A Parisian content strategy metaphor

By Elizabeth McGuane | 1 Comment

So I went to the Content Strategy Forum in Paris last week. While I was gone, a volcano exploded (no causal relationship, as far as I know). And I was stranded there for four extra days. Yes, I know, ‘stranded in Paris’, not a bad thing, etc etc. But bear with me.

Volcanoes and web trauma

So sure, I could talk about how traumatic web usability problems become when you’re stranded abroad and want to get home.

I could talk about the awful customer experience of being unable to contact anyone from your airline to rebook your flight. About being left on hold for 4 hours with a recorded message repeatedly mispronouncing the word ‘alternatively’. Or about being told that you can rebook online for free, when in fact your airline’s website offers no such option, and instead wants to charge you $6000.

I could talk about how a well-designed content page – hell, well-designed link text – can actually change lives.

For example, if I’d been able to scan Aer Lingus’s ‘volcano’ page (see below) well enough to see where I should click to rebook my flight, I may have been able to get onto the morning flight with my colleagues, after my original journey was cancelled, rather than being shunted onto a later flight because, in my panic, I couldn’t distinguish which of the scattered ‘click here’ links was the one I needed.

Aer Lingus's volcano disruption page from April 18

aerlingus.com's volcano disruption page from April 18

But then that rebooked flight didn’t go anyway. C’est la vie.

Paris and food anguish

But what I started thinking about most, while I was stranded, was that in Paris, you can only do certain things at certain times – such as eating dinner. This may have cropped up because food is important to me, and because travel revolves around mealtimes.

In Paris, there are set ways and means of doing things; a rhythm and a pattern to life that Parisian inhabitants just understand, but which they must somehow communicate to their tired, hungry, dusty, gauchely dressed visitors. I don’t think they mind if we don’t really ‘get it’, but we must get it enough that we don’t embarrass everyone and upset the balance of city life.

Everything works smoothly in Paris when you know its rhythms. But when you don’t, figuring out these cultural transactions, these engagements, can be disconcerting.

So here’s what I think.  This mentality sort of describes how most businesses deal with their website content.

OK, hang on and see where I’m going with this

When you know how a company website works – that is, when you work within the business – its content is opaque to you. You see the missing pieces between the blocks of content that are actually there. You skip over words, you skim entire pages. You see the banner ads and the flashy bits that refer to products you own. You don’t see the full experience. You know where to look, and what to click on. You have a shorthand.

So it’s hard for you to understand why it doesn’t make sense to outsiders.

This is why content strategy for the web is so important.

When you come to a website from the outside when you’re a tourist – if you’ll allow me to drag the metaphor out kicking and screaming – you have no clue what’s going on.

Why tourists will adapt to Paris

If your website were like Paris, this would be fine, mostly. Because Paris rests (stylishly) on the laurels of its own awesomeness.

People want to figure Paris out because it’s filled with good stuff. And we’re not just talking about cheese.


But your website is not Paris. It cannot be insular. It needs full translation, from company-speak to its users’ language. Even if it is a website that wants to seem enigmatic and cool, it must still do something to reach out to its audience. And the best way to do this is to acknowledge that they are there, that they are human, and then try to understand how you sound to them.

That’s tourism. That’s service. That’s what web content strategy is for. You can’t speak to all of the people all of the time, or cater to all users in every situation. But you can have content that is mindful of the fact that it has an audience; content that’s created for the purpose of clear communication and engagement.

Creating this content, as with so many things in life, requires planning and forethought. This is what a content strategist – a web communications expert – can help you do.

What, though, about creativity – whither the web version of that Parisian mystique? Do we have to ‘dumb down’ our content to pidgin English, to make things easy for our users in every case? Shouldn’t they have to make some effort, particularly if we’re not just talking about the corporate web?

Conversation and curation are the keys to great content

Anything is possible in web design if the content works. People will make an effort to explore an unconventional website  - that is, unconventional by design, rather than poorly designed – if the content invites them in.

So test your content. Listen to your users – engage with them online, and observe them in controlled circumstances in user tests. Content is not tested rigorously enough as part of the usability process, and this needs to change. Simply reporting that ‘the content is bad’ is not enough anymore.

You need content strategists to figure out not necessarily what your users expect to hear, but how to speak to them in a meaningful way. And perhaps, to help you say something unexpected sometimes. It’s the unexpected that sparks our interest. And isn’t interest and engagement, in travel, business, and on the web, what we’re all aiming for?


One response to “A Parisian content strategy metaphor

  1. Elizabeth,

    This is beautiful! I’ve never seen anyone bring content issues so close to the “other stuff” that matters to me outside of the Web. The analogies are perfect.
    I love Paris, I love food and I love content – who thought I could have all three at once? Thank you!

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