Passion and Technique: A Response to Matthew Shadbolt

Ready to write blogposts, you are not, young padawan.

I started writing a response to this amazing comment by Matthew Shadbolt of Corcoran, and thought… it’s too long to go into the comments. It deserves a post of its own.

Basically, Matthew’s challenge poses the question of passion on the one hand and technique on the other:

So, just as we disagreed yesterday with the advice of ‘post great content that people will want to share’, ‘be passionate’ isn’t an endgame in itself either. I feel like passionate content exists in real estate, pretty much only within social at the moment (I wouldn’t characterize any type of online home search as ‘passionate’ although I would love it to be), but my criticism of such content is that it is very often poorly executed. There is a very important quality issue missing from the content creation discussion. If it looks like crap, is tough to hear, or unreadable, people will not use it, no matter how ‘passionate’ the intent behind it – as a result your work becomes invisible. This is why I disagree with Rob’s point that you can’t strategize around creative – I think you have to. This is what ad agencies do, and why some in the real estate industry hear the call to think of themselves more as media companies, especially around their marketing. [Emphasis mine]

It’s an excellent point. Who cares how passionate you are about whatever topic, or how committed you are… if you just suck? No one will care about your passion if you can’t put it into a form that audiences can consume. Right?

Well, sort of.

I’ve actually written on this topic before, in the context of video. Back in 2009, I wrote in The Price of Artifice:

Because the audience expectation is so high when it comes to professional work, in order to avoid looking like an idiot, your execution must be extraordinary.  This is both prohibitively expensive and incredibly difficult.

Turns out, the theme and the idea are both applicable to all content of any kind. You need both passion and technique, and perhaps my error in the first post was assuming/taking it for granted that anyone who would write a blogpost about his town with passion is at least in possession of above-average writing ability. At the same time, I don’t believe that professional marketers are always aware of the tradeoff between passion/authenticity and technique/skill.

Let us explore further.

The Importance of Craft

If I did not stress the importance of craft, of skill development, in creating content… then mea culpa. That was an oversight. I thought by constantly bringing up written, audial, and video formats for content, I was acknowledging that different people have different talents.

But it appears that part of what Matthew wants from those who are telling real estate agents (or anybody, for that matter) about content creation is the specific WHAT and HOW. He’s talking about the craft:

As I repeatedly mentioned in our Twitter conversation, it is the WHAT that they need to hear. While the discussion as to what is ‘good’ is intensely subjective, the parameters of the box are not. A Facebook post is a certain size, a video is of an optimum length, a listing has certain slots to fill. What you do with those erodes what is ‘good’ if you dont focus on absolutely making it look the best it possibly can, in a way that is as easy to consume as possible.

If a person doesn’t know how to boil water, it makes no sense to urge him to unleash his passion for French-Cambodian-Argentinian fusion cooking. He could be bursting with passion, but has no way to actually realize it. He doesn’t know how.

If the issue is that the target of advice — in this case, a real estate agent — doesn’t know what Facebook is, doesn’t know HTML, doesn’t know the basic rules of grammer, doesn’t know how to organize thoughts into paragraphs, etc. then… well, all further advice is useless.

We can agree this far.

If an agent does not know how to write coherent English, she should learn to write better, or not to written blogposts. If an agent has the kind of face that makes small children cry, he should get some cosmetic surgery done and work out or something, or not do video.

So yes, basic craft is a requirement.

But Craft Is Overrated

But in the real world, very few real estate agents are actually illiterate. And vanishingly few who would be interested in content creation at all are totally ignorant of basic writing skills. No one would do video if she knows that she’s distressingly ugly. People are not that unaware of their limitations.

So the real question is, when someone is of average skill level in whatever craft — writing, doing podcasts, recording video, whatever — then what should the experts be telling them?

This is where I part ways with Matthew, based on the examples. “A Facebook post is a certain size” does not address the craft of writing; it’s conventional wisdom repackaged as sage advice. Same with the “optimum length” of a video. The optimum length of a video is that length which achieves your objective. It seems entirely unthinking to say, “Your video must be no more than 4 minutes long, because studies show that you lose 10% of the audience for every 30 seconds of length over 2 minutes.” But if the goal of the video is not to garner maximum audience size, but engender depth of fanaticism… then what?

One of my favorite content creators on YouTube is a young man who goes by the moniker Day[9].

Look at the video. It’s an hour long. Day9 himself is… well, there’s no other way to put this: he’s a total geek. He’s a nerd. He’s the kind of guy that girls would overlook and snicker at in hipster bars. He’s in his mid-twenties but still has video game posters on the wall. He cusses on video. His haircut is awful. He just uses a webcam and his computer. There are no multiple camera angles, no editing, nothing professional about this “broadcast” at all. Have I mentioned that the video is an hour long? His topic is a video game, StarCraft II. One game. Granted, it’s one of the best strategy games ever developed, and is the foundation for a multi-million dollar professional gaming niche, but it’s just one game.

Look at his subscriber count: 169,410 as of this writing.

Now, look at this video by World CyberGames.

This is a professional production. You can tell by the theme music, all the fancy computer graphics, the dual broadcasters (announcer and color commentator, borrowed from sports broadcasting), multiple camera angles, and so on.

And it’s boring as all hell. Don’t let the 663K views on this video fool you. Considering that one twentysomething nerd in the US can get 30K views on one of his fixed-webcam videos, that’s a fail for a professional production of what is the equivalent of the Olympics for gamers.

What’s the difference?

The Form Leads to Expectations

Matthew touched on a fundamental issue with all types of content, but glossed over it:

For example, to return to our music industry analogy, however groundbreaking Public Enemy or Nirvana were at the time, they were still working within an established and somewhat agreed upon framework of the 3 minute song designed to be played on the radio. They had distilled their ‘passion’ into a format which they understood that the audience would be familiar with, however challenging and innovative the material.

He’s right, of course. But there’s something else at work as well.

It isn’t simply that artists must obey the conventions of a particular form or genre; it is also that the audience’s expectations are set by the form/genre. You do not judge a rap song with the same standards as you would a jazz improv piece. You do not judge a movie the same way you would a book.

In the two gaming videos above, I go into something that is positioned as a sports broadcast with a totally different frame of reference than I do watching something positioned as a one-man video blog. What would be charming and funny if Day[9] did it would come off unprofessional and stupid if the “professional” broadcasters at the WCG did it. (And they do, by the way.) Because I’m not comparing the WCG broadcast to Day[9]; I’m comparing it to ESPN. On that comparison, WCG’s product is a miserable failure.

Similarly, bringing it back to real estate marketing content, I would approach brochureware copy on an agent website very differently than I would her blogposts. It’s not something I do consciously, but I essentially end up comparing her website copy to other, professionally produced website copy. (For that matter, I end up comparing the whole website to other websites, like that of Goldman Sachs.)

It may not be fair, of course, since Goldman Sachs is a multinational investment bank that can afford to hire the absolute best of the best, while Agent Susie Smith is a one-woman show. But audiences are not fair. They do not owe you fairness. And even if they know consciously that they can’t compare your two websites, that’s the frame of reference they subconsciously bring to the table.

This is a trap that far too many independent businesses — including real estate agents — fall into. They think they have to be professional, project a professional image, put out a professional web presence, etc. etc. and believe the comparison for the consumer is between Agent Smith and Agent Jones. Sorry. The comparison for the consumer is between Agent Smith and Goldman Sachs. Or Agent Jones and Unfair? Of course. True? Yes it is.

The Lure of Social Media

If anything explains the lure of social media marketing, it is that in the world of blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter… the playing field appears completely level. Agent Smith’s Facebook Page does not have to be grossly outclassed by a multinational corporation, because of the limits that Facebook itself imposes on both. Same with Twitter: your 140 characters are as powerful or as weak as CNN’s 140 characters.

But I use the word “appears” because that’s all it is: appearance of a level playing field. In fact, corporations with professional marketing staff, such as one Mr. Matthew Shadbolt, will have an advantage over the sole practitioner who is trying to service clients, win business, AND keep up a steady stream of “interesting content”. For one thing, corporations can and do (or at the very least should) track exactly what is resonating with whom. And given that they employ professional marketers, who tend to be good writers, know how to do video production, etc., they can practice social media with a good deal of craft. They can understand what content is resonating with whom and in what way, and pursue strategic content campaigns.

In short, corporations and professional marketers are often able to compensate for the lack of passion with superior craft. Here’s an example:

Yeah. That’s right. You teared up, admit it.

But there is no way that anybody involved in that video is passionate about insurance. Passionate about telling stories, maybe; passionate about the craft of advertising, probably; passionate about actuarial tables, not a chance.

No matter how passionate an independent insurance salesperson might be about life insurance, the chance of creating anything approaching that commercial is nil.

Passion Is the Endgame

So it turns out, that contra Matthew, passion is the endgame for the small business owner looking to utilize content in marketing. It isn’t because of some idealistic “thou shalt create art” that I say this. It’s because of the relative competence between the small and the large.

But credit is due to Matthew for pointing out the importance of craft. Some above average skill is in fact required. If a writer, some ability to write coherently, make ideas connect, and have the story flow is required. If doing podcasts, some ability to sound interesting with one’s voice alone, to be an interesting interviewer, etc. is required. If doing video, some natural talent in front of a camera is required.

Craft is the foundation. It is not the endgame. Passion is. Authentic interest in the topic is.

The old adage of relationships is, “To be interested is to be interesting.” The same applies to content creation for the non-professional.

As always, your thoughts and criticism are welcome.