KM: Thank you, Colleen, for taking the time to talk with me today about your book! For those few UXmatters readers who don’t already know you, can you share with us a little bit about your background?
CJ: Certainly. While my M.A. is in technical communication, I spent the very early part of my career in local journalism, then evolved into interactive marketing and user experience design. I worked for several years with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then at Cingular Wireless, before moving into consulting, which I love! I hit my groove with that in 2010 and founded Content Science, a boutique consultancy in Atlanta, Georgia. We have a small team and work with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies to niche brands.
KM: And I think it’s those varied experiences that shine through in your book. There are a lot of Web marketing books that touch on content—and a lot of Web content books that touch on marketing, but in Clout, you don’t silo these two concepts as is common. Rather, you discuss them as a homogeneous whole, offering a more effective way of writing for the Web. Why did you take this approach?
CJ: Over the years, I’ve run into too many problems with the way our industry frames problems and, consequently, their solutions—especially for content. For example, I’ve seen UX professionals make fun of marketing departments over “cheesy” or irrelevant content, and I’ve seen marketing professionals get frustrated with UX professionals and technical communicators over their dry, lifeless content. The only way to address these issues, in my mind, was to take a more holistic view of content.
In my book, I point out when you need different types of content to influence attitude and guide action. I hope this approach saves people from some of the arguments and misunderstandings I’ve faced over the years.
KM: Who is this book for, Colleen?
CJ: Honestly, my book is for everyone who’s even peripherally involved in the interactive-marketing industry. Content affects everyone, and everyone needs to get smarter about it. I really like how CMS Wire describes Clout as being useful to executives, designers, and people on the content front lines—such as writers, editors, and social community managers.
KM: In business, people often associate the concept of influence with brand, marketing, sales, and advertising—reflecting a very old-school model of top-down messaging. To some Web content purists, the very idea of persuasive writing might evoke the negative connotation of swaying readers rather than guiding their interactions. How do you respond to this?
CJ: There’s a big difference between persuasion, or influence, and manipulation. People have experienced much interactive marketing in the United States as a collection of manipulative tricks—to the point that the connotations of marketing and advertising are now almost synonymous with lying. That really needs to change.
A story my colleague, Jeff Chasin, recently shared with me drove this point home for me. He told me that, in Japan, search-engine marketing ads actually work. I say actually, because in the United States, people often ignore them. But, if you run a search ad in Japan, lots of people will click it. When I asked why, Jeff said the reason is that people trust the ads. Businesses there would not advertise something that isn’t true. At least for now.
So, we need to shift our conception of influential content from being manipulation that tricks people to being a trusted advisor that guides people. If the interactive-marketing industry doesn’t make this shift, it will implode. That would be a bad thing for everyone, not just marketers.
KM: So, would you say that persuasive writing is the antithesis of plain language?
CJ: No, persuasive writing is an evolution of plain language. You can’t influence people if they don’t understand what you’re saying. You have to be clear. The plain language movement helps tremendously with being clear, especially for government or technical content. But, you can be very clear and still fail to influence. Influential content encourages people to care about what you’re saying. I love this quotation from advertising legend William Bernbach:
“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”