What I Learned About Content Strategy Basics from Taking a Ride on the WayBack Machine

Posted By on January 28, 2014

Way, way, way back, I coded the Internet Explorer 2.0 site and was also its editor. I always think that gives me impressive bragging rights. But to be honest, in 1996, coding consisted of mostly applying HTML bold and italic tags, and being an editor meant filling a page with a bunch of words.

Content strategy, design and UX have come a long way since then—that’s obvious if you just take a look at screenshots of the Internet Explorer site in 1998 (Courtesy of the Internet Archive WayBack Machine) and its current incarnation.

 Internet Explorer Site

                      1998                                                              2014                                     

Internet Explorer website in 1998 and today

How far we’ve come! To the left is the Internet Explorer site in 1998. To the right, the one today.

(Note: I can’t use my 1996 Internet Explore site as an example because it predates the Machine! No wonder I have gray hair.)

After I got done laughing at the comparison, I realized if I compared the Pleistocene Epoch of the Internet Explorer website with the current iteration, I could learn a lot about how content strategy has evolved. My back and forth between the sites taught me something I hadn’t expected–that the basic principles of content strategy have remained the same.

Know Thy Audience

Whether you’re writing a thriller, selling juicers, or asking for donations to a nonprofit, you need to know the actual people you’re trying to reach and why. If you do, you can create content that engages them. If you don’t, you can’t.

That requirement has remained the same from 1998 to now, but how we engage the audience has completely changed.

In 1998, snagging the attention of “target” audiences online was like being an aggressive car salesman who spots you in his showroom, then tailors his pitch based on who he thinks you are.

Now businesses have showrooms filled with data about each of us. They know the basics–our name, age, where we live–but also who our friends are, what we bought, where we went to school, how a tick infestation ruined our last vacation, etc. Instead of talking at us and assuming who we are, organizations author content that appeals to certain people without ever defining who they are.

Audience categories on IE home page

In 1998, reaching audiences depended on people self-identifying. The audience category list at the top of the left column is basically asking people to raise their hands and say, “Hi, I’m a “Home User” or “I’m an IT pro.” I remember praying their palms would go up AND that they’d take the next step–clicking the link to see what we had to say.

 

Image of IE home page logo

No audience categories on the 2014 home page. “Get the Latest” means all of you — every last one of us — should download Internet Explorer. While that’s Microsoft’s business goal, I’m guessing it knows from web data that downloading is the primary reason people come to this landing page. Know the customer via data and deliver what they come looking for.

Create Content That Inspires Conversations

To discuss how this content strategy principle has changed, we need to make our comparison fair. In 1998, the means to interact with customers online didn’t exist. Email was the best way to reach out and touch someone. This ‘90s-era site provides us a lesson in what not to do—it talks AT you not TO you. All the copy on the home page boasts about how great the product is rather than how you’ll benefit from using it.

But remember the advent of Web 2.0 circa 2005-2010? For the first time, online technology gave us a way to have two-way rather than one-way conversations. Blogs, comments, rankings, and other features broke down the walls between a business and its customers. Both were invited to stand up and lean over their cubbies and talk.

These days technology has infinitely increased the number of ways to chat. You just need to know how to create content icebreakers.

Go Explore Navigation Term on Current Internet Explorer Site

On this page, Microsoft engages people through the senses. See the terms “Touch the Web” and “Go Explore” in the navigation? Two feel-good, sensory phrases that promise rich experiences, which they hope you’ll share–an encouragement to start a conversation.

 

I’m not a mountain biker, but after I clicked “Go Explore” I saw a daredevil about to ride down a cliff, so I clicked Play and was riveted. Of course I then shared it on Facebook in order to yak about it with friends.
 

 

Align Your Content with Your Business Goals

Invest in content that grows your business. It’s pretty simple. Creating content for a particular group of people that launches a conversation will forge a trustworthy relationship. People who trust you buy your products, attend your annual auction, entrust you with their money, etc.

Microsoft’s business goal then and now was to expand the base of people who use Internet Explorer. All content on both versions of the site is geared toward convincing people to take one action–install the browser on your damn machine. If they do, Microsoft’s business goal is achieved.

Image of CD ROM on 1998 IE Site

Winning the browser battle meant more people browsed the Web with Internet Explorer than Netscape Navigator. Getting them to use it wasn’t as easy a clicking a download button. Check out the image of the CD (remember those?) at the top of the right column. Lots of people were scared of downloading and ordered a CD instead.That’s how much they “trusted” the Internet.

 

No bragging bold headlines on the 2014 home page. As I explained earlier, there is no body text or images to distract us from clicking Download. But for those people who need convincing, Microsoft has developed a different content strategy–the content that’s one click from the home page lets you experience, not read about, the product. Sharing that experience potentially increases the number of people who might use it.

What’s Ageless about Content Strategy and What’s Not?

Back in the Pleistocene Epoch, Microsoft was practicing content strategy though that term and especially the profession (!) didn’t exist. On the Internet Explorer site, Microsoft tailored content to reach different audiences and made sure all their content aligned with their brand and business goals. You could argue, or not, that they might have talked with and not at customers if they had the tools.

Now we have the tools and an unbelievable array of content to start conversations and create experiences. It’s time to do two things at once: Apply the basics and experiment. After all, today is going to look like it’s the Pleistocene age from the vantage point of, you know, maybe six years from now.