News & Views

At New Narrative we’re increasingly being asked to write about sustainability as businesses improve their efforts in the area and recognise the importance of sharing best practices. But even though the concept has been around for some time, the ideas and objectives are constantly evolving as governments, NGOs, companies and consumers become better educated on the issues and demand more action. We take an in-depth look at some of the newer ideas that are at the forefront of conversations.

Circular economy

It’s well known that many of the manufacturing processes we rely on today create a lot of waste, generate high carbon emissions and are dependent on resources that will one day run out. This traditional approach to manufacturing –  ‘make, use, dispose’ –  is what is now coined the linear economy. In contrast, the circular economy is an attempt to cut waste, reduce carbon footprint and better manage the resources linked to manufacturing.

The idea of the circular economy goes much further than recycling products at the end of their life. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization says the circular economy “works by extending product lifespan through improved design and servicing, and relocating waste from the end of the supply chain to the beginning—in effect, using resources more efficiently by using them over and over, not only once.”

It’s worth noting that the language around the circular economy does not tend to focus on less consumption. It recognises that modern innovations have given people access to goods at affordable prices and that it will be difficult to ask consumers to give up innovations that improve lives. Instead, the circular economy is about getting companies to rethink the way products are designed and created so that any waste can re-enter the value chain and be used as a raw material for the next product cycle.

As well as the environmental benefits of reducing waste and reusing materials, the new system is expected to support economic growth and help governments tackle many of the social and health issues they are facing. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates the circular economy will produce a 48% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030 and deliver a 47% reduction in traffic congestion in Chinese cities, among other benefits. And with the world facing a shortage of resources, companies that rely heavily on raw materials will eventually need to look for alternatives whether they subscribe to the idea of the circular economy or not.

 

Diagram on the key stages in the sustainable circular economy

 

Blue economy

The blue economy is about using oceans in a more sustainable way that supports economic growth and social development, and also protects their delicate ecosystem. The health of the ocean is closely related to efforts to stop climate change given that the ocean supplies around 50% of the planet’s oxygen and absorbs about 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide. At the same time, the ocean also plays a key role in the world’s economic growth: it is a source of transport for 80% of global trade, and by 2030 the ocean economy is expected to employ around 40 million people and add some US$3 trillion in value to the global economy.

Part of the reason the health of the ocean has come into sharp focus recently is because of the BBC documentary Blue Planet II which showed the impact that plastic is having on oceans and marine life. According to some estimates, each year at least eight tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean — equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute — with Asia responsible for 80% of that leakage. The so-called ‘Blue Planet Effect’ has seen a number of countries and corporations commit to taking action. For example, in February 2019, Taiwan announced that it will ban all single-use plastics such as straws and utensils by 2030, and in April this year the 28-country European Union voted to ban plastic consumer items by 2021.

Picture of how the blue economy supports trade, employment and helps prevent climate change

 

Science-based targets

The Paris Agreement was seen as a landmark event in the effort to tackle the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Some 195 countries, including China, the European Union and the United States (though the US has since withdrawn) agreed to limit the rise in average global temperatures this century to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.” However, despite the intentions, scientific evidence from the United Nations makes clear that countries are not yet doing enough to reach that goal.

Science-based targets are an attempt to close that ‘emissions gap’. Focusing on the corporate sector rather than governments under the scheme companies set targets that can be shown to be in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increase below the 2°C threshold based on the latest climate science.

The Science Based Targets Initiative is a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). According to the Initiative’s latest statistics, more than 500 companies have committed to or implemented science-based targets. The arguments in favour of companies adopting science-based targets include increased regulatory resistance as governments increasingly look to regulate for climate change policies, strengthened investor confidence, and improved competitiveness and profitability.

The world with a thermometer showing the 2 degrees Celsius target for global warming

 

Impact investing

Although the term was coined in 2007 (and this method of putting capital to work has been around for much longer), it’s only in the last few years that the concept of impact investing has come to wider prominence. Put simply, impact investing is providing capital to businesses that have a measurable social or environmental impact.

In its early stages impact investing was largely the preserve of private equity funds given that it requires direct investment and the ability to accurately assess companies and measure their outcomes. But in the last few years it has started to attract the attention of a broader set of investors such as hedge funds and asset managers. In part this broader interest has been driven by the launch in 2016 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals which clearly set out 17 areas of focus to end poverty and protect the planet.

In addition, investors are recognising that impact investing does not necessarily mean sacrificing returns. Indeed, many funds are ‘return-first’ – they are driven by generating a competitive financial return by investing in companies that create an impact. In contrast ‘impact-first’ funds will accept below-market returns.

The volume of impact investing assets under management, which the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) estimates was USD502 billion at the end of 2018, has also led to an effort to create a commonly accepted definition. Efforts in this area include the International Finance Corporation’s set of principles for impact investing which were published at the end of 2018. These were followed in April 2019 by GIIN’s Core Characteristics of Impact Investing.

The spectrum of ESG, sustainability and impact investing

 

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As New Narrative’s Head of Digital, part of my job involves scouring the internet to find out the latest trends and developments in digital marketing. Having read hundreds of blogs, listened to numerous podcasts and signed up for dozens of free trials, there is certainly plenty of information out there.

But for my first blog post I thought it was worth going back to the basics. My goal is to walk you through what I consider to be the core components of B2B digital marketing.

1. Strategy

i. Content Strategy

Creating content is no easy task but whatever your end goal, you need to start with a content marketing strategy. A good content strategy will set out how you intend to use various types of content, media and distribution channels so that they deliver your desired outcome.

According to the Content Marketing Institute, 63% of B2B marketers don’t have a documented content strategy. This is surprising as a documented strategy not only avoids duplication and wasted resources, but will ensure that all stakeholders are aligned on objectives, responsibilities and accountability.

Understanding that a lead generation campaign requires a different content strategy than one focused on content amplification is why you should always start by identifying your commercial goals first and work backwards. Meanwhile, a competitive content analysis, also known as a content audit, can help you discover what your competitors are talking about (too much or too little), their tone and approach, as well as how and where they’re promoting their content.

With your content strategy in place, your next step should be an editorial calendar.  Calendars are extremely useful to get you thinking ahead, staying on track and mapping out topics, dates, formats and channels.

Check out our previous post on a content strategy in 5 steps for a more in-depth look at this topic.

 

ii. Digital Strategy

Likewise, having a digital marketing strategy will help you meet your objectives through using online marketing techniques such as SEO, content and social media.

The strategy should start with an analysis of your current capabilities (a SWOT or SOSTAC analysis is ideal), setting out your goals and KPI’s. Next, using the SMART objective technique will help ensure you have clear, defined and measurable objectives. Then you need to think about how your value proposition, audience personas and content can all work together in relation to your strategic goals.

Personally, I find the digital capability framework an excellent starting point when planning a B2B digital marketing strategy:

Once you’ve gone through and applied the framework to your organisation, you might want to repeat the exercise again on a micro-level, applying the framework to the individual components such as: social media, content and measurement.

For a step-by-step guide to the digital capability framework, check out Target Internet, an online learning portal on digital marketing.

 

2. Measurement & Analytics:

Once you have put your strategy in place, you’ll need to know if it’s working. The only guaranteed way to measure success is to look at the numbers: good data will help you understand where you started, where you are, and where you’re heading.

For most content marketing and thought leadership campaigns, one of the primary objectives is to create ongoing engagement with your audience and have them come back when new content is published. A metric like “New vs. Returning Users” tracks if it’s a user’s first time on your website or if they’ve visited before. Alternatively, a lead generation campaign should focus on the number of leads generated and converted. This can be measured by tracking the number of contact forms completed, free trial registrations and of course revenue generated.

Below I’ve listed some metrics and what they track to get you started.

 

Once you have your data, then comes the fun part – the analytics. The real value of marketing analytics is uncovering what’s behind the numbers: how your content, SEO and even offline events contributed to that spike or drop in pageviews and click-through-rates. For example, are you getting an increasing number of hits from your Japan-based readers? If so, this could be an opportunity to produce more Japan focused content and grow that segment.

i. Tools

There is no shortage of tools out there. For instance, I googled “marketing analytics tools” and I got 398,000,000 search results. So, before you drown in the endless lists, reviews and free trials, here are my suggestions for some core tools that I have tried and tested, and should be your first port of call:

    • Web Analytics Tools: Full suite marketing analytics tools link to your website via a code, tracking metrics such as pageviews (a user visiting a page on a website), acquisition channels (where your visitors are coming from i.e. social media or organic traffic). Among the most popular tools are Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics.
    • Social Media Analytics Tools: If you’re using social media, such as YouTube, LinkedIn or Twitter you must always keep your eye on your engagement rates, and how different posts, content formats (video vs. text) perform. Luckily these tools are built into the platform and are generally easy to use. For the advanced user, tools such as Sprout Social, Buffer and Hootsuite can integrate all your social channels into one combined dashboard.

 

3. Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization or SEO for short, is the practice of optimizing your website for search platforms such as Google, Bing or Baidu to allow them to better understand your website and match it to the relevant online search queries. The goal of SEO is to generate more organic traffic to your website. Organic traffic is when a user finds your website as a result of an online search for a product or service that you offer, or a topic mentioned in your content. Among the benefits of organic traffic, is creating more awareness of your brand, your products or services. Ultimately, it can become a lead generation mechanism for potential clients.

With ever-changing algorithm updates — Google for example has 200+ ranking signals  — it has become a complex and full-time job to optimise your pages and content for maximum results. However, the beauty of SEO is how it now requires a holistic approach rather than a check-list of to-dos. While there still are must-do optimization techniques, the emphasis is now on the quality of content and how useful, original and most importantly how well it satisfies the reader’s intent. The more your content fulfils the reader’s question and informational need, the more useful it is deemed by the search engine and the higher it will rank.

i. SEO Tools & Techniques

Some of the well-known techniques of SEO include a keyword strategy (keywords your target audience uses to search online), optimizing your website for speed and acquiring backlinks. A backlink, the digital equivalent of a literature citation, is when an external website links to one of your pages either as a reference or a resource. The more backlinks you acquire from a selection of high-ranking websites the more likely you’ll benefit from an SEO perspective.

There are various ways to approach keyword research, some of the most popular tools include SEMRush and Ahrefs both with large keyword databases. You can supplement your research with  Google Trends or Answer The Public to find out what topics and queries are trending and how people are searching for them.

Acquiring backlinks is longer-term process, that usually centres on outreach efforts to site owners:  building a rapport, introducing your content and the value it brings to their site. Other techniques include getting links from online directories and resource pages. Backlinko, a popular digital marketing website has updated their definitive link-building guide, which is packed with ideas, data-backed insights and case studies.

It’s important to remember that if your content doesn’t provide any value, you are limiting your chances of getting backlinks. So, focus on your content!

 

4. Social Media

With everyone (even pets!) on social media, it needs to be part of any content strategy. The most important thing to understand is that different social media channels cater to different audiences. It may seem easier to create an account on every social media platform, however it’s much more effective to do some research into which one fits with your brand and objectives.

For example, B2B businesses in the finance industry will typically focus on a professional network like LinkedIn as that is where their audience expects to engage with industry news and content. While a technology business might want to opt for visual content, targeting a channel like YouTube that can provide them the space to discuss at length their product capabilities and features.

Popular B2B Social Media Channels:

    1. LinkedIn
    2. Twitter
    3. YouTube
    4. WeChat & Weibo (China focused)
    5. Medium

 

i. Social Media Strategy

Part of a successful social media strategy is understanding where your audience is, how they use the network and what you want to accomplish. Research and a social media audit can help you answer these questions. A social media strategy should be part of your content strategy.

ii. Social Media Policy

A well-defined and documented social media policy is critical for any B2B organisation, although often overlooked. The policy serves as an operational framework, governing behaviour, delegating responsibilities and outlining an escalation process in the case of social media emergencies. This database of social media policies compiled by SocialMediaGovernance.com allows you to explore how organisations in different sectors guide and govern their social media usage. Waiting for a social media crisis to happen to draw up a policy can cost you your business, just as these brands found out the hard way. Having one in place early on, will most likely minimize the risk of a crisis and if it does occur, you’ll know how to react and who to turn to for support.

iii. Social Listening & Media Monitoring

Social media listening and monitoring, is a technique employed by both B2C and B2B organisations. Tools such as BrandWatch and Mention allow you to create and track triggers for brand mentions, keywords or hashtags (or a mixture of all) on different social media channels, online forums, blogs and news sites etc. Tracking this information will make you better informed of how your audience perceives your business or service.

For B2B businesses, it can be a great resource to conduct market research on what their industry and customers are discussing, identifying perceptions, both positive and negative that can be used to inform a content marketing strategy. Although I must warn you, that you will need to spend a decent amount of time extracting these insights and the work will involve wading through spreadsheets!

 

5. Paid and Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing is an online advertising technique that allows marketers to bid on selected keywords and have their website listed in the search results, when one or more keyword is part of a search queries. The example below shows paid ads for a search for “Hong Kong apartments to rent”.

 

For a B2B organization, search engine marketing (SEM), is best used for brand awareness and content reach amplification.

Brand awareness is all about creating familiarity and a visual connection, triggering an association with a product, a service or even certain values. Display network campaigns are usually a good fit for this purpose, just avoid pop-ups at all cost!

To help maximise your content’s exposure and online reach, you can launch a paid search campaign that targets keywords that are relevant to your content. Alternatively, you can opt for social media marketing, using promoted tweets on Twitter and on LinkedIn, that can help you target the right audience based on geography, industry and expertise.

 

Wrap Up

I hope you find this guide useful. There’s a lot to consider but if you do your research, have the courage to experiment and of course use data to guide your decisions you should soon find the right mix to suit your organization’s culture and goals. Good luck!

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After our fifth-year anniversary event in our hometown of Hong Kong, we thought it was about time to celebrate in another place that’s very important to us – so we rang in New Narrative’s sixth year with cocktails and canapes on the breezy rooftop of the Scarlet hotel in Singapore’s historic Chinatown district. Many thanks to the clients and friends who came out to celebrate with us, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Lion City in the very near future.

 

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Whether you call it the new oil or the new gold, since the The Economist declared data the world’s most valuable resource way back in 2017, its value only seems to have risen. Like most of our peers in marketing and the media it’s certainly become more integral to what we do as an organisation. Virtually every project we take on now involves an element of data measurement and analysis. At the same time the near-perpetual excitement surrounding data and the emerging technologies it fuels, like artificial intelligence, has caused even its biggest advocates to warn we’re in a time of “data gluttony.”

I wouldn’t dare claim to be a data scientist, but it’s quickly become clear to me that both the skeptics and the data champions are right. In many fields, including marketing, data can be an immensely powerful tool for targeting audiences and measuring outcomes – one global study from consultancy Bain, for example, shows leading marketers are more likely to refresh the data they use and consistently factor it into decisions. But there’s also plenty of evidence of data failing to deliver the desired results, or steering companies in the wrong direction.

What it comes down is that getting data is no generally longer a problem; extracting meaning from it is. With so many data sources and metrics at our disposal, trying to process information into something that can be acted on is often the mental equivalent of trying to drink from a firehose. In this kind of environment it’s no wonder people crave simplicity and jump at any clear conclusion they can get – which can fuel some pretty questionable decisions.

Bigger isn’t always better

As an example one recent project had us delving into the Twitter traffic on a certain topic to see who was effectively leading the conversation on it. One organisation seemed to be clearly in the forefront with almost everything they posted garnering a truly exceptional number of retweets – surely a sign they were doing something right? Until we dug a little deeper and noticed the vast majority of these retweets were from just one or two sources. Their closest competitor may have been a distant second in terms of sheer numbers, but its shares came from a far more diverse base – a much stronger indicator of credibility in our view.

In addition to the obsession with volume, data analytics (as many marketers practice it) is excessively retroactive. AI-powered predictive analytics is starting to make some impressive inroads into marketing, but in general the majority of analysis concentrates on results.

The fact is, by the time the data tells you conclusively something isn’t working, it’s too late – whereas a degree of analysis before a campaign is launched might prevent you from going down an unproductive path in the first place. Applying the right tools, there’s an incredible amount you can learn from what (and where, and how frequently) peers or competitors are publishing on a subject that can then be factored into your plans – whether on the themes that strike a chord with professional networks or what phrases risk putting you in the jargon danger zone. Our head of digital will be sharing more on those possibilities in the weeks to come.

Whatever light it sheds on audience engagement or the topics of the day, to me it’s only become clearer that data needs to be examined from a number of angles, and filtered through the lens of good old-fashioned human inquiry and cynicism. That’s why even as our practice becomes more ‘digital,’ I’d prefer to call it data informed, rather than ‘data-driven’ – no offense to our future robot overlords intended.

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It’s no secret that large corporations have a tough time recruiting for internal editorial positions. And even if they get lucky and find the right candidate, retaining the newcomer for the long haul is often even more of a challenge.

In fact, some of n/n’s clients readily admit that they first approach us simply because they are unable to build an internal editorial team of their own.

Why is this the case? After all, some estimates proclaim content marketing will become a US$400+ billion industry by 2021, up from US$195 billion in 2016. If ‘content’ is now so important, and consuming ever larger chunks of marketing budgets, why is the discipline so hard to hire for?

Here’s our two cents on this issue, given what we’ve seen over the years from our perch as one of Asia’s largest specialist content agencies. Every situation is different, or course. But according to what our clients tell us, the following patterns have emerged as relatively consistent across a number of organisations.

1. RESOURCES

Content creation is hard – and takes more than one person
Editorial production is a team effort, and very time consuming. That’s why top newsrooms are staffed by numerous specialist journalists and editors.  But in corporate life, the ‘content team’ is sometimes a team of one reporting into a larger marketing department — which is also responsible for many non-editorial initiatives, such as event planning and sponsorships.  Problems quickly arise when business leaders make competing content demands on one content executive. For example, the Head of Greater China wants a 5,000-word overview of Belt and Road investment opportunities, while the Head of Debt Capital Markets wants an op-ed series on the evolution of risk pricing in China. Both business heads want the work finished in just two weeks.

The result? Frustration all around. The content executive throws his or her hands up and says it can’t be done – the deadlines are unrealistic.  The business heads are frustrated that their requests are denied; and the marketing team wonders if they’ve wasted their money hiring the content executive in the first place.

2.TALENT

Top editorial talent is often in the newsroom — or working at an agency
Often times those who have dedicated their lives to content want to be in the centre of the action – and that means they want to work for the world’s most prestigious newsrooms, whether that’s the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal. They dream of Pulitzer prizes, shaping WTO policies with brilliant analyses, and taking down corrupt politicians with hard-hitting investigations. The corporate life simply can’t offer the buzz of a newsroom – or even the workflow variety offered by a top agency, for that matter.

The result? Corporate hiring managers are often left with slim pickings, as they are unwilling to pay enough to attract senior editorial professionals. Those willing to take the internal corporate job often don’t have the skills or experience to shape editorial strategies and marshal sufficient resources from the ground up.

3. WORKFLOW

Lack of diversity (and controversy) in the work itself
Corporate content managers are required to think about the same entity everyday: his or her employer. The topics may change, but the end product is always the same – i.e. this is my company’s views on X and this is my company’s views on Y. Just compare that to life in a newsroom, where there is a never-ending buffet – refreshed daily — of projects on offer. On Monday you’re covering a shareholder scandal in a technology company; and on Tuesday breaking news on an industry changing M&A deal.

The result? Boredom sets in. The corporate content executive feels underutilised. S/he struggles to exercise news judgement because that judgment is always constrained by other corporate priorities and plans. Meanwhile, a range of internal actors – from business heads to compliance officers – seek control over the editorial agenda to manage legal risks and protect commercial interests, exacerbating the content executive’s feelings of powerlessness.

4. OFFICE ATMOSPHERE

Writers and other ‘content creators’ need ample amounts of alone time 
Although editorial planning and production requires a team, getting down to work on a white paper or infographic or video script is often a solo affair. Door shut, phone off, and headphones on. The problem is corporate life doesn’t really support such solitude. Executives at every level are often required to join teleconferences and group meetings – and those that refuse risk being branded a stubborn outsider.

The result? The content executive grows tired of asking to be left alone; while his or her colleagues wonder what the big deal is and why they can’t join the team lunch like everyone else.

—–

So, what to do? Give up and stop searching? Not necessarily. But at n/n we think it’s best to keep the following principles in mind:

  1. RESOURCES
    Allocate enough budget so the editorial leader can hire a small team for support – either internal employees or an external content agency. Explain to business leaders very clearly and without apology that quality editorial production is hard and time consuming: a tiny team simply can’t produce the volumes produced by large newsrooms.
  2. TALENT
    Accept that you pay for what you get. If you want the Wall Street Journal’s former Beijing Bureau Chief, you must entice him or her away from that exciting life with substantial incentives and rewards.
  3. WORKFLOW
    Allow the editorial executive to utilise his or her core competency – news judgement. That means they get to significantly influence the editorial agenda. Also, accept that they’ll likely recommend topics that are ‘controversial.’  While you can tone down these topics to suit your corporate strategy, the fact remains that asking editorial professionals to churn out corporate pablum won’t work if you want them to stick around.
  4. OFFICE ATMOSPHERE
    This one is self-explanatory: let the content executive get on with it — and accept that they aren’t likely to have the time to participate in every teleconference or team building event and exercise. If they absolutely must join each of those activities, ensure they have external resources on call to produce the work while they are pulled away from their desks.

That’s it for now – I’ll leave you with the Content Marketing Institute’s guide to building a content team, which includes far more tips than those outlined above. Happy CNY to all, and best of luck building your content teams in 2019 and beyond.

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If you’re anything like n/n’s editorial team, by the end of the calendar or lunar year you will have had a mental list of the most well-used thought leadership topics in your field. For core B2B sectors like financial and professional services, this list might include AI, cyber-security, sustainability, and, inevitably, digital transformation (again).

With many firms in the region still firming up content calendars for the new year, the temptation is to stick to these safe fields, especially given the anxiety over geopolitical and macroeconomic risk. (Indeed, saying anything about China is proving a real challenge, now references to the macroeconomy, trade, or outbound investment are often deemed too controversial for many compliance teams to approve. This is arguably the first time in a generation that the underlying narrative to China’s macroeconomy hasn’t been that the country is getting richer, fast.)

Yet the trick to effective thought leadership is the second word of that somewhat overused phrase: leading the pack by coming up with something novel. It’s not “thought followership”. Of course, we know that coming up with entirely new umbrella topics is not always realistic. The fact that the year is porcine rather than canine has no bearing on what matters to our clients (or, more crucially, their clients), or on what it makes sound editorial and commercial sense to discuss.

What is required is a new take on an underexplored or emerging sub-issue that will pique readers’ interest. The greater focus in 2018 on AI, for instance, was an evolution of the overarching fintech theme that has been running for some years, gaining mainstream relevance as once-limited technologies found broader commercial application. (Consultancies like McKinsey, as might be expected, were ahead of the curve here: ideally the topics you highlight today you’d like everyone to be talking about tomorrow.)

With that in mind I canvassed our team to find some B2B angles that we thought were underexplored (at least in the Asia-Pacific context) and ripe to feature more in the Year of the Pig. Consider them n/n’s thought leadership thought starters, perhaps…

  1. The ethics of AI: the dominant narrative last year was about how AI could help companies cut costs and deliver better service to their clients. The hot debate now is about its governance and ethical application – in everything from loan applications to help-request chatbots. Can we be sure that AI won’t incorporate the biases of its programmers, leading to problems down the road? Most B2B businesses that want to use AI (i.e. all of them) will also want to know how to protect themselves against making AI mistakes.
  2. Cross border data ownership and governance: Banks in the UK and EU are opening up their data up to third parties, creating “ecosystems” of service providers; the same is happening (with regulatory encouragement rather than coercion) in plenty of Asia-Pacific markets. Not enough analysis has been done on what this means for cross-border businesses in one of the world’s most fragmented regions. How can firms be prepared to be responsible data managers (and what commercial impact will initiatives like Australia’s Consumer Data Right have if adopted more widely)?
  3. A corollary of this is What will B2B tech ecosystems look like? Thanks to China’s digital behemoths you don’t need much imagination to see how consumer-focused tech platforms in the region can evolve. But what about the prospects for B2B ecosystems, involving fintech, insurtech and a whole raft of professional services? Sure, there are plenty of discrete innovations in the region, from trade and SME finance to new approaches to professional services, but who will bring them together? Speaking from painful experience, a one-stop shop for SME professional services would be a major boon…
  4. How will an ageing workforce affect APAC’s B2B companies? To date most commentary on ageing (in APAC at least) has been by hand-wringing actuaries or wealth managers warning about insufficient pensions. But actually ageing will affect every sector, and B2B employers are in prime position to lead on the issue of how workforces can make best use of their experienced, knowledgeable and not-ready-to-retire experts. Who’s ready to make ageing a bigger diversity & inclusion issue?

Naturally the more you drill down into different B2B sectors the more ideas bubble to the surface, but in the interests of brevity I’ll leave it there for now. Here’s hoping we see some ambitious firms ready to lead thinking on these issues in the Year of the Pig. In the meantime, Kung Hei Fat Choi!

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Not a week goes by when some of the New Narrative content team isn’t writing about fintech. So we know how tricky it can be to keep up with all the lingo and understand what new terms mean. With that in mind we’ve put together a fintech jargon buster that explains some of the ideas that are most discussed but often least well understood — such as blockchain, opening banking and initial coin offerings — while also examining some of the current discussions and developments around each topic.

Sandbox

This may seem a strange term to use about regulation, but it’s actually a helpful metaphor. A child’s sandbox creates a defined, safe space to play in, while a fintech sandbox provides allows companies to test out new technology and services under a controlled but more relaxed regulatory environment. Regulators have been keen to set up fintech sandboxes to promote innovation in financial services while also giving innovators the chance to figure out any regulatory issues that might arise. It’s also a way for regulators to ensure that they keep-up-to-date with the technological changes which are likely to affect future rules.

For firms, the advantage is usually that they get a chance to test their services using real market data and information, while being in dialogue with the regulator. It should mean their service is quicker to market and has a better chance of success. In Asia-Pacific, countries with a fintech sandbox include Australia, Japan, Hong Kong Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

fintech regulatory sandbox
Regulatory sandboxes provide a controlled environment for fintech innovation

Open banking

Open banking describes the process by which banks share data with third parties with the aim of improving the financial services and products available to customers. In many countries, such as Australia, Hong Kong and UK, banking services are dominated by a few major institutions which can limit choice and competition. The idea is that open banking solves this problem by getting banks to share their data with non-banks, which are then in a stronger position to launch new products.

Many banks are embracing open banking and creating platforms for third-party developers to offer new innovations to their existing customer base. In that way a bank can be seen to be offering the best range of products and services while also retaining the customer relationship. For customers — business and retail — some of the oft-discussed benefits include having a single application that contains information from multiple bank accounts in one place, easier switching between bank providers, and quicker payment methods.

It’s not always up to the banks, though. Many countries have created open banking regulation that compels them to share data with other regulated providers, as the authorities seek to encourage competition and innovation. Key regulatory initiatives include PSD2 in the European Union, CMA Open Banking in the UK, Open API Framework in Hong Kong and Open Banking in Australia.

The sharing of data is usually achieved through an application programme interface (API), essentially a way for two systems to communicate with each other and share data. In some publications the term API is used interchangeably with open banking, even though this is not strictly correct. APIs are also not a new technology — well-known examples include Google giving access to its Maps data to use in the Uber app, or a flight search website communicating with airline websites to provide a list of flight options — but the term has come to greater public prominence with the push towards open banking.

Robo-advisors

This has been one of the most discussed themes in wealth management over the last few years. While the name conjures images of androids telling people which funds to buy, it is probably more accurate to speak of greater automation of wealth advisory services. In most cases this means using algorithms and artificial intelligence to guide clients to the best investments through a series of questions and options (a process that also in theory makes it easier to work backwards from desired outcome to optimal investment strategy). For now, it is rare for robo-advisors not to be used in conjunction with some level of human input.

The advantages for both the wealth manager and the client are that robo-advisors are more cost-effective than humans alone, and can often provide better outcomes as they are capable of crunching more data. But like any automation technology, it is only as good as the information that supports it, and the algorithms that provide potential solutions.

robo-advisors
Robo-advisors are more cost effective

Blockchain

It can be easy to get terms Blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) confused as they are often used interchangeably. Blockchain is the most well-known example of a type of DLT. Part of the reason it is so high profile is because it is the technology behind Bitcoin.

Blockchain works by allowing users to enter information — a stock trade for example — into encrypted electronic blocks known as ledgers, with everybody in the chain receiving updated information at the same time, which speeds up transaction processing. This means there is no central database or record, and once information is entered it is immutable. This is why is it often viewed as a way to reduce fraud and prevent cyberattacks in financial transactions — you will often hear people talk about ‘a single source of truth’.

In financial services, most of the focus has been on so-called private or enterprise blockchains. These are blockchains that are only open to participants that are invited to be part of the platform. The underlying technology remains the same but they tend to be limited to regulated institutions and be more structured than public blockchains.

blockchain how it works

Initial Coin Offerings (ICO)

ICOs are a way for companies to raise funds for projects. They are often likened to initial public offerings (IPOs) and while they do have some similarities, there are some key differences including the fact that ICOs are not issued on a regulated exchange and do not have the same investor protections. ICOs can also be sold directly to investors without the requirement to go through a licenced intermediary.

So how does an ICO work? A company that wants to launch a new product or service will publish a whitepaper that explains the project and how it plans to use the funds from the ICO. The company will then issue and sell a set amount of crypto-tokens to investors, much like the shares a company issues during an IPO. The capital raised is used to fund the new product or service, and investors look to make returns from the rise in the value of the token. Like shares, the value of tokens can fall as well as rise.

In most countries, ICOs operate in a regulatory grey area. The sharp growth in ICOs (see chart), means regulators are taking a closer look at the instrument. Some countries, including South Korea and China, have banned ICOs, and the sector is likely to face stricter oversight in major markets in the future. The crypto-industry is also trying to meet the challenge presented by greater regulatory oversight by evolving the product. One potential answer is Security Token Offerings (see below).

For more on ICOs, check out the excellent Investopedia page.

initial coin offering volumes

Security Token Offerings (STO)

Security Token Offerings are a response from the crypto-industry to the need for a better regulated method of fundraising. Unlike ICOs, STOS are classified as securities (at least by the US Securities and Exchange Commission; China has already banned the instrument) and so must adhere to securities regulations. This means they offer more investor protection but correspondingly are more expensive for companies wishing to issue them.

As well as being regulated, STOs can be and are often backed by a tangible asset such as bonds, stocks or property. By ‘tokenizing’ these assets, they can be traded using distributed ledger technology (see blockchain section above). 

 

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