Working fewer hours earning a full-time shift salary sounds like the perfect job for any worker, and it also sounds good from the company’s point of view; happier workers producing more in less time. However, it can backlash; workers might consider their job a side hustle, lose connection with the company’s values, and leave their jobs regardless of the benefits of shorter working shifts.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have a brilliant guest with us today. The creator of BrandSort, she developed the popular message: architectural driven approach to content strategy. So, this is going to be fun for all of us. All of us are really concerned about expanding the awareness of our brand, whether that brand is a team, a company, a product, a service, or even your own family. So, this is going to be fun, because it really stretches across all of that. And Margot teaches in the Content Strategy Graduate Program at FH JOANNEUM University, in Graz, Austria, and lectures around the world about brand-driven content strategy, and designing for trust. So, welcome, Margot.
Margot Bloomstein: Thank you so much.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, we’re looking forward to this. And before we get started, I’d like to tell you just a little bit more about Margot. She’s one of the leading voices in content strategy and in this whole industry. She’s the author of Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap and Content Strategy at Work: Real-world Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project, as well as the principle of Appropriate Inc, which is a brand and content strategy consultancy, based in Boston, where Margot lives. And as a speaker and strategic advisor, she’s worked with marketing teams and a range of leading organizations over the past two decades. So, let’s rock and roll here, Margot, are you ready?
Margot Bloomstein: Yeah, let’s do this.
Steve Shallenberger: All righty. Well, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you and how did you end up where you are today.
Margot Bloomstein: Well, I guess like most of your guests, I was born at a very young age and I’m originally from upstate New York. And then in college, I decided to study design, communication design, graphic design, kind of more visual communication and had, I guess, the opportunity and challenge of graduating at the height of the dot com boom and bust when the economy was doing really well and then it wasn’t in the late ‘90s. And that was an interesting time, I was looking at opportunities in what was then the emerging web industry, and wanting to do things with design with the things that I had been studying around how people work with things, how organizations communicate with people. And a lot of the questions that I was asking, as I was going through the interview process with different web agencies, those questions were really more around content and verbal communication. I didn’t know that at the time, but it was in the course of the interview process that finally someone said to me, “The questions you’re asking are great, but that’s not what our team focuses on. You should really talk to someone in content strategy.”, which at the time was a relatively new field. It was kind of the term that we were using for this glorified copywriting where it meant technical writing, it was before the era of maybe using content management systems and whatnot to organize the information that comes through on a website. And it was certainly before many big companies were thinking about how they would use the web in a more interactive and transactional way. I think most companies looked at the web as a new venue for a brochure where they would kind of take the same stuff that they’ve been publishing in brochures and print collateral and just throw it up on a website. And I joined a team that looked at how we could go beyond that, how we could help brands and retailers and big companies in healthcare and software and financial services engage in a more meaningful way with their audiences, with the customers that they were hoping to engage or serve.
Margot Bloomstein: And through that process of looking at better ways that they could communicate, not just say what they wanted to say about themselves, but also figure out what their audiences needed to hear, what sort of information they needed to make good decisions – that’s I think, where the web started to mature in a lot of ways. And then over the past two decades, as we’ve kind of expanded what online communication means whether that is through social media, through different types of transactions and shopping online, how we manage our money online, how we manage our healthcare online, content strategy has been an aspect of that. And I’ve been happy to kind of help drive that all forward. I was at that first agency a couple of years, then went in-house at a corporation for about a year – and we should talk more about that – and then went into a couple of other agencies and then went out on my own in 2010. Incorporated my company then, and then had been independent since then, looking at how organizations communicate, how I partner with them to help improve their communication with different audiences, and what it means to focus on brand-driven content strategy, where we’re not just meeting the needs of our audiences, but also not losing ourselves not losing our organizations in that process, either.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that is a great background. Thank you, that was terrific. And so much experience and you’ve had a chance to think about this in a lot of different ways and have a lot of experience, don’t you?
Margot Bloomstein: I mean, a lot of different ways. I think as far as the experience, yeah, doing this in a field that has continued to grow, has been humbling because I think so much of what I knew, or thought I knew starting out maybe is still valid, but I’m always getting to test my ideas and then also discovering that there is so much more that I don’t know. Whether it’s about my clients’ specific industries or about the expectations that people bring to communication and the needs of people, I guess I’m always kind of growing that denominator, always learning just how much I don’t know. So, that has been a wonderful experience in and of itself.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh great. Well, I can think of few subjects that are more relevant to many of our listeners, and clients, I might add, of Becoming Your Best. As you were speaking, I was just kind of thinking through each one, whether it’s an energy company, a services company, a fitness company, an HR company, contractor, architectural firm, a retailer – you just kind of start thinking through all these different industries, every single one, this is important to. It’s kind of their baby, it’s close to their heart, their brand, and how they communicate it. And the challenge of how do I get the word out, right? So, shall we talk about this?
Margot Bloomstein: Let’s do it. Yeah.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay. So, how can brands use voice, volume, and vulnerability to bring people closer and then drive brand engagement? How does this best happen?
Margot Bloomstein: Well, those qualities that you’re describing, that’s really the central framework for the book that just came out. So, in March, my second book, Trustworthy came out and the issues that I was wrangling with, in that we live in a state right now, in a time of heightened cynicism. People don’t believe things at first blush, they think that everybody’s out to make a sale, all politicians lie, you can’t trust any business, you’ve got to do your own research, don’t trust anything that you read. And that level of cynicism undermines any kind of marketing that a business would attempt to do. Anytime your company is trying to share your expertise, anytime you’re trying to say, “Based on my years of experience in the industry, this is what I’m recommending to my customers.” or “You should take these things into account when you’re thinking about purchasing something.” – anytime a business is trying to engage in that way and share that expertise, even if it’s to try to help people better help themselves, right now you’re facing a big wall. A lot of people put up this cynical wall, maybe it’s to protect themselves, saying, “Everybody’s out to get you. You can’t believe anything here, so many companies have lied to us or have been inconsistent with what they promise.” People get cynical, and I think it’s a form of protection. But when we get cynical, that’s when those conversations stop, that’s when people wall themselves off to new information. Whether it’s coming from a business or the government or from their healthcare provider, again, even if it’s something that they can use to better access services or better take care of themselves and their families. And I think that we’re in a unique space right now. Marketers and businesses and anybody attempting to sell or persuade or even political candidates, we have the responsibility and opportunity right now to help break through some of that cynicism, to help rebuild the confidence of our audiences, so that we can rebuild their trust in themselves, in their ability to take in new information and understand it and wrangle with it, as well as then our organizations. The framework that I present in Trustworthy that I discovered after interviewing brand after brand, whether they were CMOs, or creative directors, or copywriters in those organizations, the framework that I present draws on the patterns that I heard from those interviews that focus on voice, volume, and vulnerability.
Steve Shallenberger: So, what’s the backstory of the book? I’d love to hear about that. Tell us a little about the book, and I definitely want to get back right to where you’re going because we live in a different world today. I do think that you’re right, people are far more cautious because they have more messages and impressions coming to them every day from so many different places and you have artificial intelligence tracking their preferences. And so, people do have their guard up. So, I want to come back and talk about that, but I’d love to hear about the background of the book.
Margot Bloomstein: Sure. Yeah. And I didn’t mean to bury the lead there, either. But, yeah, so probably starting around 5-6 years ago, I was noticing how things were changing in politics and how the media covered politics and politicians. So, a couple of election cycles ago now, it seems like politicians on both sides of the aisle were playing fast and loose with the truth. The media was covering it in a different way. And also people in their audiences were kind of responding in a different way. So, it used to be that if the media caught a politician in a lie, that would scuttle their campaign. That’s what happened to Richard Nixon, to Gary Hart. We’ve kind of seen the story before that when the media catches a politician lying, maybe they’re changing their record, or in this case, saying “I did support the Iraq war, I did…”, and then kind of changing their perspective on that, or maybe on their previous support for abortion rights. But then when they would change that, it used to be that people would say, “Hey, you lied, you’re a flip-flopper, I’m going to support the other candidate, now.” That wasn’t happening, though. People that consider themselves Trump supporters did throughout the length of his campaign. People that considered themselves Clinton supporters did throughout the length of her campaign. And no new information ever seemed to disrupt that support. And I was discovering that, oh, this was coming down less to ideology and more to cultural identity. If you saw yourselves as a Trump voter, or as an environmentalist, or someone that is an anti-vaxxer, or as somebody that has a certain political persuasion, very little can disrupt that. And people wall themselves off to new information in a culture that says, “You don’t need to get new information.” And when they hear from politicians that are gaslighting them, and for media outlets that are gaslighting them and saying, “You don’t need new information, just trust me. I’m the only source of truth, don’t believe the evidence of your own eyes or lived experience.”
Margot Bloomstein: And that’s a problem because when people don’t hold themselves open to new ideas and new information, then they kind of stop growing. And also, any kind of marketing falls flat, sales cycles take longer, it’s bad for our society, it’s bad for public discourse, and it’s bad for our economy. So, there are a lot of problems with that. And mind you, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with being skeptical of information or saying, “I don’t believe this on first blush, let me continue to gather information from high-quality information sources, and kind of test it against what I already know.” That’s how we improve our thinking and the quality of our thoughts and beliefs and practices. I don’t have a problem with that, I do have a problem when people wall themselves off. And the problem that I have is that as a consultant, most of my clients, now I wondered, “Would they face this problem as well?” Because I don’t work with organizations largely in the political arena; my clients include folks that you’ve probably heard of in financial services and healthcare and software and higher education. And I wondered if it was going to be a problem for them. And it turns out that issue that I was noticing 5-6 years ago, continued to be an issue. We’ve become a more cynical society over time. Gaslighting has had effects far beyond just the political arena. So, I wondered as people have kind of pulled back because at the same time following all this we’ve seen how people have pulled away from traditional sources of expertise.
Margot Bloomstein: They’ve turned instead to their filter bubbles and their echo chambers on social media only to realize that, okay, a lot of those filter bubbles are faulty, too. We’ve got the not-so-neutral algorithm of Facebook telling us what news story to check out next, or what the trending topics are in the case of Twitter. And when we become more aware of those filter bubbles, that’s when people turn further inward and say, “Well, I can’t trust anybody, I’m just going to go with my gut.” That’s when we see problems with the rise of science savants on Instagram that are simply getting their scientific information from Instagram posts. And the dangers of that when people say, “I’m going to just go with my gut, what feels right probably is what is right.”, is that they miss out on the discourse with experts, from getting their information from high-quality resources, and that can be dangerous. We’ve seen the effects of that on public health and on vaccination and on things like saving and spending on education. So, there are a lot of problems that result from cynicism. And I wondered if that was going to affect my clients, it turns out, it does affect my clients. So, I wanted to dig in more to figure out what can we do about it. The people that I engage with that are marketers and designers and writers, copywriters, and whatnot, folks that work in social media, “Can we do something to affect this?” It turns out, we can. And this is not one of those cases where design or branding can save the world, but it does not mean that we are freed of the obligation to try either. People that work in these industries oftentimes pay attention to user experience. We can focus on how we empower people to better access information, to engage in research in a smart and thoughtful way so that they can become more empowered consumers. And I think that is the real opportunity and responsibility right now for modern marketing and businesses that engage in marketing. To be not just an economic force, to not just pay attention to their own bottom line, but to be a force for good in society and help empower people, help them move from a place of cynicism instead to a place of hope, and renew their sense of trust and confidence in themselves and their ability to gain information and to become smarter, as well as then in the organizations that enable them to become smarter and more savvy consumers of information. That research, the interviews that I conducted with dozens of different organizations from America’s Test Kitchen and Crutchfield Electronics, the FBI, Lovehoney, folks at Zoom, and local elections bureaus, all those interviews led to the framework and the examples in Trustworthy.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay. That is a good background, I’m glad that you shared that. Now let’s get back to what we were talking about. We’ve got so much to cover, and only about 10 or 11 minutes left, so let’s crank it up here. It’s been good. Yeah, let me just say this, that I’m just thinking about all the people we work with and just thinking about the business climate. They have great products, great services, so they’re honorable, and yet you have the critical people or have some cynicism about just any message. So, how do we use voice, volume, vulnerability, and your experience to overcome that barrier as people that have really great products, but how do they get over that?
Margot Bloomstein: So, I think focusing on those three V’s, I guess – the voice, volume, and vulnerability – that’s what helps us build trust, that’s what helps us build trust between our brands and our audiences, so they are more open and receptive to our ideas and products and whatnot. And that’s also what helps us rebuild their confidence in themselves as smart consumers. Because until people believe that, they’re kind of at the mercy of the wind, and they won’t necessarily make purchasing decisions, they won’t necessarily move forward and make decisions and feel good about the decisions that they make. So, the first section of the book – voice – focuses on how you develop a consistent and familiar dialogue with your audience. And I mean voice visually as well as verbally. So, how do you develop a consistent look and feel? How do you develop consistent verbal branding as well from your editorial style and tone of voice? And maybe how do you use jargon in a good way too to educate your audience to not dumb things down for them, but to help make them smarter and savvier? And I look to bring that back to the idea of how your organization develops a message architecture or a hierarchy of communication goals so that you know, it is most important for us to look and sound innovative or to look and sound maybe traditional and reliable or scrappy and creative. Figuring that out helps guide all of your other decisions around how you should look and sound and for that matter, even what platforms you should prioritize. If you should have a big presence on Twitter if you should be using live chat, if you should be writing and publishing white papers or blog posts, all those types of things. Because I think most people that do engage in marketing and branding realize that there are so many things you can do, so many platforms on which you can engage, you can’t possibly be everywhere all at once. That way lies madness, and you wouldn’t want to be either.
Margot Bloomstein: So, in the second section of the book – volume – I look at, well how much do you need to tell your audience to get them to trust you? And this gets back to that central idea of well, do people read online? Do they not read online? How long should an article or a blog post be? How frequently should you be tweeting? How many images do you need in an image gallery? Do you want to be short and sweet like one of the examples that I share from the British Government? Or do you need to be really verbose and detailed, and nuanced like some of the examples that I share from Crutchfield Electronics? And it turns out, there is no one right answer, but you can still measure the impact of how much your organization is saying and determining if it’s the right amount based on things like the rate of product returns, the amount of time people spend on the phone with customer service, and even in things like really basic, easy user research. So, that idea of how much should you say comes down to well, how much do you need to help people make good decisions, and then feel good about the decisions they make? And those are entirely quantitative things that we can measure and every organization should.
Margot Bloomstein: The third section on vulnerability, that’s where we dig into how you build trust either by engaging in the risk of being authentic, being transparent, showing your audience who you really are, and making your values visible. In some organizations, that is tough and scary, and they worry about alienating some customers. But we talk about good ways to do that. And I share examples like from Penzeys Spices, a big spice rate retailer based in Wisconsin. They’ve been very public about their values, they’ve taken to Facebook, written really long posts about their political views and they’ve lost customers over that, they’ve gained a lot of headlines over that. And as a result, they’ve actually expanded their customer base, even with losing some customers, they’ve now reached a much broader audience that says, “Ah, if these are your values, these values resonate with me too. And I may not be a home chef that’s looking to buy a lot of spices, but I have friends that are and family that I need to buy them birthday and Christmas presents and whatnot.” So, we look at vulnerability from that angle, as well as the angle of the vulnerability of what happens when your organization screws up, when you have to apologize. What does it mean to have that public reckoning? Whether you’re engaging in social issues, only to realize that those are issues in your company as well or just the CEO has messed up. How do you now apologize in a way that acknowledges the problem, is transparent about what you’re going to do to improve things moving forward and holds you accountable to a resolution. Really that level of organizational repentance that so many people do look for in society today. So, we look at it from those three facets of voice, volume, and vulnerability to look at how businesses have a tremendous opportunity right now to engage their audiences, rebuild confidence, pull them closer to create greater customer loyalty, and ultimately rebuild their very ability to trust.
Steve Shallenberger: Is there a way, Margot, for marketers, companies, leaders, managers to measure how effective they are right now with voice, volume, and vulnerability, versus where they want to implement a strategy to get to a better place, to bring their people closer together and drive their brand engagement?
Margot Bloomstein: Yeah. So, I would say things like voice and volume, you can measure your efficacy there when you look at the types of questions that your audience is asking. Whether you’re doing kind of a ride-along and listening into customer support calls or looking at the kinds of topics that people are searching for on your site. If you’ve suddenly gone through a process of maybe reorganizing information on your site, recategorize and relabeling things, first, I would say if you’re considering doing that right now, don’t. Now is the time for consistency, not for big change because we are in an era of tremendous change and tremendous social upheaval and your audience doesn’t need that from you too. But if you have already gone through that type of change, look at the kinds of ways that people are searching for information. Are they on board with the labels that you’re using or are they using old terminology? Are they asking questions where you feel like, well, the answers are right in front of you, if you only spoke the same language? Or is it clear that you’re speaking their language, they understand the terminology, they know who you are based on the kinds of information they’re looking for from you? So, I think that’s one way to get that information, listen to the types of questions people are asking either on the phone or through live chat, or through on-site searches.
Margot Bloomstein: As far as knowing if you’re offering the right volume of information, I would say look at how long it takes people to make decisions, and then look at the impact of those decisions. If you see that there’s a really high rate of product returns on your site, it’s likely because people didn’t have enough information to make a decision when they were putting the product into their shopping cart, or they didn’t have the right information. If they get the product and they say, “Well, this doesn’t look how I thought it was going to look.”, maybe it means you need more images or more accurate images of the product. Or if they get it and realize “This doesn’t have the features that I wanted.”, well, then clearly the features weren’t spelled out in the right level of detail.
Steve Shallenberger: So, Margot, I’ve got a question on that. Would the converse be true as well? If you have a very low return rate, high satisfaction rates? Does that mean you’re close to communicating in the right way?
Margot Bloomstein: Yeah. It means that your communication is effective. If people get it the first time, if you set them up for success, then you know you’re doing that right. The communication leading to that point has been correct as well.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, so I’ve got two more quick questions. Oh, my heavens, we’re at the end of this already. How can brands double down on qualities that make them unique?
Margot Bloomstein: And I will try to have quick answers.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay.
Margot Bloomstein: I think when you look at what makes your organization unique, sometimes there’s this fear of, “Well, what are our competitors doing should we be doing that? Should we be those things too if our competitors are really innovative and they get attention for that?” Not every organization needs to be exactly like every other organization in your industry. And I’d say it’s the things that make you distinct that help your audience find you and say, “That’s the right brand for me.” When Penzeys goes public with their politics, it helps their audience find them and say, “That’s what I want. That’s me too.” And I believe it was from the last Edelman trust survey that came out just last month, something like 68% of American consumers do want to vote with their dollars, they do want to know the political persuasions and values of the organizations in their lives, they want CEOs to speak out about social issues. So, I think to double down on the qualities that make you unique, first, figure out what those qualities are. I will oftentimes lead my clients in an exercise just to develop a message architecture to say who we are, who we’re not, and who we’d like to be. And the who we’re not, those are qualities that better describe a competitor that isn’t our concern anyhow. And then we just look at, well, “Who are we in the hearts and minds of our target audience? And who do we want to be? What are the more aspirational qualities? And then finally, how do we prioritize those aspirational qualities?”. I think going through an exercise like that that can be so simple and only takes a couple of hours has such a huge impact then, on all of your other decisions around what you say, where you say it, how frequently you say it, and how.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. All right. Well, any final tips that you’d like to leave with our listeners today, Margot?
Margot Bloomstein: As I said, right now, we’re in a time of such tremendous upheaval. I think the best thing that brands can do, regardless of your size, or industry, or scope, or budget, is to stay the course. Don’t offer big change, don’t demand that your audience embrace big change right now, but offer them the comfort of consistency. And the other thing I think that you can offer that makes a huge impact is, embrace vulnerability. It’s not a weakness, it’s a strength to admit what you don’t know, what your organization’s still trying to figure out right now. If it’s in the middle of the pandemic, and you’re trying to figure out what does it look like for you to reopen or for employees to go back to work, it’s fine to say, “Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, but here’s what we’re doing to figure it out.” I think that’s the message, that’s how we really embrace this idea that we’re all in it together. To say that things are changing and we can be comfortable with a level of uncertainty as long as we have a path through it together.
Steve Shallenberger: Awesome. Okay, so how can people find out about what you’re doing Margot?
Margot Bloomstein: Well, you can find Trustworthy everywhere books are sold. Definitely, a good idea always to support your local small, independent bookseller, but you can find it everywhere. And you can find me online on Twitter @mbloomstein or my website is appropriateinc.com.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, you want to repeat that one more time, so we’re sure they get it?
Margot Bloomstein: Sure. Yeah, so Trustworthy, find it everywhere you like to shop for books. Find me on Twitter, @mbloomstein and my website is appropriateinc – that’s INC like incorporated because I love the double entendre – find me at appropriateinc.com
Steve Shallenberger: Perfect. Well, thanks so much, Margot, for being part of this show today. We’ve had some great ideas, we really appreciate you being with us.
Margot Bloomstein: Thank you so much. This was so much fun.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, it was for me as well. And to all of our listeners never forget, you are making a difference every single day in your life. And we wish you all the best. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, signing off until the next time.
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