Content isn't rocket science

Two things constantly amaze me: companies doing what they think is right for their customers, even when it enrages them beyond belief, and companies that treat customers as if they were brain-dead oiks.

Two things constantly amaze me: companies doing what they think is right for their customers, even when it enrages them beyond belief, and companies that treat customers as if they were brain-dead oiks. I’ve seen two examples of these events in the past week and sadly both are from the field I work in — media.

In reverse order of stupidity, did anyone else see the TV show Destination Tomorrow on the weekend? Rarely have I been so patronised outside a press conference. This half-hour long show was put together by the good folk at NASA as a kind of behind-the-scenes look at some of the amazing events going on in the world of space flight. As TV is wont to do, the show spent the first few minutes telling me what was coming up later on. In tonight’s episode, we were promised, would be news stories about aviation safety, a new foetal heart monitor built using technology developed to keep astronauts alive and a brief look back at the Wright Brother’s first flight. As a good keen white-knuckle traveller (the only thing keeping the plane aloft is my teeth-gritting determination I tell you) I thought “that will be interesting” but, sadly, I was wrong.

It turns out that NASA thinks technology is above most people’s heads. Instead, phrases like “you can see a picture on this tiny television screen” and “when it’s cloudy sometimes the pilot cannot see the ground” were bandied about. Instead of a description of how this “exciting new technology” works, viewers were treated to an “it’s all right — NASA is working on a solution”, Teletubby presentation.

This show is, so the website tells me, aimed at “educators, parents, and lifelong learners” and tries to show us that NASA focuses on “creating today's knowledge to solve tomorrow's problems”. It is aimed at students and adults yet misses its target audience by a country mile. My five-year-old niece (hi Hannah) would have had no problem understanding completely what was being said as the “reporters” avoided using words of more than one syllable. “The plane flies high. See it soar” was about as good as it got.

The other bout of “we know best” comes from a source closer to home. Radio New Zealand has decided listeners don’t want a half-baked solution to their auditory needs, and so is shutting down its streaming media website.

Instead, listeners can catch snippets of this, dare I say it, state-owned broadcaster’s shows on Xtra’s website, but only after the event. That’s right, forget about listening to Kim Hill or Morning Report live online — RNZ has decided you don’t need to after all. Instead they recommend you go and find some other source of online news and that you stop listening to RNZ altogether. Actually, RNZ didn’t suggest you should go and find another source of news, they just implied it. Having an “interactive” archive (that is, one from which you can pick and choose) is hardly a step up from an admittedly spotty service. Oh, and RNZ, if you’re reading — forget about trying to charge a subscription fee. You’re a public broadcaster — now go on about your business broadcasting to the public.

Part of the RNZ press release makes for interesting reading. Apparently the site is being shut down because “it simply duplicated our existing and planned radio service without adding substantial value.” Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t it mean you can have the radio going in the office without the boss noticing? Doesn’t it increase your reach to your target audience — namely people who are working?

Presumably the fact that online listeners are not including in polling data, which means you could have several million listeners but they aren’t worth a penny in the ratings game, is the major factor here.

If I can take a leaf from Dilbert’s book, I would like to ask what we have learned from these two examples. Do not treat your audience as if they were brain-dead seems to be the answer. Content is the same whether it’s online or off.

If you say you’re targeting educated, thoughtful people then treat them as such. I’m quite lucky — here at Computerworld we don’t write for a generalist audience, we write for an IT-literate reader who is in the business. That gives us great freedom to treat the reader as if he or she is knowledgeable about the subject and able to string together two separate thoughts at the same time. I would hope you would let me know if that doesn’t happen.

I would also urge you, if you are thinking about putting info online, or in a TV programme or magazine for that matter, to never underestimate your audience.

Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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