Grant Butler Q&A

A word with … Grant Butler

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

The Editor Group founder and managing editor is ready for the next tech challenge.

Former journalist Grant Butler left The Australian Financial Review’s IT desk way back in 1998 to launch writing and editing services company Editor Group. It now has offices in Sydney, Singapore and New York and clients in the government, business and not-for-profit sectors. But Butler has his eyes set forward, looking at how technology will change the content industry forever.

Brand Tales: Editor Group will be 20 next year. What business opportunity did you see that escaped everyone else at the time?

Grant Butler: Well, hindsight is always 20/20 so perhaps leaving journalism seems smarter today than it did back when I did! But as IT editor at The Australian Financial Review, I was certainly aware that the internet was going to have a major impact on journalism while opening up other opportunities. I also thought there was a need for an agency that supplied high-quality writing, editing and proofreading to business and government clients, since it is so hard to get that work right. That’s been the focus of Editor Group since around 2000 and has never really changed.

BT: What are the two or three things you have learnt about the content game since then?

Butler: I think the most interesting thing is not so much what has changed but how much has remained the same. While the delivery mechanisms might be very different now – we’ve moved from paper to screens and from traditional media to social media, for instance – business people and policymakers still want to read substantial content that’s well written, logical and contains useful facts and figures. As a case in point, Forbes and Deloitte just released a survey of 300 chief experience officers from around the world. When it came to gaining business insights, 22 per cent most preferred long-form articles and reports, 21 per cent liked books, 18 per cent liked interactive data visualisation tools and 13 per cent favoured live presentations. Only 1 per cent wanted blogs or podcasts, and their desire to look at infographics was a statistical zero. I’m sure people could find alternative studies but it does suggest that in business and government, substance still trumps form.

BT: Do you have a story that best explains your business philosophy?

Butler: This might not be directly related but perhaps it speaks to the style of our business. I’m selling a road pushbike, so I took it to the shop to get it checked over before putting it online. The mechanic said the chain and cassette (the sprockets at the back) were quite worn and needed to be replaced. However, he also said a buyer probably wouldn’t notice straightaway so I could get away with making it “the next guy’s problem”. That’s just not me, so I’m currently spending hundreds of dollars to replace all the worn bits so I can sell it in good faith. I’m confident we’re the same in our work – we’d prefer to charge slightly more for the best we can offer than provide poor work cheap and underwhelm people over time. Oh, and if anyone wants a very nice, recently serviced road bike, let me know…

BT: What’s one thing about writing that non-professional writers are surprised to learn?

Butler: I think most “amateurs” are amazed how quickly a professional writer can write, especially if they’ve come out of journalism. What they might also find surprising is the very narrow vocabulary business writers actually use. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t pay – and isn’t necessary – to use a huge range of words to convey most business and government concepts. And you’re better off not using flashy words or else you just lose segments of your audience.

BT: You’ve written recently that AI is the future of editing and writing. Where does this leave mere mortals such as us?

Butler: We believe that people will use more artificial intelligence (AI) powered tools to help them to produce high-quality copy. To that end, we’re helping organisations use and implement a software platform called Acrolinx that “reads” their copy and provides recommendations about how to improve it. These range from fixing simple spelling and grammatical issues to making copy clearer and more concise, or more in line with their specific brand or business objectives.

What’s interesting is how quickly platforms like Acrolinx – which use the same sort of natural language AI capabilities as systems like Apple’s Siri –are becoming able to make sense of whole sentences and even paragraphs. At the same time, you have other AI systems like IBM Watson becoming good at ingesting vast amounts of information from the internet. In turn, they’re becoming “experts” on certain topics, like cancer and financial markets. If you put all those trends together, it’s clear that computers can already tell you whether your spelling and grammar is any good. They’re also getting better at saying whether your copy flows and if another human might will find it easy to read. And it won’t be too long before machines could have a view on whether your latest blog or report is original and intelligent or rubbish, compared to everything else it can see on the internet. So, yes, mere mortals do need to work out how to leverage the machines or become redundant. But with any luck it also means that someone will install something on Donald Trump’s phone to review what he writes before he tweets.

“It’s hard for businesses to publish material with really sharp edges.”Grant Butler

BT: Do you think the concept of “corporate storytelling” is overrated?

Butler: I’m not sure if it’s overrated but I do think every writing or communications technique has a time and place. Storytelling can be powerful if you want to make material like articles and speeches more memorable and emotive. For example, I can still remember the way an Oracle executive described a business software suite to me more than 20 years ago because she described it in terms of the story of how BMW builds its cars. But this approach can also become forced and tedious for the audience, especially when someone is trying to convey facts and numerical data.

BT: Do you have a pet peeve about the content business?

Butler: Yes – the word “content”! I just think it’s really vague and lumps everything from fiction novels to journalism, scientific papers and cat videos into one big bucket. I find it more useful to be specific. For instance, is someone talking about business or consumer material, and do they mean short or long-form “content”? And do they mean a piece of writing, a video, or a podcast? Obviously, there’s a lot of blurring of the lines with multimedia but it’s still true that there are major distinctions between all those concepts and especially between the authors behind them.

BT: In your opinion, which business does content really well, and why?

Butler: Well, see, you have to tell me what you mean by content! Generally speaking, two industries have been doing content marketing since long before the internet popularised the concept and made Joe Pulizzi at the Content Marketing Institute rich. They are the professional services industry (especially lawyers and management consultants) and the IT industry. It’s always been central to sales and the retention of customers for those two fast-moving, knowledge-intensive fields to produce high-quality written and electronic material. That continues to be the case.

BT: Which Australian brand produces great content? Why do you think this content is so effective?

Butler: One brand that has really built its success with content is REA Group, and especially the way it publishes at Real estate is a relatively easy topic to publish on, but REA has given its content a huge push over the past few years and it’s been a big reason for their growth. They have achieved that by investing in their own writing and curating content from other contributors, which is part of the reason they’ve managed to get so much material up online.

BT: What advice do you have for brands (and agencies) that choose content as part of their marketing mix?

Butler: My main advice is to write – or commission – something that you could imagine wanting to read and that also provides real value to your readers. It’s estimated that there are already close to 5 billion pages of content on the internet so there is already serious competition for attention. That doesn’t mean that content won’t help you drive sales or retain customers, but it does mean that you should make anything you do publish as succinct and value-packed as you can.

BT: What’s your biggest challenge when creating and executing content for your clients?

Butler: I think businesses can often struggle with two key problems. The first is balancing their own commercial interests with what it takes to really inform and entertain audiences. For instance, when we read or watch a movie, we like conflict, but it’s hard for businesses to publish material with really sharp edges. The other challenge is timeliness. Large organisations often simply struggle to publish quickly enough to get their material into the market while readers are still interested in a topic. If people are interested, I’ve written a book called Think Write Grow that discusses how to overcome these and other constraints to produce valuable thought-leadership material – a form of content marketing.

Please share