No One Eats Just Tomatoes

Content is great, but no one consumes JUST content. There's way more to it than that.

Headshot image of Deane Barker

Author:

Deane Barker

  • Senior Director of Content Management Strategy
  • Optimizely

Next time you're at a restaurant, order a tomato.

...just a tomato.

Seriously – close the menu, look the server in the eye, and say, slowly: "I'll have the tomato."

[long pause]

"I'm sorry ...do you mean the caprese salad? ...the pasta with marinara? ...the Bloody Mary?"

"No," pause for effect. "I'll just have the tomato." Do not break eye contact.

Why is this so absurd? A tomato is a food. And people eat food. This should make perfect sense and be socially defensible.

Yet it's...weird, because people don't normally eat just tomatoes, especially not in a restaurant. They eat things made with tomatoes. They eat tomatoes as part of a larger entrée, meal, or event.

No one goes to a restaurant to just order a tomato.

Likewise, people don't just consume content. They consume things made with content, but not just content by itself.

They consume – wait for it – experiences.

What's an experience? It's everything you didn't explicitly articulate you wanted, but still expected whether you realized it or not.

Back to our tomato –

A restaurant stores its tomatoes in a storeroom somewhere. When someone orders something that needs a tomato, they go get one and...do stuff to it. They chop it, they mince it, they season it, they combine it with other stuff, they simmer it, they peek out of the kitchen to see if you look like a person who wants things spicy, then they put everything on a plate and hand it to a well-dressed person who brings it to you and tells the story of how the chef's grandma fell of a wagon once and was saved by landing in a tomato patch and has consequently loved the plant ever since.

So, you're not eating just a tomato. Done properly, you're tasting, smelling, and feeling a total experience, of which a tomato is part. This is what you actually wanted.

What do we call this transformation from tomato into experience? And how does this get done mechanically?

In the restaurant world, we call this…"cooking," I suppose?

As for the digital world, in the past, I've called this "Response Logic," but that seems very dry. My theory was that an application – website, mobile app, SPA, whatever – makes a request, in response to which we form a response. That response is crafted by way of some logic. Something, somewhere, decides how to fulfill this request using content.

The truth is, the industry doesn't really have a name for this process, and we certainly don't here at Optimizely. We don't have a name because this is a thing that we've just always done. We've always known that there had to be some framework that interpreted what a human wanted and determine how to fulfill that need. That's always been the entire point.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago. In that post, I talked about my wife:

My wife is a kindergarten teacher. My wife gets kids like no one else. She understands that a child actually says, of course, but more importantly, she understands what a child doesn't say. My wife can interact a child and understand their need, even if they can't articulate it.

Consider that you don't ever visit a website and say, "Give me Content Object #657," in much the same way you don't go to a restaurant and ask for a tomato, and a kindergartner doesn't ask what the chemical symbol is for Boron. You can't ask for something that you don't understand.

In the real world, you visit a website and say, "Let me see all your products" or "Explain to me why I should hire you." You're not asking for content, you're asking for an experience, and the content delivery platform needs to put that together for you. Any good answer to those questions is going to be a lovely stew of multiple content objects, design elements, personalized touches, and layout.

This is why I think that pure headless misses the mark. They don't deal in experiences, just content. If you want Content Object #657, they'll give it to you...but how is that helpful?

Actually, let me walk that statement back a bit. A pure headless CMS is a fine "content management system." In that sense, it's like the storeroom where you keep the tomatoes. It will keep them safe and organized, and when you want a tomato, you can go get one.

But what do you do with the tomato once you have it?  That's the real trick. Turning content into an experience is something done by a – wait for it – "Digital Experience Platform."

We've had simple databases for years. Just having a database doesn't make for an experience, just like having a place to put tomatoes doesn't make you a good cook.

The cooking needs to be done. If your platform won't do it, then you're going to have to.

Which reinforces what I've long-believed – pure headless doesn't resolve any complexity, it just moves it around. Someone still has to do the cooking. It's just your problem now.

You wanted a restaurant, but you just got a place to put your tomatoes.