Gutsy Content Wins—So Why Aren’t We Taking Chances?

When was the last time you read or saw a piece of advocacy content that gave you an authentic reaction? A belly laugh. An exclamation. A frenzy of sharing.

When we consider the ocean of content that is produced each day, very little has impact. One major reason is that organizations simply don’t take chances.

Too often, content is based on what leadership wants to say, rather than what the audience wants or needs to hear. Original ideas are in short supply. So is courage. The project, be it video, an ebook or something else, is produced by committee and no one has an incentive to take any risks.

The result is the content equivalent of cowboy coffee. It’s thin, weak and doesn’t get the job done because nobody wants it.

Originality Matters (And It Works, Too)

Contrast that to something bold. Our favorite example is Dumb Ways to Die, a public service announcement designed to increase safety at Metro Rail in Australia. This could very easily have sucked. Transportation authorities are not exactly known as risk takers or master communicators. It could have been dull. Ineffective. Forgotten.

Instead, Metro Rail hired the McCann Melbourne agency and produced a funny and entertaining song and cartoon video. “The aim of this campaign is to engage an audience that really doesn’t want to hear any kind of safety message,” the agency’s creative director, John Mescall, said upon its release in 2012.

It worked. As of this writing, Dumb Ways to Die has been viewed more than 176 million times. It generated more than 700 earned media stories. And it spawned video games and other follow-ups. Most important, it fulfilled its goal of increasing safety. Metro Rail reported a 30-percent reduction in near-miss accidents in the year after the PSA was released.

It’s easy to dismiss stuff like this as simply something that went viral, one in tens of millions that struck it lucky. There’s some truth in that. But ask yourself this: why did it get so lucky? The answer is that Metro Rail took a chance, produced something wildly different—and legitimately great—and was rewarded.

Taking Chances

All content producers know there’s a lot of noise out there. A lot. WordPress clocks 70 million new blog posts and 77 million comments every month. Twitter logs more than 500 million tweets a day. Instagram users upload more than 95 million photos a day.

In an ocean that full, you need something that stands out among the flotsam. Something unique. Something creative. Bringing mediocrity to market is a bad plan.

Let’s be clear: if you are already producing material that your audience wants and needs, if it is ringing their bells and they are responding to your requests, then leave it alone. You found your niche. But if that’s not the case, perhaps you need to do things differently. Perhaps it’s time for some risks and creativity.

Content is about utility, and not necessarily about art, but we can take inspiration from successful artists. All of these people are undeniably talented. But they were also willing to do things differently. Set aside whether you like their stuff and focus on how they took chances.

  • Jackson Pollock. In a world of precise swipes and strokes, Pollack exploded with splashes, splatters, drips and pours in a style that came to be known as “action painting.” Critics called it volcanic. It is even more dramatic when you consider that he was doing this in the late 1940s. His work now sells for hundreds of millions of dollars. Even the drop cloths he used to catch errant splatter are sold as art.
  • The B52s. Listen to the hooks, harmonies, vocal experimentation, synth, percussion and general weirdness on the first album. It’s completely unique. Now consider that they created that sound in the disco era. In Athens, Georgia.
  • Heath Ledger. There was no doubt great pressure in playing a character that is arguably the most famous comic book villain of all time, and who was last portrayed on the big screen by Jack Nicholson. But Heath Ledger’s Joker was completely his own: ragged, murderous and utterly psychotic. His performance earned both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
  • Alexander McQueen. This fashion designer developed a reputation for the outrageous in an industry that is known for it. He cast a double amputee as a model. He named a collection “McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty.” His runway shows featured rain, fire—even a model being graffitied by robotic arms—and his work caught the eye of artists like David Bowie. “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment,” he told Women’s Wear Daily. “I wasn’t born to give you a twin set and pearls.”
  • Johnny Depp. The role of the good-hearted scoundrel has been around a while. Characters like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds come to mind. Yet few have the audience questioning the character’s sexuality and wondering if he is drunk. Depp’s charming, wiley and metrosexual pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, is somewhat unique in the modern history of film. The studio heads reportedly disliked the character before the film’s release, proving that it can be a good sign when the boss hates your work. Depp’s performance earned him an Oscar nomination and spawned a franchise.

Different industries. Different times. Different circumstances. But all had the courage to try new things. And that, as the poet said, made all the difference. Moreover, there are thousands of examples. The Sex Pistols. Weird Al. Christo. Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. If you need a muse, there’s one out there.

And so, we challenge you. As Henry Rollins sang with such force, “don’t talk about it—do it!” Take risks with your content program and create something unique.

We here at Advocacy Edge have put up our ante. We wrote this post. We’re saying out loud that you might try creating content in the same way that Jackson Pollock painted or that Johnny Depp plays a pirate. When it comes to content, we want you to visit Planet Claire and come back with something great. That’s radical stuff for a how-to blog on content.

Of course, there is much to say about how to generate unique ideas, how to get your team to execute them and how to get the boss to buy in. We’ll get to all that. For now, just think about the value in trying new things. As the Captain said, “bring me that horizon.”

Next Time: How to talk the boss into trying something new

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