07.24.2015

Four Things You Can Learn About Content Strategy...from Mad Max

George Miller has a vision of the future. Judging by the non-stop mayhem and desolation that is Mad Max: Fury Road, if I had the same vision, I wouldn’t sleep very much. As a piece of action cinema, however, Fury Road succeeds on every level. I couldn’t look away – but the second time I saw it, I was surprised by the number of carefully rendered details I missed the first time. I want to see it again.

After you emerge into the sunlight and finally manage to blink after two hours of wide-eyed apocalyptic rapture and think about Fury Road as a piece of content produced by a distributed team that had an audience in mind, there are plenty of lessons we can take away from it.

It takes time to make great content

Miller first tried to make Fury Road in 2001, took it up again in as a live action film in 2011, and wrapped photography in 2013. The movie itself didn’t come out until mid-2015. Typically, Hollywood calls that sort of timeline “development hell”, and it presages an Ishtar-scale flop.

When you consider recent successes like The Lego Movie (4 years in production) and the fantastic Boyhood (12 years in production), it’s clear that, with the right people involved, movies benefit from allowing directors to realize their vision. Expand that to books and music, and the quickly-created masterpiece is the clear outlier.

To think that your organization can churn out content that best serves its mission without careful thought and robust process, then, would be a mistake.

There’s a long-standing notion that people don’t read on the Internet, backed up by careful research. I believe people don’t read on the Internet because, by and large, the available content is crap.

When you think about your own habits, though, haven’t there been at least a few pieces you’ve read almost word for word? I certainly absorbed the New Yorker’s recent terrifying article about how the Cascadia Subduction Zone is going to reduce Portland to the set of the next Mad Max. And ESPN’s Outside the Lines regularly produces content I read carefully – because they’re well-written pieces about topics that interest me.

Research shows that people who read for pleasure read more carefully. As Slate’s Michael Agger points out, even Jakob Nielsen, one of the founders of “People don’t read on the Internet”, believes people will read content that interests them:

Nielsen’s idea is that people will read (and maybe even pay) for expertise that they can’t find anywhere else. If you want to beat the Internet, you’re not going to do it by blogging (since even OK thinkers occasionally write a great blog post) but by offering a comprehensive take on a subject (thus saving the reader time from searching many sites) and supplying original thinking (offering trusted insight that cannot be easily duplicated by the nonexpert).

That sounds to me like the very definition of great content – and great content takes time to produce. I’m not talking about three-levels-of-bureaucratic review time, but about putting effort and craft into your explanations of what your organization believes is important to the world, be it through written word, a video, a podcast, or even just an image.

That can seem overwhelming, particularly when most nonprofits don’t have a cadre of trained writers on staff. There are plenty of tools out there to help you. Editorial calendars. Page tables and content templates. (Yes, content strategy, when it comes to implementation, involves a lot of spreadsheets.)

But it comes down to this: Don’t try to do too many things well. Try to do a few things better than everybody else.

You’re never going to bring everybody on board with your cause, so writing for the masses may not be the most effective strategy. Take time to create at least some content for those who care enough to read it.

Technical infrastructure should be so good, it renders itself invisible

If you take the time to produce great content, you want to make sure it’s displayed in the best possible light – and by that, I mean your users shouldn’t notice the technology at all.

Fury Road benefits from a huge number of practical effects: things look like they’re blowing up because they are, not because some computer rendered its idea of what an explosion should look like. But almost every shot was still digitally enhanced. This allowed Miller to create the impression of large crowds:

Mad Max aerial shot

Fury Road also makes extensive use of compositing to expand its visual palette:

Mad Max compositing

When you’re actually watching the film, however, the “How did they do that?” gives way to breathless enjoyment of the chase. The movie feels real because the effects are integrated so well, they become part of the story instead of superseding it.

The same has to be true of your technology platforms.

Nobody cares what email platform you’re using if the contents are interesting and easy to absorb – but they will notice broken HTML. And your constituents aren’t coming to your website to ogle its features, they’re coming for the content. If they notice the underlying functionality, then your technology is not serving your mission.

Stay true to your vision

When you think about it empirically, Fury Road should not have succeeded with a mainstream audience. It’s a two-hour chase scene. Its nominal hero’s face is obscured by a mask for almost half the film’s run-time. Its night scenes were filmed in bright daylight. It prominently features a tanker truck full of breast milk. And yet it has grossed nearly $400 million worldwide.

Fury Road succeeds because it stays true to its director’s vision. George Miller knew what he wanted – the entire film was storyboarded and the cast largely worked without a script – and put exactly that, and only that, on film.

By Google’s count, Fury Road has roughly 3600 spoken words. Even a relatively action-oriented movie like Jupiter Ascending has nearly 9000 – largely because it’s burdened by the presumed need to explain what’s going on to the audience through background exposition:

Your planet is just now entering its genetic age. You understand very little about something which is a vital part of our reality. In our world, genes have an almost spiritual significance. They are the seeds of our immortality. When the exact same genes reappear in the exact same order, it is for us what you would call reincarnation.

Meh.

Fury Road doesn’t care about telling you what’s going on or why it’s happening, just that it is. Why doesn’t Furiosa have an arm? How did Immortan Joe come to control all the water? It doesn’t matter in the visceral thrill of the chase. We trust Miller because we know he’s thought through all of the backstory and decided it didn’t matter here. He’s right. And cutting the movie to its barest bones serves his vision perfectly.

All that to say: If you produce content for a nonprofit, you have a built-in advantage because you have your Mission, Vision, and Values as touchstones. You know the backstory about why your organization does the work it does, and that can – and should – inform every piece of content you produce.

Think about the story you’re telling in terms of narrative arcs. Most of the content you produce, while illuminating some aspect of your Mission, Vision, and Values, can’t tell the entire story of your work. Instead, capture the interest of your audience, delight them with carefully crafted, finely honed content, and link back to the bigger picture. Hyperlinks were created before content strategy was even a phrase, but they allow us to lay out our story in pieces, tied back to a central narrative.

Prepare for the haters

The Internet is pretty great at disseminating information. Now that it’s easy for anybody and everybody to post their opinions in a public forum, our access to information is limited more by our imaginations than the media gatekeepers of old who decided what story should land on the front page.

The Internet has both improved public discourse – and degraded it. Because here’s the thing: if you have an opinion, it’s almost guaranteed that somebody out there has an opposing point of view. While these used to be confined to local conversations, when you post that opinion online, they can find you. They will find you.

Social media has been great for nonprofits in terms of community building and direct interactions with constituents. But it has also allowed the haters to find each other. What might have been a marginal response to your organization’s work in the past becomes amplified by technology.

In the case of Fury Road, that response was a call for boycott from a group of “meninists”. (I know! I had no idea that was a thing, either.)

After the movie came out, noted misogynist Aaron Clarey wrote some pretty hateful things on his blog: “Let us be clear. This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat… This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic.”

You can read the entire article if you need a little anger in your day, but Clarey ends with a Call to Spitefulness: “So do yourself and all men across the world a favor. Not only REFUSE to see the movie, but spread the word to as many men as possible.”

Never mind that everything that happens in Fury Road serves the story, not a philosophy. The plot, such as it is, hinges on the escape of five women from captivity. As director George Miller puts it, “Initially, there wasn’t a feminist agenda… I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.”

He’s supported by Chris Hansen, the director of the film and digital media division at Baylor University: “We’re used to women being in the background, not men. But Miller isn’t doing it as a statement, he’s doing it because that’s what the story calls for.”

Because the story your organization is telling supports and builds upon your Mission, Vision, and Values, somebody, somewhere is going to assume you are trying to diminish them in some way. And they will spew their hatred like a firehose.

As part of your content strategy, you need to be prepared for reactions to the information you put out into the world. Carie Lewis, Director of Communications Marketing for the Humane Society of the United States, knows too well that “When sensitive topics come up, trolls come out in droves, and misinformation spreads… In today’s world, the only thing you can do is have a crisis plan in place for what to do if/when you get attacked. Because you just never know what the internet is going to glom onto.”

The producers of Fury Road ended up benefitting from the “men’s rights” backlash because it stirred up a controversy that made people want to see the movie even more. We probably can’t hope for that.

Carie notes that, “Internal education is key. Help your staff navigate the waters with social media policies and trainings to protect them as well as the organization.”

The HSUS has standards and procedures for responding to negative publicity, and those have been documented. Carie says, “It’s important for us to be honest while at the same time not drawing unnecessary attention to the issue… We develop talking points that address the issue but don’t get into internal details. They get routed through PR, membership, social media, and the executive offices.”

Building on that, The HSUS tries “to respond to everyone who comes to us on one of our social media channels with a legitimate question or concern, and within 24 hours. That means all questions unless it’s someone we know is just trying to stir up trouble. There are some people who live to cause trouble and that you will never win over. You have to know when to stop, and when to not even start. That comes with time and experience.”

As a final word of advice, Carie offers that “One thing I see a lot is organizations trying to talk over the issue. We learned the hard way that approach just doesn’t work; people will see right through you and it will only make matters worse.”

Your mission should be at the heart of the content you produce. When that’s the case, it will be easier to defend the work you do – and it will energize the people already passionate about your work.

Everybody wants to be loved, but the prospect of online backlash shouldn’t stop you from crafting great content that articulates the reasons you do the work that you do.

Now go see the movie already!

Thanks to Ivan Boothe and April Lambert for their edits and additions.

All images copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Pictures.

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