October 2000

Killer Content

CIDMIconNewsletter Reviewed by Ann Rockley, Center Associate

The sub-title of Killer Content-Strategies for Web Content and E-Commerce succinctly describes what the book is about. We hear a lot of talk these days about providing effective Web-based content through personalization, but there is very little information on exactly what that involves. Killer Content provides a very sound introduction to the value of Web-based content and strategies for supporting the user experience.

Mai-lan Tomsen focuses little on e-commerce except to make explicit the relationship of value-added content to the e-commerce experience. However, information developers are most likely to be involved in supporting their corporations’ e-commerce initiatives from the content perspective and are very likely going to be asked to create dynamic, personalized information. I reviewed the book from this perspective.

Tomsen has helped leading organizations, such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Corbis generate revenue from content e-commerce. She worked at Microsoft on COM+ Services, Transaction Server, and Commerce Server and worked at Qpass, where she focused on the growth and development of a system infrastructure to support customer activity for a content network. With a biography like this, you would expect Tomsen to write a highly technical, possibly obscure book. Not so. Her language is easy to understand and every chapter follows an effective organizational foundation.

The need for value

Content-based Web sites need to provide value to customers to ensure that they continue to purchase the content rather than go to many sites where similar content may be available free. Success depends upon converting a casual visitor to someone who buys into the business model. The answer to acquiring and keeping Web users does not necessarily depend on the most expensive e-commerce system or graphics; the answer is found in the relationship and value exchange formed between the Web site and visitor around the “killer” content.

Tomsen identifies several factors that users consider when deciding if a site is providing value:

  • Credibility (Does the site consistently offer accurate and useful information?)
  • Innovation (Is this unique information that cannot be found elsewhere?)
  • Utility (Can the user put this information into practice immediately?)
  • Timeliness (Is the information up to date?)
  • Relevance (Is the information specifically targeted to the user’s needs?)

In her discussion of relevance, Tomsen makes a fundamental distinction between the kinds of information or content available on the Web:

Killer content is all around the Web. Once you understand what the value exchange looks like, killer content is easily distinguishable from pedestrian commodity content. Commodity content is information that is widely available and generally free to access on the Web. Large portal sites like Yahoo! offer commodity content…in order to drive additional revenue through advertising and e-commerce. Higher quality content that also has “scarcity” (i.e., is not widely available on the Web) is considered premium content. Users generally access premium content through purchase or registration (page 21).

By this definition, the “Members Only” section of the CIDM’s Website would be considered “premium” content. A site’s content is considered “killer” if the information meets the criteria listed above. When faced with developing killer-content Web sites, information developers should consider these characteristics-both positive and negative. We can use these characteristics in the requirements, definition, and evaluation phases of our projects.


The trend toward flashy presentation plagues information-development department managers when their staffs want to add the latest graphic bells and whistles to their work. Tomsen contrasts MSNBC `s and CNN’s Web sites in terms of presentation load (see Compare MSNBC and CNN).

Presentation decisions should depend on the audience you are targeting, including the equipment available to them and their “patience” with screen painting. Tomsen concludes by advising: “… the content value exchange depends first on the provision of information and secondarily on the presentation and format of the content” (page 58).

Understanding the Revenue

Part 1 concludes with an in-depth discussion of how money plays into the value-exchange equation. Information developers might be tempted to skip this chapter; however, it is time for us to become full partners in our organizations. A partnership requires an understanding of the pluses and minuses of the Web business models. Tomsen identifies five types of revenue streams for content value exchange:

  • Traditional advertising pricing model that uses target audience analysis.
  • Pay per Item or a la carte products where you download a specific document for a price. For example, you can now pay to license New Yorker cartoons on your Web site.
  • A licensing agreement where the vendor sends information securely and perhaps in a customized manner to you.
  • Subscription-for example, McAfee’s new security product that is Web based.
  • Syndication operates just as syndicated columns do in the newspaper business.

The Web and e-commerce are driving businesses to develop new models of working with their customers. Since the Web is expanding so quickly, customers are more easily and visibly “voting with their feet” when they do not find the value, usability, or the price point they are looking for. On the flip side, content publishers-for the first time-have the opportunity “to earn money from their core competencies of creating and aggregating quality content” (page 98). Good news, indeed, for information-development departments.

Designing Web Information Structure

The second part of Killer Content offers an array of strategies that site and content designers can use to develop value-added content sites. Tomsen discusses user experience, site structure, and internal processes. As information developers, we have an opportunity to discover what users expect by analyzing their goals. Tomsen focuses her attention on all the strategies that you can incorporate to bring users back; some of these are similar to online help development, and some are much more like marketing communication.

The chapter, “Designing Web Information Structure,” provides an excellent reference on design issues. Tomsen summarizes the benefits of user-friendly navigation, targeted content, and access that requires minimal “friction” (page 136).

To help with your design (or redesign) efforts, Tomsen offers three suggestions.

Use consistent design and navigation
Effective navigation can be achieved by using standard templates and a site search utility. Inconsistent placement of standard elements on pages is disconcerting and confusing to users. Tomsen suggests that any site that has more than three pages should offer intelligent search and indexing. Metatags should be added to pages to facilitate searching. Templates should enforce consistent structure.

Support personalization
Personalization is the publisher’s ability to gear content on a Web site to individual tastes and preferences. A personalized experience for the Net user results from the custom delivery of content based on user-defined preferences. While personalization is a hot topic for e-commerce sites, Tomsen’s discussion of providing a personalized experience for content users is also applicable to information developers.

As our products become more complex, integrated, and customized, our ability to provide useful information to our customers diminishes with traditional documentation models. Using personalization, we can choose relevant components of information and organize them to meet our customers’ specific needs. Our customers no longer have to struggle to apply generic information to their needs.

For the Internet publisher, personalizing the Net user experience provides two benefits: the ability to attract and keep new members and the ability to monitor user preferences. The second benefit is the most valuable to the information developer. Personal choices provide a tremendous amount of indirect feedback on user requirements. Analysis of these choices can assist you in improving the type and quality of information in future releases of information.

Guarding Privacy and Respecting Rights
Tomsen gives excellent, detailed advice on several other site design topics that affect the user experience. Privacy and ownership rights affect all Net users and are often overlooked in the heat of design. As in the past, information-development departments have the responsibility for both protecting their organizations’ copyrights, patents, and trademarks and ensuring that others in the organizations respect the copyrights and privacy of others. Tomsen recommends that we make filling in Web-based forms easier, offer privacy safeguards, and ensure that we respect copyrights.

Process Infrastructure

Killer Content concludes where many organizations start: tools, processes, and infrastructure. Tomsen points out that success depends upon effective publishing processes and a good understanding of the capabilities of the tools. However, that doesn’t mean that tools are unimportant, simply that they should not be our first concern when designing for online viewing. An effective process enables organizations to create, publish, and manage frequent content updates, as well as to perform sophisticated analyses of content browsing and purchase patterns.


Mai-lan Tomsen provides a clear, succinct presentation on designing effective content-based sites. At fewer than 200 pages, Killer Content is a book that all information developers responsible for putting content on Web sites should read. It provides a valuable overview of what makes a site successful. Killer Content offers readers an interesting overview of e-commerce, very much from an information-developer’s perspective and acts as a good e-commerce business primer, especially in its clear definitions of terms and practices. CIDMIconNewsletter