These are my presentation slides from my talk at Digital Summit Dallas. In the talk, I briefly explored the connections between film editing and content strategy, two jobs that I think have a lot of parallels.
Here’s the transcript from the talk:
Thanks for coming today. I’m Jeff Greer. I’m a manager of digital experience at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and a board member of the Center for Plain Language. Today I want to talk about some connections between content strategy and film editing, what our customers expect from the content we create for them and how using film editing as inspiration can help us create better digital content.
Here’s what we’ll cover.
We’ll talk about invisible art, and how content strategists can learn from film editing.
And then we’ll talk about the elements of content strategy, and what you can do to take your content work to the next level.
We’ll also discuss customer experience, and how thinking like a customer is great, but how taking it to the next level and testing your content and listening to real customers is better.
And then we’ll close with some thoughts about plain language. Standards for writing in a clear and simple manner are great but not enough. Your drive for clarity must be a part of everything your digital team does if you want to go to that next level, the level of being an invisible artist.
You’re probably wondering what an invisible artist is. Here’s an example.
This still is from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie Rope, which is edited in a manner that makes the movie appear to be in one take.
This kind of artistry, this seamlessness, the ability to go seamlessly from connection to connection, is what our customers expect from our content.
In a recent study by Customer Experience firm SDL, 90 percent of customers expect their experience with a brand to be seamless, across touchpoints.
For instance, when using your bank’s mobile app, you expect content to be consistent with their mobile and desktop websites.
Are we delivering on this need for seamlessness? Apparently not.
Only 34% of companies have formal experience strategies in place. That means we’re creating content and digital products in silos, without thinking of the connections that affect our customers.
While digital has been here for what seems like a long time, it’s still in the early stages.
We need some guidance and structure from another line of work that can lead us in the right direction.
I want to go back to this idea of invisible art.
That’s were we can solve this problem.
Filmmaker Josh Apter wrote in the New York Times about film editing’s problem solving and gradual process of discovery.
As marketers, communicators and experience champions, we need a similar process of discovery that makes our experiences seamless for our customers.
It’s as simple as the seamlessness you expect going from your iPhone to iPad to laptop while you’re buying a product. But it’s not just about devices. It’s also about making sure digital and call centers are aligned. And that your tone and style and voice are consistent. And that all the other touchpoints are too.
In order to get there, we need to be invisible artists.
What film editors do should be great inspiration to content strategists.
Film editing is about taking raw materials that others create and organizing them into a seamless product.
Marlon Brando’s monologue in Apocalypse Now was ad libbed.
When this scene was shot, Brando talked for 18 minutes on camera, and most of it was unintelligible. It took a film editor to go through all of that raw footage and pull together two minutes of meaningful, intelligible, useful content. Does this sound like any of the web projects you’ve worked on?
That film editor, Walter Murch, wrote an authoritative book about film editing. In addition to talking about what film editors do, he talks about emotion, story telling and the rhythm of the plot as the most important elements of their work.
So if you follow these criteria, you’re pulling together raw content in a way that adds emotion and storytelling. You’re helping people understand and make sense of something that’s too big to understand without your editing.
When I think of some of the large, enterprise websites out there, with 5,000, 10,000 pages of content, I wonder who’s editing them so their customers can find meaning and usefulness.
What gets us that seamless, meaningful experience? I recently bought a car. I started off at a local dealer website like this. While there is a lot of good information here, it’s clear it wasn’t pulled together with seamlessness as a goal. For instance, the banner in the center appears to be a newspaper advertisement with text that’s written and displayed in a manner that make it impossible to read. And there are multiple windows popping up and interrupting me as I browse.
As I continued my search, I moved away from the dealer sites toward sites like Auto Trader and Cars.com. Much of the content and features on this homepage are very similar to what’s on the local dealer page I just showed you. But here it’s presented in a way that allows me to use it when I choose, and I don’t have the feeling of being constantly interrupted by another “important” feature.
How do these examples connect to content strategy?
Before I can answer that, let’s make sure we’re all working off the same definition.
Back in 2007, Rachel Lovinger, who leads content strategy at Razorfish, wrote about what content strategists do. We create structures, and tags, and documentation that helps people make sense of all the content that gets created for the web.
And while our work creates structure and discipline, what’s really important is how the work of content strategy can take all the content and features that get created for a website and make them meaningful and relevant for customers.
I’m not trying to pick on car dealer websites today.
What I’m saying is that we need to be working in a way that creates experiences that are seamless and meaningful and useful, or people will continue to be frustrated and unhappy with our work, and they’ll be unsatisfied with the experiences of the brands we represent.
So as you’re on this path to becoming an invisible artist, I want to give you a few things to think of.
We’ll talk about you can do as a content strategist.
If you’re working as a content strategist, there are some minimal requirements. You have to have a handle on editorial and documentation, style guides and matrices. You also need to understand content management systems and how to create a plan for your content.
But if you want to take your content strategy to the next level, you need to be good at other things too.
Understanding search engines is important. Your customer expects that your brand experience is consistent in those transitions from Google to Facebook to wherever to your website.
And in the same way, are you planning for mobile and responsive design? If I go from a digital ad on my phone and open up a page on your website, will the experience make sense to me? Will I go to the right place?
Are there elements of the content and experience that are personalized for what I need?
And are you getting teams across your company to take ownership of your content? Is everyone thinking about what your customers are reading and doing on your website? Are they aligned?
Good old Tom Smykowski. “I deal with the customers so the engineers don’t have to.”
How many times have you heard this?
And customer experience is the next thing I want to focus on.
A customer experience is the interaction between an organization and a customer.
Content strategy is a component of a good customer experience and there are tools used by customer experience practitioners that content strategists should know.
As we continue to aim for greater seamlessness, we should know the basics of customer experience – personas, journey maps, how to think like a customer and of course, empathy.
But taking it to the next level requires more.
Don’t just think about your customers, get out there and talk with them. Listen to their concerns. At Slack, which is an online collaboration tool, everyone in the company spends two hours a week listening to customer service calls.
Be a voice for change within your organization. Lobby to make decisions in a manner that supports your customers most important needs.
Test your content. Doing rapid user testing with a product like User Zoom can keep you from releasing content or features that don’t work.
And finally, work with your product teams. Make sure they understand the kind of content that needs to be created to support or market their products. Be an advocate for simplification.
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The line in the script was “leave the gun.”
This line from The Godfather is a great example of improvised, plain language. Cannoli is just specific and memorable enough to make the difference. If it wasn’t for the cannoli, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this dialogue today.
Plain language means that you’re speaking with your customers in a voice they know. In the same way you wouldn’t build a website in French for the South American market, you shouldn’t speak to customers in language they don’t use. Make your content easy to read, understand, and enjoy.
Getting plain language right is tough for most companies. We have our internal ways of doing and saying things, and we stop thinking critically about the language we use with customers.
But our customers are more distracted than ever and we have to speak with them in a way that keeps their attention.
Knowing the basics, how to write in short sentences and paragraphs, writing as concisely as possible, and targeting a reading grade level that’s appropriate for your customer will go a long way.
But if you want to take your plain language skills to the next level, you need to do more.
Write in natural language that your customers use. Use contractions.
Talk with your customers and get them engaged through social media or on your website. Getting them to understand you is good. Getting them engaged is better.
Understand how search engines work, and how customers use their own language when they’re trying to find something. For instance, at Blue Cross, we call them immunizations, but our customers search for flu shots.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Customers are bombarded with content all day long. Make yours easy. A recent blog post by Gerry McGovern cited Columbia College of Chicago. They reduced the amount of content on their website by 97 percent, and their leads went up by 80 percent. (http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/new-thinking/less-content-marketing-more-quality-content)
Here’s what we covered today:
We talked about invisible art, and how content strategists can learn from film editing.
We talked about content strategy, and how understanding things such as search and mobile can take your content to the next level.
We talked about customer experience, and how thinking like a customer is great, but how testing your content and listening to real customers is better.
And then we talked about plain language, how it’s great to have standards for writing in a clear and simple manner, and how that drive for clarity must be a part of everything your digital team does to go to that next level.
One more example of invisible art at work.
This scene from Whiplash is fantastic. I hope you’re doing this with your content.
Thanks everyone for your time today. Enjoy the rest of the conference.