To Successfully Create Content You Need to be a 'People' Person
It may be impossible to predict the future, but by understanding the fundamentals you can lay the ground work to succeed no matter what comes. Techonology changes, delivery methods adapt, but basic human needs don't -- and understanding people is one skill set that's always going to be transferrable.
At least, that's the message I was trying to share with the eager Western and Fanshawe students who asked some amazing questions about the future of content strategy and marketing communications last night. A crew of us from Digital Echidna participated in the annual Student 2 Business event, hosted by the London Economic Development Corporation, and as has been the case for the three years I've participated in this event now, there were three basic questions that students had:
- What should I know?
- What's coming next?
- What should I do?
It can be scary facing the end of the relative security of the education system and staring the working world in the face. You spend years accumulating knowledge only to realize that maybe you don't know everything.
At least, that's the hope. I kind of learned the hard way. Coming out of school and having spent a year as EIC of The Gazette, I thought I knew everything and that I had all the answers. It took a few years and experience to understand that I had only scratched the surface of what I needed to know.
So having learned how to learn, I decided to apply that, experience different things, and I firmly believe that made me better at what I do.
When it comes to content, the best thing you can do -- in my opinion -- is to try to understand as much about people as possible. After all, if your goal is to create content that motivates people to take a certain action, shouldn't you understand people's motivations?
Being an expert in product is great; being an expert in people is better.
Over my career in content, communications, and marketing, the biggest challenge I've faced is input (or created content) by those who know the product like the back of their hand. And while having an understanding of what you're offering or selling is important, it's more valuable to understand how you can relate it to the person.
When content comes from development, tech reg, or legal, it can be factually correct (and usually overly comprehensive), but it has no soul. It often will tell you what something is and how it can be used, but it rarely will tell you how it makes a difference. Or why it matters.
In any content exercise, you're trying to appeal to your reader to take an action. To do that, you need to understand the "What's in it for me?" Why should they care? Why is it going to make their experience better. That's not a product feature that can be listed; that's a content piece that must be felt.
People Aren't People
I had one student last night ask me, "What's the best platform for content?"
It was an incomplete question because people aren't the same. The content I consume and the platforms that I use to access it are different than why my 14-year-old daughter uses. My parents don't access and consume the same content that I do -- nor do they use the same tools or sources as each other (and they're only one year apart).
The question can only be answered if you complete it with a demographic and a task, "What's the best platform to introduce middle-aged women to this product?" or "What's the best platform to encourage teens to download this content?"
The answers are vastly different. I get a lot of my information from Twitter and Facebook, and I've downloaded Snapchat for informational purposes (so I can at least talk intelligently about it). My daughter, on the other hand, is on SnapChat frequently and couldn't care less about Twitter. As she gets older, that will likely change -- teens aren't enamoured with Facebook, but as they grow older, it becomes a viable option.
So there's no magic bullet. And that's what makes communications a challenge -- and fun.
There's tremendous value in getting away from what you know. This could be physical -- a move to another city; or mental -- trying a new role, exploring a new genre or writing style.
The scariest people I know are the ones who have the certainty of comfort. It's an intoxicating mix of limited breadth of experience combined with longevity that creates an undeniable belief system that's a mile deep. But unfortunately, while that knowledge may be a mile deep, it's only an inch wide in view.
Over my career, I've interacted with people who have only one perspective from which to draw their knowledge. In talking with students last night, many of them echoed my experience. Whether it's leaving London for "greener pastures" only to return; or leaving home to come to London -- their time away has afforded them a broader perspective of what they've left behind -- and, possibly, a greater appreciation for what they had and an understanding of motivations.
Work-wise, diversifying your skill set is invaluable. Not so much so that you can be a Jack or Jill of All Trades, but rather because the experiences you have, the people you meet, and the interactions in which you engage can help improve your abilities.
Over my career, I've done medical writing, health and beauty writing, public relations, communications, marketing content. Media-wise, I've done -- and still do -- news, sports, theatre, and general interest/feature content. Each and every thing I do adds to my skill set and helps me learn. It also allows me to challenge my status quo and ensure that my best practices are well informed.
So get out there and read something that you've never read. Explore a different culture and try to gain an understanding of their customs and beliefs. Try a different activity or task. Understanding why people enjoy things can help you better communicate with them -- and that only comes from experiencing things that aren't 100 per cent you.
It really never hurts to ask. If you want to know what motivates people, ask them. You can do this in focus groups, surveys, or even just one-to-one conversations. Understanding your customers' motivations, likes, dislikes, and preferences can help you craft a solution or design content that resonates with them.
Simply put, how can you give them what they want if you don't know what that is?