Pop quiz. You’re handed the keys to a 50-year-old science fiction television show whose most iconic villains have become household names and are asked to create a brand new villain who will rank, almost instantly, just as high among fans. What do you do?
When showrunner Steven Moffat started writing for Doctor Who in year 42 of its 50 year history, no one actually asked him to do that. But he did it anyway. Twice.
How he did that is a question of understanding a basic principle of content strategy. When you create content for a particular platform, it helps to understand the fundamental strengths of that platform.
The first instant classics Moffat created are called the Weeping Angels. They appear as statues when you look at them but then the second you look away—or even blink—they come to life and do generally horrible things to you.
The second set of nasties are known as the Silence. They appear as rather grotesque (albeit stylish) monsters when you first see them, but the second you look away you forget that they even exist. This leads to rather inconvenient situations like a friend asking you to look down the hall to see if anyone’s coming—at which point you see a whole army of them advancing—and you turning back to your friend to say, “No, nothing’s there.”
What do these two villains have in common? As long as you keep watching, you’re okay.
And what is the organizing principle of television? Never. Stop. Watching.
Remember the phrase “Don’t touch that dial!”? (Remember when televisions had dials!?) The organizing principle (as in, what keeps the lights on) of television from day one has been that the viewer must always be watching—because if the viewer keeps watching, they’ll see the commercials. And television is especially well suited to the task, being a big box that draws all of the attention in a room full of comfy chairs.
Obviously, that model has run into complications lately but television’s inherent strengths haven’t really changed and, consciously or not, Moffat tapped into those strengths when he created those creatures specifically for that platform.
There are similar examples in other mediums. Think of Linus Torvald creating Linux, an open source platform, using open source methods, or the simple swipe gestures that make Angry Birds such a perfect fit for the iPad.
What happens when we apply this principle to the web? What are its strengths? Well, for one thing it is, in fact, a web: a universe of interconnected content. So, one of the things the web values is connection. When creating content for the web, then, it is powerful to play into that strength. I’m talking, of course, about links.
If, for example, you’re doing content strategy for a restaurant and they have the option of posting a PDF of their menu versus posting html that could be strategically linked, the latter option would play better to the strengths of the web. Instead of a flat, unconnected object, you could post a vibrant connected portal that could link to interesting articles about the ingredients, videos about the regions the food comes from, testimonials from patrons, etc.
The web likes links. It grows smarter (and occasionally dumber) with each one you create and your content—not to mention your audience—grows richer when well-thought-out linking enters the picture. Instead of thinking of the web as yet another place to dump your content, think of it as a place to reinvent your content as part of a constellation of media and you’ll find more powerful results.
Also, don’t blink.
David Dylan Thomas is a digital strategist and filmmaker living in Philadelphia. He is the co-creator of Developing Philly, a web series about the rise of the Philly innovation scene; Content Camp, an unconference about the future of content; and is president of Content Strategy Philly.