I Don’t Google Madonna

It seems to me there are exactly two ways to use and deploy econtent. As econtent professionals, I think we've focused too much effort on one way: answer my question, while not spending enough energy on the other: tell me something. Too often we're building products and services or helping our users solve only half of their information needs. At our own peril, we're not listening to the people who use the sites and services we build and deploy.

The more obvious way to use econtent is to help users answer my question. In the purest form, a site like www.google.com exists only to answer questions. With a site or content product organized around answering questions, users must already know what they want before proceeding. But people also need services or sites to tell me something. Contrast Google with www.drudgereport.com. The Drudge Report doesn't answer questions, it tells us stuff we did not think to ask.

I love Madonna: she's cool; she makes catchy music. Not only great in concert (Tokyo 1987), Madonna is also a marketing genius. Our respective careers began in Manhattan around the same time. We even frequented the same after-hours clubs (remember 2 a.m. dancing at Pyramid in the early 1980s?), though I didn't know it until I read about it online. In fact, I'll read most Madonna stories I run across—"run across" being the key part of that phrase. From www.thesun.co.uk, I learned about her stage role in London's West End. A report in www. publishersweekly.com reported that a new Madonna tell-all is due in stores and provided me with the opportunity to read a pre-publication review. Amazon.com has her DVDs on sale and lets me hear sample clips from her CDs. But here's the interesting thing: I have never, ever performed a search on Madonna, nor have I ever "personalized" a site with my interest in Madonna. And the fact is, there are hundreds of things that interest me as much (or more) than Madonna that I've likely never searched on or personalized for either. My Madonna information, as well as information on thousands of other things, comes to me rather than sitting and waiting for me to seek it out. The sites and services I frequent tell me something.

Sadly, most organizations' intranets and public Web sites organize primarily around providing answers to questions we think visitors already have in mind. We arrogantly believe people always visit our site or use our online service simply to find a piece of information they already know they need and let's face it, information professionals are a big part of the problem. Armed with a vast knowledge of the best sources available on a host of online services and versed in the URLs of hundreds of free Web sites combined with fantastic Boolean skill, info pros are wizards at using information in only one way: answer my question. Because of training from birth, info pros tend to purchase and deploy econtent and services in that same direction; they push vendors to build products that are primarily designed to answer questions.

Of course, we all use information both ways, but likely haven't actually thought about the differences. At conferences, I like to ask the following question: "how many of you read a daily newspaper, either online or in print?" The answer is always almost 100% among econtent professionals. I then ask the room "Why? We all have access to the best information services in the world!" Of course by then, with the set up complete, I answer my own question: "because a newspaper tells us something we didn't think to ask."

We've all got loads of subjects that interest us: work-related issues, family, hobbies, travel, kids, parents, health, and much more. If you're like me, you can't possibly do a search or personalize on all the topics that interest you. So we live an online life organized so we'll stumble across things. We like serendipity. Bookmarks, email newsletters, and other online tools facilitate our favorite sites and services telling us something we didn't think to ask.

I encourage all econtent professionals; on both selling and deployment sides, to be conscious of the two ways users consume information. All online sites and services—intranets, extranets, free and fee sites, and online services—should organize accordingly. Encourage serendipity. Embrace easy ways to browse. Establish enewsletters. Create and post interesting tables, charts, or graphs. Write and offer a free guide to something. Hire an editor to keep your pages fresh. Assume that visitors want you to tell them what to read rather than rely on the search for information happening the other way around.