When Content Loses Chronology

Reading the recent news about Barnes & Noble’s financial woes and the suspected complicity of e-book sales in the company’s decline, my belief that the days of the printed book becoming a piece of nostalgia are fast approaching intensified. (I sense the virtual eyerolls of all the people who think another of my patented ‘the printed book is doomed’ speeches is forthcoming. I’ll spare you.) Regardless of what happens with e-book sales in the future, I think there’s something more interesting at work: the increased dissociation of content from physical form.

If you look at the leading e-reading devices now (iPad, Nook, Kindle), they largely simulate the book. The physical size of device. The turning of the pages. It’s all a gesture at smoothing the transition from book to mobile device. It’s an attempt to romanticize the experience by making it as close to ‘curling up with a good book’ as possible. Rather than a long Web page-like scroll, they leverage the familiarity of page turning. But is it so hard to believe that that familiar construct will go away? That, given the endless flexibility of an electronic interface, that the way we read books will fundamentally change? Will we even refer to sets of text as “pages” in another generation or two?

Look at the way we read newspapers. My wife and I are at constant odds about the news-reading activity. She prefers to spread newsprint in front of her on the kitchen counter or sprawl out with it on the couch. She likes the sequence of it. I, however, prefer the computer. The cleanliness of it. And, admittedly, the free-formed nature of it.

Look at the way we listen to music. Gone are references to “sides”. No more albums, no more b-sides. Beyond that, order isn’t even particularly relevant. Shuffle play and individual track purchases have made enforcing sequence almost impossible. It’s doubtful the success of another concept album like “The Wall” could ever be achieved in a digital world. (It’s funny…you can probably date a person by what they call a collection of music. I still use “album.” Maybe occasionally “a disc.” Is the time coming when we say “Coldplay just released a new Playlist!”?)

We join this program already in progress…
As marketers, one of our primary jobs is to tell a story. And stories typically have a beginning, middle and end, right? With the increasing fragmentation of how we consume content, customers might join our story half-way through or at any point along the way. After playing search and social roulette, they may find themselves on your order form without even knowing first what you sell. (As the printed book goes away, will we forever lose the stigma of skipping to the end of the story? No one to catch you guiltily flipping to that last page.)

When designing a new web site, customers are often wholly focused on the home page of their site. And while planning those first impressions and paths to navigation is certainly critical, it’s also increasingly important to consider how customers navigate UP. Particularly with an integrated social strategy, it’s important to realize that people may be entering your site through a deep basement window rather than the polished lobby doors. Feature onramps to product information or to your corporate overview on every page of your site. Do so, and you have a good chance of telling the whole story regardless of what point your readers came in.

Beyond navigational issues, it’s also important to realize that the dissociation of content from physical form will further accelerate the want for smaller bits of information. There are plenty of arguments that the Internet is turning us into an ADHD culture where no one has an attention span longer than seven seconds. While you can argue the social ramifications of this trend, as a marketer, it’s important to acknowledge it and cater to it in relevant ways. Provide content in smaller pieces. Break up one long Web page into a sequence of three or four shorter ones. Diversify the way you tell a story with visuals and text. Appeal to multiple senses by leveraging video and animations.

These are transformational and exceptional times we live in. Think of all the physical media forms that have gone the way of the dodo. Albums, 8-tracks, cassettes and (soon) CDs have all succumbed to the supremacy of the MP3. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines and (soon) books are being consumed by the Web (in its various delivery forms.) The common trend indicates a preference for smaller chunks of content, distributed without obedience to sequence or structure. In order to effectively tell our stories, marketers need to remain as flexible and dynamic as the world around us.

Here’s a laugh. Check out ABC’s new take on viewing the news. Their iPad app. If a big spinning globe of random news stories isn’t a sign of the chaos confronting content, what is?

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