Moving Target

My favorite book on the film industry is William Goldman’s (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. What I love is there are no specific conclusions about filmmaking. Just one recurring anti-conclusion: “nobody knows anything.”

“The single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry is that ‘nobody knows anything’. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Great formulas (ex: attractive cast, epic storyline) fail as often as they succeed, even after 100 years of filmmaking. Goldman admits there are so many moving parts to assemble, it’s a miracle any film gets made, much less a great one.

Everybody Knows Everything

Compare with the decade-old web design industry. The formulas for successful websites have developed mighty fast. We’ve got tons of books, tutorials, blogs and conference lectures to learn from, plus disproportionate numbers of experts, consultants, coaches, evangelists and assorted gurus.

So on the surface, “everybody knows everything”. Information is plentiful. Methods are transparent. There should be no excuse for a mediocre website. Why doesn’t “guru”-level knowledge translate into launching better websites?

Easiest conclusion—interesting, addictive content is not valued enough. Often it’s an afterthought, barely discussed with the client. It’s like magic dust and neither guru nor client knows where it will come from. The final product is a sparkly site with forgettable content. It’s like building a car and considering the engine last. Or just as often, neglecting to install one.

The Original Gurus

Geeks and gurus could learn something from their advertising roots. Consider the Mad Men era of advertising, defined by stuff like Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Volkswagen ad campaigns.

“[The Volkswagen ads] changed the rules. Agencies were no longer punished but rewarded for arguing with clients, for breaking the guidelines of art direction, for clowning around in the copy, for using ethnic locutions and academic references and a myriad of other once-forbidden formulae. Seemingly overnight, a great wave of originality engulfed the advertising profession…”

DDB ad men were notoriously flamboyant, but they had the vision to back it up. They looked at the big picture and wanted their ads to have cultural impact. They studied human behavior. They wanted their product to be smart. Can that be said of today’s gurus?

To generalize greatly, there is too much time spent lost in the tunnel-vision world of shiny gadgets, tech trends and empty “social media” promises and way too little time on basic human psychology and the fundamentals that made 1960s advertising so powerful—figuring out what the public wants and finding smart, persuasive ways to give it to them.

Missing Ingredients and Healthy Content

William Goldman says the elusive element of success is timing. Even with great acting and a great story, the stars rarely align so that a movie gets released at the perfect time of year in the perfect stage of the actors’ popularity in a way that overlaps with what the public wants.

Of the 771 movies released in 2010 so far, how many have you heard of? How many got good reviews? How many really spoke to the public’s needs and wants?

In web design and blogging, most would say “compelling content” is what eludes us. But even after 10 years, no two people even agree on what “compelling content” means. If anything, it’s a constantly moving target, consumed by a fickle audience who travel the web too quickly to differentiate between fast-food addictions like Mashable and healthier “slow web” addictions to sites like A List Apart, Design Observer, Good, N+1 or The Smart Set.

Web design conferences could use an equivalent to Jamie Oliver’s “Teach Every Child About Food” speech to remind people of how nourishing good content can be.

Solving the Content Mystery

In one sense, it’s a fine thing that so few know how to crack the mystery of making great, addictive content. The elusive nature keeps us creative, makes us chase abstract ideas, forces us to put human psychology at the forefront of the things we create.

Client projects should include in-depth discussions of how the content itself (not jQuery effects or “social media” tie-ins) is going to propel their site. Setting them up with a WordPress theme, giving them the keys and waving goodbye just isn’t enough.

2010 is still the Stone Ages of the internet. With all our expertise maybe we still don’t “know anything”, but by now we should at least know enough about our fellow humans to deliver them something they benefit from rather than selling our expertise in the form of a dull, hollow wrapper of a website that no one cares to visit more than once.