Part 1: Applied Content Strategy: How I DJed a House Party

This one is a bit of thought-provoking fun; an applied content science experiment. The question: can you apply primarily digital content concepts in day-to-day physical life?  I tried to get an uninitiated crowd to help me curate some content in near real-time, by setting up a taxonomy and system of “physical likes”.  To put it another way, I crowd-sourced my way through DJing a house party.

It turns out you can use content concepts directly in real life, but people might call the cops.

I present you a case study in traditional form:

Part 1:

  • The business context
  • The content strategy
  • Implementation
  • Conclusion, results and take-aways

Part 2: How DJing A House Party Taught Me How My Brain Works

  • Lessons and Big-a** failures

The business context

I have a sort of fetish for my work. I love it. My network will have noticed that I get caught up in the whole international whirlwind of it. But, Noz loves to party too. In one of my various previous lives I used to DJ house parties, private functions, and the occasional club that could be tricked into having me. I haven’t done so in years, and never in Spain, so when I landed a sweet gig last week at a penthouse pad DJing for a mixed-age (mainly 20s-40s) crowd, I had a bit of a problem.

It was a highly international crowd of about 100 strong, from at least some 15 countries – NATO and UN staff, international students and au pairs, and locals of Valencia, Spain (where I live). They had come for a BBQ, one in a series of about 5 so far this year, but I was supposed to get the dance-floor really moving for the first time.  What content should I deliver? I’d only worked in Toronto, Canada, as a kid, DJing for other kids my age, over a decade ago!

The business goal: be ready in 24 hours and keep ‘em rocking for the whole BBQ.

The content strategy

I decided to apply my professional methodology to this problem. After all, a DJ is really just a (digital) content curation and delivery system.  What would I tell a client to do if they were in a pinch like this? Start with the basics:

Inventory and audit

What do you have and what good is it?  This was the easy bit.

All my assets were 100% reusable and high quality (Mp3s), and I had LOADS.  Too many in fact as 20,000 songs is a lot to choose from…

How do you filter all that and deliver the right “stories” to a mixed, largely unknown audience?  Well, if you’ve got no metrics (and no time) you’ve got to:

  1. Crowd-source some meaningful metrics, and fast!
  2. Set up a manageable, user-driven curation and delivery system according to what the metrics tell you.
  3. Keep iterating, monitoring success closely.


I needed a framework to work against to build these stories, so I built a genre taxonomy the day before. After much thought, I eventually settled on this:

  • Pop
    • Old
    • New
  • Funk
  • RnB
  • Hip Hop
  • Soul
  • Rock
    • General Rock
    • Classic Rock
    • Heavy Metal
  • Dubstep/Drum & Bass
  • House
    • Pop House
    • Funky House
    • Electro House
    • Hard House
  • “Don’t Care”

I took my taxonomy and put it on a large-format card in a sort of structured “tag-cloud”.

Light and happy genres on the left; dark and aggressive music on the right.  More electronic music across the bottom. “Don’t care” was in the middle (In Spanish: “Me da igual”):


Please no freaking out at me about this taxonomy. I’m sure yours would be different!

A DJ (or at least a good one, in my opinion) thinks this way. You have taxonomy in your head, and you build up content sequences – little stories – from your assets, and you see how they go down. Feedback is as fast (faster, even) than it is online, so you can dynamically adapt, but you’ve got to have a framework to work against. Be too fast and ready to react outside of your framework, and things fall apart (which we’ll see later in Part two: “Big-a** failures” when things weren’t going so well…).

User interface for gathering metrics

I needed a system of “likes” – something that would allow people to give me metrics against the taxonomy, rather than pelting random requests at me (which is death, as we’ll see in Part 2).

Enter: stickers!

I grabbed a few sheets of little kid’s stickers from a corner store; the kind that kindergarten teachers would put on good finger-paintings. I thought these would make great analogue “like” buttons, and people could like the genres they wanted to hear.


Analogue “Like” buttons.

User assistance content

I then needed some minimalist, multi-lingual help content that would allow zero ramp-up time and prevent calls to the support desk (me).

I wrote a sentence once in English: “Take a sticker and put it near your genre” and then crowd-sourced translations from the early BBQ arrivals into the 3 next most popular languages of the target audience (Spanish, German, & French):


The shortest user manual I’ve ever worked on. Yes, would have been better to say “…put it near your preferred genre”, but I was working to keep it short. The other languages translate long and I had limited page real-estate, crowd-sourced content and limited resource (paper) for re-writes.


2013-05-22 Bassey BBQ and Coco Vist - Valencia, Spain 008

Here I am with the final set-up (user manual got cropped out on the right unfortunately).
(I’ll actually talk software and hardware as a post-script for the music tech fans.)


Taxonomy becomes folksonomy

After only a few minutes people started voting for their genres.  The table attracted attention and the sign worked.

I had left out my pen on the table, and without meaning to be, my taxonomy suddenly became an taxonomy/folksonomy.  People actually added the genres “reggae”, “electro latino”, “indie rock” and “world music”, before I took the pen away to avoid overload.

Data collection begins

Data collection begins

2013-05-22 Bassey BBQ and Coco Vist - Valencia, Spain 005

What blew my mind was not that they voted, but how enthusiastically they engaged with the process. They LOVED it.  Several were actually taking pictures of the system and themselves using it (presumably for Facebook purposes).

2013-05-22 Bassey BBQ and Coco Vist - Valencia, Spain 009

The users, sorry, the guests engaged so completely with the like system that it took on a life of its own – it went viral!  People started to “like” themselves and each other – on the head:





So within an hour I had metrics from which I could make strategic decisions about how to present my content assets.  This data would also guide future spending on new content acquisition.

Conclusion, Results and Take-Aways

So, most important, did taxonomy-driven crowd-sourcing rock the house?  This video condenses my view down to 80 seconds:

My point of view throughout the event condensed to 80 seconds.

In short: business goal achieved.  The police visit was acceptable tactical losses….

I even had two solicitations for new projects – an opening of a lounge bar downtown and a wedding.

The Moral of the Story

The real point of this post is to demonstrate that content concepts work best when they are natural to us. People today have internalised the ideas of social voting and ranking (“likes”) and crowd sourcing. Still, this probably would have worked 20 years ago, because these concepts are intuitively democratic and social.

In part two I look at how taxonomy is natural reflections of our basic models of thought and memory, but for now I’ll just say:

Good content concepts seamlessly integrate with user instincts and behaviours, they don’t jar them.

Many technologies have achieved success by removing barriers to entry – they make technology more like working without technology. Wii, Xbox Kinect; Bluetooth earpieces; swipe, pinch and shake on your mobile phone; are all trying to make interfaces disappear and just work with your body and natural instincts.

Augmented reality; wearable tech and more will follow this trend in years to come to make sure that technology gets more and more seamlessly integrated into our lives to the point where we don’t know it’s there.  For me this party was the content equivalent.

In Part 2 we’ll look at some wider conclusions and Content Strategy implications of this little story that lead us to the nature of our brains, Spotify, Pandora, and the Almighty Taxonomists:

Part 2: How DJing A House Party Taught Me How My Brain Works

  • Lessons and Big-a** failures
    • People don’t like what they ask for
    • Structure and control feedback channels
    • Planning for reuse is fun and effective
    • Proven again: the best tech is humanist
    • Taxonomic metadata is innately human
    • always leading the taxonomy pack
    • PS – For Those Whole Like Sound Tech …

Check it out.

Have You Done Real-World CS?

Has anyone else applied their work concepts to daily life? I’d love to hear other stories.

2013-06-06 Update: PS – Music-Linked Taxonomy

Just for fun, here’s my taxonomy again with linked song examples of each!


  1. Steven Wilson-Beales

    this is the best application of content strategy i have ever seen. well done

  2. Brody Dorland

    Love this Noz…Thanks for the heads up! Stickers going viral…who would have thought? ;o)

  3. Tony Chung

    You hit the nail on the head, Noz: “Still, this probably would have worked 20 years ago, because these concepts are intuitively democratic and social.” That describes the success of Apple’s iPhone/iPad marketing over their Android competitors.

    Apple shows us the emotional impact of Facetiming with grandparents, drawing horses as we watch them, recording music, controlling our TV, and collaborating in a classroom. Samsung tried to “one-up” Apple’s marketing by showing wedding guests “one-up”ping each other by watching videos of significant events (cake cutting, photo session, first dance, etc.) before their non-Samsung-equipped neighbour.

    Samsung gave the impression of “find it here first” without asking the guests if they wanted to be included in the event, or find themselves left out of the event, having to catch up after the fact.

    Your taxonomy model works well if all end users shared the same meaning for the musical terms, or even the word “genre”. However, you were correct to assume that your end users were intimately involved and therefore took the time to follow examples to learn the model and help to shape the experience.

    How do you think this would have worked if, instead of a dance party, it was a trade show for something where users experienced less interest and connection? Would users just live with unworkable concepts just because they were not actively engaged?

  4. B. Noz Urbina

    How do you think this would have worked if, instead of a dance party, it was a trade show for something where users experienced less interest and connection?

    Hi Tony,

    I wrote a very long response to your comment and then went and clicked something by accident, losing the whole thing and nearly 20 minutes work. This is my quick attempt at recapturing the core of it.

    I had an audience which was in a way pre-determined to be at least interested in what I was offering. My belief is that you’ve now hit the nail on the head, but it is the head of content marketing vs. traditional marketing. Interest is key. You must either manufacture it or have it on tap, but if you don’t, you are dead in the water.

    It is my belief that content marketing exists for one reason only (and it’s definitely not marketers are getting any cleverer): the market has sent a non-ambiguous message of “We are too busy too care about your message”. Interest and its corollary, attention, have become such rare commodities that they are no longer dolled out to the loudest screamer with the most delicious spokes model. Interest is now traded for other things of value. In the case of content marketing, it’s quality content.

    Quality can mean utility value, entertainment value, or whatever else the value proposition is, but the key is a move to a very clear transactional communication model: “My engagement in exchange for your value-added content.”

    In my case, I had interest with minimal effort. I just needed to leverage that by delivering quality content, and I was rewarded with strong engagement. Without the quality content, those stickers would have just been something sitting on the table of “that mediocre DJ”. In your trade show example, you would need to find some content of value that you could offer to create interest. Then, yes, I believe you could have a content strategy that could further develop that into a real connection with a large number of audience members. If you can´t even generate initial interest, you’re screwed.

    The last conference I went to (we will have to discuss that one privately) there was LOTS of interest, but some stands leveraged that into real connections, whereas others got some temporary eyeballs but quickly lost them when their dog and pony shows ended. That’s the difference between real strategically strong content marketing and old fashion “advertising”.

    From a techcomm perspective, users are rarely ever “interested” in manuals unless you give them a real reason to be, and honestly, that is a losing battle. This is why I endorse embedded help and think that manuals should just “go away” (I just realised that I NEED to do a blog titled that). Users are interested in their tasks, not manuals. Therefore your content is only ever valuable based on its impact on successful, enjoyable task completion. You can connect with them too but you will have to really think out of the usual techcomm box.

    I’m afraid the last bit:

    “Would users just live with unworkable concepts just because they were not actively engaged?”

    I’m not sure what these “unworkable concepts” are? Can you give me an example from either my DJ story or your trade show example what you are referring to?

  5. Tony Chung

    Noz: You did it again. Now I know why I like you. 😉 Regarding the point you quoted about “living with unworkable concepts”: I tried to draw a comparison between your highly engaged audience and the audience who engages purely because they have to.

    For instance, I wonder how many people put up with bad processes for paying for parking tickets because the activity was thrust upon them. Nobody goes out in search of a parking ticket to pay. And even after the process gets improved, I doubt there will be a horde of fans applauding the new process. It’s still a parking ticket.

    You did a much better job explaining how content value drives engagement by building an interest that otherwise did not exist. I look forward to reading future posts about your comparisons of conference vendors who bridge the divide, and others who elicit a “so what?” response.

  6. Sara Z


    To answer your question about how people apply CS work to daily life:

    I found that I had constructed a content strategy for my Facebook posts without realizing it.

    We can all think of the posts that are out there that lack context, or just don’t make sense, or don’t resonate; I started seeing so many that showed that my friends clearly stopped thinking about what they were posting that I got paranoid about my own posts and started listing criteria in my head. So …

    When I needed a light-hearted example of content strategy at work, I wrote out my criteria for my FB posts as a content strategy:

    “Post commentary, observations, and photos that communicate an opinion, perspective, or life milestone update that is truly important to me AND relevant and valuable to my Facebook friends who want to stay connected to me.”

    Sounds so broad that anything could fly, but really, it can’t.

    In my presentation I gave an example of a photo of this great egg breakfast I was eating. I was enjoying the eggs so much I wanted to tell the world about them! But:

    The eggs looked bad in the photo.
    The eggs weren’t a special recipe that I was sharing.
    I had nothing else to say other than, “I love these eggs.”
    I can put money on the fact people did not friend me to keep up with THOSE details of my life. I mean, it’s not like they really tell people about what’s going on with me, what’s important to me, etc.

    Simple, but the example worked for me personally (“UH Oh, I’m about to post about eggs. Hold back, Sara, hold back!”) and professionally (it was self-deprecating and did not use our org’s content– which is personal and political to people — as an example).

    Just thought I’d share. I love the DJ example!


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