management systems of the future will not just help you more easily publish content to all of the digital platforms you are on. They will make you a smarter, more efficient content marketer.

Confession of a Digital Generalist

I am not shy about sharing that I am somewhat of a digital generalist. If there is one area of digital I have spent most of career working it is content strategy, but I have done a little bit of everything. Experience strategy, social media, email marketing, SEO and periodically paid advertising. I started out in this industry in 2006 working for startups, nonprofits, and political campaigns, all of which didn’t have large online teams and expected digital staffers to be jacks-of-all-trades. It was the Wild West of sorts, as we most of us were trying to figure out how to leverage the internet to really drive growth for business and organizations.

Aside from a training I did with the New Organizing Institute back in February 2006 and a few industry conferences I have attended over the years, I haven’t had any formal training in digital strategy. I am self-taught. I remember, while working as a community organizer in 2005, spending my free time trying to build websites and my own money placing small Google Adwords buys to learn the trade. It paid off, I feel like I have gotten to do a lot in my relatively short digital career, but my journey has been one that is atypical to say the least.

Being a generalist is not a bad thing. Some people are just good at a lot of different things. One person I use as an example of this is a former developer I worked with who taught himself to code, but was also a great writer, content strategist, and project manager. You can’t pigeonhole a guy like him, he was jus too good at whatever you gave him to do.

One thing that I find makes a generalist able to change hats to work in almost any area of digital and be effective at it is their adoption of a philosophy around using digital to connect brands with consumers. A former colleague of mine strongly believed that brands can build stronger relationships with customers by wholeheartedly addressing the needs of the individual before the business objectives of a corporation. That is a philosophy that can be applied to any area of digital. If you apply it to content strategy, focus your content on providing useful resources to customers to help them be better at X. Or, if you apply it to social media, structure your community management strategy to incorporate customer service.

My general philosophy is that strategy – whether that be content, experience, brand, creative, etc. – should be informed by data, not the other way around. I have been an analytics nerd (not an analyst) since I started in digital. I learned from a number of political campaign veterans how to use CRM and digital analytics to test and optimize campaigns based on performance of past efforts. My general approach with any type of strategy is to leverage the swath of data available to me to profile audiences based on demographics, interest, and campaign performance, then develop campaigns based on what will most likely drive increased engagement with an audience segment. This data-driven approach can be applied to any facet of digital strategy, the only thing that changes is the tactics used to implement a campaign.

I strongly believe that it’s not just your skills that make you good at what you do, it’s the philosophy that drives your approach to your work. Good strategist – adaptable strategist – are not tied to any particular medium or marketing channel. They are able to apply their core beliefs to any area of digital and succeed.

My advice is to find that approach to digital that works for you. Whether you are great at developing big ideas that peak the interests of thousands, or are better at leveraging data to take an incremental approach to developing campaigns, find your sweet spot and make it work for you.

Not every company will appreciate your philosophy, but that is fine. It is more important that you apply it in a place that embraces it and will allow you to be successful than trying to be a change agent in an organization not ripe and ready for it.