What to Expect When You’re Experimenting
Expanding your content horizons with AI, VR, or other tech enhancements can feel like an exciting journey of creativity or a frustrating exercise in futility – depending on how you approach the process. Prepare to add new dimensions to your brand’s storytelling efforts with an experimentation method that won’t blow up in your face.
By Jodi Harris
If your current content marketing approaches work, why change?
Growth-focused content leaders may find themselves asking this question again and again. Still, advanced storytelling technologies – like virtual reality (VR), voice response, or artificial intelligence (AI) – offer clear advantages that can help keep you ahead of your consumers’ interest curve.
When experimenting with advanced content tools, you’ll have to face unfamiliar and often intimidating challenges – it’s simply the nature of the innovation game. Add in the effort it takes to get management on board, adapt your proven strategies, and incorporate new teams and workflows into your processes and you can practically feel the stress mounting before your creative ideas even start to take shape.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your experimental content efforts a lot more manageable. Here’s how to prepare for content experimentation in a way that promotes more successful outcomes:
Determine which experiments will fit your business goals – and your audience
I’ll assume you have a content marketing strategy in place to guide your creative thinking and keep your teams focused on your specific marketing goals and objectives. Experimenting with a new content technique or digital technology shouldn’t change that direction. Rather, think of these projects as a way to add new dimensions to your existing storytelling efforts.
Experimenting with VR, AR, and new content tech shouldn’t change your strategic direction. It should add new dimensions to your existing brand story, says @Joderama via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
The creative enhancements enabled by emerging technologies might be a great fit in certain situations, but not so great in others. So, your experimentation process should always start with a thoughtful evaluation of each technology’s unique benefits, practical limitations, and potential to further your business goals – not just your creative ones.
Do your creative aspirations reflect your audience’s reality? For example, perhaps you’re interested in tapping VR’s capabilities to simulate a visit to your new store location, or to provide a gaming experience that connects customers with your business for lengthy periods of time.
It’s important to understand that VR is still climbing the path toward market penetration and scalability, which means your target audience may not have adopted the tech they would need to get the full experience you plan to develop. If your goals are to extend your brand’s reach and exponentially grow your audience, VR might not be the best vehicle. Instead, you might want to consider creating 360-degree video content, which can offer a similar sense of presence and immersion without the high costs of VR development or its technological barriers to audience penetration.
National Geographic has done some amazing work in this format. Check out this example, which simulates the experience of free solo climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan:
Will your augmentation ideas enhance business performance? What if your top marketing priority is to strengthen your brand’s thought leadership by sharing a distinct take on a common topic of interest? Augmented reality offers a compelling lens that can help your audience see the world from your creative vantage point. And, thanks to mobile improvements from Google and Apple, marketers can now launch AR experiences within a web browser, which means consumers don’t have to download additional software apps to fully enjoy your content experience.
But its creative advantages can come at steeper costs – in terms of production budget and creative resources – than you might incur when developing content in simpler formats. And unless those captivating features will work to drive meaningful actions for your business, the marketing results you achieve are bound to be disappointing.
Consider how The Weather Channel has used this technology to enrich its video experiences while also delivering the practical advice that viewers might need if a weather-related wildfire or tornado hits their area.
In this media brand’s particular case, adding immersive visual features enhanced the value its storytelling delivers to its audience. Before you consider developing these kinds of experiences, make sure you have the audience data on hand to confirm that your experiments will contribute to the positive impact your business is looking for.
In short, the creative potential offered by these technologies and others may seem virtually limitless, but that doesn’t mean they can be all things to all brands. Unless you’ve taken a critical look at how the technology’s particular strengths and requirements might function against your specific goals, audience, and operating conditions, your early experiments could blow up in your face.
Trust your gut, but bring proof to your buy-in conversations
Content experiments often require signoff from executive management before you start to build. In addition to the standard requirements of pitching a new idea, you may need to teach the people holding the purse strings about the new tools or platforms and help them see the point of changing your existing content program.
The farther afield your experimental ideas are from the scope of what you normally do, the more resistance you’re likely to encounter from the top brass. Try these tactics to prepare a compelling argument for change, explain your intended plans, and increase the chances of securing buy-in for your vision.
Counter resistance by addressing it head-on. Imagine working for weeks on your big, exciting content idea pitch. But when you present it to executive management, they cut you off immediately because they don’t believe in the premise it’s built on. If you want upper management support, you need to prepare a convincing answer to the most pressing question: “Why would we want to do that?”
If audience insights and your team’s knowledge and expertise drove your decision to experiment, you already have the information you need to prove its validity to your stakeholders. But you’ll also need to be adept at delivering those answers in a persuasive way.
Rather than relying on vague assertions like “virtual reality is taking off” in response to unexpected questions, come to the meeting prepared with stats and facts that will earn their trust in your counsel. It might also be helpful to try role-playing the buy-in conversation as you go through the process of developing your concept. This will help you better anticipate the issues that might bubble up in conversation and help you sharpen the story behind your idea.
Bring a prototype to the table. Telling stakeholders how your experimental content idea would work is table stakes for any buy-in pitch. But showing them exactly how that idea will take shape and function is a much more powerful approach. And the best way to do that is to produce a prototype.
For content marketing projects, a prototype could be as elaborate as a well-crafted 3D model of the creative experience your audience will receive or as simple as a few screenshots or sketches that will help executives visualize key features and understand its function as a component of your marketing strategy.
Virtually anything can serve as a prototype – images, stories, and even role-playing exercises. I’ve even seen amazingly complex concepts brought to life with crudely cut panels of cardboard. The medium you choose to work in or how closely your prototype physically resembles your intended content product is inconsequential. What’s really important is that it clearly communicates the relevant, relatable information your stakeholders need to convince them your vision is worth pursuing.
Understand skilled execution will be a group effort
The need to work closely with other departments can mire your experimental content projects in ongoing process debates and bureaucratic delays. You can choose to take an ask-for-forgiveness, not-for-permission approach to speed things up. But there are certain advantages to working through a full-scale collaboration – especially if you want to establish the muscle memory that will make content experimentation more manageable in the long run.
A few notable iconoclasts aside, successful innovation inside most organizations is the result of strong teamwork. Literal and figurative distance can decrease the friction of development, but reliable support networks really let efforts take root and grow.
IT in many organizations has evolved to take more responsibility for business opportunities. They could be very helpful in enabling new ideas to thrive, especially in a digital-focused endeavor. Legal teams have also taken on more technology responsibility due to the ways in which new platforms engage with personally identifiable information. Design teams can apply traditional insight to new platforms. Securing cross-team alignment might slow your project in the short term, but by involving these departments as equal partners in the process, you’ll likely gain efficiencies that will be invaluable down the line.
I recommend outlining a complete workflow for your initial project, identifying all the process touchpoints where other functional departments – including IT, web development, and UX design – might need to be involved along with the specific tasks each team is responsible for.
Plenty of free and paid tools exist to help outline, manage, and continually refine your project workflow. You can also accomplished these tasks by creating a simple swimlane diagram or Kanban board that maps out the key stages of production and illustrates where team tasks overlap.
Think through the execution and collaboration issues that might arise – both on the production side and from the user’s perspective. You’ll find areas to iron out in advance, so you don’t get surprised in the middle of your project.
Allow time to test and learn
One of the basic tenets of innovation in any area is the importance of generating valuable audience insights from your experiments. At a direct level, information gleaned from early pilot tests can be applied immediately to help convert a potential failure into a long-term success. At an organizational level, the testing process itself helps create a culture of iteration and awareness.
Too often, early attempts at content innovation are abandoned quickly due to technical errors, process complications, or misaligned expectations on what your early experiments might achieve. Although promising outcomes may still be on the horizon, these small setbacks can make it difficult to fully execute on your ideas and dampen your team’s enthusiasm for continued experimentation.
Another big way you can put your pilot programs at risk is to overinvest in new technology before you fully understand the returns you can expect to achieve. When you are just starting to experiment, it’s important to invest both your time and your budget wisely.
When teams dive headfirst into purchasing high-cost technologies to power your initial efforts, it becomes more difficult for stakeholders to see a clear return on the investment. This can add increased scrutiny and pressure to perform, which can stifle your team’s creativity. It also makes it more likely that further efforts will get shut down before they really have a chance to take hold among your audiences.
Keep everything in perspective
Ultimately, any experimental content innovation shouldn’t feel incredibly radical when it’s built on a sound content strategy and rational expectations. Don’t think of advances in tech capabilities as an excuse to move in a whole new marketing direction, think of it as a way to reframe your brand’s underlying message of value and add new angles into your story of customer success.
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