Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Firm, Yet Subtle

Firm, yet subtle.
Blogger's Note: Yes, more from publications management. This time, discussion on two chapters in Cathy Connor Lips' book "Effective Publications Management," on communications auditiing and creating clear concepts. Useful stuff, even if (as you'll see) it's not necessarily followed in this book.

The advice in these chapters falls at a good time, as Uncharted is performing a mini-audit combined with a brainstorming session as we try to shape a portion of our online publication in regards to how the audience uses and interacts with it now, versus how we’d like to shape that use and interactivity in the future.

First, a brief explanation of what Uncharted is – we’re an online community of adventurers sharing stories and photos of trips and vacations we’ve taken. Right now, we have stories and photos sets on trips ranging from a cruise to Alaska to a quiet sojourn down the San Juan River in Utah. We have staff members who write and take photos and an online community where anyone can share their work as well.

For the past month and a half, we’ve featured only staff content on our home page, but this next week will be the first time we’ll feature a story and photo set completed by one of our community members. We’re figuring out how to present this visually and textually to convey the following messages to our audience:

1) This is a contribution from a non-staff member! Hurrah!
2) This is what an “explorer” is – a chance to explain our company jargon. (An explorer is a non-staff member of the Uncharted community whose work is featured on the home page.)
3) This is what we look for in “explorer” contributions.

We have to be, in the words of Ralphie Parker, “firm but subtle.” We don’t necessarily want to broadcast in bold and flashing lights that this is what’s happening, because it’ll interrupt the visual continuity we’re trying to achieve. Yet if we take other approaches – using the company blog, for example, to explain the significance of what’s going on, we risk that message being missed by our primary audience that bypasses the blog and goes straight into the home pages and misses the significance of our latest update.

That brings us into the brainstorming bit, which is what we’re doing now. We started an e-mail chain on this last night, and hopefully by the end of the day we’ll have a workable solution. As Lips recommends, we’re now just tossing out ideas, not dismissing any at the moment and not looking at past performance because what we’re doing now is, for our product, an absolutely new thing: Differentiating between staff and non-staff content featured on the home page. We want this event noted with adequate fanfare to get other community members excited, and to reintroduce the idea that they can nominate stuff on the site to be featured on the home page.

We also plan to use this opportunity for some user testing – avoiding banking on the success of a single concept, as Lips warns in Chapter Three. If we try one way and it doesn’t get the reaction we hope for, we’ll try another way, and test that as well. On one of our iterations we’re likely to find something that resonates with our contributors and gets them excited about contributing stories and photos on the hopes they’ll be featured on the home page as well. (That, and we’ve got to get our story submission module working again. It’s having difficulties at the moment.)

This brings us into an aside that again focuses on the mini-audit. Even though we don’t have a clear method for Uncharted members to nominate a story to be featured (that was part of a passel of things that got trimmed from the site design as we worked through several design iterations, focusing on getting core elements working at a cost we could afford) some have figured out ways to make such nominations, either by e-mailing staff members they know, or by leaving comments on the stories/photos themselves. They’ve shown their ingenuity. We need, however, to be more upfront and clear with the nomination process, so it’s a one-button arrangement. This will tie in, I hope, with the messaging we plan to produce to promote the first non-staff submission to be featured on the home page. In other words, we have a chance here to help shape our audience’s habits, tying in with what Beth Swanson of Wendy’s magazine fame says in Chapter Three: we have to “be specific about what actions [the audience] needs to take, and why.”

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