The Cracker Is Strictly a Vehicle for the Cheese


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Like many busy people, early mornings find me sipping coffee and browsing favorite econtent services and Web sites to get a quick and informed start to my day. I regularly check news from MediaBistro and The New York Times; book gossip from Publishers Lunch; marketing fodder from eMarketer and MarketingSherpa; financial tips from briefing.com; deal news from VentureWire; ideas for a night out from Ticketmaster; cheap getaways from Travelzoo, and much more. But these days, almost all my routine browsing happens through my email inbox. Rather than hitting my bookmarks, I glance through the dozens of email newsletters I receive on an average day and click on the stories or reports that interest me and link to the sites. And I'm not alone. Rafat Ali, editor of PaidContent.org, recently told me: "Email newsletters are the new surfing tool."

Thinking about the strange phenomenon of surfing your inbox, I was struck by how many other bits of econtent are best viewed in applications far removed from the original user interface. I recently sat through a PowerPoint presentation by London-based Giraffe Ideaworks. I distinctly remember leaning forward for a closer look when a TV commercial began playing in a window on a PowerPoint slide. Surprising and unexpected, the memorable TV spot appeared seamlessly within the presentation. 

 I'm reminded of my after-school job at the local Cheese Shop many years ago. With a hundred varieties of cheese, the boss constantly reminded me to focus on the cheese, not the crackers. Again and again I'd hear: "Crackers are strictly a vehicle for the cheese." We'd spend time passing out samples to help customers select the perfect cheese to compliment their meal or their wine. Only when the cheese was wrapped would we suggest a box of very plain Carr's Table Water Crackers.

More and more, the applications we work in each day (such as email) have become the cracker—the ideal place to consume econtent. And using econtent this way can make us more successful. For example, good salespeople must constantly be aware of what's going on with their customers and prospects. An understanding of executive changes, mergers, and product announcements often makes the difference in closing the sale. But many salespeople resist going to external content sources to keep updated. The perfect solution for salespeople is to integrate news and company reports within the Customer Relationship Management tools they use every day to keep contact information, track appointments, and manage leads. Now it's a simple click of the CRM application from companies like Siebel Systems to see news headlines about your prospect right next to your notes from the last meeting you had with them. To paraphrase my old boss (The Big Cheese): "The CRM is a vehicle for econtent."

Corporate Communications executives have their own version of this model with services such as Cymfony Brand Dashboard, where real-time media impact analysis is presented as a series of charts and graphs. Communications professionals see how their brand is mentioned in relationship to competing brands and companies and over a vast number of media outlets. When there's a spike in coverage, clicking a point on the chart brings them directly to the associated news story. Charts and graphs are the tools to understand media in context, but they double as the vehicle to read the news stories themselves. For the Investor Relations side of the house, new versions of corporate earnings call transcripts from CCBN allow readers to click a line in the text and hear the audio for that particular section of the conference call. Text is the vehicle for the audio.

No discussion about providing econtent in interesting ways is complete without a mention of portal vendors. Companies like Plumtree and Hummingbird take varied information types and integrate them into a consolidated user interface. While this is certainly a good idea and hundreds of organizations have rolled out successful portals in recent years, I think more care needs to be given to building applications that help people do their jobs better. To stretch my cheesy analogy, portals focus a little too much on the cracker. Rather than simply supply the organization with one-size-fits-all, portals should help deliver econtent in ways that help salespeople sell and communications people communicate. Portals need to supply solutions for our individual job functions and only then bring the disparate corporate information together. It's not about the portals themselves, but how well the portal delivers our econtent when we need it.