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Tribal Wars Can Mute Your Company's Message

When I read a contributed article, a company mission statement on a website, or an email subject line, I sometimes picture people arguing around a table. I can tell they’re arguing because the prose that has emerged is garbled. It’s garbled because the tribes inside the company – IT, finance, marketing, engineering – are not speaking the same language. Perhaps the situation is worse, and the tribes are not speaking to each other at all. They’re speaking at each other because they’re at war – over budget, prestige, strategy. Make no mistake: this will kill your content's appeal – and your efforts to make customers aware of your subject matter expertise.

Your company will produce garbled prose like this (recently spotted via Google News): The Role Of Mobile In The Omnichannel Purchase Journey. Any idea what they're talking about? The language is so broad as to be meaningless. The column could be about mobile platforms, devices, or shopping trends. (In fact, it is about advertising.)

In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, John Gray famously pointed out that a lack of communication can kill a relationship. If your partner says one thing, and you hear another, you will both walk away mad. Moreover, you have wasted each other's time. Now be honest: How many times a week does this happen at your firm between the various tribes in your office? (I say "timely submission is imperative," you hear "following review by eight stakeholders.")

While we all are busy chronicling the age of digital business – you know, the one where walls should come down between teams – it is a fact of life that people will always exhibit tribal behaviors. Smart leaders bring the strengths of each tribe together and make a company soar; ineffective leaders bemoan the fact that people aren’t playing together nicely, or they celebrate false victories to demonstrate bogus teamwork.

Here's some good news: You don’t have to abandon your tribe, whether it is marketing, finance or IT. You should be proud of your tribe and the fabulous work you're doing. Tribes can get along while retaining their distinctive features. But they must learn to speak each other's language. And they must be willing to listen to each other.

Producing expert content is not about one corporate tribe or another, although it certainly will show off multiple teams' expertise. It's about your readers. As I discussed in a recent blog, great content puts the reader's desires first. Emphasizing that is the key to cutting through tribal disagreements.

Are your company's teams having Mars and Venus issues regarding thought leadership content? Ask these five questions:

1. Is your thought leadership a team effort?

Is marketing – or whoever runs the tactical process of content creation – working alongside your subject matter experts to gather feedback on actual customer pain points and hot button issues? Or is the list of topics being created in a top-down fashion? If so, you're missing out on some of your best opportunities to connect with customers and your marketplace. Delivery people in professional services firms know what topics do and don’t resonate. People creating thought leadership content need to listen to them.

2. Do you suffer from endless email string syndrome?

There's a reason journalists pitch stories in person or over the phone, and grab colleagues to brainstorm headlines: Talking through content produces the sharpest ideas. If your company is crafting ideas and editing messages via an interminable string of emails, clarity will not emerge. You will get a muddy result that no one will like very much. Get together, at least on the phone, to discuss content matters every so often.

3. Can you listen without mocking?

Different groups speak different languages. Developers, salespeople, and marketing people all have their own lexicons. These languages will collide as you craft content. If you can’t listen to each other without groaning when a marketer mentions the “channel value proposition,” or the technologist discusses "holistic security," you'll never get to the crucial point: What would best communicate with the intended reader? Your marketing people may be all omnichannel all the time, but experts in the trenches with customers will know if omnichannel is a turn-off or turn-on these days.

4. Are you teaching translators?

I heard a smart CIO once describe one of his duties as being a translator between the technology experts and business operations execs at his company. He taught himself to speak the same language as business operations execs, and urged his technology team to do the same. When everyone speaks the same language, plans, updates, and similar materials resonate with both groups. Are you making this kind of language progress among teams at your company?

5. Do you define the “ask” before closing discussions?

Once upon a time, company meetings closed with action items, or “to-dos.” Now they often end with “the ask.”  But as awkward as the ask may be as a phrase, it comes from a well-intentioned place. When someone says, "Let me make sure I understand the ask," the person is saying, "I want to make sure I understand what you need before we go forward."

That's a productive attitude. Not only is the person listening to you, he or she is making an effort to understand you. This is a simple change that could help you make progress if you are stuck in an unhealthy Mars vs. Venus dynamic about thought leadership content -- or other matters.

You might even try it at home.

Laurianne McLaughlin is Content Director at The Bloom Group. Follow her on Twitter @lmclaughlin and the Bloom Group @BloomGroupTL