Business Casual Content

In the U.S., there has been a 15-year trend to so-called business casual clothing in the workplace. My first job, on Wall Street in the 1980s, required me to wear a suit and tie with polished shoes everyday. At that time, “casual” (for men) meant that after 5 p.m., you could loosen your tie. When I lived in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, things were even more formal (you could only loosen your tie while drinking beer late at night).

Casual Fridays started as a parallel to the dot-com boom on both American coasts in the mid-1990s,partly led by Dockers, a clothing company. The casual trend very quickly became casual everyday, and it spread to the rest of the U.S. as well. These days, except for bankers and a few other professions, it’s business casual all the time.

I’ve noticed in the past 5 years or so that econtent has been going through a similar trend toward the casual. No, your content isn’t khaki. Rather, more and more content is created with much less formality. And this is good. Both professionals and citizen content creators now have their work reach readers and viewers faster, and with less interference from the stuffy conventions associated with content creation.

Perhaps the tremendous rise of social tools such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the like has helped fuel the desire to consume content that is less formal. At the same time, stiff and structured content such as white papers isn’t getting as many readers as it did a decade ago.

Consider press releases: Just a few years ago, the press release was always written the exact same way, starting something like this: “Company X, the leading provider of flexible scalable solutions for improving business process, is pleased to announce …” As smart companies realized their news releases were reaching buyers directly through search engines and on corporate sites, they started writing like real humans.

My friend Cliff Pollan, CEO of VisibleGains (I am on the board of advisors) talks about what he calls the use of “business casual video” at companies—a description I love. I’ve recently shared this idea at my talks and it really resonates with people. The concept is simple, and it offers a good template for thinking about other content types as well.

For decades, corporate videos have been highly produced, like an episode of CBS News’ 60 Minutes television show. They tended to cost tens of thousands of dollars and take months to create. Some devices of the formal online corporate video genre include the following: slickly produced corporate overview; in-studio lights and makeup-laden “customer testimonial”; and a product manager explaining her amazing new offering. Because many executives’ experience with video is of this formal ilk, when the subject of online video is discussed at companies, people immediately think expensive and difficult.

However, if you think business casual video, all of a sudden videos can be low or even no cost and can be completed in a day or even in an hour. I am a fan of something you can film yourself with an easy-to-use Flip or a Kodak camera. For example, when you’re on the road, you can film an interview with someone interesting: a customer, a partner, or an industry luminary. Anyone can post to a video sharing site and then embed the resulting video into your corporate site.

Some people say that quality is essential. While I agree that a video should be appealing, I’m convinced that not using a studio, high-wattage lighting, and makeup artists isn’t a big deal. If the subject is interesting, people are tolerant of the conditions where the video was filmed. Of course, this is within reason; I don’t advocate poorly shot video, terrible lighting, and bad editing.

I’m convinced that the trend to casual content means that consumers want to get closer to the organizations they do business with. When a company, hospital, educational institution, government agency, or other outfit comes across as friendly and engaging based on the way it communicates with people online, it will be more successful.

Like that transition from wearing formal attire to work to sporting a polo shirt, it might feel sort of “not professional” at first. But casual dress doesn’t mean taking our work less seriously; it simply means being more comfortable and human in the office. A less formal content style—telling it like it is—may well make us more human to our audiences, which can only improve the value of what we are communicating.