Communication platforms for purveyors of goods and services: John Alderman’s workshop at CS Forum ’11

If you work in digital and don’t know John Alderman (@mrhungry to his following), let’s remedy that now. He’s creative director at The Barbarian Group (previously Lead Content Strategist and Creative Director at Avenue A | Razorfish) and he’s leading one of our workshops in London next month. There are seats available!

John Alderman’s expertise lies in persuasion, conversation, brand, technology, and experience design. He’s an accomplished writer. His books include Sonic Boom and Core Memory (his latest), and he frequently contributes to publications like Wired, The Guardian, and Surface. John knows digital!

He attended CS Forum 2010 in Paris, and we’re thrilled that he’s joining us again this year on the other side of things, leading one of our four workshops: Communication, planning, and measurable persuasion. I asked John a few questions about his workshop and his take on Content Strategy in general.

The John Alderman interview

Destry: What is meant by a “communication platform”, exactly, and why would it be important for a company to have one?

John: Every company must alert potential buyers to the value of its goods and services; that’s nothing new. What is new is the degree of sophistication and range that the world expects, largely a result of the degree of intimate and relevant communication that the Internet has brought. The Internet is fundamentally about communication, and people using the Net have been good at creating new paths and forms for communication to take. Every company must now spend effort planning where and how it will communicate. It’s been said: “We are all publishers now” and I agree. The degree to which a company successfully communicates — as well as the style, substance and reliability of its messages, and how well it listens — increasingly means its success or failure.

I use the phrase “communication platform” in two ways. The first is to describe how a website can function as the place to put all of its communication. The second is to describe the combination of tools, procedures, and general approach that a company uses to communicate with customers, with itself, or a mix of both. Because the Internet is where most of the action is these days, that’s the general focus of efforts, but obviously communication can happen anywhere. A platform helps make it happen.

Creating that platform, in the second sense, is also where, I like to say, it gets real. You can have an approach, some abstract lines about brand, a notion of “engaging the customer” or whatever, and then with your communications platform, you can see it taking shape. Suddenly a company is no longer just about “eating every day in style” but about sharing recipes every day, tips from customers all the time, and dining secrets from a noted chef every Wednesday. I like strategy, but I love tactics, and think that bringing them together lets you know you’re on the right track.

It can be surprising, too. There was a moment when it seemed like every company started launching blogs. That changed the dynamic that most people felt with companies. It felt personal, and special, and somehow a little more trustworthy. And I think that meant people at the top were allowing themselves to be a little more human. Marketers spend a lot of money getting a human touch, when that’s really about the easiest thing we have at our disposal. And like in any relationship, companies will find that it pays to be a good listener.

Destry: What does it take to set such a platform up?

John: It begins with asking what it is you want to say, to whom, and where that happens? Or what do you want said about you and where? Then imagine the form, frequency, and flow of such a conversation. For instance, maybe you want to sell chocolate. You probably want to tell the story behind your chocolate: what makes it special, what people can do with it, what kinds there are to buy, how customers can buy them, and maybe recipes to help them make the most out of what they buy, or convince to try to new types. You might also find that your platform works best as a way to facilitate conversation, and carry it offline, rather than delivering more one-way messages. You might also find that the best way to reach costumers is to offer something they can use in their conversations, that you don’t really even need to join.

Destry: Regarding the associated tools, which ones are commonly employed, in your experience, and why are they useful?

I find it useful to create artifacts to help plan all this. A map of all of the conversations, perhaps distilled to points of persuasion, each one something like “YumYum is the best chocolate to give as a present.” How does that play out? Where and how often does it happen? Then imagining form. Is it a coupon? An video? A story of rare luxurious ingredients that will make a recipient feel special?

Destry: We’re all somewhat aware of how the field of Content Strategy is tugged around a bit by marketers, technical communicators, web/UX people, and so forth; each community bringing its own schema to the understanding of things. As a creative director in some big brand agencies—which many people might flag as “marketing”—and as someone who looks at the digital industry analytically, what do you think is going on with this Content Strategy push and pull? Where is it headed?

John: The Web is so fluid and so all encompassing that it’s natural that roles from one previously discrete field will brush up against another’s. It’s as if suddenly New York, Houston, and Los Angeles got mashed up, as a growth spurt happened on top of it. Everyone feels some confusion when they look to familiar landmarks that now only partially fit. But the map isn’t the territory, and in this territory both new and old, everyone’s description is a metaphor. The question is, which metaphor will usefully allow me to address the current state of things, and stay somewhat relevant as the world continues to shift? “Conversation” seems to me like a good place to start because it seems both realistic and human-centered, though I can see how it might weigh things in the direction of agencies who like conversations to continue, and might get a piece of creating and managing them. I will say that I’ve found “conversation” works as well for an electronics company trying to manage its brand as it does for a healthcare organization building an intranet.

Destry: To my ears, “persuasive content” sounds a bit sales-oriented, and thus a marketing thing. Is it just about selling something, or is there a deeper customer relationship to be gained from (good) persuasive content?

Trying to stop appropriation is a losing game. Besides, it’s interesting to see what happens to ideas and techniques when they’re put in a new situation.

I started using the word “persuasion” to frame and analyze types of content after attending a conference on the future of persuasion by the Institute for the Future last year. At that time the word struck me as menacing. But hearing many different approaches I realized that there’s a difference between manipulation and persuasion, and that persuasion isn’t necessarily about selling (though selling is usually about persuasion). I want to persuade myself to eat healthier, I want to persuade my friends that I’m interesting and lovable, and I want to persuade the world’s politicians that they shouldn’t ignore education. All of those can be addressed at least partially by communication. “We should have a deeper relationship” is a point of persuasion. Starting from that premise, what would you publish to convince someone of that, and then keep them believing it?

The workshop

Participants in John’s workshop will learn solid techniques and tools, like the conversation map and matrix. Content strategists (and anyone else) can use these tools to create and maintain successful communications platforms. These tools define a way of drafting testable, tunable, correctly-paced and engaging communication.

This approach will be a hands-on workshop to introduce participants to a fictional client and guide them through planning for persuasive content for the company. Participants will draft a plan for content creation, using a matrix of possible forms, audience goals, and staffing requirements. At the end, participants will have a document that can be used to create persuasive content for any occasion.

If you’re attending this workshop—and you should—John says to bring a sense of humor and a willingness to participate, because most of this will be an exercise using the tools I’ll describe and situations that we’ll imagine. Learning and having fun will be the plan; making that happen takes everyone’s participation.

Bring whatever materials/devices you use to think. Pencils and paper is great! Laptops work too. You’ll be working in groups. John says from experience that “people usually approach things from different angles, and that dynamic makes stronger work”.

What you’ll learn

You will walk away knowing:

  • What a communication platform is, how it works, and why it’s important.
  • The tools that support a platform strategy, like communication maps and message matrices.
  • How to use these tools to test, tune, and correctly-pace your planned communication over time.

Date and time: 7th September; 8:30–12:00 (3 1/2 hours).

And do have a look at John’s equally smart website, Supereverywhere.