“Applying Disney Storytelling to Content Strategy” – Max Greenhut at Confab

Confab Events logoYesterday I was at Confab 2013 in London, trying to publish as many rapid-fire blog posts about the conference as possible. You know me, hunched over my laptop writing as a defence mechanism against actually having to talk to anybody. Yesterday I uploaded posts about talks by Kristina Halvorson, Kate Kiefer Lee, Leisa Reichelt and Kerry-Anne Gilowey. Also on yesterday’s programme was Max Greenhut, talking about Disney’s web properties.

“Applying Disney Storytelling to Content Strategy” – Max Greenhut

Max Greenhut took us through what he described as the “excruciating” development of of the DisneyWorld.com website via screenshots of the homepage from the Wayback Machine. I’m not going to go through them blow-by-blow, but they went from the inevitable “Welcome to DisneyWorld.com” splash page, to something approaching modern web design. To be honest, nothing makes me assume every web design I’m involved in is going to look absolutely bobbins in the future like the Wayback Machine does.

DisneyWorld.com in the early 2000s

DisneyWorld.com in the early 2000s

Of note during the course of changes over the years was the way the site gradually got more transactional, and mixed story-telling with a typical travel site date picker. Max also showed how at one point they had ditched category-based navigation, in favour of labels like “Discover”, “Plan” and “Book”. They found that didn’t work as well, and it only lasted a year. And of course, there was the time when one of their navigational labels was “More magic”. As if the homepage itself hadn’t been magic enough yet.

Max went on to talk about the design of the Disney Vacation Club website. My understanding is that it is a sort of timeshare way of reserving holidays at Disney resorts.

We’d already heard a lot during the day about the need for empathy in content strategy, and I did wonder if in some of his language Max betrayed a corporate lack of empathy with some of the people involved in the process. I think some people find Disney calling their staff members or sales people “Cast members” cute, but I’m just reminded of the way that lots of digital job titles at the BBC had to be rooted in TV and Radio job titles, y’know, just…erm…because. And all through the talk Max continually referred to potential customers as “prospects”. It is 100% accurate sales talk, but maybe left out a little bit of the human side of their future guests.

I don’t think that problem came from the content strategists though. Max talked about how they’d worked hard to sell the Disney Vacation Club redesign into the business as being the digital version of the “cast members”, and the design process involved a lot of observation of the sales team at work, really understanding the way that they sell the story of Disney vacations.

A real tricky point had been displaying the price on the website. From the user point of view it is one of the key transactional pieces of information, but the business were coy about putting the figure out in the public domain. It is really hard to imagine writing the content for a sales brochure where you are not allowed to mention the price. The fear was that without being able to read the user’s face as they got the “sticker shock” of a price in the order of $20,000, the content couldn’t then take the right next step to reassure them of the value the price delivered.

This has changed now, after the team got insight to prove to the business just what a vital piece of information it was in sealing the deal. In fact, Max said, the page about “How much does it cost” is now the highest converting page on the site. A validation of researching user needs over indulging in corporate cautiousness.

One thing I especially liked about the talk was when Max began to explain about how the Disney “Let the memories begin” campaign had come about. Max was the session I saw after Kerry-Anne Gilowey talking about interviewing users, and a key bit of insight for Disney had come about through just such a technique. Their marketing had been based around the premise that the smile your child had when they went on a Disney holiday was unique, and the smile that it therefore generated in their parents was also unique.

(I should add here that as I parent I’ve realised that if your children are immensely enjoying something, you can put up with any manner of lame entertainment. Which explains a lot of things existing.)

Max said that during research it emerged that parents were saying “I can see where you are going with this smile thing, but…to be honest…the smile they have is pretty much the same smile they have with all the great stuff that happens to them.” That might have been a death knell for the idea of marketing the “unique” smile, but what emerged from the interviews was that parents said they had “unique memories” of a Disney holiday.

As a result, the content strategy of “Let the memories begin” is for Disney to simply get out of the way. It is all about show-casing user content about the memories that Disney has allowed them to create with their families.

Disney’s “Let the memories begin” campaign website

Disney’s “Let the memories begin” campaign website

I must confess that I have mixed feelings about Disney as a brand. Being pestered to go and see a Tinkerbell movie or buy “Disney Princesses™” merchandise aggravates me. But Stephen P. Anderson’s closing keynote at EuroIA last year talked about the business decisions and technical innovations that Walt Disney himself invested in and gambled on in the early years of the company, and I have come to really admire that. Also: Fantasia and Robin Hood exist.


Next up I’ll have my notes from Karen McGrane’s final session of the day, talking about the disruptive power of the ‘mobile only’ web audience.

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