Why things aren’t black and white any more

Picture of hellbore flower with white and red petals
Hellebore plant – all will become clear later in this blog post…

I have a friend who recently had her garden renovated and decided to treat herself to some new garden furniture.

She started by ordering two big parasols off the internet in ‘black’. The only problem was that when they arrived they weren’t black at all, they were a dark grey.

“Ah yes,” said customer services when she rang to complain, “they’re a really, dark grey. Almost black.” “But not black,” said my friend. She sent them back.

Next she ordered some handmade metal furniture. It was expensive but looked beautiful on the website. She wanted black and while the furniture looked black in the photos, the colour was described on the website as “Hellebore”. My friend sent for a sample – just to be sure.

A small metal sample duly arrived. It was certainly very dark but the sample size and the matt paint finish made it difficult to be 100% sure. “Is it black?” she rang and asked the manufacturer. “Yes,” they said. When the furniture duly arrived it was… dark grey. “It’s our version of black,” said the manufacturer.

So, what’s the moral of this tale?

Picture of Hellbore with white petals
“Our particular shade of Hellebore black is quite unusual”

I’m not going to bore you with what happened next in this particular saga of retail ineptitude and arrogance, but from a content perspective, whether grey is the new black and whether you should call it Hellebore speaks to the heart of the content strategy conundrum for me.

“Conundrum,” I hear you say (okay, you’re not saying it but I’m fond of the odd rhetorical device), “Surely the case for content strategy is unequivocal.” Hmmmm.

Don’t get me wrong. Content strategy is the glue that allows its experienced practitioners, and organisations that listen to them, to make sound, cost effective decisions about content as an integral facet of any business or activity. Content is business. Business is content.

Without content in all its forms – from tweet to transaction process, article to image, video to brochure, app to pack shot – you cannot engage with your audience. Without content it’s like juggling with no hands. Without good content it’s like juggling with skipping ropes. It may draw the attention for a few minutes. But who wants to watch someone drop something repeatedly? Put the ropes down. It’s time to get balls.

Content strategy isn’t an easy option. Sometimes it means you have to unpick stuff that you’re been doing a certain way (and successfully) before you can ‘do’ your content properly. It can be like breaking a leg in order to reset it. But many organisations are happy to limp along rather than go through the pain. Personally, I find it very frustrating. Content strategy is black and white. But most companies still want Hellebore.

Bringing the metaphor back into the room…

From a marketing perspective, having a very, very dark shade of grey that’s not just described in your content as “Very, dark grey” or “Slate grey” or even “Almost black” makes a kind of sense. It’s a point of differentiation. It’s adding an extra layer of glamour. It is not particularly helpful, or useful, but if there are other more helpful and factual texts, perhaps some customer reviews and some good photography, this indulgent sub-routine of hyperbole is tolerable.

Back in the days before the interweb, it may not have mattered quite so much. If I went to a shop I could see products with my own eyes. Hellebore be damned, it’s black.

Product brochures and retail catalogues for any halfway decent brand were usually produced with scrupulous attention to colour accuracy. It saved on returns and refunds. It protected the brand from disgruntled consumers.

So, I ask myself, has something changed (or failed to change) now we’re engaging with products and services online? If organisations don’t pay attention to the basics such as product descriptors and colour accuracy, don’t they run the risk of customers ringing up to raise hellebore?

The accuracy (or lack of it) in online colour rendering is one issue. But it speaks to the bigger picture. It means that an organisation or organisations didn’t think about how the colour might render on a computer, laptop, mobile or tablet screen, or how it may vary  if a potential customer decides to run off a hard copy on their printer?

Did anybody think?

The very expensive garden furniture on the website my friend ordered from was pictured in shades of red, pale blue, black(ish), green and white, described respectively as carmine, salvia, hellebore, hosta and aconite.

In their original and horticultural terms aconite and hellebore are plants that come in various colours. Personally, I’d say that aconite is more likely to be perceived as a darker colour. There are slight witchcraft connotations and when you look online it does seem to turn up as a colour descriptor for dark grey or dark blue (although it can be a bright yellow). Hellebore, as a plant, is commonly a white or greenish white (but it can also be pink and even a blood red).

Is it possible that the words used to describe the colours shown in the pictures got mixed up? As the colours aren’t described in common sense terms, would anybody have known to correct them?

This is more than just a rant about Marketing speak. It opens up a whole other area of content issues (that keep content strategists and their clients awake at night… maybe) – such as content labelling, defining real estate  and its purpose, use of copydecks, meta data matching on text and images, using content systems to ensure the right content is put into the right place both online and offline, understanding context, competitor research, word usage, search implications… And I’m thinking of all of this just because an online retailer of sun umbrellas and a manufacturer of expensive garden furniture can’t lower themselves to use the words: ‘dark’ and ‘grey’.

It could also have been addressed by larger samples, accurate descriptions, meta tagging and a more sympathetic customer service. It could have been addressed by a company simply saying: is Hellebore good enough?

Now, here’s the segue…

I’m speaking at CS Forum London this September. The title of my talk is Content doesn’t just happen. And while the colour of garden tables may not be a nuclear issue, it does speak to the fact that businesses are still not thinking about the basics online or understanding how fundamentally catastrophic this disregard is. And they’re certainly not thinking about their customers (in anything more than cash cow terms).

This thinking has to extend far beyond simply being able to ‘write well for the web’ or the production of ‘web-ready’ content. It means learning how to read audiences and then structuring content that ‘fits’ the context of that audience. It touches everything from technology to what your marketers and product / service developers decide to name your latest offering and the colours it comes in.

Maybe Hellebore is the new black. Maybe juggling with skipping ropes is the next big thing. But I very much doubt it.

» Content Strategy Forum 2011 London Sept 5-7