Content has always been the primary focus of whatever setting and way it is to be used: novels are serial, broken only by chapters; non-fiction works are segmented by subject and accompanied by footnotes and references; work instructions are divided by processes, tasks and steps with references to parts, materials and commodities needed, and so on.

The content designer and creator always knew going in the role for the content being created. People --whatever their role -- have always been required to use the content as presented in order keep their job, succeed at their project or enjoy the story.

While it's true that some settings require content that can be used for multiple roles, this level of complexity is still confined to specific industries and settings.

With the rise of e-Commerce, everything has changed.

Content is no longer the focus, but is instead a tool for users involved in the process of locating, selecting, evaluating and buying a product or service with the Internet as the platform. To be successful with this, content must support that commercial process, providing what the user needs and wants at the moment of perceived need, in the form and depth most likely to continue the process to its desired conclusion … a purchase.

If it doesn't, the process and the content fail.

A New Target and Higher Stakes for Content and its Creators

This growing “process focused” content setting is also changing the role of the content creator: from chronicler-in-charge of intellectual property and its presentation, to reactive participant supporting a complex and sometimes opaque process designed to keep prospective buyers moving to a purchase.
Content creators can no longer depend on a consistent setting for which to create his digital product or a user community bound to use it as-is. The same intellectual product will need to be created in multiple and very different physical and logical forms to support the many ways and places a prospective customer may need and want it.

A web surfing shopper isn’t interested in reading the entire FAQ about shipping options when all he wants is the cost of two-day shipping. Nor do shoppers enjoy clicking to two or three different page views of a product to see some detail or color. And the shopper on a smart phone really isn’t interested in slogging through displays designed for larger tablets or monitors. For e-commerce to work, the process must flow, and the associated content must flow with it.

User Experience (UX) experts can help to smooth this content-process integration, but content creators must learn new ways of thinking about their product and its use.  The history of industries that faced similar changes -- technical publishing and electronic journalism come to mind -- suggests that this is no small task. Your content creators probably won’t like the changes much and your IT group won’t be all that pleased either. But it‘s a new world out there and change is part of it.

I once sat in a design meeting with management of a major electronic news organization whose 1000 or so writers didn’t like the new structured content they were being asked to produce. “Why do we have to do this?” the editorial manager asked. The firm’s president ended the conversation with, “Because our clients won’t accept our product as we have been creating it, and if we don’t change, we can all get jobs elsewhere.” The time and details may be different, but the challenge is the same.

Retailers that get this wrong find themselves losing prospective sales, often from the sheer frustration users feel when their path to product selection is littered with content inappropriate to their need and setting. While “Click through” analyses can identify where users fall away from a site, they don’t do much to uncover why. Further complicating matters, dealing with content developed for use in multiple settings, often similar in purpose but very different in physical structure and detail, makes it more difficult for analytics to determine whether the failure is in the content itself or in its presentation.

While many retailers struggle with this new world, some have mastered it and its challenges. You can see the differences any time you surf the e-commerce universe: the virtual magnifying glass on many sites, allowing you to inspect a product up close without leaving the page; the “right click” panel users can activate and dismiss instantly to answer questions, again without leaving the page; the “you recently viewed” displays so you don’t have to re-navigate to something you might still be interested in, and the list goes on, are all ways of making the process easier and more attractive.

So who does it well?

Getting it Right

While not perfect, Amazon.com sits at the pinnacle of retailers who have mastered this evolution and are taking advantage of it.

Despite selling thousands of products from hundreds of sources, Amazon’s e-commerce presence is smooth, efficient and generally a pleasure to use. Observation and Amazon’s success suggest that customers who visit once tend to keep coming back. While Amazon’s mastery of content/process integration isn’t its only attraction, it is certainly a major one.

Content is everywhere on sites like Amazon, available just where it is needed and at a level of detail that enhances the process, never impeding it. This didn’t happen by accident and it wasn’t cheap.

While few firms find themselves in this league, there is no reason even smaller e-commerce vendors can’t understand and use the same content strategies as the Amazons of the world.

Some key elements of a successful strategy follow:

First: Design your e-commerce processes as the basis for everything else. You must develop a flow that encourages users to continue or you will be playing catch-up forever. This back-to-front approach isn’t how most IT applications are conceived and designed, but it is central to a successful e-commerce content strategy.

A good general rule is to design your process flow without regard to implementation costs. You will probably have to pare it down to meet your resource constraints, but even if you don’t end up at Amazon’s level, you can find less costly implementation strategies that still embody the vision.

And as you design, use your staff, not just IT or consultants, as test subjects to validate the approaches you are considering. If your design is intended for consumers, use your in-house consumers to measure how well you are doing. You might even set up an advisory group with members of various age groups, single/married, male/female, education level, etc. as your touchstone.

Second: Working from the process design described above, develop a content architecture that, if you had it, could fully support the roles you have conceived for it in your e-commerce flow. This too will run counter to typical design strategies that often begin with the content management portion and create a content architecture that works well with the chosen technology. Your challenge is to ask “what process, content and presentation strategies will get my site visitors to buy, and be least likely to drive them away before they do?” With the answers in hand you can ask “how can I make that a reality?”

Third: Inventory your raw content sources: data from secondary vendors; your own authoring resources, human and technical; data already held in your various systems and those systems’ ability to identify and export it. In each case, evaluate your content sources for their ability to provide the content forms your e-commerce strategy needs -- a detailed and sometimes difficult task but well worth the time and effort.

When you’re finished, you will have a content strategy capable of success in the world where your prospective customers live. You will also have a profile of the technical and human resources necessary to make this strategy work; some you may already have and some you will need.

If you do all this carefully, you will also have an implementation strategy you can put in place to get you to where your e-commerce design says you need to be. And you will have crossed a line that lets you see content in an entirely new way.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Lyn Lomasi