1. Concept and Brainstorming
ou sit up in the middle of the night, suddenly and fully awake. An entire story, song, manuscript, screenplay or idea has come to you, fully-formed, in the black stillness of your room. It has blossomed in your brain – spreading like ink in the water by the grace of God or the muse next door or the residue of the conversation at last night’s party – glowing, burning, aching to manifest itself in the real world. It’s all there – including the title, storyline, dialogue, captions, pull quotes, production timeline, marketing campaign, the whole shebang. All you have to do now is write it down before you forget. Quickly now. Where was that pen? Oh shit, that’s not paper, that’s a magazine. You turn on the light. Wait, what was the name of that character again? Oh, no, it’s fading. What was that part before the last section where … oh, no … it’s gone.
Or worse, you’ve struggled for weeks to meet a deadline and can’t come up with an idea to save your life. Your editor, producer, publisher or label is waiting for your creative output, and the longer you wait, the more time (and money, you are told) you lose. You’ve tried moving your chair, you’ve tried moving your desk. You’ve tried working off-site, you’ve tried working under your desk. You can’t come up with a good idea to save your ass, and you can’t seem to get the ideas that you do have to make any sense.
The concept and brainstorming stage of the creative process is hard enough. But to make matters worse, this is the stage where you should be thinking about what this published content might look like. Is this a symphony or a short ballad? For journalists, is this a short blog post or a long, investigative piece? Are there any special online features this content will have? An audio portion (bonus interviews) or video? Setting goals before you begin can greatly reduce stress by defining the expectations around the level of research and the proposed outcome.
Keep a pen and paper with you at all times to jot down any fragments or ideas. It may also help to sketch out (or “mind map”) the concept on paper or a dry erase board before you write a single word. Some people use a voice recorder (or even their phone) to record their thoughts as they happen.
What will your content look like?
2. Writing and Research
This part is easy. It’s the actual work. Keep it simple. Write what you know. Check your facts. Take yourself out of the piece. Tell a good story. If it’s a song, it’ll need to be completely fresh, but with a sense of familiarity. You get the idea.
It’s best to carve out a regular space and a time, where you will not be interrupted, and you can allow yourself to channel your creativity. If you don’t allow it the silence in which to surface or the space in which to arise, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t.
UPDATE: For writers, don’t forget the importance of linking. Define terms by linking to their topic on Wikipedia, identify/cite sources by linking to other (previous) coverage, and for bloggers/media, drive traffic to your other content by linking to things on your own site. Don’t worry so much about using (target=”_blank”) tags in your posts. This choice should (and will, ultimately) be left in the hands of the user’s browser settings.
Always be writing.
Some bloggers rarely edit their posts. Some journalists get their stories up online quickly with just a once-over from the Online Editor, while longer-form investigative stories can take weeks to edit (not to mention fact-check). Most songwriters don’t ask for the opinion of another musician or lyricist when crafting a new piece. And if a song has already been demo-ed or recorded and rehearsed a certain way, the artist may be averse to changes in the arrangement. Self-editing can be difficult since most of us are close to the material or have just spent days or months staring at it. But to have an editor (or a group of editors) close-by, to let you know when you’re being long-winded, trying too hard, over-thinking or straying from the theme, is an invaluable resource. And some of us are lucky enough to have the Editor as our boss.
Sometimes the editing process itself is collaborative, in the instance of musical improvisation (like jazz), and when live blogging or using shared documents, corrections or strikethroughs can be made immediately, sometimes by different people at the same time. Most of the time, though, you rely on your own bleary-eyed hundredth read-through to ferret out any mistakes before you hit “save” one last time. In any case, it’s always best to break down and ask for the assistance of a second pair of fresh eyes.
If your work is longer than 140 characters, ask an editor to take a look at it.
4. User Experience
The Medill School of Journalism has identified over 30 different types of content-based user experience (things like “Makes Me Smarter,” “Entertainment/Diversion,” “Visual,” “Sense of Community,” “Talk About and Share” and more). When writing your story, crafting your headline and struggling to whittle down your summary, take your audience into consideration. Are they looking to learn something practical or meaningful, or take their mind off of work for a while. Is your content a “lean back” or a “lean forward” experience? Will they read it and bounce or return regularly to check on comments and poll results?
Who is the intended audience? What is the intended experience?
5. Publishing (Push)
We rarely anymore stop the presses, recall the defective albums, or pick up the unused reels from the movie house. In our digital age, most content is now published (or distributed) in real time and delivered to myriad devices on many platforms via feeds and applications all customized by the end user. For content with a wider (longer) rate of frequency — an annual print retrospective, a new music release — sometimes more conventional marketing and distribution methods are put in place. But for most writers, once you hit “Submit,” your work is out there for the world to see, read, hear (and sometimes, buy).
If your online content is published daily, your e-newsletter is sent weekly and your magazine is printed bi-weekly, your publishing strategy for one piece of content might have many stages (see the case study below).
We live in a link-based culture. Everything should live online, web-first.
Once your story, podcast, song or photo gallery is published and available on your website, take a look at it from an audience standpoint. How does the streaming audio sound on different speakers? Do you need to change the bitrate? Maybe your summary description is too long and is breaking your page, forcing an empty space to appear where a link should be. Maybe the image you used as a thumbnail isn’t legible at all at that size, or is being cropped incorrectly. Don’t let your content look like a mistake. Or worse yet, don’t let your content be the thing that breaks other people’s content. Fix it.
Presentation is everything.
7. Sharing – Syndication/Promotion
Now that your content is published (lives somewhere online), the work is over, right? Wrong. Next, we need to get the word out to your followers. Don’t think you have any followers? Think again. They are your friends on Facebook, the fans of your brand, your followers on Twitter, the subscribers to your newsletter, the audience that attends your events. When should you promote or share your content? Here are a few helpful tips.
- E-mail: The magic “read” time for e-mail is Tuesday morning between 8 – 9 a.m. Mornings in general are good for e-mail, and if it’s food-related, try sending just before lunchtime when people are making a buying decision.
- Facebook: The most trafficked times on Facebook are 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. with Wednesday being the day with the highest traffic.
- Twitter: Always write your Tweets. Don’t just paste in a headline and a link. Ask a question, be funny, be conversational. Twitter is like a chat room, and you’ll sound like a robot (and look like spam) if you show up dropping generic links into everyone’s feed.
Some writers and journalists are fortunate enough to have an online desk (or social media type) that will push their content out for them. But are you responding to your audience personally when they ask questions or comment on these platforms? Are you publishing too much content every day to have to keep a schedule or social media calendar? Maybe you should publish it as you go. Think your audience will re-train themselves around your schedule if it’s meaningful enough to them? It’s possible. But don’t bet your job on it.
Sharing your content should be like dropping ink in the water (read: tell your buddies).
8. Audience Engagement
In 1998, Howard Rheingold drafted the “Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online,” and it remains the definitive document on how to grow and cultivate a sense of online community. As the Medill study has proven, content might be why they show up, but a sense of community is why they stay. As the host, curator or producer of your content, it’s your responsibility to circle back around to the content after it’s published and respond to comments (on your blog, Facebook, etc.), reply to mentions on Twitter, and in general, act as the host of the party, encouraging people to play nice, thanking them for their input, and keeping them engaged with your brand, your website and your content.
It is your trusted voice (or the tenor of the collective curation of voices) that attracted them in the first place, it’s your voice they will expect to hear when they have complaints, need to ask a question or want to participate in the creation of their own content. And in your role as “Community Manager,” along with putting out any fires, you will also need to be able to identify and foster new leaders (and contributors to the process) within your circle.
An online host wants to achieve authentic conversations – from the head, the heart, the gut.
Have you ever had a student correct your spelling? Ever had a child remind you that you didn’t say “please?”
The flames in your comments section (or worse yet, widespread backlash on Facebook or Twitter) has made it clear that the Internet is a participatory medium. If there are inconsistencies in your story or corrections to be made, simply make them. And always thank the user for their input.
If the World Wide Web is complaining that your MP3s, software or apps are over-priced, then drop the price (while it’s on everyone’s tongue and Facebook wall), and let them know that by popular demand, not only has the price been adjusted, but you’re offering a free code for the first 100 users who re-Tweet the announcement. Consider the alternative: no revenue combined with the perception that you ignored public appeal.
For blog posts and stories, you can either strikethrough the old material and replace it with new, or simply put the word “UPDATE:” or “CORRECTION:” at the top of your post, followed by the new copy. If there is new – and valuable – information added (announcements, vital corrections, additional audio or video content), this is a great opportunity to revisit step 7 above (“Sharing”) and start the process all over again. Consider this a form of “version control.” If there was a new version of your favorite software available, you would want to be notified, wouldn’t you? Information is a virus, and with the correct mechanisms in place, you can still “upgrade” your content, even after it has been consumed by the end-user.
You can’t please everybody. If you update, re-share.
10. Analytics and Reporting
UPDATE: Study the traffic and behavior around your content. When did people download or read it? Should you consider changing the day (or time) of day that you’re posting or releasing content? Was there a larger audience for your content on referring sites like Twitter or Facebook compared to click-throughs from your e-newsletter? Are you wasting resources on maintaining a CMS or infrastructure that your audience just isn’t using? If all your fans are watching your videos on YouTube, why bother embedding them into blog posts that nobody reads? Sign up for a partner account and let YouTube sell ads around your content and cut you a check.
It’s never too late to consider changing your strategy.
11. The Remix
The remix, the mash-up, the tiny URL. If you think your content is your own, think again. Once you publish, especially online, don’t bother trying to maintain control of the brand, the message, the story, even the product. Let go.
Your news will be auto-tuned, your song will be screwed and chopped and that $2,999 dollars you paid to that cyber-squatter in Switzerland for that fancy custom domain name (jimswidgets.com) will quickly be for nothing when the link becomes “http://bit.ly/xy35” on every social network around. Sorry about your luck. Let go.
If you haven’t watched “Rip: A Remix Manifesto,” take a 1 hour and 26 minute break from reading this and watch it now. It’s available for free on Vimeo, and it will change your mind.
The content is the brand.
An abridged version of the Content Lifecycle looks something like this:
- Concept and Brainstorming
- Writing and Research
- User Experience
- Sharing – Syndication/Promotion
- Audience Engagement
- Analytics and Reporting
- The Remix*
*A sometimes critical aspect of content management is the ability to manage versions of content as it evolves (see also version control). In software development, authors and editors often need to restore older versions of edited products due to a process failure or an undesirable series of edits.
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Here is a piece of content from Creative Loafing that started out as a blog post and immediately began to receive comments on the story as well as Facebook.
1. It was published on Friday, May 27 at 5:05 p.m. and teased on the CL Music Section, the CL Home Page and Twitter (877 followers).
2. On Sunday, May 29, a poll was added.
3. On Tuesday, May 31, the piece was promoted again via Facebook (6,000 fans) and Twitter (877 followers), this time soliciting voting in the poll.
4. On Wednesday, June 1, a comment on the blog pointed out an inconsistency in the story.
5. On Monday, June 6, the story was selected for the Thursday, June 9 print edition. The author was given the opportunity to revise the story for print, including any corrections or updates, and the story ran in print with a graphic tease to the Web poll, pushing people to interact (possibly for a second or third time) with the online version.
6. On Friday, June 10, the piece was featured as the lead image/story in CL’s “Mixtape Music Newsletter” (4,800 subscribers).
7. Poll results were shared on Facebook (and Twitter) on Friday, July 1 garnering even more comments that the initial post. In a perfect world, the results of the online poll would also be printed in the “feedback” section of the paper, teasing other polls and music content, giving the piece another (third) bump in traffic.
8. As it stands, here is the lifespan of the piece so far, with spikes at 5/28, 5/31 and 6/10. The highest number of pageviews on a single day was 90.
512 Unique Views
00:02:56 Time on Page
73.22% Bounce Rate
55.06% % Exit
50.60% Entrances / Pageviews