Little Grasshopper Meets Content Guru

This week I play the role of Little Grasshopper, learning from the content master. I hope you are as intrigued as I was by the insights of Amy Gahran, editor of the site CONTENTIOUS. She is, after all, the content guru, having lived and breathed the topic since 1997.

SS: Have you changed your views of what makes effective content?

AG: Funny you should ask. It’s been three years since CONTENTIOUS was launched, and I’m about to write a third anniversary wrap-up. I came to the Internet as a journalist with a journalist’s view of writing. That is, provide the best information in the best format. Now it’s become apparent that some sites have very different communication agendas, including marketing and e-commerce goals.

For example, I used to think it was always a mistake to include “fluffy” content like hype and strictly emotional appeals, even on an e-commerce site. Most of the time, focusing on emotional appeals to the point that real information gets marginalized only demonstrates disrespect for your customers and the rest of the online audience. But I do realize that — in certain cases, and if handled with care — a fluffier approach to content may help to sell products or services and even encourage donations. We all know that sometimes people do spend money for irrational reasons. So, if your primary goal is e-commerce of some kind, it may be valid to consider emotional appeals.

A good example of appropriate and not-overdone emotional appeals is much of the content on However, you’d be surprised that a lot of sites where you would expect hype and fluff actually take a very straightforward, information-focused approach to content. Check out the Web sites of The Gap and Porsche.

SS: Has content improved on corporate Web sites?

AG: Most corporate Web sites suck! They read like annual reports, and they don’t offer much of the information that their online audience actually wants. Read most corporate Web sites, and you think you’re watching a bad commercial. The content talks down to the reader and ignores critical issues. For example, Archer Daniels Midland generally attempts to ignore, minimize, or gloss over controversy, and tries to force sappy marketing/PR messages down your throat, especially on its home page. This approach only undermines an organization’s credibility and frustrates their online audience.

SS: I’ve used more than a few columns to rant and rave against canned content and encourage corporate Web sites to use writers who truly know their organization. Do you agree?

AG: Not necessarily. If you can find canned content that fits your niche, you’re OK. Of course, I do agree that the canned stuff from Reuters and the big news agencies is useless. If the information is that ubiquitous, it drowns out the “voice” of your site. Why put an AP story on your site and compete with Yahoo?

SS: Where can you find great Web writers?

AG: You can find a lot of good niche writers on Content Exchange, which was cofounded by Steve Outing and me. But as important as finding good writers is having great editors. Most sites need an editor to manage projects and make sure the writing works with the Web site strategy. I would go so far as to say that a good managing editor is usually more valuable than a good writer.

SS: What’s the next big challenge for Web sites?

AG: We still need to find a good business model for content. I think we’re just not clear how Web sites fit into society. Think about the motion-picture industry. During its first years, movies were simply plays on film. It took time for them to evolve into what we now consider a feature film. I believe there’s also going to be a lot more excitement about distance learning. Its popularity has been growing quietly but steadily.

SS: Those terrible dot-com crashes — is it all doom and gloom out there?

AG: Absolutely not. Just because we had an initial blizzard of poorly conceived business plans doesn’t mean the Internet is worthless. We can learn a lot from kids and seniors who are doing remarkably creative things on the Internet. Eventually, we’ll end up with a very rich medium, as long as all segments of society have access.

You can email Amy or visit her Web site. (Thanks, Amy, for your time and insights.) Next week, look for more of my own rants and raves.

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