Confessions of a Regicide: On Content, Web, and Strategy

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At the recent Inman NYC event, I was invited to speak on a panel titled "Content Is King" in which I said a bunch of words along these lines:

To say content is king is actually an empty statement.  Because every single webpage is content, whether that's a blog post or a e-commerce operation.  If you don't have content, then you don't have a site.

I got some questions about that afterwards, and thought I should expand things a bit, because I really didn't have the time to get into the meat of the discussion on the panel itself.

Three Types of Content

Since every website is "content", when people say things like, "Content is King", what they mean is something along the lines of "To attract consumers/users, you have to have interesting stuff for them to read or do."

To understand that concept in fuller detail, however, we must recognize that all of the content in all the world of every variety can be classified into three buckets:

  1. Information
  2. Entertainment
  3. Crap

If I want to know what the weather will be today, so I can decide whether to bring an umbrella or not, I'll check whatever content sources I can to find the forecast.  That could be a website, could be the local TV news, could be the radio.  Could be my buddy who lives across town.  But that forecast is informational content.  I care about it only for the information, the data, that I need.  I don't need a pretty website, don't need a cute anchorbabe telling me the weather, and so on.  I just need the facts, ma'am.

If, on the other hand, I'm bored and want to see something amusing, then the primary goal is to be entertained.  The content in question then can be a comic, a blog post, online gambling, whatever.  The informational content actually doesn't matter very much.  I could find a completely useless web video of a guy reviewing video games and think it's brilliantly funny (because I do) without getting a single jot or tittle of useful info from the video. (BTW, if you're a gamer, and you're not watching Zero Punctuation... you're missing out.  Send me your grateful thanks later.)

Sometimes, you find content that is both informational and entertaining.  For me, that's just about every column Mark Steyn has ever written.  I learn something important, but am thoroughly entertained while learning it.

And... everything else is just crap.

Let's say that a bit differently: If it isn't informative, and it isn't entertaining, then it's crap.  This has real implications.

If Content Is King, It Needs To Be Overthrown

One of the biggest problems of real estate websites is that they seem to equate quantity with quality.  Far too many sites take the approach of "more is better" and just throw up all kinds of random crap on their homepage, all along both sidebars, and the page scrolls on and on for miles without any discernible information or entertainment in sight.

This site I picked at random from a Google search is an example.  And it is far from the worst offender I've seen.

There's no coherence to the site.  There's no entertainment.  There's very little (if any) information.  I'm sorry, but those pictures across the top serve very little purpose.  They don't brand the company, aren't big enough or rich enough or distinct enough to give a flavor of the area, and impart no useful info.

The ginormous block of text below the fold clearly serves no content purpose, except for the audience of one: Google Spiderbot. (We'll return to this one day.)

The mortgage rate "information" is not informative since it talks about a national average, rather than what's available in that market, and from which bank/broker/lender.  It isn't fun.

And so on.

The end result of this is that this "content-rich" website, which ranks well in Google, is just a giant bucket of crap.  Under the standard 'content is King' theory, the site should be wonderful.  It is not.

Content is not king.  Because most content is crap.  Only good content -- defined as information or entertainment -- is royalty.

Where It Gets Difficult

Where I ran out of time on the panel is here.  The obvious next question is, "Well, Mr. Smartypants, what makes for good content, and how do I get it?"

The answer is not as easy as you might think.

Because there are two sides to the content dialogue, if you will.  On the one hand, you have the audience.  A piece of info (e.g., prevailing mortgage rates in the local market) might be invaluable information to one person, but be completely useless to another person.  So the exact same piece of content is Good for one, and Crap for the other.

On the other hand, you have the author (i.e., yourself).  You could upload videos of Kate Beckinsale discussing local market data with Matt Damon in a hot tub and have the entire audience find it both informational and entertaining.

But what does that do for you?

Does that video improve your overall brand image?  Does it drive leads to your business?  Does it help establish your expertise in the local market?  Does it, in short, accomplish any of the goals you might have?

(Incidentally, the picture of Kate Beckinsale attempts to add entertainment value to what is otherwise a potentially-crap blog post.  That and I just have a teen-like crush on Kate.  Or at least on her character Selene from Underworld.)

Strategery

Speaking of goals... how many real estate websites actually have goals?  If they have goals, how many have prioritized goals?

That is what someone like me might refer to as a "content strategy".

Where real estate websites have a content strategy -- a focus, a set of objectives, and goals -- what constitutes good vs. crap content actually flows from those strategic goals.  Most of the time, this is done unconsciously or subconsciously.  For higher-end websites, this is done explicitly in lengthy and often painful meetings in conference rooms with web designers, content experts, UI consultants, and so on.

But I do feel that anyone with a website can and should take a moment, pour a glass of wine, take pen and paper, and think through some of the strategic goals of having a website in the first place.  What is it that you want your website to do for you?  Then, after you've listed all of the goals, put them in priority order.

For example, you might list branding, lead generation, establishing credibility, recruiting, and networking.  Your list might look like:

  1. lead generation
  2. credibility
  3. branding
  4. networking
  5. recruiting

So branding is below two other goals for you.  That has real implications on the kinds of content you will want on your website, and the kinds of audience you want to attract with your content. Maybe you can skip on all the "Hey, I'm a really wonderful guy" type of stuff, since branding isn't your top priority; or at least, put that content hidden away somewhere.  And since lead generation is your top goal, you'd better have lead forms, contact info, phone numbers, and a whole bunch of reasons why someone would want to contact you all over your site.

Simply trying to put them in priority order is a difficult, but rewarding, task.  Try it and let me know how you found the exercise.

General Notes on Real Estate Content

Keeping the content strategy in mind, and keeping in mind that you need to either be informative or entertaining for the audience you want, here are some general notes about real estate content.

There are three categories of content for real estate sites.

  • Listings
  • Statistical Content (e.g., data, market info, etc.)
  • Dynamic Content (e.g., videos, blog posts, etc.)

Unless your site has a purpose completely different from every other real estate website, you must have listings.  So much of the information that consumers want are tied up with listings that you have to have this.  Seeing as how we anounced the Lifestyle Listings Engine at Inman, and have begun to talk about it and our concept behind it, I'm a bit biased as to what sort of listings experience is ideal.  But on the whole, you must have listings content, even if it isn't the human-centric model Onboard Informatics proposes.

Statistical content is extremely useful for many purposes, since stats by their very nature tend to be informative.  A visitor might find information on local schools to be really useful, informative content.  They're not great for entertainment content, however, unless you can do some magical things with statistical analysis.

Dynamic content can often be used for informative, but I personally believe that their best use is to cover entertainment quotient.  Someone in the market for a house might find tales of past misadventures fun to read -- and may pick up a piece of info or two about what to do and not to do.  But I believe dynamic content needs to be fun, needs to be entertaining.

Chances are, you don't create listings content; you probably don't originate a heck of a lot of statistical content either.  Those are the provinces of big guys, like MLS and Bureau of Labor Statistics.  But you can and should and do create dynamic content.

Knowing that listings and statistics tend to be ah... unentertaining, my thought is that you should strive to make your dynamic content as entertaining as possible.  Control what you can.

Consequences of, and Uses of, Crap Content

We cannot leave this topic without talking a bit about crap content.  Content that is neither informative nor entertaining is crap, and that has consequences.

For one thing, if you have nothing but crap content for audience member X, then as far as that person is concerned, you are crap.  Negative branding is something few people think about, but it is very real.

The site I picked on in this blog might belong to two of the best realtors in the state of Florida.  But based on that site, the first impression is not good.  Creating poor first impressions is, I'm going to assume, not one of the strategic goals of the Wilson Home Team.

The consequences of bad content isn't simply that you get ignored.  No, the consequences are actively negative.  This is almost always the case when the crap content results from a total lack of a content strategy.  You fix that by having some thought, some strategy behind your website.

On the other hand, when crap content is the result of a content strategy, it serves a very useful function: clearing out those you really don't want to talk to that much.

If branding is your top priority, then you don't really want to talk to people who couldn't care less about meeting and relating with a top professional.  Your content, then, may be 'crap' to them since it is neither informative nor entertaining -- but that's just the way you want it.  Not having to talk to people who don't matter for your goals is almost as important as talking to those who do.

Wrapping it Up

So there you have my confession, as a regicide.  If content is king, then it needs to die.  As an industry, we need to think about this whole web stuff in a systemic, strategic, thoughtful way.

Start with an overall web strategy.  Identify the goals and objectives.  Prioritize them.

Then come up with a content strategy that serves those strategic objectives, understanding that content is informative, entertaining, or crap.  There are no real in-betweens.  Further understand that "crap content" when created and delivered strategically serves a very useful function.

And specific to real estate, understand how the three major categories -- Listings, Statistics, and Dynamic -- fit together to help you achieve your content strategy for your website.

At over 2000 words, this got very long.  I thank you if you managed to stay awake through the whole thing.  Looking forward to your comments.

Image Credit: Jason Train on FLcikr.com