On Striving for Simplicity
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 3 seconds
Aged 21 I got my first job in marketing for Ladbrokes. The title of Marketing Assistant was bestowed upon me as were a frighteningly large stack of real, honest to goodness business cards. Oh brave new world!
But it was a world that was difficult to navigate.
There was an awful lot of terminology which I struggled to understand. Even today I’m confused by the difference between ‘above the line’ & ‘below the line’ (don’t get me started on ‘through the line’ – I will hurt you).
Seriously. What’s with the lines? Where is the line? When is the line?
Strange terminology and jargon aside there were also many maxims. Some of which stayed with me.
One such maxim was chucked at me early doors:
The KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid.
I actually quite liked this one. It was something that was easy for me to comprehend in that it wasn’t buried in baffling terminology.
The maxim, whilst used by marketers (and in many other fields) is actually borrowed from engineering. The KISS acronym was reportedly coined by Kelly Johnson, lead aircraft engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works (creators of the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among many others).
Now clearly I wasn’t building aircraft. But nevertheless the maxim is useful whether you’re trying to construct a catchy piece of messaging for a piece of point of sale (marketing speak for posters / leaflets and wot not), or looking to design a brand new product or piece of software.
Fast forward to today and I’m primarily concerned with creating content that lives online.
This content might take the form of text, image, video or a combination of the three. I might be making a tool, a quiz or something which requires user-input. This content might be intended to increase conversions, increase dwell time, improve user experience etc. Alternatively (it won’t surprise you to learn) often the content we’re creating is intended to delight, educate or entertain – we need the content to attract links, social shares and so on.
Simplicity is Powerful
I strongly believe that a simple idea, well executed can be supremely powerful in terms of garnering links, social shares and indeed attention for a website. We’ve seen ‘simple’ content do well over and over again:
MahiFX beautifully illustrated just how filthy, stinking rich John Paulson is compared to us mere mortals.
This interactive piece got links from over 300 domains (NB it was previously on the homepage of the site, so most of the links point there rather than the new location).
The wonderfully sweary What the F*ck Should I Make for Dinner? just furnishes you with an answer.
It has links from 460 domains, 179k Facebook likes and more than 7.5k tweets.
Simple? Yes. Silly? Definitely.
But Simplicity isn’t Simple
Keep it simple, stupid!
Sounds pretty easy… I mean it’s easy to say, right? It means you’re over-complicating something unnecessarily; to fix it, just make it less complicated.
However, in reality striving for simplicity and removing complexity is not an easy task.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
In Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath highlight the importance of keeping things simple. They warn against burying key messages in a volume of information – advocating the need to keep your message “succinct enough to be sticky, meaningful enough to make a difference.” But how do you figure out what’s core to your message and what’s a distraction?
John Maeda, author of the Laws of Simplicity acknowledges the true challenge of simplicity – via his 10 laws. Law 10 (I think) is the most important:
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
Let’s relate this back to the content examples above.
In ‘You versus John Paulson’ you see in concrete terms just how quickly John Paulson earns your annual salary. You also see how long it would take you to earn his. This juxtaposition of you versus him is precisely what makes the piece meaningful.
With ‘What the F*ck Should I Make for Dinner?’ we’re seeing sheer, stripped back (sweary) utility. A suggestion (which links straight through to a recipe) answers your question. If you don’t like the suggestion you can get another.
Ok, so what about fartscroll.js? As I said above it’s a simple idea – it just makes your website fart. But what was it for? Check out this message at the bottom of the page:
This message seems to indicate that they actually released it to help with their efforts to recruit a front-end developer. A gloriously simple idea, well executed; with the purpose of helping with a recruitment drive. Fascinating.
Simplicity is about being bold. It isn’t for the faint-hearted…
It takes some balls to go with something simple, to hang your hat on one single concept. It’s quite a gamble.
If your messaging or execution is off and your concept fails to capture the imagination of those you seek to attract then you’ll fail quite spectacularly.
Plus of course, simplicity doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘cheap’ or ‘low budget’. Creating simple content is often expensive. At BrightonSEO this year I spoke about investing in Big Content and the associated risks and rewards. At the heart of the content we’ve created for Simply Business (the client I was speaking specifically about), is a simple idea – creating the ‘go to’ resource for small business owners on a variety of topics – e.g. Email Marketing, CRO etc.
More recently we created a piece of content for another client, Concert Hotels – I think this might well be the closest we’ve got at Distilled to simplicity:
Click the image to find out…
Here we’re illustrating one single concept – the capacity of your iPod visualised as vinyl.
At the time of writing (9th July*) it had 13k Facebook likes, 1.6k tweets and 65 linking root domains according to Majestic.
But of course that’s not the real story. As I said above, simplicity is anything but simple.
We agonised over both the concept and the messaging… Was this the best way to illustrate our point? Was it too simple? Would it still resonate? Was it meaningful?
Additionally, I don’t mind admitting that as much as we all believed the piece was strong, we were still a little nervous when pitching this (particularly as Concert Hotels are a brand new client). Fortunately they were game and put their trust in us.
And so to finalising the piece. Back and forth we went. We bugged friends and colleagues alike for user testing and feedback. We showed it to the people we hoped might link to it and/or share it. At some point of course you have to call it. If you’re not careful you could go on iterating forever.
I don’t mind admitting to being nervous all over again when we pushed it live.
Fortunately initial indications are good
And so dear readers, over to you:
Have you also been striving for simplicity – what have you learned along the way? Got some other examples of gloriously simple content that you’d like to share?
Do let me know via the comments.