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I am still convinced of this formula. No matter what website I visit, I see the same 3 functions for content.

Note: Some content may have more than one function. For example, a customer-support "online chat" feature can be used to initiate sales queries, thus "persuading" people to trust a site. It could also be used to "reassure" customers by providing a means for logging feedback after a sale has been made.

The big question

But a big question remains.

What actual content should be used to fulfil these 3 tasks? For example, why - in pursuit of its objective to "persuade" students to join its college - did the developers of the University College Dublin website use a proprietary panoramic image format for a "campus tour" feature? Why not Flash, a video or even just a few simple photographs?

To answer this question, we need to define what we mean by content "features" and content "formats".

Content features

A content feature is the means by which an idea needed to achieve a website objective is given form. Such a feature is then deployed to either persuade, sell or reassure the visitors of the website (as discussed above).

Content formats

A content format is the means by which a feature is presented. For instance, a "campus tour" feature could be presented in a variety of ways, e.g. as a Flash animation, a video or even as a series of static images.

What features!? What formats?!

A key challenge for a website manager is to choose the right formats for the list of features they are creating. Although some clients can be very specific about the elements they want on their site ("a spinning Flash logo that says 'we r kool!"), others are more vague. They may simply provide a list of open-ended deliverables and leave it up to the development team to find the right solution. They may even rely on the web team to recommend the list of content ideas or features that would work best for their site.

Given the variety of alternatives that exist for website content, this can be quite a difficult undertaking. Indeed, it becomes more and more demanding all the time as new content features are discovered or expanded (user generated content) and new formats are developed, e.g. Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Air, etc.

The wisdom of crowds

Thankfully, you are not alone. Thousands of other websites have already faced this challenge. As a result, you can imitiate their ideas for the various formats that can be used for some common content ideas.

To familiarise you with your options, I have created a table (below) that lists some of the most common combinations of features and formats found across the web.

Of course, due to the wide variety of website objectives, not all these will be suitable for everyone. Nevertheless, combinations are frequently seen on the websites that account for the majority of those on the internet. These are:

  • Websites that seek to make money though financial transactions, e.g. Amazon.com
  • Websites that seek to influence you about something, e.g. Greenpeace.co.uk
  • Websites that seek to save themselves money by enabling customer self-service, e.g. Banking365.com

Beware the scales

Finally, you should also bear in mind that the extent to which you are able to deploy content will be strongly influenced by the scale of your site. That is, a large, complex site with strong financial backing will be able to deploy many more features and formats than a small scale site.

This does not imply that the small scale site will be less successful than its larger competition. The same objectives can be pursued by both. It's simply means that the basic site may appear 'less sophisticated' than the website with more money.

Content combinations

Content combinations for a basic website


These content formats... ...are commonly used for the following features... ...in support of these functions
Preprepared static text.
  • For a simple introduction to explain the purpose of a website to visitors (if necessary),
    e.g. "This website contains articles about website management by author Shane Diffily".
  • For news, articles, interviews, press releases, special offers, blogs and customer testimonials about subjects related to a website's theme.
  • For 'about us' information.
  • For contact details.
  • For a disclaimer and terms & conditions.
  • For a privacy policy.
To persuade visitors of the competence and trustworthiness of the website.
Graphics (photos, illustrations, diagrams), including:
  • JPEG
  • GIF
  • PNG
  • SVG (scalable vector graphics)
  • For images in support of news, articles, interviews, press releases, special offers, blogs and customer testimonials about subjects related to a website's theme, e.g. cartoon humour, desktop images.
To persuade.
PDF format
  • For additional 'about us' information, e.g. annual reports, prospectus.
To persuade.
Video & audio format
  • Pre-recorded broadcasts
  • Podcasts
  • For standalone images or those in support of articles and interviews about subjects related to a website's theme, e.g. a video interview with a CEO, podcasts.
To persuade.
Preprepared static text.
  • For product and service descriptions, e.g. "Men's bicycle, 15-gears. Only £220. Click here to find out how to buy!"
  • For simple instructions to assist visitors to "do" whatever it is the site is for, e.g. "Click here to find out how to buy" or "Click here for help when ordering".
To sell the website's core proposition.
Graphics (photos, illustrations, information graphics), including:
  • JPEG
  • GIF
  • PNG
  • SVG (scalable vector graphics)
  • For images in support of products and service descriptions, e.g. product images.
To sell.
PDF format
  • In support of products and service descriptions, e.g. whitepapers and brochures.
To sell.
Video & audio format
  • Pre-recorded broadcasts
  • Podcasts
  • Standalone or in support of products and service descriptions, e.g. a video introduction to a new product.
To sell.
Preprepared static text.
  • For information about help & support, e.g. FAQs.
To reassure visitors and thank them for trusting the site.
Graphics (photos, illustrations, information graphics), including:
  • JPEG
  • GIF
  • PNG
  • SVG (scalable vector graphics)
  • For information on help & support, e.g. illustrations about how to assemble a product.
To reassure.
PDF format
  • For information about help & support, e.g. service documentation.
  • For information about products/service descriptions, e.g. whitepapers and brochures.
  • For 'about usi information, e.g. annual reports, prospectus.
To reassure.
Video & audio format
  • Pre-recorded broadcasts
  • Standalone or in support of help & support, e.g. to show how to assemble a product.
To reassure.

Content combinations for a dynamic website

This list only shows those features and format that are specific to a dynamic website. Content for basic websites can also be used.

These content formats... ...are commonly used for the following features... ...in support of these functions
Text format, including:
  • Pre-prepared static text.
  • Database generated dynamic-text and client-side scripted text.
  • For personalised introductions, e.g."Welcome back Mr.Ryan".
  • For user-generated content, e.g. themed discussion forums, wiki.
To persuade.
Widgets, including:
  • RSS format news feeds
  • Flash format widgets
  • Client-side scripted widgets (JavaScript)
  • Standalones or for features in support of news and other features, e.g. relevant newsfeeds, online polls, weather widgets.
To persuade.
Internet application formats, including:
  • Client-side/Server-side scripting
  • Adobe Flash
  • Adobe Shockwave
  • Java Applets
  • Products/service descriptions, e.g. interactive product images.
  • Subscriptions, e.g. to a newsletter.
  • "Alert me" feature.
  • "Email a friend" feature.
  • Online chat.
  • Online discussion.
  • Online competitions.
  • Online training.

To persuade (and/or to reassure.)

Text format, including:
  • Pre-prepared static text.
  • Database generated dynamic-text and client-side scripted text.
  • For product and service descriptions, e.g. "Our buses go to 100 destinations in Europe. Click a city to get a timetable."
  • For simple instructions to assist visitors to "do" whatever it is the site is for, e.g. "Click here for help".
To sell.
Text format, including:
  • Pre-prepared static text.
  • Database generated dynamic-text and client-side scripted text.
  • For information on help & support, e.g. themed support forums.

 

To reassure.
Video & audio format
  • Live broadcasts (streaming)
  • Pre-recorded broadcasts
  • For user-generated content, e.g. member multimedia submissions.
To reassure.
Mashups, e.g. Google Maps APIs.
  • For help & support, e.g. a map showing depot locations.
To reassure.

Content combinations for a transactional website

This list only shows those features and format that are specific to a transactional website. Content for basic and dynamic websites can also be used.

These content formats... ...are commonly used for the following features... ...in support of these functions
Rich Internet Application (RIA) formats (Web 2.0, including:
  • Adobe Air
  • Ajax
  • Windows Presentation Foundation
  • Microsoft Silverlight
  • OpenLazlo
  • Complex transactional applications, e.g. shopping cart.
  • Complex applications with enhanced personalisation), e.g. online spreadsheets.
  • Advanced user-generated content, e.g. Yahoo "pipes".
  • Virtual Worlds, e.g. SecondLife.
To sell.
Internet application formats, including:
  • Client-side/Server-side scripting
  • Adobe Flash
  • Online applications, e.g. shopping cart.
To sell.