Feb 28, 2021
Margot Bloomstein is the principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy. Over a twenty year career, she has consulted in a wide range of industries. Margot is the author of Content Strategy at Work and of a new book, Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap, which is the subject of our conversation today.
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Jorge: Margot, welcome to the show.
Margot: Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.
Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you please tell us about yourself?
Margot: Sure. I was born at a very young age. I've been working in content strategy for about 20 years. My background before that, I have my BFA in design and I still consider myself a designer. I focus on brands-driven content strategy. So that means I work with organizations to help them clarify their communication goals and then figure out how to sort of solve for X. Knowing who they are and knowing who their target audience is and what they're trying to achieve, how do we kind of span that unknown space between what they're trying to accomplish, what their audience needs and then the right content types and tools and affordances that will help them get there. And I guess I still think of myself as a designer in that context because even though I'm solving problems, not through typography and the density of information on the page and color, but more through editorial style and tone and content types and that sort of thing. It's still around problem solving to facilitate communication and manifest those ideas.
Jorge: And you practice as a consultant, is that right?
Margot: Yes. Yeah. I've been an independent under the umbrella of Appropriate, Inc. since 2010. And before that I was in a couple of different mid-sized agencies that had hired me to develop their content strategy departments. Kind of around like 2003, 2004, up through 2010, as that was becoming something that their clients were requesting more by name or were interested in seeing how it would complement visual design and information architecture, and that three-legged stool of user experience design. And prior to that, I spent a year in house at Timberland. And then really, I think my graduate school was a couple of years at Sapient in kind of the height of the .com boom and bust.
Jorge: I've been aware of you and your work in content strategy for a long time. The reason I wanted to speak with you now is that you have a new book out called Trustworthy. And I'm wondering if you could give us a high-level overview of the book, what it's about.
Margot: Sure. So, Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap. I think that subtitle is... It's optimistic and hopeful, because I see that there are problems around us in our communication and in our society and how we interact in our society. And I think there's a real opportunity for brands to approach that problem with a fresh mindset and with new perspectives that we're not able to find from government or large institutions anymore. And this is something that Ethan Zuckerman writes about in Mistrust that recently came out. He looks at how we've lost trust in institutions and what people can do to respond to that. How we can kind of do our own bit of saving, as it were. And I look at how, within this context of the rise of cynicism, as we've lost trust in government, in politicians, in media, if we ever had a lot of trust there to begin with... We've seen how the effects of gaslighting in those realms have affected people. How people have turned away from those large institutions and maybe media outlets that they used to trust. Big organizations that they used to trust. How instead, we've kind of turned to our filter bubbles to people that are quote unquote, just like us, to say, "Well, what should I know? What's everyone else's experience with this? What should I be reading? What should I be eating? Where should I be going out to eat when I can do that again?" And in that context, we've kind of become more aware of our filter bubbles, and certainly how some brands end up gaining those filter bubbles. How ratings and reviews are skewed.
And I think as people have become more aware of that reality, they've pulled back even further to kind of go with their own gut instincts to say, "well, if it feels right to me, that's going to be my test of reality and veracity. If it feels right, it must be right." The only problem with that is that over the past few years, as more of us have been affected by gaslighting from politicians, from the media, from news organizations saying, "don't look anywhere else. We're the only source of truth." That affects our gut instincts.
We've lost our gut instincts and our ability to evaluate information from multiple sources and to feel good about our information analysis and our understanding of the world. And with that kind of outlook, people are shaky and susceptible to bad information. We've grown, sort of immobilized in our ability to make decisions. And that's why we see how sales cycles take longer and so much marketing falls flat. And that's why I think that even though those problems maybe started in the realm of politics and the media, those issues around indecision and cynicism undermine any kind of organization or industry that engages in marketing. If you're trying to sell something, if you're trying to offer a service, even if you are a government entity that is offering things for the public good, people now approach it with more cynicism and doubt. And that's a problem because our work suffers. Our work falls flat. And I think if this is the mindset of so many consumers, so many citizens, and readers and shoppers and voters. We need to meet them where they are and help them move forward. Help them kind of break out of that. And that's really the message of Trustworthy.
So, I look at that problem, analyze the why and the how behind it, and then propose a new framework for designers, copywriters, content strategists, creative directors, marketers in general, to move forward and help their businesses move forward. Because I do believe that business can be a force for good, beyond merely corporate-social responsibility efforts and corporate philanthropy. Those things are certainly important. And those are oftentimes activities and areas of focus that are relegated maybe to an HR department. But I think there are things though that everyone can do that works in design or copywriting or content strategy or marketing. We can make changes to how we do work and the things that we prioritize in our work to help business be a force for good. To move things forward and ultimately better serve our users.
Jorge: I'm glad you mentioned this idea of business as a source for good. Because it is a question that I had in thinking about two of the words in the subtitle of the book, "brands" and "cynicism," in that I see a lot of... this loss of trust extends to companies, right? And it extends to entire capitalist framework. In some cases, I see a lot of people ranting against that online. And yet the book does come across as being very much an optimistic take on trying to overcome that kind of cynicism through what — if I might characterize it, you talked about the framework — it came across to me as a framework for communicating more trustworthy-ily? I don't know if that's a word.
Margot: Hmm. With a greater degree of trust?
Jorge: Yes! With a greater degree of trust, that's a better way of putting it. I'm wondering, is there a way to measure degrees of trust? I mean, there's so much about this that is quantified. By "this," I mean, communications through digital media. Are there ways for organizations to know the degree to which they are trusted by the public?
Margot: Yes. And I mean, we definitely see different surveys, kind of public opinion research. Gartner publishes on this. Edelman publishes on this. Edelman publishes their annual trust survey and most trusted brands. But I think that businesses can look for other markers - other indicators of trust - as well. And this issue, it kind of parallels the discussion that has... I don't want to say plagued content strategy as a practice for so long, but very often we wonder, and we hear clients wonder too, right? "If I make these changes, how do we measure if our content strategy is working? What are our metrics of success?" and I think that that's a valid question, but I think that we don't always ask it appropriately. I think we need to ask that question with a bigger, a wider-angle lens, I think, looking at the context. Because you cannot measure the success of content strategy by looking at a single element of content and saying, did it work? Did it not work? However, we can measure the results the same way that we can measure the effect and impact of trust by looking at other metrics from around the organization.
So, for example, one of the brands that I profiled in Trustworthy is Crutchfield, the electronics company. They publish a tremendous amount of content in a wonderful, rich level of detail using a lot of different content types. They've got a lot of really long, long pages on their site and what they've discovered in looking at user research, in testing, and even just looking at onsite analytics: when people get to the end of those really long pages, they click to keep going. They want to read more and that's because their audience gains greater confidence in their ability to make decisions around maybe it's a really high-ticket purchase, a new home audio system or something for their car, or even maybe just a high-end camera lens. Their audience gains confidence in their own knowledge and in their ability to make good decisions by taking in more content. They spend a lot of time with it. And then they know that that audience is feeling more confident about it because when those people then are able to move forward with the purchase to put an item in the shopping cart, go ahead and check out, and then eventually get that purchase on their doorstep? They don't see a high rate of returns. There's not a lot of buyer's remorse there.
So, I think when we look at asking, "are these brands trusted?", we're not asking the question in a way that is sufficiently broad enough because we should also be asking, "do our users, do our audiences act in a way that indicates that they trust themselves? That they're confident in their own knowledge?" And that's a lot of what I get at in Trustworthy. So much about brands earning trust and gaining the confidence of their audiences really is about how we enable those people to feel more confident in themselves; how we enable them to feel like they can make good decisions and then feel good about the decisions that they make. And we can measure that in the rate of product returns, time spent onsite. If they're going back and forth a lot between putting something in a shopping cart, as well as then in doing research in focus groups and talking with our users.
One of the other examples that I include is gov.uk, when they went through a big effort to kind of reign in their content. So, in contrast to the example from Crutchfield, they realized that they published so much content. I think, information about government services in Britain was available across some nine different websites, 75,000 pages. And you could bet they weren't all consistent in message. Like it was a maintenance nightmare! It wasn't good for internal users, and internal content creators and designers, and it certainly was not good for British citizens. And they realized in going through a process of scaling back their content, adopting this mantra that government should only publish content on the topics on which only government can publish content. They pulled back. They said we don't need 75,000 pages of content. They went through a big audit process and reigned it back to about 3000 pages, then brought people in and asked them to accomplish certain tasks on the site.
And again, and again, they were hearing from people, "oh, Oh, is that it? I guess I'm done! Great!" that kind of response, because they were giving them cues that said, "you can feel confident that this is all the information you need to access a certain type of tax paperwork," or to file for certain benefits. By giving them those cues that said, what you have received is everything that we have to say, and you can rest assured that you don't need to keep poking around the rest of the greater internet to find more information? That's what their audience needed to feel confident in their own knowledge.
Jorge: I loved the gov.uk example in the book. It was used to illustrate, as you mentioned, the volume of content in the site. I also loved the discussion of the tone of voice that gov.uk adopted and how they made changes to – I’m going to paraphrase here – but to translate kind of ‘government speak’ into language that was more understandable to a broader portion of the population. The question in my mind about both of these examples, Crutchfield and gov.uk — and by the way, the book is filled with examples from a wide range of organizations, which is really great because it really does a good job of illustrating these principles at work
Margot: and something for everyone!
Jorge: There's something for everyone, yeah!
One thing that stood out to me is that many of these organizations have been around for a while. Like of course the government of the UK had a relationship with the public that preceded their website. And Crutchfield has also been around for a while. I remember one of the examples in the book is MailChimp, which is more of a startup, I think, but still it's been around. It's not a new startup.
Margot: Right. Yeah, they've been around a long time. When they first started out, they were a small business, serving other small businesses with email marketing needs and now they support something like 60% of the world's email marketing messages go through MailChimp. No more small business there.
Jorge: Right. I use them myself for my newsletter. The reason I'm bringing up the longevity of a lot of these organizations is that trust strikes me as one of those things that takes a while to build. It's not something that you can develop overnight. Is that fair?
Margot: Ooh, that's a good question. I think more often, what we talk about is that trust can be destroyed overnight, and it takes a long time to regain. That's not to say though that even startups can't start from a position of trust because nothing exists in kind of a void. And if you're a startup, or if you're supporting and working for a startup that's in an established industry, there's that halo effect of the industry. And that may be good or bad. I think if you're a startup in an industry where there's a history of trust problems, where people do approach more transactions and more relationships with cynicism than excitement or connection or engagement or faith, then there's a real opportunity there. Is yours the startup that says, "we're doing everything differently, so expect better from us"? Because that's a bold statement. And then I think if you can back it up with tools and interactions and messaging that enables people to feel more confident in you and feel more confident in their own interactions with you?
I think there's no reason to believe that you can't build trust fairly quickly there. At the same time, I think if you're a startup in an industry where there already is a strong sense of trust and accountability and empowered audiences that expect to retain that kind of strength. I think you can build on that as well. So, I think both ways there are opportunities for kind of new players to come into a space and make it their own and make things better for their audiences as well as their employees and everyone that is helping to kind of support the brand.
Jorge: The distinction between building trust and regaining trust, I think is an important one. And I agree with you; that expression also came to my mind, that it takes a while to build trust and you can destroy trust in a moment. I'm wondering about the ability for organizations to put in place trust-building initiatives when incentives tend to be short term. So, a lot of organizations are measured quarterly, right? And they want indicators to make sure they're making progress against their goals. I'm very interested in initiatives that are more long-lived, and this strikes me as one area where building an authentic relationship with your audience should be a long-term aspiration and I'm wondering if there's a tension there between the fact that building and maintaining trust is this long-term goal, and the drive that so many organizations have for frequent updates or results.
Margot: Yeah, I think you're right. It's a long-term goal, but I think it comprises a lot of short-term steps Short-term steps that are the responsibility of everyone in the organization. Like we always say in design that God is in the details. And I think it's in those details that organizations build an example of consistency and sustainable trust. So, for example, I think that now looking at short-term goals in many organizations, they might be thinking about like, "well, what's the next big campaign?" Or with all the kind of upheaval in our society, around the pandemic and a variety of different social issues, we need to jump into that conversation too. What's our position?
You used the term " authenticity." And I think that that's a term that we throw around a lot; that's a term that marketers love to throw around. Who wouldn't want to be authentic? And I always wonder, authentic to what? Do you know who you are? Know thyself first, and then you can determine, "well, how do we align our actions with our values?" Because that's how we measure authenticity: it's the distance between our actions and our words, all of that external stuff and our values. And I think for many organizations, they can jump into kind of the national conversation, into the international conversation, around many of those social issues and say, "here's what we're doing. Here's why we support this. Here's what we're doing internally. And here's what we're doing externally to make this better for everyone." To put a stake in the ground. And they can do it building on that long-term, authentic investment in their values.
If they've built those values over time, if they've invested in like... maybe their big cause is around diversity and inclusion, maybe in the context of Black Lives Matter, and they say, "yes, we believe this too." Okay, well, what are they doing and what have they been doing historically, to make sure that they're recruiting candidates that represent diverse viewpoints? That they are promoting from within and ensuring that they're bringing about a dialogue that benefits from diverse representation. What are they already doing there? I think that there's an opportunity though for organizations that jump into that fray that want to be a part of that conversation and then realize, wait a second. We don't walk this walk internally yet ourselves. There's still an opportunity for them to build trust by leaning into, like you mentioned, volume, before.
One of the other parts of the framework is vulnerability. By having that vulnerable, open and transparent conversation with their audience that says, we believe this is important, but we realized we don't do that so well here ourselves. Doctor, heal thyself. So, here's what we're going to do to take steps to act on those goals. And I think it's by sort of prototyping in public. Making their values known so they can act as a beacon for others and then saying, "here's what we're going to do so that we improve in this regard as well. And here's how you can hold us accountable." That kind of transparency builds trust too. And that can be something that is a long-term growth opportunity over time. Where they are bringing people into their evolution, bringing people into that discussion, so that their audience is not just consumers, but also champions of their work. So, they feel like, yeah, they've seen the growth and they want to continue to support that kind of growth. And I think that works both long-term as well as short-term figuring out what those initiatives are and how they are making good on them over the next quarter.
Jorge: I would imagine that core to that is having a clear set of organizational values where we know what we stand for. And my expectation would be that that needs to come from the top. Is that fair?
Margot: Yeah, I think the goals come from the top. The execution comes from the bottom and we meet in the middle and hope that the railroad meets up and aligns.
Jorge: Well, I'm thinking specifically of one of the examples in the book, the pre-Gap era Banana Republic. I thought that that was a particularly apt illustration of this idea where it seemed like they were very clear on who they were and their communications and the way that they, for example, structured their physical stores, their physical environments, were all manifestations of a pretty clear understanding from the founders of what was right for Banana Republic and what wasn't right.
Margot: Right! Yeah. Mel and Patricia Ziegler, an illustrator and a journalist. They envisioned this place that felt like a Safari outfitter. That brought the idea of adventure home. And they scorned the idea of thinking of themselves as tourists. They didn't want to just dip into other cultures and then bring back the evidence of their travels. They wanted to, in some ways, bring the world a little bit closer for their target audience. And the passages that you're referring to there, talking about what they did with the store design to bring this kind of color to their audience and in their descriptions of the products, in how they were sourcing and creating some of the clothing and attire and whatnot, they sold... even their investments eventually in creating a travel desk to help people prepare for whatever sort of journeys they wanted to take through the world.
That was all in alignment around this very consistent, cohesive brand. And then eventually when they were acquired by Gap Inc., they saw a lot of financial benefits to it around production and distribution and sales, but ultimately it scuttled that original idea of the store. The original idea of Banana Republic. That, yes, now we look back with some mix of... of maybe admiration as well as cringing? Because there are certainly aspects of their story that don't play today. That are an increasingly white Western worldview. That certainly wasn't their goal at the time. But as we talk about in vulnerability and evolution, you live and learn and then do better. However, what they did, after they were acquired by the Gap, wasn't necessarily better. It was in many ways more expected, homogenous, and milquetoast. They lost what made the brand distinct.
Getting to your point around the values, I think organizations need to know what they stand for so that they can put that stake in the ground and manifest their values visually and verbally. In the first section on voice, we talk about that a lot. Like first, knowing who you are and a lot of the work that I've done with organizations over - certainly over the past 20 years in content strategy - nearly all of my engagements with clients start out with first figuring out their communication goals. Helping them wrap their arms around a message architecture or a hierarchy of communication goals. So, they know, "is it more important for us to project this idea of adventure and inspiration and innovation? Or do we really want to be more the brand that projects a sense of reliability and tradition and maybe responsiveness or warmth, and what's most important in that equation?" it's only after we figure out those things after we've established that message architecture that then we can move forward with that idea of brand driven content strategy and brand driven design. To know that if it's most important for us to project maybe a sense of innovation or of being really, really reliable, let's say. Okay. That's why we embrace longer sentence structures. Maybe more paragraphs in our copy rather than just bulleted lists. Maybe more, more Latinate rather than Germanic verbs. And also, that's why we adopted a typeface as our standard typeface with Serifs and that has this sort of bold kind of feeling to it. All of those kinds of decisions, those tactics, manifest the communication goals and manifest their values.
Jorge: So, that was very well put. And as you mentioned earlier in our conversation, it's something that strikes me as being much needed in this world where folks are losing a sense of trust in institutions, politicians, companies. And this idea that in being in touch with your organizational values and then finding ways to authentically convey those values to the world can help regain trust and build better relationships between organizations and their customers. At least that's what I got from the book. I think it's a valuable contribution to this conversation and to the field, and I encourage folks to read it. It should be out by the time that you listen to this, or if you listen very quickly, it might be on pre-order. But folks can get it in Amazon and all the usual places, right?
Margot: Yes! Yeah. Support your favorite small local bookstore as well! You can always order through them through IndieBound or bookshop.org and, yeah! Or go to your favorite big, giant bookseller as well.
Jorge: Well, fantastic. It's interesting, that clarification there, because it speaks to these issues of trust, right? We have a different relationship with the local bookseller than we do with a larger, more impersonal organization.
Margot: Right. And oftentimes because at your local bookstore, you might know some of the booksellers there, or you might know them through their recommendations. And I think it's that... that kind of personal connection that it effectively curates your reading experience. To bring different ideas and titles in front of you to say, "Oh, if you're looking at that right now, you may want to also consider this!" Better than any sidebar recommendations or algorithm can necessarily offer. And I love that right now there's been such a rise in ways to connect with independent bookstores and independent booksellers. Certainly through the tour that I'm doing around Trustworthy, I'm trying to work with a lot of them in cities where I know I've spoken over the past 10 years and where there is a big design and content strategy community. To have them come out - even if it is over Zoom - to come out to an event where we're looking at the book in conversation and talking about the themes in it and how they relate in that city to small businesses and big businesses and everyone in between.
Jorge: Well folks, you heard it here. Get Trustworthy at your local bookshop and join Margot on her tour. And where can folks follow up with you to find out about the tour?
Margot: You can find me online at appropriateinc.com. If you go to appropriateinc.com/trustworthy, that's where you can sign up for my newsletter. And I always kind of put all the info there first, but yeah! Or find me on Twitter @mbloomstein, hashtag right now is #trustworthybook. And you'll see a lot of chatter on that as well.
Jorge: Fantastic. I will include those in the show notes. Thank you so much, Margot, for being with us.
Margot: Thank you. This was so much fun.