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This post is part of Rassak’s “Content is Queen” featuring ideas on  storytelling and journalism in marketing. Don’t miss one, subscribe.

I have been playing around with a few ideas for this Content is Queen post, but I was a little stuck feeling like it had to be about marketing content.  But really, content is content is content.  And even if it’s not explicitly there to sell you something, in a way it is.  Content is put on websites to be used and consumed, whether it’s about selling an iPhone, getting support for a non-profit or is simply a personal blog.  Once I let go of that notion about marketing content, I realized I have been engaging with some very good content for the past six weeks.

So this post is a guide to good digital content using simply anatomy as a way to think about it. Use this guide for all kinds of content—marketing/brand content or not.


I have been taking an online Coursera course called “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrationality,” taught by Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor of Behavioral Economics.  I have been surprisingly engaged by it and wondering what makes it good. And the only conclusion is: content.   It’s good content.  Interesting in itself and also presented in an engaging and clear way.  One caveat: this is the first Coursera class I have done so all my statements are about this one class…I can’t speak for the program as a whole or any other course.  I will say that my positive experience makes me want to take another one…and I will in July!

Here are some thoughts about the anatomy of good digital content, using this course as an example.

The Head: Make it Relevant

The head is the thinking part.  What am I putting out there?  What is the message?  What am I trying to achieve?  In this case, what Ariely and Coursera are putting out there is the class itself. In the most basic terms, the subject is really interesting.  It’s about how humans behave. And we are all (whether we want to be or not) impacted by how humans behave—whether they are our customers, our spouses, our children or our friends.  In that sense, this is content that is potentially interesting to a wide range of people.  It is also digestible is small bites and varied formats.  I chose to  watch the video lectures, which ranged between 5 and 20 minutes long, divided into distinct subjects.  Coursera could have presented one long lecture video each week, but I would have been much less likely to watch that.  In little bites I could do it between other things in my life —even as a break. Imagine that, studying as a break.

The Heart: Will People Want to Share?

If you think about the power of viral content (e.g. videos), it’s that people want to share it.  Our heart wants to connect us to other people and share.  This class is clearly not a series of viral videos, but I found myself talking about the course a lot with friends and family.  The lectures brought up so many insights and ideas about human behavior that there was always something to mention.  A couple times my 11-year-old sat next to me when I was watching and stayed for the rest of the video.  The content must be good if it’s academic and an 11-year-old is interested! Does your content have heart?

The Gut: Personality

You want to have something that connects to people on a gut level— and making sure it is presented with personality is a good way to go.  As fascinating as human behavior is, I imagine there are professors out there who could make it as dry as a saltine.  I have no idea how Coursera chooses which courses/professors to use, but in Dan Ariely they found someone with personality.  At the beginning of the first lecture each week, there is a little sequence where he comes out and slides down a railing. He also appears as a superhero cartoon lecturer.  It’s a little corny, but works.  Ariely also uses himself to illustrate points and appears to be open and truly engaged with his subject. He had some tough reconstructive surgery in his life and that’s one of the things he’s open about. This makes him (and the content/course) that much more engaging.

The Arms: Organization and Navigation

Think about sitting somewhere and physically reaching for things.  You want them all within easy reach, but not piled up in crazy and confusing ways.  You want to be able to reach to the left to find the folder with one set of things, and to reach straight up to grab another things.  If it’s spread out haphazardly you can’t use it effectively and will likely give up.  Content is worth nothing if it is not easy to work with and navigate.  When I logged into my course webpage the first time, I was pretty quickly able to navigate around and feel like I knew how to find what I wanted to find, but didn’t have to wade through the things I didn’t want to deal with. The course navigation bar is very clear. And as I knew I had only so much time to give to the course this made it easy for me to choose where to focus my attention.

The Legs: More Can Be More (See the Arms Section Though!)

Creating lots of “extra” content is like the legs that take your visitors to more places.  Different people are going to use these legs differently.  Some will sit still and others will engage in a marathon.  I sometimes complain that sites have too much content, but I have realized it’s not that they have too much content, but that the content is not set out in logical, easy-to-find ways.  This course’s webpage is.  I found my way to the “About You” page and was fascinated to find there were more than 30K people taking the course from all over the world.  This is a pie chart showing the class make-up.

I wouldn’t necessarily have imagined I would want that information, but I was happy to find it!  The biggest chunk, over 10K people, are from the U.S., but then look at how many different countries are represented!  51 students in Nigeria, 51 in Kazakhstan, 287 in Czech Republic and on and on.  It was this piechart that made me realize it really didn’t matter whether and how much I participated in the class from a global perspective.  No one was going to care about my little sliver.  My interaction with this course was/is truly about me and what I want to get out of it—and that was liberating.

Another interesting statistic I stumbled on is about the age of participants.  I’m not even sure what I was expecting, but this surprised me.  When I think about it, it’s completely logical that people in there late 20s would predominate.  They were recently in college and they are comfortable on the web in a deep and fundamental way.


The Hands: Let People Be Interactive if They Want

People want different levels of interaction.  This is like creating the hand that is there for someone to take things when they’re ready.  Some people are going to want to take the hand and stay with it, engage, share stories and ideas.  I personally was happy with my weekly emails.  That was the level of interaction that was good for me.  The emails were always succinct, let me know what was going on for the week and invited me to “Go to Class.”  Brilliant!  It is the hand extended out to me and I often took it when those emails came in.  “Visit this site to continue learning.”  Well if you put it that way!  Makes you feel good about yourself and also gets you reengaged. There were other forms of interaction mixed across the course—including surveys integrated into the video. I liked those. There were even surveys I could send to friends and colleagues to take. They were all well done. Some of the interaction I personally stayed away from were the quizes.


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