At the Ministry for Culture and Heritage we’re mainly known for print publications and websites. Often our websites benefit from a print product, re-using printed content or even using research that didn’t make the book; sometimes we produce books off the back of web content, the Te Ara books being good examples. But we don’t usually set out to work like that. Generally we’re format-focussed from the start of a project and anything else is a luck spin-off.
That changed at least a little in 2011 when we published a series of audi-visual stories called Roadside Stories. It was our first foray into what we’ve since called multi-channel publishing. It’s not rocket science and sits in the same space as COPE (create once, publish everywhere) strategies being adopted by the likes of Conde Naste and NZ’s own Auckland Museum, and popularised by speakers like Karen McGrane.
I work in the web part of the Ministry’s publishing work. We get a good amount of traffic and have plenty to do keeping websites like Te Ara, NZ History, Vietnam War, 28 Maori Battalion up and running. They’re a huge information asset in their own right and demand dedicated attention and ongoing resources. So where is the space for something like Roadside Stories?
We had a very loosely defined at the time the project started where we wanted to start looking beyond websites at new ways of distributing content that didn’t rely on yet another website. We had a few things we wanted to see if we could achieve.
Marketing: Wanted to develop content that can effectively market itself. It can be useful and self contained and live on social networks and other peoples’ websites.
Content tasters: Heath Sadlier, our former lead designer, came up with the term content taster – the aim is to provide a taste of our content. It could be a video, an infographic, even just a tweet, but it’s something that can stand alone and live where users are active – facebook, twitter, youtube – wherever.
Branding: In marketing itself, it’s also marketing the rest of our work and making our brands better known.
Experimenting: We also wanted to learn some new things and new ways of working together as a team, collaborating with other organisations, and test the waters with different ways of publishing and distributing content. In doing so it had to be cost-effective, minimise costs, and use existing platforms and cheap off the shelf products. Again, experimenting to see what’s easy to use and what’s effective.
Roadside stories came along at just the right time. Jock Phillips had been working with the REAL New Zealand Festival to develop audio recordings of stories from around New Zealand. The initial plan was to record CDs of the stories that could then be handed out to visiting tourists as they arrived for the Rugby World Cup. That would have costs thousands so Jock turned to us, the Ministry’s Web Team, to sort it out.
We started by looking at what we should we do:
- the stories were about places so we naturally thought of using location aware distribution
- we wanted to let other people use them as well as us – in essence they could promote us and our work
- people needed to be able to find and use them in many places – ideally however they chose
- they needed to be attractive and that meant visual as well as audio
But what we could do, ideally on little or no budget:
- sourced whatever imagery we could to illustrate each story
- looked for GPS technology that we could use off the shelf
- identified web channels that we could use
- put in place processes to track content creation and publishing
Finally what did we do:
- produced 140 videos and published them on YouTube – it’s free, easy to share, people know it
- geo-located the stories on Google Maps – um, why not? plus it gave us the geo coordinates
- worked with MyToursApp to develop a mobile iOS and Android app of the stories, maps and images – it’s low-cost and Glen Barnes is great to work with
- embedded the videos on our websites and our partners’ websites – so we could effectively use YouTube as a video storage solution
- released the audio stories as a podcast through iTunes – again free channel
- developed a iBook using a sample of the stories – painful to release but a free channel
ouTube has been the single most successful channel with over 100,000 views. Most popular is Moeraki Boulders – viewed over 30,000 times – mainly from being embedded on other people’s websites. That’s a key success measure: videos being used on other websites, particularly where it supports local regions and business through groups like local tourist organisations using our content.
We haven’t got any stats for iTunes but we’ve found that the app and iBook downloads are both fairly successful but only at relatively low numbers. (See the Roadside Stories page for download links.)
What we’ve found though is that they’re not pulling in lots of traffic to our websites. We loaded them up with links for further information but that hasn’t resulted in lots of traffic. It probably points back to them being standalone and able to exist independently of our websites.
But maybe they’ve contributed to general awareness of our websites that helped growth? Here’s a graph!
Something we didn’t do was develop a marketing plan – we haven’t really pushed them, hence the low figures of uptake, but the idea was that they’re marketing themselves. It’s an aspect we should have planned better. We could also have thought more about defining what a successful project would look like. Given that it was all new to us, that wouldn’t have been easy, and we felt at that time that it was low risk, low cost and relatively low staff time (even if it didn’t feel like that at the time), so any views were good views.
It’s probably given us a benchmark though for this type of project. We’d expect to improve our product in future and get higher views and downloads.
What we got right
- Collaboration across organisations – REAL Festival, Tourism NZ, Radio NZ
- Professional scripts and high quality audio
- Chance to upskill staff and work across a relatively new team
- Used simple tools (spreadsheets!) to track progress
What we didn’t get so right
- Plan sooner and especially get hold of content sooner
- Decide on an easy ID that can apply to all content related to each story
- Sign off on all content for factual accuracy as early as possible – you don’t want to re-record audio or redo video
- anything to do with Apple Inc can be a painful process
The biggest lesson was that a lot of this isn’t that easy or quick, and it’s a lesson we’re finding with other projects where we’re trying to re-use content (eg, make eBooks out of existing content). It’s never as simple and quick as it sounds. I’m curious to find out in future whether a true COPE strategy really addresses this as well, or whether any re-use will always require rewriting and recontextualising.
Digital content strategy
So where does that leave us now – do we have a better strategy? We’ve been doing some work lately to develop a digital content strategy that sets out some of the things we can do at the Ministry to better prepare our content for a digital future. I referred to our content earlier as a huge information asset. We have a huge amount of written material across our websites as well as contextualised illustrative content from other organisations. The following is a simplification, but it’s helpful conceptually, and overall is fairly accurate.
With Te Ara, we attempt to be comprehensive across all subjects but at a relatively easy to understand level. It’s medium content. NZ History on the other hand is more selective in what it covers and goes deep. It’s the deep content. In many ways they complement each other – the medium and deep content. What we need to do is stop thinking about separate websites and audit all our content as one coherent whole. We can then build a content development strategy around filling in the gaps in our coverage, reducing duplication and contradiction, and systematically keeping our content up to date.
That’s one strand. Another is the challenge that mobile poses. Here’s another graph.
What I can see in the analytics behind these bald figures is that mobile visitors have a higher bounce rate (ie, they’re more inclined to visit one page and leave), shorter average duration of visit, and on average view about half as many pages in a visit. (They’re also feature a higher proportion of new visitors, though we don’t know if they’re genuine;y new visitors or existing visitors using different devices.)
The numbers aren’t big yet but they’re growing and increasing as a percentage of total traffic – around 15% on both sites last month. My worry is we’re not capturing those people.
Responsive design is a big part of the answer and that’s on our roadmap over the coming months and year or so. But I wonder if we need responsive content as well – the really short content layer that sits on top of the medium and deep layers and provides the hooks to draw readers into deeper content.
It’s also the short content that can feature on a Google result page and provide that short fact the user’s after. If the fact’s good, they may be back later. And if that fact looks good on someone’s phone then they’re more likely to click or scroll to get to the deeper content.
Content like Roadside Stories is our first attempt at creating that short content. It’s not perfect – it hasn’t really brought a lot of users to our websites – but it’s a start. It’s shortish content that can exist on its own, be useful to people, and if we’re lucky raise awareness of our websites and bring in a few extra visitors.
One of the things I’m interested in is developing short nuggets of information. We already have a lot of these buried in our content. It’s not an exclusive approach. I’m not saying all we should do is pander to short attention spans and produce short content. We still need the deep content and deep research.
It’s a complementary approach – we build the nuggets from the deep content and use the nuggets to bring the users to the deep content. But while our content is full of facts and nuggets of information, it’s treated pretty much as flat text content. True, it’s in a database, but it’s not really treated as data.
Where we need to head – probably quite quickly – is to develop a database that holds all out content. With all our content together in one database we can then not just audit it for gaps in coverage, but analyse it for facts and nuggets, add the nuggets we’re missing, mark them up, expose them and share them. While we’re at it we could start sharing the entire database as a content source for others to use – build an API, let other developers – whether for websites or apps – harvest specific information about people, places, subjects, everything.
That’s a fairly roundabout discussion of the Roadside Stories project and how it fits into our work programme at the moment. It’s about experimenting, finding out how things work and how successful they can be. It’s also a way of re-using the content asset we’ve got and making it more available. The strategy doesn’t cover off all of the Ministry’s publishing work. There’s still print publishing to be done and more work to define how we respond to ebooks and the future of long-form reading, but it’s a start at protecting and developing one of New Zealand’s many significant digital cultural assets.