Mary Meeker’s Trend Report Fails As Content. Here’s How to Fix It.

Mary Meeker’s Trend Report Fails As Content. Here’s How to Fix It.

Each year Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers partner Mary Meeker releases her annual internet trends report. Each year, the tech press fawns over her findings. This year was no exception. But when you review her work through a content strategy lens, you find that no matter how well-researched her points are, the document itself fails as a piece of useful, usable content. In this post, I’d like to look at some content strategy insights that would make Meeker a better communicator.

Before we get started, here’s Meeker’s slide set in full.

Now, here’s what we saw, why it doesn’t work as content, and what to do to make it better.

REDUCE THE CONTENT TO INCREASE THE VALUE 

The first thing you’ll notice is that this deck weighs in at a whopping 213 slides. On this basis alone, it’s easy to argue that there is simply too much content here. Is every slide necessary?
As content strategists, we often find that our clients have accumulated far more content than they — or their audiences — actually need. Often this stockpile builds over time, especially in complex organizations where creation often goes unchecked across organizational silos. For employees, this can be a maintenance nightmare (not an issue here, since Meeker’s report is a single, static asset). For audiences, this content overload harms usability and usefulness. Likewise, in Meeker’s report, it is difficult to find any single, salient fact when you need it due to the sheer, unfettered presentation of data.
In short, when everything seems to matter the same, nothing actually matters at all. This is mainly a matter of prioritization. A stronger filter and a better sense of structure would go a long way toward slimming the slides and ordering the information in a more logical way.

GET RID OF THE R.O.T.

Content inventories help communicators rid their content of R.O.T. — content that is redundant, outdated, and/or trivial. Now, obviously, inventories are generally performed in hindsight, as a way of reviewing a current state in order to map the path to an improved future state. But Meeker could have applied R.O.T.-style thinking throughout her creative process to rid her report of rampant redundancy and (arguably) triviality.
For example, the report includes numerous slide pairs that look more or less like this:
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In each pair, a text-only slide presents a set of statistics. The following slide repeats that text as a header, adding a visual to illustrate the data. Without even getting into whether Meeker practices good data visualization in her presentations (she doesn’t), there’s no reason to double each point. This is a clear case of content redundancy.
If you’ve watched the video of her presentation of these slides at the Core Conference, you’ll see another pattern emerge. In her actual talk (which lasts less than 25 minutes), she presents the text slides then treats the data visualization as a throwaway — often with a remark such as, “And here’s what this trend looks like,” then boom moves along to her next point. Is the visualization trivial, in addition to being redundant? She certainly presents it as such — after all, the visuals often provide little to no additional insight beyond the written facts.
There’s no reason pairs like the one above couldn’t be reduced to a single slide (probably the second) for the purposes of both the oral presentation and written report. This, of course, would reduce the size of the document — helping to solve the first problem.

STRENGTHEN THE STORY

One of the criticisms levied at Meeker’s presentation over the years is that it provides information but lacks insight. What’s more, it’s full of numbers but lacks a narrative. The entire affair leaves the reader wondering, what’s the story?
The story is, there is no story. This hurts the quality of the content and is evident in a number of ways. At the highest level, there is no overarching structure to tie eight distinct sections together into a cohesive whole. The individual sections neither build on one another, nor flow from one another. There is no inverted pyramid structure. There is no obvious beginning, middle or end. There isn’t even a conclusion to summarize key takeaways. It’s the kind of work that wouldn’t be tolerated in business, even from an intern. It’s the kind of keynote that would put any other presenter in bad light.
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Within individual sections, the sense of story is no stronger. Take, for example, the section bearing the unhelpful label “Advertising / Commerce + Brand Trends.” It contains an equally unhelpful jumble of points about trends in ad spend, generational differences and the digitization of retail, not to mention a slide that seems to imply that KPCB-funded Snapchat has cracked the code on successful video advertising (although many advertisers would not agree). Note that this slide follows one that discuss the general ineffectiveness of online video ads. Snapchat also features prominently in a subsequent section on video.
Moves like this also call into question the level of bias that may exist elsewhere in the deck. Why were certain examples chosen? Where were certain trends highlighted over others?
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Like many leaders, Meeker would benefit from learning how to tell true stories in a way that engages her audience and makes her key points pop. Map out even a simple narrative, then ensure every slide moves the story forward to a logical conclusion. Develop a messaging hierarchy that establishes what your audience needs to know and determines the priority, order and level of depth for each main idea.

LEARN THE POWER OF LANGUAGE

Even on a single slide, weak writing and a weak visual language hurt usefulness and usability.
Meeker has always had a tendency to play fast and loose with the written word, typing in abbreviations, truncating her ideas with creative punctuation, and presenting her thoughts in a format that resembles speaker notes more than audience-ready copy. Ironically, her shorthand sometimes uses more characters than properly written sentences would require.
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Compare this odd 97-character construct with the simpler, friendlier: “New Internet Users Harder to Acquire Due to High Penetration in Developed Markets.” (82 characters.) And this is one of the simpler sentences in Meeker’s deck.
If the writing is bad, the visual language may be worse. Good information design can clarify complex points, bring insight to data, and tell a powerful story beyond words. Bad design does the opposite. Former Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff took aim at Meeker’s design disasters, while Gavin Heaton (Disruptor’s Handbook) presents this cogent argument in favor of good design:
Design has proven its worth, refining and sharpening not only the storytelling aspects of data but creating a whole new visual language that we all readily consume. Our standards AND our expectations of design have increased significantly. And perhaps, more importantly, given that we live in a world of abundant data, design has been tasked with the challenge of simplification – of making the complex world we live in more easily consumable. Actionable. Insight oriented.
Meeker missed the memo. This is especially ironic since she highlights visual content as an important communications trend.
Often, written language and visual language combine with disastrous effect, as is the case in this crammed slide that pairs far too many words in far too small a font with a spider chart that doesn’t add much insight.
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In many ways, the patterns I see in this document mirror the issues many businesses have breaking free of jargon, and writing for their audience rather than for themselves. If you can’t read your content with your audience’s eyes (so to speak), then employ an outside editor who can perform an honest assessment and do the hard work of translating your subject matter expertise into expert content.

MATCH FORM TO FUNCTION

Is this a report or a presentation? In truth, it serves as both but works well as neither. As supporting visuals for a live talk, the slide set is a wordy crutch that couldn’t possibly read well on a large screen — while allowing the Meeker to more or less from from her screen, as the video of her talk shows. That’s not what slides are for. As a written report, it lacks the structure, story, language and reader-friendliness you’d expect from any other report, white paper or e-book. Making sense requires too much work on the part of the reader. And that’s not what reports are for.
Should there have been two versions? A series of smaller, topical reports? A different format altogether — an explainer video, a Q&A video, a podcast series, an infographic, an interactive asset? The answer to any of these questions may very well be yes. And the simple point is, like any good business communicator or content marketer, Meeker should be asking what she is looking to convey, then choosing the format(s) that will work best — rather than just setting out to create this year’s set of slides.

NOT THAT MEEKER ASKED ME…

It’s possible this year’s Trend Report had its intended effect. After all, dozens of tech media outlets wrote frothy recaps and the Slideshare file has been viewed nearly 1.8 million times (as of this writing). I suspect this is as much a matter of hype as a matter of Meeker’s stature as a successful venture capitalist.

But purely as a piece of content, it misses the mark — plain and simple. And at the end of the day, a piece of content is what it is.When business people are awash in information and clobbered by content, work like this sets a bad example for businesses everywhere. Meeker’s audience deserves better and thinkers of her caliber can do better.

So can you.

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