Whither the Content Strategy?
I have witnessed so many networks, particularly the in-store variety, skip any discussion of a content strategy. It's one of those things that gets mentioned often at seminars, but is rarely explained in detail. Consequently, few networks really understand the process of building an effective content strategy. Granted it can be a somewhat complicated process, but the experience pays a huge dividend. It basically starts with getting a clear understanding of the network's objectives, their integrated marketing communications plans, and the physical limits of the network itself (audio or video driven, passive or interactive, where it is merchandised, dwell time, etc).
Image credit: HikingArtist.com
Skimping on Development Means Spending More Later
A second area in the content process that is often overlooked is the creative development stage. I have recently been part of two RFPs/Creative Briefs (reluctantly) where the parties believed the next step after delivering the RFP or Creative Brief was the execution, i.e. a finished video or animation, ready for in-store viewing. However, skipping the creative development stage (including the presentation of concepts, storyboarding, developing treatments, writing outlines, creating animatics, and so on) is akin to making a movie without a script. Heck, even reality shows have scripts these days, so it always amazes me when clients want to skip this all-important series of steps. There is a saying in the film business that a bad movie can be produced from a good script, but a good movie can never be made from a bad one. Now imagine the movie made with no script and you have an idea of where we are going by sidestepping the creative development phase.
I understand that all clients want their projects to come in ahead of schedule and under budget, but I doubt any of them would agree to those terms if it meant that the final product was poorly thought-out and executed. What would be the point of that? Yet many still seem surprised when creative agencies bill for their hours during the development stage -- even though this step can take as much time and effort as final production. Moreover, spending enough time at this stage will likely save the client money in the long run by bringing down production and execution costs, yielding content that performs better, and preventing the need to reinvent the wheel when everyone is wondering why the network is not performing as promised.
There are a lot of tangential benefits of these creative pitches too. In my experience, it has led to better creative that's functional, but more in keeping with the client's own desires than something we might put together without the development process. It involves the client on a deeper level, as sometimes they are not quite sure what they really want in their network at the brief or RFP stage. Consider someone who buys a plot of land and wants to put a house on it. It certainly is easier to visualize the house after it's built, but by that time it's too late to make major changes. That's why houses aren't built without architectural drawings and blueprints. Likewise, it's much easier to satisfy the client if they've had a chance to make their suggestions and voice their concerns before the production phase. Not every idea needs to be storyboarded and presented, especially as the network grows and matures. But in the early stages of a digital signage network's deployment, or when the client decides that the overall content strategy must change, it is indeed vital.
Don't Forget to Roll with the Punches
Our content strategy at Blockbuster did change over the years, so it's important for agencies to constantly review their strategies with their clients. For instance, when Blockbuster's business model moved to a revenue-sharing deal with the studios (vs. outright purchase of the movies), our content strategy changed too, since our higher-margin products turned out to be the paid-for and dust-collecting catalog titles. This in turn led to different creative. That all changed again when Blockbuster started selling advertising and developing more marketing partnerships. By 1996, so many internal departments were involved in the input process that the network was seen as a critically important, enterprise-wide program, used by marketing, buying, training, corporate communications, and even HR.
So in this time of 'hope and change', I hope that we can move forward as an industry, and that more of us will stress the importance of a sound (yet flexible) content strategy and creative process. As I noted at the beginning, I came into the in-store TV world backwards, with no true strategy and no creative plan. But that changed quickly after I took a few trips to Blockbuster stores around the country, and was finally able to visualize how our in-store program would interact with the environment. Starting with that seed of understanding, we then developed a content strategy based on Blockbuster's business model and marketing initiatives. Each concept that we deemed appropriate got a full treatment and outlines with the goal of maximizing its presence in the store. By the time we started conducting research on the program's effects, we were pleased to find that it was responsible for increasing rentals and sales by 8% (which was the main objective identified in our Content Strategy). Within a few years, we were able to fine-tune our content strategy and creative process to yield a program that would boost that number to more than 15% on average.
Want to learn more about Gary's techniques for creating in-store media programs that really work? Be sure to catch his talk on the "Basics in Content Strategy, Process and Design for Out-of-Home Networks" at the Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas. His presentation is scheduled for February 26 at 3 pm.