It wasn’t so long ago that ‘brand newsrooms’ – in-house publishing operations that companies staffed with armies of keen journalists, editors and producers to crank content out around the clock – were all the rage. And indeed some of the model’s early adopters, from Marriott to Alibaba, still maintain the kind of publishing resources that would turn most newspapers green with envy. But no one seems to want to use the term anymore; it’s a lot more fun to dismiss it as a “myth” or one of the “most lampooned marketing buzzwords.”
That might be for the best. Having come up in real newsrooms we’re wary of any attempts to equate what brands do with actual news operations, or to obscure the lines between marketing and journalism. Newsrooms also aren’t a realistic goal for most companies: they’re massive, complex and hideously expensive to maintain, populated with a rotating cast of prematurely world-weary cynics migrating bleary-eyed between hangovers, the coffee pot and the next big scoop… okay, maybe that was just my last job.
For all that, it would be a shame to throw the idea out completely, because there’s so much newsrooms can teach other industries about effective publishing. There’s a reason virtually every publication adopts an editorial ‘chain of command’ that since the dawn of mass media has remained largely unchanged.
In newsrooms, while journalists may collaborate on stories, they’re rarely produced ‘by committee’, and the number of people with a say on any given piece is strictly limited. Content also moves through a strictly defined process, from production to quality control through to signoff, simply because there’s rarely time to do things any other way. Companies may not be dealing with breaking news-variety deadlines, but there’s a lot to be said for newsroom-style structure in enabling anyone to produce articles (or graphics, or videos) in an efficient, consistent way. Let’s look at some typical newsroom roles, how content progresses from one to the next, and how this structure might apply to other environments.
Journalist/reporter: The content writer/designer/creator; in many companies this will be someone on the marketing team. Bigger publications (and firms) may have dozens. They occasionally tackle pieces together, but in general have designated ‘beats’ (areas of specialisation) that they cover in-depth and independently to cultivate sources and develop expertise on a topic. It’s their job to build relationships with sources in their areas of specialisation (in the case of companies, these will be internal subject matter experts), checking in with them regularly with an eye to their next story. Reporters may have to consult with editors on what they have planned, but are given a high degree of autonomy on the assumption they have an ear to the ground and knowledge of their topic. In the words of one of my former editors, “nothing kills the creative impulse, or more good stories, than meetings and micromanagement.”
Subeditors: Once the reporter produces a story (or graphic, or video), it will be reviewed by a ‘second pair of eyes’ — the subeditor, who’s responsible for fact-checking and poring over the piece for spelling, grammatical and/or design errors, as well as general sense and flow. In most firms this would be a senior member of the marketing team. Again, several subeditors may get involved in a larger story, but most newsrooms will control this, conscious of the old adage about too many cooks. The subeditor may have the authority to publish the piece then and there, or it may go to the managing editor for a final review.
Managing editor/editor in chief: While they will sometimes get involved in day-to-day publishing matters, the managing editor’s real responsibility is to set the overall direction and drive the editorial agenda. The managing editor may want to see everything prior to publication, or review only the most high-profile content — either way, they have the final say. In the corporate context, this could be the role of the CMO or head of branding/communications. The complexities of contemporary business can make a single point of sign-off difficult — at many companies legal or compliance may need to get involved — but if the editorial process is working well this should be largely a formality.
Even if a firm doesn’t formally establish editorial roles or titles, there are some valuable takeaways from the newsroom blueprint:
*Content is born from on-the-ground research and relationships — someone has to be thinking about it regularly
*It helps to give people areas of specialisation — it creates a sense of ownership and builds their expertise, meaning what they produce just gets better
*Content should flow through a formal process overseen by people with defined roles. Be open to cooperation and other views, but don’t attempt to involve everyone or collaborate your way to production; very likely nothing will get done
*Everything, no matter who produces it, should be reviewed by someone else
*The buck has to stop somewhere; some decisions can’t be made by committee
Call this if you will, ‘newsroom lite’, or perhaps newsroom discipline — just don’t use the dreaded ‘brand’ word.
HONG KONG, Apr. 24, 2018 — New Narrative Ltd., Asia’s leading content consultancy, today announced that Arjun Kashyap, former Hong Kong Bureau Chief at S&P Global Market Intelligence, joins the company as Managing Editor.
Kashyap will help the Hong Kong-based firm expand its growing business producing strategic content for leading financial institutions and corporations in Asia, the Middle East and beyond.
Kashyap, an analyst turned journalist, has over 15 years of experience at publications in the US, India and Asia. As a correspondent he has reported from around the globe, interviewing investors in New York and Washington, technocrats in Silicon Valley and Bangalore, central bank officials in Mumbai and Nairobi, and women entrepreneurs across rural India, among others.
As an editor, he has led coverage of major business and geopolitical news from around the world, with a focus on Asia and the Middle East. Among other initiatives he helped launch and scale up audience engagement platforms for Thomson Reuters and overhauled IBT Media’s newsroom operations in India.
Kashyap’s work has appeared in various outlets, including The New York Times and CNBC. He has also been an invited speaker, panelist and moderator at numerous industry events.
Kashyap holds Masters degrees in Journalism from Michigan State University and Columbia University, and a Masters in Management Studies from Mumbai University.
“As Asia’s importance as a driver of the global economy grows, New Narrative, with its deep content expertise, is perfectly placed to help companies raise their brand profiles in the region,” Kashyap says. “I’m very excited to be part of such a great team.”
About New Narrative
Founded in 2013 by former financial journalists, New Narrative works with leading professional and financial services companies to give them and their executives a distinctive voice. New Narrative helps them communicate their views to clients, employees, investors, governments and regulators through sustained, compelling content campaigns in a variety of written and visual media.
Joseph Chaney, Partner:
+852 9411 7441
Those of us in media businesses are surrounded by freelancers. In fact, many of us at one time or another have chosen to be freelancers ourselves, until other opportunities arose (or the need for job security got acute).
Whereas freelancing was once seen as a risky decision, today it is a major feature of the ‘gig’ economy. Many new firms aim to link freelancers with clients: Upwork and Fiverr are just two that come to mind.
In the gig economy, the view of freelance life has changed: it’s now less about going it alone, and more a celebration of individuality, flexibility and the entrepreneurial spirit.
(Full disclosure, n/n – like most businesses — hires freelance contributors on a project basis from time to time. But the issue is knowing when and where to use them.)
One crucial area of media work not suitable for the ‘gig economy’ is the task of developing a coherent, detailed and cutting-edge content strategy for large companies. This takes more than one freelancer – or even a group of them.
It takes a unified team of media consultants who are able, and willing, to formulate an overarching publishing program that is aligned with the client’s messaging goals over a long time horizon.
At n/n, we find some marketers assume that whomever is writing the report or designing the infographic should also formulate the vision behind it. They ask a writer to guess what works, without a coherent strategy in place before writing begins.
This is the proverbial ‘throw something at the wall and hope it sticks’ approach. It’s a waste for everyone – a waste of both the writer’s and client’s time, when, after four weeks of drafting a 5,000-word white paper (or whatever), the client decides it’s not what they wanted.
This isn’t how professionals create good content. When you walk into any newsroom you will see there are journalists cranking out the stories and bureau chiefs and other news planners driving the broader agenda.
The same should apply to companies aiming to make an impact with their content. The business heads, working in collaboration with marketing and editorial consultants, should formulate the broader agenda before the writer or designer works his or her magic on the blank page.
The first step in devising a high-impact publishing program is to conduct an ideation workshop in which campaign stakeholders identify key campaign goals, analyze what’s already been published to see what has worked (and what hasn’t), and try to carve out a unique voice in their sphere of influence. Only then will a long-form campaign have a chance at succeeding in the marketplace of ideas.
Without a doubt, some of the greatest journalism is produced by freelancers, as they are mostly (and blissfully) free of the office politics and corporate constraints that inevitably shape the work of full-time employees.
But the fact remains: effective content strategies can’t be worked out on the fly by a team of disconnected individuals. Rather, such work requires the sustained effort and consistent analysis of a unified team, whether that team sits in-house or out.
“I know half my marketing budget is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Any marketing professional will have come across that quotation by Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker. Or it might have been said by Henry Ford, JC Penney, or any other of a half a dozen early twentieth century titans of commerce.
Its dubious provenance is only part of the problem I have with it: its superficial folk wisdom doesn’t bear much scrutiny (as WPP’s Jeremy Bullmore wrote in a thoughtful essay on the sentence in 2013.) Its biggest problem is that it is has never been true. There has never been a good excuse for marketing expenditure to be “wasted”, as long as campaign goals and metrics are defined in advance.
In Wanamaker’s heyday (or Penney’s, Ford’s, whomever’s) it would have been a straightforward job to establish the impact of a marketing campaign, especially since most such pre-mass-media spending was geographically isolated. By taking the gross sales for a defined period after a campaign, subtracting the pre-campaign average, and dividing the difference (hopefully, a positive figure!) into the marketing dollars spent, Wanamaker could work out, say, whether billboards in Harrisburg did better than those in Wilkes-Barre, or if radio spots in either city beat print ads. Of course, other factors might have played a role in sales performance over time, but Wanamaker wouldn’t have been flying half-blind in calculating the return on marketing investment.
Maybe the quotation bemoans the fact that many people who saw the billboards or ads, or heard the radio spots, would have been unmoved to buy. That’s not really the point, though. Other things being equal if, after a campaign, sales went up, the marketing expenditure would have been amply justified.
Made to measure
Today it’s doubly more pointless to wheel out this maxim as a get-out-of-the-CFO’s-office-free card, for the simple reason that you can be much more targeted in your marketing—and since our bread and butter is B2B content, I’ll stick to that—on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, together with old-fashioned media.
There are also many thousands more ways to measure the impact of that expenditure, through numerous engagement and brand impact metrics—as well as the plain old top line. Of course, too much choice isn’t exactly helpful here. That’s why for all content campaigns, marketers need to establish the precise business goals and what kind of measurements would constitute success, before pulling the trigger.
The key thing to remember is that every campaign is different. Among our clients, for instance, a tech firm selling a specific solution to a specific decision-maker in a specific industry measures the impact of their content in terms of its power to earn marketing qualified leads, benchmarking the marketing budget against their average cost per lead.
A major bank, meanwhile, seeking to raise the profile of its senior staff among corporate treasurers in a certain country, prefers to track LinkedIn engagement as the most important figure to focus on. Select other social media stats are used as supporting evidence, along with brand awareness studies.
It’s important to get the buy-in of the budget decision makers on these metrics in advance. Otherwise, when it comes to talking about the impact of your content, the temptation is to wheel out every stat under the sun to justify its success—which won’t win you any friends among time-poor senior management. And they certainly won’t accept the excuse, given with a shrug, that half the marketing budget has always been wasted, so what are they worried about anyway?
New Narrative recently celebrated its fifth birthday, and though we’re still not quite sure where the years went, we decided to mark the occasion with an evening of drinks, canapes and good cheer at LOT88 in Central, Hong Kong. Some photographic highlights from the event are below. A massive thank you to our clients, colleagues and friends old and new who took the time out to join us — we couldn’t have done it without you.
Last time we checked, the New Narrative headquarters were staffed by an entirely human team of writers, editors and other creative types … which is why recent research showing a third of marketing teams in Asia Pacific are already using artificial intelligence (AI) to create content — well above the rates in North America and Europe — made us a touch uneasy. Most of the media’s biggest names, of course, have been experimenting with automated news writing for a while. The tech gurus at Gartner predicted a while back that a full 20% of all business content this year will be authored by machines.
Never ones to back down in the face of competition, we decided to put these pesky robots to the test. In this case that meant experimenting with AI Writer, billed as a service that’s able to research and write an article for you from scratch — all it needs is a few keywords. Better yet, trying it out is free of charge.
Choosing a relatively straightforward subject close to our (and our clients’) hearts, we asked for an article on “investing in Asian emerging markets.” Just a few minutes later it arrived in our inbox, as promised.
The first thing we noticed was that ‘AI Writer’ apparently doesn’t do headlines. Score one for the humans. Bracing ourselves to be sucked in by a riveting lead paragraph, we read:
Strategists at multinational corporations can draw on a rich body of work to advise them on how to enter emerging markets, but managers of local companies in these markets have had little guidance.
Hmm. We were thinking investment in asset markets, but fair enough. Keen to find out more, we read on.
Like Bajaj, most emerging market companies have assets that give them a competitive advantage mainly in their home market.
Wait, where did India’s renowned maker of auto rickshaws come from? And isn’t the fact that companies tend to enjoy a home-market advantage, well, not much of a revelation? But lest we be accused of robophobia, we indulged our circuit-based scribe a little longer.
As protectionist barriers crumble in emerging markets around the world, multinational companies are rushing in to find new opportunities for growth.
But … don’t we get to hear more about Bajaj? And protectionist barriers crumbling? Evidently this robot thinks it’s 2005.
It sort of went downhill from there, with the conclusion of the article cheerily informing us that Taiwan is one of the four markets “that are part of the acronym TICK.” Has anyone else heard of this, or did the robot make the whole thing up?
It’s worth pointing out that AI Writer was nothing if not rigorous in its sourcing — it cited the article created on our behalf to Harvard Business Review and Nasdaq, among others. But proper sourcing is a legally delicate process that again argues for some degree of human oversight.
All that said, we admit AI Writer appears to be able to trawl the web for views or factoids on a topic with uncanny speed. So perhaps expect to see more AI-assisted research powering content, AI-informed approaches to areas like content distribution and analysis and perhaps more AI-authored content that’s heavily data-based or follows standard formats — earnings reports, for example. Okay, okay, we’re biased, but we came away from this exercise confident generating genuinely insightful ideas and analysis will be the domain of humans (like us) for some time yet.
When searching for an effective thought leadership strategy, many of our clients ask us: “Where do we begin? How do we know what to publish?”
That’s a fair question. Publishing with impact is hard no matter who you are.
And then there are those clients – admittedly far fewer in number – who have the exact opposite problem: they simply publish too much. That’s to say, they saturate the market with commentary on every little development, trusting that volume alone will win the battle for more influence.
What these clients forget is that discernment and balance are also vital factors in any sound publishing strategy. We all know that friend who talks too much, much to the annoyance of his fellow dinner guests. After a while you begin to nod mindlessly at the sound of his voice – or tune him out completely.
Another parallel is found in the world of luxury travel. Five-star service is not only knocking on your door at evenly spaced intervals to inquire if you need your shoes polished or desire another complimentary fruit basket. Five-star service is also about knowing when to leave you alone.
These same principles apply to the world of thought leadership publishing. If you don’t publish at all, well – you can’t become a thought leader. If you publish too much, clients and consumers will tune you out.
So, at risk of talking too much and ignoring my own advice, here’s a few tips to help you find that elusive balance.
1. Clean your internal publishing pipes
Clients who publish too much often suffer from the same problem: they lack a formal publishing process and everyone internally – from VPs to MDs – wants a piece of the action. They simply turn on the tap and hope what flows out is good enough. This results in too much content from too many voices – much of it mediocre at best.
Solution: Identify who internally owns which pieces of your company’s editorial output, and give them the authority to set the tone. Have the confidence to say no to those who shouldn’t be publishing – and also resist editing everything you publish via committee. The more editors involved, the more you water down your output.
2. Allocate clearly-defined content budgets
Knowing how much you have to spend on thought leadership (as opposed to other types of marketing) encourages you to make strategic decisions and take a structured approach. It also helps you figure out what’s possible with the budget you have, forcing hard decisions about expenditures and desired ROI.
Solution: Mark the budget at the beginning of each year (or the beginning of each quarter) to establish a clear view of the potential size – or limits – of your publishing programme. And then work backward to define and shape your editorial calendar.
3. Be honest about what you’re qualified to talk about
Let’s be honest – no one is an authority on everything. Take Amazon for example. The e-commerce giant can easily talk about literary trends, because it has the sales data to back up its observations. But it’s better qualified to talk about e-commerce, or internet book retailing in general. More traditional publishers are better positioned to talk about literary trends.
Solution: Be honest about where you stand in the market and pick your sweet spot. Be confident enough to let others – even quasi competitors – to lead a conversation that you aren’t uniquely qualified to speak about.
4. Know what else is out there
Far too many aspiring thought leaders don’t know their place in the public conversation simply because they aren’t aware of what has already been said and what needs saying.
Solution: Read up on the best out there – whether that’s on Bloomberg, Reuters, or in the Financial Times – and do so frequently. That will give you a better view on the value of what you’re saying, and how it is likely to be received in the marketplace of ideas.
Earlier this week fellow n/n Partner Lorraine and I gave a perhaps ambitiously titled talk at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about B2B Content Marketing”.
After we’d finished, a former journalist colleague approached me, perhaps remembering what we’d said about being careful with statistics, and said that although it didn’t quite deliver “everything”, it covered at least 84.6% of what he wanted to know. (Unfortunately he didn’t tell me what the missing 15.4% was…)
We’d be happy to share the entire talk of course (watch this space for a webinar) but one part in particular had most of the audience reaching for their smartphone cameras: this diagram, which set up the rest of the talk.
B2B Content Marketing Decision-Making Flowchart
This isn’t rocket science, but it bears repeating. If content marketers follow this flowchart – with each step ranked in order of priority – and get buy-in on each decision before they embark on a campaign, then they are much less likely to go wrong (in terms of strategy at least; as to actually producing quality content, that’s a different matter.)
Everything flows from the business aim of the campaign, whether this is broad brand-building at the top of the sales funnel, lead conversion at the bottom, or anything in between. That decided, the next most important decision is the audience: nowadays you can be very precise indeed about specific “personas” you might want to target and, of course, which channels are suited to reach them.
Only then should marketers think about the type of content to produce. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s crucial to remember that this is subordinate to those first three decision points. In our experience, content campaigns that don’t follow this decision-making hierarchy are far less likely to succeed.
This brings us to the last decision point: how will you define success? Since the commercial aims of a campaign may vary, so too do the means to measure ROI. There are hundreds of thousands of potential KPIs to choose from (not least metrics from social media) but this doesn’t make the job easier, since budget decision makers won’t be impressed with a disordered jumble of stats.
That makes it doubly important to agree on this in advance. Of course, you need the flexibility to adapt, especially in a long campaign. But getting stakeholders’ buy-in on all five points from the outset should get you at least, I estimate, 84.6% of the way to success.
Content marketing remains a nascent, if growing, industry in Asia so it’s always great to have to chance to hear the opinions of other professionals working in this area. That was one of the pleasures of a recent panel discussion I attended in Hong Kong (as well as the complimentary wine…) In addition to providing plenty of insight, it brought into sharp relief some of the miscommunication common between marketing teams and the agencies that serve them.
So in the interests of bringing greater harmony to Asia’s content market industry, here are some of the main talking points from the night and New Narrative’s assessment.
Budget or no budget in the brief?
This question produced the biggest divergence in opinion on the night. The agencies speaking at the event felt very strongly that clients needed to provide a budget when commissioning a project. If not a precise figure, then they needed at least to give a range or upper limit to give some sense about what the agency should be aiming for.
Marketers, though, were quite opposed to the idea. In part, this was borne out of their previous experience of agencies far exceeding the budget limits given to them. It also came from a feeling that agencies would inevitably pitch a solution that used up the whole budget regardless of whether it was justified.
New Narrative’s take: While an unscrupulous agency might be looking to squeeze their clients dry at every opportunity, the best ones are trying to build long-term, strategic partnerships. As part of that, they want to understand a client’s needs — and that includes budget. Having a budget allows agencies to recommend the correct mix of content at a price the client can bear. Otherwise they are left guessing, which means their proposals might be rejected multiple times before they meet a client’s requirements, leading to frustration all round.
Clients need to trust agencies to come up with the right solution at the right price. Likewise, if a budget is available up front, agencies need to accept that not every project needs to max it out to succeed. Of course, trust on both sides needs to be earned!
Information vs instruction
How much detail is the right amount for a project brief? A lively discussion on this was prompted by a question from the audience. For the agencies, it was felt that having as much information as possible about the context for the campaign meant they were able to present better ideas to the client.
More information doesn’t necessarily mean more instruction, though. Marketers and agencies agreed the key was for a client not to be too prescriptive in which ideas could be put forward. In addition, both sides viewed the process as one of evolution, where ideas can be discussed, adapted and revised until the best outcome is reached.
New Narrative’s take: Generally speaking more information is better, but let our creative juices flow! That’s what you’re paying for, after all. On top of that, we always advise clients not to view a proposal as the final say, but rather as the beginning of the conversation. As a strategic partner, we understand a client’s need for a flexible and collaborative approach and it’s also how we prefer to work.
Trust me, I’m an expert
Finally, during a discussion about pet peeves, one frustration clearly voiced by agencies was not being treated like the expert. This was less about ego and more about asking clients to recognise they had hired an agency for its expertise (and, as mentioned, its creative talents), and should listen to the offered advice rather than force through bad decisions that weaken rather than strengthen campaigns.
The marketers took this on board but didn’t look happy!
New Narrative’s take: This is one of the biggest challenges for agencies and marketers. At New Narrative, we always advise clients on what we think is the best course of action and will be clear if we think a decision will undermine the project objectives. This is especially crucial when it comes to creating a credible editorial voice, an issue content marketing (as opposed to plain old marketing) always has to grapple with.
But we also understand that marketers have internal relationships and pressures to manage that sometimes no amount of good advice can overcome. And we are always willing to help marketers craft a convincing argument to use with internal stakeholders to get the best outcome.