Tidings of Content & Calm

Lee Thomas

Hello, December … hello, chaos. Take the usual 9-to-5 and everyday commitments, and add all the extras that come with the winter holidays: Weeks filled with social gatherings. Packages to wrap, address, and send. Air travel. And of course, the list of gifts to hunt down and buy. It’s enough to make an introvert like me cry into his figgy pudding.

Or it would be if I let it. A couple of years ago, I decided to trim my holiday activities. Most notably, I suggested to my family that we forego gifts, and to my yuletide joy, they agreed.

Now I glide through the holidays with less dashing through the snow, more relaxing by the fireplace. Yes, we gave up gifts, but we all got something we really want: more time and less stress. 

Give more with less

So what does this have to do with content? Publishing more stuff, more often, is easier than ever with today’s tools. But do audiences need it all? Do they want it all? Or are they getting a lot of pink bunny pajamas instead of the Red Rider BB gun they really want?

Perhaps there’s something to be gained by following one of the guiding principles of minimalism:  choose the essential.

Part of a content strategy should be determining what not to publish—what to cut from the website, what to trim from the page. This means focusing (again) on the essential content people really want and getting rid of the excess. Why? Because it gets in the way.

Some stakeholders may resist such cuts, given the nearly unlimited space available online. But letting go can lead to greater gains in the end.

Google’s gift

For example, take Google. Back in the day, Google attracted attention for its famously minimal home page design. While a competitor crammed more and more on to its home page—and tried to be all things to all people—Google gave audiences something truly valuable: an oasis of simplicity amid the increasing clutter of cyberspace.

That clear focus helped users get to what they really wanted: search results for their particular need. Things turned out okay for Google. Meanwhile, (for multiple reasons) that competitor is struggling.

That’s not a new example, but I was reminded of it recently when Gmail streamlined its home page. I noticed the change immediately. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why, but the site just felt calmer and cleaner (even more than usual). The difference is subtle, but when I compared the before and after it became clear how Google’s trimming helped:

  • Focus the message. The same benefits are there, but fewer distractions (visuals and words) mean the benefits can stand out.
  • Focus the user’s attention. Fewer distractions also help users scan quickly and get to where the real action is: account sign-up or sign-in. Behind which Gmail starts making money with paid ads.

(Screen images from Google's Gmail Blog)

Ready to reduce?

If clutter and excess are weighing down your web content, it may be time to trim. Help the good stuff emerge stronger so your audiences can find and use it. Here are a couple of places to start:

  • Site metrics. Do the metrics show long-forgotten pages or whole sections of your site that are no longer generating traffic? If so, maybe it’s time to retire that content.
  • User profiles. Knowing what audiences want is hard. They’re not homogenous—what they want changes, and there are a lot of circumstances involved. Still, revisiting user profiles and comparing content to what users want is worthwhile. If the profiles are out of date, maybe it’s time to invest in some new user research. With a clearer idea of what audiences really want, you can cut content that doesn’t make the wish list.
  • At the page level. Google’s post states that they cut 250 words in streamlining. Chances are your web editor would love an invitation to do the same.

Fa-la-la-la-la

Cutting back can produce some unexpected benefits, including clearer focus and happier audiences. Users may be joyful about less quantity, more quality. When looking at content for places to trim, there’s a refrain that runs through my head (and oh boy, do I wish I could say it’s, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”): Give users what they want. Cut the excess. Choose the essential.