What exactly is digital content?' asked a friend the other day, catching me in mid-flow while I enthused about some embryonic aspect of e-business.
Cut to sobering reality check: digital content, I mused, is everything created for both page and screen - the stuff that makes a site memorable, engaging and, above all, worthy of being bookmarked and revisited.
Plunged into the world of digital publishing in the mid-90s (I had been an editor on the Sunday Times Magazine), I had to learn how to talk to an all-male cast of techies. So I abandoned the familiar terms of journalism and began using this new-speak. Together, the techies and I faced the sheer scale of the space to be filled. Remember when we were all impressed by the Encyclopedia Britannica squeezed on to CD-ROM? Forget this month's magazine or today's newspaper or even a book - we were dealing with such large quantities of pictures and text that content became the easiest term to use.
Then came the internet and all the rules changed again. In the early days, the web was a pretty unfriendly medium for content, but once the banner ads started to flash, the demand to measure their effectiveness grew and overnight the concept of 'how to make your site sticky' had entered our minds and meetings.
In the course of learning about digital content, I have had many a sticky moment. From the realisation that to transform valuable historical articles from archive volumes of the Times into CD-ROMS would involve retyping well over nine million words to the dawning awareness that the internet's relentless 24/7 culture means a constant production flow. There are no deadlines or issues to put to bed, no publication dates, no screening dates: in short, just the endless expectation that the internet can be all things to all people at all times.
Creating stickiness means building a tone, a voice, an attitude. In the mad dash to get new e-businesses launched, the touchy-feely qualities of lifestyle marketing - the brand differentials - have often been sacrificed in getting the business to market. Clever, relevant content, integrated into the total customer experience, can make all the difference between just launching a sales catalogue on screen and offering a compelling, memorable visit.
Building digital content for an online consumer brand came for me with bol.com, which launched last spring as the Bertelsmann challenger to Amazon, selling books and music. With over a million books available on the site and faced with a sophisticated book-buying public, I recognised from day one the need to build up trust in our recommendations. I also knew that our small editorial team would drown under the weight of great books crying out for attention. So we decided to build the brand by partnering with experts; for example, with Murder One, the excellent crime bookshop, with the magazine History Today, and with Management Today for its high-profile coverage of business books.
And because digital content is about ideas and presenting moving images and text, we took some short poems (courtesy of Faber) and animated them into moments of real beauty on the screen. The pleasure (and pleasure is not a word often used about the internet) of watching Fire and Ice, a five-line poem by Robert Frost, drift word by word across the screen is dramatically different from clicking through endless pages of sales information. The response we had was overwhelming - people had seen something they didn't expect and they engaged emotionally with the content. They left reluctantly, wanting more.
Content is king, said Bill Gates. The merger of AOL with Time Warner (and Time Warner with EMI) blends internet technology with content, and heralds a new phase in which the web may become a place to engage your feelings and not just your credit card