News & Views

With 2018 already practically in the rear-view mirror (just where did it go, anyway?), thoughts inevitably turn to plans for the New Year – or will turn, once the equally inevitable gluttony and good cheer of the holiday period have been dispensed with. It’s a time when financial targets and strategic priorities are set for the months ahead. Many marketing teams will be going through a similar process with their publishing and content goals for 2019.

At a lot of organisations, these plans will take the form of a content calendar. Whether cradled in a visually dazzling PowerPoint or slapped up in a spreadsheet, this will lovingly detail all the amazing things the company plans to publish over the next twelve months. In the first few editorial meetings of the new year relevant teams will rally around the document with a deep sense of shared purpose, working around the clock to bring that next video interview or op-ed to life.

And then, something happens. Or to put it more accurately, nothing happens. The editorial meetings slow down. Maybe one or two tasks listed on the calendar are skipped or put off when people are busy dealing with other things, or priorities change and the business wants … something else. Soon enough, the calendar is banished to the dark corners of a desk or Intranet and the team is back to scrambling to produce things on an ad-hoc basis.

Given the amount of time and effort that can be put into these documents, the untimely demise of a content calendar is a real shame. From what we’ve seen, it’s also often the result of a few common mistakes. Following are a few tips to help your editorial calendar stay alive (and relevant) well into the new year.

*Be realistic. The misstep we see most often is the tendency to get overly ambitious in the planning stages. Setting out ideas for a bunch of polished videos with no clear idea where you’re going to get the production resources, or assigning a series of opinion pieces to a stressed-out senior executive who’s constantly on the road, sets a calendar up for failure by making execution next to impossible and calling the entire exercise into question.

*Get the experts involved. Publishing meaningful work is often highly dependent on the insight of in-house experts – yet marketing teams often cook up content plans on their own and present them to the rest of the business as a done deal. Make sure the people whose views you’ll need to draw on are deeply involved in the calendar’s development; this will not only help define key ideas and themes, but also help get their goodwill and buy-in for the entire process. They’ll also often be the first to tell you if that plan to have them crank out a LinkedIn post a week might be too demanding (see “Be realistic” above).

*Be versatile … to a point. Established wisdom rightly dictates that content calendars should include a mix of themes and formats (articles, graphics, videos, podcasts), to serve various audiences and purposes. But this is another area where planning can easily get carried away. Not every enterprise needs to do it all; a certain amount of consistency in topics and formats builds focus, makes it easier to keep going, and helps teach your audience what to expect.  As we’ve said before, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself or repurpose material now and then. Constantly creating new intellectual property from scratch is a time-consuming and exhausting business (which is exactly why a lot of organisations seek our help).

*Be flexible. While it’s good to stick to a blueprint whenever possible, be ready and willing to embrace a certain amount of change based on market or industry developments, and business needs. A commentary that speaks to a recent news event will almost certainly find a wider and more receptive audience than whatever you planned six months ago. It’s also important to look how what you’re publishing is being received and to apply what you learn to future plans on the calendar – even if it calls those plans into question.

With that, the team here at n/n wishes everyone the best for the planning/holiday season, and the new year. May all your publishing dreams be happy ones.

 

 

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Let me start with a short anecdote.

The scene? A Japanese restaurant. Location? The Dubai International Financial Centre.

This was the tail end of 2014. Pre-Trump; in the early years of Xi Jinping’s reign. n/n was just over a year old. There I sat across from a senior marketer representing a global asset manager. His employer was investing in a Middle East expansion, he said, and they wanted to publish insightful commentary to strengthen their brand across the region.

While we scanned the menu, he explained the myriad ways capital markets across the Gulf were changing as they attempted to become more attractive to international investors.

I nodded and launched into consultant mode. There was the issue of regulation, not to mention the nuances that distinguish each Gulf market, from the UAE to Qatar to Kuwait. There was the tussle between Islamic finance and global finance. His firm could get ahead of each development with a distinct voice and potentially ‘own’ the story. White papers, infographics, videos, conferences, op-eds – the works.

He put up his hand. “Let’s first see how the market perceives these reforms,” he said.

On the face of it, this approach made sense. Best to let events evolve and then find one’s unique niche inside of the story. But it soon became apparent that what he really meant was something very different: his employer wanted to follow – rather than lead – the conversation.

In other words: We will let others stick their necks out and comment first. Then we’ll decide what to publish so we don’t offend anyone.

A Common Refrain

This story isn’t unique. At n/n, we frequently hear companies say in the same breath, (1) they want to publish cutting edge thought leadership, and (2) they also want to ensure that anything offensive or controversial is deleted before publication.

These contradictory motivations are especially strong in markets such as China and in the Gulf States, where falling afoul of regulators and policymakers – or uttering views deemed politically distasteful – can carry consequences.

To be sure, in the real-world companies have to weigh interests, just like individuals. They must balance their interest in publishing insightful commentary with a whole host of other considerations – compliance and legal constraints chief among them.

Think of it this way: when your friend asks if you prefer his new hairstyle to his old one (and you really don’t), common decency kicks in and to spare his feelings you are likely to pretend that you do, or at least find some other creative way to dance around the issue. Most of us readily accept that this particular truth simply isn’t worth the cost of delivering it.

Companies employ a similar calculus to self-censor all of the time, but on much more important matters. And therein lies the problem: All truths aren’t equal.

For an example, the Hong Kong office of a global bank may conclude that pointing out the flaws in China’s domestic credit rating system isn’t worth the risk of being seen as ‘anti-China.’

But the reality is the cost of ignoring – or at least failing to address – such an important matter is higher over the long term: investors and other stakeholders will wake up to the fact that such a bank is in the business of publishing hot air and bumf, not insightful commentary. In other words, the market may eventually turn on such companies for keeping their mouths shut.

An Excess of Caution

All of which means when it comes to thought leadership campaigns, companies – especially large, bureaucratic ones – are frequently their own worst enemies. Many not only preemptively self-censor – they also overdo it. What usually happens is this:

The marketing team has a bold idea – say, a compelling series on the real risks of investing in a cross-border infrastructure project linked to China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Work starts off with a bang: they compile lists of failed deals; they identify and attempt to interview frustrated investors.

But then, a rotating carousel of internal stakeholders gets its hands on the campaign.

First, the business heads cut out any material that could be ‘perceived as negative’ to protect the firm’s positive image with clients.

Second, the compliance team cuts out anything that could be ‘perceived as legally problematic’ to mitigate legal risks.

And then, finally, the marketing team looks at the content again – and, in an attempt to prove that they aren’t taking any chances – make another round of ‘just-to-play-it-safe’ cuts.

The result?

What was once a compelling, nuanced and insightful research paper is now a bland commentary that serves no specific audience or particular purpose. It’s as if the Hollywood machine picked up an edgy and utterly original screenplay only to dumb it down into a mediocre we’ve-seen-this-movie-a-dozen-times sequel.

What Can We Do?

With this in mind, how can you avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with your 2019 content campaigns?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Before embarking on a campaign, devise a coherent content strategy and put it all down on paper. The key is to be as specific as possible: This is exactly what we want to say, and importantly, why we want to say it.
  2. Once the strategy is devised, obtain full buy-in from internal stakeholders, from business heads to compliance, before work begins: Make it clear that watered down content results are nothing but wasted effort and expenditure.
  3. Accept that some external audiences will almost certainly disagree with your views: Take that as a compliment and cough it up to the price of being a genuine thought leader. Strong opinions should elicit strong responses.
  4. And finally, if you are too constrained to say anything compelling and insightful, don’t say anything at all: It’s simply a waste of money to fake thought leadership.

At the end of the day, if you refuse to take a risk and say something meaningful, one of your competitors will. And they will walk away with not only the thought leadership crown, but eventually, the other things that go with it: More trust from clients, a stronger voice in the market, and inevitably, more market share.

The good news is there’s plenty to comment on. Trade tensions are escalating. US treasury yields are rising. China continues its ascent while navigating painful contradictions. A populist has emerged victorious in Brazil

Let’s get to work.

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We are delighted to announce two new additions to our fast-growing team over the past few weeks.

Kale Law has joined New Narrative as Business Development Executive. Previously Kale was at Thomson Reuters, where he led the growth of the Eikon messenger community in Hong Kong, enabling portfolio managers and traders to connect and trade with financial professionals around the globe.

Prior to that, Kale worked with the Economist Group, where he supported the business development efforts of the group’s integrated solutions team in Hong Kong; and Asian Private Banker, where he expanded the publication’s events and advertising business among private banks and asset management firms.

In his new role at New Narrative, Kale will contribute to business development initiatives across our growing client base of global banks, asset managers, and professional services, healthcare and technology firms. Kale holds a BA in History from the University of Toronto.

Separately, we’re pleased to welcome Jourdan Ma, who has joined New Narrative as a Content Executive. Jourdan will play a key role in the development of content for our diverse roster of clients across a range of formats, from infographic concepts to social media and event coverage. She will also support the in-depth research that informs many of our consulting engagements and content campaigns.

Jourdan, who holds a degree in English from the Education University of Hong Kong and a master’s degree in international journalism from Hong Kong Baptist University, joins New Narrative from Hong Kong daily The Standard, where she was a features reporter.

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Stuck in a marketing conference or planning meeting? Fed up of hearing the same buzzwords and platitudes? Then you need the New Narrative B2B Marketing Bingo card. It might not be a ‘game changer’ or make you more ‘agile’ but at least you can reward yourself the next time you hear that ‘content is king’.

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Coming fresh off a handful of events that didn’t lack for the latest industry jargon, and despite our decidedly mixed feelings about the use of buzzwords, it is easy to understand marketers’ need to dabble with them. These terms resonate with a wide audience (even if not everyone entirely understands their meaning) and signify a grasp of the latest trends.

Of the terms we’ve heard the most in recent weeks – blockchain, crypto, deep learning, fintech and natural language processing – the last one stands out in this context. This is the technology that informs the algorithms of online search engines – the agenda setters of our day – parsing through millions of lines of text to decide what’s most relevant and channelling it to the right eyeballs every time someone keys in a word or phrase.

This is where search engine optimisation (SEO) comes in – the science (some might call it the art) of getting your content to the top of millions of search results, and front and centre of users searching for information on a topic.

A good SEO strategy, as this post notes, involves everything from understanding the workings of a search engine’s algorithm to figuring out the right keywords to weave into the copy, getting those title tags, meta descriptions and even photo captions just right. While all this may sound intuitive enough, it can be challenging to put into practice, especially when one is regularly churning out content across a range of formats.

So, here are a few quick tips to get it right:

*Keyword strategy: Identify a primary keyword – one that best describes the main topic – and use it in the headline, lead paragraph, the URL, and throughout the article. Next, pick a handful of secondary keywords that are related to the subject at hand for use in the article where relevant. But, avoid ‘keyword stuffing’.

*Using links: Make sure to include links to external sources (always a good practice to attribute) as well as internal links encouraging users to click through to other content on your site.

*Optimize your site: SEO is not limited to just sprinkling the right keywords in an article. It is important to have an organized, mobile-friendly website that is free of broken links, and easy to navigate with a seamless user experience and fast-loading pages.

*Social media: Share posts on relevant social channels with the right hashtags to maximise exposure and shares.

*Quality content: Lastly, it’s useful to remember that good content is more powerful than any SEO tactic. Useful and relevant content will generate organic traffic and help improve your website ranking. And, as other websites begin to link back to yours, that can do wonders to site rankings and online presence.

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I learned a lot from the B2B Marketing Leaders’ Forum Asia 2018, held in Singapore in September, particularly about how tough life is for the typical B2B marketer. As is the custom of our times I jotted down some “key takeaways” on the day and sent them out tout de suite on LinkedIn. Having (two weeks later) found some time on my schedule, I think it’s worth revisiting and expanding on those, as they get to the heart of the issues facing anyone trying to reach and impress a rarefied B2B market.

– B2B marketers are deeper in the trenches than their B2C colleagues (“using sniper rifles, not shotguns”)

The pithy description of the B2B marketer’s arsenal given by one speaker captures the wholly different nature of many B2B campaigns from their B2C counterparts. This speaker, from a global financial services consultancy, revealed that they had fewer than 40 target enterprises across the region and created content with them exclusively in mind. What use, then, are flashy brand campaigns of the type so beloved by the Cannes crowd? B2B marketers have to show a much deeper understanding of their targets’ businesses, and the challenges their clients face, than is possible with a 30-second Superbowl ad. Credible content is a huge part of the solution.

– B2B marketers must manage stakeholders in every part of the business – and often do so facing a “trust gap”

I met a ton of talented, motivated and razor-sharp people at the event, with diverse backgrounds – from audit and accounting to programming to development economics. Yet I got the sense that the B2B marketing function often battles a lingering and unwarranted inferiority complex compared to the revenue generating side of the business (again, not something that troubles many Cannes Lions partygoers, I’d imagine).

This was aptly summed up by Thomas Barta, keynote speaker and author of “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader”, who pinpointed the problem as a matter of how the rest of the business can perceive the marketing team – illustrated on this slide (apologies for the low-quality photo).

Funny though this might be to some, battling the “trust gap” can a daily problem for B2B marketing departments, unless they can get to grips with the next two points:

– B2B marketers are held to tough standards of accountability by the business

– They need multiple skillsets, not least the ability to prove ROI by marshalling the torrents of data at their disposal

Much of the conference was given over to the problem of how to prove ROI on marketing campaigns. As Barta put it: “If anyone says you’re a cost centre, change it – or leave. Get in the revenue camp!”

Naturally this applies to B2C marketers, too, but their B2B counterparts are more likely to have to account for every bullet fired from their sniper rifles. The metrics by which campaigns are judged obviously vary depending on their aims and how far towards the top or bottom of the sales funnel they are positioned – and, as we’ve noted before, must be signed off by the business well in advance. Hit those metrics, thereby demonstrating value, and the trust gap disappears.

Partly this means speaking the right language: C-suite execs don’t really care about social shares, brand salience, or other marketing buzzwords. But educating the rest of the business is also crucial to changing perceptions. Branding campaigns might not have metrics as easily linked to revenue as those aimed at delivering qualified leads, but are nonetheless crucial for B2B firms too. As one speaker said, “Brand is the reason the sales team gets in a client’s front door. But no one on the business side wants to pay for it.”

– The tools B2B marketers need must be highly specialised and targeted, across geographies, sectors and audiences

Given the specialised nature of the audience B2B marketers are trying to reach, expertise in certain sectors (especially when it comes to content) is a sine qua non for agency partners. Picking the right channels is also crucial – because as several people pointed out, quoting Jonathan Perelman of Buzzfeed, “Content is King, but distribution is Queen – and she wears the pants.”

Speaking of which, among the pearls of wisdom there were inevitably some oft-repeated quotations, platitudes and buzzwords, as there are at any conference (even at those run by my former employer, which strives to set the bar pretty high for live discourse). I recommend keeping yourself amused next time you are at a comparable event by playing “Marketing Conference Bingo”. Here’s the card I put together in between moments of insight at the event. Enjoy!

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At n/n we have a love-hate relationship – okay, mostly hate – with buzzwords (and buzz-phrases for that matter). Judging from some of the client workshops I’ve been involved in recently, we’re certainly not alone.

This struggle is rooted in a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, it’s important to publish content that’s relevant to the key themes of the day, whether the rise of Southeast Asia’s consumer class or the adoption of artificial intelligence in financial services. Using the right vocabulary shows you’re abreast of, perhaps even advancing, the dialogue on a pertinent topic. When a word is sweeping an industry, people are eager to learn more about it, which means whatever you’re publishing is more likely to find an audience, get picked up and passed (or commented) on.

On the other hand, after the conversation reaches a certain pitch and density, fatigue begins to set in. Words that formerly drew interest cause eyes to glaze over. Concepts begin the long, cold journey to the buzzword graveyard, depicted so aptly in this cheeky cartoon from the New Yorker.

Exactly what constitutes a buzzword at any given point in time is an always-rich source of debate. Personally, we share the Guardian’s doubts about disruption and blockchain – and the wanton use of ‘digital’ as a prefix causes the hair on the back of our necks to stand up. We’d also agree with most of the New Yorker’s choices, with the glaring exception of ‘bacon.’ Like it or not, bacon will endure and inspire content for generations to come.

Thus any content creator is left struggling to strike a balance. In the workshops I was conducting, there were a lot of questions around how to demonstrate you’re up to date without publishing platitudes. When does a word galvanize and when does it start to sound, well, a bit lame?

Unfortunately there are no definitive answers. It’s not always realistic for organisations or marketing campaigns to avoid buzzwords completely. But they should, at least, be handled with caution. Here are a few questions to consider when publishing on a topic that’s in the buzzword ‘danger zone’.

*How late am I to the party? In other words, how much have I seen peers/competitors publish on the same word, phrase or topic, and for how long? If it’s dominated the media you read and your e-mail inbox for what seems like an eternity, and you’re sort of sick of hearing about it yourself, there’s a good chance a lot of other people feel the same way.

*Am I an actual authority, or just jumping on a bandwagon? Much like overprinting a currency, overuse of a word eventually distorts its meaning and diminishes its value (‘disruption’ is arguably a good case in point). Consider whether you understand the original meaning of a term and are applying it in that way – and whether you have a legitimate claim to knowledge on the subject. Some borderline buzzwords – sustainability, say – cut across a wide range of industries and functions, so can plausibly be used by a lot of people in a variety of contexts. Others are probably best left to the industries they sprung from. ‘UX,’ for example, makes a lot more sense in software than in sales.

*Am I saying something new? Using a buzzword risks your content drowning in the tidal wave of material on the same topic – making it especially important to assess whether you’re bringing something new to the table. Before writing that screed on sustainability or blog on Belt and Road, it’s a good idea to conduct some judicious Googling – or better yet, embark on a full-scale content audit – to ensure you’re not simply repeating what’s widely understood and has been said before. On the other hand, publications that contravene conventional wisdom or zero in on a relatively underexplored aspect of a much-discussed phenomenon will turn a lot of heads – even if those discussions have been going on for a while.

Perhaps the best way to think of buzzwords is the verbal equivalent of junk food – quick, easy, good to turn to once in a while. But under no circumstances should they make up the bulk of your diet. Which means the New Yorker may be on to something with the bacon reference after all.

 

 

 

 

 

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Can your company be an agenda-setting ‘thought leader’ if it practices self-censorship?

Answering this question has taken on an increased sense of urgency in recent weeks, following news that Google is re-evaluating whether to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

The blogosphere, as expected, is boiling over with criticism of Google and its secret China-friendly project, codenamed Dragonfly. Meanwhile, more than a thousand Google employees have signed a petition condemning what they believe is the tech giant’s abandonment of core principles.

Given Google’s history, the outrage is understandable. Only eight years have passed since Google co-founder Sergey Brin led the vaunted search engine’s much publicised exit from China, citing his extended family’s first-hand experience of living in the Soviet Union. And then there’s Google’s infamous motto “Don’t be evil,” – a clever and memorable way to articulate the company’s belief that technology should always be a force for good.

Sure, you say, but this is Google’s problem – what does it have to do with my company’s content campaigns?

Thought Leadership Requires Consistency

Put simply, Google’s dilemma is the same dilemma that every organisation planning a thought leadership strategy faces – and that is: How do you balance your organisation’s thought leadership ambitions and positioning, with the rules and expectations of tightly controlled markets (not to mention a whole host of additional interest groups such as shareholders and compliance officers)?

Here at n/n we ruminate on this problem daily.  We spend our days devising thought leadership campaigns for some of the world’s largest companies – campaigns that cut across multiple jurisdictions such as New York, Dubai and Shanghai. Our job is to help our clients do the hard work of parsing strong and true ideas from stale and false ones, and to remain consistent in their messaging in all of the markets they operate in.

And so, our view is an emphatic NO – thought leaders don’t self-censor. In fact, just the opposite: thought leaders drive conversations forward by uttering pesky and uncomfortable truths – and they don’t censor their views for certain markets.

On that basis, Sergey Brin’s decision to abandon search efforts in China in 2010, and his statements about his family’s experience in the Soviet Union, were in many ways the ultimate demonstrations of thought leadership.

Here’s the proof: the outcome of Google’s brave move. Even though they gave up search in one of the world’s largest internet markets, they are still – eight years later – the undisputed global leader of search technology. It’s such moves that arguably helped knight Google as the head of the tech pack.

Of course, many of the world’s leading companies have chosen to remain in China and adjust to China’s rules, arguing that (1) it’s wise to play the long game and (2) the benefits outweigh the costs and some exposure to China’s massive market is better than none.  These companies certainly have a point. And such declarations – if made consistently, without apology, and backed by data – also qualify as thought leadership.

The point is this: Thought leadership requires companies to abandon the premise that they can hold a certain view but soften its expression so no party is ruffled or offended.  That means if Google has changed its stance on China since 2010, it needs to come out of the dark and clearly say so – and own any fallout that follows. Only then can it regain lost ground and possibly retain its crown as one of tech’s most trusted thought leaders.

Being a thought leader does not mean courting controversy for the sake of it. But it does mean articulating clear views on major issues – and, importantly, either holding your ground or openly admitting to a change of heart when external forces pressure you to change your mind.

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How long should an article be to ensure maximum readership and engagement, and how many words does it take before eyes glaze and readers keel over? The ideal word count question is one that marketing professionals (and journalists) wrestle with all the time.

The bad news is there is no magic number, and several factors need to be considered to gauge the ideal length of an article – such as the intended audience, subject matter and the ultimate objective. But we’ve pulled together some data to help marketers address this issue and navigate the constantly shifting online content ecosystem.

If the aim is to provoke a discussion, snappy posts of 300 words or less are ideal, according to this guide. But, if readers are to be encouraged to share a post widely, it needs to be longer – between 1,000 to 1,500 words. Word counts between 300 to 750 are deemed to be a workable compromise for garnering a respectable number of online shares with some engagement. To maximise shares across platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google, some estimates show that articles ranging from 3,000 words to as much as 10,000 fare best.

This post compiles figures from several sources to propose subject-specific word counts that do justice to the topic at hand while helping with social media shares and high page rankings. Articles on finance are estimated to require between 2,100 to 2,500 words while technology-focused write-ups are best limited to around 1,000 words. The ideal length for posts on real estate is deemed to be between 1,800 and 1,900 words while marketing or advertising-related articles work well when they are close to 3,000.

Some research focuses on the time readers are most likely to spend on a given article, which according to one estimate works out to seven minutes. Which brings us to the question of why longer pieces seem to be in vogue at a time when fewer people are reading articles in their entirety. This could be due to the frequently changing search engine algorithms at Google, which tends to have an outsized influence on what users see when they search for online content.

Past research has shown that lengthier articles ranked higher on Google’s search results, with the average length of content that showed up on the first page of Google’s search results pegged at 1,890 words. These metrics make a significant difference in a world where search engine algorithms determine the content presented to readers and how they consume it. How many of us click through to the second page of results after typing in a search word or phrase?

Getting the word count right is crucial. That part is not up for debate but it’s also true that quality usually trumps quantity. If an article is unreadable its length becomes moot. It’s best to get the content right before worrying about hitting that magic number.

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It’s been just over one year since I ended my 15-year financial journalism career to enter the content marketing industry. Plenty of former colleagues are surprised when I say I have not once regretted making the move, but I’m willing to admit that the transition has not always been easy. So for those of you thinking of making the jump from journalism into content marketing, here’s what I’ve learnt along the way.

You know more than you think

As journalists, we spend our days gathering information — from research, interviews, events and so on — that can often be complex and technical in nature and then sifting through that information to turn it into a clear and compelling piece of writing. The result is that we often underrate how rare and valuable that set of skills is.

But since moving into content marketing, I’ve realised that the ability to interview someone, take that information and turn it into something that people want to read is a specialist skill: one that’s hard to come by and one that companies view as valuable. Add in the ability to meet deadlines, juggle multiple projects and build a rapport with people (especially with those who aren’t comfortable being interviewed), and those skills that seem normal in the newsroom become something that marks you out as an expert.

You know less than you think

Expert journalist you may be, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have lots to learn. Certainly for me, with a background in fast-paced financial trade publications, content marketing required me to adjust my writing style: less focused on getting down the facts and more focused on the narrative (hence our name!)

Plus, before this job I’d never written video scripts, put together an infographic concept, written a sales proposal or closed a deal (maybe less relevant if you take on an inhouse job or a less senior agency role), all of which required me to learn new skills.

And as with a move to any new industry, I’ve had to wade my way through a new set of jargon with all the bewilderment that entails. Pet peeves include ideation, marketing funnels, and omnichannel.

In addition, the dynamics of writing as a service provider rather than an independent journalist are very different, which brings me onto my next point…

It’s fun on the dark side

There’s no getting away from it: writing for an agency on behalf of a client can be quite different from being a journalist. I know it’s an area that many journalists struggle with when they change to the so-called ‘dark side’.

As a service provider, some of the autonomy you enjoy as a journalist is gone. That said, most clients understand that content marketing should be about sharing their insights and expertise and not about pushing a corporate message. The result is that I still get access to the top experts in their respective industries and to distil their insights into a piece of content I can be proud of. And as a consultancy, an important part of our role is advising clients on the best strategy for their content, and that inevitably means ensuring that a piece of written or visual content delivers market intelligence rather than a corporate message, ultimately helping the client reach their audience more effectively.

Have I had to write pieces of puff that are more advertising than thought leadership? Yes, for some stubborn marketers who don’t get it (and refuse to listen to the experts!) and no doubt I will have to again, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Variety really is the spice of life

Content marketing has given me the opportunity to write on a greater breadth of topics than I ever did as a journalist. Even with New Narrative’s focus on finance and professional services, in the last 12 months I have written on subjects that include blockchain, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, ESG, digital payments, family offices, healthcare technology and even K-pop.

The formats have ranged from white papers and blogs to videos, infographics and social media. And for each client you have to strike the right tone, complexity and message for their brand and their target audience. The result is that I am a sharper and more confident writer than before.

So what are my key tips for journalists wanting to make a move into content marketing?

  • Go for it! It’s a great career
  • Don’t forget the basics: journalists have all the skills and more needed for content marketing
  • Be prepared to have to rethink the way you approach writing (and to not get it right straight away)
  • By-lines and scoops will be a thing of the past. You will need to get used to seeing your work assigned to someone else
  • Finally, expect journalist friends to be amazed (and a little bit jealous) that you are enjoying yourself!
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For a medium that’s been declared all but dead dozens of times, print is proving remarkably spry—even in the marketing arena. No less a digital behemoth than Facebook recently launched a decidedly old-fashioned bespoke quarterly magazine (er … we’re sorry, “thought leadership platform”) to connect its clients to cutting-edge ideas.

Judging by the book projects we’ve been involved in, and the amount of beautifully glossy publications we’ve seen distributed and admired (or at the very least flicked through) at some of the events we’ve attended recently, print still has a place in many an organisation’s heart. And why not? When well-executed, it’s a beautiful, tactile thing of joy, not only more physically present than words on a screen, but scientifically proven to outperform digital in terms of engagement and lodging in the memory.

So is this where we advise every business to rush off and start publishing a magazine of its own? Well, not exactly. Doing print well is incredibly resource-intensive, with questionable return on investment. It’s also not realistic for the many companies who struggle just to update their own websites or coax commentaries out of their senior executives, let alone conceptualise, design and produce an entire publication on a regular basis. That said, there’s no shortage of success stories from the firms that have taken what must have seemed like a reckless first step, from the venerable McKinsey Quarterly to lesser-known publications like Rockwell Automation’s Journal, pored over by engineers for its insights (and apparently entirely self-funded through ad revenue).

… or not

When producing a journal is out of reach, print is probably best deployed selectively. It may not be worthwhile (or particularly environmentally friendly) to produce and distribute something with a short shelf life in print format—an agenda for a half-day event, say—but content that is less time-sensitive, destined to be savoured and returned to, whether an illustrated history of an industry or or collected lessons from the CEO on the things business schools can’t possibly teach, may just warrant the print treatment.

And even for organisations that can’t print so much as a canteen menu, there are a few best practices from the print medium that apply equally well to the digital context. Such as:

*Act as if space is limitedbecause attention spans, appetite, and tolerance are. Print publications come with only a limited number of pages and column inches, so a lot of careful thought goes into what gets included and what doesn’t make the cut. Websites and social media provide a limitless publishing platform in theory, but that’s no reason not to apply the same rigour, and give serious thought to whether an article or infographic would make the grade if you could release just one or two a month.

*Think visually. Many organisations invest heavily in website design … but then confine the articles they publish on their websites to words on a screen. Take a cue from magazine designers, and think about subheadings, pull quotes, graphics or callout boxes to break the visual monotony and drive key points home, even in online format. Fast Company and The Verge are good examples of design that engages without veering into the visual equivalent of a deranged shout.

*Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Arguably the best-loved features of magazines and newspapers are the columns that appear like clockwork (just ask Abigail van Buren). When considering a publishing strategy, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every release or new quarter. Developing a feature or column that is published regularly helps build a consistent identity and voice, and to cultivate a loyal audience. Having a few gives you a de facto template, so when deciding what to create you’re never facing a completely blank slate.

In other words, it doesn’t only do a much better job of filling bookshelves—print has a lot to teach us even in an entirely digital environment. That alone should ensure its new lease on life lasts decades to come.

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Those of us in the content marketing industry like to claim that “Today, clients, investors and consumers expect major companies to act like publishers.”

Heard that one before? Given that you’re currently reading an article by n/n, I’m certain you have.

You’d be forgiven if, upon hearing such a declaration, you concluded that it’s simply something content marketers say to justify their work – akin to a donut hawker recommending the regular consumption of donuts.

But alas, I’m afraid that a few recent campaigns demonstrate it’s not just another corporate slogan. For evidence of this, look no further than the Mercedes Benz mini-film, ‘Tough Conversations.’

For those in need of a brief summary, this corporate campaign follows punk rock icon Henry Rollins across Australia as he interviews everyone from famous surfers to local tattoo artists, focusing on the issue of ‘toughness’ – what the concept implies, and how its definition differs for each individual.

Of course, Mr Rollins is driving an X-Class Mercedes pick-up truck throughout – and the video is full of shots that linger on the iconic Mercedes logo gracing the steering wheel, with Mr Rollins’ heavily tattooed arms framing the screen. The message is simple: Mr Rollins is ‘tough,’ and in its own unique way the Mercedes pick-up truck is too.

The camera also lingers overhead and behind the well-built machine as it speeds gracefully down open roads across Australia’s dusty and majestic outback.

Neither Mercedes, nor Mr Rollins for that matter, need further introduction. But it’s safe to say this campaign crosses the proverbial Rubicon. Why? Well, it’s a stark example of a new era in which major companies are making media that resonates well beyond very specific interest groups.

Until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that someone with the cultural cache of Henry Rollins – punk rocker, author, spoken word artist, and talk show host – would ever align himself with a corporate campaign of this nature.

By the same token, until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that a corporation such as Mercedes – which sells expensive cars to the global upper class – would ever align itself with someone like Mr Rollins.

And lastly, until a few years ago it’d be safe to conclude that buyers of Mercedes’ cars would be unlikely to “get” or appreciate the campaign. In fact, they might’ve been turned off by the brand’s association with Mr Rollins.

And that just proves the point, doesn’t it? For better or worse, we’re now in a world in which everything is jumbled. There are no clear corporate or cultural demarcation points. That great media democratiser – the Internet – has erased those boundaries, and it looks like they will never return.

Companies are commenting on culture. Cultural heroes (heroes for some of us, at least) are partnering with companies. Corporations are making short films that newsrooms used to produce. And some newsrooms, though they are often loathe to admit it, are producing corporate media under a different name (usually called ‘sponsored content’).

Put another way: Mr Rollins, like many adults, is not above providing his cultural commentary in exchange for a healthy paycheque and high-profile publicity. And Mercedes desperately wants to be ‘cool’ and ‘tough’ so it can sell more X-Class trucks. In this way, they are perfect bedfellows. We can scream heresy if we want. Or we can just dedicate ourselves to producing quality media, regardless of how it is financed.

Mercedes recognised this much when it dumped a whole lot of money into the ‘Tough Conversations’ campaign. I’d wager that many more companies, sensing their new role as publishers, will follow suit with similar productions.

Up next – Johnny Rotten and BMW?

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Job title: Content Executive

New Narrative, Asia’s leading content consultancy, is looking for the newest addition to its editorial team. Full job details are below. Interested parties, please email a CV, cover letter and two examples of your writing to careers@new-narrative.com.

About the role

We are looking for a dynamic and ambitious content creator who will work to deliver written, visual and digital content across a variety of media, for a range of blue-chip clients.

As a core member of a dynamic and fast-growing editorial team you will be responsible for researching and producing top-quality content, from articles to infographic concepts to social media copy.

The appeal of the job lies in its constant variety: no two client briefs are alike. One week you might be researching a blog series on blockchain; the next you could be crafting tweets live from an asset management seminar in Shanghai; the next developing a social media strategy for ground-breaking European healthcare research.

This is the ideal role for an ambitious self-starter keen to develop their content creation skills in the new territory emerging between media and marketing.

About New Narrative

From our offices in Hong Kong and New York, New Narrative creates agenda-setting content campaigns on behalf of the world’s biggest companies in diverse sectors, from financial services to technology to healthcare.

Our clients rely on our unwavering dedication to editorial quality and our deep understanding of their businesses – and what resonates with their target audiences – to help them publish world-class research and thought leadership.

New Narrative’s management team has decades of experience in senior editorial roles in leading international media organisations. By joining our team you will get the chance to learn rapidly and work on high-profile campaigns in a fast-growing, vibrant and welcoming environment.

Skills/Experience:

The successful candidate should have:

• Experience or demonstrated interest in a journalism, marketing or research role, ideally with a focus on financial and professional services

• Experience producing content across a range of formats to tight deadlines

• Knowledge of the digital and social media aspects of publishing

• Strong research skills

• Impeccable English language skills; other languages (particularly Cantonese and Mandarin) preferred

What we offer:

• Unmatched opportunities for advancement, to develop new skills and to shape the future direction of a dynamic young business at the forefront of the rapidly expanding regional media and content marketing industry

• The opportunity to exercise and showcase your creativity on high-visibility projects for industry-leading clients

• A highly competitive salary to the right candidate, along with benefits such as a company medical plan and paid holidays

• The chance to be part of and learn from a diverse and global team of professionals with decades of combined experience in journalism, digital media and publishing

• A flexible, progressive environment where work-life balance is a priority

New Narrative is an equal opportunities employer.

Interested parties, please email a CV, cover letter and two examples of your writing to careers@new-narrative.com.

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While statistics can make content more credible or help make a point in fewer words, it is tricky getting numbers to tell a story, and developing actionable insights from data is among the top challenges for marketers. By considering these key factors you’ll be off to a good start.

The Message

To keep the story on point, try to summarise it in a single headline or tweet, as this post in the Harvard Business Review suggests. Select one or two key data points or insights – the more unique the better – that support this core message and lead with them. Also resist the urge to cram as much supporting data into a piece as you can; few things provoke as many yawns as a sea of numbers and just a couple of strong statistics can add more weight than dozens of middling ones. Any data you leave behind can always be used in the future.

The Sourcing

Especially when working with external data, take extra care to ensure its provenance. Always look for original sources and vet their reliability. Databases of governments and world bodies, research agencies, industry associations and renowned think tanks are good places to start. Also make sure to be transparent about where your data came from and how any conclusions are reached. Attribution is key, especially when working with third-party data, as it burnishes a campaign’s and the organisation’s credibility — whereas failing to attribute data properly does quite the opposite. Read more about that here.

The Analysis

To cut through the jumble of data, make comparisons and look for trends, patterns and relationships to coax out relevant findings. However don’t overstretch in the desire to make connections, and make sure you’re comparing rough equivalents. Contrasting the economic data of cities with vastly different population sizes, for example, is unlikely to yield anything worthwhile. Most importantly, look for (and test) findings that are genuinely counterintuitive or run against the grain, which are virtually guaranteed to attract attention and provoke debate.

The Narrative

To paraphrase behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman: No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story. Data-driven stories are as much about the narrative as they are about the numbers. So, it’s necessary to step into the audience’s shoes and ensure a piece flows logically from one data point to the next. Keep it simple, avoid jargon, and include anecdotes and real-life examples that will help the audience readily relate to the information. Here’s an example from the South China Morning Post that weaves a compelling narrative about the Belt and Road Initiative through interactive charts, maps and graphs.

The Presentation

Given that the numbers are the story, make the presentation as visual as possible to break down complex findings and drive home the message. Research has shown that the human mind can’t process numbers beyond a certain level (read more about that here) so it helps to provide visual aids. Charts, infographics and interactive tables, used with a strategic combination of colors, can convey the data in a striking yet easy to digest manner. This selection from the New York Times provides a good overview of the various ways data can be presented.

The Engagement

Considering that the entire exercise is aimed at engaging the audience, make sure to create an opening for interactions. Invite, encourage and drive discussions around the story; guide the audience to information that complements the material at hand; and, seek feedback. Gathering statistics on what your audience likes and dislikes can provide you with fresh data to inform the next stage of your publishing plans.

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Amid all the comment about Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most commonly heard complaint was about the flood of spam from companies who realised, a little late, that they needed people’s “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous” consent to keep receiving their emails. (NewsCred has a good explainer on the impact on marketing here.)

I’m sure like me you deleted most of these “Don’t Miss Out on Our Bumf!” emails with nary a second thought – the first thought often being “I didn’t realise I was even on your mailing list.” (The ones I received may have sounded more plaintive than those sent to people who aren’t EU citizens: requirements obviously differ outside the EU, but the rest of the world won’t be far behind in legislating data protection.)

More interesting perhaps is the jolt of alarm I felt about the prospect of not receiving something I actually valued or relied on. I had that a few times and didn’t mind the extra steps of confirming my interest or re-entering my details.

This raises the question, what was the crucial difference between the two reactions? It all boils down to quality of content.

In the information economy there is plenty of content you need and are happy to pay for: reputable news sites and data feeds have all but stopped giving away content regularly in exchange for advertising reach. They needn’t worry about GDPR-related complaints from loyal readers (assuming they’re not over-using the privilege and flooding their inboxes): nothing screams informed consent like giving up your credit card details.

But paid content is still a minuscule sliver of what’s coming into your inbox. Email, for all its faults, is still a great means of receiving regular digests of news and comment from informed sources. Most companies rely on it to reach their best customers and hottest prospects and will need rapidly to work out how to keep doing so.

What GDPR has brought home is that if you’re giving away content in the hope of building a willing audience, it had better be as good as the stuff people are paying for. Because if someone signs up for “free” content with an email address and explicit consent for you to use their information, they are in fact paying for it – with their data, rather than their money.

The upsides to this are twofold. For the recipients, it should mean pure dross won’t get through: marketers will have to raise their content games.

For companies forced to get to grips with their audience, it offers the opportunity to find out at a more granular level what they’re interested in (and prepared to sign up to receive). This means that if companies can deliver it, their content will be all the more likely to help them achieve their commercial aims.

Of course, getting to professional-standard content isn’t easy. Which is why we’re here to help companies reach a bar that’s getting raised all the time. With GDPR, it’s even more vital to make the jump.

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It’s right that truly original ideas are celebrated. That’s because they are exceptionally rare: it was said of Einstein that he only had two new ideas; they just happened to be the Special Theory of Relativity and the General Theory of Relativity. One of the most famous original thinkers before him, Isaac Newton, acknowledged that he got his ideas through “standing on the shoulders of giants” (though this might have been a mean dig at a short rival).

In business it’s often a struggle to identify more than a handful of ideas without precedent. Steve Jobs was a genius for launching the first phone with a touchscreen and apps? Nope: IBM got there fully 13 years earlier. Today’s dominant ETF providers, BlackRock and Vanguard, popularised an idea conceived first by the Toronto Stock Exchange. Even Henry Ford, according to his contemporary at Ford Motor Co, Charles E Sorenson, wasn’t the father of assembly line production, he was just the sponsor of it.

The same is true in just about any field of human endeavour (particularly creative ones). For most of us, there’s not much point wringing our hands about not being geniuses. When it comes to publishing and content marketing, we can all be sponsors and developers of others’ good ideas and, in the process, create arresting and useful content that burnishes our brands. After all, what most people mean when they talk about original thinking (or thought leadership, if you like) relates instead to original modes of expression or exposition.

These are obviously crucial. You can’t go plagiarising other people or repeating exactly what you said yesterday. You can, though, pay homage to other people’s thinking – if it is worth repeating, and assuming you give them due credit – and reiterate points you made yesterday that remain valid today. Both can lead to good quality content if they are expressed with clarity, brevity and perhaps a modicum of wit.

It’s important to recognise this point when planning a content campaign. At the broadest level your competitors are likely to be talking about the same topics, and you are likely to encounter the same issues time and again. That doesn’t mean you should stay silent, even if you don’t think everything you publish is staggeringly original. After all, the internet has a (very) short memory.

And when you do have something to say that no one else can (because it is truly original) or will (because it is brave or contrarian), then make it work doubly hard. So you invested in a lot in a truly ground-breaking study last year? You can come back to it again and again, focusing on slightly different angles each time. So you called the crash when everyone else was piling in? Keep referring back to it to remind your audience of your perspicacity.

Of course, judicious editorial judgement is required. But if you are used to reading the op-ed pages of respected newspapers (which had to fill pages for many decades before the internet came along), you’ll see that repeating yourself is hardly a cardinal sin – unlike not publishing anything.

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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.

Editorial lessons

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.

 

 

 

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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.

Press enquiries:

Joseph Chaney, Partner:
joseph.chaney@new-narrative.com
+852 9411 7441

 

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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