Content and Clout: A Chat with Colleen Jones

By Kristina Mausser

Published: February 21, 2011

Clout book coverIt isn’t often that you come across a book that makes your highlighter work overtime. Colleen Jones’ book, Clout: the Art and Science of Influential Web Content, is just such a book. Chock full of Colleen’s brilliant insights and unique approaches to creating Web content, this book is the first to bridge the gap between user experience, marketing communications, and content strategy. It offers a complementary approach to all three disciplines that you shouldn’t undertake lightly. But, typically, UX professionals do not undertake this approach often enough.

I had the pleasure of catching up with Colleen Jones, Principal of Content Science and author of Clout, in between her book-launch events across Canada and the United States.

KM: Thank you, Colleen, for taking the time to talk with me today about your book! For those few UXmatters readers who don’t already know you, can you share with us a little bit about your background?

CJ: Certainly. While my M.A. is in technical communication, I spent the very early part of my career in local journalism, then evolved into interactive marketing and user experience design. I worked for several years with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then at Cingular Wireless, before moving into consulting, which I love! I hit my groove with that in 2010 and founded Content Science, a boutique consultancy in Atlanta, Georgia. We have a small team and work with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies to niche brands.

“Take a more holistic view of content.”—Colleen Jones

KM: And I think it’s those varied experiences that shine through in your book. There are a lot of Web marketing books that touch on content—and a lot of Web content books that touch on marketing, but in Clout, you don’t silo these two concepts as is common. Rather, you discuss them as a homogeneous whole, offering a more effective way of writing for the Web. Why did you take this approach?

CJ: Over the years, I’ve run into too many problems with the way our industry frames problems and, consequently, their solutions—especially for content. For example, I’ve seen UX professionals make fun of marketing departments over “cheesy” or irrelevant content, and I’ve seen marketing professionals get frustrated with UX professionals and technical communicators over their dry, lifeless content. The only way to address these issues, in my mind, was to take a more holistic view of content.

In my book, I point out when you need different types of content to influence attitude and guide action. I hope this approach saves people from some of the arguments and misunderstandings I’ve faced over the years.

KM: Who is this book for, Colleen?

“Content affects everyone, and everyone needs to get smarter about it.”—Colleen Jones

CJ: Honestly, my book is for everyone who’s even peripherally involved in the interactive-marketing industry. Content affects everyone, and everyone needs to get smarter about it. I really like how CMS Wire describes Clout as being useful to executives, designers, and people on the content front lines—such as writers, editors, and social community managers.

KM: In business, people often associate the concept of influence with brand, marketing, sales, and advertising—reflecting a very old-school model of top-down messaging. To some Web content purists, the very idea of persuasive writing might evoke the negative connotation of swaying readers rather than guiding their interactions. How do you respond to this?

CJ: There’s a big difference between persuasion, or influence, and manipulation. People have experienced much interactive marketing in the United States as a collection of manipulative tricks—to the point that the connotations of marketing and advertising are now almost synonymous with lying. That really needs to change.

A story my colleague, Jeff Chasin, recently shared with me drove this point home for me. He told me that, in Japan, search-engine marketing ads actually work. I say actually, because in the United States, people often ignore them. But, if you run a search ad in Japan, lots of people will click it. When I asked why, Jeff said the reason is that people trust the ads. Businesses there would not advertise something that isn’t true. At least for now.

So, we need to shift our conception of influential content from being manipulation that tricks people to being a trusted advisor that guides people. If the interactive-marketing industry doesn’t make this shift, it will implode. That would be a bad thing for everyone, not just marketers.

KM: So, would you say that persuasive writing is the antithesis of plain language?

“Persuasive writing is an evolution of plain language. You can’t influence people if they don’t understand what you’re saying. You have to be clear.”—Colleen Jones

CJ: No, persuasive writing is an evolution of plain language. You can’t influence people if they don’t understand what you’re saying. You have to be clear. The plain language movement helps tremendously with being clear, especially for government or technical content. But, you can be very clear and still fail to influence. Influential content encourages people to care about what you’re saying. I love this quotation from advertising legend William Bernbach:

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

KM: Great quotation! And to that point, I think it’s particularly interesting that Clout leans heavily on the psychology of language, vocabulary, and meaning as a way to illustrate how important Web content is to online success. Just as behavioral psychology relates to UX design, Clout relates to content strategy. Do you think this will be a hard transition for content strategists and writers to grasp?

CJ: The transition might be hard for any strategist or writer who hasn’t had some exposure to rhetoric. The older I get, the more I think our language studies should focus at least as much on rhetoric as they do on literature. Rhetoric is so practical! I found it exciting, for example, when my alma mater, James Madison University, recently changed the name of their Technical Communication program to include rhetoric. It’s now called Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication.

“Content strategists and writers … already draw on some aspects of rhetoric—such as being sensitive to context….”
—Colleen Jones

However, I think most content strategists and writers can overcome this challenge in time. They already draw on some aspects of rhetoric—such as being sensitive to context—without realizing it.

KM: We often talk about content gaps. While it’s important to know what gaps exist in our content, it’s equally important to find ways to bridge the gaps and look for suitable anchor points upon which to start building these bridges. How can we do this?

CJ: Yeah, I like the idea of building bridges. I think Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web, provides some great starting points. It offers a nice table summarizing what different departments or functions—such as Marketing—tend to emphasize or omit in content. In Clout, I take that a bit further. As a simple example, marketing and media tend to focus on influencing attitude, while usability and technical communication focus on supporting action. There’s a time and a place for content that influences attitude—and for content that guides action. More and more, a complete user experience must plan content that influences both attitude and action. That’s easier said than done, and I share how to do just that in my book.

KM: Right now, I think social media exemplifies one of those content gaps. So many people don’t recognize how important content is to social media. Your book is quite clever, in that it discusses the importance of content to all Web channels. How important is it for people to plan their content strategy around social media?

CJ: Social media is now a reality that affects how people use Web sites and, consequently, your content strategy. One example I discuss in the book is about how social channels are becoming a major gateway into Web sites. When someone shares content from your site on a social network, there’s a good chance other people will discover your site that way. So, you need to think about people finding your site not only through search engines, but also through social channels.

KM: “Content is king” was the refrain in 2000. Ten years later, it’s “Content is king. Context is the kingdom.” How does Clout set us up for the coming decade?

“The entire customer or user experience—from raising awareness, to buying a product / taking action, to getting customer support—is going digital.”—Colleen Jones

CJ: As people use Web sites more and more, business is becoming more and more digital. Forrester Research recently reported that Americans spend as much time online as they do watching TV. So, the entire customer or user experience—from raising awareness, to buying a product / taking action, to getting customer support—is going digital. In the past, that wasn’t the case. A Web site used to focus on one main phase of the customer experience. It focused on either attitude—as on a marketing brochureware site or a media-content site or a social forum—or on action, as for an ecommerce catalog and shopping cart application. Even the elements of user experience divide Web sites into content sites and applications.

That narrow focus made sense in the past. People were not using Web sites as much as they do today. But, now, that narrow focus is changing and will continue to change. Web sites are no longer simply marketing brochures or product catalogs or shopping carts. Our Web sites are becoming all of these things at once. They’re evolving into complex mashups. I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.

That means our approach to content needs to evolve. Clout helps by offering principles that guide content decisions and a practical approach to planning. The book also explains how to overcome some common roadblocks.

KM: I often explain Web content to clients in this way: “Information promotes. Stories emote. Information compiles. Stories compel.” I love that you talk about the cultural considerations of vocabulary and implied meaning when evoking emotion on the part of the reader. How can we harness this in our Web writing—and through Web content in general—to create meaningful interactions?

“Culture and values are closely tied to emotion. If you want people to really care about what you’re saying, you have to evoke emotion in them and, consequently, delve into culture and values.”—Colleen Jones

CJ: Yes, culture and values are closely tied to emotion. If you want people to really care about what you’re saying, you have to evoke emotion in them and, consequently, delve into culture and values. Trying to evoke emotion is also a bit like playing with fire. If you get it right, it’s awesome. If not, you’re going to have big problems. So, you have to be careful.

Of course, culture and values vary in different countries—and even within different populations within the same country. So, if you’re an international organization or company, you have to think about when to simply translate content into a different language and when to invest in localizing it. By localize, I mean re-imagining the content for a particular country or culture. The VERB public health campaign to encourage tweens to exercise is a great example. The campaign offered very different materials for English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and Vietnamese-speaking Americans. Even at a glance, you can see they’re not strict translations. (See this for yourself on the CDC Web site.)

KM: Thank you, Colleen! Clout has been a welcome addition to my bookshelf, and I know it will be for many content creators. I think it’s time for many of us to focus not simply on clear and concise language, but on creating engaging content that has clout—to embrace it, not shy away from it. Thanks for reminding us of that today!

If you’d like to learn more about Colleen’s book Clout, visit the book’s page on the Content Science site.

From the Editor—If you’d like to buy Colleen Jones’s book Clout: the Art and Science of Influential Web Content at a 35% discount and get free shipping in the USA, go to the Peachpit Web site to purchase it. Provide the coupon code CLOUT on the checkout page. This offer is good until December 31, 2011.

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