Dust Bowl - Truck in a Dust StormDust doesn’t usually spur epiphanies

Sneezes and a reach for the polish, yes. Insight, not so much.

But paper dust really did change my point of view on complexity. Here’s how.

Surfing the Web the other day, I was just kinda glancing around not really thinking about much – bouncing between the first week of the new Congress and cat videos to rinse my mind of the “analysis” of those results. I just started thinking of how easy some people make complex things look. The Google search box is a model of simplicity. But, the underlying technology that culminates in that one simple box is breathtakingly complex (who knows, maybe even brain surgeons and rocket scientists worked on the Google algorithms).

Then I started thinking how I learned that once you get into almost any endeavor, how complex and complicated it gets no matter how easy it looks on the service.

Enter Eastman Kodak and the AIIM Show and Conference (sometime in the mid-2000s).

One of my jobs as editor of the assocation’s magazine was to meet with vendors at our annual event and try to figure out what the hell was important in the industry (we’ll call it the ECM industry for the sake of argument). The conversations often led to article ideas, guidance for trends to look out for, and the occasional comfy couch to rest on during these conversations (anyone who’s worked a show knows how great that is). It was one of my favorite things to do, exhausting, but usually fun (barring the vendors – who I would avoid in the future – just giving a generic sales pitch. Note for any vendors reading this: no one gives a shit about you, what can and do you do for your customers.). I’d try to do 20 to 30 “official” scheduled sit downs, and try to talk to 40 or so more over the course of the event.


Imaging was (and is) an important part of the ECM space. I would take interviews with a few of the major scanning/imaging guys each year. They were usually good sponsors of the event and the association; and given the amount of paper in the world – an important way of making documents digital (still true).

Ok, paper dust. It’s coming.

I was meeting with Kodak (this was before the bankruptcy – which, to my knowledge, wasn’t the fault of the scanner guys). They were filling me in on the latest and greatest in scanning technology and their products. Kodak had a horrible naming convention of a string of numbers and letters for their scanners (actually, all of them did except for Visioneer. I never bothered to keep track beyond Fujitsu scanners always had something like “fi” in the name. Kodak has also changed that. Great video of that here.)

So, attempting to divert the conversation away from a series of numbers and letters I wasn’t going to remember anyway, I pointed to this giant silver thing hanging over one of the huge Kodak scanners and asked, “What’s that?”

“That’s a fan,” was the reply.

My face went into what the hell mode and I mumbled out some version of “What the fuck?”

This is the epiphany part.

Scanning is essentially a simple process. You take a piece of paper. Place it in the feed area. Push the button. Boom, it feeds through and becomes a digital document, available for distribution and saving wherever you want.

Now, from my 5 or 6 years in the industry at that point, I knew it was more complicated than that. There’s double-feed detection; deskew (straightening the image); for forms, the need to have recognition points so the scanner knows where to look for the information; different lights to be able to scan different colors – then there’s the software and the pass through to kick off workflows and . . . anyway, it’s complicated. Like most seemingly simple technology, there’s a LOT of effort and innovation in any scanner you see.

So I knew scanning was and is difficult. True story. I ran a Best of Show award for three years. A few of my scanner judges would bring stacks of paper designed to jam scanners – because in the real world, documents are torn, taped, stapled, different sizes, sticky, etc. They were always ecstatic when they could choke a scanner.

What the guy from Kodak said blew my mind though.

“Paper dust.”

“Um, say again?”

“Paper dust.”

What happens when you run a major paper scanning operation – hundreds of pages a minute through a scanner – is that copious amounts of paper dust hits the air. The dust, if not removed, gunks up the scanner’s parts (rubber wheels move paper through the scanning area, too much paper on the wheels causes “slippage” which results in inaccurate scans) not to mention that all this paper dust could interfere with image quality as it settled onto documents needing to be scanned and in general just get into the working parts of the scanner and gum it up.

“Well, that makes a lot of sense.”

Inside, I pretty much gave up on ever being able to understand the intricacies of everything I was covering. Until then, I was laboring under the delusion that with enough time, I would figure it all out. Nope. Paper dust cured me of that illusion (delusion?).

From that point on, I gave more respect to everyone involved in the ECM space.

What’s this got to do with anything? Especially content marketing?

Just this; there are a lot of articles and blather about content marketing that essentially say “write good stuff.” And that’s true, at the heart of content marketing is writing content that helps and appeals to your audience – a challenge, but easy enough to understand.

Like companies who would think they could just buy some scanners and solve their paper problem and automate their business processes, it just ain’t that simple. What’s good? What’s good for your audience? How do you measure if your “good” is “good” for your customers? What’s a good headline? A good length for your blog/ebook/video? How do you write, uh, good?

Good and excellence and the ability to make excellence look simple is fucking hard. There’s something fantastic about watching excellence in action. As an NFL fan, it’s often easy to think that the perfectly placed pass, the leaping, fingertip catch, the block out of nowhere, a wicked spin move on a blitz are all the result of pure athleticism. And, that’s true – most of us couldn’t come close to doing any of those things. What’s not seen are the years of repetition – of throwing the ball with the same throwing motion; of thousands of catches; of hundreds of times practicing that first step and arm placement for the spin move – that culminate in that moment of “Holy shit! Did you see that!”

Everything that looks simple is almost always the result of massive amounts of work, experience, talent, and insight. So the next time you see a blog post, website, email marketing campaign and start thinking “it’s just a bunch of words, I can write;” respect that 1) it’s hard and 2) you might be able to, but it won’t be easy or as simple as you think.

Image pulled from Modern American Poetry. FYI, photos of the Dust Bowl are incredible and worth a quick search and look-see.

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