Strategic traits of content #3: Trajectory

This is the 3rd in a series of three articles about the traits shared by effective web content. The previous ones were about purpose and staging.

I don’t know about you, but I’m lazy. When I land on a website for the first time I (usually) know why I am there, but I don’t know where the information or service I’m looking for is located. The same thing happens when I try to do something new on a website that I’ve used before (this relates to the notion of progress I mentioned in the previous post).

In both cases I’m missing the “how” to get where I want to go. A repository-style website assumes that visitors will rationally use the tools provided to find their way. But not all visitors think this way. Many of them go cross-eyed when faced an unclear pathways. One way to overcome the confusion is to remove clutter to make the path more obvious.

Clear path

Even if the path is clear, it doesn’t mean visitors will take it. And if they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make it to the end. Another, often overlooked, approach is what I call trajectory. Think of it as a path with propulsion.

The idea of trajectory came to me when reading Robert McKee’s book on scriptwriting called The Story. He talks a lot about a story’s arc. Without getting into whether you’re a fan of McKee or not, the basic idea is that a story has a central momentum that leads the protagonist from beginning to resolution.

This got me thinking about websites, because in many ways they are like movies. The audience arrives with a vague idea of what they’re going to see (based on ads, reviews and WOM). They expect a certain kind of experience. The director and screenwriter then lead the audience from start to finish in an attempt to tell a story. McKee contends that a film with a good story is a film that delivers the expected experience and that makes the audience want to find out what happens next. The audience is implicated in the story.

Ditto for a website. Visitor arrives with an idea of why they are there. The home page is the opening scene. It needs to immediately make the visitor care about what happens next. The path from that point forward to the resolution (the service, the info I’m looking for) is what I call a trajectory. If I don’t care or I can’t figure out what happens next on a website, then the trajectories aren’t clear. Trajectories and personas are closely linked.

Think beyond the call to action

Trajectory is probably the hardest trait to wrap your brain around. But you know it when you see it. It’s an elegant dance between content and user experience that makes you want to keep clicking, reading, exploring. It gives you the urge to stick around, to share with others, to come back. It suppresses the urge to flee. It’s a rare quality and it requires much more than just peppering pages with “share,” “learn more” and “buy now”. I am convinced that trajectory can’t really exist without purpose and staging.

I know what you’re thinking

You’re saying to yourself, but Richard, that’s just storytelling. Maybe it is. But when I say the word storytelling to a group of engineers or suits their eyes glaze over. It’s  too artistic a concept for many people. But when I talk about auditing their company’s content for purpose, staging and trajectory — and give them concrete examples — they seem to get it. It’s anecdotal, and your mileage may vary, but it works for me. And hey, content strategists need all the help we can get.

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2 comments on “Strategic traits of content #3: Trajectory

  1. Tim Rickards
    January 4, 2011 at 5:42 am #

    You really have this dialed in. I know this b/c when I read your posts I think, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of it that way?’

    Regarding the meatspace/101010101 divide, it hit me one day that, when you really look at it, the web experience is just that, another experience, and so why shouldn’t it reflect “non-webby” things? We’ve built up a set of expectations in our users, but most of our nomenclature is based on 3D realities…we put things in a shopping cart, we go back and forth, we search with a magnifying glass or telescope, etc. So, having an interactive content silo seems downright shortsighted.

    On a related but somewhat tangental topic, the December Harvard Business Review contained an article explaining how the traditional “marketing funnel” model has been warped and twisted by social media and online experiences (http://hbr.org/2010/12/branding-in-the-digital-age/ar/1). It’s a nice example of how both sides of the coin need to be considered for a fully functional, 4D experience.

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