Limited Shelf Life
How to Avoid Confusion When Handling Dated Content
This piece was originally published in Summer 2013 on Scatter/Gather, Razorfish’s content strategy blog. Though I’ve made a very few light changes to this piece, I’ve left the dates intact from the time period. Nonetheless, the principles below still stand — and I still see the same issues recurring!
A couple of months ago an obituary for Lena Horne went viral. Thing is, she died three years earlier, on May 9th, 2010. However, many folks didn’t notice the date and posted her obituary on Facebook and Twitter all over again. Similarly, on Friday June 28th a story about how Anonymous discovered Ron Paul’s connections with Storm Front went viral on Twitter — despite having been written on February 2nd, 2012.
These examples highlight a tricky content strategy issue: When you read a really old article couched within a new design, that presentation can fool you into thinking it’s new. And this happens regularly. Outdated stories go viral, years later, when someone posts them thinking they’re new. But have you stopped and thought: This probably wouldn’t happen with print. Newspapers age, yellow, they change in their style. If you pick up a paper from even a year or so ago, you’re probably not going to mistake it for today’s paper. Digital, though? No difference. In fact, a really old article might be presented within a totally modern interface. Online, this issue applies most obviously to news articles, of course, but you can imagine it applying to other content as well: Policies and procedural information on an Intranet, for example. Even human interest stories and blog posts which may retain their value, but have links, which become outdated.
I’ve fallen prey to this problem myself. Recently, someone posted a Mashable article about birds pecking at pork fat on a keyboard, which then posted their pecks to Twitter. That turned out to be so old that the referenced site and Twitter account are now inactive. So I deleted the tweet. The story was still interesting, but I’d framed it as a current story, so it didn’t make sense.
Noted then: Although stories go out of date, removing them altogether isn’t always the answer. Still they would benefit from some sort of thoughtful content governance. Here are some content strategy and experience considerations, which could help distinguish older content, which still has value, from newer content.
Maintain an editorial calendar (seems obvious, right!), which includes an archive date for content, where necessary. We’re talking digital, online archive here, of course, not the traditional print world archive. And by digital archive, I don’t mean some sort of digital vault where content goes to die. More of a status or state for content, which should still be readily findable, though in some cases this might mean a separate but still visible section of the site. You might also schedule a review of ostensibly evergreen content, so you can consider whether it at least needs to be updated or revised, if not archived.
That archive date should trigger an action for each particular piece of content. Provide clear rules for how content will archived once it reaches a certain age. In the journalistic arena, this content likely needs to be maintained, but its presentation might change. In the corporate world (for example) content — even “news” — might be moved to an archive section; it might even be removed completely from the site.
Design a more prominent date stamp — the date is important regardless of whether the story is old or new. Even the time is important on certain breaking news days.
Additionally, design a different style of date stamp for older content and/or a consider adding a label to be placed before the date stamp, such as “From Our Archive.” An archive banner with a unique color might even be appropriate.
Depending on likely uses cases for your content, you may even go so far as to create a somewhat different look and feel to be utilized for “Archive” articles or content once they reach a certain age. That visual difference shouldn’t be the only thing to indicate that content is older, but coupled with a more prominent date stamp, it could provide a visual cue, which regular visitors begin to recognize when they happen upon older content.
Each of these changes may not work for every organization. Some evergreen content needn’t be archived at all, and sometimes old content simply becomes inaccurate and should be removed. Nonetheless it behooves brands to be more clear and more creative with how they tackle this issue. The result — a cemented sense of trust with content consumers — makes it well worth the effort.