Bots will be bots

Chatbots! After floating around the edges of the useful web for a few years now, the right underlying technology is finally making it plausible for companies and organisations to build and run their own online bots. That’s cool, and it’s brought to mind a lesson that I first learned in 2009, when we launched an experimental (now dead) chatbot at NAB.

For writers, that lesson is:

Let your bot be a bot. Make it sound like a bot, let it behave like a bot and, most of all, tell people it’s a bot.

For strategists:

Your bot is here to help people learn stuff and complete tasks. You’re not here to beat the Turing Test.

For designers:

Over-humanised bots are just another version of skeuomorphism gone bad.

We didn’t get this right in 2009. We used a photo of a woman in a headset, I wrote in as chatty a voice as I could, and although we used the terms like “online assistant” (too vague) and later “virtual assistant”, we weren’t clear enough about who or what this thing actually was.
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What you need to know before you write

It’s all too common for writers to be engaged to “make the content” for a page before anyone’s actually worked out what the big idea is.

If you can’t answer all these questions, it’s too early to talk to a writer (or to start writing yourself).

1. What content are you working off?

Is this job (a) brand new, (b) based on non-web content, or (c) rework of an existing page?

If there’s pre-existing content, what aspects of it are good? And what about it needs fixing?

If this is new, what information sources do you have? Are they complete? If not, who do you need to talk to to fill the gaps?

2. Who’s the audience?

Who are we building this page for? What do they already know, and what do we want to teach them? What are they looking for? Are they already a customer, or are we new to them?

3. What sequence or journey does this page fit into?

For example, is your audience at a starting point, a decision point, or a final call to action? Are they a current customer looking for help, or a prospective customer doing research?

Where’s your audience coming from?

Do you expect people to click through from a previous page, or could they come in from search? Is this content that we might share through social media?

Where’s your audience going to?

Where do we want readers to go next? What do we want them to do after they’ve read this stuff?

4. What’s the page’s purpose?

For example, are we selling something? Are we offering after-sales service? Or is this educational?

5. What supporting information or pages will you link out to?

Before you write, you need to know what you’ll link out to. Any information you’ll link to is something you won’t have to explain on the page. It saves words and time, but extends the digital ground that your reader might have to cover.

6. Why haven’t I started writing yet?

If you haven’t started writing yet, what are you missing? And who can help?

If you don’t know why you can’t start, then start! If there’s anything missing, you’ll soon find out.

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This post is 378 words long, with an average reading grade of 5.1.

Updated: I added the section about links on July 6, 2012.