If Strunk and White worked in adjoining cubicles

My dusty but beloved writing stylebook by William Strunk and E.B. White urges the reader to use active voice, not passive voice. The AP Stylebook agrees, adding: Write in an inverted pyramid, with key information in the first sentences, and supporting but less vital facts trailing behind.

All of this conforms to how people consume information found in printed magazines and newspapers. Do these rules hold up to web reading habits?

According to web usability demigod Jakob Nielsen, the answer is yes and no.

Initially in his recent post, he asserts, “Active voice is best for most Web content.” But he concedes that the web has introduced a new concept to consider. It’s called the information scent.

This refers to “the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” He continues as follows:

Using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and SEO [search engine optimization] effectiveness.

It also breaks several sacrosanct rules of conventional writing.

Neilsen defends his points well. He says that users scan content so quickly that they “often read only the first 2 words of a paragraph.” [Emphasis mine.] Therefore, he contends, this summary statement is acceptable by all measures except scannability and SEO effectiveness:

Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

To fix this, here is his proposed solution:

13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

Much better! Why, you ask? He explains it this way:

Because “13” is sufficiently short, users will likely fixate on the first 3 words, not just the first 2, when they initially scan the blurb. Also, numerals beat words when referring to specifics, so starting with “13” is even better at attracting the scanning eye.

I’m sure Mr. Strunk and Mr. White are spinning in their graves like a pair of synchronized swimmers. But in fairness, they never faced the challenge of an audience so awash in information. It’s a challenge that I, for one, find exciting. But I still will occasionally dip into this duo’s eloquent love letter to clear writing. I’ve probably reread it 20 times.

What’s more — and this is quite sincere:

I feel sorry for writers who did not fall in love with writing back when active voice reigned supreme.

Scratch that. How about:

Writers raised on passive voice, necessitated by information scents, are a target of my pity.

Generation C stands for co-creator — or perhaps chaos?

I don’t envy the marketer of the not-so-distant future who faces a world where the really good alphabetic generations are taken. In the meantime, several “Gens” after Generation X, we’ve circled back to the other end of the alphabet. Or so it appears with the emergence of Generation C. I’d frankly ignore the label, and its vague “official” definition, if it didn’t so accurately describe the group I and my team are spending time with. They are a powerful group.

This gen, although it seems to span more than one formal age group, is united by being “digitally native.” They have embraced Web 2.0 as a given — perhaps even a birthright — and are behind much user-generated content. In other words, they participate in the co-creation of products and services.

I see my role as straddling two worlds. One is populated by those who use networked technology only when they must, and who comprehend little of its potential. Perhaps this is only common sense, because the potential for benefit to this group of peers is minimal. After all, if a network consists of other non-networking “nodes,” it is no network at all.

By contrast, the other world is a vital, teeming network. Although it is smaller, it is far more measurable in terms of behavior of its inhabitants.

If you are responsible for a brand, and you aren’t a member of Generation C, you need to realize that it is possible your brand is being manipulated (co-created) at this very moment. This may not be a big deal for your brand. If the majority of your consumers are not Gen C’s, there could be no potential for harm. But if they are, and you aren’t there to observe and comment on the process of co-creation — watch out.

In last year’s Diet Coke + Mentos Experiments, Mentos immediately “got it.” They recognized the value of this product co-creation. Coke was far slower to grasp the opportunity, and in the process looked sadly out of touch in the eyes of their Gen C audience. The Ford Tahoe debacle is even more extreme in its backwash of bad publicity.*

Generation C stands for something neutral, like Content or Co-creator. But it can also be construed as an older generations’ worst nightmare: Chaos.

*Update: A far better example was posted after this. Apple gets it. Oh yes.


Three sobering facts about today’s use of social networks and mobile media

It’s easy to get excited about the potential of social networks and mobile devices. We’re forever reminded that from a marketing perspective, there’s gold in them thar hills. Yesterday I was able to glean more of the unvarnished truth about both. I attended a couple of excellent panel discussions organized as part of the annual conference of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Although the emphasis of these discussions was on mediated publics (e.g., MySpace, Facebook. etc.), I made a point to ask a few questions about how cell phones come into the picture as a way to keep the network dialogs humming when the computer is back at home. Here are three eye-opening realities of these new media, according to the panel:

  1. People beyond college age are mostly using social networks for the following reasons:
    • Dating
    • Networking for business
    • Keeping an eye on their children (the evocative term that panelist danah boyd used was helicopter parenting)
  2. Ms. boyd was leery about how long the “over-35 crowd” will be on Facebook. She theorizes it will be two years tops before they realize there’s little of value for them on that network.
  3. Mobile marketing in the U.S. is hog-tied compared to the rest of the world, due to the incompatibility between carriers (what danah called the “carrier barriers”). I knew this going in, but it’s worse than I thought. Here are two constraints I hadn’t really considered against adoption within a key market segment:
    • Most high schoolers, and younger college students, are getting their parents’ antiquated hand-me-down phones. They are also often bound within their parents’ cell phone plans.
    • These plans rarely have unlimited texting, so every text is potentially another dime or more on the monthly bill. This can raise parental eyebrows — or worse, tempers. Bummer for us marketers, and for them.

All of this was a valuable splash of cold water about these emerging media. They will continue to “emerge,” but don’t expect mass adoption any time soon.

Radiohead and Fake Science meet differing fates in the DRM-free tar pit

This week two emails hit my Inbox within hours of each other. The first was from the site selling Radiohead’s latest CD via download. It was confirming my order, with a specific price tag that was more of a surprise to them than me, since it was I who chose it a few minutes earlier, during the ordering process.

News on the street, and from Radiohead management, is that tens of thousands of others played the same “Name your price for this CD” game, at a level equating to a little more than $8 US. (11/9/07 Update: The real figure appears to be only half of that $8 estimate.) Not too shabby — especially since there was no DRM (anti-pirating protection) on the downloads, and the band was basically doing the digital equivalent of busking: Opening their guitar cases to collect whatever money listeners want to throw their way. (They also sell a fixed-price, $80 “Disk Box” for Radiohead completists.)

The second email was from a small, audacious music store site that announced it was closing shop. FakeScience.com is a source I’ve enjoyed for fun, mostly ambient electronica.

At $5 an album, their DJ artists — with names like Dr Toast — provide perfect musical soundtracks to knowledge working and long drives. Here is what the email from the gang at Fake Science had to say:

It is with a heavy heart that we must inform you that on November 1st, 2007 we will be closing the Fake Science Music Store. Fake Science was originally started as a labor of love by four friends who had an idea to help share music with people like you and has since grown into the online music resource it is today. However, we evaluated the amount of investment that it would take to keep the store running, as well as making necessary upgrades to keep the Fake Science standards high. We came to the realization that none of us could realistically keep the commitment due to the weight other important things in our lives, such as families, day jobs, and even other side projects.

This sounds like the explanation I’ve heard many times from musician friends, when they announce that their garage band is breaking up after graduation. The explanation is always sincere — and quite valid, considering the economics of music.

But doesn’t the long tail mean that everyone with talent has a shot at recording stardom, or at least economic viability?

Aside from “families, day jobs,” etc., what caused Fake Science to sink into the DRM-free equivalent of the prehistoric tar pits, while Radiohead’s experiment has — by all accounts and speculation — flourished? I believe economist and author Tyler Cowen nails it. He provides five reasons in his Marginal Revolution post:

  1. Radiohead is an indie cult band with extreme loyalties from its partisans and the possibility of attracting more such partisans by seeming “cool.”
  2. Radiohead peaks high on the charts (#3 for their last release, if I recall…) but I believe they sell the product pretty quickly and don’t have a long run at the top. Again, they’d like to widen their fan base.
  3. Radiohead’s gambit has reaped enormous publicity, but this won’t be the case next time.
  4. Many donors will give to a highly visible “cause of the month” (remember the outpouring of support for the tsunami victims?) but they won’t necessarily give on a regular basis.
  5. Radiohead probably has an especially high ratio of touring to CD and iTunes income; see #1. This scheme is a natural for them but not for Kelly Clarkson.

Do read the comments of this blog entry for some interesting clarifications and opposing views. Nonetheless, I think Cowen’s points are all valid.

What’s more, I’d like to add a #6 to the list. Another reason why struggling artists won’t be reaping the benefits of this Radiohead “donor” experiment is what I’ll call The Prius Factor. A recent New York Times article points out that part of the tremendous success of the Toyota Prius hybrid is that it was built to be nothing but a hybid. This is in stark contrast to the major hybrid offerings by Ford, Honda and GM’s Saturn, where they started as traditional internal combustion vehicles. You have to look for a small badge on the trunk or side panel to know that any of these other cars is an environmentally friendly gas/electric hybrid.

That suggests, according to the article, that the Prius has become an “issue bracelet.” It’s a theory supported by research reported in the same Times piece:

… More than half of the Prius buyers surveyed this spring by CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore., said the main reason they purchased their car was that “it makes a statement about me.”

In the weeks to come, people will be hearing songs from Radiohead’s (quite good) In Rainbows. Those who are fans will undoubtedly be asking the person playing this CD: “So what did you pay?” Like the overtly hybrid Prius, it’s an easy conversation-starter. Surely, Radiohead’s CD will be the catalyst for many a new friendship or hook-up.

This is bad news for the relatively unknown Dr Toast, and other Fake Science musicians. But there is hope that this business model could quickly morph to benefit all artists, given the accelerated Darwinian ecosystem of the internet. (And according to a fun NOFX song, dinosaurs will die).

Oh, and there is one final thing Tyler Cowen nails in his assessment: Kid A truly is Radiohead’s best album so far. Which just goes to show that even respected economists can’t resist sounding cool with a little musical name-dropping.

BarCamp Milwaukee reflects the wealth of talent and intellect in my city of choice

This afternoon I attended Milwaukee’s second annual BarCamp, which is about a lot of other things, but is primarily smart and creative technologists coming out to play. (The tag clouds below are from the BarCamp Milwaukee site, where attendees are asked to state their interests in the same way that presentations / activities are given relevant keywords.)

BarCamp TagsIt was stimulating to experience the free-form workshops, and exciting to imagine what this event will grow into with a few more years of publicity and support.

As I write this late on a Saturday night, the events are still taking place. BarCamp runs non-stop through tonight and into Sunday afternoon. When I return to give my presentation at 10 AM tomorrow, it will be interesting to see the level of wakefulness of my audience.

Under the influence of seminars on topics like improving streaming video and using Ruby On Rails to build better sites, I couldn’t let the night go by without doing at least one software change to improve Digital Solid. It’s nothing you can see, but I’ve removed the nofollow attributes that appear in links with the comments that people leave.

Thank you Douglas Karr of The Marketing Technology Blog for this important search-engine-related modification to WordPress blogs (like this one). Doug, I owe you a lot. You’ve given me the strength to face a roomful of mostly developers tomorrow morning, safe in the knowledge that I too can hack code — okay, when given simple and explicit directions!