Kristin Beck: Why a customer-first perspective is best for Web content

Kristin Beck is the editor of Columns & Outlook Help on Office Online. When not braving the elements in Redmond, she can be found in Seattle, trying to convince her two children to eat less pasta, more vegetables.

It's impossible not to notice the fact that the Web is changing how we function, write, and think; to even talk about it is borderline-passé. Or so I thought. And then I spent two days listening to speaker Gerry McGovern discuss Web content and I realized we're just at the start of the conversation.

How do you define good Web content? Is it as subjective a proposition as what makes a painting great, or how much cleaning is necessary to render your house "clean enough"?

I spend a lot of time thinking about what constitutes good content; as an editor, I'm paid to do that. In my daily research, I'm seeing a paradigm shift in what is branded "good" content, and it has everything to do with connection.

As evidence that Office Online content publishing managers are taking this paradigm shift seriously, many of them are recommending Gerry McGovern's course, "Creating Customer-Centric Web Sites," to their teams. I recently attended this two-day workshop, which effectively gave me a Ph.D. in customer-friendly Web content.

What I learned

The push to make all content look as though it came from one (very important) person — Bill Gates, maybe — is what used to drive marketing campaigns and make companies rich. The problem is, that created enormous disconnect between the customer and the company.

Our customers just aren't into that anymore. They do not want to be condescended to; they're an incredibly sophisticated, increasingly impatient and skeptical audience. They expect to be written to (and understood) by their content providers.

Remember Creepshow's Upson Pratt, the powerful techie (with a generous case of OCD) from the vignette, "They're creeping up on you" (1982)? Although Pratt claims to have a "germ-proof" apartment, cockroaches invade his sterile environment, undermining his power, authority, and sanity. Pratt can't contain the bugs; they just keep coming in.

Upson Pratt from "Creepshow"

It could be said that the power of the community is not unlike the bugs. Their strength is in their tenacity, and they're messy, spilling, gooping, and generally grossing-out his pristine digs. Granted, he's crazy and sadistic, and comparing customers to cockroaches doesn't exactly get my point across. But the image of Pratt — a rich and powerful white guy living alone in a high-tech apartment, getting his butt kicked by bugs — works as an illustration of the shift from the omniscient technical expert to the collective domination of the masses.

What customers want: the short list

  • Short lists
  • The ability to search for information easily
  • To offer feedback on what they like and don't like
  • Scannable articles, with bullet-points and images (nothing gratuitous though… only if it serves the content)
  • Humor (they don't want to have to take you, or themselves, all that seriously)
  • Authenticity (phoniness on the Web is as obvious and transparent as that flash content that, come to think of it, seems to have died down…)

From Gerry's presentation, I discovered that a great example of how Office Online has evolved to reflect this model is the Crabby Office Lady column (for which I am the lucky editor). Until Annik Stahl started offering Help content all dressed up in a fuchsia polyester track suit, all was as it was supposed to be: all-knowing, personality-neutral. Crabby's intuitive entrance onto the Help scene signaled a grand departure for Office in tone and style, and look what happened. From 2002 to today, the column has been translated into at least four other languages and has close to 300K readers each month.

Handing the keys to the community

If you work on Web content and are interested in people and their opinions — and are comfortable with giving up some control — you'll be okay during this transitional time. It's a messy, subjective process. Even if you need to up your meds to deal with the needs of the community, then you must, because, at Pratt says, "Once they get a foothold in the building, you never get rid of them!"

Handing the keys to the community.

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