Interactive Content Strategies: Interactive or Static First?

Justin Talerico, CEO/CMO, ion interactive

Justin Talerico, CEO/CMO, ion interactive

Is interactive content the chicken or the egg? Or does it even matter?

This is not a mobile-first design post, but…

Mobile first design is advocated because it forces a steely focus on concise communicative content, design and UX. Still, most web experiences aren’t designed 'mobile first'. Desktop remains the source, with mobile or responsive executed as a subset (or afterthought) of the full-size experience. I’m not saying that’s good. It’s just true.

I want to draft on the reasoning behind mobile-first and take a few liberties in applying some of that thinking to interactive content strategies.

A tenet of mobile-first thinking is that it’s better to scale a stellar mobile experience up to tablet and desktop, than it is to scale a stellar desktop experience down to mobile. Translation: It’s better to add than to subtract.

But is that true of interactive content development?

Is it better to scale your white paper up from a PDF to an interactive version? Or is it better to conceive that content as interactive and then distill it down to a static PDF?

Cutting to the chase, I think it depends. Here at ion, we’ve developed content both ways and a few ways in between. We’ve scaled traditional white papers and research reports up into assessments and interactive white papers. And, on other occasions, we’ve conceived interactive infographics, calculators and configurators as original, interactive content experiences.

As I write this, we have a new asset in the works as an interactive-first white paper. It started as a text transcript, but will come alive first and foremost as interactive content. After the interactive version is created, our designers will translate that into a static PDF (for those who still like that sort of thing). The interactive version will not be a pure scaling of its words. Its content will change to accommodate its presentation and context.

Last spring when we christened our interactive content focus, we also launched our first interactive white paper. Since we were moving from static to interactive ourselves, that asset — and several that followed — were conceived first as PDFs, then as online versions.

Without deciding which is better, I’d like to compare and contrast a few approaches.

Planning Interactive Content

Deciding how content should become interactive content is a big responsibility. ion’s own decisions are informed by market data combined with our marketing, sales and messaging strategies. Early decisions are often made around visualizing the desired outcome of the content and its place in the customer journey — engagement/consumption, social sharing, lead generation, demand generation, etc.

Once we can state what we want our content to accomplish and align that statement with out overall strategic goals, we’re ready to think about the content itself.

By now, we all know that interactive content is better than static content. It’s better for organic and social visibility, better for your audience, better for gaining marketing knowledge and better at enabling sales. So ‘is it going to be interactive?’ really isn’t the question. It’s ‘how is it going to get there?’

Static First: Scaling a PDF White Paper

Those of you who have taken the plunge into interactive content have likely started with an existing, static asset. White papers, research reports, webinars, videos and blog posts are all good food for the interactive content cookie monster.

Anatomy of a static-first interactive white paper

Looking back on our first foray, we literally printed out the entire 12-page PDF, tacked it up on a whiteboard and began brainstorming how to bring it to life. We used color-coded highlighters to break up the sea of content into actionable sections and blurbs. We then looked at each of those sections and thought about how to make that content more interesting, more engaging and more interactive. But, generally speaking, the interactive version was the static words and imagery ‘scaled up’.

We now do this for countless clients who have digital reams of quality white papers that can be scaled into engaging interactive content.

That original process included a couple of designers and a marketing manager. It took a couple of hours to flesh out our ideas and get cracking on creating that first interactive white paper in our software platform. The words and imagery from the PDF were literally cut and pasted as the foundation of the interactive version. The result was very well received and an updated version is still in use today.

Static/Hybrid: Scaling from Research to Assessment

Another static-first example of ours that is very different is our Demand Metric Content Marketing Assessment. This interactive content experience utilized the data from a static research report as the fuel of a powerful, entirely new piece of content. While the interactive white paper described above is very closely aligned to its static PDF parent, this assessment bears little resemblance to the data that inspired it. The assessment is an original piece of interactive content — using original imagery and language to turn research data inside out — creating questions from answers and engaging people in the results.

This type of static first creation is almost a hybrid of static and interactive. It’s an extremely powerful approach because it gives rise to entirely new things.

Our Demand Metric Content Marketing Assessment was more work to brainstorm, design and launch than the static-first interactive white paper described above. More thought and consideration needed to go into how to invert the data and turn the answers from the research into questions for our audience. That work paid off handsomely with an informative assessment that deeply engages our target buyer — providing utility and usefulness that reflects well on our brand and expertise.

Interactive First: All About Usefulness

For me, the single most telling characteristic of interactive content is how useful it is (or isn’t). It’s as if there’s a continuum from static to interactive — where the static end of the spectrum has content value, but the interactive end of the spectrum has true usefulness. And when I use the word usefulness here I mean the kind of indispensable utility that is a must have for your audience. Calculators, configurators, solution builders and planners are all examples of highly useful interactive content experiences.

Those types of experiences are seldom conceived as static-first content. They require information architecture and experience design that goes far beyond words and images on paper. And their dynamism is driven by data and logic that impacts their content, form and function.

Recently, we've created several useful examples conceived as interactive-first utilities. Our solution finder helps our buyer understand how to scale content — providing recommendations for scaling static content into interactive counterparts. Our implementation planner helps our buyer understand what its like for a variety or marketing roles to work inside our interactive content software platform. And our 50 Ways to Engage Your Audience interactive infographic turns fifty of our top software features into engaging interactive examples of themselves.

All three of these examples were conceived as utilities first. In all of these cases, we began by asking ourselves how we could be useful to our buyer.

For the solution finder, we knew it was daunting for people to get started and to break down their existing content. They wanted interactive content, but were having a hard time getting their arms around how to get started. The solution finder looks at their content of today and makes recommendations for their interactive content of tomorrow.

The implementation planner was born from our buyers’ need to better understand what it’s like to work in our platform. And, the realization that many different types of people engage in our platform in very different ways. The planner provides transparency by role — giving marketers, designers, developers, marketing technologists and executives clear and concise expectations of how they will interact with our software.

And our 50 Ways to Engage Your Audience is the result of needing a navigable, concise feature reference organized topically for our buyers. By conceiving the content as an interactive infographic, form, function and content were unified in a single, powerful concept — with each feature illustrated as an example of itself. The content within that interactive infographic was created specifically and exclusively for that context and it shows in the presentation.

So perhaps the question isn’t static, hybrid or interactive.

Perhaps it’s simply a question of usefulness. As your objective inches toward utility, so does your interactive content strategy. Is your objective to be or to do? Here at ion we ask ourselves that question right up front — for every client and for our own marketing. The answer dictates whether we scale from static or go interactive first.