Digital first and content playfulness

In 2011 the Guardian announced the adoption of their digital first strategy to reverse long-term declining print and advertising revenues and address competition from new entrants – hybrids of original news and aggregated content like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

The Guardian first coined the term ‘digital first’, but other news organisations have also publicly set out their ‘digital first’ agendas, as they struggle with the same pressures and dilemmas.

There are a number of facets to digital first – but the strongest common themes are around multi-media and social media. Basically how do you help your audience to find, engage with and share your news content to give it as wide a reach and impact as possible?

Social media opportunities

The web signals a threat but also an opportunity – particularly the opportunity to distribute content and reach a wider audience through multiple social media channels. As the editor of the FT, Lionel Barber put it in an email to staff announcing their digital first strategy:

…we must recognise that the internet offers new avenues and platforms for the richer delivery and sharing of information. We are moving from a news business to a networked business.

Multi media is at the heart

Multi media content is at the heart of digital first news. As Mu Lin writes in his journalism blog, digital first represents

…an all-inclusive approach [to] content production. When planning a reporting project, we need to consider all forms of content: video, audio, article, photo, interactive features (data/map), etc. Get all these contents equally well produced, then push them through appropriate platforms.

Rethinking news

In writing about the announcement, journalism professor and Guardian contributor Jeff Jarvis states:

[Think of]…news as a collection of pieces of Lego that can be stacked into many shapes… [making] better use of the “cutting-room floor of journalism” strewn with facts, interviews, anecdotes, and insights that don’t make it into an article, all “missed opportunities to engage readers”.

Rethinking the role of the digital journalist

Digital first journalism expands the journalist’s role. The editor of the FT again:

…we need to become content editors rather than page editors. We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.

Divisible content

Digital first journalism sounds a lot like content marketing’s ‘divisible content’ or ‘content leverage’ approach:

divisible content diagram

Divisible Content 101 © Column Five

Identify your message – Create your piece of content – Break it out into numerous micro assets  – Publish it out across various social media platforms.

Content re-imagination

Which for those of you who’ve read Handley and Chapman’s Content Rules also sounds a lot like their concept of content re-imagination.

reimagine content

Good content is intentionally reimagined at its inception for various platforms and formats.

Content playfulness

Content re-imagination, divisible content, digital first – all of these approaches really boil down to a sort of content playfulness – a more imaginative and more expansive approach to what often might otherwise be dry, complex or academic content. Like the monks with their mischievous mythical beasts in the Book of Kells, we need to use 21st century techniques to augment the text and illuminate the main messages.

In my next post I’ll explore how we’ve piloted a ‘content playfulness’ approach to our research and policy content at CIPD.





Stuck in a print paradigm: analysing the problem of CIPD’s Thought Leadership content

The logical place to start with a COPE approach to content management at CIPD is with our research and policy content. It has a relatively straightforward structure, so it’s easy content to model. It’s content that is re-used across the business in other products and publications. But particularly because our research content potentially has the highest brand value. It’s our thought leadership content; it gives CIPD its authority and gravitas.

Two crucial questions

When we put the business case for a pilot for COPE and structured content to CIPD’s Executive Team last year we were asked two crucial questions:

Firstly, what’s the longevity of this content? Why should we make this huge investment – in technology and in organisational change, if the content itself has no shelf life?

And secondly: what other organisations are managing their content in this way? How are other knowledge businesses COPE-ing?

What is the longevity of our research content?

So what is the longevity of our research content? Given that we spend around £2.5m a year on our research and policy activities, and around £40,000 per report, it’s a very good question.

When we analysed the traffic to the reports’ landing pages we discovered something shocking. This content has no longevity. In the three years after they were published, only the top eight of the 58 reports published in 2011 (14% of the total output) had approximately 1000 unique page views (UPVs) per annum. 

But what was also shocking was that we discovered that the research reports also have virtually no impact in the first year after publication. The top 25% of reports published 2015 had an average of 7,000 annual UPVs. The remaining three quarters are lucky if they get an average 1,000 views in that first 12 months.

With a ready-made audience of 140,000 CIPD members, and – if we extend our potential audience to anyone with people management responsibilities that number swells to 8 million people in the UK alone – those numbers really are teeny tiny.

Andthose numbers are even worse when you consider that on average only 38% of visitors to a research report landing page actually download the PDF.

We’re stuck in a print-based paradigm

CIPD’s numbers might be shocking, but they’re really not that surprising. That’s because we’re stuck in a print-based mindset. We’ve simply transferred a print paradigm to the web.

print paradigm

(Makes your eyes bleed, dunnit?)

We’re publishing our most brand-valuable thought leadership content in PDF format on a hard-to-navigate-to landing page, on a non responsive site.

But the digital revolution is here

Whilst the CIPD is stuck in a print paradigm, its audience is experiencing a digital revolution. We all lead such busy lives, and we publishers, the content providers, we fight to make ourselves heard in the ‘attention economy’.

woman on mobile phone

  • The rise of micro content – bite sized chunks of content designed to intrigue and drive traffic back to the source…
  • The rise of video content – a potent and increasingly important way of connecting with distributed audiences…
  • And the rise of social media – sharing interesting content amongst a community of peers…

have all had a profound impact on the way that people interact with content.

This new digital age means that people are less and less likely to find, and less inclined to want to engage with a 60-odd page academic research paper only published as a PDF.

We need to think differently about how we publish our content

OK, so our research content has no longevity, nor does it have any real impact upon publication. But that’s not to say that the content has no value – we just needed to think differently about how we publish it. And that’s where the second question we were asked: what other organisations are managing their content this way, is where we found our answers to how to think differently.

Initially we went to talk to peers at other organisations who are managing their content in DITA XML. (Thanks to Mark Green at the AQA Qualifications board, Ant Davey of the Rail Safety Standards Board, Stephen Calderwood at Human Kinetics and the content team at the Institute of Engineering & Technology.) All were setting up similar projects, looking to introduce process efficiencies, to re-use/reassemble existing content into new products and greater flexibility for multi platform publishing.

companies using DITA



We reported back. But these insights just didn’t resonate with our Exec Team. The organisations we’d talked to were seen as being a bit too scientific, too technical… not really like CIPD. And … (sorry guys!) … they just weren’t seen as being very glamourous.

What about the Guardian?

‘What about the Guardian?’ we were asked – How are they managing their content? How are they COPE-ing to reach new audiences? And that’s where we found our answers to how to improve the reach and the impact of CIPD’s thought leadership content.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for now. In my next post I’ll explore what we found when we looked for case studies from news media organisations who are also moving from a print paradigm to a digital first world.