Margot Bloomstein is one of the leading voices in the content strategy industry, and principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston. She is the author of Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project as well as the forthcoming Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap
I had the opportunity to interview Margot recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview.
Jill Griffin: Why do you feel like leaders need this message now?
Margot Bloomstein: As we’ve seen the economy slow and political leaders play fast and loose with the truth, audiences are being battered by gaslighting that undermines their ability to make good decisions. People don’t know who to trust.
Smart businesses are strategically investing in how they earn trust from their audiences. They make choices to educate the people they serve and help people feel more confident. Empowerment through education builds confidence. That’s what strengthens trust in our teams, our businesses, and the broader economy.
Griffin: Trust is such a fleeting thing. You pointed out so well in your book that building trust is a step-by-step process, and you have to be patient about it.
Bloomstein: There’s a saying in design that “God is in the details.” In the details—the consistency, how well we sustain it, how well we sustain a message, how well we stay true to our roots, all those types of things—we can make or break relationships. If an organization comes out with a big, shiny new campaign or message, but if it falls apart on execution—maybe in someone’s interaction with customer service, for example—you have a problem. Trust isn’t built with any one thing but with a million small things.
Griffin: It sure is. Amazon, to me seems like a good example of a company that is in the details.
Bloomstein: Amazon’s a tough case: People love them or hate them, or there’s also that middle ground of people that say, I don’t like them but I don’t know of a better alternative. There is a degree of pragmatism: They’re pretty reliable—but is reliability enough to earn trust?
People ask more of the brands that get their money: How do they treat their employees? Does this brand align with my values? In Trustworthy, I explore how many more brands realize they have to offer more than just reliability. It’s not enough just to deliver; we have to look at how we do it: How do we work? How do we support communities that support us? What is that chain of trust?
Griffin: Can you give me an example of a business that you think is a leader in this space in being able to manage those factors?
Bloomstein: Look at how Zoom has evolved. They launched to support businesses with distributed teams, and could assume that users would be supported by IT teams and follow security protocols. But over the past year. Zoom was suddenly supporting families, teachers, and other new audiences working from home, which raised all new challenges. Zoom bombing increased, people were confused about security—it was a problem that undermined trust.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan could have said, hey, not our problem—but he didn’t. He published an open letter to acknowledge the problems, thank users for exposing them, and share how Zoom would improve. With clarity and vulnerability, he apologized in the singular but shared credit in the plural and described how you could hold him accountable.
Smart businesses embrace the opportunity to show their audiences how they’ll evolve. They trade the risk of vulnerability for increased connection and conversation with their audiences.
Griffin: Such a good example. We haven’t talked too much about teams, so let me go here. How can managers and leaders continue to encourage engagement and buy-in from their teams?
Bloomstein: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. And if you want to go in a way that is credible and enduring and collaborative, go with vulnerability. I think we’re seeing that as an outcome of the pandemic, with more people exposing their home lives in some way, but we also see it within teams when they’re trying to establish rapport. Brené Brown describes how the best way for people to connect with other people is to share something about themselves, and that takes vulnerability. It applies in corporate contexts too. Teams become stronger when managers and companies create space to share our challenges and growth, without repercussion.
Griffin: Can you give my readers an example of that? Maybe from one of your case studies?
Bloomstein: America’s Test Kitchen engages in a vulnerable way: In some channels, they find strength in vulnerability by exposing what happens behind the scenes when things don’t go correctly. Of course, Cook’s Illustrated magazine and their cooking shows are polished and edited, but in channels like Twitter and Instagram, they reveal more of the process and mistakes. The mistakes are part of the learning process and they don’t hide it.
Griffin: I love that, that is such a good example. So the leaders at the top have built that culture and have been very consistent in strengthening that culture, correct? It’s very intentional.
Bloomstein: Yes. We create culture by design, but sustain culture in practice. At America’s Test Kitchen, chief creative officer Jack Bishop has set a tone that is detail-oriented and collaborative. He revels in sharing the details with the audience and the people around him. Everyone echoes enjoyment in the science, nuance, and collaborative process. That culture starts at the top, but then continues throughout the organization.
That pervasive culture is probably the best definition that we can offer for authenticity. Authenticity and vulnerability are such big buzz words in many corporate cultures now. Everybody wants to be authentic and I always wonder, authentic to what? What in your organization is worth maintaining and sharing—and how do you operationalize it consistently? The framework that I present in Trustworthy is voice, volume of detail, and vulnerability as a strength. But to be authentic, you need to first identify the values you can sustain consistently, so you’re not yet another company jumping on an external bandwagon as you avoid addressing the issue internally. If you’re taking a stand on current events, wonderful; your leadership may be a beacon for other brands and a broader audience. But back it up with action. Do Black Lives Matter? Ensure you’re building a culture of safety and inclusion and a pipeline for Black employees. Being truthful with your audiences shows a measure of respect, and that’s what I address in Trustworthy: how businesses, leaders, and design and content and communications and marketing practitioners can build trust in an enduring and sustainable way.
Griffin: So as a woman that has grown in business, give me a couple of tips that my young readers—women or men—should think about as they are starting their climb.
Bloomstein: Figure out what you can learn from everyone around you. I‘ve had a lot of managers over the past two decades; they haven’t all been good managers, but I’ve learned something from each of them. In some cases I recognized behavior that I never wanted to emulate. Every experience can be valuable to teach you how you want to be in the future.
Griffin: I love that. Very good. So just, bloom where you’re planted.
Bloomstein: Yes—and bring your own watering can too!