ideas in action
by: dgehring

Rich digital media applications have an avalanche of content to contend with.  At the same time, before building a digital app or content focused website you need to know how you plan to segment and sort the content.  This is the heart of any digital content offering. If you provide too little content, your offering will be shallow and useless.  If you provide too much content and no intuitive means for serving it up or navigating it, then your offering will be overwhelming and quickly discarded.

Where’s the balance?

Enter the algorithm.  Algorithms aren’t just for Google to use in assigning web page relevance to an organic query.  Algorithms can be used to take the place of a human editor in deciding what content someone might want, when and how.  Think of it in terms of knowing how you want to order a thousand articles representing a single category.  Which articles goes at the top, and which at the bottom?  Or more interestingly, which article goes in the middle of the list and why?  One method for ordering is recency, namely, post them in the order they were published in time.  But this can lead to bad articles being at the top of the list.  Another method is to let readers choose.  They vote for their favorites and you code the algorithm to sort reader favorites at the top and then on down the line.

But this requires readers out of the gate.  What if you don’t have existing traffic to leverage and need to proactively decide how you are going to go about ordering your content in a way that allows the reader to discover new stuff while finding what they were interested in finding along the way.  Serendipity!

Before you can code a serendipitous content serving algorithm, you need to know how to hierarchically structure your content.  The trick is this hierarchy has to reflect your audience’s expectation which are often different than your own personal default expectations. So, you need to know the hierarchical categories and sub-categories before you code.

Traditionally, the mantra has been to fail fast when it comes to consumer application development.  This meant, don’t do much, if any preliminary homework, just build something; launch it and if people like it, use your traffic data to tune it up.  If people don’t like it, no worries, there was not a lot of lost effort and hopefully we learned something along the way.

This works for brand-less start-ups.  It doesn’t work for established media companies with valuable and established brands to manage.

At the same time, established media brands don’t have the luxury of taking their sweet time to build solid digital properties.  Everyone has seen Meeker’s slides by now and so we all know the growth to chase is all online!

So, how is a serious media company to proceed?

Start with some solid research.  But more importantly, start with some serious questions.  One question might be, “Is our digital audience the same as our traditional audience?” or, “does our brand promise even resonate with the high consuming digital audience?”  From there, dive into understanding how your audience categorizes content.  Does it map to your expectations?  What are the ways they expect to discover content when looking for it online or in a mobile app?

The best research starts with the best questions.

Before figuring out how best to please your digital audience, what would you like to know about them?