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Interrogative on Storytelling

You can’t talk about branding or public relations without tripping across promises to tell stories. It’s catnip to clients who feel like their stakeholders don’t understand or value them properly. Storytelling can substitute creative technique for substantive content, or so goes the sales pitch.

But successful storytelling has nothing to do with creativity.

A story is good or bad depending on its structure and substance, first and foremost. You don’t need a lit professor to tell you that good stories share common qualities: protagonists, conflict and uncertainty, human drama, internal consistency and, most of all, describe things that are real and believably true. This truth applies equally to news reports and the plots of romance novels.

It’s also what makes it harder for companies to tell great stories because it requires a willingness to embrace all the things that brand and marketing communicators don’t like, such as change, risk, and transparency. A great story is the antithesis of what’s covered in your typical press release or slick video.

In other words, the medium isn’t the message. The message is the message.

It your agency promises otherwise — offering creativity as some panacea workaround that will magically prompt greater awareness and credibility forf garbage you want to promote that nobody cares about — they’re either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.

Here are 3 questions that can help you come up with better stories:

First, who wants to hear your story? This is the exact opposite starting point from deciding what you want the world to know. Your story needs to answer questions and interests of its intended recipients, which means the topics may not be those that you bought in that last glossy agency presentation. It also must be timely and have relevance to what’s going on in their lives and not your need to coordinate launch timing for a new product.

PS, if what you want to do is labelled “thought leadership” before you’ve filled in the blanks, it probably isn’t.

Second, how is it any different from other stories? Think about how many times you’ve shared stories about your company being “first,” “best,” or having accomplished something that you’ve said was “strategic.” None of those terms have any meaning because every company says the same things. It’s not helpful that everyone is reading the same market analyses from their consultants but it’s a good reminder of how challenging it is to be different.

It also means that nuance, complexity, or your own spin on some well-worn topic is not going to fly; instead, what stories can you tell that have not been told before? The world thought X but it’s really Y, or This is something that you’ve never heard of. …You need to think in these terms before you start creating content.

Third, are you prepared to tell the sequel? When people like stories they want to know that they can return to the narrative…to see what happens next, resolve unanswered questions, and ask new ones. That means describing where your story is going “next” is as important as describing where it’s at “now.”

It means that great storytelling promises goals and actions that are incomplete and ongoing; targets that may or may not be reached, or not so completely; people who have choices to make and decisions that haven’t been taken. A great story is as much about the story yet to tell as it is about the one it details.

It’s why tech startups leave big public companies in the dust when it comes to storytelling: two guys in a garage with no customers can happily declare their smartphone app will someday be able to read minds, while corp comms gets caught up in only sharing work that has been neatly wrapped in a ribbon, approved by legal, shared with investors, and blessed by the brand marketers.

Asking more questions about storytelling will get you a lot closer to creating truly great ones, or if you can’t answer them to your satisfaction, help you resist producing bad ones.

Considering how much owned content is available on company websites these days, there seems to be no shortage of the latter.

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Content

Interrogative on Predictions

’Tis the season for forecasts and predictions about the coming year. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what can or should happen in the communications and marketing world.

Very little of it ever comes true.

Sure, there have been loads of recommendations for using new gimmicks or tools, usually coming from the folks who’ll happily provide those services to you (or profit from covering them when you pay others to do the work). But, more broadly, the world next year will look a lot like it does this year: the details will be different, as will the events that precipitate our collective joys or woes, but people will remain the same.

Here are three questions you might want to ask of a prediction before you decide it’s legit (or go to work trying to make it so):

First, does it challenge basic truths of human nature? People, and our psychological subsets called “consumers,” have been acting the same ways for the same reasons since time began. Customers shopping online today are driven by the same needs, interests, aspirations, limitations, and fears as they were when they visited medieval marketplaces. Digital might condition us to actuate ourselves differently, but it doesn’t change us.

That means if a forecast suggests otherwise, it’s either foolish or purposely a lie. Your customers won’t stop being curious or judgmental (or whatever) next year. They won’t want content from you that doesn’t address their needs, and they won’t want to change whatever imaginary relationships your brand evangelists wish existed between them and your business. You need to be relevant to their purchase decision making in 2022 and not to tangential or unrelated issues. Your “purpose” will remain to sell them stuff.

Put your money on people being people, just like always.

Second, does it sound too good to be true? It’s less a prediction than a certainty that there will be more opportunities for you to pay for publication of your content, as established and novel platforms have figured out how to monetize their brand names (why try to earn coverage in so-and-so media if you can buy it by producing a TikTok video?), delivering glossy reports that make your internal stakeholders feel important.

Such “paid media” is really advertising only without the creativity, purchase decision-relevant content (see Point #1 above), or accountability. Views aren’t purchases.

Next year will challenge you to uncover and present content that could get in front of your customers because of its credibility and merit, and gives them information that’s so timely and useful to them that they’d be willing to pay for it if they had to instead of relying on you buying their attention. Promised shortcuts will continue to be too good to be true.

Third, why are you interested in it? Another eternal truth of human nature is that keeping our jobs is always a component of our jobs, regardless of the other outcomes of our work. For some of us, it’s the primary driver of every decision, while others seem to exhibit at least an occasional disregard for their job security. The pandemic has moved millions of people to explore and reconsider how this tension plays out in their careers.

It’s through this lens that you’re seeing every forecast for what’s on tap for next year. It’s a bias, too, that makes things seem more or less relevant to you and will impact what you do in 2022.

Why and how you interpret and apply predictions is far more important than any of the predictions themselves. What are you trying to accomplish next year? Why do you think it’s right for you and/or for your business?

Making a forecast for your own motivations and goals is probably loads more important to your success than any blather about the near-future of communications or marketing.

Happy New Year!

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Content

Interrogative on Relevance

Companies need to be relevant these days, though there’s never been a time when they succeeded any other way.

But now corporate purpose has PR and marcom folks running around as if they’ve discovered some magic elixir that requires the invention of new ideas, platforms, and metrics. Yet how does this idea get attached to concepts and proofs of relevance?

Good question. In fact, I’m amazed by how poorly it’s done, so here are three questions you might want to ask about if, how, and when your internal conversations about purpose can translate into externally relevant content:

First, is it reasonable? It is accepted wisdom that companies need to address the world’s “big” challenges, and many are doing so by spending lots of money to produce gloriously beautiful ad campaigns (print and video) and bold declarations on their websites. There’s also been a lot of internal communications on the topics, waxing poetic to employees about what “we” stand for.

Little of it is reasonable and less of it is effective, for at least two reasons:

Your purpose can’t be to save the world. Not aggressively destroying the environment or encouraging social injustices are table stakes for companies these days, so telling the world that you care about them isn’t unique or particularly compelling, let alone relevant (no matter what your internal PowerPoint slides claim). Unless you want to become unemployed, your purpose remains to make money and, secondarily, doing it in ways that satisfy the expectations of your stakeholders. Saying anything more isn’t credible.

You can’t tell your employees what they care about. Any time you see a company communication that presumes to speak for a “we,” there’s a good chance that its purpose is to fill an empty box on a slide in a comms plan that calls for it. Corporate purpose, like the way any individual expresses it, comes from specific choices and actions. Money spent on telling people what to think instead of empowering them to act is, well, not relevant.

Second, is it necessary? Relevance is dependent on necessity, at least if you want your stakeholders to care (otherwise, your content may relate to a topic of interest but not come across as memorable or particularly smart).

That means doing things that only your company can do, or at least do uniquely well…or taking on the biggest, most difficult challenge that your company faces. For instance, it would be particularly relevant if you use lots of paint or concrete in what you produce and vowed to figure out how to stop using so much water. Huge container ships that cross the world’s oceans spew air pollution to rival all the world’s roads, so transitioning to a renewable fuel would be a necessary thing to do.

Things that are necessary are also urgent, so plans to fix stuff that don’t come to fruition until 2050 or something are effectively irrelevant, since the planet may have incinerated itself by then (and we’ll all be old or dead).

Same goes for efforts to address social justice issues: appointing gender or racially diverse executives, often in charge of gender or racial diversity, might be necessary to address the immediate and fleeting needs of the most vociferous advocates for change, but doing so sets the clock ticking for effecting necessary changes, like figuring out how to bring diversity to that roomful of data scientists toiling away in your basement or empowering diverse suppliers to operate as suppliers (and not exceptions).

Symbolism can be necessary, maybe, but only up to a point. I’d offer that we’re at the cusp of 2022 and the time for symbolic gestures has passed. It’s no longer relevant, if it ever was.

Third, is it actionable? This means being willing to do stuff that may not be photogenic or lend itself to getting praised and winning awards at the next special event created to praise and reward purpose communications campaigns.

Relevance comes from doing, not saying.

Another proven component of relevance is making things actionable, so that your stakeholders aren’t just watching your beautiful declarations of philanthropic intent but can join in the fight. Is it really possible that your company can institute world-changing stuff without your stakeholders taking some responsibility? They could pay more, or differently, for starters, or do more recycling of packaging. They could recommend recruits and offer to co-mentor them. There’s a lot of research that suggests people don’t take things seriously unless it impacts them directly.

So why not ask for their participation, not just their ?

People are starved for more relevant messaging from the businesses and brands that fill their smartphone screens. But without a reasonable promise, necessary scope, and actionable effort, much of the communications that aspire to be relevant today is pretty irrelevant.

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Content Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Events

Technology makes scheduling and hosting events easier than ever before. Isn’t it funny that nobody wants to attend them?

At least a sparsely attended webinar or Zoom call isn’t as uncomfortable as a room with a podium and lots of empty chairs, and even if so many beautifully rendered virtual trade show exhibits have been seen by so few people, there was no there there in the first place.

The the pandemic hasn’t changed the rules for events, whether virtual or geophysical, and it’s a good moment to pause and consider them.

Here are three questions you can ask before you schedule the next one:

First, is it necessary? I’m not talking about your internal need to announce a product or make your execs feel important, but rather, do your stakeholders have needs that can only be met by attending an event? Most times, there are better and cheaper (i.e. more effective) ways to meet their requirements, if you simply stop to consider them before contemplating your own.

A good number of events are repeats, like regular customer or user conferences, but that’s still no excuse for thinking you have an agenda to fill vs. attendee needs to meet. What will they get to see or experience, virtually or in tangible reality, that would warrant their attention? Nobody wakes up in the morning wondering what your new product will be (unless you’re Apple), so what is it about whatever you want to promote that can only be communicated in real-time to an audience? What would make it something that they’d hate to have missed?

Remember, they don’t have to attend and they often don’t, so unless you have a really good idea of what they want, you aren’t going to automatically get a chance to present anything to them.

They’re not a captive audience if they don’t show up.

Second, is it live? Nobody wants to attend an event consisting of prerecorded content, so stop creating that glossy brand video that you want to force on them. And please, please don’t create some CGI exhibit that people can explore by clicking on renderings of objects and displays, since it’s too much work for too little return (i.e. playing bad video games is more fun).

Canned presentations, whether shot prior or consisting of execs reading scripts, are not only not special, but they’re not really events.

Think of the immense potential of live experience, especially in terms of communicating authenticity and surprising people out of their preconceived notions. Your attendees aren’t an audience as much as participants in an experience that needs to be somehow unexpected, personal, funny, even dramatic. Your event should be a performance, not a platform for serving up your content. This means being less concerned with making every moment as perfect as a digital readout, and allowing for informality and imperfection that brings your attendees into the spirit of the moment.

Third, is it unique? Even if they’re relevant and live, the best special events reach beyond those attributes to stand for something and become things that matter.

Remember how you felt the last time you attended a play or art exhibit, and left thinking to yourself Wow, that was different or I’m glad I was there! Maybe it was a family event, or simply a chance moment when you and a loved one shared something that you just know will stay with you for years, if not for your entire life. Online or for real.

We crave these moments because we’re human, and they stand out especially when contrasted with the canned and framed experiences we’re led through on our digital screens. This doesn’t mean your new product announcement has to come across like the opening night of Hamilton. But the same principles apply: Content that is relevant, that embraces live experience, and adds up to something more than just a sum of its parts.

Why will they remember they were in the room? What will it say to our employees, or to our client? How will it evidence the ways we are truly different than our competition?

The jury is still out on how and how often we’ll get together in geophysical space; my bet is that we’ll do so when the opportunities warrant it, whether company meetings, trade shows, or any activities in our personal lives. We’ll go somewhere when there’s a compelling reason to do it.

But it turns out the same criteria already apply to virtual events. We don’t need or want more of them, and the capacity to fill airtime with beautiful content doesn’t take the place of meeting audience needs and interests.

A bad event is still a bad event. Question your plans before you host the next one.

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Content

Interrogative on Owned Media

Owned media are the artifacts of content over which PR people have total control, as we use it to propagate content that ranges from business updates, to philanthropic activities and dicey public policy issues. Most legit media outlets will publish it in exchange for lots of cash. It’s included in PR academic circles as part of a well-rounded publicity offering.

Most of it stinks. It’s the cereal component to a breakfast of fruit and milk.

Communicators are their own worst enemies on this front. Since owned media are literally dictated, the content is primarily accountable to branding, customer messaging, and executive egos.

None of these qualities have anything to do with whether or not the content is relevant, useful, or even true, but it can yield nice examples of them “successfully” doing their jobs.

Instead of using owned media as mirrors into which your company can stare adoringly, here are three questions you can ask:

First, would a real journalist ever write your story or shoot your video? If it couldn’t pass that test, it’s a good indication that it’s not relevant or believable, so why would you pay to promote it? The bar for owned content is actually higher when it comes to credibility (since audiences arrive with preconceived notions about commercialism). Your content has to be objectively newsworthy, and your approach needs to scream necessity and meaning, not just gargle all of the buzzwords and images you think you’re supposed to promote.

Here’s a good test for your next creative effort: If it never appeared, or disappeared the day after you published it, would anybody care (other than the agency you paid to develop it)?

Second, why does it have to be slick? This is a particular problem with websites but also includes many of those paid placements in media I mentioned earlier. If your video or branded article are beautifully written, or your video is narrated by that same voice that introduces Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, then it’s generic garbage. Sorry, but no stakeholder has asked for another unremarkable piece of content in their lives; if you are going to intrude on them why not make a bluntly compelling ad? Better yet, put on that journalist hat from the prior point and challenge yourself to create something that reads and looks like news and not a corporate brochure. It’ll help keep you honest on the content.

Third, what makes it uniquely yours? If your article or podcast could have been produced by one of your competitors, let alone other companies, you need to really ponder why you’re producing it in the first place. I mean, who cares? Instead, consider what your stakeholders are interested in hearing or, better yet, dare to address the complex and even challenging topics that you’ve avoided because they aren’t highlighted on that grid your marketers use to determine messaging. Present a unique POV instead of your execs extolling the merits of the IoT and you may actually get somebody to care about it.

Owned content is a huge and incredibly promising proposition that can be used to articulate unique POVs, educate stakeholders on issues they care about, and change hearts and minds, but only if companies use it wisely.

Maybe it’s time to stop looking in the mirror?

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Content

Interrogative on Technology

New technology is an old idea. We’ve been singing its praises since our caveman ancestors first learned how to grill.

Today’s digital tech is so pervasive that it makes every business a technology company, which makes it particularly hard forth to differentiate based on tech alone. It’s why the most popular tech stories are about people, usually at startups and the occasional billionaire rocket launch. Big, established businesses that tangibly do more with tech that any entrepreneur promises are left out of most coverage.

There are three questions that will help you get in on those conversations:

First, are you changing the world? Tech that enhances, improves, or otherwise makes things better in some incremental way is what drives the vast majority of real business innovation, development, and sales, yet it’s DOA from a news perspective; only your most informed customer cares that your whatchamacallit increases resonance variability by 4 percent, yielding a richer user experience, or that your thingamajig works at the periphery of the value chain instead of midway.

Yet talking in this mixture of gibberish and complacency (“we’re the leader in…” is a kiss of death phrase) keeps most tech marcom content on the sidelines. It doesn’t help that a big company’s stock price is dependent on its ability to reliably make profits, and even the suggestion of a Hail Mary pass could whack said value. There’s no money in dreaming big.

You need to question this assumption, however, and challenge yourself to see a bigger, longer play in what you’re trying to accomplish. Little steps aren’t so little if they’re steps along a bigger journey and are communicated with consistency and meaning.

Second, are you aware of your stakeholders’ interests and concerns? Most technology development happens based on prior tech performance specs and expert analyses of what improvements are possible within the limitations of time and budget. Making it relevant to different stakeholders is an afterthought that usually involves bolting-on references to the IoT, smart (insert industry here), AI, or some other buzzworthy topic suggested by management consultants (who make the same suggestions to everyone).

The thing is, nobody cares about technology except technology people; the rest of us are happy using streaming movies and flying in airplanes with limited to no understanding of how those miracles are even possible.

This means that your stakeholders probably aren’t interested in your latest tech announcement, so the media outlets they consume aren’t, either.

Instead, what if the comms planning for your next tech news started with a deep understanding of what issues a particular stakeholder group cared about, we’re hearing about in the media, and then imagining how and where your content might fit into that construct?

Third, are you willing to talk about people? Anybody who innovates for a living knows that it can be challenging, scary, thrilling, rewarding, dumbfounding, demoralizing, and then all of it all over again. Even the most inarticulate engineer feels deeply about her or his work, maybe never using the word “passion” but certainly revealing it by doing things like working at home or forgetting to bathe.

How is it that corp comms manages to produce content devoid of any of this humanity?

Before you produce that next glossy video or try to erase your spokesperson’s personality with corporate messaging, consider letting people talk about their technology journeys, not just your corporate destination. Let them share hopes, dreams, successes and failures. Let them be themselves, whether in front of a camera or simply getting their names pasted on top of expertly produced blog posts.

Like I said at the beginning, technology stories are people stories, and there’s no reason your comms have to be stuck inside a box that is separated from goals, stakeholder needs, and authentic personal voices.

It’s time to think outside the box. Now there’s a new idea!

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Content

Interrogative on Corporate Videos

Video has been the future of communications since the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” was first recorded in 1977 (this is a video of the Buggles’ version from 1979, when nascent home video tape recorders were still called VTRs).

Much has changed since it was the first music video broadcast by MTV in 1981, starting with the fact that MTV hasn’t really played music videos for ages and radio not only didn’t die but was reborn as a thriving medium for talk (and, more broadly, audio in the form of podcasts are the new long-form medium).

More intriguingly, video isn’t really about video anymore. Just spend 15 seconds on TikTok.

Sharing killed the watching star.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the propensity of companies to make videos, complete with narration, soaring soundtracks and, gasp, often more than a minute of content.

Before you commit to making another one, there are at least three questions you should ask:

First, who wants to see it, and how do you even know? An endless array of breathless reports and surveys make the case for video, often citing how it dominates mobile traffic, or declare the self-fulfilling prophecy of other companies using it as reason to follow suit.

Little of it is true, and certainly not reliable enough to drive any meaningful business decisions.

Measurements of the time people spend watching videos are squishy, both because they can be based on survey data and usually provide no correlation to lasting awareness, let alone understanding and preference. You need to start with the assumption that nobody wakes up in the morning wishing there were more corporate videos in the world, and work from there. Challenge yourself to understand the experiential dynamic of video consumption, not just the aggregate numbers.

Second, what content and/or circumstances require it? What can be best communicated in video or, more to the point, only done so? Things that simply need to be seen to be believed come to mind; not so much how something exists, but proof that no written words could convey. A complement to this would be revealing things that people otherwise couldn’t see, such as wildly remote locations or, better yet, secret stuff.

The more practical use for video is to express human emotions…joy, fear, passion, and other personal qualities that just loose their oomph if they’re reduced to written quotes. We human beings tend to make judgements about credibility based on our perceptions on sincerity, and we use visual and audio cues to form our opinions. Imagine if your videos communicated aspects of your company, and its leadership, that couldn’t be communicated in any other way.

If I’m right, most scripted corporate videos are useless, irrespective of length and ingenuity.

Third, does your video have a purpose beyond being watched? Unless you’re producing a TV show or run the platform on which it’s shared, your company doesn’t make money showing videos: You want people to do something during or after watching them, ideally something that involves giving you money or at least moves them further down a defined path to buy from you (or endorse you, buy your stock, or join your team, etc.).

Accomplishing this requires much more than entertaining content, and it can’t get done by attaching a link “for more information” at the end. There has to be a broader, ongoing narrative, or story that you’re telling, whether via video alone or across your content media, that involves your stakeholders while giving them things they can do. Parse it on TikTok or whatever shorter duration platform comes next. Good luck figuring out consistency across inconsistent exposure, though.

Video didn’t kill the radio star but it can certainly kill a chunk of your communications budget, so you might as well maximize its utility. Ask better questions about your audience, your message, and your commitment before you start working on being hilarious or on-brand.