Book Review: “Clout” Is Heavy Reading for Serious Web Content Jockeys

Companies and individuals both revamp their websites frequently, and gamble with each redesign. They throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks, with little or no apparent thought given to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content  by Colleen Jones, New Riders (December 3, 2010), aims to lend a hand here. She argues for publishing better, not simply more, web content.

Jones wrote her book with several audiences in mind:

  • Content, Creative, and Brand Strategists
  • Executives
  • Web Writers and Content Creators
  • Interactive Marketers and PR Specialists
  • Small-Business Owners
  • Nonprofits

Jones helpfully guides each of those audiences toward the chapters they should concentrate on but also tells them why they ought to read it. For instance, grizzled old web writers like me, Jones says I should read chapters 3 through 5 to get inspiration for content ideas.

Divided into three sections, “The Crossroads,” “The Principles,” and “The Climb,” Clout  helps you figure out what exactly you have to do, what you need to learn in order to do it, and how to put into practice what you’ve just learned.

The book starts out with what we’re doing wrong with our web content. As an example, Jones cites the countdown timer used by some websites to pressure you into signing up for whatever they’re hawking. Or what about the “live chat” box that springs to life asking if you’d like to speak to a customer service representative? Obviously, you’re taking too long to get them their money.

So, do these tricks work with you and get you to “convert” (either buy something or fork over your email address)? Or do they actually alienate you from the website altogether? Jones tries to help content developers know the difference between the two.

Content professionals must learn to create content with sophistication and substance—not more content, but more intelligent content. Intelligent content gains influence (clout) and “clout is the outcome of publishing influential web content during lasting relationships with people.”

But just how do you acquire clout? Jones claims you get that with a website that offers a level of sophistication and intelligence that is leaps and bounds above the crass tactics typically employed. Content doesn’t magically appear, however.

You need text, data, graphics, audio, and video that doesn’t talk down to site visitors. It can’t shriek at you to act instantaneously, but rather gently guides you to read, listen, observe, and take action (i.e., enter an email address or buy something).

All this persuasion needs a thoughtful plan, and that’s where content strategy comes into the picture. Jones generously points readers to other experts on that subject and recommends Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web as well as other books she’s found helpful.

Once your website planning has reached what Jones calls “The Crossroads,” and you’ve decided to beef up your content for the better, just how do you go about it? This is where the going gets heavy in “Clout,” as Jones deep dives into the realms of context, rhetoric, and psychology. While this part of the book is the meatiest, it’s also the hardest going from the reader’s standpoint.

Jones posits that context is the “number one principle of clout.” Know what you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it. Website content creators should brush up on their rhetoric, too.  Rhetoric is the art (some might say “dark art”) of informing and persuading people to do what you want them to do. And Jones recommends that, in addition to trotting out your rhetorical skills, you take into account the psychology of those who will visit your website. What do they want from you and what’s the best way to give it to them?

Jones guides the reader through the minefields of content strategy, context, rhetoric, and psychology to get to the stage of translating all that book learning into practical steps to take. She suggests that, after examining your website visitors, you now turn the bright light on yourself by answering a series of questions. Why are you trying to influence a result with content? How will you get, create, and maintain that influential content?

One of the problems inherent in content creation is that it’s hard to tell how you’re actually doing.  To figure out if you’ve succeeded, you should develop a set of performance metrics. (Like rhetoric and psychology, metrics is a college course unto itself and Jones lists a few books to help you get started.) She does caution, though, that too much data can lead to “analysis paralysis.” People “gather more and more data and thus delay decisions longer and longer, hoping for the data to decide so they don’t have to.”

Clout is heavy reading, frankly. Neither art nor science, in the form of the solutions Jones offers comes without some serious work on the part of content creators. For example the section on rhetoric is quite dense. It’s not necessarily a book for those looking to create a casual online presence, but rather for organizations with a dense forest of content that needs weeding out and replanting.

Title: Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content
Author: Colleen Jones
Series: Voices That Matter
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: New Riders; 1 edition (December 13, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0321733010
ISBN-13: 978-0321733016

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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