I was lucky enough to connect with Brian Reich about content, content repurposing, the Rule of the 4 (you’re going to LOVE this one) and being a pumpkin farmer. The interview is gold so I’ll let it do the talking.
AL: So tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.
BR: “My background is in politics. I grew up in both Seattle and CT because my parents were divorced, so I went back and forth, but did politics everywhere. Candidate campaigns, ballot initiatives, things like that. First paid political gig I think I was 14 or 15. I was campaign manager for a Congressional race when I was 18, youngest in the country. We lost, but whatever. And then I ended up in the White House, first as a part of President Clinton’s speech writing team and then as Gore’s briefing director. Focused a lot as his briefing director on how people get and share information, so when the Supreme Court took my job away in 2000, I started to do digital strategy and content strategy, and you know, really focus on how people get and share information, and what technologies do we need to influence those behaviors and change people’s consumption patterns and habits and all of that. And, then, I worked with folks to create content or create systems for creating content and experiences that will resonate and actually get them to do something—whether that’s buy a product every now, and then, or more often having to do with public affairs and serious issues and actually getting involved in things that have greater importance than just branding, or something like that.”
AL: That’s so fascinating to me, because the reason that I got into this whole gig, was that I was working in New York and I had a couple of jobs in advertising and corporate communications, and I wanted to get a Master’s degree and one of the things that really fascinated me was ‘how does the government communicate public policy to citizens?’ It seemed to me that it was really complex to explain certain things that the government does and why they do them and for the average person to understand them. While I was in graduate school, I got an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Talk about complex—energy regulation. And, part of my job was to sit and talk to people about why the government was going to use Eminent Domain to grab a piece of their land to build a pipeline. It was so clear to me that everything we were doing was wrong, from the content on the website to the brochures we were sending people. I redesigned and rewrote all of that consumer facing information in exactly what you’re talking about—how do people get information, how do they understand it, why do they want it the way that want it. Obviously, that led me into private enterprise, but I’m still fascinated by that.”
BR: Back in 2000, when I finished in the White House, the way you could get information and the different platforms and tools and all of that were still relatively limited. Now there are thousands of different devices and millions of different channels and all of these different influences on the way we get and share information. So, a lot about how we engage people and motivate them and mobilize them and inform and educate them needs to change, and a lot of it doesn’t. A lot of the fundamentals of how people learn and how people internalize information— and what’s the differences between awareness and knowledge—those things haven’t changed because we as humans in our brains haven’t dramatically been altered. But certainly, the mechanisms for getting that information out or experiencing that information have evolved and changed, which keeps this conversation continually evolving and going squirrely.
Ahava’s note: Isn’t that the most awesome word? Squirrely.
AL: Right, exactly and I think part of the squirrely part is that’s where people go wrong. The way that we break apart information hasn’t changed, it’s just that we have so many more channels for distribution and so many more formats to choose from that are very easily and cheaply distributable. For example, anyone can become a star now if they post a video on YouTube, and it starts to go viral. Remember Anton Dodson? That guy made a fortune, because those brothers picked up his rant on TV and turned it into song. And I think that’s why marketers—that word squirrely is such a good word, because I think they just lost sight of the fact that the best practices and the basics still remain about the way that people consume information and where they get it. They still go to their watering holes. So if their new watering hole is Facebook, figure out what works on Facebook, you know?”
BR: Yup. A lot of what frustrates me—or I should say what motivates me—is that so many people focus on the shiny object, so many people focus on the delivery tool. So they think it’s about video, when really video is about moving images, and how that compares to still images, and how that compares to words. And you know they go another step further, and they say ‘No, it’s about Vimeo or YouTube, so you gotta be on YouTube.’ No, you have compelling content that resonates with people that you’re trying to reach—it will find those people, or those people will end up seeking it out. It isn’t about one platform or another, and you know as more and more of these platforms have proliferated, I think a lot of people’s focus has shifted away from what makes for quality communications and quality engagement and what types of metrics—I hate talking about metrics, I hate talking about math—but about what really are the outcomes that matter, and how do you demonstrate in some way that you’ve had an effect. It’s often not that first action, or that view, or that share, it’s something offline or analog, or something long-term or more meaningful. We don’t spend enough time focusing on that or talking about that, we spend a lot of time on clicks and views and simple knee jerk activities, that in many ways sort of exhaust us and keep us getting to the core of what we actually want people to do and how we should be talking to them.
AL: I was just talking to my accountability group, and my mentor was talking about this book called The Pumpkin Plan, about how you have to prune the baby pumpkins so you’ll get a big pumpkin. And I think it’s such a great idea for digital strategy—that metaphor works really well, because we very often—like you said, shiny object. We want to produce a video. Why? Because that’s what everyone is doing. But who’s your target audience? Seniors. Ok, well we know seniors don’t watch as much video as you think they do. We don’t care. We need one. We need to have a video. And that’s exactly what’s so irritating about it—you’re pouring all your energy into that baby pumpkin that’s not going to do anything for you, when you really should be spending time on the pumpkins that can grow.”
BR: “If you want to push that metaphor past what’s appropriate—the really good stuff happens when you take that pumpkin home and carve it for Halloween or make it into soup. Even once you create that video or paragraph, there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure the interaction goes the way that you want and becomes part of a series of interactions that will influence someone’s behavior. You can’t just create something and assume it’s going to do all the work or that the person on the receiving end will know what to do. You have to teach people how to do things the way you want them to do and it takes time, takes reminders, and baby stepping until they get to the point you want them to get to. And then it starts all over again and you have to maintain that relationship. “
AL: “ And it’s interesting you segued into the internal workflow strategy component. I want to come back to the idea of taking home a pumpkin and turning into a jack-o-lantern. What you’re really speaking to is the suggestion that we can repurpose our content in a lot of different ways. Everyone’s interested in how do you commoditize content? How do you monetize it? Do you have three suggestions for people who are thinking about how to do that?”
BR: “I think there are 2 ways to look at it. One is there are lots of ways you can functionally monetize content:
And they are all valuable and all useful in various situations because they take advantage of different things. Like in advertising, the advantage is eyeballs, so if you have something that’s popular, there’s a way to monetize it. IF you have something relationship oriented, then something like subscription would be valuable. So there are existing mechanisms for how to monetize content that people like to dismiss, but the fact that those exist is a good thing because none of us have to be experts in fancy new ways of monetization.
But the core is, from the other side, is that you have to create things of value. The context of someone’s life is what ultimately will define that value. So if I’m stranded in the snow somewhere, I would probably pay anything for someone to tell me how to get out of the snow, or to get a blanket while I wait out a tow-truck. If I’m trying to better my life, something I realize will take time and is a commitment that requires investment over a period of weeks or months, then I’m probably willing to invest time and money, but I want to make sure that I find something that matches my level of commitment or interest, or can work with me so I don’t abandon it a little way in. So my view of how to monetize content is to create a variety of different things—by which I mean a variety of different formats, approaches, voices and methods—give the user, the audience, what we know they already have, which is control over their information experience, and the way to do that is to think efficiently. So I call it the rule of four–any piece of content that I create, I try to create in at least four different formats: video, audio, text and graphic, because different people have different ways of receiving information at different times on different devices. And you want the ability to serve all of those different needs and times.”