Ahava Leibtag explores how to keep moving forward when it feels as if content strategy is always changing.
Kristina Halvorson: Alright, we are ready with our final speaker of the event ... Aw, sad. Right, everybody get ready, I can feel you guys are kind of like, cake crash has happened. Deep breaths, okay. I’m really just thrilled to introduce our final speaker of our event, Ahava Leibtag.
Ahava has been a tireless advocate for content strategy within, especially the marketing community and the field of healthcare. She has spoken at every single Confab in Minneapolis since 2011, even once as a lightning speaker, a lightning talks speaker. She has more than 15 years of experience in writing messaging and marketing, she is the president and owner of Aha Media Group. Please welcome to the stage, Ms. Ahava Leibtag.
Ahava Leibtag: Hi. So I want to introduce you to my friend Borzou. I was recently at a meeting with him a few weeks ago and he was drinking what looked like a green shake in this Athletic Greens bottle, and Borzou is always doing like this crazy health stuff and I’m always interested in trying to get healthier, so I asked him what it was and he said “Oh, it’s so great, it’s like 12 to 14 servings of fruits and vegetables in one bottle. I drink it, I’m done for the day.” So I was curious about it and I went to their website, and you can see it’s called Athletic Greens, and they talk about all these different things that they do. I kept looking around the website and I saw that they had a trial pack and right away I wanted to buy it because it said it boosted your energy within five days.
So who doesn’t want more energy, right? But for some reason I was really captivated by the bottle, like I wanted the bottle even more than I wanted the product. And so I kept looking around the website for the bottle and I could not find it. So I decided to order the product anyway and I figured I’d get to the bottle. So I saw customer service and I wrote to them, “I want the cool shake bottle, is there any way to add that to my order? I’m a new customer.” Now, in the meantime the meeting was over so I said to Borzou, “How did you get that bottle?” and he said, “Oh they’ll send it to you with the order, don’t worry. It comes with the shake.”
So I said, “Great.” You can imagine my surprise when Michelle from the customer happiness team writes to me and says, “Currently we are selling our shaker bottle for $14.99. We just wanted to confirm before proceeding if you would like to process an order for the shaker bottle. If so, just respond to this email and we will be glad to take care ‘f’ everything for you. Hope to ‘ear’ from you soon!”
So I was like, oh no, oh no. I’m in marketing. So I wrote back to her, “Wow, I think you would give it to me for surprise and delight. It’s free advertising. In fact, my friend Borzou was holding it today with the name on it—I also don’t write properly—and I thought—I was so mad—and I asked him about it, and that’s why I ordered your product. So wouldn’t it make sense to send me a $15 item to gain a customer for life, or more customers?”
Michelle writes back, “Thanks for getting back to us. As a one-time courtesy we are going to ‘sent’ out a free shaker bottle for you today as a free gift. You can expect to receive the free item within the next three to five business days. If there’s anything else at all I can help you with at this time please let me know. Wishing you all the best in health and happiness.” Now, Michelle is thinking to herself, “Woman! You just bought $97 of green powder and you can’t spend $15 on a shaker bottle?” And I’m thinking to myself, “Michelle! I just spent $97 on a bag of green powder—you can’t send me a bottle?”
Now here’s the best part of this whole story. The best part of this whole story is that when the products came in the box, the shaker bottle was in the box. But three to five business days later, look what shows up in my mailbox? Whoever gets up here first can have it. So, social media being the creepy place that it is, I reached out to the CEO of Athletic Greens as well as the director of customer service. They didn’t bite, in fact the head of customer service, this morning I woke up and I saw that she had accepted my request. She doesn’t have LinkedIn on her phone, she must not have it on her phone. So ... but let’s just say that I did get in touch with them because I really was honestly curious about how they run their customer service content. It seemed like a very incongruous experience to me and I really wanted to talk to them about it. And let’s say I did talk to them and they said, “Okay Ahava, tell us, as a content strategist, how would you help us fix this problem of trying to have a relatable brand and then writing customer service content that just doesn’t seem to go with the brand that we’re offering?”
And so three to four years ago this is how I would have pitched it. I would have started talking about all of our models, right? I would have said, “Look at how great we are, we’ve thought through all this stuff about content.” Right? And I would have talked about editorial and experience and structure and process and I would have talked about how we’re going to build them a content strategy road map to massive success, right? Broken up by quarters, broken up by tactics. I would have talked about this thing we like to call the repeatable life cycle in content; how we’re going to take their content and reformat it and repurpose it and use it in all different kinds of ways. Digital distribution, right? I have all the tools at my disposal.
I’m also the queen of metaphor when pitching content strategy, so I would have said to them like just like you go through your closet twice a year, you also want to go through your content. And so we’re going to audit your content and we’re going to look at it qualitatively and quantitatively, and then we are going to build you the greatest tool ever in the history of humanity: a persona. Because you cannot do this job without one of these.
And we’re going to talk about a user journey, so when you encounter a crazy woman who wants to pay $97 for a bag of green powder but is obsessed with the accessory of the bottle, you’ll know how to handle her. And you’ll have all these different touch points, and then we’re going to build you voice and tone because clearly you’re going to talk to a guy dressed like this differently than you’re going to talk to a guy dressed like this.
And I used to make that mistake, I used to focus on the tools all the time because we had rigor and we had discipline and we knew what we were doing; we were a young field and I wanted to show people we’ve really thought about how to do this in a precise way. But what I learned is something that a marketing professor at Harvard said: “Your customers aren’t looking for a drill, they’re looking for a quarter-inch hole.” And so when I pitch I think about the hole that people are looking for, not how I’m going to make it for them.
A famous fast food restaurant—I’ll tell you their name in a second—had an issue with their milkshakes, they wanted to sell more milkshakes. So they brought in a consultant and the consultant’s job was to try to figure out how to push the milkshakes. So they experimented with different flavors, adding things to the milkshakes, and they couldn’t get anywhere. It didn’t seem to push sales at all.
So when all else fails in life, you hire a different consultant. And so they hired this different consultant and the consultant flipped the question. He thought to himself, “I’m not going to find out why people buy the milkshake, I’m going to find out what job it’s doing for them.” And so he started interviewing people (user testing), and he came up with the idea that a lot of the people that were buying the milkshake had long commutes. They had very long commutes, they had 45 minutes to an hour-long commutes, and they wanted something that was going to fill them up so that they wouldn’t crash later in the day. So the milkshakes were very thick and they took on average 22 minutes to drink, which made the commute go by faster. So what they did was they started adding things to the shakes, giving them in different flavors, making the cup more interesting because the shake wasn’t about drinking a shake. It was about the entertainment value of drinking something while they were on this long commute.
If you want to study a company that looks at data and analyses their customers, McDonald’s is the place to go. It is amazing what they know about their customers from their data—talk about creepy.
Now, when we think about how I would have sold Athletic Greens, what I failed to do three or four years ago is I failed to understand that my job was to create a shared reality with my clients and therefore help them created a shared reality with their customers. And I want to thank Scott Kubie for giving me this term. What do we mean by a shared reality? The Athletic Greens guy doesn’t need a drill, he doesn’t care about that. He wants to know, how are you going to make my content better? I don’t want to know how you’re going to do it, I don’t need to know the tools … at first, he might want to know later. He needed me to capture his imagination about how I would solve his problem of not irritating a woman who had just spent $97 on his product.
Now what’s the problem with creating shared realities? Because what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to show somebody else what we think inside our own head, and Abby just gave a full presentation about it. We use the most imperfect technology to create shared realities that we have, and that technology is language. She said it: “Language is inherently messy.” But it’s what we have.
Now you can argue, and they do—evolutionary biologists—that language is something inherent. If you ever watch a baby, right, an eight-month-old baby, they’re babbling a lot, they are learning the sounds of language and then they learn grammar and syntax and they learn words and they put things together. Other evolutionary biologists argue back and they say no, actually language is adaptation. It’s a tool that humans developed in order to become more collaborative, cooperative beings, so that they could solve problems together.
Now nowhere is there a better example of language being an imperfect technology than this example here. For those of you who have not been on the internet in a week, there’s a ... I guess an audio meme going around where you can listen to this clip and it either sounds like “yanny” or “laurel.” And even when some graphic designer did a fabulous job, right, even when you look at it it’s “yanny” or “laurel.” Now I just want to pause here for a second. The universe is a giver, okay, because in six months from now when a speaker gets up and shows this slide you’re going to groan. But I got it a week after it happened. The universe is a giver, don’t doubt it.
So, language is this imperfect technology and it’s our job to create shared realities, and oh my gosh is it moving fast, right? You just came to this conference and you hear about people doing all these cool things. They are doing voice and they are thinking about content for chat bots and customer service, and it’s all going by so quickly. In fact, look at how complex it is to create a skill for Alexa, which is like an app. You have to plot out everything, you have to think about this imperfect technology that we have with language, you have to think conversationally, you have to understand that meaning is imbued in a lot of different ways. Every single utterance that you program, you have to think about how somebody is going to understand that.
Now I happen to find this rather hysterical because when I was in graduate school I went to Georgetown University, which has an excellent linguistics department, and as part of my masters I went and sat in in some linguistics classes because I was very interested in the topic. And I remember sitting there in this classroom and looking around at these people and thinking, “You are so dumb. You are getting a PhD in linguistics? You’re never going to get a job anywhere except in academia and I’m so smart because I’m getting a masters in communications.” Now look at who has the last laugh. These PhDs in linguistics are getting snatched up ... I got mine.
Artificial intelligence, right? And I know for a lot of you, people still think this is what you do. It’s hard, it’s hard not to feel stuck, it’s hard not to feel like when people are talking about voice, you’re still trying to convince your companies that you know about voice and tone. You’re looking at silos where you have different platforms and different technologies and different languages and you can’t even get anybody on the same page. And people are arguing with you about what different things mean, they don’t even want to use the exact name of the brand when they are creating content. And all they want you to do is edit, and so you’re trying to create these shared realities and it’s so hard to do it. You feel stuck sometimes and it maybe doesn’t feel like you’re moving ahead, it feels like progress is going forward for everyone else and maybe you feel stuck.
But this has always been true, so historians tell us what was the greatest invention that changed humanity: the wheel. The wheel allowed human beings to travel farther than they had ever traveled, to actually pack things and move them from place to place like never before. What happened when the railroad came though? When the railroad came, the wagon drivers who used to do this work didn’t have jobs anymore. Progress outraced them. And then people decided, “I don’t want to be held by a railroad, I want to personally travel to the place I want to get to whenever I want to get to.” And so the hole that Henry Ford recognized was the car. This is what people wanted, and so the railroad changed dramatically.
The radio. The radio blasted communication. All of a sudden if you were on the same frequency as other people, you could hear what was going on around the world. It gave people tremendous access to information. But then somebody decided that we needed to combine audio and visual together so that everybody could see and hear what was going on. Now, I got this idea about the switchboards from watching “The Crown,” which is a Netflix series about the Royal Family—they had like a small party on Saturday, you might have heard about it. And so you see they had dozens of people in the bottom of the Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace moving the phones with precision around so that the calls would get to the right people at the right time. What happened to all of these people when automatic switching happened? What did they do, how did they retrain?
Progress seemed to have gone past them and now we can hold the entire secrets of the universe in the palm of our hand, and we use it to watch cat videos. It’s not just people though, it’s the world in general. The world moves forward, it transforms itself constantly, but it takes time. Evolution, revolution. And it doesn’t just take time, it takes a willingness to learn from mistakes, it takes building on the basics, and it takes collaboration. Now you may feel in the history of evolution that you’re the dinosaur that’s about to get eaten. That’s what it may feel like to be a content strategist.
Now, I want to show a video about collaboration as part of the creative process and one of the lightning talks was about pair writing, and I don’t think there’s any better example of this than the clip I’m going to show you.
So, when Taylor Swift—say whatever you want to say about Tay Tay, she’s a talented woman—when Taylor Swift released “Reputation,” she did something incredibly generous for her fans. She gave them insight into what her song-writing process looks like. And while you watch this clip I want you to think about when you write content or create content or try to create a shared reality with the people that you’re talking to with your teams. Because nothing is more of a shared reality than an artist trying to communicate what they were feeling at a certain moment. This is her working on her song, “Delicate.”
Taylor Swift video clip [music playing]: “Sometimes when you sleep at night … sometimes I look in your eyes … pretend your mine, do it all the time … is it cool that I said all that …”
“Sometimes I wonder if ... sometimes I wonder when you sleep … are you dreaming of me ... do you ever dream of being with me.”
“Three, four …”
“When you sleep … are you ever dreaming of me … into eyes … I pretend you're mine all the damn time.”
“Yeah, use it like the first rhythm.”
“Sometimes I wonder when you sleep … if you're ever dreaming of me, or if you ever dream of ...”
Ahava Leibtag: Okay, so from Tay to Bey, right? Thank you Abby for that. By the way, I just want to know, what do they do at finance conferences? Like I feel like every talk has to have Beyonce in it and so like how do you connect Beyonce in accounting? So I want to talk about the Taylor clip for a second. How many of us have sat there and been like “duh, duh, duh” when we’re writing? When we’re creating something? When we’re trying to communicate with the people that we’re working with? And yet we see that Taylor Swift is a songwriting prodigy, nobody argues about that, and very often we think oh, she walks into the studio and she sits down and she plays the guitar and all of a sudden a hit is born. But when you actually read about Taylor Swift talk about her songwriting process, she says that she writes notes constantly, phrases come to her, she puts them down, she does a ton of prep, and then she walks into the studio. Even when she walks into the studio she needs help, she needs the producers to help her finish the song. Because that’s what shared realities are born from. They are born from collaboration.
Let’s talk about Beyonce. It’s so interesting to me that people think about Beyonce and they just think she became Beyonce, do you know what I mean? I mean her father wants you to think that she was born out of his forehead, complete, but she wasn’t. You know what I always think about when I watch Beyonce dance? Who was her first dance teacher? Who was the first person who taught her how to breath when she sings? What kind of basic foundation did those people lay for her so that she could rehearse and rehearse and rehearse? So that she could sing in malls? So that she could join a group of four, three, whatever it was, and then become one of the world’s greatest entertainers.
What does it mean to build upon the basics? J.K. Rowling received 26 rejection letters before they published Harry Potter. 26. I always wonder if in her mansion there’s a long hallway and each one of them is framed and she walks and she goes, Oh, it’s too bad for you, oh too bad for you, oh too bad for you.” I would totally do that. I would actually call them and be like, “Hi, it’s J.K. How’s your nine-to-five job working out?” She’s too nice for that.
Okay, so failure is a necessary part of success, we hear a lot about that. But it’s also part of shared realities. So when we’re trying to create those shared realities very often we realize that we were open to misinterpretation, we didn’t communicate well with our audience, we didn’t explain the difference between the drill and the hole. And so we go back and fix it. I’m sure that she got her first few rejection letters and she revised her manuscript. She kept going though until she got it right and boy, did she get it right.
My son is very into science and so Albert Einstein is his hero. I haven’t told him about Albert Einstein’s misogyny yet; I figure I’ll wait until he’s beyond the age of 10. He has across almost every t-shirt he owns, “e=mc2,” he can actually explain to you what it means—I have no idea what he’s talking about, but let’s go with it. So it’s the Theory of Relativity and when you read about Albert Einstein coming up with the Theory of Relativity, my thought was always that he was like Newton and an apple fell on his head and then he suddenly came up with the idea and, you know, figured out the secrets of the universe. It took him 10 years—it took him 10 years, a full decade—to solidify the theory, and it wasn’t really proven for a very long time and even now there’s argument about it.
I want to show you a video from a company that probably has more to do with our shared realities than any other company in the world.
Apple video clip 1 [woman speaking]: “Sharing information on the internet is profoundly changing how we communicate. In the near future, using the internet will be as common as using telephone services we have today. In some cases, I suspect we’ll hardly even notice when we’re online. To give you an idea of how different things may be in just a few years, let’s take a look at the future. In this next video you’ll see a professor who is collaborating with a colleague. Now the technology he’s using doesn’t really exist, but it’s based on capabilities we have today: network file sharing, voice recognition, video teleconferencing, even intelligent agents. Although you may not have realized it, those of you who have conducted database queries or explored the web using a search tool like Yahoo, have been using intelligent agents that exist today. It’s just that in the future they’ll be able to do a lot more.”
Apple video clip 2 [computer and man speaking]: “You have three messages. Your graduate research team in Guatemala, just checking in. Robert Jordan, a second semester junior, requesting a second extension on his term paper. And your mother reminding you about your father ...”
“Surprise birthday party next Sunday.”
“Today you have a faculty lunch at 12 o’clock. You need to take Kathy to the airport by 2. You have a lecture at 4:15 on deforestation in the Amazon Rain Forest.”
“Right. Let me see the lecture notes from last semester. No, that’s not enough, I need to review more recent literature. Pull up all the new articles I haven’t read yet.”
“Journal articles only?”
“Your friend, Jill Gilbert, has published an article about deforestation in the Amazon and its effects on rainfall in the sub-Sahara. It also covers drought’s effect on food production in Africa and increasing imports of food.”
“I’m sorry, she’s not available right now. I left a message that you had called.”
Ahava Leibtag: Apple produced that video in 1990. Now, the great news about that video is it predicted two true things about the future: people still drive their loved ones to the airport, and professors are still pretentious.
Now if she were wearing a different outfit, it probably would have been a little bit difficult to know when exactly that video was created because she was talking about technologies that even though they didn’t exist, they were working on. Voice recognition. “Intelligent agents” is just another word for artificial intelligence. Why did Apple create that video though? If you notice a lot of those things are true today. The notebook, it turns on automatically, you don’t have to wait for it to load. That was a big thing for them, right? There’s a voice agent that can talk to you, that can do things for you, that can make phone calls for you.
25 years in the making and they created that video because they wanted every single person at Apple to know this is where we’re going. This is what progress looks like. This is our shared reality. Everything we do we’re doing because that’s where we want to get, and they are still not 100% of the way there yet.
But that’s what they were doing when they released that video to their internal teams. This is what we’re going to create. They collaborated, they looked at the basics, they built their way backwards, right? Begin with the end in mind. They knew that it was going to take a lot of time and they had failures and setbacks and they kept going anyway.
I fly a lot and one of the things that I was thinking about recently as I was preparing for this talk was why is it when you’re in a car you feel yourself going very quickly, but when you’re in an airplane that’s going dozens of times faster, you can’t feel the speed? And so the answer has to do with the way that your eye and your brain work together. When you’re far up and you can’t see anything small below you, your brain can’t process how fast you’re going. When do you feel an airplane move the most? When it accelerates upward, when it gathers all that speed to lift up into the air. That’s when you know it’s moving, and then when it gets to that high altitude it’s still moving and it’s moving fast. But because you’re so far away from the ground you can’t feel it, you can’t feel the speed with which you are moving.
Jim Collins talks about this phenomenon in his book Good to Great. Good to Great is a phenomenal book to read if you do anything with business and let me tell you something, every one of us in this audience is doing something with business. His research teams looked at thousands of companies and what they were looking for was something incredibly specific. How does a good, solid company make that leap from good to great? And they had very clear parameters on how they defined that. What he describes in the book is something that should make all of us feel fantastic. They interviewed executives from all over and they picked 13 companies that made the move from good to great, and every single one of those executives from 13 companies said to him, “We focused on the basics.” We had failure, we made mistakes, we learned from them.
Teams were the most important thing. If we didn’t have the right people in the right seats, we couldn’t drive to where we were going. And we knew it was going to take time. He calls that part of Good to Great “the flywheel.” You push, and you push, and you push, and all of a sudden you get momentum. Then you push again, and you push again, and then you get momentum again.
For those of you who are working on the coolest stuff, that’s awesome, that’s great. You’re also building on the basics of the people who are sitting in this room who are still creating those basics. So if you feel stuck because you’re working on voice and tone, know that that voice and tone is one day going to be used in your company to build a voice skill. And if you’re still trying to smash silos, remember you’re not alone in doing that.
It’s hard to get people to collaborate, it’s hard to create shared realities, but that’s our jobs. It’s our jobs for our clients, internally, and it’s our job for the customers that our organization serve. Align your content with your business objectives, help your users accomplish their tasks.
So if you feel stuck no matter where you are on the flywheel, you are moving forward. And while you may not feel the ship moving, it’s because you’re so far away from the ground that you can’t feel the speed. But trust me, you are moving ahead anyway.
Thank you very much.