Content marketing and/or jazz enthusiasts: It’s time to rethink conventions

Recently, I was part of a jazz trio that played a corporate function for a medical device manufacturer hosting a cocktail reception to promote a product. As we began to play, a few things became apparent: first, although the client had requested jazz (think Ella, Frank, Miles, Charlie Parker), it was clear our contact really wanted “jazz” (a nondescript instrumental sonic wallpaper, often featuring horns, that covers up clinking glasses). Second, most of the people at the party weren’t regular jazz listeners, which stood to reason since the average attendee was born 20 years after the heyday of jazz. And third, as the night wore on and we transitioned from traditional jazz standards to instrumental versions of soul and funk songs, the crowd didn’t discern a difference.

Jazz is a word that makes many people—especially those born after 1980—run in the other direction. Jazz music frequently resembles less the vibrancy of New Orleans or New York and more a ponderous, pretentious, and academic exercise. And despite that fact, jazz music for a reception cocktail hour has become a default. At the next wedding you attend, you’re likely to find a trio or quartet blazing away on tunes that your grandparents listened to on their porch swing while pitching woo. It’s a total anachronism that few clamor for, and yet it stays around because no one bothers to ask if it’s really necessary.

So what does all of this have to do with content marketing?

Over the past 15 years, as digital technologies have completely transformed the way people find and consume ideas, many of the conventions remain. Think of the 25-page white paper: where once the heft of an offering connoted the serious analysis that lay within, now digital publishing has exponentially increased the volume of available materials. It’s just as likely to be ignored or viewed as a complete misunderstanding of the audience. When readers do open the PDF version of such a document, they will frequently search the text using keywords to find exactly what they are looking for while skipping over the oceans of carefully crafted prose.

The same goes for the executive summary of long reports. When these reports were distributed as hard copies, the executive summary served a vital purpose: give people a better idea of what awaited them without requiring hours of attention. Now, when the vast majority of people will read these reports digitally or use the hyperlinked table of contents to jump to relevant sections, the executive summary is less necessary. But it, like jazz at cocktail hour, persists without question or alteration.

Any organization that is embarking on the development of a substantial project should pause and ask a few questions: who is the audience? How will this content be consumed? And how can we tailor the end product to make it as accessible as possible?

Recently, we have been working with clients who have taken a range of pragmatic approaches to sharing content: post a full 60-page report online and distribute it electronically, but print out a four-page, exhibit-heavy hard copy that presents the main points for use at events. Post an executive summary online as a separate PDF alongside the full report. Or take a couple of killer charts from a long report and create a bite-size piece of content that can act as a trail of bread crumbs to the full report.

The result: all of these clients reached a broader audience and got more from their content investment. What’s more, they also understood that connecting with current and prospective customers isn’t just about innovative ideas but also innovative presentation.

Where’s that leave jazz? I’ve been talking with a drummer, and we realize the answer may require going back to the fundamentals. When jazz was at the height of its popularity, it was essentially dance music and instrumental versions of the hits of the day (Gershwin, Cole Porter, and the like). So we’re exploring ways to apply that same approach to today’s music, in the process incorporating some of its rhythms (less swing, more house and groove) and sonic palette. And by catering to the audience’s tastes, it might actually become something more than sonic background—the same thing that business writing should strive to do.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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