Content for the aliens, and content for the sun

Last month, the smart folks at Soundcheck, a daily talk show about music from WNYC, debuted a new game called “One for the aliens, one for the sun” that anyone can play. The challenge? Pick two songs you would be happy to never hear again, but with a twist suggested by the space program:

When NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1977, each spacecraft contained a special recording. Known as the “golden records,” these discs contain sounds and images meant to convey the diversity of culture on Earth for any intelligent extraterrestrial life or future humans to discover…. Inspired by the Voyager project’s playlist for future humans and aliens, blogger Adam Dawson and musician Jarrett Nicolay have come up with a hypothetical game: Two spacecrafts are being sent out into space. One is loaded with music so good we want to share it with other lifeforms. The other is loaded up with songs that no one — not even humans — should ever hear again and sent directly into the sun. The catch? The songs are from the same band.

This is a game we could play with content that could help bring some instructive entertainment to the content assessment (a task I don’t call an audit*). The process of the content inventory can be dry and mind-numbing, yet valuable insights usually arise from immersing ourselves in the raw material with which a company or organization represents itself. Our challenge in communicating these insights to our clients with clarity and simplicity, without hiding the incredible amount of work that went into finding them. When we get it right, we can help pivot the organization to a new vision that transforms the way they do business in our digital world.

Finding content to throw away is usually easy. Any large experience contains pages or sections of a site far beyond their expiration date and frequently broken. Case in point: last year (2011) we discovered a decade-old explanation of Usenet newsgroups for “newbies” among an internet service provider’s collection of help articles. The article showed up prominently in the on-site help search results, even though Usenet was largely abandoned years ago, subsumed by Google Groups and other fora. (Before you chastise me in comments, I recognize that Usenet still technically exists.) The article belongs in a time capsule, not among the top results of help pages.

Sometimes, however, there is “good” content that needs to be retired. I’m not talking about content that may be dull but is required for legal reasons. Nor am I talking about long-tail content that brings a lot of people in the door. No, I’m talking about things like:

  • The CEO’s blog that hasn’t been updated in over a year;
  • The organization’s origin story that may be loved, but serves as a straitjacket on what our brand now needs to be;
  • A discontinued version of a product that has been replaced by a new model, but is still “good” because it ranks highly in search, has rich product data and reviews;
  • Images of people in one’s organization that are clearly dated but are supposed to in the present, such as students on campus sitting in front of outdated computers.

You can surely name more.

Sometimes this outdated content is hard to dislodge because it is cherished by powerful stakeholders. I understand how they feel; we are saying we need to sacrifice their babies. But our integrity as content strategists demands we help our clients achieve an honest point of view towards their content. The “one for the aliens and one for the sun game” seems to me to be a tool we can use to bring our clients along and help them get the perspective they need.

The next time I conduct a content assessment, I will ask key stakeholders to play this game, selecting content from their site that they would send to the aliens and to the sun. We can then reflect those choices back to our clients to help illuminate the content that needs to be jettisoned, and to put it in the proper perspective. As Michelle Shocked sings, “…the secret to a long life’s knowing when it’s time to go.”

Note: Let’s stop calling this activity a content audit, first because the term audit has a specific meaning to any companies in the financial industry (and unintentionally makes such clients nervous); and second, because an audit specifically means testing data for accuracy. Evaluating content for validity and reliability is an important part of reviewing content, but there is so much other qualitative and quantitative research involved in what have been called content audits that it is misleading to call them audits; hence, content assessments.

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