Passion and Technique: A Response to Matthew Shadbolt

Ready to write blogposts, you are not, young padawan.

I started writing a response to this amazing comment by Matthew Shadbolt of Corcoran, and thought… it’s too long to go into the comments. It deserves a post of its own.

Basically, Matthew’s challenge poses the question of passion on the one hand and technique on the other:

So, just as we disagreed yesterday with the advice of ‘post great content that people will want to share’, ‘be passionate’ isn’t an endgame in itself either. I feel like passionate content exists in real estate, pretty much only within social at the moment (I wouldn’t characterize any type of online home search as ‘passionate’ although I would love it to be), but my criticism of such content is that it is very often poorly executed. There is a very important quality issue missing from the content creation discussion. If it looks like crap, is tough to hear, or unreadable, people will not use it, no matter how ‘passionate’ the intent behind it – as a result your work becomes invisible. This is why I disagree with Rob’s point that you can’t strategize around creative – I think you have to. This is what ad agencies do, and why some in the real estate industry hear the call to think of themselves more as media companies, especially around their marketing. [Emphasis mine]

It’s an excellent point. Who cares how passionate you are about whatever topic, or how committed you are… if you just suck? No one will care about your passion if you can’t put it into a form that audiences can consume. Right?

Well, sort of.

I’ve actually written on this topic before, in the context of video. Back in 2009, I wrote in The Price of Artifice:

Because the audience expectation is so high when it comes to professional work, in order to avoid looking like an idiot, your execution must be extraordinary.  This is both prohibitively expensive and incredibly difficult.

Turns out, the theme and the idea are both applicable to all content of any kind. You need both passion and technique, and perhaps my error in the first post was assuming/taking it for granted that anyone who would write a blogpost about his town with passion is at least in possession of above-average writing ability. At the same time, I don’t believe that professional marketers are always aware of the tradeoff between passion/authenticity and technique/skill.

Let us explore further.

The Importance of Craft

If I did not stress the importance of craft, of skill development, in creating content… then mea culpa. That was an oversight. I thought by constantly bringing up written, audial, and video formats for content, I was acknowledging that different people have different talents.

But it appears that part of what Matthew wants from those who are telling real estate agents (or anybody, for that matter) about content creation is the specific WHAT and HOW. He’s talking about the craft:

As I repeatedly mentioned in our Twitter conversation, it is the WHAT that they need to hear. While the discussion as to what is ‘good’ is intensely subjective, the parameters of the box are not. A Facebook post is a certain size, a video is of an optimum length, a listing has certain slots to fill. What you do with those erodes what is ‘good’ if you dont focus on absolutely making it look the best it possibly can, in a way that is as easy to consume as possible.

If a person doesn’t know how to boil water, it makes no sense to urge him to unleash his passion for French-Cambodian-Argentinian fusion cooking. He could be bursting with passion, but has no way to actually realize it. He doesn’t know how.

If the issue is that the target of advice — in this case, a real estate agent — doesn’t know what Facebook is, doesn’t know HTML, doesn’t know the basic rules of grammer, doesn’t know how to organize thoughts into paragraphs, etc. then… well, all further advice is useless.

We can agree this far.

If an agent does not know how to write coherent English, she should learn to write better, or not to written blogposts. If an agent has the kind of face that makes small children cry, he should get some cosmetic surgery done and work out or something, or not do video.

So yes, basic craft is a requirement.

But Craft Is Overrated

But in the real world, very few real estate agents are actually illiterate. And vanishingly few who would be interested in content creation at all are totally ignorant of basic writing skills. No one would do video if she knows that she’s distressingly ugly. People are not that unaware of their limitations.

So the real question is, when someone is of average skill level in whatever craft — writing, doing podcasts, recording video, whatever — then what should the experts be telling them?

This is where I part ways with Matthew, based on the examples. “A Facebook post is a certain size” does not address the craft of writing; it’s conventional wisdom repackaged as sage advice. Same with the “optimum length” of a video. The optimum length of a video is that length which achieves your objective. It seems entirely unthinking to say, “Your video must be no more than 4 minutes long, because studies show that you lose 10% of the audience for every 30 seconds of length over 2 minutes.” But if the goal of the video is not to garner maximum audience size, but engender depth of fanaticism… then what?

One of my favorite content creators on YouTube is a young man who goes by the moniker Day[9].

Look at the video. It’s an hour long. Day9 himself is… well, there’s no other way to put this: he’s a total geek. He’s a nerd. He’s the kind of guy that girls would overlook and snicker at in hipster bars. He’s in his mid-twenties but still has video game posters on the wall. He cusses on video. His haircut is awful. He just uses a webcam and his computer. There are no multiple camera angles, no editing, nothing professional about this “broadcast” at all. Have I mentioned that the video is an hour long? His topic is a video game, StarCraft II. One game. Granted, it’s one of the best strategy games ever developed, and is the foundation for a multi-million dollar professional gaming niche, but it’s just one game.

Look at his subscriber count: 169,410 as of this writing.

Now, look at this video by World CyberGames.

This is a professional production. You can tell by the theme music, all the fancy computer graphics, the dual broadcasters (announcer and color commentator, borrowed from sports broadcasting), multiple camera angles, and so on.

And it’s boring as all hell. Don’t let the 663K views on this video fool you. Considering that one twentysomething nerd in the US can get 30K views on one of his fixed-webcam videos, that’s a fail for a professional production of what is the equivalent of the Olympics for gamers.

What’s the difference?

The Form Leads to Expectations

Matthew touched on a fundamental issue with all types of content, but glossed over it:

For example, to return to our music industry analogy, however groundbreaking Public Enemy or Nirvana were at the time, they were still working within an established and somewhat agreed upon framework of the 3 minute song designed to be played on the radio. They had distilled their ‘passion’ into a format which they understood that the audience would be familiar with, however challenging and innovative the material.

He’s right, of course. But there’s something else at work as well.

It isn’t simply that artists must obey the conventions of a particular form or genre; it is also that the audience’s expectations are set by the form/genre. You do not judge a rap song with the same standards as you would a jazz improv piece. You do not judge a movie the same way you would a book.

In the two gaming videos above, I go into something that is positioned as a sports broadcast with a totally different frame of reference than I do watching something positioned as a one-man video blog. What would be charming and funny if Day[9] did it would come off unprofessional and stupid if the “professional” broadcasters at the WCG did it. (And they do, by the way.) Because I’m not comparing the WCG broadcast to Day[9]; I’m comparing it to ESPN. On that comparison, WCG’s product is a miserable failure.

Similarly, bringing it back to real estate marketing content, I would approach brochureware copy on an agent website very differently than I would her blogposts. It’s not something I do consciously, but I essentially end up comparing her website copy to other, professionally produced website copy. (For that matter, I end up comparing the whole website to other websites, like that of Goldman Sachs.)

It may not be fair, of course, since Goldman Sachs is a multinational investment bank that can afford to hire the absolute best of the best, while Agent Susie Smith is a one-woman show. But audiences are not fair. They do not owe you fairness. And even if they know consciously that they can’t compare your two websites, that’s the frame of reference they subconsciously bring to the table.

This is a trap that far too many independent businesses — including real estate agents — fall into. They think they have to be professional, project a professional image, put out a professional web presence, etc. etc. and believe the comparison for the consumer is between Agent Smith and Agent Jones. Sorry. The comparison for the consumer is between Agent Smith and Goldman Sachs. Or Agent Jones and Unfair? Of course. True? Yes it is.

The Lure of Social Media

If anything explains the lure of social media marketing, it is that in the world of blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter… the playing field appears completely level. Agent Smith’s Facebook Page does not have to be grossly outclassed by a multinational corporation, because of the limits that Facebook itself imposes on both. Same with Twitter: your 140 characters are as powerful or as weak as CNN’s 140 characters.

But I use the word “appears” because that’s all it is: appearance of a level playing field. In fact, corporations with professional marketing staff, such as one Mr. Matthew Shadbolt, will have an advantage over the sole practitioner who is trying to service clients, win business, AND keep up a steady stream of “interesting content”. For one thing, corporations can and do (or at the very least should) track exactly what is resonating with whom. And given that they employ professional marketers, who tend to be good writers, know how to do video production, etc., they can practice social media with a good deal of craft. They can understand what content is resonating with whom and in what way, and pursue strategic content campaigns.

In short, corporations and professional marketers are often able to compensate for the lack of passion with superior craft. Here’s an example:

Yeah. That’s right. You teared up, admit it.

But there is no way that anybody involved in that video is passionate about insurance. Passionate about telling stories, maybe; passionate about the craft of advertising, probably; passionate about actuarial tables, not a chance.

No matter how passionate an independent insurance salesperson might be about life insurance, the chance of creating anything approaching that commercial is nil.

Passion Is the Endgame

So it turns out, that contra Matthew, passion is the endgame for the small business owner looking to utilize content in marketing. It isn’t because of some idealistic “thou shalt create art” that I say this. It’s because of the relative competence between the small and the large.

But credit is due to Matthew for pointing out the importance of craft. Some above average skill is in fact required. If a writer, some ability to write coherently, make ideas connect, and have the story flow is required. If doing podcasts, some ability to sound interesting with one’s voice alone, to be an interesting interviewer, etc. is required. If doing video, some natural talent in front of a camera is required.

Craft is the foundation. It is not the endgame. Passion is. Authentic interest in the topic is.

The old adage of relationships is, “To be interested is to be interesting.” The same applies to content creation for the non-professional.

As always, your thoughts and criticism are welcome.



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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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7 thoughts on “Passion and Technique: A Response to Matthew Shadbolt”

  1. Sales and marketing is about creating emotion. The same goes for blogging. If the reader can’t connect with the writer, the writer has failed. This presupposes they want to read about real estate of course, but I have to agree that passion and writing in one’s own voice trumps strategy. 

  2. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for posting such a wonderful response to my initial thoughts on your blog. Out of all the comments generated by the original post, I’m thrilled, and very flattered that you chose mine as the one to respond to and go deeper with. I’m glad it inspired you to re-evaluate your position and consider some other things not included on what you’d originally written. I welcome the discussion.

    By way of ‘response to your response’ I wanted to explore some of the points you bring up here. Unfortunately, as you put it, ‘glossing over’ some of the themes inherent in a layered conversation like this is unfortunately a side-effect of writing a comment, so I apologize for not going into the depth I would have liked to with my original response by way of not monopolizing the conversation. So let’s go deeper here.

    To return to the initial stimulus of the conversation, let’s try to answer the question, ‘what should be presented at these seminars agents attend, where we disagree on what they’re currently being advised’. I’ll attempt this by responding and expanding on your points from our discussion. While I agree with a lot of your thoughts (we’re not that far away from each other here), the idea of setting up craft vs passion as somehow mutually exclusive I think is tricky. I’d argue (as you briefly mention), that it’s the smart combination of both, leveraged around an audience, that creates ‘good’ content. It’s not one vs the other, it’s one AND the other. Just as there are many examples of passion proving to be more effective than craft, there are many opposite examples (Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is one of the best of these I think).

    But to return to real estate, while I agree that many people are not that unknowingly aware of their limitations, why is there so much bad content? You rightfully make the comparison to juxtapose an agents work with that of a large corporation, the democratizing factor not being just the tools, but by them being together in SEARCH.

    Search, over any other type of tool, app or advice, is the great thing that has leveled the playing field on content production. It specifically puts good and bad together and arranges then in order of relevance based on what the user / audience is looking for – this is where you get the independent agent appearing next to the big box brands – in Google, in Zillow, on, all across the board, in all verticals. You use the example of an agent and Amazon, and I think you’re right to do so – search doesn’t care about the resources you have, how pretty it is, or how passionate you are – search cares about relevance – it’s the step BEFORE the content for the user. However, I’d argue that in order to SUSTAIN visits, this is where our discussion comes into play. Most real estate pages are read only once, with the visitor never coming back, and only having consumed about 20% of the pages’ content (source: Steve Rubel’s NYC Connect presentation, January 2011). The key element for increasing the 20% is the content’s relevance, but also what it looks like – it’s a visual decision the user makes, before one based on what’s written, especially if it’s a long form discussion like the one we’re having here. By way of some feedback, I’d argue that it’s something you should think about for your own blog.

    So to your point about Facebook not being able to address the craft of writing, I disagree. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, anything that allows the creator to add words, is getting indexed in search, and as a result needs to understand the craft of writing (I don’t really mean SEO here, although that’s a factor). I don’t think the craft of writing discussion only extends to long form writing, especially in an age where people are simply unable to read at length online anymore. Similarly, while I agree that there are expectations regarding format being placed by the audience based on the platform, this absolutely applies to any kind of real estate content, which is why I struggle with the idea of using gaming walkthroughs to illustrate your point – they are vastly different, and the correlation is a stretch for me. I understand your point about tailoring it based on the audience’s expectations, and agree, I just think those rules are already in place for real estate content today.

    We agree on how social has democratized the craft of writing, photography etc, but is that a good thing? Does it simply lead to the syndication and distribution of more and more crap? With YouTube uploading 2 solid days worth of content every minute, I hear the call within real estate to ‘do more video’ in reference to these stats, but all it really means is ‘there’s more noise’. I’m interested in the signal, and the way to get there, to return to our point, is SEARCH. The great and the good, especially in YouTube, are often next to each other (re: your video game results examples), and search is the only real tool that can allow you to navigate this. At the moment, even the most ‘pro-sumer’ types of real estate content are able to significantly differentiate themselves from the overwhelming number of flipcam / slideshow videos produced by single agents (and encouraged at conferences). We’re not talking about making ‘Iron Man’ here, even just the basics are missing from too many types of content uploaded this way (missing audio, shaky, bad lighting etc.), and I’d argue that there is a level of technical proficiency which is missing from what’s being evangelized to our industry.

    I thought about the examples you’ve used in our discussion, and tried to determine what they all had in common. For me, whatever their length, format, platform or however they’re produced, the common thread is that they all tell (or have) great stories – even if you’re not into Nirvana’s music, you can appreciate that it’s something new, energetic and unique. The walkthough above has the same sense to it – I know very little about that online community, but I understand that the person who made it is REALLY into it and as such an expert on that topic. I get that. Millions of other viewers obviously get it too.

    So, by way of conclusion (and perhaps opening up some more questions), what would make a more effective set of things to present to agents? I’d love to see a lot more practical ‘how-to’ sessions – what makes good writing, how to light something, the differences between good and bad audio – I think there’s a vast untapped market for that within the real estate community, and much more of a need for it over ‘ten great tips to get more Facebook fans’ as if friending is some kind of arms race. I truly believe that content quality online can be a very powerful way of improving the industry’s reputation / image online (but also agree, per many of your previous posts, that if folks can’t afford housing that much of this is just moot).

    I also think that the explanation of how this conversation applies to search (and who is going to be clicked on more) is a great way to clearly explain this concept to the agent populous in terms of hard data. At the very primitive level – I believe a takeaway should be, “if it looks like crap, and people don’t recognize your name, you will lose in search – you have control over both”. I’d also like us to have better examples of best practices – who is the HBO of real estate video, the Howard Stern (in reach, longevity and sheer scale – not content, obviously) of real estate podcasting, or the Seth Godin of real estate marketing? Where are these people and why do we have such a hard time identifying them?

    One thing I hear a lot of as a counter to this is how real estate brands try to align themselves with other brands – ‘we’re a lifestyle brand, just like Starbucks or Apple’ for example. Or ‘we’re independent, just like you’, or ‘we offer quality service and products, just like Mercedes’. Perhaps this is a topic for another time. As always, I welcome the discussion and am thrilled to use this platform for us to converse about these topics. Great job as always.

    Ps. Great image. Empire was always my favorite one.

    p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica}

    • Incisive, insightful, as expected, Matthew 🙂

      A few responses.

      First, I used the gaming video as a way to illustrate how one guy with bad craft overcomes the professional production, because of frame.  The audience judges them differently, because of the formal presentation techniques chosen. This is a subtle but important point that we often overlook. A professionally produced listings video with editing, music, etc. will be judged by the audience by one set of standards that compares it to other video ads, and not necessarily only for houses: they might compare a “pro” video to something like a car ad, and on that comparison, there are very few listing videos that do well. But they’ll judge a guy walking through a house with a Flip cam very differently.

      Second, I love what you’re saying about how SEARCH impacts our consumption of content. I do think, however, that we need to be aware of the difference in the types of content that is subject to search. Movie showtimes — most definitely search-driven. Location of restaurants, search. Factual information that someone is looking for — search, search, search.

      But when it comes to what we’d normally think of as “content” (works of opinion, analysis and creativity), I think word of mouth is far more important, even in our Google-dominated world. I know when I started this blog, I did it without any thought of the audience. Somehow, a few big bloggers like Joe Ferrara, Jeff Corbett, and Dustin Luther found my initial few posts and linked to them. I know from hearing from people that some of my posts get emailed around – I remember hearing for the first time that the CEO of a major franchise sent one of my posts to the broker/owners of some of the largest companies in real estate, and being flabbergasted.

      Post-Twitter, Facebook, etc., I think our experience is shifting more and more. We’re coming to rely more and more on our friends, on our sphere, to find “good” content — because, as you point out, there’s so much crap out there that we’re overwhelmed. So we turn more and more to people we trust, people like us, to find content that appeals to us. Bing’s commercials about “search overload” are funny but trenchant observations of our search-driven world.

      For example, I admit that I get a ton of my news from Instapundit, because he does the curation of the voluminous river of crap out there every day and picks out what he thinks is interesting. I find that I find those things interesting too.

      Here’s where this Search vs. Social gets on-point: search-driven content tends not to engender a connection. The mindset of the consumer when searching is, “I just wanna find what I’m looking for, and get out”. Say I’m just looking for the answer to “how’s the NJ real estate market doing?” — I’m probably typing “NJ real estate market” into Google, and finding a bunch of websites with stats and “market reports”. I click in, read it, and click back out. Got what I was looking for; time to move on.

      Without something unique, something passionate, something different about that market report, that visitor is in-and-out and gone forever. He’s not going to remember anything about the agent who compiled a bunch of MLS stats, nor is he going to return.

      It is, I think, a very different result if that same consumer is forwarded the market report by a friend, or finds it via a Twitter re-tweet. Because no one retweets or forwards something he or she finds boring. The re-tweet, the Like, and the Share are the curation of our age.

      How does one create the kind of content — even a market report — that would get retweeted? Craft is the foundation, but passion is the endgame.

      Third, as to your specific “back-to-the-beginning” question about what agents should be taught at these various conferences… I generally agree that those sessions, on what makes good writing, how to light something, etc. would be more useful than what we tend to get these days. But… as I mentioned in the post itself, why would anyone counsel a realtor to learn how to shoot video, instead of advising her to hire a videographer? Why try to convert a bunch of real estate salespeople into interactive marketers? 

      Most listing agents would hire professional photographers to shoot the listing photos for a luxury property. Why would it be different for their own marketing? We don’t advise agents to take their own pictures for professional headshots; why are we advising them to learn writing, learn lighting, learn video, learn WordPress, and the like?

      You know and I know that the answer lies the peculiar structure of our industry, where the broker has abdicated any responsibility for marketing, and that most agents are barely making ends meet. But that, IMHO, does not absolve those of us who know better from the responsibility to tell brokers and agents the truth of how it is with content-based marketing.


      PS: As to this blog itself, I’m still waiting for you to have enough time to design a new look & feel for me 🙂 But as to the content… I’ve said many, many times now that I write for myself, not for other people. Strangely enough, that is what seems to attract other people to these over-long, overly argumentative, overly speculative posts. 🙂

  3. I read the first post [On Content Creation Strategies] as well as this treatment on the topic and thought I’d offer the following;

    The consumption of any content is valuable ONLY to the consumer of it.

    I can honestly admit that I thought, long before I started my agency, that the marketing power by an agency was equal to classified print advertising.  That fact seemed to play well in the NYC market, where larger firms could dominate the real estate classified section of the New York Times.

    But something funny happened…Craiglist.

    Suddenly, content was required to be real time….and not necessarily with a high touch marketing treatment. 

    That was because the market place changed (and long before social media came along).

    Consumers began to conduct their own search for real estate listings, then for information about neighborhoods, then information about housing stock, rehab costs, etc…..

    Brokers have been following the lead of the consumer. What consumers have shown is that VALUE is determined by the NEED for information, and that certain information isn’t as important as it once was.

    Since the internet has reduced the real estate business to an Online Content Publishing business (i.e. listing pages with photos, words and some video) content creation is top of mind for all producers of it (i.e. the listing agent).

    So how does a listing agent distinguish his client’s offering above comparable property listings….

    He must write compelling content designed to peak the consumer’s interest…point blank.  Content where the passion for the opportunity is read in the lines describing the offering (and no marketing fluff)

    The writer runs the show … and the sale is in the copy.

    and perhaps this is were craft and technique intersect …. imagination.

    The guy with over 600k you tube views had an engaged audience because of his narration of his experience (first hand account) with the video game, while the slickly produced video on the same game had the same old shtick. 

    I’m certain the guy sold more video games for the manufacturer than the video commercial (without any promise of compensation)

    There’s a lot we can draw from the example, where craft and technique holds its value to the person CONSUMING the content ….where the method and mode are appreciated by it’s audience and thus authenticated by the number of views, comments, shares, likes and saves.

    That’s where agents will have the most trouble and why the majority may never be able to overcome all the years of training and development to seize the opportunity that compelling, original content offers….the passionate kind.

  4. Re: “The consumption of any content is valuable ONLY to the consumer of it.” If this is true, is your reading of his post and lengthy response to it of no value to Rob? I’d argue content creation easily has inherent value on both sides. The value in the statistical analysis of your content’s consumption is of tremendous benefit to you, especially if you elect to leverage that knowledge to improve your product.

    • My reference to the consumption of content reflects the value placed by the end user, particularly consumers conducting home searches who also rely on outside sources (i.e., content) found on the Internet to substantiate their reasoning on a location to live or outright kill the notion.

      As a practitioner, reading Rob’s posts on the subject have value for me as it offers a perspective that fuels the marketing initiative I embarked on 2 years ago.  I, like any consumer of content, will seek the information that provides the most objective, first person account to help me in my deliberations on a matter.

      The further removed the content producer is from an experience, the less authentic (and authoritative) it is to the public.

      I think Rob’s benefited greatly from the conversation in the comments, particularly the remarks you offered, as I thought you explained the common plight the industry experiences whenever there’s a shift in the market place, IMHO.

      It was a great discourse, Matt, and I look forward to reading you and Rob’s perspectives often.

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